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This is the fourth in a series covering the personalities of the most influential players shaping the obesity debate. Previously, I introduced restaurant operators and grocers, cousins in the sense that they are wired to focus on the details and keep their retail outlets running efficiently so they can eke out modest profits. Today I'd like to present their (unwelcome) in-laws, whom they deride as the Food Police: academics and activists.
Recall that restaurateurs and grocers, to use my chemistry metaphor, are "solids," traditionalists who defend the status quo and often hold black-and-white perspectives. They are excellent and practical as operators, but dealing with strategic issues such as obesity and customer health generally is far down on their list of priorities. And the ones who remind them about their neglect are their frequent nemeses.
Through the eyes of the "solid" grocers and restaurateurs, these defenders of the food faith—the researchers, academics, and public health activists—come across as pure "gas." In fact, the contrast between these groups is striking:
• Solids are most comfortable with the facts. Gases deal in abstractions.
• Solids are practical and down-to-earth. Gases prefer to be more innovative and creative.
• Solids are implementers that get things done ... now. Gases are idea people, and oftentimes execution is secondary.
• For solids, change is a dirty word. For gases, change is an end in and of itself.
Many researchers and
activists feel that industry is too stuck-in-the-mud to listen to arguments about why change is necessary.
Worsening this gap are attitudinal differences. For instance, the solid food operators perceive a "we know what's better for you" attitude coming from the academic community and take that as an insult. On the other hand, many researchers and activists feel that industry is too stuck-in-the-mud to listen to their arguments about why change is necessary.
The retailers argue that the researchers don't know how to run a business and do not fully appreciate what an executive has to deal with to be successful, such as meeting quarterly earnings targets, improving sales and market share, and increasing the stock price. Most advocates take the high ground and offer the rebuttal, "So what! It's more important to fix these problems."
Perhaps most revealing is the political bent of each group. Anyone who has ever attended a PAC event sponsored by the restaurant or supermarket industry knows that these food capitalists lean heavily to the Retail Right. In contrast, academic researchers and activists overwhelmingly support liberal causes and are what we might call Food Leftists. The bottom line is that the members of the Retail Right see these Food Leftists as "ivory-tower-ish" and pushing for change they don't believe in. The retort is that the retailers are boorish and stuck. They're the party of "No!" to any progress in improving America's health.
Let's review an example of how these differences play out.
In the early 1990s, researchers identified trans fats found in partially hydrogenated frying and baking oils as a hazard to consumer health. Studies indicated that these oils yielded the double whammy of raising bad cholesterol (LDL) while lowering good cholesterol (HDL), resulting in at least 30,000 heart-disease related deaths annually. Academics and activist organizations started screaming that trans fats were "the biggest food processing disaster in U.S. history," and pushed to require them to be listed on food package labels or even banned altogether. Yet by the end of the century, little progress had been made.