Obesity Initiative Sends Companies Scrambling


Pete Souza/White House

Food companies wanting to do something to prevent childhood obesity are in a bind. Preventing obesity means staying active, eating real, not processed, foods, and reserving sugary drinks for special occasions. None of this is good for the processed food business. At best, food and beverage companies can make their products a bit less junky and back off from marketing to children. In return, they can use the small changes they make for marketing purposes.

Perhaps as a result of Michelle Obama's campaign (read my post here), companies are falling all over themselves—and with much fanfare—to tweak their products.

Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA): By all reports, GMA members applauded Mrs. Obama's remarks. GMA says its member companies are already doing what she asked.

Parke Wilde, a professor at the Tufts School of Nutrition (and food policy blogger), gave a talk at that meeting in a session dismissively titled, "The New Foodism." His comment:

I enjoyed hearing Michelle Obama's talk, which was well written and delivered and fairly forceful in places. In my afternoon panel, I said grocery manufacturers would find some threatening themes in books and documentaries promoting local and organic and sustainable food, but that there is also much of substance and value. Then, Susan Borra [International Food Information Council] and Sally Squires [Washington Post] in the next session said that grocery manufacturers are frequent subjects of unfair criticism and have nothing to apologize for.

Take that, you new foodists!

Mars must think it knows more than the FDA about how to label food packages. The company is developing its own version of front-of-package labels, volunteering to put calories on the front of its multi-pack candies. It's leaving that number (210), however, on the back of its smaller, candy-store packs. Mars's new labeling plans follow the complex scheme used in Europe: I'm guessing this is their bold attempt to start using the traffic-light system it thinks the FDA might adopt.

Kraft announced that it is voluntarily reducing the sodium in its foods by 10 percent by 2012. Kraft's SpongeBob Macaroni & Cheese has 1160 milligrams total per box. A 10 percent reduction will bring this number down to 1050 milligrams within two years. (The upper recommended limit for an adult is 2300 milligrams per day.)

Pepsico went to Yale to announce, with Kelly Brownell, "a voluntary policy to stop sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012." Pointing out that "tobacco companies were notorious for counteracting declining sales in the U.S. with exploitation of markets ... in developing countries," Brownell said:

it will be important to monitor whether the mere presence of beverage companies in schools increases demand for sugared beverages through branding, even if full-sugar beverages themselves are unavailable ... This appears to be a good faith effort from a progressive company and I hope other beverage companies follow their lead ... this announcement definitely represents progress.

According to PepsiCo, this new policy brings its international actions in line with what it is already doing in the U.S. The policy itself (click here to download the document) is voluntary, and thanks to words like "encourage," assures schools that the company is not telling them what to do. It will keeps vending machines in schools yet still allow for plenty of branded sugary drinks: Gatorade, juice drinks, and sweetened milk for example.

Could any of this have anything to do with Kelly Brownell's forceful endorsement of soda taxes?

Lobbying: The Center for Responsive Politics says food companies spent big money on lobbying last year, and notes an enormous increase in the amount spent by the American Beverage Association. (Soda taxes, anyone?) For example:

American Beverage Association $18,850,000

Coca-Cola Co. $9,390,000

PepsiCo Inc. $9,159,500

Coca-Cola Enterprises. $3,020,000

National Restaurant Association $2,917,000

Mars Inc. $1,655,000

How are we to view all this? I see the company promises as useful first steps. But how about the basic philosophical question we "new foodists" love to ask: "Is a better-for-you junk food a good choice?"

We have the public relations. Now let's see what these companies really will do.