Why Activists Alone Can't Stop Obesity


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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.

Things heated up in May 2003 when BanTransFat.com sued Kraft, asking the company to immediately eliminate trans fats in Oreo cookies. The Center for Science in the Public Interest joined in by suing the likes of KFC and McDonald's.

As expected, there was blowback from the food industry. Some companies refused to support conferences if advocates of eliminating trans fats, like Walter Willett, chair of Harvard's Department of Nutrition, were invited to speak. Dan Fleshler, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association, was quoted as saying, "We don't think that a municipal health agency (like New York City's) has any business banning a product that the Food and Drug Administration has already approved."

Perhaps the real reason for resistance goes back to the basic wiring of the "solid" restaurants: concerns that change would wreak havoc.

With over 10 billion pounds of frying and baking oils under contract, replacing oils meant disrupting nationwide supply operations. In addition, there were minimal stockpiles of acceptable non-hydrogenated oils that could yield similar taste and quality of fried and baked foods. Even if you could find the oil, the cost was higher. And don't forget the industry's memory that these partially hydrogenated wonders were originally touted as "healthier" replacements for the previously used lard and beef tallow oils.

The interactions between solid food retailers and the gases pushing for healthier products can be summed up best by Strother Martin's famous line in Cool Hand Luke: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate." The academics and activists argue for change and expect industry to immediately understand and respond. The restaurant and grocery store operators are like Missouri: you have to "show me" first and give me all the facts and figures before I stick out my neck and risk what I've spent ages setting up.

On the surface, it appears there is not much room for progress. The advocates are clearly capable of crafting innovative solutions, but their inability to engage the food industry, as demonstrated by their lack of operating and food management experience, remains a hurdle. Conversely, the short-term perspectives and meager profit margins of retail operators mean that addressing obesity will never be a priority.

So is there anyone left who can make a serious dent in obesity? Can consumers be the ones who step up? Tune in next time.