This has been a year we’d all like to wrap up and file away under never again, please. All of our institutions and basic beliefs in the American dream have been tested and found wanting. Technology, globalization, and the current financial crisis have left many of us reeling.
As we pick up the pieces and head into a new decade, it’s time to reflect and prognosticate on the issues and trends that will most likely affect the industry next year. The most important issues include:
Serious scrutiny: The long arm of regulation is preparing to sock the industry in the schnoz on many fronts. This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of a sweeping food safety bill, which includes increased inspections of domestic food facilities and greater oversight of imports. The Senate is expected to pass legislation by the end of the year giving the FDA enhanced authority to oversee the safety of the nation's food supply. Voters in selected states – Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio – show overwhelming support for measures that would give the FDA these new powers. Conducted in October by a bipartisan team of pollsters at Hart Research (Democratic) and Public Opinion Strategies (Republican), these polls were commissioned by coalition member the Pew Health Group. Poll results are available at www.MakeOurFoodSafe.org.
Noting the FDA's research shows consumers are less likely to check the Nutrition Facts label if a product uses front-of-package healthy symbols labeling, the FDA said it is essential both the criteria and symbols used in the front-of-package and shelf-labeling systems be nutritionally sound and well-designed to help consumers make informed, healthy food choices. "Some nutritionists are questioning whether they [front-of-package symbols] are marketing or health-oriented," said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. She added the agency is analyzing front-of-package labels that appear to be misleading and is looking for symbols that may be considered nutrient content claims.
To ensure consumers are not confused or misled, the FDA is drafting new legislation for a simple label defining nutritional criteria to be met by food companies making front-of-package claims. Hamburg expects a new, consistent label for manufactured foods will be available by the end of next year. And although she said FDA is a partner with manufacturers, she also warned over time FDA would take action against egregious inaccurate claims on labels.
There is also serious hand slapping from the Federal Trade Commission. According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, the average preschooler sees 642 cereal ads per year. The FTC is scrutinizing the claims on those cereals and other food and beverage products marketed to kids. This issue keeps gaining momentum as the Democrat-controlled congress gets more involved and Internet- connected moms speak out.
Transparency, or who can I trust?: A new IBM survey of 1,000 consumers in 10 of the largest cities reveals less than 20 percent of consumers trust food companies to develop and sell safe and healthy food products. Sixty percent are concerned about the safety of food they purchase, while 63 percent report they have purposefully changed their grocery shopping behavior in the past two years because they wanted better value for their money. And almost half have changed shopping behavior to access fresher foods (45 percent) or better quality foods (43 percent).
"Especially in today's economy, if consumers are going to pay a little extra for a branded or organic product, they want to be assured they're paying for something different and better quality," said Guy Blissett, consumer products leader at the IBM Institute for Business Value. "Across the board, consumers are demanding transparency and more information about the food they purchase to ensure their safety and that of their families."
Consumers want more information about the content of the food products they purchase (77 percent) more information about its origin (76 percent), and are willing to dig deeper and seek more data about how the food products are grown, processed and manufactured (74 percent). The survey also found consumers are spending more time poring over food labels to know which ingredients were used, questioning supermarkets and product manufacturers about product detail, paying closer attention to expiration dates, and doing more in depth background checks on specific food brands and their origin. This will have an even bigger impact as the younger, more Internet savvy generation of consumers evolve into being the primary purchasers of groceries.
War on obesity: Even though there have been more articles than ever on obesity, more low-calorie products and weight-loss initiatives, adult obesity rates increased in 23 states in 2008, down from 37 states during the previous year, according to "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America 2009."
The report, by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, covered all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It found 16 states experienced an increase in obesity rates for the second year in a row and 11 states for a third year in a row. No states decreased. The rate of adult obesity now exceeds 25 percent in 31 states.
So how are the federal and state government policies aimed at reducing or preventing obesity working? The review found that: 19 states have nutritional standards for school lunches, breakfasts and snacks that are stricter than current USDA requirements, 27 states have nutritional standards for competitive foods sold a la carte, in vending machines, in school stores or in school bake sales; and 20 states have passed requirements for body mass index (BMI) screenings of children and adolescents or have passed legislation requiring other forms of weight-related assessments in schools.
The report identified several recommendations to make preventing and reducing obesity a central objective of health reform, and called for a "National Strategy to Combat Obesity.” That program “would define roles and responsibilities for federal, state and local governments and promote collaboration among businesses, communities, schools and families," the report noted.
To that end, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a coalition of more than 40 retailers, food and beverage manufacturers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and educators have committed to a national, multi-year effort to help reduce obesity, particularly among children, by 2015. The plan is to tout "energy balance" -- meaning balancing calories consumed as part of a healthy diet and calories expended. Efforts will be focused in three areas: the marketplace, the workplace and schools. Participating companies are committed to "build on existing efforts" to change products, packaging and labeling to help consumers manage calorie intake while preserving or enhancing products' overall nutritional quality. Product reformulation and innovation, providing smaller portions, redesigning packaging and labeling, placing calorie information on the front of products, providing consumers with information and educational materials, and in-store promotion are included in the initiative.
A taxing scenario: Now that public officials and health authorities have recognized the growing problem of obesity, the question is what to do about it. California legislators, who have already taken action to require nutrition labeling on restaurant menus and to regulate foods sold at schools, have the bright idea of high soda taxes to curb obesity, versus states that tax sodas at 3 percent. “Adults who drink soda every day are 27 percent more likely to be obese,” said Susan Batey, a researcher at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, who led a study that prompted a hearing on obesity.
A recent study at the Yale School of Public Health recently found soda taxes have not made a difference in BMI over a 16 year period. And Maureen Storey, a vice president at the American Beverage Assn., pointed out focusing on soft drinks will fail to solve the problem, since the UCLA study also showed half of adults who don’t drink soda are also overweight.
Most notable, Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center at Yale, noted the landscape for the soda industry is not unlike what it was for the tobacco industry when governments began to increase taxes on cigarettes as a strategy to get people to stop smoking. Other food categories – snacks, confectionery and dairy -- are also ripe for higher taxation.
For a less taxing and enjoyable holiday season, put down your Blackberry, turn off your computer and relax your overworked gray cells.