Toops Scoops: The Food Industry Is Besieged

Increasing pressure from Feds and parents means big challenges ahead.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Big challenges and pressure to change from all fronts confront the food industry, according to The Kiplinger Letter, and I think we all could agree with that conclusion.

First and foremost, new Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be jointly published this fall by the Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Dept. of Agriculture (USDA). The guidelines, which serve as the basis for federal food and nutrition education programs, are modified every five years by a consensus of scientific experts and provide “authoritative advice” for Americans two years and older about good dietary habits to promote good health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases. There’s little doubt the new guidelines will urge less consumption of salt, sweeteners and fats particularly trans fat.

Efforts by the government to convince Americans to voluntarily reduce salt have been ineffective. Linked to hypertension, heart disease and other health problems, salt is the latest villain in the obesity struggle, and the government has run with it to target both restaurants and processed foods. Ironically, most major food companies already have substantially lowered sodium in their product lines, but the blame game continues even though consumers routinely pour on the salt at home and in restaurants. Will the feds begin to ration the tasty ingredient?

Speaking of tasty ingredients, sweeteners also are under attack. Huge sin taxes on soft drinks are in effect in California and Washington, smaller taxes exist on soft drinks in Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and in my hometown Chicago. On the legislative table, sin taxes have been proposed in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Michigan, Arizona, New Mexico and Hawaii, even though 56 percent of Americans oppose them, according to a March survey by Rasmussen Reports.

In 2009, President Obama alluded to soda taxes as one solution to fight obesity. Lawmakers in at least 12 states (who want to improve their budgets), took up his suggestion, though pressure from constituents already overburdened with taxes prevented their approved. Mark Bittman asked the question in a recent New York Times article, “Is soda the new tobacco?” We’d have to respond, yes.

State lawmakers in Hawaii, Illinois and Massachusetts are weighing possible bans on trans fats in restaurants and foods provided by schools. Other lawmakers throughout the U.S. also want to eliminate trans fats in school cafeterias, are demanding more fresh fruits and veggies in school lunches and are lobbying for restriction of “unhealthy” foods and beverages in school snack machines. Another irony is that the processing industry has reduced or eliminated trans fats in foods. On the foodservice side, one of the provisions of the recently passed health care legislation is that vending machine operators and restaurants with more than 20 sites will be required to post nutritional information.

First Lady Michelle Obama, whose goal is to end child obesity in a generation, has launched a major initiative to change the foods served in schools and at home. Her first step was planting a White House vegetable garden, tended by school children, to promote fresh vegetables rather than processed foods. Her later appearances at schools and state legislatures throughout the U.S. to promote more exercise and affordable healthy food are resonating with parents, who apparently want Uncle Sam’s help.

A new survey by Food Minds found that 86 percent of respondents support the overhaul of food and front-of-label packaging that calls out calories and beneficial nutrients; 74 percent favor government-sponsored nutrition education programs to help identify “good” versus “bad” foods; and 58 percent support the government banning advertising of “unhealthy” foods to children. No doubt, new label regulations and advertising bans will be passed.

So what does this all mean? The times they are a-changing, individual choice and responsibility are under fire, and the industry, no matter how much it does to provide safe and nutritious foods at affordable prices, is under siege continuously to do even more. Give your R&D staff a salary raise; they will be working 24/7.

Remember, big brother is watching.

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