The Food Industry Fights Back

On obesity, food safety, 'questionable' ingredients, the industry can do a better job of tactfully defending itself; the key is transparency.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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From obesity to cancer to Taliban terrorism, the food and beverage industry seems to get blamed for all of this world's ills. OK, maybe not the Taliban, but for just about everything else, the modern diet and processed foods are fingered as the culprits.

"Why do you have to make food taste so good that we overeat?" was the theme of a 60 Minutes episode on November 27, 2011. The accusation was not hurled solely at Givaudan, which CBS ominously called "the largest flavoring company in the world," but the Switzerland-based company became the food industry's sole defender in the TV newsmagazine's "The Flavorists: Tweaking tastes and creating cravings." The show's Morley Safer attempted to expose this "multibillion dollar industry … cloaked in secrecy" – that's a direct quote from the transcript.

For added drama, the show included a brief visit with former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who suggested "flavors are so stimulating, they hijack our brain." He explained how food manufacturers manipulate sugar, fat and salt to create products that "stimulate our appetites, setting in motion a cycle of desire and consumption that ends with a nation of overeaters," as he says in his book.

Michael Specter, New Yorker staff writer, must be shaking his head. As keynote speaker at the 2011 IFT Annual Meeting and Food Expo, he observed, "I've covered wars and natural disasters, but I've never covered anything as controversial as food."

"In 30 years in this business, I've never seen such anxiety [among food industry people]," agreed Linda Eatherton, director of global food & nutrition at public relations agency Ketchum, who joined Specter and two other speakers on a panel discussing consumer mistrust of food science and what the industry can do to change that image.

If you're looking for the magic bullet, it's not here. Although if there is a common recommendation or two, they are better communication and transparency. Drop your guard a little. Not everything is "proprietary information." Participate in any and all dialogs, and if possible, own them.

At that IFT keynote, Specter lamented that "society has become increasingly risk-averse" and that anti-science attitudes abound. Acknowledging that he was addressing a crowd of food scientists, Specter exhorted his audience to do a better job of communicating. "You can't just say, 'look at the data.' The food industry needs to do a better job of communication -- using tools that include the Internet and social media. Go out and educate. Fight on the Internet. People want to believe that things are simple. They're not. You need to remember that progress is why we are here."

This is a big issue, worthy of a multi-day conference, not just a seven-page magazine story. But we'll try to scratch the surface and hopefully start a dialog by discussing three of the most often heard complaints against the food industry:

…and, more importantly, how some food processors and others in the industry are answering those charges.

"There's always an issue with the food industry; if it's not one thing, it's another," laments Cathy Kapica, senior vice president and director of health and wellness at Ketchum (www.ketchum.com). She uses a long and scientific background in the food industry (senior scientist at Quaker Oats, global director of nutrition for McDonald's, adjunct professor of nutrition at Tufts University) in her current role "counseling food & beverage companies" for the public relations agency.

She recommends three points:

  • Transparency
  • Authenticity
  • Interactive communication

"Transparency would serve the food industry well," says Jim Martinez, a Chicago-based "crisis consultant" for the food industry (www.rightstorygroup.com). "People who decline to answer questions tend to be doubted. It makes people suspicious."

While the biggest part of the solution is communication, Kapica says it has to be 21st century-style, not that of the previous century.

"The world has changed, and most food companies have not," she says. "They used to have a top-down relationship with consumers – they would tell consumers what they [the food companies] wanted to be known about a product. The Internet, social media and citizen journalism changed all that. Now it's a flat and holistic relationship."

Companies can "market" all they want to shoppers, but consumers also learn about products from other sources and other consumers and do so in nontraditional places. So if the food industry's stance is frank, consistent and readily available, people will listen, and hopefully believe. "This is the new way of doing business," Kapica says.


Food processors were reticent for this story, but maybe the anonymity of the Web will engender some real dialog on this subject. If you have a comment to make on these or similar subjects, you can comment anonymously here and read what others say on this critical issue and continue reading the rest of this story.

{pb} Obesity: America's No. 1 health crisis
As we said in the introduction, the 60 Minutes piece showed some of the amazing science – Safer called it trickery — developed by the flavor industry and sold to the food processing side to make Americans eat more.

Now, here's a perfect example of the problem. We tried repeatedly to get Givaudan to respond for this article, but the company did not return phone calls. It looked like the Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association would step up, partly in Givaudan's defense, but it begged off, too. We tried to get a number of food companies to speak on the record for this story, and all declined.

"I don't think that's a position I'd want to put my company in," said a spokesman for one company. "We don't feel it would be in our best interest to 'vent' about any of the topics you've listed," said another.

Maybe that's the problem. "The problem with the food industry is it's slow to react, especially with issues dealing with public health," says Kapica. "Part of the challenge for these companies is proprietary information. But they end up not wanting to talk to anyone about anything. Then the perception is they have no concern for consumers. But they do."

"The best way to deal with these things is to face the problem head-on and show consumers what you're doing about them," says an R&D director at a multinational firm.

(We did get a few trusted confidantes at food and beverage companies to comment, but they asked us not to use their names or their company affiliations. All were from Top 100© food companies.)

The obesity epidemic "has been translated from the personal decision-making responsibility of the individual to holding the processor accountable for what they put into their products as being the cause," says a manufacturing executive at a Midwestern meat processing company. "If [consumers] put the same amount of effort into individual responsibility and education, if we would hold ourselves more accountable for what happens to us and avoid the 'victim' mentality." Then the obesity problem would be controlled, he says.

SOLUTION: This is a tough argument to win – if only because human beings seem to find comfort in blaming outside influences for their own bad choices. But the food industry cannot be accused of not trying.

Foods & beverages bearing some kind of obesity-fighting claim accounted for 16.5 percent of all new product launches in the U.S. in 2011, according to Innova Market Insights (www.innovadatabase.com). Innova gave us a readout of 10 claims, ranging from "weight management" to "HFCS-free." While the 2011 amount is up just one percentage point over 2010's figure, that number has been steadily increasing in recent years.

Mintel actually sees a slight drop in similar obesity-fighting claims (in eight categories) from 2010 to 2011. But that's in line with a slight drop (of 4.6 percent) in total new products last year, and doesn't take into account existing obesity-fighting products.

Kellogg does a nice job of "Putting Sugar in Perspective" in a web page with that title. It points out: "Sugar in cereals — including kids cereals —contribute less than 5 percent of daily sugar intake. Yet it adds taste, texture and enjoyment to cereal, while encouraging the consumption of fiber, vitamins and minerals — essential nutrients that you and your kids might not otherwise get from any other meal. In fact, a serving of Kellogg's Froot Loops contains 12g of sugar — or 48 calories. While a glass of orange juice has more sugar, and the average fruit yogurt has more than double the sugar of kids' cereal with milk."

The point is: There's no shortage of obesity-fighting and general "better-for-you" products in the market. Getting consumers to buy them is another question.

"We're involved with USDA's MyPlate, and most food companies are very supportive of such efforts," says Jerry Bowman, IFT's communications vice president. "It's good business for food companies to come up with good-for-you products. That's what consumers are calling for. That's what we see at every IFT Food Expo." But, he admits, that's not always what consumers actually purchase.

A huge step forward, with the emphasis on childhood obesity, was announced in May 2010, when 16 food & beverage processors, original members of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), pledged to reduce the calories customers consume by 1.5 trillion calories by 2015. The companies said they would introduce lower-calorie options, lower the calories of current products and reduce single-serve portion sizes.

Signatories included, Bumble Bee Foods, Campbell Soup Co., Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Hershey, J.M. Smucker Co., Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Mars, McCormick & Co., Nestle USA, PepsiCo, Post Foods/Ralston Foods LLC, Sara Lee Corp. and Unilever USA. HWCF has since grown to more than 190 food and beverage manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, sporting goods and insurance companies, trade association, nongovernmental organizations and professional sports organizations.

Under the terms of the agreement, HWCF (www.healthyweightcommit.org) will report annually to the partnership on the processors' progress. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropy devoted to improving the health and health care of Americans, will support an independent evaluation of how HWCF's efforts are affecting calories consumed by children and adolescents.

Ask any dieter: Losing weight takes time. So will these efforts. But they are steps in the right direction.

{pb} 'Questionable' ingredients
While a number of ingredients have done the perp walk over the years, two are in the front of the criminal lineup right now. Both salt and high-fructose corn syrup plead innocent on the basis of insufficient evidence.

It's hard to find a nutrition professional who has not counseled people to decrease their intake of sodium. The American Heart Assn., the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National High Blood Pressure Education Program and a dozen other groups – plus our own USDA -- all insist healthy people can reduce their risk of heart disease or stroke by eating less than 2,400mg of sodium. Or is it 1,500mg? Either figure is quite a cut from the 4,000 to 6,000 mg we currently ingest on a daily basis.

One driving force behind the antisodium campaign has been the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), headed by Michael Jacobson. The Washington-based organization is well-known for its sensationalist attacks on foods and food ingredients.

After decades of research and thousands of studies, science has not been able to establish a definitive connection between intake of dietary sodium by healthy persons and increased disease risk. Emphasis on healthy persons. Most dispassionate research seems to indicate that if you have high blood pressure, sodium can make it worse; but if you aren't hypertensive, salt won't give you high blood pressure.

As for high-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener is a victim of bad science, its own name and its own popularity. Adding to the problem is an uncharacteristic caving-in by food processors, who think they can make marketing hay by proclaiming HFCS has been removed from their products.

The bap rap for HFCS apparently started in March 2004, when researchers George Bray of Louisiana State University and Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina submitted the equivalent of a letter to the editor to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Although their research was not peer reviewed, they postulated rising amounts of fructose in the diet, among them foods and beverages containing HFCS, might play a role in America's rising obesity epidemic.

The connection between high amounts of fructose and obesity is sketchy at best. And, ironically, high-fructose corn syrup is not high in fructose – it's about the same as sugar, which is 50 percent fructose. Most HFCS varies from 45 percent to 55 percent fructose. But the sweetener is in everything, from soda to teriyaki sauce to ketchup. Even level-headed consumers were starting to wonder if there is some conspiracy.

"Many food critics, including Michael Jacobson [head of CSPI], Walter Willett [chair of the Dept. of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health] and even Marion Nestle, author and professor [from] New York University, agree there is no difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar and have been very public in their comments," says Audrae Erickson, president of the Washington-based Corn Refiners Association. "They all agree it is another form of sugar – one made from corn. As for Popkin, he has since publicly retracted his theory."
So does HFCS contribute to obesity? The unvarnished answer is: no more and no less than sugar.

But the stigma remains, perhaps because of the chemical-sounding name and its ubiquity. On the first issue, CRA in 2010 petitioned the FDA to allow manufacturers the option of using "corn sugar" as an alternative ingredient name for high-fructose corn syrup. "The term 'corn sugar' succinctly and accurately describes what this natural ingredient is and where it comes from — corn," Erickson said at the time.

However, traditional sugar refiners objected. The issue is pending with the FDA and courts.

On the second issue, for better or worse, HFCS is beginning to disappear from some food products. A number of food marketers started replacing HFCS in their formulations with "real" sugar – with no improvement in calorie or nutritional content. They claim they're just being responsive to consumers and that sales of the reformulated products are healthy.

CRA cites Nielsen data that "brands that are marketing 'HFCS-free' as a point of differentiation are not seeing increases in sales as a result."

And the corn refiners commissioned a market research firm to see what consumers think. "Our research with thousands of consumers found that only 4 percent are reducing or avoiding HFCS, which indicates a major gap between what people say and what they really do," says David Lockwood, senior analyst with Mintel Research Consultancy. He suggests "food and beverage marketers … develop sweetener strategies that focus on overall nutrition rather than singling out specific ingredients."

SOLUTION: The battle of "our scientific evidence vs. your scientific evidence" probably will go on forever.

An increasing number of companies think the solution is to forgo the questionable ingredients. They're "simply" reducing the number of ingredients on their labels -- "simple" being the key word. Simply Heinz Ketchup ("It's grown, not made") replaces the HFCS without pointing that out. (Competitor Hunt's, on the other hand, trumpets "no high-fructose corn syrup.") Other recent launches include Pillsbury Simply biscuits and Stater Bros. Simple Living cereals.

Campbell Soup made sodium reduction its main marketing message for the past couple of years. But when sales turned as lackluster as its soups, the company relented, even changing its CEO – although not entirely over this issue. New CEO Denise Morrison put it in perspective, saying too much R&D effort had been put in sodium reduction and not enough elsewhere. And while some "healthy" soups would remain low-sodium, for those consumers who care, other soups would get most of their salt back.

"Sodium plays a critical role in food safety and in formulation," adds IFT's Bowman. "There are some things we can do and some things we can't."

So choose wisely. Know your target audience. If they want reduced sodium, there are plenty of replacement ingredients out there. But, obviously, check out what they do to your product's flavor.

Also consider the bigger issue of chemical-sounding ingredients or just too many ingredients. Many processors are finding less (ingredients) is more (sales). Haagen-Dazs Five ice creams consist of just five ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, eggs and whichever flavor is used. There's also ACH/Fleischmann's Simply Homemade bread mixes; Kellogg's Simple Eggo Waffles ("no preservatives, artificial flavors or colors"); Frito-Lay/Miss Vickie's Simply Sea Salt potato chips ("All natural … nothing artificial, and of course, zero grams trans fat").

{pb} Food safety
"When a food product recall occurs, the entire food industry is held accountable for it, not just the offending company," said our Midwestern meat processor. "When Toyota had their issues with speed control, only Toyota was on the firing line, not all the rest of the auto makers."

"In recent years, 'processed foods' have been the subject of growing negative perceptions in terms of their nutritional value and impact on health, as well as their safety," says a report from the International Food Information Council (IFIC, www.foodinsight.org). "However, there are many safe, high-quality, and nutritious processed foods, and in many cases, processing can help make our food safer and more nutritious."

"People don't realize food processing is thousands of years old," says IFT's Bowman. "They don't recognize what it takes to get food from the farm to their fork. There's a reason we pasteurize milk and cook meats" -- and increase shelf-life and otherwise preserve foods.

SOLUTION: First of all, keep on processing. The food industry needs to regain the upper hand that processing is, first and foremost, a way to make food safe.

"As a communicator, you can help share the facts and clear up misinformation about modern food production, food processing and processed foods," says IFIC. Its "Understanding our Food" toolkit offers processors several resources for communicating with consumers and clients. Primarily it helps define processed foods, describes the scope of foods and products they include and provides information about the many benefits of food processing that often are overlooked.

But because the primary inputs are created outdoors and in dirt, there probably always will be contamination incidents. "The best way to deal with a food safety issue is to be as transparent [there's that word again] as possible," says Chicago consultant Martinez. "Acknowledge the problem, show people the steps you're taking to fit it and to prevent it from ever happening again. Bad things happen to good companies, and people will forgive you if you're perceived as honest and trying to do the right thing"

A classic example we've chronicled in the past was a 2008 listeria outbreak stemming from a Maple Leaf Foods plant. A hard-to-clean slicing machine sent up to 1.4 million lbs. of contaminated deli meats to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and retail and deli counters.

The outbreak took possibly 22 lives, cost tens of millions of dollars and led to intense organizational soul-searching at Maple Leaf. The company emerged with a very public pledge to instill a "culture of food safety" that commits the company, among other things, to being a "global leader in food safety" and to "openly sharing our knowledge with industry, government and consumers." (See www.FoodProcessing.com/articles/2010/foodsafety-mapleleaf.html).

Two key elements are aggressive environmental testing and an aggressive response to every positive result, according to Randy Huffman, a high-profile food safety expert who was hired in the wake of the outbreak as the company's chief food safety officer, reporting directly to the CEO. "That," he says, "is where the rubber really hits the road."


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