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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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.

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