How Serious Is the Food Industry About Helping in the Fight Against Obesity?

Supermarket ShopperAmerica’s food and beverage companies are keenly aware that obesity is a serious problem here and globally, and they are strongly committed to give consumers the products, tools and information they need to achieve and maintain a healthy diet and active lifestyle, according to Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a trade group of the food and beverage industry.

Voluntary Measures May Not Suffice

Her assurances come in response to a recent article in the New York Times, in which the author, Michael Moss, accuses food manufacturers of intentionally creating products that are addictive and cause overeating.

For the article (which is an excerpt of his book, “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” – Random House, 2013), Mr. Moss interviewed several former executives of leading food manufacturers, including Bob Drane of Oscar Mayer, the inventor of “Lunchables,” tray-like packages filled with processed meats, cheese and crackers that are popular with children and busy parents alike. Even he admits that “the nutritional profile of the thing could have been better,” although he also sees the “positive contributions to people’s lives,” at least in terms of convenience.

Others were more forthcoming. Robert I. Lin, a former chief scientist for Frito-Lay, was quoted saying, “I feel so sorry for the public” because it doesn’t know how potentially harmful some of the products he worked on are. Decades have been lost that could have been spent on searching for ways to ease the addiction to salt, sugar and fat, he said.

Despite of “confessions” like these, the food industry is not inclined to change its business model any time soon, says Moss. In the fierce fight over “stomach share,” as food manufacturers call their highly competitive market, there is little room for experimentation. So they will continue with their efforts to keep customers hooked on products that are cheap to make and can be sold in ever-increasing quantities.

The industry rejects these accusations. In her response to the New York Times article, Ms. Bailey pointed to the industry’s strong track record on behalf of consumers’ health and wellbeing. Tens of thousands of new products with fewer calories, reduced fat, sodium and sugar have been introduced in recent years, she said. Policies to limit advertising to kids have voluntarily been implemented. Millions of dollars are being donated every year to nutrition and health-related programs to communities across the nation. The list goes on.

But the bottom line, she said, is that consumers themselves must take responsibility for their food and beverage consumptions and engage in appropriate amounts of physical activity to avoid weight problems. Banning, taxing or restricting access to certain products will not solve the obesity crisis.

She may be right. Obesity and its causes are complex issues. We don’t have all the answers, but we have some, and the way many food products are manufactured has been proven to play a significant role. If these processes are to change, they will not likely do so on a voluntary basis.

Food companies love to cite the initiatives they have taken on their own account like calorie labeling and reducing marketing to kids, but “many of these things only came about because of the relentless pressure from advocacy groups,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy organization, in an interview with Food Navigator-USA. While well-meaning initiatives are laudable, regulatory interventions may be needed when manufacturers cannot see a business reason for changing their behavior. But the idea that the marketplace will take care of all these problems is ridiculous, she was quoted saying.

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