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Nation's bulging waistline is a food industry issue

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 15-May-2012

Related topics: Regulation, The obesity problem, Food labeling and marketing

Americans are getting fatter – and it’s not just the individual that needs a health check, according to a new IOM report. Like it or not, this health crisis has plenty of implications for the food industry.

Last week, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) laid out its ideas about how industry could play a part in slimming the nation, including several that repeatedly have proved very unpopular, such as considering taxing sugary drinks and changing farm policy, and setting strict standards on marketing to children.

Industry was quick to respond with assurances that it has undertaken numerous initiatives to create and promote healthy choices for consumers. But choices may not be enough, according to the IOM. It urges a move away from simply blaming individuals for a lack of willpower and poor food choices, instead backing a slew of public health policies, which it says could help create a less ‘obesogenic’ environment.

Among the five main areas of focus, the one that should strike a chord with food companies is “Create food and beverage environments that ensure that healthy food and beverage options are the routine, easy choice.”

As an industry journalist, I’ll be among the first to admit that industry is stuck in a very hard position here: On the one hand, it wants to be seen to be doing the right things – but on the other, what people say they want to eat, and what they actually do eat are often very different, and after all, food companies are in the business of making money.

But honestly, could industry do more to make healthy choices routine, easy choices? I think so.

As industry groups craft their responses to government reports – which, let’s face it, only occasionally lead to actual policy – food manufacturers would benefit from paying attention to other voices too. Consumers are communicating their own messages to the food industry about their products’ perceived health impacts.

These messages aren’t delivered in the form of strongly worded letters or telephone calls to customer relations departments. Increasingly, they’re delivered in lawsuits, in petitions to government, and, at the very least, in lost sales. Consumers are challenging industry to be more transparent about ingredients and processes that they perceive make healthy choices more difficult.

Look at the swathe of recent class action suits against major food companies alleging that they are misleading consumers about their ingredients.

These raise fundamental questions about the way companies present food: Are plants always natural? Or does biotechnology subtract from their naturalness? Is it acceptable to talk about high-fat, sugary foods as “part of a balanced breakfast” ? And what would a reasonable consumer perceive from on-pack health claims , before they look at the ingredient list?

Companies should be thinking about answers to these questions as they develop marketing strategies, and build them into new product development.

The IOM’s policy recommendations, whatever you think of them, may create a playground for partisan politics – but consumers won’t wait for differences to be resolved.

In the meantime, many are already trying to make healthy choices. Food manufacturers would do well to make them as routine and easy as possible.