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Dispatches from the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) 2012

FNCE hot topic: Why can’t the food industry and consumer advocacy groups meet half-way?

By Elaine WATSON in Philadelphia, 08-Oct-2012

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

Do consumers really want to buy the healthier products consumer advocacy groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) tell us food and beverage manufacturers ought to be making?

And can the food industry meet the CSPI and other NGOs half way on reformulation, marketing and labeling initiatives so that all stakeholders can emerge as winners, including consumers?

‘Sometimes’, was probably the closest dietitians in the audience got to an answer to either of these questions last night at the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) in Philadelphia, where CSPI director of nutrition policy Margo Wootan locked horns with Beth Johnson, founder of consultancy Food Directions.

While both parties declared their mutual trust and respect for each other, the debate became a little testy at times as Johnson - presenting an industry perspective - highlighted the progress achieved through self-regulation, while Wootan argued that voluntary initiatives on areas from sodium reduction to marketing ‘junk food’ to kids rarely go far enough to deliver meaningful change.

CSPI: Food companies are there to make food and to make a profit. Their job is not to promote health

Wootan: “Food manufacturers are there to make food and to make a profit. Their job is not to promote health.”

However, adding calorie counts to foodservice menus is one good example of where the two parties have managed to bury the hatchet and find a compromise that works for all stakeholders, said Wootan.

But she added: “Food manufacturers are there to make food and to make a profit. Their job is not to promote health.”

This does not mean that the two objectives are mutually exclusive, she observed, as many healthy products sell very well (think Greek yogurt, grain snacks).

However, while food manufacturers have worked hard to reformulate products and offer healthier options, they are not going to willingly engage in initiatives or support proposals that could potentially damage sales of their biggest brands (super-sized soda bans, mandatory sodium targets, tougher rules on marketing food to kids), she pointed out.

Johnson: Advocacy groups do not always put out accurate information

Asked what three things she would like to see happen to improve public health, she said smaller portion sizes; more work to help schools make the new nutritional standards for school lunches work; and a focus on reducing consumption of sugary drinks.

Johnson, meanwhile, said she would like to see more accurate information in the media and more responsible science-based commentary from some advocacy groups on issues such as lean finely textured beef (aka 'pink slime') although she acknowledged that the CSPI had not said it was unsafe.

It would also be nice to have a more grown up debate about scientific data produced by people with financial or other ties to the food industry that assessed their research on its merits rather than immediately resorting to the ‘well he would say that wouldn’t he’ argument’ and immediately dismissing it, she said.

“If there is any funding whatsoever from industry [for research], no one takes any notice of it. It’s become quite ridiculous.”

Where's the business case?

As for providing healthy options, food manufacturers have gone to great lengths both to develop healthier new products and reformulate existing ones, she said. But consumers don’t always buy them.

And as one audience member pointed out in the Q&A session, it's not easy to make a business case for developing products that NGOs say consumers want, but hard data shows they don’t always buy (think reduced sodium Campbell’s Soup).