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

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food industry Nutrition

Industry-led initiatives designed to clamp down on marketing 'junk food' to kids have not gone far enough, claimed the CSPI's Margo Wootan
Industry-led initiatives designed to clamp down on marketing 'junk food' to kids have not gone far enough, claimed the CSPI's Margo Wootan
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).

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Love Jeff's post... I think

Posted by Donna Feldman MS RD,

I appreciate Jeff's post here, and hopefully I got his point. I'm absolutely no fan of self-righteous and self-appointed groups like CSPI who get far too much attention from their pals in the main stream media. They don't deserve it. Anyone who thinks they don't have an axe to grind is drinking Kool Aid. But I'm sure it's organic Kool Aid. As a corporate RD in another presentation pointed out, normal people don't have time or money for high minded food purity. They just want to eat, and if companies can give them a choice of healthier products, that's wonderful, as long as those consumer actually pick those items. Badgering from CSPI types is not helping to convince them. It's just making healthy eating look like something for grim angry Puritans.

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While the faux debate continues neither needs to move

Posted by Mythbuster,

Both protagonists are businesses with brands to protect, the food industry has its food brands the consumerists their issue brands. They both need them to be strong to thrive and maintain their healthy financial positions and job creation.

Healthier foods are generally marketed to and engaged by those in the population with least need to change. Food companies understand this and a s a general rule a food sold on a healthy alternative platform engages only 10% of the market.

Food issues are the bread and butter of the consumerists, if you solve a problem like additive labelling or salt (sodium) reduction, they have to find another issue to maintain their status as "consumer champion" i.e., the 10% of the population concerned enough to help funding.

Consumerism thrives through conflict and food industry actually needs to delvier less,i.e., deliver sodiium reduction, rather than the real issue obesity. Both win.

The real problem is societal, behaviour, our relationship with food and fundamental biology. We need to stop using food to asuage our guilt both personally and for our children.


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I thank CSPI every day for their ideological point of view

Posted by Jeff Nedelman,

The real answer to the question debated at FNCE is "No," the food industry and CSPI can't just get along - they are absolute opposites.

CSPI's POV is ideologically pure. Compromise, like the vernacular of the Tea Party, does not exist. Industry, on the other hand, does a better or worse job, delivering choice to consumers. High fiber, all natural, organic, cereal, meat and potatoes -- all there for the purchasing.

Having worked for the food industry on just about every major controversial issue for more than 25 years, I am thankful there is a CSPI. It paid for two college educations, a mortgage and a nice retirement fund. If it did not exist industry pr people would have to go out and get real jobs, like laying asphalt in August - no thank you.

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