An inside the DC Beltway point of view about how key federal food and health policies are made by someone who knows where all the bodies are buried.
President, Strategic Communications, LLC
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Is Nutrition Information Only for the Elites?
In 1990 when the late US Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and his GOP BFF, Sen. Orrin Hatch (UT), began marking up the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act everyone in the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee room knew food labeling was about to change, with a new "Nutrition Facts" box. It had taken years to lobby and iron out the details. Everyone also knew there would be no sustained effort to educate the public about what information was on the box, despite the title of the law.
Then the federal government got into the information and education business. Soon we had the Food Guide Pyramid and then a revised version, which was supposed to help educate and inform consumers about the nutritional content of the food they were eating.
The most recent set of Dietary Guidelines effectively recalled the crumbling Pyramid and introduced us to the "My Plate" program, where consumers are supposed to fill half their plates with fruits and veggies, a tough thing to do when most consumers have no idea that a potato is a vegetable, much less one packed with potassium (and why is that important?) But, before the ink was dry on the feds new plan, the ivory tower folks at Harvard released had their own different plan and stole most of the media attention. Lesson: power brands, like Harvard, trump federal science.
Now, everyone is fighting about front panel labeling. In a bold tactical move, food manufacturers and retailers unveiled their own proposed plan and voluntarily began to use it, setting FDA and the "Big Food" critics back on their heels. Not to be outdone, the food fundamentalists, the "food police," or the so-called Center for Science in the Public Interest have issued their own color coded, traffic light proposal, which has the proverbial snowball chance in Hell of being adopted. The one thing they all have in common is that they are all different.
The result of 20 years of all this activity -- the nation is more obese than ever.
So now, the "you are too dumb to know what to eat people, the experts and academics" are taking their whack at the issue, hoping simple "tax and forbid" government solutions will solve a complex problem.
Specifically, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to ban "bad" large soft drinks sold in city restaurants, stadiums and movie theaters, but on August 22 The New York Times (NYT) released a poll of New Yorkers, regarding Mayor Bloomberg’s plan. A whopping 60% were against it. The reaction by the politically appointed head of the city's health department basically was, "We know what's good for you," and said he expected the proposal to be adopted in about three weeks. So much for the messy business of democracy. NYC soda drinkers will just buy two cups of soda, instead of one large one.
Just a few days earlier, in an interview with CBS News about the Administration's new school lunch reform initiative, Kevin Concannon, who is in charge of the school lunch program at USDA, said: "The industry, I think, had a lot of anxiety about this. That's the kindest thing I can say about that." "The kindest thing?" Give me a break. In effect, he washed his purest hands of the politics that his Department was supposed to manage. Congress stepped in and gave every side a bit of what they wanted, something Washington once called a "compromise," before Speaker Boehner's "knuckle draggers," as he affectionately calls the Tea Partyers of his caucus, came to town.
This November California consumers will be voting on Prop 37, an initiative, that if passed, would require food that contains GMO ingredients to be labeled, despite the fact that for nearly 20 years every public health organization in the world have found GMO foods to be safe. FDA firmly believes a warning that 80% of the food supply contains GMOs would be a warning on nothing and would imply non-GMO foods were safer or more nutritious, something that is absolutely wrong and illegal under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
So what do consumers want to know about their food? No no surprise, consumer polling and focus group results have not changed in many years. According to the International Food Information Council's (IFIC) 2012 Food and Health Survey, taste is number one. Ever try one of the very low fat cheese products. Yuck! I vote for Julia Child and please pass the butter. Price is number two and healthfulness comes in third.
The IFIC data reveals most consumers find it easier to figure out their tax return than it is to figure out what they should and shouldn’t eat to be healthier. No surprise there either.
Declaration of Independence
Most importantly, consumers do not want to be told what or what not to eat and they certainly do not want government making those decisions for them and their families, something to do with a strong belief in the right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" as spelled out by the Declaration of Independence, I guess.
My RD friends continue to tell me people cannot be coerced or taxed into compliance. They have to want to make a major change in their life and it is a tough, life-long fight. Why are they not being heard by policy makers?
So, where are we? Obesity, diabetes and heart disease are at epidemic rates. Consumers are interested in health but understandably confused. Manufacturers are touting health benefits of a wide range of ingredients in advertising and activist groups do not want food companies to advertise anything but broccoli to kids.
In the meantime, the experts will argue policy with each other and the academics will talk about the latest NHANES study to each other. Consumers are on their own.