The Atlantic Online

Food Marketers Face Death by a Thousand Cuts

Former Senior Fellow and Director, Food Policy Center

Recent pieces by Corby Kummer on this website and Michael Moss in the New York Times have highlighted a pattern of "delay and divert" tactics employed by certain food companies to resist calls to lower sodium in their products. The articles suggest that corporations are highly motivated to maintain levels of salt for taste, texture, and cost reasons, and that these tactics have historically proven to be quite effective. 

But public health advocates and activists have adopted a new strategy of their own patterned after the 10th-Century Chinese practice of Ling Chi—or "death by a thousand cuts"—in which individual small cuts, non-fatal in and of themselves, add up to a slow and painful demise. Sodium represents just the latest ingredient "cut." This new strategy is designed to force change in the foods marketed to the American public—ingredient by ingredient—and is turning out to be quite effective. 

Food marketers now appear to be on the defensive, if not in full retreat. Let's look at the scorecard: 

Trans fats. Typically found in partially hydrogenated oils used for frying and baking, trans fats deliver the double whammy of raising bad cholesterol levels while lowering good cholesterol. The restaurant industry initially resisted calls to ban these oils due to cost and availability reasons. Today, bans have been implemented in several cities, including New York City and Philadelphia, as well as California and parts of Maryland. Other states and cities have advanced similar proposals. 

Listing calories on menus. As part of the recent health care legislation, calories are now required to be posted nationally on menus of restaurant chains consisting of more than 20 units. Industry capitulated when it recognized that multiple municipalities and states would have imposed their own labeling criteria, thus making implementation costly.

Soda taxes. Local and state governments are thirsty for revenue and several are considering the imposition of soda and/or "fat" taxes. New York is perhaps the most aggressive in pursuing such a tax, with California, Colorado, Philadelphia and Washington in the mix. 

Sodium reduction. Both New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Obama have been most vociferous in admonishing food companies to lower the amount of salt in their products. Expect additional legislative proposals and lower sodium standards to be issued in the near future.

The trend is obvious. Food marketers are facing the slow Ling Chi-like death of their product portfolios unless they change their mindsets. The old playbook doesn't work anymore. They must recognize that there will always be the next sodium ... the next "cut."

Instead of "delay and divert," it is time to get ahead of the situation. With a new cohort of consumers demanding corporate responsibility for their health, advocates pushing for radical change in the food supply, and governments receptive to regulation, a smarter course of action by food marketers is to embrace that they are custodians of their customers' well-being and to re-align their products, marketing practices, and business models accordingly. 

Otherwise, a slow death awaits.