Why The Food Industry Is A Sitting Duck For Massive Regulation

Former Senior Fellow and Director, Food Policy Center

The food industry has had an easy time during the Trump administration, which demonstrated no appetite to regulate unhealthy foods, rolled back child nutrition initiatives and loosened efforts to address climate change. But the Biden administration will likely be more aggressive about public health issues linked to the food industry, including its role in climate change and obesity. It’s time for an industry-wide commitment - a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (”BHAG”) - and strong leadership to address these problems.

Food companies, retailers and restaurant chains have already demonstrated that they can change if they have the will. Since March we’ve seen them adapt their procedures and business models to meet the challenges of a Covid-19 world. Grocers are adjusting supply chains to get necessary foods and beverages on the shelves; restaurants are serving more take-out, drive-thru and outdoor meals; and food production facilities are modifying their lines so that their employees are safer from Covid-19.

With vaccines on the way, Covid-19 won’t be a gun to the food industry’s head much longer. But the problems of inadequate access to nutrition, climate change and childhood obesity – all of which implicate Big Food — are still here and must be addressed soon. The food industry must graduate from an operational mindset to a leadership one. Putting out fires, as the industry has ably done in 2020, won’t be enough in 2021 and beyond.

Three big issues in particular demand strong industry leadership now:

1. Food regulations will see a resurgence

Covid-19 has made it even more clear that unhealthy foods and diets are linked to poor health and disease. A study led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill illustrated that those with obesity suffered 48% higher death rates from Covid-19 compared to the general population. And obesity rates in the United States are among the highest in the world at 42.4%.

Internationally, regulators have picked up a head of steam to identify and restrict products with high levels of calories, sugar, saturated fats and sodium. The United Kingdom and several South American countries are leading the way with programs such as restricting “junk foods” at retail checkout counters to placing black stop signs on offender products.

Here in the US, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has led efforts that resulted in junk food bans at grocery checkout lanes in Berkeley, California and requiring restaurants to offer healthier meals for kids in Prince George’s County, Maryland. More restrictions are in the works.

The Obama-Biden Administration believed that food companies bore some responsibility for the consumption of unhealthy foods, and the incoming administration is more likely to view regulation favorably. Even without major federal initiatives, revenue-strapped states and municipalities may find ways to improve nutrition and raise money through taxes on unhealthy foods.

2. The food industry’s climate impact will be under scrutiny

A 2019 report from the United Nations found that the global food system accounts for 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With the goal of substantially reducing the industry’s climate impact, the esteemed Lancet Commission in 2019 established that meat and sugar consumption must be reduced by 50% and that fruit, vegetable, nut and legume consumption must double by 2050 to reverse such emissions.

With the cabinet-level appointment of John Kerry as “Climate Czar,” the Biden administration is signaling a commitment to reducing business’s impact on climate change, and Big Food is in the crosshairs.

A Pew Research Center survey highlighted that two-thirds of Americans say the government should do more to address climate change. While companies such as Panera Bread and Unilever are being more transparent about their foods’ carbon footprint, the industry as a whole is way behind the eight ball on this matter. We need more action soon, if not to simply capitalize on consumer demand for more sustainable foods and beverages.

3. Kids’ health will become more front and center

The Biden Plan to revamp the education system is comprehensive, and includes statements about investing in all children from birth. Incoming First Lady Dr. Jill Biden is an educator, so we are likely to see initiatives that prioritize child-related issues. This is also an administration that would pay more attention to what countries like the UK have done to limit availability and exposure to junk foods for children.

Other organizations, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, continue to support efforts to eliminate the consumption of sugary beverages among children up to age five. Expect kids’ health and nutrition, including school meals, to be a top priority.

Food companies should see the above three scenarios as a mandate. They must unite as one industry, show leadership, take responsibility for their role in contributing to public health problems and commit to addressing them together. So far very few comprehensive initiatives have been undertaken. In 2012, packaged food companies as members of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation succeeded in eliminating 6.4 trillion calories from the food supply. Confectionery and soft drink companies are advancing on goals to reduce portion sizes and sugar. And a number of firms have committed individually to improve the nutrition of their products.

But more needs to be done. Without a “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) from all food sectors – manufacturers, supermarkets, restaurants and convenience stores – the industry will fall short in addressing the public health and environmental problems that are no less urgent than the Covid crisis.

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