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How Big Food's Attackers Are Undermining Their Cause

Hank Cardello

A big shot in the simmering war between the food industry and its attackers was fired this month at Robert Redford’s annual Sundance Film Festival: the launch of an anti-food industry documentary called Fed Up. (Forbes staffer Dorothy Pomerantz last week interviewed the film’s producers, who interviewed me a while back when they were researching the topic.) Early reviews indicate that it casts the food industry as a coven of bad guys out to make people fat and sick. It also paints the U.S. government, including First Lady Michelle Obama, as complicit. Ironically, such attacks on “Big Food” could actually undermine efforts to reduce obesity—by driving away an industry that’s already come to the bargaining table on how to make it products more socially acceptable. In short, overzealous activists are shooting themselves in the foot.

Food activists serve three very important roles. They create public awareness about an important societal issue like obesity; they change attitudes and buying behavior; and ideally, as a result, they spotlight the next best revenue opportunity for industries that meet these new needs. However, a point comes when activism stops being constructive and becomes counterproductive hyperactivism. With respect to obesity, we’ve reached that point.

The problem is that instead of laser focusing on solving the biggest issue related to food consumption, obesity, hyperactivists bundle a host of food-related problems together and remain unsatisfied if all of them are not solved their way. So instead of zeroing in on obesity, which is a caloric matter, they throw their distaste for “Big Food” company practices into the mix: processed foods; the use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms); Bisphenol A (BPA) in bottled water containers; and excess levels of salt, sugar, and fat. Activists’ lack of focus promises only to inflame their war against the industry and wreak havoc with more constructive interaction between the public health community and the food industry.

Such engagement is having far better results than the bomb-throwing. Case in point: the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF)’s announcement a few weeks ago that its member food and beverage companies sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in the U.S. in 2012 than in 2007. Their original goal was cutting 1.5 trillion calories by 2015; they exceeded that goal by 400% and three years ahead of schedule. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, two of the most credible authorities on public health, calculated and verified the results, which involved major packaged food and beverage companies.

While the American Heart Association and the Obesity Society praised the HWCF’s achievement, several hyperactivists remained unimpressed. The eyeball rolling, skepticism, and criticism began nanoseconds after the HWCF’s announcement. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food industry critic, told Advertising Age that the 6.4 trillion calorie drop could have resulted from health-conscious consumers voluntarily eating less, and that the food industry had nothing to do with it. Michele Simon, a food policy advocate and author of the book Appetite for Profit, told Politico that major food companies are selling more of their full-calorie foods and beverages overseas. Many suggested that food companies were manipulating the numbers. Others carped about the HWCF’s research process. A few purists called for regulation instead of voluntary programs.

A review of the facts suggests the criticism is unmerited. A study released January 16 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows Americans are eating 118 fewer calories a day per person. The HWCF members’ 6.4 trillion calorie reduction is nothing to scoff at; it amounts to 78 calories per American per day. Considering that this 78-calorie reduction came from just the HWCF’s member companies, which sell only 36% of the packaged food and beverages purchased in the U.S., comparable contributions from the other 64% would make a serious dent in the average American’s food intake. These and other studies demonstrate a per capita decline in U.S. soda calories of 245 to 28% over the last decade, an increase in sales of lower-calorie foods and beverages, and a 90% reduction in beverage calories shipped to schools. All in all, serious progress against obesity is being made through public health/food industry collaboration—not through war.

The hyperactivists don’t applaud these facts because they can’t resist the urge to pile on, even when the aircraft carrier has already starting to turn. We’ve seen them do this in other issues and campaigns besides obesity. They have blasted Michelle Obama for her “Drink Up” campaign, alleging that her message to drink more water is really a plug for the bottled water industry. They criticized California Gov. Jerry Brown after he signed the nation’s strictest fracking regulations, claiming that nothing less than a total ban on fracking would do. They piled onto General Mills moments after the company announced it was removing GMOs from Cheerios. Why not Honey Nut Cheerios too, they argued.

If the more combustible activists follow __Fed Up__’s call to demonize the food industry and legal warfare ensues, further cooperation might become difficult. (In fact, one author and food industry critic, Gary Taubes, declared in the film, “If you want to cure obesity, you have to demonize some food industries.”) Some in the food industry see such messages as potentially setting the stage for multi-billion-dollar class-action lawsuits and cries for new regulation. With the prospect of a public and legal hanging, food companies may become too suspicious and worried about ulterior motives to see the market opportunities that lie underneath the activists’ attacks. The last 100 years of activist-industry wars provide vivid testimony of how social progress can slow when an industry is cast as Public Enemy No. 1.

To be sure, many industries have been guilty of bad behavior after being targeted by activists who railed against their products and practices. Rachel Carson, an early environmentalist, was attacked by the chemical industry as an alarmist after she published her seminal book Silent Spring in 1962. General Motors, instead of capturing the market for safer cars, which was ultimately co-opted by Volvo and Mercedes Benz, hired prostitutes to try to entrap Ralph Nader, while 50,000 people died each year in automobile crashes. Most tragically, about 2.5 million people died from smoking-related causes while tobacco companies fought for five decades against labeling and limits to smoking. These were not industry’s finest moments.

Some degree of skepticism is never a bad thing. Like good reporters, the food industry’s critics must ask the right questions, draw public attention to problems and issues, and keep their targets on their toes. Great social and public health changes, such as the eight-hour workday and sanitary meatpacking plants, have resulted from the spark of activism and the seismic shifts in public opinion that followed. But once the problem has been identified and the targeted industry shows a willingness to address it and delivers measurable results, the time comes for activism to take a more constructive turn.

Food activists should take a bow and congratulate themselves for generating high levels of awareness for America’s obesity epidemic and for helping drive demand for lower-calorie, better-for-you products. But the knee-jerk urge to demonize business, an all-or-nothing attitude toward how to address a problem, and the public-image, legal, and regulatory warfare that inevitably follows accomplish nothing. We should all be fed up with that.

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