Think of all the things that food manufacturers could be doing to improve the nation's health. They could reduce the amount of salt in packaged foods to help prevent blood pressure from rising. They could make healthier foods for school lunches. And they could use their billions of advertising dollars to encourage children (and their increasingly overweight parents) to eat healthier foods.
But the truth is that the food industry's single biggest priority is preserving its ability to market junk food to young kids. If you don't believe me, ask the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
"There is no bigger priority for the food sector," Scott Faber, Vice President for Federal Affairs for that group, recently told Reuters.
No bigger priority! Specifically, Faber was referring to the industry's aggressive lobbying effort to torpedo voluntary, non-binding recommendations to improve the nutritional quality of foods marketed to children. Requested by Congress, an Interagency Working Group that includes officials of the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Federal Trade Commission drafted excellent, long-overdue recommendations. Though without any regulatory or legal force, those proposed guidelines recommend that foods marketed to kids not exceed various amounts of nutrients kids need much less of, like saturated and trans fat, added sugars and sodium. And they suggested that such foods include at least minimum amounts of things kids need more of, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Those recommendations are hardly radical. After all, several highly-profitable companies, including Mars (M&Ms, Snickers), Hershey's and Coca-Cola don't advertise any foods, healthy or otherwise, directly to young children. And the food industry already has its own self-regulatory program that recently adopted its own voluntary nutrition guidelines. But those guidelines are much less protective of children's health than what the government proposed. Indeed, industry's guidelines allow even vitamin-fortified sawdust to make the grade -- so don't be surprised if you see high-fiber Pine Toasties on grocery store shelves soon.
To be sure, in the last few years government pressure and the threat of litigation has forced the food industry to do more to address nutrition and obesity. Sodas and most junk foods are being eliminated from school vending machines. And calorie labeling is coming soon to chain restaurant menus and menu boards nationwide, thanks to the health care reform law.
So why, if the Interagency Working Group's nutrition standards for foods marketed to kids would be completely voluntary, with companies being free to respect or ignore them, why is the industry fighting them so hard? So hard, that its lobbyists say that there truly is "no bigger priority for the food sector"?
Part of the answer has to do with the fact that the food industry is desperate to avoid any government scrutiny of the foods that it markets to children. In the view of the industry, Cocoa Puffs, Popsicles and fake "fruit" snacks are all perfectly acceptable to market to the kindergarten set -- even though foods like that are helping fuel an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases. To deflect attention from the poor nutritional quality of its products, the industry is resorting to misleading fear-mongering, bogus economic and legal arguments and multi-million-dollar lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions to win its way with Congress and the Obama administration. Unfortunately, that strategy seems to be working.
A second reason is that while voluntary, the government's guidelines would serve as a benchmark against which to measure industry's practices. And that scrutiny certainly could embarrass some manufacturers.
Meanwhile, on a second front, the food industry has killed the USDA's proposal to stop the tomato paste on a slice of school pizza from counting as a serving of vegetable. Eating a high-calorie, white-flour pizza to get a vegetable won't slim down any waistlines or nurture healthy eating habits.
And the potato industry got both Democratic and Republican senators from potato-growing states to deep-six the USDA's proposal to limit starchy vegetables to two servings a week. Kids need their French fries and Tater Tots every day, don't they?! Never mind that a recent Harvard study concluded that potatoes are a significant promoter of obesity. The only good news here is that House Republicans wanted to force USDA to scrap its entire proposal and start the multi-year process all over again.
First Lady Michelle Obama had the right idea. "We need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you're offering, the information that you provide about these products and how you market those products to our children," she told the Grocery Manufacturers in a speech last year. But "tweak around the edges" is exactly what the industry has done when it comes to reformulating foods intended for kids. And rather than rethinking its marketing practices, the industry is digging in its heels.
Food industry executives regularly give speeches about how terribly, terribly concerned they are about childhood obesity and helping American families eat better. To turn that platitude into reality, companies need to reconsider what their "biggest priority" is now and should be in the years to come.