Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 29 2012

FoodPolitics.Com is taking a vacation

FoodPolitics.com will return on January 7.

May the new year bring much joy and a healthier, more sustainable, and delightfully delicious food system for all.

 

Dec 28 2012

The FTC’s latest report on food marketing to kids: glass half full or empty?

Last Friday was a big day for releasing reports that federal agencies would rather keep quiet.  As I discussed in my previous post, the FDA released its long overdue environmental impact report on GM Salmon.

Today, let’s take a look at the FTC’s latest report on the state of food and beverage marketing aimed at children. This is a follow-up to the report the FTC issued in 2008.

The new report cites progress.  From 2006 to 2009, its press release says:

  • Total spending on food marketing to youth ages 2-17 dropped from $2.1 billion to $1.79 billion, mainly because of less spending on television advertising.
  • But spending on new media, such as online, mobile, and viral marketing, increased by 50 percent.
  • Cross-promotions that link marketed foods with popular children’s movies and TV characters increased from 80 children’s movies and TV shows to 120.
  • Cereals had 0.9 gram less sugar and 1.6 grams more whole grain.
  • Fast food was a  little lower in calories, sodium, sugar, and saturated fat.

The report concludes:

Despite the commendable progress, this report identifies areas where further efforts could be made by the food and beverage industry and the media industry to improve the nutritional quality of foods marketed to youth.

Whether you see this as good news or not such good news depends on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty.

If you are a half-full type, you will rejoice that food companies are voluntarily improving the nutritional quality of their products even if the improvements are small.

If you are a half-empty type (which, in this case, I am), you will be dismayed at the lack of real progress in reducing the marketing of junk foods to kids.

Companies must sell more and more products to grow their businesses.  They are under pressure to reduce such marketing and to improve the quality of the products they sell.  Neither change is likely to increase sales.   Hence: resistance to change.

As Andy Bellatti points out, small nutritional improvements are unlikely to have much of an effect on health: reducing the sugars by 0.9 grams can be interpreted as “better for you” but does not necessarily make a product a good choice.

And as Michele Simon’s interview with former marketer Bruce Bradley suggests, the data on which the FTC based its positive assessments may well have been gamed by the companies reporting it.

As I read this report, it provides plenty of evidence that stopping food and beverage marketing to kids is the issue that matters most to doing something to reverse childhood obesity.

The election is over.    Maybe Let’s Move! can revisit the marketing-to-kids issue.  Someone needs to do it.  And soon.

 

Dec 26 2012

The hazards of GM foods: patent protection and international relations

Writing in Slate, Fred Kaufman takes a fresh look at the controversies over genetically modified (GM) foods.  Forget the other issues, he says.   Pay attention to patents:

GM foods’ effect on health is uncertain, but their effect on farmers, scientists, and the marketplace is clear. Some GM foods may be healthy, others not; every genetic modification is different. But every GM food becomes dangerous—not to health, but to society—when it can be patented. Right now, the driving force behind the development of new genetic crop modifications is the fact that they possess the potential to be enormously profitable….

That brings me to the GM salmon, in particular AquAdvantage brand engineered to grow faster and bigger than wild salmon.

Last Friday (always a good time to release something controversial), the FDA let loose its draft environmental assessment on the GM salmon.  The draft finding of “no effect” is now open for comment.

I find the draft statement remarkable for two reasons.

  • It is dated May 4, 2012, suggesting that it was considered too political to release before the election.
  • It applies only to production of GM salmon outside the United States.

The FDA had already ruled that the salmon are safe to eat:

With respect to food safety, FDA has concluded that food from AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon, and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of food from triploid AquAdvantage Salmon. Further, FDA has concluded that no significant food safety hazards or risks have been identified with respect to the phenotype of the AquAdvantage Salmon.

With respect to environmental impact, the FDA says:

FDA preliminarily concludes that the development, production, and grow-out of AquAdvantage Salmon under the conditions proposed in the materials submitted by the sponsor in support of an NADA [New Animal Drug Application], and as described in this draft EA [Environmental Assessment], will not result in significant effects on the quality of the human environment in the United States.

AquAdvantage is not intended to be grown in the United States.  It is being raised on Prince Edward Island in Canada and in Panama and will be processed in Panama.

Under the proposed action, AquAdvantage Salmon would not be produced or grown in the United States, or in net pens or cages, and no live fish would be imported for processing.

…As the proposed action would only allow production and grow-out of AquAdvantage Salmon at facilities outside of the United States, the areas of the local surrounding environments that are most likely to be affected by the action lie largely within the sovereign authority of other countries (i.e., Canada and Panama).

Because NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] does not require an analysis of environmental effects in foreign sovereign countries, effects on the local environments of Canada and Panama have not been considered and evaluated in this draft EA except insofar as it was necessary to do so in order to determine whether there would be significant effects on the environment of the United States….

In addition, social, economic and cultural effects of the proposed action on the United States have not been analyzed and evaluated because the analysis in this draft EA preliminarily indicates that the proposed action will not significantly affect the physical environment of the United States.

If I am getting this right, the FDA is saying that since the salmon is being raised elsewhere, it’s OK to produce it.

This report is generally interpreted as opening the door to marketing of GM salmon within the United States, and soon.

Will it be labeled as such?  I suppose that too is up to Canada and Panama.

Revisit patent protection anyone?

Dec 22 2012

All you need is a rutabaga and a dream

I’m just back from attending the 15th annual International Rutabaga Curling Championship at the Farmers’ Market in  upstate Ithaca, New York.

This year’s championship event took place, as always, on the last day of the farmers’ market season.

Rutabagas, for the unitiated, are root vegetables of the Brassica family, most likely originating as a cross between a turnip and a cabbage.

Unlovely as they may be, rutabagas are just right for rolling down an icy lane (you can cook and eat them afterwards).

Before the festivities begin, the chorus does a quick rehearsal, this one filmed by a Japanese photographer for a reality show of unusual sporting events.  The program sent a crew to participate, making this a truly international event.

The event has its own original song, Joe Crookston’s The Rutabaga Curl.

But beyond the sport, the high point is always the sing-along rendition of the Rutabaga Chorus.   Its words are explained as the original lyrics for a tune later repurposed for Handel’s Messiah.

My favorite line: “Re-peat re-frain forever and eeeeever….”

Happy holidays!

Dec 21 2012

Ad Age’s thought for the weekend: McScrooge or McSavior?

For an average take of $5,500 (that’s all?), McDonald’s will be open on Christmas day.  So says an investigative report by Advertising Age, which managed to get a hold of some internal McDonald’s memos.

And no, they won’t get overtime pay.

 

Happy holidays, everyone.

Dec 20 2012

Beyoncé’s Pepsi deal: Implications for Let’s Move!

In response to my post a couple of days ago about Beyoncé’s Pepsi deal, a reader asks:

How do you think the White House should respond to this deal.? Beyoncé’s song is featured on White House website and a Let’s Move! t-shirt she designed is given to kids at official events.  Will kids make the connection?  Can all that dancing overcome the effects of eating too much?

Let me deal with these one at a time.  First, the problem this poses to Let’s Move!  People concerned about the role of sugary sodas in childhood obesity are appalled by Beyoncé’s deal with Pepsi, so much so that the Center for Science in the Public Interest has organized a campaign to call on her to reconsider.   Unless she does reconsider and withdraws from the deal, her continued involvement with Let’s Move! raises exactly the questions you ask.

Beyoncé has just put Let’s Move! in a painfully awkward conflict of interest.  On the one hand, Let’s Move! promotes healthy diet and activity patterns to reverse childhood obesity.  On the other, its celebrity spokesperson is now going to be pushing Pepsi.  Beyoncé’s image will now appear on Pepsi cans—I hope not wearing her Let’s Move! tee shirt.

What the Beyoncé deal points out is the hazard of partnerships and alliances between public health groups and food companies.

In April 2011, the Washington Post reported that “A White House spokesman said that the first lady and her team weren’t involved in the making of the clip but that Beyonce is “a great example of how people can get involved with ‘Let’s Move!’ and bring this message to more and more young people.”

But now this.  The White House has long maintained that food and beverage companies are not going away and that it is obliged to work with them.  Maybe, but on whose terms?  I see Beyoncé’s $50 million partnership with Pepsi as a slap in the face to Let’s Move!  It puts Let’s Move! in the position of promoting Pepsi or asking Beyoncé to withdraw from having anything to do with it.

As for how kids are going to figure this out:  All kids know is that Beyoncé is a gorgeous mega-star, one who is able to perform vigorous dance moves in astonishingly high heels, and that Pepsi helps her do so or at least doesn’t hurt.  Beyoncé is especially a role-model for African-American kids.  Pepsi targets its marketing to African-American kids.  This looks like a serious conflict of interest.

On the balance between diet and activity: How I wish that physical activity alone could reverse obesity.  Physical activity is terrific for health (I’m not sure about those stiletto heels) but it’s rarely enough to reverse obesity on its own.  To lose weight—and, these days, to maintain healthy weight—kids absolutely must eat less and eat better.

Beyoncé has done Michelle Obama no favor by getting involved with Pepsi.  This is a mess, and not one that can be gracefully fixed.

Dec 19 2012

Walmart’s embarrassing bribery case: a reprise and then some

Yesterday’s New York Times contained an enormous—three full pages—investigative report on Walmart’s use of bribes to circumvent zoning restrictions in Mexico.

The article pulls no punches:

The Times’s examination reveals that Wal-Mart de Mexico was not the reluctant victim of a corrupt culture that insisted on bribes as the cost of doing business. Nor did it pay bribes merely to speed up routine approvals. Rather, Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance — public votes, open debates, transparent procedures. It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.

This is not the first time the Times has written about Walmart’s bribery in Mexico.  As I wrote at the time,

Wall Street pressures on corporations not only to make profits, but to grow profits every quarter, are the root cause of much food company corruption and corner-cutting.

But this report takes the investigations to another level. It documents how Walmart officials deliberately undermined efforts by the Mexican government to keep the historic area around the Teotihuacán pyramids free of commercial use.

It comes with:

Among other things, Walmart is the world’s largest supermarket chain. Its 10,000 stores in 27 countries sold $443.9 billion worth of goods—more than half from grocery sales—for net earnings of $15.8 billion in 2012.

As the Times’ article makes clear, the company resorted to whatever seemed necessary to get what it wanted.  This particular case may be an anomaly but it  could not have happened without a corporate culture deeply devoted to maintaining sales and profits.

A cautionary tale?

Dec 18 2012

Let’s Ask Marion: Beyoncé’s Bubbly Branding Falls Flat

It’s been awhile since Kerry Trueman posed an “Ask Marion” question, but here’s her latest Q and my A  as posted on Civil Eats.

By  on 
Q. From the moment Beyoncé strapped on those silly stilettos to bounce around in the “Move Your Body” video, she’s been a wobbly spokesperson for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move Campaign.” Now she’s signed a $50 million dollar deal with Pepsi, which will presumably entail her exhorting her millions of young fans to baste their bodies in bubbly high fructose corn syrup.

Apparently, she didn’t get the childhood obesity/diabetes epidemic memo. Do celebrities with Beyoncé’s massive influence on young kids have a moral obligation to consider the horrendous impact of excessive soda consumption in our culture when they mull over megabuck branding opportunities?

A.  From my privileged position as a tenured, full-salaried faculty member at NYU, the answer is an unambiguous yes. Beyoncé will now be marketing sugar-sweetened beverages, products increasingly linked to childhood obesity, especially among minority children.

This linkage is not a coincidence. Pepsi and other makers of sugary sodas deliberately and systematically market their products to low-income, minority children.

Beyoncé will now be part of that targeted marketing campaign.

If Beyoncé’s mission is to inspire young people of any color to look gorgeous and rise to the top, as she has done, she is now telling them that the way to get there—and to get rich—is to drink Pepsi. This untrue suggestion is, on its own, unethical.

Pepsi must think that getting this message out, and putting Beyoncé’s photo on its soda cans, is well worth $50 million.

For PepsiCo, $50 million is trivial. According to Advertising Age (June 2012), PepsiCo sold $66.5 billion worth of products in 2011, for a profit of $6.4 billion. Pepsi sales in the U.S. accounted for $22 billion of that.

PepsiCo’s total advertising budget funneled through advertising agencies, and therefore reportable, was $944 million. Of that amount, $196 million was used to market Pepsi alone. The rest went for Gatorade ($105 million), Mountain Dew ($23 million) and PepsiCo’s many other Quaker and Frito-Lay products.

One other relevant point: half of PepsiCo’s annual sales are outside the United States. Like other multinational food companies, it is focusing marketing efforts on emerging economies. This means that Beyoncé will also be pushing sugary drinks on people in developing countries. PepsiCo just spent $72 million to sponsor cricket tournaments in India, for example.

Fifty million dollars seems like an unimaginable amount of money to me. If PepsiCo offered it to me, I would have to turn it down on the grounds of conflict of interest. But this is easy for me to say, because the scenario is so unlikely.

What $50 million means for Beyoncé I cannot know. Some sources estimate her net worth at $300 million. If so, $50 million adds a substantial percentage. And the Pepsi deal will give her phenomenal exposure.

But from where I sit, Beyoncé has crossed an ethical line. She is now pushing soft drinks on the very kids whose health is most at risk. And her partnership with Pepsi will make public health measures to counter obesity even more difficult.

This is a clear win for Pepsi. And a clear loss for public health.

Beyoncé has now become the world’s most prominent spokesperson for poor diets, obesity and its health consequences, and marketing targeted to the most vulnerable populations.

Sad.

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