by Marion Nestle
Dec 17 2010

Food corporations buy silence from “partners”

Does corporate social responsibility pay off for corporations?  Indeed it does.  Corporate money buys silence, if nothing else.

William Neuman of the New York Times provides a perfect example of how corporate sponsorship gets precisely what it is intended to do.

In this particular case:

  • The corporations are soda companies, Coke and Pepsi.
  • The social responsibility is donations of millions of dollars to a good cause.
  • The cause is Save the Children, a group devoted to child health and development projects internationally and domestically.
  • The intention?   Get Save the Children to stop advocating in favor of soda taxes.

Not long ago, Save the Children was a strong advocate for soda taxes.  Now it is not.  How come?  The group’s website explains:

about a minute ago we said, Corporate donors support us but do not pressure us. Our focus is children not soda tax policy. Back to saving more children now.

The Times, however, suggests a different explanation:

executives at Save the Children were seeking a major grant from Coca-Cola to help finance the health and education programs that the charity conducts here and abroad, including its work on childhood obesity.The talks with Coke are still going on. But the soda tax work has been stopped….In interviews this month, Carolyn Miles, chief operating officer of Save the Children, said there was no connection between the group’s about-face on soda taxes and the discussions with Coke. A $5 million grant from PepsiCo also had no influence on the decision, she said. Both companies fiercely oppose soda taxes.

A mere coincidence?  I don’t think so.  This is a clear win for soda companies, just as was Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the educational activities of the American Academy of Family Physicians. You can bet those activities do not involve telling parents not to give sodas to their kids.

Is this a win for Save the Children?  The Times reports that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funds some of the group’s anti-obesity initiatives, is disappointed.  Evidently, its $3.5 million donation wasn’t enough to convince the group to continue its anti-soda activities.

In the meantime, soda taxes continue to stay on the radar as a weight control strategy.  A new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that soda taxes could lead to a small but potentially significant weight loss.

According to FoodNavigator’s report about the study,the authors say that applying such taxes throughout the United States could generate a billion dollars or more.  It quotes lead researcher Eric Finkelstein: “Although small, given the rising trend in obesity rates, especially among youth, any strategy that shows even modest weight loss should be considered.”

This kind of study is a challenge to soda companies.  Watch Coke and Pepsi continue donations to charitable and health groups and watch those groups say not one word about the contribution of sodas to obesity.  Cigarettes, anyone?

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  • Maybe we need a WikiLeaks for corporate information. Be assured, it’s coming.

  • Subvert

    @ Ken – now we’re getting somewhere. There are surely enough laid-off people with information and motive to use it!

    Corporate social responsibility is the fresh icing applied to the outside of a rotting cake.

  • Anthro

    Happy Holidays Marion–enjoy your tech-free getaway.

    I’m glad you posted on the Save The Children issue–not sure if you saw my post on “Feedback”.
    WikiLeaks, or some other such manifestation may be the last hope of a decaying empire. What can an old lady activist do to help?

  • I always say the difference between corporations and smaller businesses run by people with heart and souls is that corporations think only in terms of numbers; they are soul-less.

  • Jean Holmes

    I think guerilla social media campaigns may be part of the answer. Creating massive trends across Twitter and Facebook puts real pressure on corporations and the social institutions that lay down to them. Look at how The Gap has gotten slammed lately. We need to learn how to apply the same techniques that have shamed them!

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  • This is just another example of huge corporations influencing so-called ‘good-intentioned’ organisations.

    To take this one step further, Save the Children are also conducting heavy marketing campaigns here in Perth at the moment throughout shopping centres during the Christmas period.

    Their heavy-handed, ‘think about the kids’ marketing really pulls on people’s heart-strings during a somewhat emotionally-charged time of the year!

    It makes you wonder how many of these ‘good-intentioned’ organisations actually give the donated funds to where it is needed most. I’m sure that setting up stalls in shopping centre malls at this time of the year is not cheap!

    It makes me think of where the money goes when you donate to organisations like the Cancer Foundation. Is it to pharmaceutical companies, I wonder!

  • You know, while I’m an advocate and consultant for healthier eating and living… I think there’s the other side of the coin to consider (which I think most people missed).

    2 things to consider: economics and civil liberty. What do I mean?

    First is civil liberty. Soda tax sounds great in theory. It can potentially generation $1 billion or more in revenue and could potentially reduce the obesity in America. However, soda is just one little cog in the bigger picture. How about all the items in your grocery store that has artificial flavors, trans fat, preservatives, etc? Are we going to start taxing foods with those ingredients as well? This may sound like a slippery slope but who’s to say the government will start telling the people what they can or cannot eat… thus stripping away people’s freedom to make choices.

    The second involves economics. We live in a capitalistic society and it’s a wonderful thing. You create a soda tax, that will cause the big corporations to also raise their prices, thus trickling down to the consumer. Sounds good in theory but there’s always backlash to those whom the tax is supposed to initially “help.” And the corporations mentioned giving grant money to Save The Children is the same as pharmaceutical companies giving donations to charities creating disease awareness (ie. breast cancer, heart disease, etc). And then you should also consider the demographic who consumes the most soda and as a result obesity is an issue. It’s mostly low income families and the only “cure” is education… not taxes.

    Happy Holidays. Now go drink some diet Coke!

  • Daniel K, Ithaca NY

    @Ken: Wikileaks type whistle-blower organization for corporate misdoings! If they know the word is likely to get out and the would-be consumers hear about their misdeeds then employing such dirty strategies would hurt their bottom line and they may find better ways. Along with this, I just sent a message to Save the Children and let them know that I refuse to make any donations as long as they agree to be gagged on the soda tax issue by accepting soda dollars.

    The soda tax is a great idea! I hear a main concern is that ‘we shouldn’t legislate people’s food choices’. BUT WE ALREADY DO. In the WRONG direction. Until the United States stops subsidizing GMO corn (etc) used for corn syrup and animal feed, mostly, the price everyone pays for soda is ARTIFICIALLY LOW. It is not the true cost.
    Any revenues from soda should go to programs aiding public health, especially for at risk groups and for children. Preventing obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other western Diseases of Affluence would be a huge benefit of having this program. I believe a soda tax would be an incredible aid in promoting Public Health Nutrition programs that would otherwise lack funding.
    Neema’s concern that there will be a ‘backlash to those this tax is purported to help’. People that drink the most soda are often on the lower income part of the spectrum and depend more heavily on both publicly and privately funded insurance and health care, thereby raising the costs for everyone else.
    The ‘backlash’ could be these people, due to a perhaps 1/4¢ per ounce tax on soda might consciously or unconsciously decide to buy less soda and use their food dollars for, well FOOD. GREAT! I love that sort of backlash that on a population level decreases soda consumption significantly, is expected to reduce the burden on our sick-care system, AND financially supports various public health nutrition measures. “the only “cure” is education… not taxes” it is this education and support that will be enabled by the funds created through such taxes. The corporations spend millions in convincing people to drink MORE eat MORE. There isn’t much money supporting healthy choices.
    While it is not a good idea for the government to start telling everyone what to eat– or not, the area of soda consumption is NOT a grey area. It is very clear that soda provides only a source of calories and plays a major role in obesity. Aside from extra weight and dental carries, there isn’t anything else soda gives us.
    The argument against such a tax is pretty weak and seems to only involve corporate profits.

  • Daniel K, Ithaca NY

    I just received word back from STC about this issue.

    Here is the unedited complete response from STC:

  • Daniel K, Ithaca NY

    Thank you for contacting Save the Children.

    We are pleased to share this information with you in response to questions raised about Save the Children’s U.S. advocacy work and the soda excise tax.

    Save the Children joined the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2009 to launch an important new campaign — The Campaign for Healthy Kids — to take on the childhood obesity crisis in the U.S. We did this because the well-being of children in rural America has been a cornerstone of our work since 1932, when we helped launch the first school lunch program in Kentucky. We also know that up to half of the children who participate in our U.S. programs are overweight.

    The campaign’s members include independent health advocacy groups working on getting legislation passed and other advocacy efforts. They are not part of Save the Children, and raise funds for their work independently.

    In 2010, a soda excise tax became a key issue for the campaign. Although we withdrew from initial support for the soda tax, that decision was not made because of any external influence. We never allow corporate or any other special interests to take priority over the greater needs of children. The decision was based on a long-standing practice of not getting involved in hot button issues that will distract us and our supporters from our fundamental mission – saving children. That’s why Save the Children neither supports nor opposes the soda tax.

    With our partners, Save the Children will continue to advocate for better school menu choices, increased physical education and behavior changes to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and help families make healthier choices.

    In the meantime, independent groups who work with us and The Campaign for Healthy Kids, are continuing to push on their own – and without our resources –for a soda excise tax in several states. It’s understandable that some of these independent groups might be disappointed in our decision, but our mandate is to stay focused on our core mission of helping children.

    Thank you again for contacting us.

    Charles MacCormack
    CEO, Save the Children

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  • JudyThomas

    Hi Neema-
    To be consistent with your position, you should mention and be against all the irrational farm and corporate subsidies that make processed food (including those containing HFCS) so darn (and artificially) cheap relative to healthier choices. Education is great, but we are genetically hard-wired to love sweet, fatty and salty foods: this, combined with the low price of this junk relative to health foods, is a combination difficult to avoid. I keep thinking of that segment on “Food, Inc” about the poor family who could only keep fed on the dollar menu and cheap carbs- fresh fruits and vegs, meats were all out of reach. Just some thoughts for you… Whenever I hear “education” and “personal responsibility” (the latter you did not state) I remember that corporations have pushed this alternative view to the the obesity crisis to remove the focus from their practices and products onto individual behavior. One last point- no scientific findings I know of show that we understand how to begin to reduce obesity though education- maybe Dr. Nestle can address this?

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