Why Food Companies Remind Me of “Toy Story”

“Obesity is complex.” That phrase represents two things: 1) arguably the most boring opening line in blogging history because it’s been said 50 billion times, and 2) food/beverage companies’ go-to line if somebody proposes a food policy they can’t control.

When any policy proposal hits the news, invariably some industry group will say, “Obesity is complex,” as a justification to oppose the policy. Berkeley voters want a sweetened beverage tax? Industry: “It won’t work. Obesity is complex.” Restaurants are required to post calorie labels? “It won’t work. Obesity is complex.” Industry spokespeople are like pull string dolls out of Toy Story, programmed to repeat the same cliché.

The latest example came after last week’s Scientific Report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). The report, which Dr. Marion Nestle accurately described as “courageous,” included a recommendation to explore sweetened beverage taxes, along with several recommendations to reduce added sugar intake. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced the report on Twitter here … Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 1.03.19 PM… and within 15 minutes, the American Beverage Association (ABA) tweeted its response: Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 1.04.03 PMThe ABA is right, of course. Focusing entirely on single products or ingredients is not a solution. Nobody said it was – in fact, that’s the only thing everybody agrees on. Obesity and nutrition experts repeatedly emphasize that no single policy or program can reduce obesity or improve diet on a national scale.

The difference lies in framing, or how people present the fact that obesity is complex:

  • Health experts say “obesity is complex” to explain why it takes more than one tax or menu label to reduce obesity
  • Industry groups say “obesity is complex” to justify opposing every tax, menu label, or other policy. Except those they dictate the terms of.

Industry groups are good at PR; using scientists’ own language against them is a clever tactic. So is shining a spotlight on any hint of uncertainty or inconsistency. The ABA was savvy to capitalize on changes in dietary guidelines over time, emphasizing the shift in recommendations for cholesterol, as though it cast doubt on anything else the DGAC said. The ABA’s lengthier response to the DGAC, released on Friday, cried out, “Is this yet another example of the DGAC demonizing nutrients without the scientific evidence to back them up?”

The ABA demonized the DGAC and encouraged people to ignore the committee’s recommendations. They crafted their message as a call for “the strongest scientific evidence,” but in reality it’s a paralysis-by-analysis technique. That is, they pounce on any uncertainty or inconsistency as a reason for inactivity. Industry routinely demands no policy action unless there is consistent, certain scientific evidence, a demand that could almost sound reasonable … if it were a standard they lived up to themselves.

But this is a good time to step back and recap the success of industry-led initiatives that were designed to improve diet or reduce obesity. Industry groups commonly insist self-regulation is a better way to improve the nation’s health. If they think self-regulation is better than DGAC recommendations, it’s only fair to flip the mirror and examine the science on self-regulation:

  • In 2006, the ABA worked with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to change which sweetened beverages are sold in schools (emphasis on which.) The ABA evaluated its guidelines in conjunction with a research firm, but they only measured implementation, not diet or weight status. With colleagues at the University of Illinois-Chicago, I led an evaluation of standards that were similar in scope to the ABA’s – ban regular soda but allow other sweetened drinks – and we found no evidence that standards were effective.
  • In 2006, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a coalition of companies, pledged to not market junk food to children. An independent study found that, in 2009, CFBAI companies still widely marketed unhealthy products to kids and their marketing was actually less healthy compared to other companies.
  • In 2010, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), a coalition of food/beverage companies, pledged to cut 1.5 trillion calories from the U.S. food supply. An independent study found the goal was achieved, but as I wrote last fall, all signs from the study suggested the drop in calories reflected general market trends, not any HWCF-led effort. Furthermore, again there was no evidence that the pledge improved anyone’s health.

So, technically, industry-led initiatives do meet the ABA’s demand for consistency and certainty. The science consistently shows self-regulation fails – that’s for certain. It “fails” if the goal is to reduce obesity or improve the country’s health on a national scale, which is the standard industry demands from any policy or guideline they don’t like.

I don’t criticize industry groups for raising questions about scientific evidence. Food policy recommendations need to be critically examined like anything else. Personally, I like some policies and I’m not so keen on others, based on a combination of science, practicality, and equity. Industry groups are entitled to their own opinions.

My point is simply that industry groups have a hypocritical double standard when it comes to basing policy on evidence, and this double standard makes me skeptical when they ask for a seat at the table in policy discussions. The latest ABA demand was to “ensure committees have a balanced and well-rounded set of perspectives and expertise,” which they included in their response to DGAC recommendations.

I’d be less skeptical of statements like this if food companies showed a willingness to critically examine all evidence – including evidence on self-regulation – rather than issue a carbon copy position statement in response to any health recommendation that threatens their bottom line.

As a wise industry PR pull string doll once told me, obesity is complex. No sector can reduce obesity on its own, which is why industry shouldn’t oppose a policy just because they can’t control it.

(Image Source: Flickr/Bridgette Wynn, Under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 )


I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, where I specialize in childhood obesity policy research and systems science. This is my personal blog; any views or opinions expressed do not represent the University of Texas (or anyone else with power.)

My research has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, CNN, Wall Street Journal, and several other media outlets. You can follow me on Twitter at @DanTaber47, where I often tweet about obesity news, school nutrition, public transit, systems science, and occasionally random topics like Seattle sports, marathon training, or my latest obscure vacation destination.

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One thought on “Why Food Companies Remind Me of “Toy Story”

  1. Pingback: Partners in Junk Food Crime | US Healthy Kids

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