Big Strawberry

A Shift Toward Dialogue with Big Food

Maybe dialogue is still possible. Perhaps it’s even productive, even in the face of strong disagreements. Michael Jacobson, the founder of CSPI, is the man who coined the phrase “junk food.” He’s not afraid to pump out sensational headlines or sue the food industry. So it’s remarkable to hear him tell the Washington Post he now talks to big food. “I talk routinely with some of the big companies and trade associations . . . We can work together on some issues.”

Dangerous Conversations

Unfortunately, this subject is contentious. These days, email analysis can become the basis for publications in peer-reviewed journals. Gary Sacks and colleagues published an example of such scholarship in Critical Public Health. They analyzed an email exchange between former Coca-Cola executives. Shockingly, they found that food industry tries “to influence policy and opinion in their favor.” The authors warned:

The public health and medical community need to be aware that they are viewed as tools through which food companies can overcome threats to their profits.

And yet, despite all that danger, Jacobson is talking to industry.

A Turning Point in Let’s Move!

Perhaps the turning point toward engagement came from Michelle Obama’s signature program. From the start, her agenda presented the industry with a threat. But Obama ultimately achieved results by collaborating with industry. CEO Susan Neely of the American Beverage Association said:

They made it clear to us, too, that they weren’t anti-industry at all. They wanted to involve industry. You just had to do something serious.

Today, problems with obesity, nutrition, and health remain challenging. But scorched-earth conflicts with industry will not solve them. Certainly, change brings risks for everyone. The landscape is already changing and it’s creating winners and losers. Smart organizations are already adapting to consumer demands for more healthful products.

Smart activists are engaging when they see an opportunity.

Click here for Jacobsen’s interview with the Washington Post. For more on Obama’s engagement with the food industry, click here.  And here you can find an industry perspective on engagement with public health.

Big Strawberry, photograph © Emran Kassim / flickr

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December 30, 2017

5 Responses to “A Shift Toward Dialogue with Big Food”

  1. December 30, 2017 at 8:05 am, Susan Burke March said:

    Back to the column you wrote about efforts by the Chilean government to help consumers make healthier choices in packaged foods, top-down efforts have promoted food manufacturers to decrease salt, sugar, fat. “Evidence of Impact?
    For evidence that it’s working, she says 40% of Chilean citizens report using those symbols to help them decide what to buy. Sales patterns are shifting. Food manufacturers are reformulating their products to escape those symbols.”

  2. December 30, 2017 at 2:29 pm, David Brown said:

    The important thing is to get the science right. Until that happens, government policies will continue to push the food manufacturing sector in the wrong direction. Thus far, there’s been no effort to resolve healthy fats controversy. “For almost 20 years, scientists have been arguing over whether Americans and others on a typical Western diet are eating too much of omega-6s, a class of essential fatty acids… At the center of this dispute is how omega-6s and their cousins, omega-3s, are biochemically processed in the body and the physiological outcomes of the metabolism. Both camps agree that a healthy diet requires both omega-3s and omega-6s. Omega-3s are sorely lacking in Western diets, so people need to increase their consumption of them. But the split comes over omega-6s: Are we or are we not eating too much of them?”

    The American Heart Association has had a major influence on government dietary advice for many decades. How effective is that advice? “Dr. Hansen, who has been doing research on obese monkeys for four decades, prefers animals that become naturally obese with age, just as many humans do. Fat Albert, one of her monkeys who she said was at one time the world’s heaviest rhesus, at 70 pounds, ate ‘nothing but an American Heart Association-recommended diet,’ she said.”

  3. December 30, 2017 at 7:18 pm, David Stone said:

    David, obesity is attained in monkeys, people, dogs, cats, and all other animals by eating too many Calories in relation to total energy burned. If Fat Albert had been living in a zoo in the USA, I doubt he would have been allowed to become obese. It’d be a simple matter of his handlers reducing his Calorie intake. Dr. Hansen studies obesity, so she presumably allows the monkeys to overeat as they age (and/or become less active, lose lean tissue, and have a lower BMR).

    Excess Cals from a heart-healthy diet will cause a gain of fat just as surely as the same excess Cals from a heart-unhealthy diet. Part of heart-healthy behavior is avoiding overweight and obesity. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans always promotes a heart-healthy diet, but part of that is emphasizing the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. Merely eating healthy foods does not at all guarantee a healthy weight. If only it did—I have a very healthy diet and every day have to talk myself out of eating more than I do.

    • December 31, 2017 at 3:38 am, Ted said:

      The quest for tidy answers to the messy problem of obesity continues . . .

  4. December 31, 2017 at 2:07 pm, Allen Browne said:

    I have one question for the Chileans – “Has the incidence of obesity changed?”

    I have one comment for your post – food is essential and it has to be produced and distributed. Therefore the food industry is essential – not the enemy.