Big Food pledge placates White House – Who needs policy when you’ve got promises?

This is a guest post by Michele Simon, and originally appeared on her blog Appetite for Profit.

You’ve got to hand it to the food industry. They certainly know how to get the attention of the White House just when they need it most. As announced today by Michelle Obama herself, the nation’s leading food companies have made yet another pledge, this one in the form of an agreement signed with the Partnership for a Healthier America, an off-shoot of the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign.

Mrs. Obama said that 16 corporations accounting for up to 25 percent of the American food supply chain would trim a total of one trillion calories by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015. Sounds impressive, but I am not really sure exactly what it means. Trim calories, from what? OK, to be fair, here’s how the press release attempts to explain it:

Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation manufacturing companies will pursue their calorie reduction goal by developing and introducing lower-calorie options, changing recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products, or reducing portion sizes of existing single-serve products.

First off, who is the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation? Good question, certainly sounds official, but a quick perusal of the website reveals a virtual who’s who of Big Food: Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft Foods, and of course, PepsiCo, whose CEO Indra Nooyi serves as vice chair. (Kellogg’s CEO got the top spot and was at today’s White House briefing, see leadership.)

And you gotta love this mission statement: “Our mission is to try to help reduce obesity – especially childhood obesity – by 2015.” Try to help? Reduce? Especially? Sounds pretty lame. But I digress.

The member companies are pledging to do three things: One, develop and introduce lower-calorie options. But if they are making new products, isn’t that actually adding calories to the food supply? Next, for current products, where possible they will lower calorie content. When is it not possible? Why, when Big Food says so, that’s when.

Finally, they will reduce portion sizes. Now all of the member companies are packaged food manufacturers, not restaurants, where portion sizes are out of control and where Americans spend roughly half of their food dollars. So this just means that we might get more products like the current “100-calorie packs,” which just encourages more packaging waste, at higher prices to boot.

As this is just another voluntary promise by industry, how will we even know if the companies follow through? No worries, they thought of everything. As the press release explains, under the agreement, “the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation will report annually to the Partnership on the progress that we are making toward this pledge.” So I guess that should cover it.

What’s going on here should be obvious to anyone who has been paying close attention to food industry tactics over the past few years. It’s certainly no coincidence that this announcement comes on the heels of last week’s report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Indeed, with less than 5 business days in between the two media events, the memory of that comprehensive report, containing 70 policy recommendations is now conveniently overshadowed by Big Food’s promise of 1.5 trillion fewer calories. That’s industry math: 1.5 trillion beats 70.

But before we toss the Task Force report into the historical dust bin, let’s see which policy recommendations might have gotten Big Food upset. First there’s # 2.6: “All media and entertainment companies should limit the licensing of their popular characters to food and beverage products that are healthy.” Uh oh, that could mean no more SpongeBob Squarepants Popsicles, that would stink.

Then there’s # 2.7: “The food and beverage industry and the media and entertainment industry should jointly adopt meaningful, uniform nutrition standards for marketing food and beverages to children, as well as a uniform standard for what constitutes marketing to children.” Meaningful? Uniform? Those are dirty words to Big Food. They prefer words like “try” and “reduce.”

Oh and they really don’t like recommendation # 2.9: “If voluntary efforts to limit the marketing of less healthy foods and beverages to children do not yield substantial results, the FCC could consider revisiting and modernizing rules on commercial time during children’s programming.” What was that, the FCC? Why, that’s an actual government agency named in the report, how did that happen?

Food companies that market to children (including pledgers Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo) are afraid that Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign might result in actual policy making, otherwise known as laws and regulations, those things that government agencies make when they are doing their jobs.

Every so often, when the threat of government regulation rears its ugly head, the food industry pounces on it to beat it down, by announcing new and improved promises, pledges, commitments, initiatives, partnerships, or coalitions at just the right time, all aimed at keeping government at bay and the public convinced that they are acting responsibly.

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University called it right when he told the Wall Street Journal that this move was little more than public relations:

This is where the market is taking these companies anyway, and I don’t know that this represents much of a concession. I also believe that the motive behind this is to fight off government regulation by creating the appearance of voluntary changes by the industry.

Sadly, this time industry made sure that government came on board even before the announcement. At the press conference, Michelle Obama predicted, “In the weeks and months to come, we expect to hear more announcements regarding specific steps on reducing sugar, fat and sodium in the foods that our children eat.” Great, brace yourself for even more PR and empty promises.

If I was skeptical about the likely success of Let’s Move before, I am downright cynical now.

Post-script: For a somewhat less cynical viewpoint, see Marion Nestle’s blog post.

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer who has been writing about the food industry since 1996. She specializes in legal strategies to counter corporate practices that harm the public’s health. She lectures frequently on corporate tactics and policy solutions. She has written extensively on the politics of food, and her first book, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, was published by Nation Books in 2006. Read Michele’s latest blog postings here. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Doug

    “Who needs policy when you’ve got promises?” doesn’t take it far enough.

    We need action – not policy and/or promises

  • Dennis M. Beaty

    After 10 years as a public sector attorney, I am convinced that the business of government is to manufacture the appearance of government. We live in a Public Relations State in which Madison Avenue has been employed to sell the public that there is a functioning government that is looking out for the public interest and keeping the private interest in line. In fact, government functions are not funded until a crisis like Katrina or the Gulf Oil Spill emerges, and then the media is focused on the fact that 10 bureaucrats resourced with two shovels and a mule failed to build the Grand Coulee Dam. The Reagan-Clinton Supply Side Revolution has gutted all industry oversight and undermined the development of human capital and regulatory technology to keep monopoly capitalism honest. What you have here is a public relations move on the part of the White House aimed at projecting the image that Corporate Criminals are responsible citizens.

  • kc

    The only thing we can do to change this food system is to quit buying the crap that food corporations are selling. Since this would require some discomfort and inconvenience for our citizens, I’m not sure it will ever happen. My family eats only home-cooked foods from quality ingredients and no food additives of any kind. We are constantly amazed at how many people consider this a radical and strange diet. How can it be more acceptable to eat packaged foods containing a huge list of GMO corn derivatives and little else? Why is it considered weird to eat only foods that are recognizable and in their natural form? This tells me just how far Americans are removed from the origins of our food. What really needs to change is the idea that convenience and price are the most important factors in deciding what to feed our children. Parents really need to understand that additive-laden food may be cheap and easy now but will mean shorter but more miserable lives for their children and much more money in medical bills in the long run.

    The government will continue to come down on the side of large corporations. Policy will continue to favor underhanded marketing and nutrition guideline loopholes. No one, not even the First Lady can change things without the motivation of loss of revenue. If parents stop buying the highly processed frankenfoods, the food corporations will find a way to manufacture foods we want to buy. This food revolution will not happen unless everyone gets on board, even busy parents.