Big Food: Lobbying Will Only Accelerate the Inevitable

Motivated by what is now a health and environmental crisis, authors, scientists, filmmakers, progressive school chancellors, the White House, consumer groups, entrepreneurs and others have inspired a food movement that now pervades every corner of society.
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This article is by Hans Taparia, Clinical Assistant Professor, NYU Stern School of Business and Pamela Koch, Executive Director, Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy, Teachers College, Columbia University

It was politics as usual at the Congressional hearing last week with the Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) over the report by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). In March, seventy-one Representatives wrote a letter to Secretaries Vilsack and Burwell expressing their "sincere disappointment" with the report, stating that the Committee "greatly exceeded their scope in developing recommendations, to the detriment of the American diet." The DGAC is a committee of independent scientists jointly convened every five years by the Secretaries of the USDA and HHS, and is charged with examining the latest scientific evidence to inform revisions to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This year's report suggests that current American dietary patterns are highly distorted, and that "a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts, and lower in red and processed meat, sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains [1]." New recommendations include listing the quantity of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts labels of packaged foods, and economic disincentives for consumption of sugar sweetened beverages such as a 'soda tax.' The Committee has also stated that a diet higher in plant-based foods is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet--an unprecedented move by the Committee.

It is hardly surprising that the food industry has gone on the offensive. Federal records show that corporate organizations such as the American Beverage Association spent $15.3 million lobbying on the guidelines in the second quarter of this year, compared to just $1.1 million by groups supporting the proposals such as the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Congressional Representatives who were signatories to the letter to the Secretaries, themselves, received over $2 million in contributions from food and agricultural interests in 2013 and 2014 [2]. In a show of solidarity with Coca-Cola, Warren Buffet, whose Berkshire Hathaway is its largest shareholder, told CNBC after release of the report that a full one-quarter of the calories he consumes comes from Coca-Cola. Industry lobbying has also induced the House of Representatives to introduce a rider in the 2016 Agricultural Appropriations bill that would prevent the release and implementation of the Guidelines, scheduled to come out in December 2015. In an era where corporate lobbying in Washington continues to reach new highs, this behavior may seem like business-as-usual; but this may just be the turning point in the history of America's food industry, where it is no longer in their best interest to stop guidelines that promote health and ecological sustainability.

Motivated by what is now a health and environmental crisis, authors, scientists, filmmakers, progressive school chancellors, the White House, consumer groups, entrepreneurs and others have inspired a food movement that now pervades every corner of society. Per capita sales of soda are down 25 percent from 40 gallons a year in 1998 to 30 gallons in 2014 [3], mostly being replaced by water. At checkout counters, Kind Bars, which have less than ten grams of sugar, are replacing the M&M's that contain thirty grams of sugar. Chains like Sweet Greens, Chop't and Just Salad are rapidly altering the urban landscape. School districts have overhauled their menus and thrown out the soda machines. In the city of Philadelphia, obesity amongst African-American boys is down 11.3 percent from 2006 to 2013, compared to 8.1 percent of amongst all boys [4]. According to Euromonitor, sales of breakfast cereals, most of which are heavily sugar-laden, are down over 25 percent since 2000, with yogurt and granola taking their place; Frozen dinner sales are plummeting, down nearly 12 percent from 2007 to 2013 [5]. Same-store sales at McDonald's have been on a downward spiral for nearly three years now, prompting the recent sacking of its CEO. Meanwhile, sales of raw vegetables are up 14 percent and fruits are up 13 percent between 2008 and 2013 [6]. Consumption of most whole grains is witnessing double-digit annual growth and some ancient grains are showing triple-digit annual gains [7]. The number of farmers' markets has grown from just two hundred in the 1970's to over 8000 today, and according to one recent consumer survey, 47 percent of consumers prefer to buy locally grown produce [8]. Large food companies are arguably sicker than they have ever been in the past century, and the trend against processed foods filled with empty calories continues to gain strength.

The rapidly changing consumer has not gone unnoticed amongst executives of large food companies. With revenues and profits rapidly dropping off, they are making acquisitions, trying to clean up their products and attempting to change the nature of their supply chains. Perdue, Tysons, Chick-fil-A and McDonald's have all made announcements in the past year to either limit or restrict the use of antibiotics in their chicken. Coke launched Coke Life, replacing some of the sugar with stevia, and Pepsi launched Pepsi Next using a similar approach. Earlier this year, Kraft announced it was dropping all artificial dyes from its Macaroni and Cheese and Dunkin Donuts titanium dioxide, a nanomaterial, from its powered donuts. However, their efforts are half-hearted, and these companies will have to go much further to survive. The first reason for this is that consumers have already been widely exposed to a number of formidable competing brands that are healthier and more environmentally sustainable. Brands ranging from Amy's Kitchen to Chipotle already have tremendous consumer appeal, and are made from real food ingredients. In spite of some small changes, most products made by large food brands still have myriad artificial additives and preservatives, and use processing techniques that strip their products of most nutrients. The second, and what should be the more worrying reason for company executives, is the lack of trust amongst current and future consumers. Decades of deceptive marketing, corporate-sponsored research and government lobbying have left large, legacy food companies with brands that are fast becoming liabilities. According to one recent survey, 42 percent of Millennial consumers, aged 20 to 37, don't trust large food companies [9]. This compared to just 18 percent for non-Millennium consumers.

Legacy food companies in America are ailing and their concern is that the latest proposed Dietary Guidelines spells the final death knell. After all, the Dietary Guidelines inform meal planning for the National School Lunch Program, the Elder Nutrition Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and guide policymakers, educators, clinicians and consumers on nutrition and health. However, long before the latest Guidelines were being contemplated, large food companies began witnessing the rapid evacuation of their consumers. Lobbying against the Dietary Guidelines will not change that, and with the microscope so sharply focused on them, it is likely to further damage consumer trust and backfire.


1.2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. February 2015.
2.Center for Science in the Public Interest: Congressional Catering:
How Big Food and Agricultural Special Interests Wield Influence in Congress and Undermine Public Health; 2015.
3.Beverage Digest: 2015.
4.Robbins JM, Mallya G, Wagner A, JW. B: Prevalence, Disparities, and Trends in Obesity and Severe Obesity Among Students in the School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2006-2013. Preventing Chronic Disease 2015, 12(150185).
5.Mintel Group Ltd.: Frozen Meals - US - May 2013; 2013.
6.Mintel Group Ltd.: Fruit and Vegetables - US - October 2013; 2013.
7.SPINS: SPINS Trendwatch. Grains. 2014.
8.Mintel Group Ltd.: Perimeter of the Store - US - June 2014. 2014.
9.Mintel Group Ltd.: The Millennial Impact: Food Shopping Decisions - US. September 2015.

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