Public health experts gathered in the Grand Hall at New York University’s Global Center this past Thursday, June 19, for yet another “honest discussion about tough food issues.” The roundtable discussion was the third of its kind, in an ongoing series hosted by the Museum of Food and Drink, or MOFAD, a non-profit startup that is launching New York City’s first food museum.
Discussions departed from formerly specific topics of GMOs and soda regulation, to allow for more prodding and provoking of central issues surrounding food. The latest roundtable, Whose Responsibility? The Ethics of Manufacturing and Marketing Big Food, stayed true to MOFAD’s super-ambitious mission: to change the way people think about food.
The theme of the debate was responsibility. Invited speakers sided with the consumer, industry, and government in making their case for “big food.” Michele Simon, president of Eat Drink Politics, wore two hats – public health lawyer and consumer advocate, while Howard Moskowitz, chairman of iNovum and the Institute for Competitive Excellence at Queens College, brought with him decades of market research that he performed for brands such as Campbell’s, Kraft, and PepsiCo. Christina Roberto, assistant professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, served as the single public health academic in the discussion. Finally, executive director of the Vitality Institute, Derek Yach, took the discussion to a global level, with a personal portfolio that stretches from PepsiCo to the World Health Organization. The discussion was moderated by Dave Arnold, founder and president of MOFAD.
Michele Simon opened the debate by highlighting what she believed were two wrongly held assumptions about “big food”: 1) consumers and industry hold equal footing, and 2) the government is left out of the conversation. Simon made her case by pointing out the millions of dollars the food industry spends on research and development, marketing, and government lobbying, which she argued is a result of conflicting interests between corporate strategy and their social responsibilities,
“Publicly traded companies’ first legal obligation is to their shareholders,” Simon said, “so they can get sued by giving more over to social benefit than to economic benefit.” Simon feared that without appropriate policy, the food industry would lack natural incentive to act in favor of public health and society.
Derek Yach denied Simon’s comment that the sole purpose of a company is to maximize profits, or what he referred to as “short-term shareholder returns,” an idea made infamous by economist Milton Friedman and exhibited by Dodge v. Ford Motor Companies. He cited historical court cases where companies that did the right thing repeatedly produced bigger returns on the bottom line, including a case between Wrigley and the Chicago Cubs. He went on to cite famous figures such as David Eccles, Michael Porter, and Mark Kramer – luminaries of corporate responsibility.
Yach ended his retort by highlighting a neglected threat to corporate responsibility – “the activist investor.” Such “greedy” investors, Yack pointed out, are admirers of Friedman’s teachings, and repeatedly hold corporations under account when they attempt to “do the right thing.” Yach insisted that this point is rarely brought up by public health experts.
Howard Moskowitz agreed with Yach that the food industry is often made the scapegoat. He described what he referred to as a “popular baiting culture” in the United States,
“We seem to live in a world where companies are bashed,” Moskowitz stated, “Is there really a venal culture in industry trying to fake everybody out?” He continued, “The job of the corporation is to create good food that will sell to people within the limits of the law, not much more than that.”
Simon emphasized that she is not worried about what kind of food that companies choose to manufacture, but how the food is marketed,
“I don’t think that the [snack food] industry should make healthier food, however, they should obey the law and they should not engage in deceptive marketing.” Simon was referring to PepsiCo’s new line of soda that contains “real sugar,” as well as whole grain corn used in Reese’s Puffs Corn Puffs breakfast cereal.
Moskowitz argued that food corporations should not be confused with non-government organizations, or mockingly, “do-gooder organizations,” and cautioned the government from acting as a food watchdog,
“We know that every [centrally] regulated economy in Europe… ended up failing,” he stated, “If the government gets its hands on the food industry… would we have a food industry that is worse than our worst nightmares? Will we in fact have a food industry that is given over to the do-gooders, who really are evil incarnate?”
Simon emphasized that the government already has its hands in the food industry, but not in ways that promote health,
“We are not a free-market economy. We are an economy that is propped up by government regulations right now. The government is telling you what to eat, right now. That’s exactly why a cheeseburger costs less than a salad.” Simon cited her recent report, Whitewashed, that touches upon the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s support for the National Dairy Council’s Dairy Checkoff Program, that financially assists fast food chains such as Taco Bell, Domino’s Pizza, and McDonald’s in promoting dairy products.
Christina Roberto sided with Simon. She drew attention to California’a latest bill to put warning labels on sugary drinks, which was voted down 7-8, short of the 10 votes needed to pass. Opponents of the bill claimed that the policy would have unfairly singled out soft drinks, to which Roberto commented,
“By that logic, we are left doing nothing, and we can’t afford to do nothing.” Roberto admitted to taking action where the data are strongest, such as sugary drinks. She went on to support Simon’s position on policy,
“More than anything, we need policy changes,” Roberto stated, listing some of the public health victories made possible thanks to government regulation, “We are supposed to wear seat belts, there is fluoride in our water, children must be immunized, and we tax cigarettes and alcohol.”
The general disagreement over consumer, industry, and the government responsibility continued to fuel the second half of the debate.
Moskowitz continued to blame the consumer, going as far as to say, “Why is the consumer so damn stupid?” He noted that the government can help in ways other than intervening in industry, such as by earmarking government funds for better nutrition education,
“It is easier to re-educate consumers rather than change the industry,” he stated, “We’re assuming that we have this ravenous group of people running about, grabbing Taco Bell, cheeseburgers, and whatever, and we have to restrain them. Why don’t we treat people like adults and re-program their head, rather than re-programming the government?”
Simon and Roberto challenged Moskowitz’s point on education, noting that decades of research show that dual strategies that combine education and environmental change are necessary for long-term behavior change .
Roberto, who also practices as a clinician with overweight and obese populations, noted that her clients do wish to be healthy and do not need to be reprogrammed to think otherwise. Simon added that education is especially difficult when comparing industry funding to the “trivial amount of public health pennies.”
Yach took sides with Simon and Roberto on education, joking that he witnessed Moskowitz eat a cookie served during the reception. However, he was not entirely against marketing, but called for “a new breed or marketers,” those that can market foods in such a way that reduces their risk for disease, rather than coming up with tastier and more flavorful formulations.
Yach compared the food industry to the tobacco industry, noting that nicotine, although addictive, is a safe substance. He hinted on the safety of e-cigarettes, or “nicotine delivery devices,” that eliminate the unsafe ingredients in traditional cigarettes, suggesting that we adapt this logic to food and drink, citing diet soda’s absence of sugar. He finds that industry efforts to make their products healthier can serve as a means to reduce consumer harm.
Simon argued that food is more comparable to alcohol, rather than tobacco. She stated that there is misconception that “addiction” is the main problem with alcohol, but it has more to do with over-consumption, as with food. Therefore, many of the policies in place for alcohol can be adapted for unhealthy food. She added that the proposed safety of e-cigarettes and diet soda is not yet clear.
Moskowitz stood behind his notion to improve nutrition education,
“Maybe the worst thing about education is that it has a history? And that instead of thinking new things, all education must conform to that which has been? All educators must have been accepted by those who were before? And maybe the educational system is set up to promote inadequacy?”
Moskowitz found this to be a good opportunity to plug his latest tool, iNovum. He claimed that the tool is capable of unlocking “the algebra of the mind,” thereby identifying individual consumer preferences. He plans to use this tool to help companies market healthy foods and positive behaviors. He cited his recent study with patients admitted to a hospital with congestive heart failure; patients that were exposed to the tool experienced a remarkably lower readmission rate compared to patients in the control group.
Arnold quickly asked Moskowitz if tools have ethics, to which Moskowitz responded, “Tools are simply tools. They can be used for good, or they can be used for evil.”
Arnold took this opportunity to turn the conversation over to marketing to children. Roberto stood behind what she said earlier about having to “start somewhere,” so if it meant marketing healthy foods to children, “I personally feel like, let’s go for it,” she said.
Simon politely disagreed, stating that marketing to children is immoral and illegal, “The law does not care what you are marketing to children” she said, “…it is inherently misleading.” She plugged one of her favorite organizations, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Simon and Moskowitz got into a brief dispute about marketing other things to children, including books and toys, but both stood behind their beliefs.
Yach challenged Simon by bringing up the First Amendment, noting how magazines still feature advertisements for tobacco, despite increasing government regulations. He also sided with Moskowitz’s point on education, questing why the government cut funding from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the VERB campaign.
Simon found Yach’s argument misleading, arguing that it is industry that repeatedly challenges the First Amendment, and that the First Amendment does not openly protect advertising. She explained her reasoning,
“Let parents do their job of getting their kids to eat right…” Simon said, “Then you don’t need to be spending the little sprinkle dust from the CDC on a useless VERB campaign.”
Yach spoke for the remainder of the debate. He vaguely described a 2 year initiative by health care giant Humana Inc, partnering with Discovery South Africa to offer 350,000 enrollees a 25% discount on “healthy foods.” However, Simon pressed that such an initiative is unlikely, unless we internalize healthcare costs, thus making them the responsibility of the food industry.
Yach’s solution was government-private partnerships, noting the recent pledge by 16 food industries to remove 1.5 trillion calories from the marketplace by 2015 as part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation. The effort is being evaluated by University of North Carolina research professor, Barry Popkin. Yach admitted, however, that barriers to manufacturing healthier foods do exist, such as competition from other companies that may be unwilling to reformulate their products. Simon argued that competition is exactly why policy is necessary, since it levels the playing field for the entire industry.
Simon further hailed Nature’s Path Foods, a private-held and family-owned company that continues to produce healthy products, despite General Mills’ acquiring of Cascadian Farms and Kellogg’s of Kashi. Moskowitz argued that the company will eventually sell, because that is the natural course of life.
The roundtable ended with closing remarks from each of the four speakers.
Derek Yach and Christina Roberto held similar views. “Change is happening,” Yach began. He is proud of recent initiatives enacted by the food industry in response to obesity, citing a recent report by Bank of America Merril Lynch, Globesity – The Global Fight Against Obesity, that identifies practices across 50 companies that will address obesity over the next 25 years.
Roberto was aware of the “false dichotomy” regarding food policy, “Can ‘big food’ do it on it’s own, or do we need regulation?” she asked. She admitted that in most situations, we will need need a combination of both, highlighting Yach’s previous mention of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation.
Howard Moskowitz admitted that he was not as optimistic as Yach and Roberto. “Companies operate on profit and performance. Health operates on goodwill and hope,” he said. Moskowitz was convinced that the law of economics will leave us facing the same problems many years from now, “Selling health is a great thing, we all feel good, but you can’t take it to the bank.”
Michele Simon had the last word and chose this opportunity to shine line on the community. She stressed that what is missing from the debate are the community members themselves,
“…because without them at the table,” Simon concluded, “we’re not going to make any real change.”
If the latest Roundtable served as any indication of MOFAD’s edgy take on food, New Yorkers can expect to see the savvy food think tank set up permanent shop in the not so distant future. Until then, feel free to visit their website to read more about their history, mission, and to see a list of their upcoming events – and please consider donating to support their cause.
You can listen to the full MOFAD Roundtable on Heritage Radio Network.
Below, please find links to some of the reports mentioned throughout the post:
Derek Yach: Globesity – The Global Fight Against Obesity
Howard Moskowitz: iNovum Science Reduces Less than 30-day Hospital Readmissions