DEL MAR, CALIF. — The food and beverage industry remains locked in the crosshairs of policy makers looking to take action to counter excessively high obesity rates in the United States, said Beth Johnson, a principal of Food Directions L.L.C., a Washington-based consulting group.
“Because of the convergence of many developments all at once, nutrition has a higher profile than in the past,” Ms. Johnson said.
Ms. Johnson offered an update on the Washington picture in an address, “Nutrition policies — it’s not a spectator sport,” Oct. 16 at the annual meeting of the North American Millers’ Association. The gathering was held Oct. 14-16 at L’Auberge Del Mar in Del Mar, Calif.
While the November elections are expected to have a significant impact on the legislative agenda of the Obama administration, food policy insiders do not expect the Obama agenda related to obesity to be sidetracked by the elections, Ms. Johnson said. Concerns about obesity have been expressed on a bi-partisan basis and do not attract the same reflexive partisan divide as do issues such as labor, she added.
Showing what has become a familiar series of U.S. maps demonstrating the growing proportion of states with ever higher obesity rates from the 1990s to the present, Ms. Johnson cited a study estimating that obesity costs $344 billion per year in added medical costs.
“That represents a significant share of total health care expenses,” she said.
Amid this difficult environment, some positive signs have emerged, including indications obesity rates among children have begun to level, Ms. Johnson said.
Still, questions of “why” obesity rates are so high have continued to fuel interest in policy proposals.
No shortage of explanations exists for the obesity expansion. High on the list of alleged culprits is the popularity of quick-service restaurants, she said. She pointed out that a third of all children in the United States eat out at least once a day.
Finger pointing also has been directed toward sugared beverages (“People want them taxed”), the marketing of unhealthy foods, increased reliance on processed food or too much screen time.
Ms. Johnson offered as an alternative explanation “poor individual choices.”
Trying to home in on consumer opinions, Edelman Research interviewed 1,000 individuals about their feelings about food and obesity. Citing the study, Ms. Johnson said 40% of respondents believe healthy habits are the responsibility of the individual.
“That means 60% of the public believes that someone else is to blame for our lack of healthy habits,” she said. “Eighteen per cent believe the government should develop programs to promote healthy lifestyle industry.”
Reviewing key influencers in Washington, ranging from the First Lady and White House chef to outsiders, including author Michael Pollan, activist Michael Jacobson and Yale Professor Kelly Brownell (supporter of taxing sweetened beverages), Ms. Johnson said food companies should be concerned.
“The food industry is in the bulls-eye,” she said.
In particular, Ms. Johnson said the focus is on intake of “refined grains,” added sugar and solid fats. She said the use of the term “refined grains” versus enriched grains is negative, indicative of attitudes toward wheat-based foods.
“In the spring of 2011, the government will begin consumer messaging that will be an opportunity for the industry to put forward their message,” she said. “The U.S.D.A. may be receptive to industry input. Beginning in the summer of 2011, the White House will focus on possible revisions to the Food Guide Pyramid.”
What could unfold in the months ahead may be major change, Ms. Johnson said, including restrictive marketing guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission, taxes on “junk” food and sugared beverages, regulation of sodium and limits on foods purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) funding.
Also under consideration is a color coding system for food products using a stop light model in which red foods are bad, yellow are okay only in limited quantities and green foods are good.
Ms. Johnson said the food industry already has committed to removing 1.5 trillion calories from the food supply, is exploring key nutrient information on the front of food packages (in part to avoid the stoplight system) and has reformulated 20,000 products since 2002, to reduce calories, fat, sugar and sodium.
Industry actions to date have tended to be dismissed by policy makers as inadequate, but Ms. Johnson encouraged the millers to keep open channels of communication.