Recent pieces by Corby Kummer on this website and Michael Moss in the New York Times have highlighted a pattern of “delay and divert” tactics employed by certain food companies to resist calls to lower sodium in their products. The articles suggest that corporations are highly motivated to maintain levels of salt for taste, texture, and cost reasons, and that these tactics have historically proven to be quite effective.

But public health advocates and activists have adopted a new strategy of their own patterned after the 10th-Century Chinese practice of Ling Chi—or “death by a thousand cuts”—in which individual small cuts, non-fatal in and of themselves, add up to a slow and painful demise. Sodium represents just the latest ingredient “cut.” This new strategy is designed to force change in the foods marketed to the American public—ingredient by ingredient—and is turning out to be quite effective.

Food marketers now appear to be on the defensive, if not in full retreat. Let’s look at the scorecard:

Trans fats. Typically found in partially hydrogenated oils used for frying and baking, trans fats deliver the double whammy of raising bad cholesterol levels while lowering good cholesterol. The restaurant industry initially resisted calls to ban these oils due to cost and availability reasons. Today, bans have been implemented in several cities, including New York City and Philadelphia, as well as California and parts of Maryland. Other states and cities have advanced similar proposals.

Listing calories on menus. As part of the recent health care legislation, calories are now required to be posted nationally on menus of restaurant chains consisting of more than 20 units. Industry capitulated when it recognized that multiple municipalities and states would have imposed their own labeling criteria, thus making implementation costly.

Soda taxes. Local and state governments are thirsty for revenue and several are considering the imposition of soda and/or “fat” taxes. New York is perhaps the most aggressive in pursuing such a tax, with California, Colorado, Philadelphia and Washington in the mix.

Sodium reduction. Both New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Obama have been most vociferous in admonishing food companies to lower the amount of salt in their products. Expect additional legislative proposals and lower sodium standards to be issued in the near future.

The trend is obvious. Food marketers are facing the slow Ling Chi-like death of their product portfolios unless they change their mindsets. The old playbook doesn’t work anymore. They must recognize that there will always be the next sodium … the next “cut.”

Instead of “delay and divert,” it is time to get ahead of the situation. With a new cohort of consumers demanding corporate responsibility for their health, advocates pushing for radical change in the food supply, and governments receptive to regulation, a smarter course of action by food marketers is to embrace that they are custodians of their customers’ well-being and to re-align their products, marketing practices, and business models accordingly.

Otherwise, a slow death awaits.

The tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico offers a management lesson to food marketers on how not to deal with a crisis. Specifically, I refer to the obesity epidemic. Here’s what I mean.

First, there’s the blame game. No one is taking responsibility for the Gulf disaster. BP points its fingers at Transocean who throws a hot potato to Halliburton who points back to BP as having ultimate responsibility. A similar dynamic persists in the obesity debate. Activists blame corporations for spewing excessive fuel (i.e., calories) on the consuming public; food corporations counter that they offer healthy options and decry that regulators are unfairly trying to tax them; and all the while consumers continue to chomp away at anything put in front of them.

Then there’s this sticky matter of the unintended consequences of the spill on the health and wellbeing of all those affected: wildlife, the environment, the food supply, local economies, and laborers. It appears that none of the parties planned for this eventuality. So too with obesity. Food marketers did not intend that Americans get fat. Clever marketers simply discovered the formula for providing excellent value for their customers. And in turn consumers complied. Now two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese.

Finally, neither BP nor the food companies have put the genie back in the bottle. By this I mean that the causes for concern (oil and calories) still run rampant. For BP, this not only means a public relations nightmare but also likely criminal proceedings. It will also pave the way for new, more draconian regulations and a radical shift in energy policies, to the detriment of the petroleum companies. With minor exceptions, food marketers also have not put the lid on calories and will continue to feel the heat of regulators, activists, and consumers until they do.

So what can food marketers do?

(more…)

Despite skepticism surrounding the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation pledge that its food industry members will sell 1.5 trillion fewer calories in the next five years, there is an emerging track record that suggests that food marketers are recognizing that they must deal with the spiraling-out-of-control obesity crisis … or else. Witness the recent announcement by the American Heart Association- and Clinton Foundation-run Alliance for a Healthier Generation that soft drink giants Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group have reduced the number of calories shipped to schools by 88 percent since 2004. PepsiCo has gone one step further by unilaterally declaring that it will halt the sale of full-sugar soft drinks in primary and secondary schools globally.

With companies like Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, and Campbell Soup participating in the Foundation’s pledge, here’s a preview of what’s coming on grocery shelves. Don’t expect traditional Coca-Cola to change (again), but readers are likely to see more visible displays of lower-calorie beverages like Coca-Cola Zero and Vitaminwater. Kraft will pull even more calories out of its Lunchables or reduce the size of Kraft cheese slices. And those Milano cookies from Pepperidge Farm may be just a wee bit less fatty. Anticipate that a plethora of packages will be “downsized,” with a whole array of smaller portioned boxes, mini-packs, cans, and bottles to choose from. Even the food inside will be smaller.

More enlightened food marketers are getting the message that doing the right thing is in their best interests. Why are they lowering calories, fats, and sodium? The simple answer is: impending regulations. Smart packaged goods firms have taken a lesson from their restaurant brethren after watching how the restaurant lobby resisted the move to place calories on menu boards. Once the light bulb went off that several states and multiple municipalities beyond New York City might pass legislation requiring different formats for listing calories, agreement to a national standard as proposed by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) became a no-brainer. And it has not been lost on marketers that health advocates and activists are reading from a new playbook published by the Urban Institute titled “Reducing Obesity: Policy Strategies from the Tobacco Wars” (PDF).

So is a 1.5 trillion calorie reduction over five years enough to make a difference? Clearly, focusing on lowering calories to deal with the obesity problem is the right call, and the Foundation should be applauded for taking a stand, but this is a drop in the bucket and represents only a 0.5 percent reduction in the 300 trillion calories available for Americans to consume each year. That translates to less than 1.5 pounds of added weight per person. Hardly enough to resolve an obesity crisis.

To fix obesity, we must reverse what got us here in the first place. Daily calories supplied are up 30 percent per person since 1970, and returning to that “pre-obesity” level requires a discharge of 69 trillion calories.

It’s time to be bold. REALLY BOLD. “Put a man on the moon” bold.

With all the tools available to food marketers to lower the calories they sell while maintaining profits—introducing low-calorie alternatives and high-profit-margin 100-calorie portion packages, and putting marketing support behind lower-calorie brands—it is time to step up and “tear down this wall” of obesity by committing to eliminating those excess 69 trillion calories. This 20-percent or more reduction in calories is what’s really needed to take back American’s health and waistlines. So declare this goal for the end of the decade and we’ll all be better for it … consumers as well as corporate bottom lines.

Or else?

“If we are to believe, as one Tea Partier from Toledo, Ohio proclaimed, that ‘being obese is one of our American core values,’ then heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes must also be inalienable rights.  Obesity is now a national burden with a cost of $147 billion, and two-thirds of the nation’s adults either overweight or obese.  And while many attempts have been made to thwart the expansion of America’s collective girth, no regulatory measure or consumer prodding has proven effective.  It’s time to change the playbook and look to the food marketers as our last, best hope.” (read more)

Check out Hank’s column on The Atlantic magazine’s website for perspectives on how the food industry can solve the obesity crisis.