Food industry takes aim at America’s health crisis.
The roil of media attention is unrelenting. The obesity crisis is good copy, in all its permutations. In May, Time magazine’s cover story, “Low-Carb Nation,” declared, “Nutritionists are horrified, but they can’t stop the force that is reshaping the food industry – and our bodies.”
This hyperbole comes in the wake of similar diet and health cover stories, network news specials, a rising volume of medical research targeting connections between food and fat, and incredibly popular diets, such as Atkins and Barry Sears’ Zone. Many of these stories are based on questionable assumptions about the link between food marketing and obesity. But where there are victims, there must be someone or something to blame. Behind the headlines, cash-strapped legislators are looking into how best to help slim down their constituents by taxing junk food – and pour much needed revenue state and local coffers. And veteran tobacco war lawyers, enriched and bored after winning massive judgments against the cigarette companies, are now hungrily eyeing “big food.”
They have deep pockets and substantial incentive, based on two facts: Obesity was declared a national epidemic in 1999 and the food industry is the most visible and lucrative potential target.
Attorneys in this effort have already conducted a high-level conference to explore how litigation can best be used to address the obesity epidemic. Their contention is that fast-food companies knowingly manipulate children via their advertising and marketing efforts – and these companies have made little effort to offer “healthy” foods.
Predictably, the public debate surrounding obesity centers more on the blame game than solutions. While the food industry has taken its share of flak, public education, suburban sprawl, labor-saving machines, the rise of the service economy, cable television and a highly affluent society in which all food is relatively cheap and plentiful are cited as co-conspirators.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the decade of the 1990s witnessed a rampant rise in the number of U.S. adults classified as obese – those with a body-mass index (BMI) of more than 30. The CDC estimates that 61 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Ironically, the average American’s daily caloric intake isn’t much different than it was in 1965. Today we burn 700 to 800 fewer calories per day, pointing to a sedentary lifestyle as a main contributor to obesity.
The trend has caught the attention of the media, which has dramatically increased its attention on the issue. From a handful of stories in national media in late 1999 to more than more than a thousand over the last year, the media is raising both awareness and emotions. Many of these stories have attempted to lay blame and assign simple solutions to a complex problem, such as taxing “bad” food, much like cigarette taxes. But taxing “bad” food, even if such a scheme could work, doesn’t address the issue of inactivity.
Consumers seem less willing to blame the industry, according to the National Restaurant Association. Nearly all surveyed consumers oppose additional taxes on restaurant foods known to be high in fat, and 84 percent oppose a law or regulation limiting portion size.
To date, this has not dissuaded the media or the activists who are determined to find a smoking gun. And the food industry is beginning to get the message. Just how this message is taking shape, and how it will shape the food industry, is the theme of Stagnito’s Obesity Summit 2004, to be held June 24-25 at the Indian Lakes Resort near Chicago. Trial lawyers, food manufacturing companies, retailers and foodservice all will be represented in this unprecedented forum.
For more information, visit www.stagnito.com and click on “Obesity Summit 2004,” or call (866) 265-1975 or (212) 596-6006.
Pierce Hollingsworth is director of the Special Projects Division at Stagnito Communications Inc.
Copyright Stagnito Publishing May 2004
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