By Jason Stemm (@NYCubsFan)
What do Tony the Tiger and Joe Camel have in common? The question has been battled out in Washington over the last two years, under the radar of budget cuts and debt defaults. Millions of lobbying dollars have been spent by the food manufacturing industry to limit and even eliminate legislation to curb the ability of companies to market foods deemed unhealthy to children.
Some are comparing the fight to the battles with big tobacco in the 80’s. Now, as obesity surpasses smoking as the number one cause of preventable deaths, and in the face of rising health care costs and a crippling burden on our future fiscal solvency, restrictions are being scaled back to accommodate an industry with billions at stake.
Soda and breakfast cereals have found themselves in the bulls eye, since they are most likely to be a daily part of a child’s diet, however, all foods are being examined to help impact early behaviors that can be lifelong habits detrimental to health. This of course includes restaurants, some of whom are already making voluntary strides, such as making fruit the default option for kids meals instead of French fries.
While some will claim an overreaching of the “Nanny State” most would agree that some regulation is acceptable. Even if you think the drinking age should be lowered, you are likely to agree that an age limit on the purchase and consumption of alcohol and tobacco is acceptable. The question is where do we draw the line on the hazards targeted and the way the government goes about it.
New York City led the way in eliminating trans fats. The state’s attempts to raise a tax on sugary beverages failed, and now they are working with food manufacturers to reduce the amount of sodium in processed foods. The attempt to raise a regressive tax in the midst of a recession had little chance of succeeding. With the city’s approach to sodium they are taking a more collaborative tact with food manufacturers that should pay dividends.
The food industry has tried to head off government regulation by making some voluntary concessions, but many feel it is not enough. It is one thing to have commercials with Tony the Tiger encouraging kids to exercise to work off that sugary bowl of cereal, but with cuts in physical education at school and a more sedentary populace, it comes across as an empty effort.
Other food manufactures simply throw up their arms and claim there is nothing they can do. They are simply giving consumers what they want, and people would reject food with less salt and sugar. Clearly the only way that significant strides to healthier products can be expected is with consumer acceptance, but without a push from the government for companies to invest in the research to make these improvements they are unlikely to be adopted on a large scale.
Marketing to kids with popular characters is a proven tactic. It has worked for fresh produce as well, such as images of Dora on packages of edamame, Tinker Bell on sweet corn or Shrek on a bag of onions. Unfortunately the marketing budgets for healthy options always seem to be dwarfed by the deep pockets of the food manufacturers. As we have seen with cigarettes in the past, sometimes we do need the government to protect us from ourselves.