Ben Cooper

Consuming Issues - Childhood obesity: The Obamas' legacy?

By Ben Cooper | 21 January 2013

Lets Move could prove enduring legacy of Obama administration in food policy

Let's Move could prove enduring legacy of Obama administration in food policy

Today (21 January) sees Barack Obama's second inauguration as President of the United States, an appropriate juncture to look ahead to what the next four years may have in store in terms of US food policy.

It is fair to say that US food producers and retailers greeted his election in 2008 with some trepidation. This was not simply down to the general corporate default of favouring parties of the right; for the food industry, there were more specific qualms.

With a landslide election win and Democratic majorities in both houses, the President had a strong political mandate for a progressive, reforming agenda. The food industry, which had been left more or less entirely to its own devices during George W Bush's eight years in office, saw the spectre of tighter regulation looming large. Fears were compounded when the President made tackling childhood obesity one of his key priorities.

There was concern that tighter regulation of food marketing and labelling was in prospect. What followed between 2008 and 2012 has been reported and analysed extensively on these pages. In retrospect, the President's strategy can perhaps best be summarised as 'carrot and stick'.

The Food and Drug Administration's tougher stance on food labelling has forced the food industry to up its game on nutritional labelling. Meanwhile, government agencies took the issue of children's food marketing further, with an inter-agency working group framing prospective guidelines which though voluntary would have been far more exacting than the self-regulatory guidelines food companies had in place.

These plans were eventually kicked into the long grass by a combination of heavyweight lobbying by industry, the Democrats losing control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections and by the announcement of enhanced industry self-regulatory measures.

While entertaining the idea of tighter regulation, the Obama administration put the First Lady's Let's Move campaign into action. Exemplifying the inclusive and conciliatory style Obama has frequently sought to adopt, the campaign, officially launched in February 2010, welcomed corporate involvement and, not surprisingly, it is an olive branch food companies gratefully grasped.

So four years on, the US food industry, albeit with a significantly depleted lobbying war-chest, was probably fairly relieved. While there was considerable noise from regulators on food marketing and labelling, no actual legislation in these areas was put forward. The Food Safety Modernization Act was an important landmark piece of legislation and received widespread support from industry groups and NGOs.

The President may also be satisfied with the improvements in self-regulation and voluntary action on labelling and marketing that the threat of regulation achieved. Campaigners may welcome some of those changes too, even if in general they are disappointed by the lack of definitive regulatory action.

The question now is whether the President's second term will see a continuation of a consensus-orientated approach or whether, free from worrying about gaining a second term, he will get tougher with the food sector on labelling and advertising.

One aspect of today's events suggests obesity and dietary health remain a major concern for the President and the First Lady. The main course of the 2013 Inauguration Luncheon will comprise Hickory Grilled Bison with Red Potato Horseradish Cake and Wild Huckleberry Reduction.

Over the years it is fair to say that bison has not featured prominently on the pages of just-food but this low-fat alternative to beef is arguably a meat for the coming era. According to figures published by the NBA, that is the National Bison Association by the way, consumer demand for bison meat grew by 10% in 2011, the sixth successive year of double-digit growth for bison meat in the US.

An early indication of how hard the Obama administration may be seeking to push food and beverage companies may also be found in the President's response to a campaign calling for a Surgeon-General's report into the heath impacts of sodas and other sugary drinks, launched by more than 100 US health and consumer groups last July.

As for food marketing to children, it would appear that the stick element may well have been confined to the President's first term in office. According to the Federal Trade Commission's Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents, published in December, there was a 19.5% drop in youth marketing between 2006 and 2009. The report was generally positive about the industry's self-regulatory measures, notably the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).

The report states: "The food and beverage industry, and in particular the CFBAI, has made major strides since the early days of self-regulation in 2006. The industry has expanded the scope of children's marketing to which their efforts apply and has strengthened and standardised the nutritional criteria for foods marketing to children.

"New uniform criteria, developed by the CFBAI and scheduled to take effect on December 31, 2013, will likely lead to further improvements in the nutritional quality of foods marketed to children, but could be further strengthened to more closely track key dietary advice in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

The FTC also commended food companies for their response to the Let's Move campaign.

The publication of a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in September detailing reported declines in childhood obesity in a number of US cities arguably bolsters industry's argument that self-regulation and voluntary action can yield results. Such reports may well also encourage the President to focus primarily on the carrot, principally the Let's Move campaign, in his second term.

It is true that progressive intentions of first presidential terms are sometimes compromised by the overriding priority given to securing four more years in office. Such concerns may have tempered any support the administration may have had for food regulation, particularly when the mid-term election results made actual progress on such legislation so politically challenging.

So one view would be unburdened by such constraints a second-term president can be more aggressive. However, the political constraints President Obama has had to grapple with during the past two years will remain at least for two more years, while the struggle on children's advertising, along with battles in various cities and states over soda taxes, have shown just how formidable a lobbying force the food and drinks sector is.

Having secured some meaningful progress on voluntary measures from industry, the President may view it as pragmatic not to pursue further regulatory options during his second term. Moreover, while second terms are also about securing legacy, it is quite possible that in this respect the President may be thinking not only of his legacy but that of the First Lady.

With the Let's Move campaign proving a successful vehicle for community and corporate action, some small but nonetheless tangible improvement in obesity levels being shown in epidemiological research, and his own political legacy focused on healthcare and now possibly gun control, he may be very happy for the First Lady's work on childhood obesity to take centre stage.

Sectors: Advertising & labelling, Baby food, Bakery, Canned food, Cereal, Chilled foods, Commodities & ingredients, Condiments, dressings & sauces, Confectionery, Dairy, Dried foods, Food safety, Fresh produce, Frozen, Health & wellness, Ice cream, Meat & poultry, Natural & organic, Seafood, Snacks, World foods

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Consuming issues

In a regular column, just-food contributing editor Ben Cooper chews over how the industry is tackling issues from obesity to labelling and from child labour to its environmental impact.

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