Thursday, January 20, 2011

Healthier Food: Who is Responsible?


By Sara Hessenflow Harper

Today, Wal-Mart launched a policy they will employ on their private label foods to cut the amount of salt, sugar and trans fats by various amounts over the next 5 years. Below are a few snippets from today's New York Times story:
January 20, 2011

Wal-Mart Shifts Strategy to Promote Healthy Foods

WASHINGTON — Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, will announce a five-year plan on Thursday to make thousands of its packaged foods lower in unhealthy salts, fats and sugars, and to drop prices on fruits and vegetables . . .

In addition, Wal-Mart will work to eliminate any extra cost to customers for healthy foods made with whole grains, said Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs. By lowering prices on fresh fruits and vegetables, Wal-Mart says it will cut into its own profits but hopes to make up for it in sales volume. “This is not about asking the farmers to accept less for their crops,” he said . . .

Wal-Mart is hardly the first company to take such steps; ConAgra Foods, for example, has promised to reduce sodium content in its foods by 20 percent by 2015.

But because Wal-Mart sells more groceries than any other company in the country, and because it is such a large purchaser of foods produced by national suppliers, nutrition experts say the changes could have a big impact on the affordability of healthy food and the health of American families and children.

You can read the full article by clicking here.

There are SO many things we could talk about regarding this announcement: the market power of Wal-Mart and their continuing push toward sustainability, the health impacts of eating more processed foods vs fresh food or "homemade" food -- and the sustainability impacts of that trend, or the whole divisive political angle: just who does any company think they are deciding what is healthy for me?

What has been sticking in my mind as I thought about this issue is something I heard Dr. Robert Paarlberg (author of Food Politics - refer to my previous post for background) say at a recent talk. Paarlberg said that he thought it would be wise for the agricultural industry to create some distance in the minds of the public, between producers who grow the raw ingredients that often get combined into our food -- and food companies or the food industry that makes the decisions about how much salt, fat, sugar, etc to put into processed foods. His point was not to demonize the food industry - but to say that there are some real health issues that our country is facing, that increasingly more consumers are becoming aware and concerned about these issues. All too often, growers are lumped in with food processors as all part of the same sector.

While growers and processors are certainly linked, it is worth pointing out that often the healthiest parts of processed foods are grown by agricultural producers -- who took great care to create nutritious products. However, those ingredients are often overwhelmed or over-processed by things like salt, sugar, fat and a whole array of other preservatives and texture-adding substances. What's more, the producers who grew the raw ingredients had no say as to how their product is ultimately processed -- something that often escapes the public's notice. So when we talk about "unhealthy" foods and the marketing of them, this is not an issue that agricultural producers should take the blame for - if there is blame to be taken (I know, that is a controversial issue in and of itself).

Part of what I have seen happening with my urban friends is a growing trust gap that they feel exists between them and the people who make their food. This has spurred many of their decisions to buy organic or "all natural" or "sustainably grown" food. They feel that these labels provide a trusted filter that bring to them the kind of food they can feel good and healthy about eating. Ask yourself why they feel they need a filter? Yes, there is the growing urban-rural divide . . . and yes, some of it connects to differing political identities - but not all of it. Assigning blame for who lost the public's trust (or part of it) on food is not the point. Rather, it is important to find ways to re-connect and re-assure the public about the safety and healthfulness of conventional agriculture -- through completely truthful means. One way of doing this, Paarlberg suggests, is for the growers who do in fact grow healthy products, to stop being so defensive against pro-health food initiatives. It is often this defensiveness -- which shows up as anger against specific foods being described as unhealthy rather than focusing solely on personal responsibility, that reinforces negative perceptions urbanites have about agriculture.

Case in point, look at one of the comments on the NYT story:

"This is fantastic news. I just moved back to the US after 7 years in England. The store brands in British grocery stores have the least added junk. You can get bread, peanut butter, soy milk, and tomato sauce that's not loaded with sugar. You can get fresh food without preservatives, cheese without orange dye, organic jams that are store brand -- and it's all the cheapest stuff and the best tasting. It's a wonder any brand names succeed there at all, but I guess there are suckers for advertising anywhere.

It has been painful to come home to find out that I have to pay twice as much for a third of the ingredients. You have to go to a fancy shop to find peanut butter with just peanuts in it, but in Britain everyone has access to food that's only made out of food. Walmart has the ability to help so many by reducing the junk in their cheapest goods. Cheers to them."

Increasingly, consumers want more of what you (producers) grow and less of the "bad" or filler stuff. I think it would be a mistake and a lost opportunity for agriculture, for consumers like this to view organic as the only way they can get away from preservatives or over-processed foods. Just think how much could be done to increase the understanding of truly sustainable conventional agriculture if consumers looking for healthy choices had healthier conventional as well as organic options to choose from. I know this is already happening with individual products, but something to consider before reacting negatively to what Wal-Mart is doing might be the effect of making conventional processed food -- all of it, healthier.

Another angle of interest to me on this came from an email exchange with one of the producers I talk often with and whom I highly respect. He noted that indeed the quality and combination of ingredients is important -- but that unless consumers make the choice to prioritize these things, they will not magically appear or be sustained in the marketplace. We have the food we have now because it is popular -- it is cheap, tastes good and is convenient -- all things we have had greater and greater desire for over time. If consumers begin to ask for and seek out these products, the food industry will (and is beginning) to respond.

I thought these were excellent points and get to the heart of the issue about just whose responsibility is it to make healthier food choices. Of course, where you come down on this has a lot to do with how you view the world and, I would argue, your political lens. For example, as a conservative, I believe that ultimately, it is each individual's responsibility to educate him/herself and make choices -- and live with the consequences. So, I understand some of the defensiveness or potential anger that the ag sector may feel about efforts such as this. I can hear the accusations of "nanny state" and "what about personal responsibility?" being tossed around. And while I generally agree with those concerns, a key difference here is that this step is being taken by a private company -- likely based on some pretty good consumer research, and it will only succeed if the bet they are making about consumers wanting healthier food, is right.

It is not the government telling Wal-Mart to do this, even though they have talked with the first lady about it. This gets directly to the question about markets that my producer friend raised. Isn't it interesting that the private marketplace is navigating these waters far more successfully and quickly than waiting for some political/legislative agreement. Another added benefit of this issue playing out in the marketplace, is that it preserves consumer choice. As this experiment unfolds, if people are determined to stay hooked on salt, sugar and fat, for example -- we will clearly see that in the purchasing choices/changes they make -- away from Wal-Mart's brand, or towards it. Unlike a legislative edict or government regulation handed down from on high, this initiative will involve interaction with the public -- and will ultimately fail or succeed based on how consumers respond.

The health challenges our country faces right now - specifically the obesity and diabetes epidemics, present us all with an opportunity to re-evaluate our lifestyle, educate ourselves about proper nutrition and make more healthful choices. Wal-Mart's move today provides a new array of choices to aid in this process. It also provides conventional ag with an opportunity to demonstrate that its product's healthful properties are every bit as good as organic when processed with that priority in mind.

Conventional agriculture has nothing to fear from this endeavor since they were never really part of the problem -- and are a huge part of the solution. In fact, if the ag sector sees this as an opportunity to educate consumers, it can also be a positive step forward in closing the trust gap.


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