Archive for May, 2010

PepsiCo’s latest “local” ad campaign for Lay’s reveals that potato chips come from… potatoes!

In case potato chips lovers had no idea where their favorite salty snacks came from, America’s largest chip maker has launched a new ad campaign clearing up the confusion once and for all.

As explained by the New York Times this week (in the advertising section, not food, and rightly so) the ads appear to stem from recent concern over the high salt content and other nutritional challenges of the likes of Lay’s. To quote columnist Stuart Elliot, the campaign “is intended to help consumers think of Lay’s as a food rather than a snack” and is “centered on farmers who grow potatoes for the maker of Lay’s, the Frito-Lay unit of PepsiCo.”

Not to miss out on the current “love your local farmer” movement, the campaign features ads of regional farmers in local markets, along with an online “Happiness Exhibit” photo gallery at

The Times describes why the stakes are so high. Lay’s is PepsiCo’s third best-selling product, second only to the company’s Pepsi-Cola and Mountain Dew brands. Total Lay’s sales topped $2 billion last year. Yet, growth is the key to continued success, and according to the Times:

Sales growth for Lay’s had slowed to less than 1 percent from 2005 to 2007, raising concern among executives at Frito-Lay as well as PepsiCo.

Surveys revealed that Frito-Lay had a perception problem on its hands. Apparently, a third of respondents thought the ingredients were “not real potatoes.” That’s when the marketing machine sprung into action. New ads were designed to convey the “three simple ingredients” in the main variety of Lay’s, called Lay’s Classic: potatoes, “all-natural” sunflower oil and “a dash of salt.”

The addition of farmers to the ad campaign is an aim, says Gannon Jones, vice president for portfolio marketing at Frito-Lay, “to put the hometown face on it, and the hometown face is our farmers.”

How touching. Funny the company didn’t put the “hometown face” of the local factory workers who pulverize the potatoes, and then douse the mixture in salt (more than a dash) along with many gallons of (“all-natural”) oil. Or the other numerous local factory workers who must work very hard turning those “simple ingredients” into fried chips. Then there are even more local factory workers on the assembly line where all of those many chips are put into bags. Hmmm.

Oh wait, they also left out the local factory workers who put the bags into boxes, seal the boxes and get them ready to leave the factories. And who can forget all the local truckers who have to drive the big trucks to the regional distribution centers before they can be delivered by yet other local truck drivers to all those local stores. Nope, just gonna focus on the local farmers. Wonder why?

I thought this local angle sounded familiar. Indeed, when Frito-Lay first tried to go the “Local Lay’s” route last year, there was plenty of skepticism to go around. (See for example, Frito-Lay Embraces Local Movement, But Movement Does Not Embrace Frito-Lay.)

Also, I was interviewed for this article in Ad Age at the start of the campaign and called it disingenuous then. (That was an understatement.) Here’s what else I had to say about it:

Let’s be honest: It’s processed junk food. It’s just companies scrambling to save themselves as they see the trend happening as people are waking up and getting a clue that maybe packaged food isn’t good for you.

Then I got the last word in that story:

They have factories all over the country so they’re locally processed? Give me a break. That’s hilarious. You might as well say ‘I rolled this cigarette in my backyard so it’s local.’

Sorry for recycling old quotes, but if it still works, why not?

Thanks to my esteemed colleague Marion Nestle who pointed me to this story. Her clever name for it? Farmwashing!

Wondering where in the world Big Food will put 1.5 trillion calories?

Last week, 16 major packaged food companies “pledged” to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign that they would somehow remove 1.5 trillion calories from the U.S. food supply by the end of 2015. As I wrote here, there are many reasons to be skeptical about this announcement. Since my post others have chimed in with their own doubts. For example, see business writer Melanie Warner’s excellent analysis, Food Industry’s Calorie Reduction Pledge: Smart Marketing, but Dumb Nutrition.

I also had this nagging feeling that even if these food companies were to honor their promise, those calories would not just disappear, rather they would likely just turn up in other countries. Sure enough, with the ink barely dry on the calorie-reduction agreement, in came a press release from one of the most important pledgers – PepsiCo.

PepsiCo proudly announced that it’s investing $2.5 billion in China, on top of the $1 billion the company has already spent there since 2008. The soft drink and snack food giant intends to build a dozen new food and beverage plants, to add to the current 27 facilities.

According to the Wall Street Journal, this announcement, made at the Shanghai Expo, indicates stepped-up competition with Coca-Cola, who announced its own $2 billion investment in China late last year. (Both companies are major sponsors of the Expo.) WSJ explains why Coke and Pepsi are so eager to find fertile ground:

Both beverage giants are expanding aggressively in China, India and Russia, among other emerging markets, where growth is much faster than in the U.S. Soft-drink sales have declined for five years in the U.S.

“Emerging markets” is corporate-speak for developing nations. While sales slump here at home, PepsiCo is seeing double-digit growth overseas:

Its international business boosted first-quarter results, with its Asia, Middle East and Africa unit posting 13% growth in snack volume and 10% in beverage volume, largely because of growth in China and India.

Meanwhile Coca-Cola, never to be outdone by PepsiCo in the chutzpah department, quietly announced, the week prior to the Big Food White House Pledge, that they were investing $300 million in Pakistan. The plan is to build two more (adding to the current six) manufacturing plants in that country. This is another direct challenge to PepsiCo, which already has a major presence in the Middle East. (A friend who is currently teaching at Lahore University of Management Sciences tells me that students there eat in the “Pepsi Dining Center.”)

One article explains Coca-Cola’s motives: “Pakistan is a growing market. It has a population of 170 million and majority of them are youngsters,” said Rizwan U Khan, Coca-Cola’s country manager for Pakistan and Afghanistan. “We view this country has a favourable place for expansion.”

The majority are youngsters, of course, since youth is the optimum time to get more loyal customers. Funny how we didn’t hear any such honest assessment coming out of Big Food last week at the White House. They were on their best behavior there. And while PepsiCo previously endorsed the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, it seems Big Food only cares about childhood obesity in America. Indian kids, Pakistani kids, Chinese kids, who cares?

Of course, the cigarette industry wrote this playbook years ago. Once regulations started becoming inhospitable in the United States, Big Tobacco just stepped up their marketing efforts overseas, especially in the developing world and as a result, smoking is an international epidemic. To quote Dr. Margaret Chan, World Health Organization director-general:

If Big Tobacco is in retreat in some parts of the world, it is on the march in others. As we all know, the tobacco industry is ruthless, devious, rich and powerful.

Just replace the word tobacco with food in that quote, and you will see our future.

Why humane meat is an oxymoron – the Lyman v. Niman debate

Last night I attended an entertaining debate between ex-cattle rancher turned vegan Howard Lyman, author of Mad Cowboy, and Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkshop and wife of Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman. The event was co-sponsored by VegNews Magazine and Earth Island Institute and held in the impressive David Brower Center in Berkeley. (I know, where else?)

The subtitle of the event asked the question, Can you be a “good environmentalist” and still eat meat?

Full disclosure: this is not an objective review of what transpired. While I don’t tend to put it front and center in my writing these days, I have been vegetarian (mostly vegan) for close to 15 years. My own thinking has evolved over the years and I now advocate more broadly for a mostly plant-based, whole-foods diet, which no educated person can argue with nutritionally. While I realize it may not harm your health to eat a small amount of meat here and there, I have decided for ethical reasons not to do so. I decided to write this post because much of what I heard last night was not adequately addressed by the speakers and I want to add my own thoughts.

The two authors began by agreeing that factory-farmed meat is a disaster and has no place on our planet. The debate boiled down to whether or not humanely and sustainably-raised animals were a viable alternative to the current system, from both an ecological and ethical perspective.

Ms. Niman certainly held her own when it came to the scientific and environmental arguments for sustainable meat, disputing Lyman’s claims that any type of animal farming harms the planet.

But when Niman tried to argue that animals were essential to sustainable farming, she never did explain why they have to be killed in order to be part of the closed loop system she espouses.

Once the discussion turned directly to the ethics of killing animals for food, Lyman easily had the moral high ground. And Niman herself seemed uncomfortable making several tired and twisted arguments.

First, she said that humans have been eating meat for hundreds of thousands of years, so it’s a natural part of our diet. But humans have not been slaughtering cows and chickens for all that time. It’s certainly true that humans have eaten meat throughout our evolution and Niman was right to correct Lyman when he claimed that we are natural herbivores. Humans are omnivores, which simply means that we can eat both meat and plants, not that we have to. The dispute is really whether we should.

The anthropological evidence is clear that early humans either ate the leftover meat that was killed by carnivores (when was the last time you chased down an animal and bit into it?) or killed small animals like rabbits, all for the purpose of survival when little else was available. Since modern agriculture  kicked in (along with modern marketing), humans have been brainwashed to eat a diet mainly comprised of animals, but that was not the diet of our ancestors. Rather, they subsisted largely on nuts, seeds, and fruit, and it is such a plant-based diet, according to decades of established science (not to mention Michael Pollan) that humans thrive on.

Next, Lyman and Niman disagreed on just how much destruction is caused by our conventional food system in general. Niman tried to argue that all food production causes harm to animals, presumably from various disruptive farming techniques. Lyman dismissed this argument by saying there’s a difference between nematodes and cows, to which Niman responded that she also meant wild animals.

I am willing to accept the argument that conventional farming methods causes harm to animals, and that vegans cannot claim that their eating habits cause no harm. But because wild animals are harmed as a by-product of plant production is not a reason to deliberately raise and slaughter more animals who would never exist in the first place. Why not try to minimize all animal suffering?

Niman then proceeded to bury herself even deeper in the ethical morass by making the astonishing claim that animals suffer a lot in the wild, since it’s such a dangerous world out there, and aren’t they better off under the care of humane, kind ranchers like her husband? This sounded chillingly like the arguments for slavery. You know, blacks were really much better off getting free room and board and they weren’t treated all that badly were they?

This argument once again fails to acknowledge that there is a vast world of difference between animals in the wild (who yes, have to navigate all sorts of dangers, that is nature and cannot be helped) and the breeding of countless animals who would otherwise never be brought into this world.

Next, Niman had to explain the disconnect between how she herself is a vegetarian and her defense of humane meat. She said in many different ways that being vegetarian is a personal choice and that she does not try to persuade others to make the same decision. But isn’t factory farming also an ethical issue and isn’t she trying to persuade those to perpetuate those immoral business practices to stop doing so? Why do her ethics of caring about how animals are treated stop at the point of slaughter?

Moreover, it’s an ethical cop-out to claim that being vegetarian is a personal choice. Of course it is, but that doesn’t mean we cannot as a society recognize moral standards we expect others to follow. We do it all the time in many contexts. For example, when we say murder is wrong, rape is wrong, driving too fast is wrong, etc. You name your law, I will give you a moral argument that backs it up.

I am not saying we should out-law meat eating, but claiming a decision is “personal” does not take it off the table for discussion. Again, slavery is a helpful analogy. At one time, slavery was acceptable, thought to be a personal choice (but of course, only for the owners, not for the slaves; similarly, the animals do not get a choice). In time we recognized as a society that slavery was immoral and then we outlawed it. That is the natural course of the evolution of human values. Our treatment of animals has also evolved over time and it can and should continue to do so.

When asked if she ever bonded with an animal, she talked about a cow she and her husband loved so much because she was “special” and so they decided to give her a “pass” from slaughter. How lucky for that animal, and how unlucky for all the others on the ranch who apparently were not special enough.

During the Q&A session, I tried to ask Niman how exactly sustainable meat could ever work on a mass scale considering that her husband’s own company failed to live up to difficult economic challenges. (See this article for how Niman Ranch was forced to merge last year with its largest investor due to economic hardship; Bill Niman himself left the business back in 2007 over ethical standards disputes.)

She bypassed the heart of the question, instead explaining how an academic report showed that it’s theoretically possible for humanely-raised, sustainable meat to feed the world, but only if people cut down on their meat consumption, a concept which she supports (on this point we agree).

But she failed to acknowledge that in our current profit-driven, capitalistic society, it’s extremely difficult for anyone who wants to run a business “ethically” to compete, again, as her own husband learned the hard way. Lyman tried to make this point by saying the system is rigged in favor of the large, unethical producers. This is exactly right, as the recent oil disaster also proves.

Moreover, I don’t hear any “eat less meat” messages coming out of the American Grassfed Association. Rather, you can learn at an upcoming meeting, about “growing your grassfed business.” And herein lies the rub. In order for any large business to succeed in our economy, it must grow or die. Growth and sustainability simply do not fit in the same sentence.

At the end, Lyman got to the heart of the ethical question when he asked, would the Holocaust have been OK if the Jews had stayed in 5-star hotels and been fed lavish meals before they were escorted to their deaths? This to me sums up the moral conundrum that people such as the Nimans must face.

Last night, I became more convinced than ever that humane meat is an oxymoron.

Big Food pledge placates White House – Who needs policy when you’ve got promises?

You’ve got to hand it to the food industry. They certainly know how to get the attention of the White House just when they need it most. As announced today by Michelle Obama herself, the nation’s leading food companies have made yet another pledge, this one in the form of an agreement signed with the Partnership for a Healthier America, an off-shoot of the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign.

Mrs. Obama said that 16 corporations accounting for up to 25 percent of the American food supply chain would trim a total of one trillion calories by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015. Sounds impressive, but I am not really sure exactly what it means. Trim calories, from what? OK, to be fair, here’s how the press release attempts to explain it:

Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation manufacturing companies will pursue their calorie reduction goal by developing and introducing lower-calorie options, changing recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products, or reducing portion sizes of existing single-serve products.

First off, who is the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation? Good question, certainly sounds official, but a quick perusal of the website reveals a virtual who’s who of Big Food: Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft Foods, and of course, PepsiCo, whose CEO Indra Nooyi serves as vice chair. (Kellogg’s CEO got the top spot and was at today’s White House briefing, see leadership.)

And you gotta love this mission statement: “Our mission is to try to help reduce obesity – especially childhood obesity – by 2015.” Try to help? Reduce? Especially? Sounds pretty lame. But I digress.

The member companies are pledging to do three things: One, develop and introduce lower-calorie options. But if they are making new products, isn’t that actually adding calories to the food supply? Next, for current products, where possible they will lower calorie content. When is it not possible? Why, when Big Food says so, that’s when.

Finally, they will reduce portion sizes. Now all of the member companies are packaged food manufacturers, not restaurants, where portion sizes are out of control and where Americans spend roughly half of their food dollars. So this just means that we might get more products like the current “100-calorie packs,” which just encourages more packaging waste, at higher prices to boot.

As this is just another voluntary promise by industry, how will we even know if the companies follow through? No worries, they thought of everything. As the press release explains, under the agreement, “the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation will report annually to the Partnership on the progress that we are making toward this pledge.” So I guess that should cover it.

What’s going on here should be obvious to anyone who has been paying close attention to food industry tactics over the past few years. It’s certainly no coincidence that this announcement comes on the heels of last week’s report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Indeed, with less than 5 business days in between the two media events, the memory of that comprehensive report, containing 70 policy recommendations is now conveniently overshadowed by Big Food’s promise of 1.5 trillion fewer calories. That’s industry math: 1.5 trillion beats 70.

But before we toss the Task Force report into the historical dust bin, let’s see which policy recommendations might have gotten Big Food upset. First there’s # 2.6: “All media and entertainment companies should limit the licensing of their popular characters to food and beverage products that are healthy.” Uh oh, that could mean no more SpongeBob Squarepants Popsicles, that would stink.

Then there’s # 2.7: “The food and beverage industry and the media and entertainment industry should jointly adopt meaningful, uniform nutrition standards for marketing food and beverages to children, as well as a uniform standard for what constitutes marketing to children.” Meaningful? Uniform? Those are dirty words to Big Food. They prefer words like “try” and “reduce.”

Oh and they really don’t like recommendation # 2.9: “If voluntary efforts to limit the marketing of less healthy foods and beverages to children do not yield substantial results, the FCC could consider revisiting and modernizing rules on commercial time during children’s programming.” What was that, the FCC? Why, that’s an actual government agency named in the report, how did that happen?

Food companies that market to children (including pledgers Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo) are afraid that Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign might result in actual policy making, otherwise known as laws and regulations, those things that government agencies make when they are doing their jobs.

Every so often, when the threat of government regulation rears its ugly head, the food industry pounces on it to beat it down, by announcing new and improved promises, pledges, commitments, initiatives, partnerships, or coalitions at just the right time, all aimed at keeping government at bay and the public convinced that they are acting responsibly.

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University called it right when he told the Wall Street Journal that this move was little more than public relations:

This is where the market is taking these companies anyway, and I don’t know that this represents much of a concession. I also believe that the motive behind this is to fight off government regulation by creating the appearance of voluntary changes by the industry.

Sadly, this time industry made sure that government came on board even before the announcement. At the press conference, Michelle Obama predicted, “In the weeks and months to come, we expect to hear more announcements regarding specific steps on reducing sugar, fat and sodium in the foods that our children eat.” Great, brace yourself for even more PR and empty promises. 

If I was skeptical about the likely success of Let’s Move before, I am downright cynical now.

Post-script: For a somewhat less cynical viewpoint, see Marion Nestle’s blog post.

Big Food Goes North to Buy Out Dietitians of Canada Too

Some things in Canada just seem so much more sane than here in the states. Better (any) health care of course is the most touted reason to move north of the border.

If you’re like me and many others fed up with the American Dietetic Association’s ongoing affiliation with the likes of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s, (see previous post and comments) you might wonder if this insane hypocrisy is something unique to America. You might think that dietitians in a country humane enough to provide its citizens with decent health care would steer clear of Big Food influence over its nutrition professionals. I am sorry to report that this is not the case.

As recently described in painful detail by a Canadian dietitian blogger (Nutrition Nibbles) Sybil Hebert, the ADA equivalent trade group, Dietitians of Canada (DC) “partners with industry, including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Monsanto, and Nestle.” As a new member, Ms. Hebert was not happy to learn this troubling information, and inspired by Marion Nestle’s call to ADA members on the same topic, decided to make her distaste known with a letter of her own.

Her impressive missive details numerous examples of industry partnerships such as raking in over $200,000 dollars from corporate sponsorships, including the pharmaceutical industry. She concludes with this reasonable request to the organization’s leadership:

Board of Directors, as long as DC continues to align itself with food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries, and rely on these corporations for funding, it will never be respected, and neither will I. As a member of the purported “nation-wide voice of dietitians,” I hope my voice, and my concerns, are heard, and that DC will carefully review its advertising and sponsorship policies to recognize the many conflicts of interest that exist, and their consequences, and take steps to minimize them in order to restore DC’s credibility.

Well said. I’ve heard from many dietitians in the U.S. who are no longer members of the ADA for this very reason, that the organization cannot be respected as long as it is compromised.

Unfortunately, the DC leadership has not taken too kindly to Ms. Hebert’s request, and in particular to the fact that she has posted her letter on her blog. Despite (or maybe because of) the many comments in support, Ms. Hebert has received more than one email asking her to take down the post. 

What is the leadership of Dietitians of Canada so afraid of? It’s certainly no secret that the organization partners with industry. It only took me a minute to find the program for DC’s upcoming annual conference in Montreal, which lists among its sponsors: General Mills, Danone, Unilever, PepsiCo, and a plethora of drug companies. In just one day you can attend the Kellogg Breakfast, followed by the Kellogg Nutrition Symposium, and then take a Kellogg break. Maybe the Dietitians of Canada should consider changing its name to Dietitians of Kellogg. Then again, maybe that would make all those other corporate sponsors too upset.

This isn’t the first time the trade group has been called out for its conflict of interest. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff is a family doctor in Ottawa who has wondered (among other conflicts) what the heck the Dietitians of Canada was doing putting out a joint press release last year with the Dairy Farmers of Canada making nutrition recommendations that essentially served as a “milk advertisement” (his words).

Professional associations such as the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada must renounce their corporate affiliations and stop taking money from the very companies that are undermining their own members’ ability to do help people eat right. Until they do so, these groups risk becoming little more than a tool of corporate interests, which is exactly what Big Food wants.

We need more dietitians like Sybil Hebert taking a public stand. Please post comments both here and on her blog in support and if you’re a member of either the American Dietetic Association or Dietitians of Canada voice your concerns directly to the leadership. If you’re no longer a member, tell them why you left. Together, our voices can make a difference.

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