Every once in a while, the food industry comes face-to-face with one of its most ardent watchdogs and vocal critics. I’m talking about Marion Nestle, the crack NYU professor and author who eagerly accepts any chance to speak directly to food product decision-makers.
The most recent venue was the CIES World Business Summit, held last week at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel here in New York. I am indebted to SN’s retail editor, Mark Hamstra, who attended the event and sat in on Nestle’s speech.
I’ve met Marion, and in fact, she wrote an editorial for the Winter 2006 issue of SN Whole Health. I’ve sat in on several of her speeches, which follow the same basic format — slide after slide of depicting food products marketed as healthy, accompanied by a running commentary on why these products actually fail the healthfulness test. To wit:
“Look at this cereal. It has an endorsement from American Heart Association, even though it has nine types of sugars in the ingredients…”
“Companies get their own endorsements. PepsiCo is good at this; they create their own criteria, and then give themselves all these endorsements…”
“This borders on, if not absolutely, irresponsible marketing…”
Harsh as it sounds, she makes many valid points. In his own blog post on the CIES summit, Mark noted that Justin King, CEO of U.K.-based Sainsbury’s joined Nestle onstage afterwards and conceded the professor had a point.
“We shouldn’t be proud of some of the things we are doing,” he said. “Some of what Marion showed here today is disgraceful.”
But Marion doesn’t just play the blame game. She closed her remarks by reciting a Wish List of what food companies can do to exercise true social responsibility:
• Make it easier to buy and eat smaller portions.
• Tackle the salt issue.
• Make responsible health claims.
• Manufacture kids meals that are healthy by default. If parents want their kids to eat unhealthy foods, they should have to ask for them.
• Operate facilities under a HACCP plan, with 3rd party inspections.
• Lobby Wall Street and convince investors to value long-term investments promoting social welfare.
• Stop paying the Center for Consumer Freedom to do your dirty work for you.