NEW YORK — Several speakers at the CIES World Food Business Summit here this month addressed the topic of nutrition and product labeling, perhaps a reflection of what one presenter described as a growing consumer movement surrounding food.
“I think we are in the middle of a food revolution,” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition author and professor at New York University. “I think we are seeing a mass of people coming out around food issues — people can't do anything about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they can't do anything about climate change, so instead we have all these movements around food.”
She described the leading current trend as the “healthy food movement,” which shuns processed foods and examines the environmental and social impact of food production.
During a roundtable discussion a day earlier, Jeff Noddle, executive chairman of the board at Supervalu, Minneapolis, engaged in a frank discussion about nutritional labeling programs with two leading suppliers.
“We wish he didn't have his own [nutritional labeling] system, because, as he says, he has a system and many of our other customers have different systems,” said Kraft Foods' chairman and chief executive officer, Irene Rosenfeld. “It's somewhat antithetical to the idea of trying to have a common format for consumers that makes it simple for them to understand. But we see promise behind it, and it's heading in the right direction.”
Kraft is an adopter of the Smart Choices Program, a front-of-pack labeling system that offers “guidance at a glance” and information related to calories per serving and servings per package. The program was created with input from Wal-Mart, Kraft, Kellogg, Nestlé, Wegmans and General Mills.
Sara Lee Corp. recently announced plans for a different model. Its “Nutritional Spotlight” banner includes calorie, fat and sodium information about its products. Despite the new introduction, Brenda Barnes, chairman and CEO of Sara Lee, shares Rosenfeld's view.
“The consumer is already cynical, and if there are [different systems], who do they believe?” she said.
Noddle said he understands the suppliers' position, but he believes Supervalu has an obligation “to be a conduit of information to our customers” until a universal system can be agreed upon.
For her part, Nestle, an activist on nutrition issues, said she is opposed to all of the nutritional labeling programs that she has seen in the U.S., but instead favors a labeling program developed by Sainsbury's in the U.K. that uses a “traffic light” system: Green-coded products can be eaten in abundance, yellow-coded products can be consumed in moderation, and red-coded products should be eaten only minimally.
“I am not in favor of any of these schemes, but if forced to I would choose the one in the U.K., because I think it is easy to use and understand,” she said. “In the U.S., we will do anything to keep traffic lights from coming into our system.”
She railed against food producers for what she called a rise in “nutritionism,” or marketing certain health benefits of products that overall might not be healthy. She also opposed the addition of nutrients — Vitamin D is becoming the new “nutrient du jour,” she said — to products for the sake of making health claims.
She cited one example of a sweetened juice product with added nutrients that she said “borders on, if not absolutely, irresponsible marketing.”
Justin King, the chief executive officer of Sainsbury's, joined her on stage after her presentation, and said he agreed that the industry should take a hard look at the way it approaches product marketing with regard to nutritional claims.
“We shouldn't be proud of some of the things we are doing,” King said. “Some of what Marion showed here today is disgraceful.”
Others at the conference stressed that problems like obesity should be approached through nutritional education and the encouragement of exercise rather than the restriction of products on the market.
“Ultimately, you want to have free choice,” said Steve Burd, the chairman, president and CEO of Safeway, in a separate presentation at the CIES Summit.
“You want to educate people about calories in and calories out, but I don't think it's a good idea to label some products as bad, or some products as good.”
Noddle of Supervalu agreed: “I don't think our role is to be the police in this regard. We give people choice and a wide base of information that teaches them about health and nutrition.
“But personal responsibility is something that we seem to be moving away from in our country in recent years, and we have to reinvigorate personal responsibility.”