Feeding Frenzy

In response to “Fed Up,” a new documentary purporting to reveal the food industry’s “dirty little secret” when it comes to its products – supposedly that they sicken far more people, even those of average weight, than heretofore realized – the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has issued what has become its standard response to such broadsides.

“Whether it is new packaging or new ways to prepare our products, or introducing low-sodium, low-fat and organic foods, we are constantly working to provide the products that empower all consumers to make the choices that are right for them and their families,” noted GMA EVP of Communications and Membership Sean McBride. “America’s food and beverage companies enthusiastically support First Lady Michelle Obama’s goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation, and recognize that the challenge of reducing obesity is one that requires everyone to do their part. For the food and beverage industry, this means constantly working to increase transparency and provide consumers — especially parents — with healthier options and the information they need to maintain a healthy diet and active lifestyle.”

This is perfectly true, but merely issuing reminders of what it’s done to address the obesity epidemic isn’t enough: Food companies and their harshest critics should be working together to address these issues, not retreating to their respective corners and hunkering down.

Companies that are working to come up with solutions may feel beleaguered by what they perceive as unfair attacks, but to many outside the industry, their attitude often comes off as defensive or even arrogant, as in, “We alone know what’s best; don’t listen to those fear mongers.”

It’s also worth pointing out that an executive producer of “Fed Up,” as well as its narrator, Katie Couric, is hardly a marginal figure, but instead a trusted mainstream source for millions of Americans. Couric’s involvement with the film, which just debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, will no doubt influence scores of viewers to give greater weight, if you'll pardon the word, to its findings than they might otherwise.

As the push to make packaged food more nutritious gains a higher profile, it’s in food companies’ interest to be open to collaboration with the activists currently raising the alarm on unhealthy food content, in terms of soliciting input on such ongoing efforts as reformulating products, designing effective on-pack nutrition labels or creating programs to improve public health, among other solutions.

As well as reaching out to – and thereby potentially defusing – their detractors, food companies need to work more closely among themselves to position the industry as more responsive to evolving demands or, better yet, band together to make a documentary to vividly illustrate their own position in advance of the next unfavorable film/report/series, which, be assured, is in the pipeline somewhere.

After all, nothing less than retaining and ultimately bolstering consumer trust, which a recent Harris poll found was at a worrying low for the packaged food industry, is at stake here.

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