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Industry Seizes on New USDA Nutrition Guidelines

WASHINGTON -- Some of the industry's major players wasted little time reacting publicly to yesterday's highly anticipated release of the United States Department of Agriculture's final nutrition guidance system.

The guidance system includes a corresponding new blueprint that adds a staircase for exercise and 12 individually-tailored models to help people improve their eating habits. The reconfigured "pyramid" features rainbow-colored bands representing different food groups, which run vertically from the tip to the base.

Designed to help consumers make smart food choices, find a balance between food and physical activity, and get the most nutrition for their calories, the government's new MyPyramid symbol mirrors recommendations contained in the sixth edition of the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005," released earlier this year by U.S. Health and Human Services and USDA.

The guidelines focus consumer attention on nutrient-dense foods that would allow them to get the most benefit out of every calorie they consume.

Among retailers, Ahold USA's subsidiaries Giant Food of Landover and Stop & Shop were among the first to weigh in on the new guidelines. "Giant is pleased to support USDA in providing these important messages," said Odonna Mathews, the Landover, Md.-based chain's v.p. of consumer affairs. "This new MyPyramid is an opportunity to spread the word of healthier eating for everyone, and we want to help make this happen with our customers and their families."

Each month, Giant and Stop & Shop will communicate a key message about the MyPyramid via ad circulars, in-store radio, Web sites, and in-store signage.

The chains will also reinforce the recommendation to eat a variety of colorful produce, through efforts such as partnering with the Produce for Better Health Foundation and "Sesame Street" to promote more fruits and vegetables to the preschool set, as well as promoting school tours and new activity booklets for grades K-3 beginning in August. Stop & Shop and Giant will also promote the importance of physical activity, balanced with healthy eating.

Taking a different tack, Boulder, Colo.-based health food supermarket chain Wild Oats issued a list of tips to help consumers navigate the new dietary guidelines and food pyramid, which the chain said provoke more questions than answers. "With more than half of consumers unclear about following the new pyramid, Wild Oats Markets…can help consumers translate it into simple to follow steps for planning meals that that they can follow," the chain said in a statement, going on to delineate its own efforts to educate consumers about living healthy lifestyles, including knowledgeable, trained health professionals in stores who provide store walkthroughs and recipes upon request.

Pointing to findings of a nationwide telephone survey it conducted with 1,004 American adults 18 and older in March, Wild Oats said 52 percent of consumers are not likely to follow the new food guide pyramid, and 50 percent also not likely to follow the recommendation to consume at least nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

Most of the major trade associations were generally pleased with the new guidelines, including the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association (United), which was among the organizations that worked closely with USDA throughout the creation of the new guidance system.

Said Robert Guenther, United's v.p. of public policy, "We're pleased with the agency's increased emphasis on adequate daily fruit and vegetable consumption as a step toward better health. Fruits and vegetables have always made up the foundation of a healthy diet, and we support USDA's renewed efforts to emphasize this and communicate it a way many people should understand. We've been long overdue for such a message from the government."

Guenther said the onus is now on the government to do a better job of helping the American people eat healthier. Noting "similar nutrition outreach efforts in the past" that were met "with very poor results," Guenther said, "There is a tremendous, devastating gap between the advice presented by government experts and the way people actually live, and it will take more than a new shape and communication strategy to achieve real lifestyle change and improve public health."

In coming years, the government "must show a real commitment to addressing the environmental, economic and policy factors that encourage eating patterns different from these guidelines," said Guenther. "Food choices are influenced by a number of factors, including access, cost, availability, taste, and convenience, that the government must recognize if we are serious about integrating this new guidance into people's lives."

"This is great," was the reaction of Kathy Means, v.p. of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association. "In our comments to USDA, we stressed that produce had to be featured prominently in any dietary guidance graphic, and we're thrilled to see that happen. It's important that we use the version of the graphic that includes the depiction of fruits and vegetables in addition to the color bands so that consumers quickly grasp what they're supposed to do. The graphic without the food depictions is less clear about the actions consumers should take."

Means says PMA is also "certainly hopeful that the government will use its extensive communications power to get the word out and industry can do its part, too. This is a great tool that highlights our industry's products and has the science-based credibility of the dietary guidelines for Americans. Now we need to translate awareness and education into behavior for the health of the country and the health of our industry."

The National Fisheries Institute applauded the new guidance system, which reinforces the importance of keeping fish in diets while specifically mentioning the tremendous health benefits of Omega-3-rich fish and seafood. Pointing to recent news "from political activists [that] has confused many Americans about the nutritious value of fish and seafood," NFI president John Connelly said, "We now have the federal government once again conveying the health benefits of seafood in today's recommendations."

The Grocery Manufacturers of America is also vowing to help promote the new food guidance system to encourage healthy eating and daily activity through product development, marketing campaigns, and educational partnerships.

"The new food guidance system provides an unparalleled opportunity for government, the food and beverage industry, nutrition experts and others to help Americans live healthier lifestyles," said GMA president and c.e.o. Manly Molpus. GMA's members will use "their expertise in marketing, nutrition science and product development to help consumers adopt the recommendations of the USDA's Food Guide," Molpus said.

This fall, GMA will sponsor a nationwide education campaign with Weekly Reader Corp. Consumer and Custom Publishing (WRCC&CP) to promote the good guidance system to students, teachers, and families. "The partnership is just one example of how the food and beverage industry will help bring the guidelines into the homes of consumers," GMA said in a statement.

Cereal powerhouse General Mills has also stepped up with its own plan to advance nutrition education in America by announcing that more than 100 million boxes of its Big G cereal brands will carry the new MyPyramid symbol along with important nutritional information.

"The 2005 Dietary Guidelines are the collective efforts of the American nutrition community, and we want to help communicate these important messages by using some of the best real estate there is," said John Haugen, v.p. of marketing. "The cereal box is one of the most read items in the home, read on average 2.6 times. With cereal consumed in 93 percent of American households and with the information on more than 100 million General Mills cereal boxes, this is a powerful step forward in nutrition education."

The new food guide pyramid emphasizes the need for increased whole grain consumption, "but nine out of 10 people in the U.S. states do not eat the minimum recommended daily amount of whole grain. General Mills is the only leading cereal manufacturer to offer more than 50 cereals -- all of its Big G cereals -- as a good or excellent source of whole grain," Haugen said.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest derided the new guidelines and new pyramid, however, for failing to clearly communicate advice to the public. Calling it a "one size doesn't fit all" efffort, CSPI said the government has made this advice more complicated than it needs to be.

"Whatever the content of the pyramid, the government does very little to help Americans eat accordingly," the consumer advocacy group said. "If the government does with this pyramid what it did with the last one, which is to say very little, then we can expect a similar result: Americans will become fatter and will remain just as vulnerable to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.”
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