ANALYSIS: Public Affairs - Embattled food firms say consumers'choice is key

The food industry is under fire as America's weight problem grows into a health crisis. Paul Cordasco looks at the PR battle ahead, and finds it similar to the tobacco wars.

The food industry is under fire as America's weight problem grows into a health crisis. Paul Cordasco looks at the PR battle ahead, and finds it similar to the tobacco wars.

As Americans begin to take a serious look at the "obesity epidemic that some public-health watchdogs say is threatening the health of the nation, the country is looking for culprits.

The numbers speak for themselves. Six out of 10 Americans are overweight, while cases of type-two diabetes - a disease usually associated with overweight adults - are now being diagnosed regularly in obese children and teenagers.

As these unfortunate statistics pile up, the fast-food and snack-food industries are finding themselves facing a barrage of criticism.

Two weeks ago, a Senate committee began hearings on the subject of obesity, and is considering legislative options to address the problem. The food industry is concerned that such legislation will attempt to scapegoat it for America's fat problem. Indeed, there is no question that some on the left feel that the industry is an impediment to reform - especially in America's school lunchrooms, where many public-health advocates feel they have the best chance to effect change.

A New York Times editorial recently weighed in that such efforts face "an uphill battle given the lobbying might of the food industry. And giving the debate another dimension is the fact that schools are becoming a major battleground. As the Times recently reported, public-health advocates are focusing attention on the diets of teenagers, and are putting pressure on schools to limit access to junk food on campus. Yet experts say this will be difficult, because typically, teenagers have demonstrated that such restrictions make them all the more determined to locate such foods off-campus. School administrators also find themselves in an awkward position, as they have come to rely on distribution pacts with snack and soda companies as a source of extra income for their schools.

Defenders of the fast-food industry argue that their position could bring on a serious case of deja vu.

"This is about choice, says Mike Burita, spokesman for the Center for Consumer Freedom, the industry's main lobbying group. "It's about allowing Americans to put what they want into their bodies."

The similarities between what is shaping up to be the food wars and the tobacco wars are obvious: The food industry is accused of being a major contributor to a public-health crisis in much the same way as the tobacco manufacturers have for decades now. What is not so obvious is what PR tactics and lessons the food industry will borrow from the tobacco companies this time around.

The stakes are high, for not only is the food industry's image at issue, but recently filed class-action lawsuits in New York and Florida have turned the battle in the court of public opinion into a precursor to a legal showdown. According to The New York Times, the suits - which claim that processed foods with little nutritional value have misled consumers - are being brought by some of the same lawyers who have dogged tobacco companies for years. Because the health risks involved in eating a cheeseburger and fries are not as well-defined as they are with smoking a pack of cigarettes, experts say it is unclear whether these suits will get very far. Nevertheless, a PR offensive will be an important opportunity to influence potential jurors.

Guarding consumer choice

From the outset, the industry seems to be in a "give no ground mode that is reminiscent of the early days of Big Tobacco's fight. So, far the industry's leading voice is positioning itself as the guardian of consumer choice. "We are getting out in front of the debate, says Burita. "We are letting people know that their choices are in jeopardy."

Indeed, Consumer Freedom responded to calls for new taxes on junk food with a series of tongue-in-cheek radio ads the group says highlight the threat to consumer choice that such legislation would have. The group also took out a full-page ad in US News & World Report that claims its opponents think consumers are "too stupid to make their own choices.

The ad came in response to a push by some pressure groups for legislation that would increase the sales tax on junk food, as well as increase labeling.

Still, what is noticeably absent from the food industry's rhetoric is a defense of the products that are being scrutinized. The decision not to defend the food itself might be viewed as a lesson learned from the tobacco wars. For instance, who can forget the public relations disaster that occurred when tobacco executives testified before Congress that they did not believe tobacco was harmful or addictive? This time around, the food industry seems satisfied to steer the discourse away from its products, and toward the issue of consumer choice.

Obviously, this strategy is not without pitfalls. "They're embarrassed to defend their food, says Jeff Cronin of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group known for butting heads with the industry. "Instead, they hide behind the Center for Consumer Freedom, which doesn't represent consumers' interests at all. It's a lobbying operation set up by the industry, and they won't even say where they get their money from."

Nevertheless, some say choosing to focus the talk on consumer choice could be an effective strategy. Unlike tobacco companies, which have not developed safer alternatives to cigarettes, many fast-food restaurants and snack-food makers do offer viable alternatives to some of their more fattening fare.

"Look, you can go to McDonald's and get a salad or a grilled chicken sandwich, says Thomas Lauria, a former spokesman for the Tobacco Institute who spent years on the front lines of the tobacco war. "Most people who go there choose not to, but it's an option."

As a veteran of the tobacco war, Lauria says companies in this position can have a difficult time defending themselves. But he says the industry might be in a good position because it has been forced to provide nutrition information for years. He also thinks Big Food should take some cues from Big Tobacco, and maintain a united front as the attacks heat up. "In this type of situation, it makes sense for companies that are competitors in the world of commerce to come together and address public affairs issues that are affecting their industry, says Lauria. "Yet this can lead to some problems. For instance, this fueled some conspiracy theories aimed at the tobacco industry."

Staying the course

Despite the recent chorus of criticism, the industry says it is keeping up its end of the bargain with consumers, and brushes off suggestions that it should begin to provide consumers with more warnings about its products - a step tobacco companies were pushed into after losing many legal and PR battles. Consumer Freedom says that providing new warnings to consumers about the risks associated with continued intake of many of its high-fat products is not being considered.

"The restaurant industry's main responsibility is to provide its customers with choices, says Consumer Freedom's Burita. "Asking the industry (to place warning labels on foods) is like asking car manufacturers to place warnings that driving 80 miles per hour is very dangerous. Americans have lifestyle freedoms that would seem to include diet. People should make their own choices about how many cheeseburgers and how much pizza they want to consume."

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