Many of our discussions on the food industry are focused on the question of responsibility and who we’re expecting to take more of it – food companies? Consumers? Both? Yet, one important part is usually missing from this discussion – the regulator.
The reasons for this absence are plenty, but the bottom line is that the responsibility model we’re left with is usually a voluntary one, where food and beverage companies come up with their own initiatives because they are either pushed by NGOs or consumers to improve their policies and practices, or believe that this is the right thing to do.
But, there are still some exceptions, and last week we had the chance to see one of them when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the new Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards, which are aimed to ensure school vending machines include only healthy choices.
This was a rare event, not only because it was the first nutritional overhaul of school snacks in more than 30 years, but also because the food industry was part of the effort that led to creating these standards. This unusual collaboration got industry organizations like the American Beverage Association that usually opposes restrictive regulation, arguing it limits consumer freedom of choice, to applaud the new standards and commend the USDA for its work.
The new standards bring to mind two questions – first, is regulation really better than the voluntary model? And second, can the magic of government and industry collaborating together for the public benefit work outside the school cafeteria?
While it might take time before we can evaluate the impact of the new standards, which won’t take effect until September 2014, we can look at what we already know to assess them in comparison to the current status quo. The first hint of the new regulation’s potential comes from the Pew Charitable Trusts Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, showing that children and teens gained less weight over three years if they lived in a state with strong policies on school snacks than if they lived in a state without such standards.
In addition, this is also the case where a regulatory effort raises the bar higher than a voluntary effort. Take the beverages available in vending machines – the American Beverage Association created School Beverage Guidelines a couple of years ago, which include voluntary restrictions on the beverages delivered to schools, like replacing full-calorie soft drinks in school vending machines with more low-calorie options. The results were, according to research, a reduction of 90 percent in beverage calories in schools nationwide.
Will the new standards do better than that? Well, actually they will. In high schools, the voluntary beverage guidelines allow low-calorie beverages with up to 10 calories per 8 ounce serving, while the new standards allow only half of the calorie amount – less than five calories per 8 ounce serving.
Another difference is that the new standards have stricter limits on the amount of calories in sport drinks (40 calories per 8 ounce serving compared to 66 calories in the voluntary guidelines), which won’t allow drinks like Gatorade (50 calories) to be offered anymore. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which worked on the legislation, told the New York Times this change is important as teenagers mistakenly think sugary sports drinks like Gatorade are healthier than sodas. “All they are is a sugary drink with added salt,” she said.
When it comes to food offered in school vending machines, there are no voluntary guidelines so the difference between what the voluntary responsibility model offers now and the regulatory model will offer as of next year is pretty clear – regular potato chips, doughnuts, chocolate bars, M&Ms and gummy bears are out. Light popcorn, granola and cereal bars, dried fruit and whole wheat crackers are in. I guess it is pretty clear which set of food items provides better nutrition to kids.
While some criticize the regulation as a classic “nannystate” move and others fear the new regulations are not strict enough, I guess most parents would agree that the new standards significantly improve the food and beverage options offered right now in school vending machines.
So what was different here that made these results possible, and can we duplicate these conditions?
On the business side, I think that food and beverage companies have realized that childhood obesity is their weakest spot. It’s much more difficult to convince the public that they have nothing to do with the fact that about 17 percent of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years in the U.S. are obese according to the CDC. The fact that 80 percent of American voters favor national nutrition standards that would limit calories, fat and sodium in snack foods sold in U.S. schools says it all.
Add to it an administration that is fully committed to improving the health and well-being of kids nationwide, organizations like CSPI that pressure companies to do better, and greater understanding in some food and beverage companies that their current line of products won’t sustain in the long-term, and you can see why companies like Coke, Pepsi, Nestlé and Mars lobbied for and not against the Hunger-Free Kids Act, the law that required this update to the standards and was passed by Congress in 2010.
So, the bottom line is that the sort of collaboration that we see here might not become the norm, at least not anytime soon, but it can definitely be replicated elsewhere. What you need is a majority of the public that is unsatisfied with the status quo, stakeholders that pressure companies to make changes, regulators committed to make the necessary changes and some understanding among companies on the need to change. Then companies might actually want to work together with the regulator to create win-win situations, just like they did inside the school vending machines.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.