Public health advocates and activists are sometimes faced with the choice of whether to try to effect change by participating in corporate-sponsored public health initiatives. For instance, earlier this month, many of the nation's leading food manufacturers announced a new food-labeling system called Smart Choices. Hundred of products will now come with a green checkmark "designed to help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices," including . . . Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies. Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was a member of the panel that developed the criteria for Smart Choices-until he resigned last September. CCFC asked Dr. Jacobson about his resignation, what it's like to be a public health advocate on an industry-funded panel, and the Smart Choices criteria.
CCFC: What are your primary concerns about the nutritional criteria developed by Smart Choices?
Dr. Jacobson: Many of their criteria are reasonable, but the few exceptions have given Smart Choices a small black eye. More significant is whether Smart Choices' better-for-you approach is better or worse than other existing or possible systems.
Dr. Jacobson: I have no idea whether the Smart Choice approach is the best labeling method to encourage consumers to choose healthier foods. Most of the criteria are reasonable, but a system that highlighted the worse-for-you, as well as the better-for-you, foods might (or might not) be much more effective. Bottom line: We need research to identify the best system. Regarding the specific criteria chosen, I was most concerned that grains (bread, pasta, etc.) are not required to contain any whole grains in order to qualify for the logo; nutrient requirements may be achieved through fortification; and breakfast cereals are permitted to have a higher percentage of sugar than other foods.
CCFC: What were your hopes when you joined the panel to devise the nutritional criteria?
Dr. Jacobson: I have been interested in easy ways to inform consumers about the overall nutritional values of foods, so I wanted to be on the inside of a group that was exploring options. My first recommendation was for the group to call on Congress to fund an IOM study to design the most effective system possible, but the big companies wanted a better-for-you system. Still, I attended numerous meetings and believe that I was able to improve a number of specific criteria.
CCFC: Did you have concerns about joining an industry-funded panel?
Dr. Jacobson: I felt that the opportunity to learn from and possibly influence the proceeding was worth the effort. Also, most industry members of the committee were knowledgeable and thoughtful, but in a few situations, certain companies insisted on what I thought were weak criteria.
CCFC: What led you to resign from the panel?
Dr. Jacobson: I don't want to be associated with any particular labeling system, whether or not it's sponsored by industry. All the systems have their pluses and minuses. The key issue is "what is the best possible system." And that can only be determined by consumer-behavior research that compares various approaches---better-for-you logos like the heart association's and Smart Choices, NuVal's 1--100 rating system, the British government's "stoplight" approach (four red, yellow, or green dots that indicate the level of fat, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar, etc.
CCFC: Do you have any advice for advocates who want to be “in the room” with industry in the hopes of making guidelines and reforms stronger, but are concerned that their presence will lend legitimacy to a proceeding that they'll end up viewing as legitimate?
Dr. Jacobson: Depends on the situation. Some industry-led efforts could be worthwhile, and advocates should feel confident enough to participate...or walk.
CCFC: Do you believe at this point that the food industry is capable of voluntary, meaningful reform?
Dr. Jacobson: "Voluntary" reform typically arrives when government agencies or others threaten regulation or litigation. No one forced companies to stop using partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (the source of artery-clogging trans fat) -- but most major companies "voluntarily" changed oils because of massive adverse publicity, lawsuits by BanTransFat and CSPI, and competitive pressures. Because of British government pressure, increasing publicity in the U.S., and the potential for regulation by New York City, the FDA, and others, many large companies are reducing sodium levels in their foods. And, frankly, the top officials of some companies truly care about doing the right thing for their customers.
CCFC: Is it possible that the Smart Choice nutritional criteria are so laughable that they will backfire on the companies involved?