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Obesity, nutrigenomics, acrylamides, biotechnology, food security, food safety, class action lawsuits—these hot buttons of the food industry provided ample fodder for lively discussion during three Hot Topic sessions at IFT’s Annual Meeting + Food Expo® in Chicago on July 12–16. Experts from the food industry, academia, and government were brought together to discuss these issues of topical interest to the food community at large.
Five Trends for `05
The first Hot Topic session outlined the trends that the food industry needs to prepare for in 2005.
There was no argument among the panelists that the strongest trends influencing the food industry today are food safety and food security. The panel did diverge a bit, though, on what would be happening in 2005, with one exception—obesity. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the obesity epidemic in the United States would profoundly affect the food industry.
“Obesity is the health concern of the future,” said Todd Abraham, Vice President of Research at Kraft Foods. “It’s the second largest controllable cause of death in the U.S., and it’s growing.” There are 300,000 deaths a year attributed to obesity in this country.
“The obesity epidemic is undeniable,” agreed Leah Evans, Senior Vice President of R&D at Pizza Hut. “Food companies need to proactively provide better choices, better information, portion control, and promote balance.”
“Some people say the message is simple—Eat less, exercise more. I don’t think it is,” said Lester Crawford, Deputy Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. “We’re losing ground every day.” He stressed that consumers need to be better informed through labeling, education, and continued dialogue.
With obesity comes a raft of other health problems, most notably diabetes. In fact, diabetes, too, is considered to have reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. The number of diabetics is expected to rise 19.2% by 2010, reported Elizabeth Sloan, President of Sloan Trends & Solutions Inc. “Diet and diabetes are well connected.”
Unfortunately, being overweight and obese is not limited to the adult population. “Kids have poor dietary habits, ”said Sloan. “Obesity, high cholesterol, adult-onset diabetes, high blood pressure, dental caries, and allergies are up among children.” Kids are a very healthy unhealthy market, she said. Today there are 70 million children under the age of 18.
“We need to deal with this,” said Abraham. For example, he added, Mc-Donald’s and Frito-Lay are phasing out trans fat from their products. Mc-Donald’s and Jack-in-the-Box are adding healthier alternatives to their menus. And Kraft has an obesity initiative, as well. Among other things, Kraft has put a cap on the portion size of single-serve packages, set guidelines for the nutritional characteristics of all its products, and eliminated all in-school marketing.
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Health and wellness will be on the minds of consumers in 2005 and not just because of the obesity epidemic. The U.S. population is aging, and along with aging is another set of emerging chronic health issues—arthritis, eye health, and lack of energy. Baby Boomers are moving to a new lifestage where they need packages that are easier to open and easier to read, smaller portion sizes for smaller households, and more flavorful food for their less acute taste buds, Abraham predicted.
Beyond health-related trends, the panelists saw movement toward organics and food “free of bad stuff.” Evans said that consumers will be looking for foods free of antibiotics, GMOs, trans fat, and cholesterol. “Consumers have a fear of self-pollution,” she said.
“Organic sales are up,” said Sloan. “Consumers are looking beyond natural and organic. They want pesticide-free, responsibly grown, locally grown, and environmentally friendly food products, or what we call nouvelle natural. They also want organic-certified, free-range, and grain-fed meats.”
Tied to the “clean food” trend is a trend toward sustainability practices—food products produced in a manner that minimizes harm to the environment and society. Tomorrow’s consumers want to know that we’ll be able to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of the future, said Evans. Sustainability means looking if it’s good not only for business, but for society and the environment as well. “Look at the three Ps—profit, people, planet.”
Biotechnology will be part of our future, said Crawford. “Genetically modified foods have been in place for 10 years, and we haven’t found anything wrong—there is no public health threat.” He also said that we are very close to genetically modified animals.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” agreed Abraham, referring to genetically modified foods. The consumer benefits vs the producer benefits will have to be weighed.”
Crawford also foresees the necessity of international standards setting. “An argument can be made that we have one market,” he said. International standards could be set for risk analysis, risk management, biotech foods, antimicrobial resistance, and health claims.
In the end, convenience will still rule the food aisles. “It will be the same as it is today,” predicted Sloan, “ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat foods, packaged for on-the-go consumption. Dietary needs may change, but the desire for convenience will not.
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The Brave New World of Nutrigenomics
“We’re on the brink of a revolution,” said Guy Johnson of Johnson Nutrition Solutions LLC, as he introduced the discussion of nutrigenomics, the new science of nutritional genomics. “The information superhighway and the fundamental understanding of the human genome provide the recipe for a revolution.”
Nutrigenomics as defined by Jim Kaput, President and Chief Scientific Officer, NutraGenomics, is “analyzing the effects of diet on the activity of an individual’s genes and health.” This new area and its possible implications for the food industry were the subject of discussion at the second Hot Topic session.
“The effects of dietary chemicals on physiology are measured in multiple ways,” explained Kaput. “You don’t walk around with one gene that makes you healthy or sick. What you eat and how often you eat a type of food will affect your short- and long-term health.” While it is known that dietary chemicals will affect gene expression, “applying nutrition to genes is very difficult,” explained Kaput.
“People respond differently to what they eat because of their genetic makeup,” he said. “Dietary recommendations—like the Food Guide Pyramid—assume that all individuals are the same. Intuitively, we know this is not true. Genes have many variants and may effect how you metabolize nutrients.”
Although fellow panelist Barbara Schneeman, Professor of Nutrition at the University of California, Davis, agreed with Kaput that individuals respond differently to foodstuffs, she defended the Food Pyramid, saying that variability is built into it by suggesting a range of servings within food groups.
Schneeman is an expert in nutrition, but she took on the role of ethicist for this panel, drawing on her experience in working with the Genome Canada project to frame the bioethical issues for the area of nutritional genomics.
Ethical issues arise with questions of scientific validity, she said, when managing the risks and benefits of new therapies, when judging the accuracy of health claims, and when assessing whether consumers understand the risk, with the potential for consumer exploitation and with accommodating dissent. There is a concern for confidentiality and privacy linked to the collection, storage, and use of genetic information. There is also concern with secondary use of stored genetic information and third-party access to it. More concerns arise with the possible consequences of doing genetic testing on children.
The recently completed sequencing of the human genome has opened up whole new areas of science that could provide highly effective, individualized medical treatments in the future. These include eugenics—sophisticated screening of embryos for sex, eye color, height, athletic prowess, etc.; pharmagenetics—use of genetic insights to determine which drugs will destroy a particular tumor; gene selection therapy; and, of course, nutrigenomics. Along with these frontiers come questions of personal responsibility and ethics. Who is to benefit? Will these therapies be available only to the wealthy? If we can predict behavior with genomics, then what?
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So how does one balance the benefits and risks of an emerging science? “Proactively develop guidelines,” said Schneeman. “Maximize the benefits for consumers and society, protect consumers and society from harm, and help to structure and stabilize the regulatory and business climate.”
After introducing the audience to the science of nutrigenomics and the ethical issues inherent in any new science, the panel changed gears and talked about the possible business implications of this emerging field. “Improper diets are risk factors for disease,” said Nancy Fogg-Johnson, Principal, Life Sciences Alliance. Specific foods are associated with diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, she said. She added that the market for nutrigenomics is being driven by consumers making the link between diet and disease; the aging population; rising healthcare costs; advances in food technology and nutrition; improper diets increasing risk for disease; the knowledge that genes regulated by diet play a role in chronic disease; and scientific and clinical research on functional foods and nutraceuticals in disease prevention.
“Genes regulated by diet play a role in chronic disease,” explained Fogg-Johnson, adding that the opportunity is to produce a diagnostic to measure a genotype response to diet. “Diagnostics are essential; without them, nutrigenomics remains an interesting science that stays on the shelf. ”In 1999, the market for diagnostics was $2.3 billion.
To create a viable market for nutrigenomics requires the contributions of multiple scientific disciplines. The food industry will have to reach beyond its traditional participants and look farther afield. “Think alliances,” she said. “Very few companies have the internal depth to take advantage of market opportunities. Alliances are essential and will maximize value creation. Diagnostics have a key role.” Alliance participants could include academia, pharmaceutical companies, ethicists, nutritional product manufacturers, health care providers, and nutrigenomics researchers.
The business model that Fogg-Johnson foresees starts with science and moves to healthcare providers, then on to the consumer, who will demand nutrigenomic products from the food industry. She sees the first nutritional products appearing in the market in the next three to five years in the form of medical foods that are recommended by physicians.
To prepare, food companies should have a strategy; understand the science; evaluate the company’s value chain position; decide when and where it should enter the market, if at all; link with alliance partners; participate in debate and policy development; consider diet and health, regulatory, ethical, and legal ramifications; and become involved in or at least aware of what’s going on in the field so they can assess the impact on its business.
Personalized dietary recommendations for optimal health are not likely to be on the horizon anytime soon because of the complex nature of humans. “Individuals are not culturally, socio-economically, physiologically, or genetically identical” said Kaput. Ethnic differences, environmental differences, even nutrient differences in foods are factors that need to be considered. In the meantime, he said, “Eat less, choose your ancestors wisely, and exercise more.”
Additional information on nutrigenomics is available at http://nutrigenomics.ucdavis.edu.
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The Food Industry Under Attack
“We’re in the midst of a perfect storm,” said Rick Silverman, Partner in the Washington, D.C. law office of Hogan & Hartson. There’s a confluence of events that has put the food industry in the crosshairs of plaintiffs, the likes of which he hasn’t seen in his 30 years in the food and agriculture regulatory business.
Silverman launched the third Hot Topic panel discussion, “Food Fight: The Food Industry Under Attack.” The panel identified a growing number of controversial issues brewing in the food arena and discussed their potential impact. At the same time, the group suggested some positive strategies that industry can adopt to counter and address future litigation and regulation.
The challenges today for the food industry are many, said Chet England, Senior Director–Product Safety and Regulatory/ Chief Food Security Officer at Burger King Corp. They include microbial pathogens, food security, obesity/ nutrition, food allergies, acrylamides, antibiotics, BSE, dioxins, and animal welfare, to name but a few.
According to the panel, new regulations are developing to address country-of-origin labeling for produce and red meat, acrylamides, trans fatty acids, nutrition disclosures on menus, cost/benefit analysis for GMO crops, and sin taxes on junk food. Also, FDA recently set in motion a mechanism to allow more health claims on food using an A through D ranking system.
But the weightiest topic of the session was once again linked to the national obesity epidemic. “Is Fat the Next Tobacco?” a Fortune Magazine story referenced by Silverman, was the question of the day. At first blush, it seems preposterous, but current events indicate otherwise. A suit was filed against Mc-Donald’s recently, claiming that its food “made me obese.” The case was dismissed, but Silverman said the judge laid out a blueprint to refile the suit against McDonald’s. “If the court is to certify this as class action litigation—with similarly situated, aggrieved individuals—you’re talking substantial amounts of money,” he warned.
“The current front-burner issue is obesity,” reiterated Ken Takayama, Acting Director of the Legislative Reference Bureau, Honolulu, Hawaii. “People get used to ideas, and after people hear something long enough, what was crazy, seems normal,” he said. “Is this normal debate on issues, or is there a conspiracy to destroy the food industry?”
Silverman also referenced the First Annual Conference on Legal Approaches to the Obesity Epidemic, held last June at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston under the sponsorship of the Public Health Advocacy Group. The group’s Web site (www.phaionline.org) states, “Food industry processing and marketing practices have encouraged excessive food consumption. Can the law be effective in counteracting such practices?” Among the conference sessions was a Legal Strategy Workshop that required attendees to sign an affidavit promising not to share the information gleaned therein with the food industry: “I understand that the Legal Strategies Workshop portion of the First Annual Conference on Legal Approaches to the Obesity Epidemic is intended to encourage and support litigation against the food industry and that information acquired at this Workshop is to be considered confidential in keeping with these interests. . . . I agree not to appear as an expert witness or work as a consultant or in any other capacity for or in the food industry before December 31, 2006.”
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"It took 35 years to build a case against tobacco, and it’s taken 35 months with food, ”said Kelly Brownell, Director of the Yale University Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. “The prevalence of obesity is staggering,” he said. “It’s a global epidemic with severe health consequences. Are there victims? Are there villains? Is the industry friend or enemy of public health?” For the moment, these questions remain unanswered, but class action lawsuits could change that, pitting the public and the government against food-related industries.
The restaurant industry is the first target, then food retailers, consumer packaged goods companies, distributors—every component of the food industry imaginable, said Silverman. “The government had no regulations on the books, but the food industry should have known. We have to focus on the way we do business, the documents we generate, and what is going on in the world around us. We’re being viewed through a microscope as we’ve never been viewed before, and we’re being viewed by people who want to do the industry harm.”
According to Brownell, some current industry tactics may do more harm than good:
Saying that [fill in the blank with a product] is not the cause of obesity Setting up a straw argument is silly, he said. He quoted Senate testimony in May 2002 by Lisa Katic of the Grocery Manufacturers of America: “I feel very strongly that ‘just say no’ to these kinds of foods in schools does not give children the tools they need to make choices throughout their life.”
Denying the science or embracing poor science. He said that 300,000 people die each year due to food-related diseases. The industry treads on common sense and denies science. He quoted the National Soft Drink Association’s Web site: “The soft drink industry has a long commitment to promoting a healthy lifestyle for individuals—especially children. . . . Soft drinks do not cause pediatric obesity, do not reduce nutrient intake and do not cause dental cavities in children.” He also quoted a 2001 article by Ludwig et al. that appeared in Lancet: “For each additional serving of sugar-sweetened drink consumed, both body mass index and frequency of obesity increased. . . . Consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks is associated with obesity in children.”
Focusing attention on physical inactivity. This is just not very productive. He quoted a statement by Sean McBride of the National Soft Drink Association that appeared in the Los Angeles Times: “In the end, this is really about the couch and not the can.”
Evoking personal responsibility.
Claiming that advertising affects only brand choice
Scolding parents. Parents need help, not hindrances, he said.
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The food industry is losing credibility with the public by speaking the incredible and funding counterproductive groups with tobacco connections, said Brownell. “Thanks to the relentless hounding by self-appointed ‘nannies’—those ‘food cops,’ healthcare enforcers, and vegetarian activists who “know what’s best for us”—people are embarrassed to speak up in defense of adult beverages, high-calorie foods, or their personal pleasure of smoking,” said the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit organization funded in part by the restaurant and food industry, on its Web site (www.consumerfreedom.com).
While the industry has made some missteps in its quest to combat obesity, there are some positive developments that Brownell cited. These include producing noncommercial educational programs, such as the International Food Information Council’s Kidnetic, an interactive, kid-focused Web site (www.kidnetic.org) that covers nutrition, healthy recipes, and better food choices; establishing health as a priority, as Subway, Kraft, and Pepsi/Frito-Lay are doing; and introducing more healthy options, as Pepsi/Frito-Lay and Mc-Donald’s are doing.
“The food industry is at an amazing time,” said Brownell. “Be nimble, be honest, be on the good team. Promote good health, and protect children. Help parents, regulate advertising, stop cartoon/celebrity links, control portion sizes, and create healthy schools.”
And to food technologists, he threw out a challenge: Make healthier foods more appealing, make broccoli taste like Haagen-Dazs.
by Kitty Kevin,
The author is a food industry consultant and freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Ind. E-mail: [email protected].