Washington, DC--Three and a half years after First Lady Michelle Obama launched Let's Move!, the national prevalence of child obesity remains stubbornly stuck at close to 17%. The food and beverage industry must do far more--and faster--to address the "crisis," campaign Executive Director Sam Kass told corporate leaders on Wednesday as he addressed the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) Growth and Public Policy Summit. (Above, Kass during his remarks)
GMA members include the world's largest food and beverage companies: Coca-Cola, Kellogg, Dole, Del Monte, Nestle USA, ConAgra, Unilever, Monsanto, and PepsiCo, among others.
Armed with a landmark new study that shows that more than one in four Americans die each year from diet-related disease--more than those who die from smoking--Kass read the White House version of the riot act to the executives, challenging them to make public health their top priority, and and chiding them for collective foot-dragging.
"Food habits are taking the greatest toll on our health," Kass said. "The tangible actions from the industry have simply not matched the magnitude of the problem."
As Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, Kass is the White House point man for brokering the many Let's Move! partnerships with private industry, and he has never before publicly chastised executives. But he didn't mince words.
"Simply claiming that there are calories in and calories out, tweaking a little bit and passing out some sport equipment is not going to be enough going forward," Kass declared.
He was referring to the platform of a group of 17 GMA member companies, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, who promote the premise that empty calories from junk food and sugary beverages can be "erased" with exercise.
Kass rebuked GMA for breaking a years-old promise, a pledge to put nutrition labels on the front of all packaged foods by 2011, aka the 'Facts Up Front' project. It "undermines" the promise of collaboration with Mrs. Obama's campaign, Kass said.
And just as Mrs. Obama did during an address to GMA leadership in 2010, Kass called on the industry to rethink their aggressive and highly effective marketing of unhealthy foods to children. He promised that it will be getting plenty of attention in the months ahead.
Marketing to children "is something that the First Lady and Let's Move! are going to be focused on this year," Kass said.
"We need to not just promote less unhealthy products, but promote healthier products."
Food and beverage companies spent $1.79 billion marketing to children in 2012. It was a battleground during President Obama's first term, when the industry launched a monster campaign against the Administration's proposal for voluntary self-regulatory guidelines for advertising to children. A coalition of major food and beverage corporations ultimately offered its own version of self-regulatory guidelines.
Kass also demanded more real changes in product formulations to reduce levels of fat, sodium, sugar, and portion size, and he was realistic as he noted how difficult and expensive this proposition is.
Mrs. Obama and Kass have had some major successes getting the private sector to invest in Let's Move! with multi-year pledges worth millions of dollars being announced by some of the nation's biggest corporations, including Walmart, Disney, Hyatt, and Darden Restaurants, Inc., parent to Olive Garden and Red Lobster.
So Kass is also well aware of how many companies remain deaf to the First Lady's call to action, hoping perhaps to ride out the President's second term. At that point, this line of thinking goes, Mrs. Obama and her campaign will vanish into the mists of history.
As she introduced Kass, GMA CEO and President Pamela Bailey said that though many GMA members have been willing to work with Let's Move!, there have been differences of opinion on the issues.
Members "have not always been on the same page as the White House," Bailey said.
In contrast, when Mrs. Obama made her major address to GMA in 2010, the group's chairman at the time, Rick Wolford, CEO of Del Monte, hailed Let's Move! as "a watershed moment in the fight against obesity."
"We are willing to do more and we are willing to go the extra mile," Wolford declared of GMA members.
The major new study conducted by the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation seems to have newly empowered Kass. It found that in 2010 poor diet and nutrition were the leading causes of disease burden in the US, contributing to more health loss than smoking, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar.
"That's 678,000 deaths annually," said Kass, pointing to a large graphic displayed on a video screen. "And more than 9.7 million years of lost life annually."
He reminded GMA that one in three children are overweight or obese, and on track to develop diabetes in their lifetime. Obesity-related healthcare costs are now $190 billion annually, Kass said--$40 billion more than the figure White House officials routinely quoted when Mrs. Obama launched Let's Move! in 2010.
And 27% percent of Armed Forces recruits, ages 17-24, are disqualified for service, making obesity a national security threat, Kass said.
With those grim statistics in hand, Kass also seemed to issue a threat of government regulation on the near event horizon.
"If we don't as a community make significant progress, I anticipate that leadership from across the country--especially at the local and state levels--will increasingly search for steps so they can ensure that we are not losing 9.7 million years of life to poor nutrition," Kass said.
The warning comes with boots already on the ground for a war on the local level. More than 330 Mayors and elected officials have joined Let's Move! Cities, Towns and Counties, a component of Mrs. Obama's campaign run by the National League of Cities with the support of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Agriculture Department. It rewards civic leaders for achieving five community-wide goals for offering healthier food and increasing physical activity.
Elected leaders from 41 of these communities visited the White House on July 10th for a day-long pow wow with Kass and other Administration officials that included advice on how to legislate public health the way, say, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done. Bloomberg's efforts have including banning transfats and an attempt to ban 16-ounce sugary beverages from restaurant menus and food outlets, among other things.
To drive his point home, Kass reminded his audience that healthier food products are a growth sector, quoting GMA's own statistics to support his argument.
"Increasingly, what's good for the consumer is good for the industry as well," Kass said. "Over 3,500 products have seen reductions in calories and sugar content respectively."
"We are seeing a decline in sugar sweetened beverages, and those same companies have hundreds of products that are low or no-calorie that are seeing sustained growth."
"We are seeing fruit and vegetable sales increase last year by 6 percent combined, and...a number of studies showing that lower calorie products are outperforming less healthy options."
Kass closed by urging the industry leaders to "seize this moment" and to "work towards making sure the easy choice is the healthy choice for all American families."
"The First Lady is eager to shine the light on leadership that supports our country," Kass said.
"I am confident we're going to be successful. One way or another this country is going to solve this problem. We're the greatest nation on earth...we won two world wars, and we put a man on the moon."
Kass received an extended round of applause after his remarks in the ballroom of the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, and then spent about twenty minutes chatting with corporate representatives and industry lobbyists before heading back to the White House.
Kass was accompanied to the event by Let's Move! Deputy Director Elyse Cohen. (Above, Kass speaking with Bailey before his remarks)
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama