Push for Healthier Diets Means Big Industry Change

Americans haven’t responded well to urgings, so governments, doctors and employers are getting tough.

Washington is leading efforts to get Americans to eat smarter and healthier, and that’s going to challenge the food industry on many fronts.

New dietary guidelines are now in the works at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Revised every five years, the guidelines expected out this fall are sure to urge less consumption of fat (particularly trans fats), salt and sweeteners, and put more fresh vegetables and fruit on the menu.

Recently passed health care legislation requires vending machine operators and restaurants with more than 20 sites to post the calorie count of products on vending machines, menus and other spots. Additional nutritional information, such as the amount of sodium, sugar and total fat, will have to be provided to consumers upon request.

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New rules are likely on foods available at schools. The national five-year law for school lunches, breakfasts and summer food programs is up for renewal this year. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) won unanimous passage for her child nutrition bill, which would boost spending by $4.5 billion in the next decade, raising the level of federal support per meal and allowing menus to be improved.

Lincoln’s bill would give the USDA new power to set nutrition standards for all foods in schools, including vending machine fare, with a focus on foods that contribute to obesity. Key lawmakers want to prohibit the use of trans fats in school cafeterias. In the House, Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) will soon present his child nutrition bill, and it’ll get even tougher on school food standards.

Food and Drug Administration curbs on salt are also coming, following a study by the Institute of Medicine, a government appointed advisory group, showing that voluntary efforts to reduce Americans’ consumption aren’t working. At the very least, industry groups working with government agencies will be speeding up voluntary reductions, using New York City’s National Salt Reduction Initiative as a model. New York, along with companies such as Heinz, Kraft Foods, Subway and FreshDirect, is working to cut sodium levels by 20% over the next five years.

State legislators are also active. Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York are weighing possible bans on trans fats in restaurants and in foods available at schools. State lawmakers nationwide are demanding more fresh fruits and veggies in school lunches and other child feeding programs. In Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Illinois and New York, supermarkets get incentives to open stores in “food deserts” -- inner-city and rural areas that are served only by small stores, often with no fresh produce.

More “sin taxes” on sugar are likely. New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Michigan, Arizona, New Mexico and Hawaii are mulling taxing soft drink sales. California and Washington already do.

The White House is heavily involved. From the planting of Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden to setting up electronic transactions for food stamp purchases at farmers’ markets and tying school foods to local farmers, the administration will use the bully pulpit and laws to get Americans to eat smarter.

Plus employers are increasingly turning to penalties -- higher premiums on health insurance, for example -- for workers who are obese and won’t join weight loss programs. Some employers are including nutritional counseling sessions in their benefit packages and including spouses and dependents in their antiobesity efforts.

For everyone in the food industry, it means a scramble to adapt.

For farmers and ranchers: An acceleration of trends in consumption -- less beef, dairy and sugar, and more fresh produce and fish from farms. But the Agriculture Department is ramping up support and opportunities for smaller, local farm operations, essentially marrying its efforts to boost local income and jobs with its healthy food initiatives. With several new campaigns, such as Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and the Farm to School Initiative, the USDA is handing out grants and funding school and local community efforts to buy fresh produce directly from local farms.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says, “A substantial percentage of the USDA budget goes into nutrition assistance, so we have something at USDA to say about this and something we can do about it -- more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, more low-fat dairy, less fat, less sugar and less salt -- a good combination for us to get kids on the right track.”

For food processors: A search for new ways to preserve food products, replacing salt. Reformulating a slew of products. New labeling regs. And more.

For sellers: Rejiggering menus and product mixes and labeling them.

For everyone: The challenge of finding ways to meet new requirements while not outpacing consumers’ willingness to change buying and eating habits.

Martha Lynn Craver
Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter