My mornings often begin with a run along the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda, Md., and a visit to Quartermaine’s, a neighborhood hangout where the coffee’s great, the baristas are friendly and the pastries are tempting. Often, I yield to temptation. If Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest had his way, they’d serve nothing but oatmeal with skim milk, no salt.
Last week, Jacobson assailed the Campbell Soup Co. after its new CEO, Denise Morrison, told investment analysts that the company “plans to bring back some higher-sodium soups after several years of working to reduce sodium, sometimes at the expense of taste,” according to the AP. Sales of the low-sodium soup were disappointing.
If Campbell has reason to believe consumers don’t like the taste of their products, why resort to salt? Why not improve their soups with more and better-quality vegetables and chicken, or with herbs and spices? I suppose that’s a question that answers itself, and the answer is money. Campbell enjoys a huge profit margin selling what are often basically overpriced disease-promoting cans of salt and water.
Yikes! This “public interest” advocate doesn’t think much of the public, does he, since, in his view, they are wasting their money on “overpriced disease-promoting cans of salt and water.”
So what’s wrong with this picture? A couple of things.
First, it reflects an unfortunate blurring of the lines between “corporate responsibility” and personal responsibility. Is Quartermaine’s responsible for my pastry consumption? Should Campbell limit its offerings to low-sodium soups if consumers don’t want them? What about Ben & Jerry’s? This isn’t to suggest that corporations don’t bear some responsibility for the obesity crisis–they do, as I’ll explain below–but as a society, we’ll never get people to take responsibility for their own health and well-being if we point the finger at others.
Second, it misunderstands the power of business. Assume Campbell decided to sell only low-sodium soups. (No more Chicken Noodle, with its whopping 890mg per serving. The FDA currently recommends no more than 2,300 mg — roughly a teaspoon — of salt per day.) Shoppers would simply turn to other brands–or buy a frozen pizza instead.
It should go without saying that companies can’t force us to buy stuff we don’t want. Power in the market belongs, for the most part, to buyers and not to sellers.
When they become buyers, companies like Campbell–as well as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.–can have a meaningful impact. They should be held accountable, not so much for what they sell, as for what they buy.
Here, as it happens, the Campbell record is not too shabby. Outgoing CEO Douglas Conant told my GreenBiz colleague Heather King last spring that the company is “cutting the environmental footprint of [its] product portfolio in half” by working with farmers to better manage pesticides, improve yields and cut costs. The company is cutting water use and CO2 emissions per ton of product produced. Most of the company’s products, aside from tomatoes (about which more, another day), are locally farmed.
I called Dave Stangis, Campbell vice president of sustainability, to learn a bit more. He told me that Campbell has pledged to dramatically reduce its packaging and that he’d just come from a meeting with a cocoa supplier to the Pepperidge Farm brand, which is part of Campbell, where they’d talked about sustainable cocoa production. The company is working with all its farmer-suppliers to improve their environmental performance. “We teach them, and they teach us,” Dave says.
Does this get Campbell off the hook when it comes to salt and obesity. No–it seems to me that, at the very least, as a major food company (2010 revenues: $7.7 billion), Campbell ought to offer healthy options, if only to appeal to health-conscious shoppers. That it does. A Campbell exec told ABC News:
The company will extend its Healthy Request line from 25 soups to 33, all of which are reduced-sodium and carry the American Heart Association’s stamp of approval.
So what are the responsibilities of of a big food company, when it comes to obesity? First, and most important, be transparent. Second, offer a range of choices–which most do. Third, stop marketing unhealthy food to children. Fourth, think hard about the impact of portion size, and reduce portions if you can. Finally, if you are a food service company or retailer, as opposed to a manufacturer, try to nudge customers to choose healthier foods, as Sodexo and Bon Appetit have done. (See Where’s the Beef? Sodexo’s Meatless Mondays and The Low Carb(on) Diet.)
CSPI, to its credit, has put many of these issues on the national agenda. Its lab tests of the fat and calories in movie popcorn help me to resist that particular temptation. CSPI has also done a great job spotlighting excessive fat, calories and salt in restaurants like Ruby Tuesday and Uno Chicago Grill.
Having said that, obesity is really complicated. A variety of factors come into play–everything from the spread of video games to suburban neighborhoods without sidewalks to cutbacks in school gym and the crappy food served at school lunches. Brian Wansink, author of a book called Mindless Eating, has said we live in an obesogenic environment–one that promotes overeating in a variety of ways.
Such as saltier soups? Sure. But let’s keep things in perspective, folks.