When Michelle Obama first announced her Let’s Move program to end childhood obesity “within a generation” last year, I tried to remain open-minded. Like many others, I was happy to have the first lady bring attention to this important problem. And there’s no doubt that her leadership has helped, for example, to get Congress to make improvements to school meals. But I remained concerned that the White House was reluctant to take on the food industry in any meaningful way. It seems that things are worse than I thought.
Last week, Walmart executives announced what Michelle Obama hailed as a new “nutrition charter,” a number of promises to sell healthier food. While the media reported the news with much fanfare — serving up the positive spin that Walmart hoped the first lady would help provide — there was little critique to be found.
I am less interested in the specifics of the proposal than I am in the fact that the White House endorsed it. This secretly brokered deal raises numerous troubling questions about the respective roles of industry and government as it relates to setting food and nutrition policy for the nation. For starters:
1) What was the first lady’s staff doing in secret talks with Walmart for over a year? How did such an approach even get started? Here’s an alternative scenario: Congress holds hearings (you know, in public) on how the entire food industry should be changing its ways with enforceable, meaningful laws that apply to everyone, not just Walmart.
2) Why not wait until Walmart has actually accomplished something to give them credit? Any company can promise something. And we have plenty of examples of other food companies making promises that weren’t kept. (Shameless plug: My book is chock-full of them; can someone please send a copy to Mrs. Obama? No really, please.)
Does anyone remember how McDonald’s promised to stop using trans fats, but oops, didn’t? Or how about the time Ruby Tuesday’s promised to list nutrition facts on its menus until they decided that wasn’t working out so well. And then there’s the soda industry, which has made so many broken promises, it’s hard to keep up. The biggest one was in 2006 when Bill Clinton announced a deal (also secretly brokered) in which soda companies promised to change the beverages they sold in schools. While industry claims mission accomplished, recent research suggests otherwise. But all that was before Michelle Obama’s time, I guess.
3) What has the White House traded in exchange for Walmart’s pledges? In most negotiations, each party gives up something to gain something. While the White House may not admit it, Walmart does reap valuable rewards besides just good PR. As I also describe in my book, the goal here is for companies to avoid actual government regulation by claiming that voluntary self-regulation is the way to go. This is obviously what Walmart intends with its pledge to develop “strong criteria for a simple front-of-package” label despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has announced its intention to address this issue. But who needs scientific government agencies telling food companies what belongs on food packages when the first lady has that covered in her secret meetings?
4) Why would the White House endorse a plan with a five-year timetable? How will it be monitored? And how will Walmart be held accountable? Is there some sort of contract between and White House and Walmart? If these were legal negotiations, both parties would sign a legally binding written agreement. So what happens in five years? Will Walmart host another press conference with the first lady to announce how well they did with their list of promises? Don’t count on it. If history is any guide, no one will even remember Thursday’s PR stunt. Sure, it’s possible that some progress will be made by 2016, fewer salt grams here, a little less sugar there. But that will hardly make a dent in the public health crisis that faces our nation.
Oddly, Sam Kass, Mrs. Obama’s Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives, defended the White House endorsement by claiming that “everything Walmart does is available to the public because they’re a publicly held company. It’s very easy to track.”
Say what? Can someone please educate Mr. Kass about how corporations work? Being a publicly held company just means that the public can buy your stock. (As opposed to a company with privately held stock.) It also means that Walmart is first and foremost accountable to those shareholders who own their stock. In other words, if less salt and less sugar also means less stock value, bye-bye Mrs. Obama and hello salt and sugar. The White House says that the Partnership for a Healthier America will track the success or failure of Walmart’s efforts, but what are the criteria or outcome measures? How are they developed? Why is this not a public process either?
Finally, what signal does this sends to the food industry at large? No need to worry about pesky government regulations when you’ve got the White House staff at the ready to bargain in secret over your business practices and conduct joint press conferences. While this announcement gives the appearance of government approval, it’s really quite far from actual policy-making. That involves the messy (and also imperfect) process of democracy. But it’s our messy democracy, where We the People still have some say. How and why does Michelle Obama get to replace public, democratic lawmaking with secret, brokered deal-making? And what is the president’s role in all this?
And shame on the media for not asking such questions, but instead giving Walmart execs exactly what they wanted: free positive PR spin within the warm glow of the first lady.