Keeping up with all of the legislative, regulatory and public relations issues affecting the automatic merchandising industry has become very cumbersome as a result of the change in federal administration. Fortunately, the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) has a team of government affairs and public relations professionals in place to address these issues, as was evidenced during the government affairs symposium on the first day of the National Expo at Navy Pier in Chicago.
Jackie Clark, NAMA director of public relations, hosted a panel on what’s ahead for food and the environment. The first panelist to speak was Sylvia Rowe, president of SR Strategy, a food industry consultant, who talked about the increasing volatility of food as a public issue on account of rising obesity.
“All nutrition issues today are seen through the eyes of obesity.” Rowe said.
Government and community organizations are more interested in seeing more nutrition restrictions because they believe that education alone has not resulted in better eating habits, Rowe said.
One reason these parties are more interested in more regulation is they recognize that obesity has a major impact on health care costs.
“There’s a new sheriff in town; that’s regulation,” Rowe said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under the new administration is staffed with people who are more aggressive in their views about regulation, Rowe said. These include Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of HHS; Margaret Hamburg, M.D., the Food and Drug Administration’s Commissioner of Food and Drugs; Thomas Freiden, M.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture; and Jerold R. Mande, M.P.H., Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Rowe also said First Lady Michelle Obama is showing interest in obesity. “Most First Ladies have an issue,” Rowe said. She said many think Michelle Obama will make child obesity her issue.
Obesity, many believe, is costing the U.S. more than $100 billion a year in health care costs. “In essence, ending obesity would save our health system 50 percent more than curing cancer,” Rowe said.
Increasingly, experts are coming to the conclusion that menu labeling on food packages will save lives.
One of the negative aspects from the food industry’s perspective is public perception that the industry is keeping secrets from the public, Rowe said.
New public thought leaders include Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto;” Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest; Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University; Marion Nestle, Ph.D., the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University; and David Kessler, M.D., former Commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration.
“These people know how to work the system,” Rowe said. “They know how to work the media.”
The most relevant public report that directly affects vending, according to Rowe, is the one the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released earlier this year that recommends all caffeinated and sweetened beverages be pulled from schools, including sports drinks. Only unflavored, non-carbonated water and 100 percent fruit juices with no sugar are acceptable.
School administrators are also encouraged in the report to minimize the advertising on vending machines to students, Rowe said.
“National nutrition standards will apply in all aspects of school feeding,” she said.
Another key report she cited was the American Heart Association recommendation that provides specific levels and limits on the consumption of added sugars.
Rowe commended NAMA for responding to these public concerns with its “Balanced for Life” and “Fit Pick” initiatives. She said that NAMA’s work mustn’t stop here; NAMA must continue to be proactive.