SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Two topside food distribution industry figures — one a manufacturer, one a retailer — issued a challenge to the industry last week to seat a conference that would seek to discover a positive solution to the nation's obesity problem.
The call was issued by Indra K. Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer, PepsiCo, during a session of the Food Marketing Institute Midwinter Executive Conference here. The call was later supported in a separate session conducted by Steve Burd, chairman, president and CEO, Safeway.
The concept of the solution proposed by Nooyi is that the industry must recognize the immensity of the obesity problem and ought to seize control of solution dynamics before unenlightened solutions emerge and prevail, presenting a threat to the industry.
She framed the situation by specifying that “this is a very serious problem. Obesity puts at risk the population's quality of life, it reduces productivity and drives up health care costs. In certain places of this country, up to half the population is overweight. Now, for the first time, increasing life expectancy [from one generation to the next] may be thrown into reverse.”
The cause of the problem, she asserted, is a simple one: People consume too many calories and expend too few. It's generally thought that the problem is on the intake side. Yet, she said, most of the population doesn't take in substantially more calories than ever. Instead, the problem is that too few are being burned.
The reasons she cited for low caloric expenditure are the obvious ones: Much of the population works in offices, not as laborers; suburban life discourages walking; and few schools today mandate physical education for fear of litigation in the event of injury. Now, she said, “We need to make a conscious effort to burn the calories that the population used to burn without even thinking about it [when manual labor was the norm].”
The danger is that if the industry doesn't act to devise a way to get large numbers of people to increase their rates of activity, governmental regulation of food content may result: “We need to stop the blame game, because there is no one silver bullet that can solve this problem. We need to act before the government gets into the kitchen.”
She called for the industry to come together to propose solutions that campaign for a basic cultural change so that society favors exercising in much the same way campaigns of a generation ago were successful in changing the culture to favor the use of seat belts in autos. “We must make the right choice the easy choice.”
Following Nooyi's call to action, Burd addressed the session on issues concerning the cost of health care. Later in his presentation, he too backed Nooyi's call for an industry meeting to find solutions to the obesity problem. He said it should be a day-long meeting and should be seated immediately under the aegis of FMI and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Burd asked members of the audience to stand if they agreed with the need for such a meeting and would be likely to participate. A large proportion of audience members rose to their feet. Although it wasn't immediately clear at the sessions how others might indicate an interest in joining the meeting or obtain further information, when queried by SN, an FMI spokeswoman said such information would be available on the FMI website, www.fmi.org. (Click on the Health and Wellness link under “check it out.”) The central part of Burd's presentation was a reprise and update of a presentation he made at last year's Midwinter conference about efforts at Safeway to project market forces into the battle to contain health care costs. “Market forces are absent in the health care sector,” he said. “There is no way to find the cost of care and the quality of care. Trade-offs can't be made in health care.” Safeway's approach to the problem involves several aspects, including promoting exercise and reducing the cost of healthy foods at the company's cafeteria. Financial incentives are offered to employees in the form of refunds on their insurance costs if they agree to ameliorate potentially costly conditions, such as by losing weight or abstaining from smoking. Efforts are also being made to discover cost factors so that knowledgeable choices about health care can be made. For instance, he said, within a short distance of Safeway's headquarters in Pleasanton, Calif., a colonoscopy can cost from as little as $634 to as much as $6,800. Hernia-repair surgery can be obtained for as little as $2,148 up to a high of $6,803. Moreover, Burd said, a concierge service will soon be established at Safeway. The office will work with employees and their families who are facing health challenges to help them make sound decisions. “This has never before been done at a company,” he said. “This will be a way to guide people through treatment experiences and help them select the right treatment.” To date, Burd said, Safeway's fledgling program to reduce health care expenditures has lowered costs by 13% annually. He pointed out that the reduction was net to Safeway and its employees, not a shifting of costs from Safeway to its employees. Burd also promoted the newly formed Coalition to Advance Healthcare Reform. CAHR, chaired by Burd, is intended to make techniques that have led to the reduction in health care costs won at Safeway available to other businesses. CAHR now has more than 50 members. Burd said private action holds the potential to “dictate” future national policies to the government, because political leaders are looking for solutions to runaway health care costs, but they need to be shown a method that really works.