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    The Most Controversial Man in Foodservice

  • Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, discusses what he has in his crosshairs for 2010.

    Is there anything else beyond ingredients? The bigger challenge is, how do we get people eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains? That’s something that won’t be done by fiat. No one is going to require consumers to eat at restaurants that offer five servings of fruit or vegetables a day. It will get increasing attention from health officials, especially in relationship to obesity.

    There will likely be media campaigns; maybe health departments will award stickers to restaurants that serve certain number of fruit and vegetable dishes. But a lot of it can be done voluntarily, and restaurants can certainly do their part. No one is going to ask them to give up meat, poultry, and cheese in favor of vegetarian dishes. Hopefully, though, they’ll start experimenting with new options. But it’s going to take a lot of consumer education because people like their fried chicken.

    That brings us to the issue of menu labeling. It’s costly to operators but seems inevitable. What’s your opinion of that requirement? [Instead of the 20-chain rule] the smartest threshold would be sales of $3 million. A large independent or a chain of five locations has the resources to post calorie counts. They can hire a dietitian; they’re smart enough to do it.

    Right now, if you go into a restaurant, you have no way of knowing what’s in the food. You’re just blind. You have to give them information, and calorie information is the most general that people understand. If there’s going to be one number on a menu, it should be calories.

    Coca-Cola recently announced it would be putting calorie counts on the front of its cans. If all soft drinks had that, would there still be a need for the soda tax you strongly support? Many states and Chicago have special soft-drink taxes, so the idea isn’t entirely novel. It is novel at the federal level. And there’s so much talk about a soft drink tax now because of two things. One is the obesity epidemic and the understanding among health experts that soft drinks are a unique contributor to weight gain because we consume such huge volumes of them.

    The second thing is health reform. Legislators are looking for $900 billion over 10 years, and everyone says, “Tax them.” A soft-drink tax would be a way to provide some of that funding. A 7-cents-per-12-ounces tax could raise $100 billion over 10 years. A lot of people on Capitol Hill are looking at that. And the industry is coming out against it in a big way.

    How would the soda tax affect restaurants? A Coke at a restaurant may be $1.50, and at a grocery store you can get one for about 25 cents. So a 7-cent tax would make a much bigger difference to retailers than to foodservice. A restaurant could portion that increase price over all its foods. They don’t have to raise the price of anything really. I don’t think it would have a terribly big impact on restaurants.

    What restaurants should do is cut the portion sizes of drinks. I hope President Obama comes out and says that. Having 64-ounce drinks goes right to the waistline. The menu labeling law should require that drink fountains list calorie counts as well.

    How should brands balance all these demands with keeping prices low for consumers? It’s something each restaurant has to grapple with. There are some changes that can be made, like changing salad dressings to low-sodium versions, that no one would notice the difference. For example, using light mayonnaise or offering whole-wheat bread. There are incremental steps that don’t cost anything.

    There are changes, like using leaner meat or putting two slices of tomato on a sandwich, that do cost more. And they might have to raise the prices.

    Doesn’t that price out consumers who use the $1 menus to feed their families? They could make the $1 menus healthier by using lower-sodium cheeses. Or they could offer $1.25 menus. Sometimes there needs to be more options and sometimes there needs to be better nutrition engineered into the food because no one would know the difference and it won’t cost anything. Restaurants should gradually move into a lower-calorie, lower-sodium, more-fruits-and-vegetables direction. We understand that the marketplace is going to dictate what a business person does. But they can help move the market and understand that more consumers, now than ever before, are interested in healthier products.

    How does the Obama administration’s focus on healthy food affect your organization’s goals? It is a tremendous help. It’s a sea change. The Congress being governed by Democrats is also important. There was so little progress under the Bush administration and the previous six years with the Republican Congress under Clinton.

    They’re going to be very supportive of healthier diets. Salt will be a starting point. They’re very interested in nutrition labeling, major public-health campaigns surrounding obesity and nutrition, they’re inviting proposals for $373 million of prevention grants from the stimulus money.

    What brands do you think are doing the right things? Yum Brands, KFC in particular, is offering grilled chicken. Pizza Hut is lowering sodium levels, and they’ve offered to do menu labeling. Starbucks making 2 percent milk its standard is an improvement. At least in New York City, they’re also offering smaller pastries—more bite-size cookies. And I’ve met with McDonald’s, and they’re making changes beyond trans fats.