Margo Saunders, a public health policy consultant in Canberra, reports on a recent public lecture by a senior Kellogg Company executive, John Bryant:
“Thanks to the power of pervasive advertising, the Kellogg’s cereal mascots Tony the Tiger (Frosted Flakes – ‘They’re g-r-r-reat!’) and Snap, Crackle and Pop (Rice Krispies) were as much a part of an American childhood as Roy Rogers (who appeared in commercials for a Kellogg’s competitor).
But Kellogg’s has not exactly had an easy time of it in Australia lately, with the company attracting criticism from CHOICE and Parents Jury for poor nutritional content and misleading advertising, and facing legal action in the United States for various product claims (see here, and here).
So when I heard that John A. Bryant, ANU graduate and Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Kellogg Company, would be giving a public lecture on ‘Corporate social responsibility in the global food industry’, I couldn’t resist going along to see how this iconic American company is presenting itself. There had to be more to it than just issuing a Corporate Responsibility Report – even tobacco companies do that.
Kellogg is the world’s largest cereal company, and a major producer of snack and convenience food products in the USA including cookies, crackers, cereal bars, toaster pastries, and frozen waffles. Key aspects of the company’s operating environment are health issues, regulation and issues affecting the current and future supply of grain.
Bryant said that the company, although a multi-national (manufacturing in 19 countries and marketing in more than 180 countries), ‘doesn’t operate like one’, preferring each national operation to be run by ‘locals’.
We were told about the company’s origins, its historic connections with health and nutrition, and its culture of social responsibility in the form of charitable giving at both the employee and corporate level. Interestingly, no mention was made of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation , established in 1930 and now reputed to be the 7th largest philanthropic foundation in the USA.
What motivates a company like Kellogg? Apparently it’s not the eternal drive to expand market share and deliver maximum returns to shareholders. According to Bryant, it’s about finding answers to the question, ‘How can we make the world a better place?’
The answers, we were told, lie in the company’s involvement in 6 broad areas: community development, both local and international; children’s health and fitness, including school breakfast programs, sports sponsorships, food banks and the Healthy Weight Commitment initiative; nutrition, including innovation and reformulations; responsible marketing, including the development of voluntary criteria to govern product marketing to children; product quality and food safety; and supplier diversity.
We were told that the company uses front-of-pack nutritional labelling known as GDA, or guideline daily amounts (Daily Intake, or %DI in Australia). Bryant also told us about the company’s interest in research (‘open innovation’) and ‘renovation’ (product modification), much of which is aimed at eliminating trans fats, reducing sugar and sodium, and increasing fibre. There is also, he said, a strong interest in sustainable environmental practices in relation to energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, water and waste. In terms of social responsibility and ethics, Bryan explained the company’s quick and comprehensive response in recalling tens of thousands of products that may have been affected by tainted peanut butter.
Following the presentation, we were given the chance to ask questions. ‘Do you consider yourself to be an ethical person?’, came the question from the largely student audience. ‘Yes, I do,’ was the reply. ‘If you’re not an ethical leader, people won’t follow you.’
Bryant said that using tax levers to guide food decisions is fine as long as you are careful about how you do it. Without saying that children influence what parents buy, he noted that children’s food preferences are fickle, but adults’ are not. He explained that the seemingly excessive number of cereals on the market (and he thinks there are probably too many) all meet various consumer needs which are driven by taste and health. There was a collective jaw-dropping in the audience when Bryant told us that the average American household has 9 different boxes of cereal.
I prefaced my question to Bryant about obesity with a mention of CHOICE’s assessment of the nutritional value of Rice Bubbles (‘you’d be better off eating the box’), which drew a smile. But how does he believe that the food industry can play a role in tackling obesity and still come out ahead?
Addressing the obesity problem, Bryant explained, was about getting the balance right between energy in and energy out. For this reason, Kellogg is a big supporter of children’s fitness initiatives. Overall, the company views the obesity crisis as ‘an opportunity, not a risk’.
Bryant had some interesting things to say about food labelling. In his view, the ‘traffic light’ front of pack labelling system for salt, sodium and fat is an overly-simplified approach to a very complex situation. There is no ‘real science’ around sugar, he said, in terms of what is a nutritionally-acceptable amount. Also, fruits would be classed as ‘red’ due to high sugar content, and information would be misleading because people add sugar to non-sweetened cereal. He said that when the amount of sugar in one cereal product was reduced by one-third, the calories stayed the same because there was more grain per serving. This, he said, led to legal action in California. (As the manufacturer of products such as Sugar Frosted Flakes/ Sugar Frosties, Sugar Smacks, Sugar Corn Pops, and Sugar All-Stars, Kellogg is vigorously defensive about its relationship with sugar. See here.)
The problem with labelling, Bryant said, was that the systems that various companies adopt tend to be the ones which benefit those companies. Getting consensus at food industry level for a single approach was ‘like herding cats’.
According to the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Kellogg Company, nutritional labelling is ‘ripe for government involvement’. Let’s hope the government is listening.
The Parents Jury has singled out Kellogg’s for the following:
2005: Smoke and Mirrors Award for Coco Pops advertising
2006: Kellogg’s criticised for running ads that urge children to choose processed foods over fruit. “Our advertising is trying to present a balanced diet,” a spokeswoman for Kellogg’s said.
2007: Smoke and Mirrors Award to Kelloggs Coco Pops Coco Rocks ad for being the most misleading. The ad highlights the cereal’s high wholegrain and fibre content and diverts parent’s attention from the fact that it is almost one-third sugar.
2008: Shame Award for the most misleading junk food television advertisement to target children for Kellogg’s ‘Zebra Spots’ LCM snack bars
2009: Shame Award for Smoke & Mirrors for misleading claims on children’s foods that make an unhealthy product appear healthier than it is: Winner: Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain, for campaign claiming that the protein content of Nutri-Grain (as part of a balanced diet) ‘has what it takes to help build your son into an Iron Man’and ‘helps fuel growing boys’.
Update: Adrian Bauman, Lesley King, and Louise Baur, from the Prevention Research Collaboration at the University of Sydney, have an article in Crikey today looking at potential consequences of the deal between Weight Watchers and McDonald’s in NZ – including the possibility that it will contribute to weight gain. Meanwhile Food News reports that no deal has been struck – as yet, anyway – between Weight Watchers and McDonald’s in Australia.