'Stuffed' Author Hank Cardello Says Industry Needs Wake-Up Call

Last Updated May 27, 2009 12:09 PM EDT

Hank Cardello is the author of the book "Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's Really Making America Fat." He's also a consultant and former food executive who's worked for General Mills, Michelob and the Coca-Cola Company, among others.

I spoke with him this morning about the obesity epidemic and why he believes it's important for the food industry to reexamine the way it does business.

You say it's the food industry that has to fix this obesity problem. Why look to industry to fix what is essentially a public health issue?
HC: We as consumers have a miserable time changing our habits. Our track record has been dismal: we don't stick with diets, we don't exercise. Asking the consumer to change is not effective and it will continue to not be effective.

Second, let's look at the government. The government introduced nutritional labeling in the 1990s, and since then, obesity rates have continued to rise. Government programs are well intended but they have not been effective.

So that leaves the food guys to fix it. You need to make your money but you need to change your model.

Putting ethics, public health and concern for your fellow man aside, from a business perspective, why should the food industry care about obesity? Don't food companies profit from people over-eating?
HC: My biggest fear for industry is they're going to get run over by the regulators. You've seen these initiatives to tax soft drinks, candy, you name it -- they're coming after industry. Industry needs to stay ahead of that.

Just like the restaurant folks have been resisting getting rid of trans fats and putting calories on menus -- it's coming guys. You can either find a way to adjust your model or you can resist and get run over.

But companies are being a little slow. General Mills tends to be ahead of the curve; they see the opportunity in healthy options, and there are some other companies who get it. But the rest of the industry, they're going to get hit by a tsunami of regulations that will hurt their bottom line.

What about criticism from the other side -- that you're letting industry off the hook? A lot of the things you advocate, like pushing 100-calorie junk food packs and super-sized diet soda instead of regular soda -- they're still not really healthy for consumers.
HC: If you take food utopia where everyone should be eating an organic, plant-based diet -- I'm not against that, but let's get real. We're not gonna get people to convert by tomorrow morning.

So, what is the number one problem that has caused obesity? There are too many calories on the street. In the 1950s, the decade I was born, the industry was providing 3100 calories per day per person. Today that's up to 3900 calories. That's really the issue to me. I'm not necessarily a proponent of just having a 100 percent diet of french fries and soda, but you need to unstuff America by getting it to eat less calories. And then on a parallel path, lead them to more organic, natural foods, vegetables, etc., but that's a couple of decades away.

You mentioned General Mills as being ahead of the curve. What other companies do you see making positive steps on the health front?
HC: Nestle and I'd say Dannon, Group Danone.

That's my opinion; I'm sure other companies would want to throw their hat in the ring. The companies that get targeted the most, like Pepsi and Coke and McDonald's -- they know they have to do something. But I'd clearly say the head of the class would be those three companies.

We had a General Mills reunion about a year ago, and I was telling them they're doing some good things, and former CEO Steve Sanger looked me in the eye and said, "It's just good business."

The industry is faced with the biggest opportunity it's been presented with in decades. I think they're the only ones who can fix this problem, and they can make a lot of profits doing it.

Check out an excerpt from the first chapter of Stuffed.
  • Katherine Glover

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