Sec. Thompson Calls for Health Leadership at FMI Show

May 05, 2004
Rick Moss

By Rick Moss

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson worked clean-up in the batting order for FMI’s Speaks 2004 annual state of the industry report on Sunday morning. The Grand Ballroom session, as usual, drew a standing room only crowd, as FMI’s Mike Sansolo kicked off the theme of this year’s show, “Solutions for Growth,” ran through the 2003 food retailing numbers and played genial host to a guest lineup — Bill Grize of Ahold USA, Danny Wegman of Wegman’s Food Markets among them.

However, the Secretary’s short, punchy address in the last half hour was the emotional signature for the session. Sec. Thompson is clearly on a mission to get the heads of U.S. companies into a leadership role in inspiring wellness among their employees. He took pains to draw a strong association to efforts being made by food manufacturers and retailers, and appealed very much on a personal level. “I happen to come from a grocery family from Elway, Wisconsin,” he began, a place where he said “it is believed every meal can be improved through the addition of butter, cheese and beer.”

Sec. Thompson described his own newfound commitment to personal health, stemming from his belief that leading by example is going to be a critical component for turning the country’s obesity-related problems around. And, he was sure to emphasize, employers shouldn’t do it just for their health. “Making sure employees live healthier lives is a wise investment that pays off” in lower insurance costs and higher productivity, he sermonized.

In his address at Speaks, Sec. Thompson praised the efforts of Kraft for eliminating marketing to kids in schools; Unilever for stripping fatty acids from margarine; and Pepsi, which has plans to expand its “better for you” foods to 60% of sales and helped fund FMI’s Healthy Living Pavillion. (Coke, not to be outdone, made health a centerpiece of its anchor exhibit space by handing out thousands of exercise-inducing pedometers to show-goers.)

“More companies now recognize their responsibility to provide healthier solutions and options for their employees and consumers,” said Sec. Thompson. However, it was clear that he wanted top execs to “walk the walk” themselves (three miles, or 10,000 steps, a day, to be exact). “Take care of yourself. Then you can take care of your family and employees,” he said.

Sec. Thompson also opened the Healthy Living Pavilion, which was imbedded within the exhibit floor where it was nearly impossibly to walk five yards without tripping over a low-carb product display.

Furthermore, with the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association co-exhibiting this year, the sight of fresh strawberries on skewers was almost as common as hot dogs and plastic cups of Bud.

Moderator’s Comment: Will we see sustained efforts by food and beverage companies to market healthier options and
support physical fitness, or are we simply in a short-term, anti-obesity cycle?

One of the more interesting low-carb factoids from the show, in my mind, came from Scott Specker of ACNielsen, who in a presentation to the press said research
showed that only 9% of the country is on the Atkins diet, but that nearly 29% are using a diet “of their own design.” Also, only 15 of the 65 food categories recommended within
the Atkins plan have seen an unusual bump in sales, according to ACN data. This phenomenon could be explained by Supermarket Guru Phil Lempert’s notion that consumers are already
entering a post low-carb phase. He calls it a “nutritional correction” for the nation.

In other words, Atkins has had perhaps only a modest impact in real dollar terms, but a tremendous psychological impact on our consumption-obsessed society.
Now, smarter and more aware of keeping sugars and unhealthy fats out of their diets, consumers are going to be looking for foods that are healthy and good tasting. The order in
which they will prioritize those criteria may be the difference between growth or decline for certain marketers.

Rick Moss – Moderator

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