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Statement in response to American Journal of Public Health article “The Food Industry and Self Regulation,” February 2010

January 15, 2010

As a part of our strategy to combat childhood obesity, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership between the American Heart Association (AHA) and Clinton Foundation (CF), brokers agreements with industry to improve access to healthier foods, beverages and healthcare for children. Thus, it is important that our efforts with industry are accurately represented.

In 2006, the Alliance brokered a voluntary agreement with representatives of The Coca-Cola Company, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, PepsiCo and the American Beverage Association (ABA) to implement the Alliance School Beverage Guidelines (henceforth, the Guidelines). These Guidelines, based on AHA science, stipulate that only age-appropriate, lower-calorie and more nutritious beverages may be sold to schools. In addition to agreeing to adhere to the Guidelines when re-negotiating existing and negotiating new school district contracts, the aforementioned signatories also agreed to public measures of success, and to be monitored by an independent evaluator over the three-year implementation period. In the spirit of transparency, the signatories make the annual progress report publicly available.

The authors of “The Food Industry and Self Regulation” published in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health appropriately take a critical look at self-regulation and the food industry. As pioneers in the efforts to engage the food and beverage industries in self-regulation, we recognize the need for a common set of standards and support the specific standards suggested by the authors. It is notable though that the authors’ citations do not include the actual annual progress reports or the Memorandum of Understanding between the Alliance and beverage industry that outlines the specific terms of the Agreement (both have been posted on public Web sites since their release dates). Perhaps as a result, the authors make assertions that are not factual.

First, the authors suggest that the development of the Guidelines “did not involve objective input from the scientific community.” The reality is that the Guidelines were developed by AHA scientists, in collaboration with several distinguished AHA science volunteers. The AHA is widely recognized as one of the most reputable sources for nutritional science in the country.

Second, the authors assert that “pre-defined benchmarks were not established.” In fact, the Memorandum of Understanding outlines very specific metrics and benchmarks for implementation. Related to sugar, an example cited by the authors, the second annual progress report found a 65 percent reduction in sugar-sweetened beverages shipped to schools between 2004 and 2008.

Third, the authors claim that some “problematic” beverages are not regulated by the Agreement, going on to cite specific categories of beverages as their example. Beverage categories, in and of themselves, do not contribute to obesity; excess calories do.  That is why the Alliance School Beverage Guidelines are deliberately designed to reduce calories and portion sizes, while the increasing nutritional value of beverages available in schools. Only low- or fat-free milk, water, and 100 percent juice with no added sweeteners are allowed by the guidelines at the elementary and middle school levels. At the high school level, the Guidelines do allow for less than 50 percent of the overall beverages available to come from other categories, but at lower calorie levels than are contained in allowable milk and juice products.

The authors cite “a long phase-in period that does not amend existing contracts” as a weakness. The Memorandum of Understanding clearly outlines its application to existing contracts. In fact, countless school district contracts that pre-dated the 2006 voluntary agreement have been amended by bottlers to align to the Guidelines. 

It is true that the study is commissioned by the ABA. To safeguard the integrity of the study, annual progress reports, prepared by  Keybridge Research LLC, are also reviewed by qualified representatives from the Alliance, AHA and CF. We, at the Alliance, would welcome a third party validation of the findings.

If we are going to create a healthier environment for today’s youth, we need everyone at the table. To that end the Alliance believes that it is essential to work with industry. To do so, we must balance the need to ensure delivery of promises made with the need to give credit where credit is due. It is the only way we will successfully move forward

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