Et tu, food makers?
February 15, 2011
by L. Joshua Sosland
WASHINGTON — Front-of-package labels, rather than inaccurate news stories or fear mongering by interest groups, have become the principal source of negative information about high-fructose corn syrup for consumers, said Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association.
In an interview with Food Business News, Ms. Erickson said front-of-label bursts touting products as “HFCS-free” are unhelpful not only to the corn refining industry but also to consumers and the packaged food and beverage industry. She said current interest in front-of-package nutrition labeling offers the food industry a unique opportunity to thoughtfully engage consumers about the healthfulness of food, an opportunity that should not be squandered.
“It’s a big shift in the food industry to have front-of-package labeling,” Ms. Erickson said. “It’s a big deal. Consumers want to know what is in their food. It’s a chance to engage our consumers about the foods we provide them and touting the benefits of our foods from a fact-based perspective.
“That front-of-pack exercise could turn into an ‘emperor has no clothes’ moment when it comes to switching to sugar from HFCS and suggesting one is healthier than another. Consumers will see nothing is different on this package between these two products. Calories are the same. All these other factors are the same. Where’s the beef? There won’t be facts to back up why they have switched and why one product is healthier or more natural.”
To the casual observer, a visit to the Corn Refiners Association headquarters in Washington may suggest the ultimate in Washington influence. The group’s Washington offices at the corner of 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue could not be closer to and offer a view of the White House and would seem to reinforce the caricature of “big corn” and its ironclad grip on power.
This picture, though, could hardly be further than the reality of a group struggling to save the name of its industry’s primary product — high-fructose corn syrup.
After growing dramatically during the 1980s, consumption of HFCS has flattened in recent years. On a per capita basis, consumption has fallen sharply. At 52.2 lbs in 2009, per capita consumption has dropped 20% from the 1999 peak of 65.7 lbs and is at its lowest levels since before 1992. Cane/beet sugar intake also has been declining but has been gaining share on HFCS. Despite a major price advantage versus sugar, which has seen costs escalate sharply, HFCS has lost four percentage points of market share to sugar in recent years.
During this period, the C.R.A. has launched a major media campaign aimed at helping the public “get the facts about corn sweeteners.” More recently, the association has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to allow food companies to substitute the name corn sugar for high-fructose corn syrup on food labels.
While the news media spotlight may be new to the C.R.A., the organization is not a group in its infancy, Ms. Erickson noted. To the contrary, the group is two years from its centennial.
“That shows how long we’ve been supplying ingredients to the food industry,” she said.
The decision to launch a costly advertising and public relations campaign followed an intensive but lower-profile approach that ultimately proved futile, Ms. Erickson said.
“This has been an issue in the public debate since 2004,” she said. “We worked hard to correct the record, in terms of outreach and rapid response to the reporters and influencers who shape public opinions, but press outlets were not always willing to write a follow-up story. Ultimately we found that most Americans were not going to hear our side of the story unless we paid to put it there.”
With the advertisements in mainstream media outlets, the C.R.A. is assured its message will be placed. Additionally, the association has found it is no longer invisible to news organizations when writing stories, said David Knowles, who heads the communications campaign for the C.R.A.
“One good part of the campaign is that we’re more part of the conversation, and reporters are more inclined to call us,” he said. “Reporters say to us when they call, ‘I’ve seen your ad, so I thought I’d call.’ It was surprising that many reporters in the past would not call the industry that makes high-fructose corn syrup.”
That the animosity toward HFCS persists is difficult to understand, given the variety and high profile of the groups that agree that high-fructose corn syrup and sugar are nutritionally alike, Ms. Erickson said.
“We’re all on the same side of the table — the groups that generally critique the food industry (including the Center for Science in the Public Interest), happen to agree (with industry) in this case,” she said. “The people who originally posited the theory have since retracted. Highly credible institutions like the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association publically agree with the scientific facts. Yet, the debate continues unabated. How does that happen, truthfully?”
High-fructose corn syrup is not alone among either food ingredients or food products when it comes to attracting baseless or wildly inaccurate criticisms, Ms. Erickson said.
“I would say consumers are very confused about sweeteners and many food matters,” she said.
To Ms. Erickson, the HFCS issue is not an isolated matter of indifference to other parts of the food industry.
“The food industry has to band together to solve issues that become part of the public debate for the wrong reasons, lacking scientific debates and facts,” she said.
While she may harbor hopes that such industry cohesion will develop more meaningfully in the future, Ms. Erickson decried what she said is the opposite — food companies contributing powerfully to consumer confusion about sweeteners.
“Where do consumers get their information about HFCS?” she asked. “Is it balanced, positive or negative? Our survey says the information they get from television is very positive, because we are out there providing fact-based information, reaching a lot of people. That will ultimately triumph. But we need our partners in the food industry.
“Where else are they (consumers) getting their information? They are getting it from friends, the Internet, newspapers/magazines, information characterized as neutral. Where are the negatives coming from? From front-of-package labeling.”
This relatively new opportunity to inform consumers using standardized front-of-package labeling programs is not merely an abstract idea, Ms. Erickson said. If mishandled, the effort may turn into quicksand.
“We should not stand in a circular firing squad and single out one ingredient over another,” she said. “We need to praise the value and choice we provide Americans. We allow them every day to eat safe and affordable foods — celebrations and memorable moments with family, often surrounded by a food event. We have the ability to do it collectively, actively — provide the information the consumers want.”
Corn refiners are not the only segment of the food industry that would be hurt by the decline in usage of HFCS as an ingredient, Ms. Erickson said.
“This is an ingredient the food industry needs in order to provide consumers those choices to roll out new brands and options,” she said. “If everyone attempted to switch to the only other caloric sweetener of any significance, there wouldn’t be enough supply. Prices would be astronomical. It is not a viable business decision.”
For the corn refiners, the significant number of products that have been reformulated to sugar from HFCS represents a major challenge. To Ms. Erickson, such substitution simply doesn’t make sense, beyond the fact that sugar is roughly three times more expensive than HFCS.
“The cost of switching is high and the return is low,” she said. “What we’ve seen in the receipt data is that it does not capture market share. It doesn’t swing the consumer’s decision. People buy the brands they love and the ones on sale.”