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You're Under Arrest!

They seem to be everywhere these days, proselytiz­ing on behalf of Spartan diet dogma: no fat, no sugar, no salt, no caffeine, no alcohol, no nothing. It’s the food police; they want to arrest Americans’ appetites, criminalize the consumption of tasty food and indict retailers who sell it.

But while they used to be dismissed by policymakers and the public as mis­guided dietary do-gooders, the food cops have used scare tactics and misin­formation to gain traction in their drive to force their dietary values on all Amer­icans. Emboldened by their success in foisting menu labeling on retailers and sin taxes on consumers in some jurisdic­tions, the food police are pressing their agenda like never before.

"There have always been those who have wanted to dictate how Ameri­cans eat; we know that," said Carin Nersesian, director of government re­lations at NACS. "But in recent years their voices have gotten louder and some of their causes have gained trac­tion. And it’s not because they have a better message, it’s just because they are loud," she said.

Everyone has heard the sobering sta­tistics on obesity: More than one-third of adults and 17 percent of all children in America are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Obese children and adolescents are more likely to have risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes.

But the solution hardly lies in heavy-handed, economy-crushing govern­ment regulations that will do little to change the way Americans eat. As NACS members nationwide have found, you can place yogurt and banan­as in every convenience store aisle, but the choice of what food to eat still re­sides with consumers — as it should.

Even First Lady Michelle Obama, an anti-obesity crusader and food police sympathizer, has made it clear that food is only one-half of the obesity equation. Every time she scolds retailers for not running health food stores, she also en­courages Americans to work off calories through exercise. Her campaign is called "Let’s Move," after all.

Still, the food police, led by the Cen­ter for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), continue to demand that gov­ernment step in with ever-harsher regulations, from menu labels to taxes, to force their eating beliefs on others. To gain influence among policy mak­ers, they rely on information that is at best questionable, and at worst, down­right false.

A Growing Threat
Does advertising really force people, es­pecially kids, to make bad dietary choices? Is it more expensive to eat healthy? Do poor people really lack access to healthy foods? Do people need signs to tell them what foods contain the most fat and calories? Do Americans really want the government telling them what to eat?

No!

Rick Berman, the president of the Washington-based consulting firm Berman and Company, is a well-known advocate for food choice as founder of the non-profit Center for Consumer Freedom. His message has been con­sistent: It should not be the govern­ment’s business to tell Americans how to eat or live.

He too has recognized the rise of the food police and warns that if advocates for government regulation of America’s eating habits are not stopped, the worst may be yet to come. "Every time there’s another incremental loss by the food in­dustry people somehow think that that’s the end of the attack, when in fact this whole issue of obesity and taxing food and warning labels and controlling the availability of certain food, it’s really still in its infancy," he said.

Berman suggests that the food indus­try — retailers, wholesalers, producers, everyone — needs to take the threat more seriously. "The activists under­stand that they can continue to move the goalposts as long as they do it five yards at a time. There has not been an over-arching strategy on the part of the food industry to keep us from being picked apart one issue at a time," he said.

Jeff Lenard, vice president of indus­try advocacy at NACS, said the industry has focused for some time on providing new healthful options to consumers, with many stores adding more fresh fruit and produce to go along with yo­gurt, dairy products, fruit juices, bottled water and other items that have long been on c-store shelves.

"In some respects, the challenge we face is changing perceptions about an industry that has already changed. We’ve seen a huge shift in the types of options that are available in stores, but if you aren’t in stores, or don’t pay at­tention, you simply won’t notice. Out­side of true health food stores, I can’t think of another channel that has more healthy options within 10 to 15 feet of the customer than ours, " Lenard said.

A Duty to Regulate
The growing back-room influence of the food cops was made clear in 2009, when the federal government inexpli­cably expanded a $787 billion econom­ic stimulus package to include a multi­million dollar grant program to encourage state and local governments to try and force dietary lifestyle chang­es on their citizens. Lost was an expla­nation of how that program would help boost the struggling economy and cre­ate jobs.

The plan was to pay state and local governments to create programs to re­strict how tobacco, food and other items are advertised, displayed and sold. The program encouraged new state and local regulations to force convenience stores, restaurants and other businesses to take steps to guide consumer choice.

In Boston, for example, a $1 million fed­eral grant was used to pay for a six-week ad campaign aimed at describing the evils of sugary drinks to the city’s black and Latino residents. Similar grants — paid for by tax dollars — went to other cities, all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Federat­ed States of Micronesia, Guam, Marshall Islands, Northern Mariana and Palau.

If the decentralized band of nutri­tion know-it-alls is a police force, its chief is probably New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Not only has the Bloomberg administration been be­hind some of the most draconian regu­latory moves anywhere, but he has be­come a global evangelist on behalf of stringent food policies.

In remarks before the United Na­tions, Bloomberg said the most impor­tant responsibility of government is to promote healthy living. "There are pow­ers only governments can exercise; poli­cies only governments can mandate and enforce and results only governments can achieve€¦Governments at all levels must make healthy solutions the default social option. That is ultimately govern­ment’s highest duty," he said.

"Government’s highest duty," really?

Murky on Menu Labeling
Let’s not forget about menu labeling rules included in President Obama’s health-care reform bill, with final regu­lations expected to be released by the Food and Drug Administration some­time this year.

One may think at first blush that menu-labeling rules are best suited for establishments such as eat-in restaurants — and not places like convenience stores that sell prepared food as a sideline to many other in-store offerings. But on this point, FDA appears confused.

The FDA’s proposed definition of a "covered entity" would include any re­tailer where more than 50% of the store’s floor area is devoted to selling food. And FDA’s definition includes pre-packaged food, which makes up the majority of the food sold by c-stores — food that is already required to have a label containing nutritional information.

NACS recently helped lead a coali­tion on Capitol Hill to put bipartisan pressure on the FDA to finalize menu-labeling regulations that would exclude most convenience stores. A December 23 letter signed by 17 members of Con­gress urges the FDA to adopt "Option 2" of its proposed rule, which would limit the menu-labeling regulations to estab­lishments that primarily sell restaurant and restaurant-type food.

"Menu labeling was intended to pro­vide consumers with more information by giving restaurants a uniform, na­tionwide standard to comply with, in­stead of a patchwork of various state and local laws. It was not intended to apply broadly to convenience stores and grocery stores which primarily sell food that already complies with the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act and are functionally different than chain restaurants," the letter states.

NACS also believes that if the FDA is going to use floor space as the deciding factor in whether or not a business must comply, it should exclude the floor area devoted to pre-packaged food. It also should include all sales areas in the cal­culation, including fuel islands. But if FDA wants to separate restaurants from other business, the agency should throw out the floor space calculation com­pletely in favor of a calculation based on sales revenues. Places where restaurant-type food sales exceed 50% of a business’s overall sales are the only ones that should be targeted.

Food Desert Myths
The increasing focus on so-called food deserts — low-income neighborhoods that lack access to supermarkets or large gro­cery stores — is one area where the good work of convenience stores in providing healthier food alternatives for consumers is often overlooked completely.

When the food police talk about food deserts, they often site a 2009 statistic from the U.S. Department of Agricul­ture that pegs the number of people liv­ing in food deserts at 23.5 million. The USDA itself notes that 93% of those liv­ing in food deserts have access to a car.

Yet, it turns out that despite the harp­ing by the government, spearheaded by the First Lady and the food police, there is no connection between access to su­permarkets and improved diets. A study published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine came to that conclusion after studying 5,000 people over 15 years, noting that improving access to fresh foods, such as fruits and vegeta­bles, does not necessarily result in healthier diets.

The concern over food deserts comes at a time when convenience stores are making great strides in finding creative ways to add healthier choices to their shelves. To help, NACS is launching a nutrition campaign aimed at bringing together the best strategies for inte­grating healthier options into conve­nience store offerings. The campaign focuses on three core messages:

  • Convenience stores are a destina­tion for time-pressed consumers.
  • Convenience stores offer options for consumers that enable them to make healthy food and beverage choices.
  • Convenience stores focus on their communities by supporting youth ath­letic programs that promote physical activity.

Nevertheless, state and local law­makers across the country believe that imposing higher taxes on sugary bever­ages and high-calorie food and snacks, as well as dictating how foods can be marketed, will reduce consumption and therefore reduce obesity.

Education, Not Legislation
Still, not all local governments are tak­ing such confrontational approaches.

In San Antonio, for example, city officials are using a federal stimulus grant to help bring fruits and vegetables to local stores. The program, called the ¡Tiendita Por Vida! program ("Little Store for Life") recently spent $6,000 for new refrigeration equipment at the local M&I Meat Market and Family Market convenience store.

Even the U.S. Conference of Mayors is recognizing that education might be more important than legislation when it comes to leading Americans toward healthier diets. In June 2011, the USCM joined the American Beverage Association in creating a grant pro­gram to help communities establish nutrition education programs that en­courage healthy eating and physical activity.

The partnership "will allow commu­nities across the country to expand the reach of education and obesity aware­ness programs to thousands of addi­tional young people," said Tom Co­chran, CEO and executive director of the conference.

Raise Awareness
Unfortunately, anti-obesity agendas have put convenience stores in the crosshairs of the food police, with at­tacks on sweet and salty snacks and beverages. And while NACS is busy try­ing to influence government processes, individual operators should be doing what they can to raise awareness and educate the public about the good things the industry is doing.

Beyond publicizing the healthy al­ternatives available in convenience stores, retailers also should promote their active engagement in community in programs like sponsoring sports teams and supporting healthy lifestyle campaigns.

"Our members need to be mindful of the fact that the government is get­ting more and more involved in what people eat and how they chose what’s nutritious and what’s not. Let your community leaders, your government officials, know that your business is not part of the problem, but part of the solution," NACS’s Nersesian advised.

She added that c-store operators can help the industry’s cause by doing more to highlight the healthy food op­tions stores already provide: Put the fresh fruit up front, display yogurt and dairy more prominently, let people know that your frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh ones. Every bit of public awareness can help di­minish the food police and their mes­sage.

"The food police are not like real po­lice," Nersesian said. "We can push back."

Scott Orr is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.