“We’rePartof theSolution”: Evolutionof theFoodandBeverage Industry’s Framing of Obesity Concerns Between 2000 and 2012 Laura Nixon, MPH, Pamela Mejia, MS, MPH, Andrew Cheyne, CPhil, Cara Wilking, JD, Lori Dorfman, DrPH, and Richard Daynard, JD, PhD
We investigated how industry claim-makers countered concerns about obe-
sity and other nutrition-related diseases in newspaper coverage from 2000, the
year before the US Surgeon General’s Call to Action on obesity, through 2012.
We found that the food and beverage industry evolved in its response. The
defense arguments were made by trade associations, industry-funded nonprofit
groups, and individual companies representing the packaged food industry,
restaurants, and the nonalcoholic beverage industry. Individual companies
used the news primarily to promote voluntary self-regulation, whereas trade
associations and industry-supported nonprofit groups directly attacked poten-
tial government regulations. There was, however, a shift away from framing
obesity as a personal issue toward an overall message that the food and
beverage industry wants to be “part of the solution” to the public health crisis.
(Am J Public Health. 2015;105:2228–2236. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2015.302819)
Since 2001, when the US Surgeon General issued a Call to Action to address obesity,1—3
public health advocates have proposed a range
of policies to improve the food and beverage environment. The food industry has strongly
opposed many of these initiatives, at times
using tobacco industry tactics including corpo-
rate social responsibility programs and per- sonal responsibility rhetoric.4—7 Corporate
social responsibility can take many forms, in-
cluding industry adoption of self-policing strategies intended to resolve public health
concerns.7—10 The food industry has launched
and widely publicized a number of self- regulatory programs,11—14 but research suggests
that these initiatives may have done little to
mitigate unhealthful food environments.15—28
Past analyses suggest that the food industry also has used personal responsibility rhetoric to
shift responsibility for health harms from the
industry and its products onto individuals,4
influence how the public addresses obesity, and
fight government regulation of its products and
News coverage is an important part of the public conversation about social issues such as obesity. The news helps establish which issues appear on the public agenda, and influences how the public and policymakers view these
problems and craft potential solutions.29—33
Social problems such as obesity are defined
by how they are framed and who is influencing the framing.34 “Framing” refers to how an issue is portrayed and understood, and in-
volves emphasizing certain aspects of an issue to the exclusion of others.35 News coverage is a key site in which framing takes place.
Frames in the news are “persistent patterns” by which the news media organize and present stories.36 Frames help readers construct
meaning consciously or unconsciously,37 and shape the parameters of public policy debates by promoting “a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or
treatment recommendation for the item described.”35(p52)
Because of the importance of the news in how readers understand contemporary is- sues,38 news framing is a site of power struggles in which multiple groups contest to shape
public perception of an issue.39,40 Different speakers or “claim-makers” quoted in the news frame the same issue in conflicting ways to
serve their interests. Examining their claims offers insights into the range of perspectives represented on a particular issue.41—45
Among the key claim-makers for the food and beverage industry (hereafter “food
industry”) are food companies, trade associa- tions, and industry-funded nonprofit organiza- tions. Individual food and beverage companies include companies that sell packaged food (e.g., Kraft), restaurant meals (e.g., McDonald’s), and nonalcoholic beverages (e.g., Coca-Cola). Indi- vidual companies may comment about public policy in the news, but they also form trade associations that advocate the interests of groups of food companies.46—49 Trade associ- ations are the public voice of an industry,50 and often lobby or otherwise influence government decision-making.51—53 Trade associations also engage in public relations to exercise political influence, including advocacy advertising and speaking with the press.51
There are numerous food industry trade associations representing the interests of dif- ferent sectors of the industry such as packaged food manufacturers (e.g., Grocery Manufac- turer’s Association), restaurants (e.g., National Restaurant Association), beverage companies (e.g., American Beverage Association [ABA]), and food retailers (e.g., Food Marketing In- stitute). The food industry also funds nonprofit groups to speak on its behalf. When these groups use names that evoke grassroots con- sumer advocacy and do not alert the public to their connection with industry they are known as “front groups.”4 The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) and Americans Against Food Taxes are 2 primary examples.54
To understand how the food industry has presented itself in the news in the context of obesity policy debates, we investigated how key industry claim-makers countered concerns about obesity and other nutrition-related dis- eases in newspaper coverage. We collected data from 2000, the year before the 2001 US Surgeon General’s Call to Action and the advent of widespread concern about obesity as a public health problem, through 2012, the last full year of data available at the time. Previous studies have tracked news coverage of
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obesity and childhood obesity over time,55—57
and assessed the degree to which the food industry is framed as a cause of obesity or as a potential point of intervention. These studies documented increases in obesity coverage throughout the early 2000s, and a growing trend toward addressing societal causes of and solutions to the problem of obesity, including food industry actions. However, these previous analyses have not evaluated the actual state- ments made by food industry claim-makers in the news.55,56
For this analysis we compared the claims made by food industry trade associations, industry-funded nonprofit groups, and indi- vidual companies. We also examined the nu- ances among statements made by claim-makers representing the interests of the packaged food industry, restaurants, and the nonalcoholic beverage industry.
We used the Nexis newspaper database to conduct a keyword search for articles published from 2000 to 2012 in 5 major US newspapers: Los Angeles Times, New York Times,Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune. These papers, which we previously analyzed for tobacco industry responsibility claims in the news,58—60 are among the 10 highest-circulation newspapers in the country.We selected theNew York Times for its status as the national paper of record, the Washington Post for its in-depth
coverage of national policy issues, and the Wall Street Journal as the country’s highest-circulating paper and because it focuses on business issues. Finally, we selected the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune to capture possible regional differences.
We searched for articles that included a ref- erence to obesity, overweight, or nutrition, and at least 1 of the following responsibility-related keywords: responsibility, choice, blame, life- style, decision, habits, problem, or freedom. Articles also had to mention at least 1 prom- inent food industry trade group or industry- funded nonprofit organization. Drawing upon our ongoing media monitoring of food industry marketing policies and practices, we assembled a list of prominent food and beverage industry organizations.61,62 We supplemented this list by conducting Internet searches for food in- dustry trade associations and searches of the Nexis news archive until we reached content saturation (Appendix A, available as a supple- ment to the online version of this article at http://www.ajph.org, for our search algorithm).
We removed articles that made only passing references to obesity or diet-related chronic disease. For example, we excluded an article about vegetarianism that mentioned “the med- ical community’s warnings about obesity” as a possible reason for reducing meat consump- tion and a study by the National Restaurant Association about vegetarian eating habits.63
Three trained coders examined each article for arguments made by food or beverage
industry representatives. We considered argu- ments to be specific elements that represent and express the underlying frame. We used an iterative process64 to design our coding instrument, which was adapted from our previous work analyzing tobacco industry responsibility claims in the news.58—60 The coding instrument identified 7 discrete food industry arguments about obesity or policies to address obesity (Table 1). We used the sen- tence as the unit of analysis for arguments: we coded each sentence containing a quote or attribution from a food industry representative; sentences could contain multiple arguments.
We recorded arguments attributed to food industry trade groups and nonprofits included in our search string. We also recorded argu- ments from other trade groups or nonprofits that appeared in the articles, as well as indi- vidual food or beverage companies (e.g., Kellogg’s) or the food industry in general (e.g., “Food industry executives say . . .”). Appendix B (available as a supplement to the online version of this article at http://www.ajph.org) contains a list of the food companies that made com- ments about obesity in our sample.
We recorded the speaker for each argument, indicating whether the speaker represented a trade association, an individual company, an industry-funded nonprofit group such as the CCF, or the food industry in general. We also noted whether the speaker represented the packaged food industry, the nonalcoholic bev- erage industry, the restaurant industry, or food
TABLE 1—Obesity-Related Arguments Made by the Food Industry in Major Newspapers: United States, 2000–2012
Argument Type (% of All Arguments) Exemplar
Industry is part of the solution (33%) “We are a strong believer and supporter of self-regulation and the current industry proposals to strengthen that.”—Alan Harris, Chief
Marketing Officer, Kellogg Co.65(pB1)
Government overreach (25%) “The government doesn’t have the right to social engineer. It doesn’t have a right to protect us from ourselves.”—J. Justin Wilson,
Research Analyst, Center for Consumer Freedom66(pB1)
Products are not responsible (24%) “Childhood obesity is the result of many factors. Blaming it on a single factor, including soft drinks, is nutritional nonsense.”—Richard
Adamson, Vice President for Scientific and Technical Affairs, National Soft Drink Association67(pT10)
Individuals are responsible (15%) Food establishments “should not be blamed for issues of personal responsibility and freedom of choice.”—Steven Anderson, President,
National Restaurant Association68(pCN15)
Obesity is not a problem (3%) “Americans have been force-fed a steady diet of obesity myths by the ‘food police,’ trial lawyers, and even our own government.”—Center
for Consumer Freedom advertisement quoted in a news article69(p12)
Note. Our coding instrument contained 7 discrete arguments. We combined 3 related codes into the overall argument category that “Individuals are responsible” for the purpose of analysis (arguments relating to personal responsibility for obesity, parental responsibility, and those arguing that individuals should know that certain foods lead to obesity or other diet-related diseases).
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retailers (i.e., grocery, vending, and conve- nience store representatives).
We established intercoder reliability with Krippendorff ’s a by using an iterative method64 of reading a subsample of articles, coding them, and adjusting the coding instru- ment until we reached an acceptable level of agreement among the coders (a=0.78 for arguments; a=0.93 for speakers).70
To assess statistical differences between categories of speakers, we conducted 2-sample proportion tests with Stata software (version 13.0, StataCorp LP, College Station, TX).
Between 2000 and 2012, we found 393 news articles containing obesity-related argu- ments that referenced a trade association or
industry-funded nonprofit organization and included our search terms. These articles contained 1426 responsibility arguments (Appendix C, available as a supplement to the online version of this article at http://www. ajph.org, for details on the search results). Most of these articles included arguments solely from trade associations or nonprofit groups (68%). About 1 in 5 articles (21%) contained arguments from individual compa- nies and trade associations or nonprofit groups, and 10% contained arguments from individual companies alone. The remainder contained only obesity-related arguments at- tributed to the food industry in general (e.g., “The food industry claims that . . . .”; 2%).
Food industry arguments appeared most often in news coverage of policy developments and major obesity-related studies and reports.
Arguments about obesity from food industry representatives were almost nonexistent in the year before the 2001 Surgeon General’s Call to Action (< 1%; Appendix D, available as a sup- plement to the online version of this article at http://www.ajph.org). The number of argu- ments made by industry increased sharply thereafter, peaking in 2005 when industry representatives responded to a combination of obesity-prevention policy developments,71—74
and launched self-regulatory initiatives such as limits on soda in schools and McDonald’s placement of nutrition facts on its food pack- aging.75,76 Starting in 2009, the industry’s presence in newspaper coverage rose again, as representatives responded to a growing num- ber of public health policy actions, including the Affordable Care Act’s menu-labeling pro- vision in 2010 and various state and local efforts to regulate sugar-sweetened bever- ages.77—79
Arguments From Food Industry Claim-
Food industry claim-makers employed 3 main claims when they appeared in obesity-related newspaper coverage: they praised the industry and its self-regulation programs as “part of the solution”73(pC1) (33% of all food industry arguments), they criticized the government and public policy efforts to prevent obesity (25%), and they claimed that their products were not responsible for poor health outcomes and, therefore, they were unfairly blamed in these debates (24%).
Less frequently, they argued that individual consumer choices were responsible for obesity (15%), or that concern about the obesity epidemic was overstated (3%). Table 1 in- cludes an exemplar of each argument type.
Arguments From Trade Associations,
Companies, and Nonprofit Groups