Chatter, action—and then nothing. That is the pattern that many activist documentaries have followed. But a few films have gone beyond that prototype, and the new documentary "Fed Up" aims to join that list.
Made in part by a producer of "An Inconvenient Truth," the film takes on an industry that's no stranger to controversy—the food business. But if "Fed Up" has an impact on the industry, what might change? We look at past efforts to alter the business of food, and whether the film will succeed in changing the way consumers look at and buy what they eat.
Why are they so “Fed Up?”
From executive producers Katie Couric and Laurie David (producer of "An Inconvenient Truth"), the film begins with a number-heavy account of the rising obesity epidemic in America. The catalyst of this public health crisis is correlated with the rise of added sugar in foods that began lining grocery shelves in the late 1970s.
And this is where we get into trouble, according to multiple scientists and experts. Added sugars are pinpointed as one of the primary causes of obesity in “Fed Up,” with scientists saying those sugars result in addictive and sluggish behaviors and an increase in body fat.This is a fact the food industry is well aware of, the film claims, and one it chooses to gloss over, even using to its advantage to recruit and maintain its power over the American consumer.
Marketing sugary cereals to children, placing candy and soft drinks in school cafeterias, and creating an attractive buy out of products with less-than-attractive nutrition labels are just some of the charges the film leverages at food companies. With direct comparisons to the cigarette industry, the film’s purported bad guy—and his malicious end game—is clear.
The industry reacts
Days before the film’s May 9 release, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) responded to “Fed Up" with a statement. A representative of more than 300 food and beverage companies, the association said that the film “provides an inaccurate view of the packaged food industry,” with “a short-sighted, confrontational and misleading approach.”
Mimicking the layout of the promotional website for “Fed Up,” the GMA’s fedupfacts.com counters many of the claims made in the film. The site notes GMA’s support in implementing new standards for school meals, and refers to the introduction of 20,000 healthier new products in the marketplace since 2002 (two facts refuted in a follow-up online post by physician Mark Hyman, who contributed to the movie).
The industry is no stranger to going on the PR offensive to respond to outsiders' critical claims. In 2008, the documentary film “Food, Inc.” led an expose into the manufacturing and production of some of America’s biggest food brands, including secret footage of practices in slaughterhouses and factories.
In response, Smithfield Foods and Monsanto, two companies highlighted in the film, released FAQs addressing some of these claims. Both companies declined to give interviews for the film, a decision both retroactively regretted.
“Food Inc., does not paint an accurate portrait of how our company operates today,” read a statement from Smithfield Foods. “We are not perfect, but we’re working tirelessly to become more sustainable and produce ‘Good food. Responsibly.’”
Following its release, the U.S. Department of Justice launched investigations into the monopolistic seed practices referenced in "Food, Inc.," and a version of Kevin’s Law—a food safety proposal mentioned in the film—was passed in Congress.
But the film never affected the bottom line. Many of the companies targeted, including Monsanto, Tyson Food, and Purdue Farms, continue to be key players in the industry.
So what impact, if any, will “Fed Up” have on the industry? Like “Food, Inc.,” the film’s best chance for success will be to supplement issue-advocacy already in place before its release.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law in 2010, requires the USDA to establish new nutrition standards for school food—one of the most contested areas in the film. The standards have been rolled out gradually, and new ones will continue to be introduced until 2015.
Food manufacturers supplying schools already have had to adjust their products to meet new standards, and will continue to do so. Future standards include a cap on sodium levels for meals and snacks, and a calorie limit for a la carte items.
In 2006, beverage makers and health advocates crafted an agreement to remove sweetened drinks from cafeterias and school vending machines. The beverage industry predicted that the agreement would not affect school sales, as they replace these beverages with permitted drinks like water and 100% fruit juice. As sales of soda dropped since then, even outside of schools, this forecast follows wider industry trends in the beverage market.
Another target of “Fed Up,” and perhaps one that may be harder to tackle, is the marketing of food products to children. Stating that kids’ brains are getting “hijacked” by food manufacturers at an early age, the film’s website cites the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine when it says “98% of food-related ads that children view are for products high in fat, sugar, and sodium.”
The high traffic of the ads makes these foods attractive and desirable, increasing sales—and children's waistlines, according to the film.
More than 50 countries have passed legislation regulating television advertising aimed at children. Cartoon characters cannot be used to promote foods to children younger than 12 in Sweden, and Australia bans food advertisements for children less than 14 years old. Such restrictions have not been in place for American food companies, until now.
In February, the White House and the Agriculture Department introduced a joint proposal that would ban advertising in schools for products that do not meet federal nutrition guidelines. At the time of announcement, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that 70% of elementary and middle school students and 90% of high school students attend schools hosting food marketing.
The removal of advertising for sugary drinks and candy bars falls in line with the removal of these products from schools altogether, leading many in the industry to show their support for the proposal. The American Beverage Association called the changes “common-sense efforts to strengthen school wellness policies” in a statement made after the announcement.
To address advertising to children outside of schools, first lady Michelle Obama invited representatives from the food industry, media, and private organizations to discuss voluntary regulation in the market last September.
“I think we can all agree that parents deserve more control over the products and messages their kids are exposed to,” said Obama.
This follows The Walt Disney Company’s 2012 decision (also promoted by the first lady) to regulate food products advertised on its child-focused channels following strict nutritional standards. Capri Sun drinks and Kraft Lunchables were both deemed unacceptable, as well as candy, sugared cereal, and fast food. The new restrictions will go into effect next year.
But food companies can work with Disney in the supermarket, advertising their Disney-licensed products that meet the company’s nutrition criteria with a “Mickey Check” on the package.
If “Fed Up” sparks the public outrage it hopes to, other media outlets may follow Disney’s lead. Expanding on healthy, kid friendly items may be the only way food companies can retain the high influx of children-centric advertising on television—an estimated $2 to $10 billion marketing effort.
The bottom line
Like other activist films that came before it, the direct impact of “Fed Up” may be hard to track in the months ahead. Rather, the issues addressed in the film have been debated for years, giving the industry time to adjust to the rising trend of more healthful eating.
But perhaps the one influence that can be tracked is the speed at which these issues are addressed. "Fed Up" may introduce a push for quicker—and more impactful—movement by the industry to help combat obesity. If that happens, companies will need to adapt.