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What can the food and beverage industry do to improve American health?

September 24, 2014 at 6:02 PM EDT
The world's largest soda manufacturers have pledged to reduce the number of calories in sugary drinks by 20 percent over the next decade. Judy Woodruff interviews PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of Robert Wood Johnson, part of a coalition of companies and nonprofits working to cut calorie consumption and improve the health of Americans.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a new push to help Americans slim down. It comes from the world’s largest soda manufacturers.

Yesterday, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper Snapple pledged to reduce the number of calories in sugary drinks by 20 percent over the course of the next decade.

This afternoon, I moderated a discussion at the Newseum here in Washington with PepsiCo’s CEO, Indra Nooyi, and Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which have together been part of a coalition of companies and nonprofits working to cut calorie consumption and improve Americans’ health.

Here is part of our conversation.

This new pledge yesterday, Indra, from three of the major beverage soda companies, how is this different? What new do you think will happen?

INDRA NOOYI, CEO, PepsiCo: This is a major commitment because, at a point where diet drinks are not in vogue, we’re saying that we will still commit to reducing calories by 20 percent, which means that we’re going to shift portfolios to sell lower-calorie options. We’re going to go to smaller pack sizes, which means volume may be lower, but smaller pack sizes.

And we’re looking at reformulations, fundamental investment in R&D to search for new ingredients, new sweeteners, so people can still get a great experience in a beverage, but at a much lower calorie. So I think the 20 percent reduction in 10 years needs a huge undertaking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Risa, what’s your take on that new goal that they have announced?

DR. RISA LAVIZZO-MOUREY, President and CEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Well, it’s a significant goal, because we know that calories, excess calories in beverages is a significant part of the calories that we could take out of the diet and have people have a healthier weight.

So it’s significant from that perspective. It’s also one that they’re saying they’re going to measure the number of calories consumed, or decreasing by 20 percent the calories consumed. And so that’s going to be tricky to go from what’s sold to what’s actually consumed. And I think that’s one of the ways that independent evaluators and others in the scientific community will be looking at it.

It’s significant, it’s hard to do, but it will make a — potentially could make a difference in healthy weight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Indra, you talked a few minutes about how so much oft attention is on the industry, but it’s of course a much bigger set of challenges, and that there are many more actors who can have an effect on the outcomes in an attempt to reduce obesity.

What about the role of the public sector, of government? Clearly, they have been attempts in states to impose taxes. You had the highly publicized Michael Bloomberg effort in New York to ban supersized sodas. There have been other efforts with labeling. How do you see all that?

INDRA NOOYI: I think the role of government, the role of NGOs, the role of policy-makers I think has got to be much broader than just saying let’s ban supersized sodas or whatever.

I don’t think we want to become a nanny state. That was never — that should never be our goal. Freedom of choice is very important. Personal accountability and responsibility is very important. I think — where I think governments have to play a role, federal and state level, how do we improve the quality of lunches in schools, really good-quality lunches in schools?

We spend the highest per student on education as a nation. Why is our school lunch program not as nutritionally outstanding at it could be? Why don’t we have mandatory phys-ed every day for an hour in schools? Why don’t we?

I think we have go to go back and reexamine all of that. Why don’t we say that school — I mean, the towns have to have a sidewalk and encourage people to walk? Why don’t we have playgrounds in communities and not have the worry of litigation all the time if somebody falls down and gets hurt?

I think we have so many issues we have to address. I think what we have chosen to do is point the finger at food and beverage companies, when we have pointed a finger at ourselves in addressing the issue. But then we assume that if you impose taxes on them, everything is going to get taken care of. It’s not. It’s a slippery slope.

You have got private label manufacturers who don’t even fall under the purview of the branded manufacturers. You have got a whole unorganized restaurant trade that has food choices that don’t come under the purview of these branded manufacturers.

So I think we have got to approach this as a complex problem that requires a multifaceted solution, as opposed to a simple solution, which is to tax the company or make bans happen. I don’t think that’s going to work.

DR. RISA LAVIZZO-MOUREY: I think within this industry, one of the things that we really need to start to address is the gap that we see in the availability of healthy foods by income.

And Indra spoke about this earlier. One of the things we’re very concerned about is this rise in childhood obesity has started to level off, but we’re not seeing the same change in low-income communities and in African-American and Latino communities.

We also know that there tends to be more marketing of unhealthy foods in these communities. And so we want to make sure that we — as we’re addressing this, we think of ways that we can all work together to reduce that gap, because we’re not going to see a real benefit and a leveling off and a reduction of childhood obesity until we’re able to address it in all the communities, especially those where there’s a disproportionate risk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An upcoming addition of “PBS NewsHour Weekend” will focus on the campaign in San Francisco to raise taxes on sugar-added beverages.

And, for the record, the CEO of WETA, which produces the “NewsHour,” is on PepsiCo’s board of directors.

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