Column: Exporting obesity to China

By Jason Gandelman

Harvard Political Review, Harvard U. via UWIRE

With the American public increasingly wary of obesity and diabetes, sales of unhealthy food products in the US have slowed over the past few years. Nevertheless, the profits of American food corporations continue to grow, due in large part to the corporate focus on emerging markets. Particularly in China, where regulation is limited and susceptible young consumers abound, American food corporations have been ambitiously and deceptively promoting their products.

Though the first American fast food restaurant only opened its doors in China in 1987, an ACNeilson survey reports that 97 percent of the Chinese population has already eaten at a fast food restaurant. With this rise in consumption of Americanized “High in Fat, Salt, and Sugar” foods in China, the childhood obesity rate has climbed approximately eight percent per year. Currently, 16 to 20 percent of Chinese urban children are considered clinically obese. This figure foreshadows a major public health crisis in the most populous nation on earth.

Childhood obesity in China is a result of the predatory tactics used by American food corporations to capitalize on the Chinese market. These corporations have driven consumption in China by advertising heavily to children and dismissing scientific criticism. According to Christine Chester of Corporate Accountability International, such strategies indicate that “Big Food is following the example set [decades ago] by Big Tobacco.” It is imperative that governments learn from the past and set policies to curb the health disaster created by the rise of fast food consumption in the developing world.

Exporting Illness: China as a “Profit Center”

In its latest financial statement, Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi remarked that, despite “challenging conditions in the North American beverage market,” Pepsico’s income has increased 18 percent over last year because they “continue to enjoy robust top-line growth in key emerging markets.” Likewise, Yum! Corporation, the owner of KFC and Pizza Hut, now makes far more profit in China than it does in the US. In the third quarter of 2010, Yum’s China sales hit $1.2 billion, up 20 percent, while US sales sunk 8 percent.

In their search for new markets, American food corporations have shifted a burden of disease from the American public onto the Chinese people as the tobacco industry did decades ago. Harvard professor Frank Hu notes that since the Chinese market opened up to American corporations, the health consequences have been staggering. In only two decades, the number of type II diabetics has grown ten fold to 95 million. Harvard professor Arthur Kleinman explains that while American corporations have increasingly “looked to China as a profit center,” in recent years, the social cost of this profit has been quite high.

Joe Camel: Advertising to Children

Using tactics similar to the tobacco industry, whose Joe Camel icon was found in a 1991 study to be recognizable by a majority of schoolchildren, American food corporations have been heavily promoting their icons in China.  Spending nearly 750 million renminbi ($119 million) to push its Colonel Sanders’ iconic image, KFC was the number two television and print ad buyer in all of China in 2008.  McDonald’s created a reality television show in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics with the help of the Chinese government that implied that the healthy children on screen were fans of McDonald’s.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for such ads to be banned from American television sets based on evidence that strongly links the ads to childhood obesity. In China, however, there is no such group fighting these ads and the public is largely unaccustomed to battling obesity. According to Hu, many parents still hold the traditional belief that a chubby appearance is healthy. Food corporations have seized on China’s one-child policy and the idea of China’s “little emperors.” They have urged parents to lavish their single child with food rewards.

The Marlboro Man: Encouraging Individual Freedom of Choice and Risk

But the ad blitz does not stop at children. American food corporations have also targeted the teen population by subtly promoting the old drum-line of the tobacco industry that “freedom and choice are inextricably linked.” According to Harvard professor Alan Brandt, the tobacco industry made this argument by employing the Marlboro Man, “at a time when men were wearing suits, the icon for the cigarette would become the cowboy, out on the range, by himself… which harkened to a notion of autonomy. People will tell you bad things about cigarettes, but you make your choice.” The subtlety of this message also resonates with the findings of a 2002 McDonald’s brand imaging study in China that found customers preferred McDonald’s because “you can have your own choice” and “choose freely” from the menu.

This type of advertising coincides with what Kleinman defines as the new Chinese generation’s neo-liberalist construction of the self as being “a consuming self, desiring for material goods—one of which is food.” Indeed, this young generation believes that freedom and choice in consumption are linked. A recent survey by the China Mainland Information Group of Chinese teens found that over 50 percent believe determining what they buy themselves is the most important thing about shopping. Ironically, the extent to which these teens truly make independent decisions is questionable, as 50 percent also agreed with the statement that they were generally influenced by advertising.

“Safe-Cigarettes”: Corporate Responses to Criticism

Not only have American food corporations advertised shrewdly in China, but they have also advertised in ways that are purposely deceptive, similar to how the tobacco industry misconstrued scientific revelations in the 1950s. In response to new evidence that their product caused cancer, the tobacco industry disseminated misinformation by releasing ads with doctors’ testimonials and ads claiming that “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” Strikingly, McDonalds is now following this same pattern, generating misinformation in China about the healthiness of eating beef to encourage the Chinese to consume a meat which has never been part of their traditional diet.

According to a 2006 Modern Weekly interview with Gary Rosen, McDonald’s Marketing President in China, the company has commenced a long-term “beef education” campaign targeted at children under the slogan “Do you have enough beef?” McDonald’s invites children to join the “Beef Club” online. More disturbingly, McDonald’s has hired nutritionists to endorse the nutritious qualities of beef.  Rosen even boasts that “nutritionists in China, particularly the Ministry of Health, all publicize the need for Chinese to insert more protein in their diet.” McDonald’s has fabricated the idea that beef should be an essential dietary item. According to scientific consensus, increased red meat consumption is linked to cardiovascular disease and increased risk of mortality.

As the science became overwhelming, the tobacco industry famously circulated its “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” in 1954 where they, “accepted an interest in people’s health as a basic responsibility” and announced the formation of the tobacco industry Research Council. This is strikingly similar to what KFC has announced on in China as its “New Fast Food” strategy. In this flier, KFC acknowledges the “emergence of a worldwide overweight and obesity phenomenon” and announces its establishment of a “food health inquiry committee.” While KFC has added a few vegetable items to its menu, the most popular meals still include up to 1600 calories. Washington University professor Peter Benson writes that this strategy of  “acknowledgment that a problem exists” and “symbolic gestures of recompense or amelioration” are common tactics that are not intended to make a substantial difference.

Surgeon General Warning: Solving the Epidemic

Should American food corporations take responsibility themselves or are they simply giving the Chinese consumers what they want: more modern choice? As Brandt explains, the question of freedom and risk versus regulation in the marketplace is still “one of the essential debates in American political culture.” Despite this, both Republicans and Democrats have largely united against tobacco industry tactics by acknowledging the value of accurate, and non-deceptive, information to inform consumer decisions and achieve the best market outcome. The tobacco industry’s actions in the past and the food industry’s actions today deprive consumers of knowledge to make informed choices. While the food industry can continue on the path followed by the tobacco industry and create a deadly legacy in the process, the food industry can work to create real consumer freedom by removing deception and embracing scientific information. The American food corporations have urged freedom of choice. Now it is time for them to make one.

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