Monday, February 25, 2008

Take a Hard Look in the Mirror

In this age of transparency, how do you explain a battle among obesity experts over a New York rule, scheduled to become effective in March, requiring calorie counts per item to be listed on menus at chains with 15 or more restaurants (including fast food restaurants)? Common sense would tell you that the more information the better. Right? Particularly for people trying to lose or maintain weight.

Anyone can understand why Burger King might be against having 990 calories written across from its Double Whopper with Cheese. But really, in today’s world, fast food management has to face a public relations reality: customers can find such information on the internet. And if customers discover that management is opposing such disclosure, they can cause a maelstrom on the web which will likely end up hurting the restaurant more than the calorie listing does. Responsibility for listing the calorie count could also be a factor that encourages restaurants to offer a healthier choice.

But this situation takes an unexpected and challenging public relations twist. The person leading the battle against the New York rule, according to “Conflict on the Menu,” an article in the February 16 issue of The New York Times, is none other than the incoming president, Dr. David B. Allison, of the Obesity Society, an organization of obesity doctors and scientists.

Dr. Allison, the article reveals, is about as conflicted as he can be. He is a paid consultant to Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, Frito Lay and the New York Restaurant Association. In fact, the latter paid him to write and submit an affidavit to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York arguing that the new rules could backfire “whether by adding to the forbidden-fruit allure of high-calorie foods or by sending patrons away hungry enough that they will later gorge themselves even more.” He even cites a study that dieters who were distracted [whatever that means!] while eating were more likely to overeat when presented with high caloric information.

Question #1: Why would the Obesity Society not be more thorough in vetting the background of someone who is elected president?

Question #2: Why don’t the members of the Obesity Society fire their incoming president — someone who is obviously using his new title to merchandise consulting business … to the point of taking a position that appears to be contrary to the basic philosophy of the Society he leads? Dr. Allison says he is “happy to be involved in the pursuit of truth.”

Question #3: Why would the Obesity Society stand by and permit its reputation to be tarnished in broad daylight? One would assume it is dedicated to healthy eating. Why would it sanction someone who feels there may be value in holding back information that helps people make healthier choices?

Fortunately, at least one member of the Obesity Society — Dr. Barry M. Popkin, director of the Interdisciplinary Obesity Center at the University of North Carolina is very angry about what Dr. Allison has done. He is now filing an affidavit supporting the city’s position … but the entire organization needs to take a hard look in the mirror.

Technorati Tags: obesity, dieters, fast food, calories, Obesity Society, Dr. David B. Allison, Coca Cola, Frito Lay, Kraft Food, New York Restaurant Association, Dr. Barry M. Popkin, business, communications, public relations


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