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78th Annual Summer Conference, August 6–9, 2009

The Politics of Diet:
How Can We Strike the Right Balance?

Speakers: RICHARD ELLIS, Senior Vice President, Communication and Corporate Affairs, McDonald’s Canada, DEBBIE FIELD, Executive Director, Foodshare Inc., and GALEN G. WESTON, Executive Chairman, Loblaw Companies Limited (bios)
Moderator: BOB RAMSAY, Communications Consultant

Summary by Idil Burale, CIPA Youth Scholarship Recipient

Moderator’s Comments

For most of human history, diet wasn't much of a political, commercial and/or social issue. Now, the subject of what we eat is being asked everywhere. We have three of Canada's and the world's advocates on striking the right balance. To undervalue the importance of food is to not know that more people watch the food network then they do the news. Nine years ago when McDonald's decided to put salad in their menu, it became the biggest salad distributor in the world. Galen Weston is the chairman of Loblaw, who created such labels as PC, No Name Brand and the Blue Menu. One of the impulses driving our guest speakers is political – are we doing the right thing? Are we ahead or just catching up? Is food education just a cover-up to people's issues?

Richard Ellis

  • How many people have ever been to a McDonald restaurant? (everyone raises hands)
  • We all have our opinions of what McDonald should or should not do but do we truly understand the nuances of McDonalds?
  • You become a lightning rod when you're a big company. We have been at the forefront of many issues like the obesity issue. Advertising to children is another key area that we have curtailed away from, we are a family company.
  • Trans-fat has been another issue that we have spent a lot of time dealing with and correcting. It took a long time to get there but we got there.
  • We are also known as a big American company and have become involved in some international issues.
  • We do a lot of work in sodium consumption and sodium reduction.
  • We take these issues very seriously, not because our business cares to do so, but because we have to.
  • McDonalds is in 190 countries and employs 2 million people. It is a big, big machine and big machines do not change as easily or as fast into what we want them to. In Canada, there are 240 franchise holders and McDonalds serves approximately 200 million people everyday.
  • Mcdonalds has a commitment to local purchase (example of working with Russian local farmers)
  • The Balance Act Lifestyle was the initiative that Mcdonalds launched to challenge obesity. Our food is different now and continues to change. We have a new salad menu because our salads were not making the grade and customers demanded we cut the sodium consumption in the salad dressing. So we did by changing the salad dressing company to one that produced healthier salad dressings.
  • Our Balance Act Lifestyle is: Menu choice, education and physical activity.
  • In 1970 the food fact brochure was created and the information is still available on the website, where you can create your own nutritious and healthy meals.
  • We have a very strong commitment to corporate responsibility and sustainable purchases.
  • We govern by the three E's: Is it Ethical? Is it environmentally sound? Is it economically friendly (can our customers afford it)? Those are the questions that help shape our commitment to corporate responsibility and a sustainable supply chain.
  • Is it possible to serve healthy food under those three E's? Yes, because we purchase a lot of food and can then afford to keep costs low for our customers.
  • McDonalds Canada serves 100% Canadian beef and we purchase 60 million pounds of it. We are the single largest purchasers of apples. We also purchase 62 million eggs, 44, 000 pounds of chicken, etc...
  • We serve a balanced and nutritious meal at a cost effective price because of our dollar power to purchase food.
  • Sustainable supply chain: it’s all about quality and food safety.
  • Risk management – maintain that competitive value of the price of our goods.
  • Our brand has to be constantly refreshed and updated
  • And we have to do it all with a corporate responsibility.
  • When you buy a happy meal, we give 10% to our Ronald McDonald charities.
  • 25 million dollars has been raised for the charities since 2004
  • Trust is a fundamental thing – its how we decide on brands we choose to buy. Adhering to trust is what drives the business.
  • We work with NGO's and government: GreenPeace, WildLife, etc. They help us to adjust our business model for now and the future.
  • Anticipating and mitigating crisis is paramount for McDonalds.

McDonald's Environmental approach:

  • Working on environmental initiatives like new packaging protocols, minimizing our packaging or using reusable products.

On the obesity epidemic:

  • We are an easy target but only 8% of meals are eaten at a restaurant or outside the home. So it’s about taking a holistic look at one's lifestyle instead of just focusing on fast food consumption.
  • Sodium is another big issue for us. Not a day goes by when we do not learn something new about it.
  • Our sodium alterations begin with the happy meal and we continued to reducing it in chicken and by changing salad dressings. We are now moving onto to fries and continue to reduce and innovate our sodium dependence food and consumption.

Debbie Field

(Begins by asking everyone to stand up and do 1-minute yoga exercise called the Tree of Life)

  • There are many contradicting things in food. It is the most complex thing to discuss.
  • I am going to give you a social science point of view to striking the right balance.
  • The food system that we have created right now is the most complicated, safest food in the history of mankind but it is also true that at the same time it is killing us.
  • There has been a lot of talk about biofuels being good or not, or organic being the right thing or not, but if we are to get out of this crisis, then a whole new way of thinking is needed. We have the change the format from this male-like head-bashing confrontation to coming together and sharing ideas (gives hats to presenters).
  • Our movement is vibrant amongst students.
  • So what's the problem and how do we fix it?
  • We have to engage the food production system with a system that is subsidized by government and works on healthy food.
  • Right now, we have a privately-run food system that is not capable of meeting the needs of farmers and those who rely on food.
  • We have a massive crisis of health.
  • Food and Income=hunger; Farming=non sustainable agriculture, food and health.
  • We have a market failure when it comes to food. 1 billion people going to bed hungry and dying. Farmers committing suicide at a high rate.
  • The contradiction between striking the right balance is that we have created a food system based on dead food.
  • It is primarily geared towards three things: fat, sugar, and salt galore – something we never had in abundance before.
  • Our biological genetic make-up is not made to handle the overeating and under-work out that our lifestyle is mostly made of. We have to educate ourselves, and cannot always blame the food corporation.
  • Dead food does not nourish us, it causes more problems.
  • Heart disease is easily related to the consumption of dead food.
  • The precautionary principle is: do we need it?
  • Food is the ultimate intimate commodity. Every culture celebrates by breaking bread.
  • Crisis - Food and income: food banks and food aids are not solutions. We need to look at the structural things. Income security and food security are not the same things. Food security is autonomous. We do not give people more money and not make cheap housing or cheap transit.
  • Nobody can afford to be a farmer. We need to treat them like doctors, where their services are heavily subsidized while also being paid heavily. That is what should happen with farmers.
  • We need a minister of food security.
  • We need a federal plan. This should be the gift of Couchiching.
  • We need to make food a health issue. Some component of food needs to became part of the health sector.
  • We need to subsidize farmers at the local level.
  • We need to completely rethink and reexamine children and education. We need food literacy. Change the curriculum to include cooking as a mandatory credit to graduating. In Kenya, schools began to grow their own farms. Feed the family first and then trade.
  • What you can do:
  • Personal: agree that you will start eating 10 servings of vegetables a day. By doing so, you also decide to buy locally (but local, seasonal, fair-trade, organic – ask those questions when you go shopping). If you're eating one meal a day with your family, make sure you do it twice.
  • Community: go to farmers’ markets, join community farming
  • Political: join us in creating a food policy and an agreement to subsidize farmers.
  • Corporations: buy local produce by 10%, going up 5% every year. Control the size of food servings – portion size has to change. At a social policy level, join us in getting that national policy.
  • We are living in tough times. There will be a new reality.
  • I am a pessimist of the intellectual and an optimist of the will.

Galen Weston

  • What is obvious but worth saying is that I am not a politician or policymaker, but a grocer. There is good in that, but also bad. Everyone has an opinion about supermarkets.
  • My family has been doing business in Canada for over 100 years – feeding Canadians with bread, refined sugar, salmon and groceries.
  • We have succeeded because we take a long-term view.
  • We think of business in terms of decades and not in quarters.
  • The reason I am here is because I believe the trend around food is conferring in a way that will change everything about the way we eat in my lifetime.
  • A summary: population growth and availability of food. A 70-90% decline in all the commercial fishing and the end of all wild fisheries in the next 30 years. Industrial development in agricultural science. We talked about climate change and how will the farmers deal with it. The impact of carbon reduction on our farms. Food safety. Obesity and the burden it puts on society.
  • 70% of healthcare costs are driven by behaviour and 75% by 4 chronic illnesses (cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure) that may be solved by diet.

Some of my thoughts on the role of the grocery store in addressing the key issues:

  • Over the last 40 years, retail sourcing and receiving of food has gone unregulated. As this changes, groceries should take part in decision-making.
  • 12 million of 33 million Canadian consumers shop in our grocery stores every week. There is no doubt that Loblaws takes a serious responsibility in providing food.
  • Our family philosophy: Respect for the environment, source with integrity, multiculturalism and treat our employees well.
  • Loblaws as a business is agnostic to what it sells. We care about how much we sell and at what price we sell but what we sell is irrelevant. This is not the case in other grocery stores.
  • Food manufactures are often hog-tied. As a supermarket company, we have no such limitations. So this gives us the ability to apply innovation and changing products according to demand.
  • We will increase our direct farm goods by 80%, we are currently at 40%.
  • Those who don't like business must not forget that we (retailers) can update and accommodate changes in a shorter time than it would take public policy and government to kick-in.
  • As far as Canada is concerned, healthy food is affordable and to say that the system systematically hikes up the price of eating good food and keeps junk food cheap is to believe in myth and is patently untrue.
  • Obesity in Canada is about inactivity and poor food choices and policy should not tax retailers or fast food chains, but instead educate people to adopt healthier lifestyles and become more active.
  • If business is not allowed to market the benefits of healthy foods, where is the incentive for farmers to create them or institutions to propagate them?
  • Loblaws is working on providing the public with food details and where it came from.
  • I came here with an objective to learn and not to preach. I hope that I have added to the discussion by demonstrating what we have been doing to tackle the global problem of food.


Question: Salt reduction – the Blue Food Menu reduces fat but not salt nor the injections of salt in meat. Is there any salt reductions being planned by Loblaws? How much is the percentage of salt reduction?

Galen: the problem with processed food is that you lose a lot of flavor and thus needs extra seasoning and that is why we have so much salt. What we try to do is balance it with the focus being on salt reduction in some products and fat reduction in others. We are trying to tackle salt. We do not inject salt into our meat, only in pork because it makes it easier to cook.

Richard: we watched closely what other countries did to address the question of salt when it came about, so we try to get ahead of the game. When we were making our salads, we looked at the salt consumption in our salad dressing and were able to make low-sodium dressing available to our customers, whether they go with the salad or not. We look at the entire menu and systematically at the children’s happy meal first. We still have a lot of work to do and it is a top priority.

Question: Tax reduction on food bank

Debbie: People get tax receipt but not corporations.

Question: $1 drink of any size campaign does not meet your three E priorities.

Richard: Campaign was designed as an extra value plan for the summer session. There are other options available to drink.

Question: in the question of sodium, you keep bringing it back to salad but not the french fries and hamburgers. Is that why the trust was lost? What are the negative implications of quick service?

Richard: There are issues and problems we had to deal with in gaining trust. I pointed to salad because the lady has asked me specific about that. We go back to retrain about proper salting techniques. The industry has always called it quick service, so that's what we call it.

Question: is it ethical to advertise those $1 campaigns? Marketing to children or to parents who decide what children will eat.

Richard: We do so because the vast majority of what we sell is in food bundles. Our intention is to advertise what we sell. It might not be to everyone's liking but we are very proud of what we sell. Our brands have changed in the way we market to children. Much of that is done voluntarily and much is due to working with policymakers and helping educate people. We founded concerned advertising children organization in order to change the advertising practices

Question: What do you mean by Loblaws being agnostic about what it sells?

Galen: We have this enormous flexibility where we can sell all sorts of things. So if we are value spaced then we can make decisions without compromising your business model and meeting the customers demand. We do not psychological motivate how people shop. What we do is try to give people what they need to buy and get out as soon as possible.

Question: What are the new ideas that could help make McDonald's more resilient to changing societal needs?

Richard: We are in the business of selling our products. Our menus have changed over time and will continue to do so. What continues our innovations is supply and demand.

Question: How do you deal with food that is cultural significant like shark fins but environmentally unsustainable?

Galen: In purchasing T&T, we want to keep it distinctly Chinese. You have to be careful when approaching sensitive topic like this.

Question: There's nobody from Health Canada on the panel, which is quite problematic. What about food citizenship?

Galen: It’s a good question and a though one to answer. We are grocers but just because we're that does not mean we cannot take part in that discussion. We are not threatened by it, we can actually benefit from it.

Debbie: I know for sure that a person would not be happier to know that every Canadian has had something to eat.

Richard: We are all here to engage in discussion. I came here because I care. So the idea of food citizenship is something I completely support. I am here to educate you about my business and to engage in discussion for the future.

Question: Food deserts, where you do not have access to grocery stores. What would be your alternatives in that case in getting access to healthier food?

Galen: Call me and we will build one.

Question: There are differential prices depending on where you go to job.

Debbie: It is a myth in Canada. But we do have a problem with food deserts, especially when building cheap housing 30 minutes away from the nearest grocery stores.

Question: Where does the 8% statistic come from?

Richard: Canadian restaurants and food services.