The Modern Shopper: Beth Johnson from Food Directions LLC

The Modern Shopper: Beth Johnson from Food Directions LLC


The Modern Shopper brings together the best minds and insights of a diverse group of food retailers and other industry experts to discuss their strategic initiatives and their top of mind challenges. Our focus is around health and sustainability, e-commerce and retail innovation. This series aligns with Spoon Guru’s core mission to help retailers discover a seamless, personalized and accurate product discovery experience for shoppers based on their dietary and lifestyle needs and is hosted by Phil Lempert.


Today’s guest is Beth Johnson, the Founder and Principal at Food Directions LLC. Beth brings over 25 years of food policy experience serving inside and outside the government, including the Senior Nutritionist at the Food and Drug Administration, Deputy Chief of Staff at US Department of Agriculture, Senior Professional Staff, Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, and Executive VP at the National Restaurant Association. During her career, Beth has been involved in policy negotiations and development at the local, state, federal and international level. She also helped lead USDA’s work on Codex and the 2005 guidelines for Americans.

In this episode, Beth and Phil discuss helping shoppers to meet their health and sustainability goals in supermarkets with front-of-pack icons and labelling, and Beth shares her insights on why defining ’healthy’ is so tricky in the first place.

This interview runs for 15 minutes.

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Phil Lempert: Welcome to The Modern Shopper. This series brings together the best minds and insights of a diverse group of food retailers and other industry experts to discuss their strategic initiatives and their top of mind challenges. Our focus is around health and sustainability, e-commerce and retail innovation. The Modern Shopper series aligns with Spoon Guru’s core mission to help retailers discover a seamless, personalized and accurate product discovery experience for shoppers based on their dietary and lifestyle needs. I’m your host, Phil Lempert.

Phil Lempert: Today’s guest is Beth Johnson, the Founder and Principal at Food Directions LLC. Beth brings over 25 years of food policy experience serving inside and outside the government, including the Senior Nutritionist at the Food and Drug Administration, Deputy Chief of Staff at US Department of Agriculture, Senior Professional Staff, Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, and Executive VP at the National Restaurant Association. During her career, Beth has been involved in policy negotiations and development at the local, state, federal and international level. She also helped lead USDA’s work on Codex and the 2005 guidelines for Americans. Beth holds relationships with administration officials, agency career staff, key congressional offices, as well as public health and consumer advocates that help pave the way for fruitful discussions for her clients. I also consider her my friend. Beth, Welcome to The Modern Shopper.

Beth Johnson: Thank you. I appreciate the invitation and I’m happy to be here. 

Phil Lempert: So Beth, we hear a lot about sustainability these days, especially since the pandemic, but I also hear a lot of different definitions of what sustainability truly means. What is sustainability to you and how are you advising your clients to meet their goals about sustainability? 

Beth Johnson: Well, that’s a great question. And from my perspective, I would say that sustainability is about making sure that we are going to have food into the future. So when we think about a sustainable diet, we’re going to have healthy food as we move generations along. But as you say, it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and the devil’s in the details. And so as we look at what constitutes sustainable production practices, what constitutes a sustainable diet, and can you eat beef? Can you not eat beef? Can you eat meat? Those kinds of questions are always out there. From my standpoint, I do believe that there is a lot being done at all levels across the agriculture production side of the world. And there is a tremendous amount being done to make sure that there is respect for the environment, that there are opportunities for today and opportunities for the future, for the health of the people and the health of the planet. So I am not a believer that we have to give up red meat or give up some of these other products. I believe that we are going to, we can do more, everybody can do more and we will figure that out as we go along. 

Phil Lempert: So for the average shopper that goes up and down the aisles of the supermarket seeing 40,000 products, how confused or not are they as it relates to sustainability? Is this a conversation that we’re having with ourselves internally and not really communicating properly to the shopper? 

Beth Johnson: I would certainly say that I think that a lot of the discussion that we are having amongst ourselves, we’re talking over each other. And so we, many of us say we absolutely support a sustainable food system, we want to make sure that that happens, we want to make sure we’re doing right by our planet. But what does that really mean? What does that mean at, again, at the production level? What does it mean at the processing level? What does it mean in your home state that you’re making decisions that are sustainable and it’s all along the food system gate to plate, as we say, and we don’t have a common definition. So it is confusing. It’s hard to for a consumer to look at any products in particular and say this, this product is more sustainable than that product, or if I eat this diet it’s more sustainable than that diet, because you don’t really know, consumers don’t know, you and I don’t know how things have been grown and processed in order to get to their supermarket shelves. So there has to be a lot more discussion among the scientists, the policymakers, a number of different folks, to find some common ground on. What does this mean? What are the definitions that are meaningful? And then we need to communicate that effectively to the consumers so that they truly understand what they’re deciding to purchase so that they can make informed decisions. So from my standpoint, we are a ways away from having any kind of common definition, common communication to consumers so that they can be sure what they’re getting. 

Phil Lempert: What role, if any, should FDA, USDA, have as it relates to trying to define what sustainability is and then to communicate that properly to shoppers? 

Beth Johnson: That’s a great question. And I believe that both USDA and FDA can do a lot more from the research side. They can help really understand what the research is saying. A lot of ideas have been promoted as far as making a more sustainable diet, and that’s great. The problem is they don’t always make a difference. They don’t always save greenhouse gases. They don’t, you know, always look to sequester carbon. And like, we want to. And so there is a lot being discussed. But what we really want to know is what research is out there to show how we can truly make a difference, how you know, whether it’s farmers, whether it’s processors, anyone throughout the food supply, what can be done to make that happen? What practices are the most successful? And then they can share that information to manufacturers, to others involved in the food system. And then by the time that it gets to your shelf, when you’re looking at it and maybe it has a stamp or it has an icon or something that says this followed USDA and FDA practices, and I’m using as an example, a thought from the organic standards. So USDA has come up with definitions of it’s 95% organic, 75% organic, what have you. So, you know, when you look at that product, that that product has gone through a series of criteria to make sure that it meets that standard. And that is what I believe would be most helpful to consumers so that they know that there are criteria that are set up. We know that those criteria make as much of a difference today. Things are always going to change, but as much of a difference today as they can. And then we and the consumer can be sure that they know what they’re buying when they’re making that decision. 

Phil Lempert: So Beth, I’m going to put you on the spot here. In 1994, FDA issued a definition of ‘healthy’. They then authorized food manufacturers to use the term ‘healthy’ under certain regulations. Food manufacturers could use that term, related terms like ‘health’ and ‘healthful’ on food labels if in fact their food met certain nutritional requirements. Then, over 20 years later, on September 28th, 2016, the FDA announced the start of a public process to redefine ‘healthy’. Then, on May six of this year, the FDA announced that it’s considering the development of the graphic symbol, an icon if you would, to help consumers identify packaged food products that meet FDA’s anticipated definition of the word ‘healthy’. Now the major problem, as I see it number one, is that there is no definition of ‘healthy’. You can have as many icons as you want, but first you have to decide what it means and what’s healthy for one person may be different than healthy for another. This is not an easy problem to solve. Give us the inside track – what’s going on with the word ‘healthy’? 

Beth Johnson: It’s a great question. In 1994, I think that the focus really was on a claim. I’m looking at… there were uses of the term healthy on different products, and FDA wanted to standardize that so that it couldn’t be just used very… couldn’t be used haphazardly. And so now as we move forward and knowing that consumers are more interested in choosing a healthy diet and trying to understand what products may be healthier than another product, as we look at what’s happening internationally and Mexico has warning labels, the UK has traffic lights, New Zealand has health stars. You just have a number of front of pack systems that the United States has had a voluntary system – Facts Up Front. We know that there is tremendous interest in front of pack labeling. And so in 2018, the FDA issued their announced, they should say, their nutrition innovation strategy. So as part of that nutrition innovation strategy, in addition to things like implementing the new nutrition facts label, doing a nutrition education program, getting, producing, or we’re putting out sodium lowering targets, things like that. They also talked about updating claims and ‘healthy’. Their whole concept behind that nutrition innovation strategy was to help consumers more easily choose healthful foods, as well as encourage manufacturers to come up with more, renovate, innovate healthier products. So that what they said was that they would use the updated definition of ‘healthy’ whenever they may come out with that and a corresponding voluntary icon, so it’s not even that it’s an icon that we don’t know the definition of ‘healthy’. It will also be voluntary because the claim is voluntary. And so, so fast forward to where we are today. We do have a list of draft icons that FDA has put forth that they are going to do consumer testing on. The issue as I see it, not only is a diet a healthy diet for one person, it’s different than a healthy diet for another. It’s also how do you get there? If a food is either healthy or not healthy, then you’re in a situation as a consumer of – my heart is 75% unhealthy foods and 25% healthy things, or I really like this cereal, even though maybe it’s got a fair amount of fiber and it’s got some, some great nutrients in it because it doesn’t have whatever the definition of ‘healthy’ might be. It may be that it doesn’t have a certain vitamin in it that’s supposed to be there, potassium or something like that. And so it doesn’t meet that definition, regardless of how quote-unquote healthy that cereal might be, simply because it doesn’t meet the definition it can’t be considered healthy, and so therefore, what you would believe to be any healthy product is no longer considered healthy. And so you can see it from the consumer’s standpoint, it’s going to be very confusing as I’m either picking a healthy food or I’m picking an unhealthy food as opposed to other systems that help consumers understand how you gradually choose healthier foods. There may be, a consumer understands that broccoli is healthier than chocolate cake, right? But there’s a lot in between there that they can choose. That may not be the broccoli, but it may be something that, you know, maybe it’s a vegetable chip that actually is not as healthy as the broccoli, but it’s still healthy and it’s got nutrients in it. It is made with the kale chips or something like that. And I don’t know. But something that still is healthy. It’s not that it’s not the ultimate, but it’s still there. So how do you help consumers understand that they don’t – the perfect isn’t the enemy of the good. We as public health professionals, from my standpoint, need to help consumers where they are. We need to help get them to a healthier diet. If we put something where it’s either you’re good or you’re bad, then a lot of people just give up because they don’t feel like they’re ever going to get to that, that perfection. And that’s not what we want to do. And I personally don’t believe that’s what FDA wants to do. I think that I think they do want to get people to that place, and they understand it takes time. We understand their challenges. So I’m not saying that I believe FDA is trying to do this inappropriately or incorrectly or anything like that. It’s just hard to figure out how to do that, where they feel, at least that they are within the regulations at this point. 

Phil Lempert: If you were to pick a point in time that we will start to see some clearer definitions coming out of FDA on this having it on packaging. Are we talking six months from now? We’re talking six years from now. What’s your best guess having spent so much time on the hill and FDA and USDA? 

Beth Johnson: I would say that when we’re going to see a definition is largely tied to when we will see an FDA Commissioner. So I think that as that person is nominated and hopefully gets into place, we’re going to see a lot more certainty from FDA. So we’re probably five, six, seven years away from when we’re going to see a lot of this being implemented.

Phil Lempert: Well, Beth, as always, fabulous insights, fabulous inside information, and thanks for joining us today on The Modern Shopper.

Beth Johnson: Absolutely, thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

 

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Phil Lempert