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Food companies pitch doctors

bakeddoritoscoolerranchThe Wall Street Journal reports (Take Two Grass-Fed Steaks And Call Me in the Morning, May 25) that the $500bn U.S. food industry – in a move to “cash in on the nation’s obsession with healthy eating” – is embracing a marketing approach long espoused by pharmaceutical companies: pitching doctors.

Food companies are hoping that physicians will “pseudo-prescribe” certain foods and even brand-name items to their patients. WSJ says that doctors are “being asked to hand out everything from coupons for Baked Doritos, made by Frito-Lay, a unit of PepsiCo, as an alternative to higher-fat regular chips, to sample packages of Molly McButter, a low-fat butter substitute made by Alberto-Culver Co. Other products being marketed in this way range from walnuts to specialty steaks.”

“The new marketing strategies come as food companies scramble to cash into a fast-growing segment of the U.S. food industry. ‘Functional’ foods and beverages -- the term for edible products that promise health benefits -- are one of the fastest growing niches in the food industry, representing a $13.6 billion business in the U.S., up more than 25% since 2000, according to market analyst Mintel Group, and representing nearly 2.7% of the total U.S. food industry. The success has encouraged other food companies to become more aggressive about marketing the health benefits of their products.”

The well of trust enjoyed by doctors is immense, to be sure. When physicians in white coats dole out prescriptions – or in this case advice about healthy snacks – most patients will religiously follow their recommendations.

Not surprisingly, this move to piggyback physician credibility is drawing scathing criticism from consumer advocates. And much of the concern is reminiscent of that levelled at the originators of this practice: pharmaceutical companies. “For years, drug-company sales representatives have lavished gifts upon doctors, including golf vacations, cash and expensive dinners in an effort to get doctors to prescribe specific brand-name drugs. While the food-industry marketing tactics aren't at that level, gifts, grants and sponsorships from food companies given to doctors or medical organizations are triggering similar concerns.”

Some companies are in fact joining forces with pharmaceutical companies to reach potential customers. Many doctors hand out free drug samples to patients and certain food manufacturers are getting coupons for their products added to the packages – so-called bundling. WSJ: “In one promotion last summer, samples of Pravachol, a heart drug made by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., were distributed along with kits containing coupons for, or samples of, a half-dozen food products. They included coupons for Everfresh juice, a unit of National Beverage Corp., and Kellogg Co.'s Kashi breakfast cereal, according to HealthSentials, a division of PPS Medical Marketing Group in Pine Brook, N.J.

Many Americans already feel disenfranchised by the health care system in general and big pharma in particular. Are food companies making a critical branding blunder by bundling their products with those of major drug firms? Lavishing gifts on doctors so they’ll plug your brands seems questionable at best. Touting the heart-friendly properties of certain foods by providing healthcare professionals with relevant information (studies, statistics, etc.) is one thing, sending them a free side of beef is another.

Another interesting question is whether this trend will, like most things made in the good old U.S.A., be exported to Europe. In Sweden there was much talk of raising taxes on unhealthy foods. But the "obesity bomb" to which journalists devoted considerable ink last fall has proved a bit of a dud. Perhaps, with the bathing suit fast approaching, Sweden's tabloids will reignite the fuse. //Billy McCormac

June 1, 2004 in Posts in English | Permalink


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