Mexico’s health crisis

Sorry folks, what started as a write up of a great bakery in Monterrey and ended as a bit of a rant.  Stay tuned to read about a great bakery in Monterrey doing their amazing bit to create dignified employment and sell great bread to the lucky people who live there. But until then, read on about Mexico’s very real health crisis.  The number of obese, unhealthy people here is second only to the USA.  There are three contributing factors and many ways forward if only senior business leaders could find their huevos.*

The first part of the problem contributing to Mexico’s health crisis is economic:  There are a small number of huge companies in Mexico that churn out cheap products and have access to massive distribution systems with which it is difficult to compete.  The second part of the problem is sociological:  Mexico is a poor country and  huge food companies have flooded the market with cheap processed food of all kinds.  The market for relatively more expensive, small production, good quality food is necessarily small.  The final part of the problem is a lack of awareness:  Most Mexicans, of all social classes, are simply not aware of the averse health impacts of eating highly processed food and cannot or do not seek more healthful (and more expensive) alternatives even if if they can afford it.

In three tiny nutshells:

1.  The economy:  Mexico has a small number of huge food conglomerates in addition to the MNCs that flood the market with cheap, highly processed food.  The industrial loaves are mostly made by a company called “Bimbo“, industrial tortillas by a company called “Tia Rosa” (owned by Bimbo) and they are equally disgusting, taste of chemicals, and smell of vinegar.  But if that’s what you are used to, you don’t really notice.  Witness the domination of the industrial loaf in just about every developed country in the world.

2.  The society:  Mexico is a poor country and when you are struggling to feed yourself at all, you don’t exactly worry about whether your food is organic and you buy the cheapest possible calories just to stay alive.  I understand that – I see it every day – and am saddened by the cynical way in which multi nationals have taken advantage of this by selling coke, for example, at a lower price than water.  Even if Mexicans are not struggling to feed themselves they have, like most people in more developed economies, been infected with the desire to have it all.  Buying the cheapest possible food is a great way to “save” money to spend on other things.

3.  Lack of awareness:  The traditional diet in Mexico consists of beans, rice and corn or wheat tortillas, with regular  helpings of fresh fruit and vegetables. It is cheap, it is nutritious and if you go into tiny villages far away from big cities, older people have perfect teeth, good posture, and lovely skin and hair. They are tiny and wiry and fit and strong.  However, in 20 years the diet has changed beyond recognition.  It is normal to see babies with bottles of coke and bags of crisps and sweets.  In many tiny villages the only things available to buy at the shops are fizzy drinks and packaged, processed food with a long shelf life.  No fresh food, no bakery, no tortilla maker and almost no farming, such is the state of despair and ignorance among so many people.  This is a vicious cycle.  Younger Mexicans and urban Mexicans have not adapted well to this change in their diet:  Mexico now boast rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity in both adults and children that are second only to the US.

I do not fully understand the economics – I don’t think anybody does.  On one side of the ledger is the extent to which the multi national food companies contribute to the economy:  taxes paid, people employed (and their taxes paid), raw materials purchased, and donations/sponsorships (which will be significant).  On the other side of the ledger is the extent to which poor health costs this country in terms of medical costs, the hidden cost of care and the lack of ability of some ill people to contribute to the economy both now and in the future by studying, working or caring for others.  This is profit or loss that is virtually impossible to calculate and includes much more than finances.  There are social and emotional pluses and minuses too and the whole complicated argument sounds very similar to the one that was discussed and is being slowly resolved, in the developed world at least, about the tobacco industry.

What to do in this case?  In general I am against government intervention but such is the state of the health crisis here it is tempting to call on the government to simply ban all Coke products as a starter for ten.  North Korea, Cuba, Bolivia, and Myanmar have done it, why not Mexico?  Short of government intervention, every Mexican institution from nursery  schools to universities to offices and other places of work should get rid of the vending machines – all the vending machines.  Here is what would happen:

1.  People would not consume as many fizzy drinks nor eat as many crappy snacks.  Fizzy drinks and crappy snacks are impulse purchases and in general we are too lazy to go far to get them.  I know this because when I was a strategy consultant, my company worked for years with global fizzy drinks and snacks companies, advising them on how to sell more.  Putting the machines at the place of work or study is a sure fire way of selling more.  So put in machines that vend water.  Of course people may bring their sodas and their packaged snacks to work and school, but at least schools and places of work are not aiding and abetting.

2.  Schools, universities and places of work can instead employ people to make fresh juice, sell fresh fruit and vegetables, and sell traditional snacks.  This creates local employment, boosts local business (for fruit, vegetables, and traditional snack makers) and provides plenty of options for people who are thirsty, hungry, or merely bored.  Walk down any street in any town and you will find fruit and vegetable vendors (who cut up fruit and veg for you to take away as a snack), juice makers (a squeezer, knife and blender and you are in business) and snack sellers.  They are outside the buildings anyway so if you have a large enough office or student population, just invite them in and give them a permanent pitch.  A safer, drier, more secure business.  It’s a win-win.  Are local snacks better than pre packed snacks?  Probably not.  Is fruit juice better than water?  No.  Is it better than coke?  Yes.  Meet me half way here, people.

I broached this idea with one senior University administrator and the response was a bit of a blank stare simply because it all seems TOO HARD and TOO WEIRD.  The conversation went something like this:

Me:  “You should get rid of the vending machines.”

Him:  “What?  We could not do that.”

Me:  “Why?  Do you sell cigarettes on campus?”

Him:  “No, of course not.”

Me:  “So, why sell coke and crap snacks?”

Him:  “It’s not comparable, cigarette smoke bothers other people and the butts are filthy.”

Me:  “It’s also harmful to your health, as are soft drinks and crap snacks.  And the sound of fizzy bottles and the inevitable burping that occurs is very bothersome to others.  And they create a huge amount of waste which does not always end up in bins and in any case the waste is damaging to the environment.  And the sight of obese, unhealthy people is very worrying for everyone.  And people will be more productive if they eat better food and frink better drinks.  Think about it:  there was probably a revolution when smoking was banned from offices and campuses.  And there may well be a revolution if you ban vending machines.  But that is not a reason to not do it.”

Him:  “Hm.  You have  a good point but we would have to look into it.  The machines are probably on contract.”

CONTRACT?  That’s the stumbling block?  Cancel it.  Simply don’t fill them up and say the demand has dropped to zero.  Do anything….

I am waiting to see what happens.

*Yes, that is the Mexican slang word for what you think it is.


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