(Twitter, considered by some to be 'the worst thing ever', sometimes brings vital research to the attention of many. Today, Marion Nestle posted this piece, which links to an important article by Brownell and Warner published recently in the Milbank Quarterly. Having worked in Big Food for 4 years -and hating almost every minute of it - I have been waiting for something like this article for a long time. Thank you Marion!).
I've been getting frustrated with ranting websites and blogs sounding the alarm about the vast conspiracy engineered by shadowy companies manufacturing products consumers buy every day in supermarkets, restaurants, and anywhere else food is sold. Most of the rants are, in general, nothing more than lazy coded shorthand, sloganeering and repetition of anti-big food conventional wisdom, painting big food as a monolith (when it is, in fact, an exceptionally fragmented industry), working against consumers and public health. Information is gleaned largely from bestsellers, films, and other websites and reflect little research, experience, or genuine understanding.
Don't get me wrong - I'm no big food apologist. I don't eat processed food and haven't since I learned how to cook as a teenager. But there's one thing I can't stand - the knee-jerk syndication of information that fits in well with that particular website's/blogger's world view. Slogans and alarmism have replaced good information - on both sides of the Big Food fight. Even Nick Kristof of the New York Times wrote something about it on 3/19/09 in his Op-Ed in the New York Times. This passage, in particular, I found particularly resonant:
...there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.
Later in the piece he states:
The result is polarization and intolerance.
A good example of an important Food Industry report few on the Big Food side will never read (and likely dismiss out of hand based solely on the title) is The perils of ignoring history: Big Tobacco played dirty and millions died. How similar is Big Food? a fascinating piece of research and analysis by Kelly Brownell (of Yale) and Kenneth Warner (of the University of Michigan). The comparison between food and tobacco, already 'rejected''** by the American Dietic Association as "not valid", is presented in a compelling manner by the two researchers, who have taken great pains to show from history and present example, how there are truly similarities between the two industries.
Let's make something clear. No one is saying food is tobacco, especially not Brownell and Warner. Food is a necessity, tobacco is a choice. Food is vital to sustain life, tobacco is not. Tobacco almost always leads to illness and death (my dad, a smoker, died from lung cancer at age 65). Food can, but it isn't inevitable or necessarily probable (though with 2/3rds of the US population currently overweight and the rates for children rising THREE times the rate for adults, it is indicated in more and more obesity-related diseases). Tobacco is clearly addictive. Food may be - the research is just beginning. But in the tactics adopted by major food corporations in the fragmented food industry, from ingredients suppliers (ADM, Cargill, Bunge, Monsanto etc) to consumer packaged goods companies (General Mills, Sara Lee, Kraft, Nestle, Unilever, Pepsi Co, Coca-Cola etc) to the foodservice industry (McDonalds, Yum Brands, Burger KIng etc), to supermarket chains (Albertson's, Kroger, Publix, etc) the resemblance is uncanny. Obesity, the epidemic responsible for surging rates of metabolic disorder and diabetes, can be seen as a direct result of these tactics, which include but are not limited to advertising and other messaging ('push' strategies), lobbying, influencing scientific research, and flat-out denial of responsibility.
The paper highlights these details and elaborates - over nearly 30 pages - how big food has played a major role in the oversupply and the overfeeding of the consumer and how the tactics - legal challenges, PR campaigns, lobbying, and the publication of seemingly empathic recognition of the problems they are responsible for and the steps they are taking to make amends - favored by different trade associations representing different constituents of the big food universe (National Restaurant Association, FMI, GMA and all of the industry specific associations such as the Corn Refiners Association and the Sugar Association etc) look astonishingly like those used by Big Tobacco.
The article points out that if American consumers were to eat a healthy number of calories (ie equal to or slightly less than what they need per day), these food companies would stand to lose a huge amount of revenue. It is not in these companys' best interest - and, most importantly, in the interest of their shareholders - to see consumers turning away from cheap calorie-laden snacks and processed foods and turn toward healthier, fresh, and home-made alternatives.The bottom-line consequences would be huge, paradigm-shifting disruptions.
Brownell and Warner point out the defensive 'playbook' utilized by the different constituents of the big food universe who are fighting to justify their existence. The basics of their strategy, which look remarkably similar to Big Tobacco's, include (page 7):
- Focus on personal responsibilty as the cause of the nation's unhealthy diet.
- Raise fears that government action usurps personal freedom.
- Villify critics with totalitarian language, characterizing them as the food police, leaders of a nanny state, and even as "food fascists", and accuse them of desiring to strip people of their civil liberties.
- Criticize studies that hurt industry as "junk science".
- Emphasize physical activity over diet.
- State there are no good or bad foods; hence no food or food type (soft drinks, fast food, etc) should be targeted for change.
- Plant doubt when concerns are raised about the industry.
The food industry has become a propaganda machine, adopting similar tactics as psy-ops and totalitarian states, leafletting our cities and towns with their own planted 'truths". With enough fly-overs and dumping of information designed to deflect attention from their products and methods and refocus it on personal responsibility, obesity no longer becomes their problem.
At my former employer, I worked with our company nutritionist and our R&D team on new products. When Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food came out, I copied a few choice sections and sent them to these people. When I approached them later, their response was not dissimilar to the #3 response above, "vilify critics with totalitarian language, characterizing them as food police." There was no self-reflection or a glimmer of contrition.
Nothing was getting through.
Later, at an all-company meeting, the CEO made a speech about how we were now in the healthy food market, thanks to a few products we already manufactured that were naturally low in calories and some new products that were 'healthy' versions of existing products. Some had reduced salt, even.
I realized that I was mostly alone at my company, an industry player that - thankfully - never marketed to children but that was as responsible as any for manufacturing foods that emphasized taste and flavor and cheapness over quality and healthfulness. They hypocrisy of our organization - touting a few "healthy products" while flourishing from sales of the unhealthy ones - made me ill. While my product lines were less stomach churning (I worked on products that customers had requested), I was still contributing to a company that profited from the manufacture and marketing of foods I didn't believe in or would ever eat.
I was the hypocrite.
I was pushing the cause of real food privately while publicly supporting the food I hated and spent my life rallying against.
I witnessed the tactics, the press releases, the backroom discussions of how we were going to work on products that had a 'health halo' so that the company image would benefit. I witnessed conversations that sounded an awful lot like this: "yes, we could make (healthy product x) but our consumers wouldn't want it, and our brand is associated with indulgence."
How do you fight that kind of failure of confidence and cynicism?
The sad part is that now that consumers have developed a taste for this kind of salty, fatty, crunchy, chewy, savory, sweet crap, they crave it. Weening the consumer of the bad food habit takes more than just an outpouring of outrage and public service announcements. It means fighting the propaganda machine with facts, with data, with real food that tastes great, with indisputable facts, with food pricing that reflects the reality of food costs - both real ingredient costs and long term impact costs. Consumers needs to push back. And change themselves. And stop believing everything they see and read and taste - especially when so much of it is part of strong PR efforts on the part of the individual companies, the industry associations, and their hired agencies.
I don't really do justice to Brownell and Warner's research and article, which concludes by urging the food industry to change its tactics and approach to avoid the same fate as Big Tobacco and to help reverse the rapid decline in health caused by the obesity epidemic.
I urge you to read the article, as It is one of the best researched and informed pieces I've read on the subject and provides a lot of food for thought. It reawakened in me a sense both of urgency and anger at an industry that has, for the last 14 years, in one way or another, been my meal ticket.
**The ADA wrote in its rebuttal to the piece:
“When it comes to public health, we have to focus on synergy,” said [ADA President Martin] Yadrick. “…Food labels, trans fat substitutions and many other recent changes have come about because everyone worked together and I think all those involved in these changes recognize that.”
"In this regard, [the ADA's President's] views were broadly resonant with those expressed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association regarding industry’s efforts to move towards healthier formulations. The GMA said that industry had reformulated over 10,000 healthier products and would continue to play its part in tackling obesity."
I worked for a company 'reformulating' many hundreds of its SKUs to be 'healthier'. Truth was, our products were still unhealthy, but they had taken the trans fat out. Portions were the same, as was the sugar content and overall fat content. If that's what passes for healthly these days, we should be very worried about industry associations and lobbyists. Many members of the ADA are corporate nutritionists who work in the best interest of their company, not public health. Further, the ADA's annual meeting features a trade show featuring these same company's booths - showing off 100 calorie packs, whole grain products, and their healthy/organic brands. The ADA would hate to lose sponsorship or piss off its most powerful members.