The Food Industry Fights Back

On obesity, food safety, 'questionable' ingredients, the industry can do a better job of tactfully defending itself; the key is transparency.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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From obesity to cancer to Taliban terrorism, the food and beverage industry seems to get blamed for all of this world's ills. OK, maybe not the Taliban, but for just about everything else, the modern diet and processed foods are fingered as the culprits.

"Why do you have to make food taste so good that we overeat?" was the theme of a 60 Minutes episode on November 27, 2011. The accusation was not hurled solely at Givaudan, which CBS ominously called "the largest flavoring company in the world," but the Switzerland-based company became the food industry's sole defender in the TV newsmagazine's "The Flavorists: Tweaking tastes and creating cravings." The show's Morley Safer attempted to expose this "multibillion dollar industry … cloaked in secrecy" – that's a direct quote from the transcript.

For added drama, the show included a brief visit with former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who suggested "flavors are so stimulating, they hijack our brain." He explained how food manufacturers manipulate sugar, fat and salt to create products that "stimulate our appetites, setting in motion a cycle of desire and consumption that ends with a nation of overeaters," as he says in his book.

Michael Specter, New Yorker staff writer, must be shaking his head. As keynote speaker at the 2011 IFT Annual Meeting and Food Expo, he observed, "I've covered wars and natural disasters, but I've never covered anything as controversial as food."

"In 30 years in this business, I've never seen such anxiety [among food industry people]," agreed Linda Eatherton, director of global food & nutrition at public relations agency Ketchum, who joined Specter and two other speakers on a panel discussing consumer mistrust of food science and what the industry can do to change that image.

If you're looking for the magic bullet, it's not here. Although if there is a common recommendation or two, they are better communication and transparency. Drop your guard a little. Not everything is "proprietary information." Participate in any and all dialogs, and if possible, own them.

At that IFT keynote, Specter lamented that "society has become increasingly risk-averse" and that anti-science attitudes abound. Acknowledging that he was addressing a crowd of food scientists, Specter exhorted his audience to do a better job of communicating. "You can't just say, 'look at the data.' The food industry needs to do a better job of communication -- using tools that include the Internet and social media. Go out and educate. Fight on the Internet. People want to believe that things are simple. They're not. You need to remember that progress is why we are here."

This is a big issue, worthy of a multi-day conference, not just a seven-page magazine story. But we'll try to scratch the surface and hopefully start a dialog by discussing three of the most often heard complaints against the food industry:

…and, more importantly, how some food processors and others in the industry are answering those charges.

"There's always an issue with the food industry; if it's not one thing, it's another," laments Cathy Kapica, senior vice president and director of health and wellness at Ketchum ( She uses a long and scientific background in the food industry (senior scientist at Quaker Oats, global director of nutrition for McDonald's, adjunct professor of nutrition at Tufts University) in her current role "counseling food & beverage companies" for the public relations agency.

She recommends three points:

  • Transparency
  • Authenticity
  • Interactive communication

"Transparency would serve the food industry well," says Jim Martinez, a Chicago-based "crisis consultant" for the food industry ( "People who decline to answer questions tend to be doubted. It makes people suspicious."

While the biggest part of the solution is communication, Kapica says it has to be 21st century-style, not that of the previous century.

"The world has changed, and most food companies have not," she says. "They used to have a top-down relationship with consumers – they would tell consumers what they [the food companies] wanted to be known about a product. The Internet, social media and citizen journalism changed all that. Now it's a flat and holistic relationship."

Companies can "market" all they want to shoppers, but consumers also learn about products from other sources and other consumers and do so in nontraditional places. So if the food industry's stance is frank, consistent and readily available, people will listen, and hopefully believe. "This is the new way of doing business," Kapica says.

Food processors were reticent for this story, but maybe the anonymity of the Web will engender some real dialog on this subject. If you have a comment to make on these or similar subjects, you can comment anonymously here and read what others say on this critical issue and continue reading the rest of this story.

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