Use the word “technology” in a discussion about cellphones, manufacturing, education – every subject we can think of – and you get universal appreciation. Use the word in reference to food and beverages, and half the population will turn on you.
“Is there any other industry that does as phenomenal a job and gets so beat up for it?” asks Leslie Skarra, CEO of Merlin Development, a Plymouth, Minn., contract product development company.
How did we get to this point?
We see three possible explanations. One is that as our country, and most of the world, becomes more urbanized, people get further removed from the sources of their food. Most of the raw materials are grown in dirt or are parts of once-live animals. People forget that and are abhorred when they find naturally occurring contaminants in their food or that an animal had to be killed for their Labor Day barbecue.
At the same time, U.S. and Canadian consumers have taken for granted that their food supply is safe, abundant, accessible and cheap. Compromise one of those, even the “cheap” aspect, and shoppers will find a replacement product.
Finally, food companies have never been this big. Nestle and Cargill each have sales of more than $100 billion. PepsiCo and Unilever are close. There’s a lot less scrutiny of a struggling upstart like Angie’s Boomchickapop than of $35 billion Tyson.
Do you recall two news events of the past month? Most people know this first one: On Sept. 9, Apple unveiled the iPhone 6. Media from around the world covered the event; some companies even watched the live announcement. All this for a new cellphone? Who tuned in eight days later when the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation announced its original 16 food processor-members had removed 6.4 trillion calories – that’s trillion with a T – from their food products between 2007 and 2012.
There was a third September event just as groundbreaking. On Sept. 23, the Clinton Global Initiative announced America’s three largest soda makers pledged to reduce calories contributed by their beverages by 20 percent over the next 10 years.
Those last two announcements should have set off a celebration in Times Square worthy of a World Series champion. Instead, few people took notice.
The food and beverage industry does seem to get little credit, or even credence, for the things it does well. But the business is not without blame. From failing to speak up to saying, and sometimes doing, the wrong things, it’s been guilty of missteps. But who else is going to feed a world of 9 billion people expected in 2050?
“In the west, we’ve come to expect that the food we buy is safe to eat, but it wasn’t always the case,” reminds Johannes Baensch, Nestlé’s global head of research and development. “Still today, in some parts of the world, many people don’t enjoy the luxury of knowing that the food they buy has gone through rigorous controls and checks. So whether our food is extremely sophisticated or fairly rudimentary, the challenge is essentially same. It is not enough to grow and harvest raw materials. You need the expert know-how to turn them into safe, tasty, nutritious and convenient ingredients. Processed products may make our lives easier, but the skills and talent required to produce them are harder to come by than you might think.”
The black eyes
Before we get into the commendations and defenses, there are some criticisms that should stick.
One of the most heinous came to a conclusion just last month. The principals in the former Peanut Corp. of America were convicted of a number of charges that could result in two or three decades of incarceration … although not the death penalty. Five years ago they falsified test results and intentionally introduced into the food supply salmonella-tainted peanut products that apparently killed nine people and sickened 714.
Acrylamide and diacetyl worried food companies long before lawsuits were filed. Trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils at first seemed like healthy replacements for saturated fats, but any food company R&D department that keeps abreast of research should have seen those shoes dropping. And there remain plenty of food products with needlessly added sugar and salt.
“Current belief is that food is 30 percent of the cause of many cancers,” claims Ted Labuza, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. It’s not intentional, he explains, with most of the carcinogenic compounds coming from the environment the food was sourced from, even from the food themselves. “White button mushrooms produce a compound called agaritine that is a carcinogen,” he points out. Some carcinogens, such as acrylamide, are created during processing. “But I think the industry has done a pretty good job of controlling what it can,” he adds.
The point, he says, is there is always risk, and people have forgotten that. Carcinogens don’t result in cancer within 24 hours; the effect is cumulative over a lifetime, and the contributing factors come from all over our environment.
In addition to chemicals or additives, misguided words and claims can do plenty of damage to the food industry’s reputation. These messages speak directly to consumers in plain talk, often screaming out to them in large letters on the fronts of boxes, playing on their desire to eat healthy. These problems are created by the marketing departments of food and beverage companies.
For example, if a product contains 99 percent cheap grape and apple juices and less than one percent pomegranate and blueberry juices combined, why call the product “Pomegranate Blueberry”? Because Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid unit followed up the big type with smaller print “…flavored blend of five juices.”