Why Is Big Food Bad?

Oct. 8, 2014
We need to stop the ridiculous claims and engage consumers earlier and better. How else are we going to feed 9 billion people?
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.”

Does the small type meet the FDA requirement for labeling? Apparently so. Does it meet consumers’ understanding and expectations? Probably not. “I thought this was pomegranate juice,” said Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy when the high court ruled in favor of Pom Wonderful, which sued Coca-Cola over the issue.

Early this year, the National Advertising Div. of the Better Business Bureau closed a year-old complaint against Hershey Co. that its Brookside chocolates don’t contain a shred of the acai, goji or pomegranate fruits promoted on former packaging. Redesigned packaging acknowledges those are only the flavors of these delightful candies, and does so on the same line and in the same size type as the exotic superfruit name.

How about the claim that Rice Krispies  “helps support your child’s immunity with 25 percent of the daily value of antioxidants and nutrients – vitamins A, B, C and E.” Or that Frosted Mini Wheats will increase children’s classroom attentiveness by 20 percent. Kellogg Co. got slapped twice in 12 months (2009-2010) by the Federal Trade Commission for those claims.

General Mills once promised Cheerios would “lower your cholesterol 4 percent in 6 weeks.” There probably was an asterisk or some fine print, but the big, bold claim on the front of the box is what consumers saw – till the FDA got the company to change the packaging. General Mills and Dannon got into similar trouble claiming certain yogurts aid in digestion.

It’s hard to defend those first two examples, but there is at least clinical evidence supporting the cereal and yogurt claims. Making a more wholesome breakfast cereal, especially one fortified with nutrients or that can ameliorate a health concern, should not be condemned. And when a food has a clear association with a health benefit, why not promote that?

“There is a dose of credit due the food industry, but also a dose of responsibility,” says Roger Clemens. He’s a past Institute of Food Technologists president who wears a lot of hats: adjunct professor of food science and nutrition at California State University; adjunct professor of pharmacology at University of Southern California; chief scientific officer at Horn, an ingredients distributor; and he was a scientific advisor to Nestlé USA for more than 21 years. “The food industry has committed some faux pas.”

While some of those faux pas can be ascribed to overly aggressive marketers, share some blame with the financial community.

“Any company or industry will do whatever it believes is in its best interest, and lately for much of the food industry that has meant near-term profits to please Wall Street,” says Skarra.

“There is the widely held belief that the food industry will put profits over public interest,” says Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, which tries to be a bridge between the food industry and consumers, building consumer trust and confidence. “There is the belief there will be shortcuts, in food safety, nutrition, manufacturing.”

Peanut Corp. of America, already mentioned, is a sad but classic example.

Think of PepsiCo, trying to transform itself from a soda and potato chip company into a creator of better-for-you snack foods … whose manufacturing plants are powered by renewable energy … and that invests billions of dollars in developing nations. What could be more commendable? But it’s hard to carry out plans with 10-or-more-year horizons and be a good citizen when you have investors like Nelson Peltz demanding that you break up the company and hand him a quick windfall.

Working on: Reducing obesity

We started writing in earnest about childhood obesity back in 2005. Undoubtedly, the problem had been growing for decades, but early that year Dr. David Ludwig and co-researchers at Children’s Hospital in Boston shook the medical and regulatory communities – and the populace at large – with a report that today’s generation of children may be the first group to die younger than their parents.

Childhood obesity and resulting diseases, like Type 2 diabetes, were the reasons. And the causes were sedentary lifestyles – fueled by computers and video games and a devaluation of gym class – but also poor nutrition choices. Nobody called for a ban on Microsoft’s Xbox or more money for school gym classes; everybody took aim at the food and beverage industry. “Sugary” soft drinks and even fruit juices, cereals aimed at children and of course the fast-food industry became pariahs.

“Our brains are wired to like sugar, salt and fat,” says Skarra. “There may be some people in the food industry who are sinister in manipulating sugar and salt, but those are the exceptions. The food industry is just following consumer taste preferences. Why does this product taste better than that one? Probably because [the former] had more sugar, salt or fat. Which one do you think the consumer will buy?”

But, she adds, the purchase decision will only be that simple if there are no outside factors. People are being educated to make smarter decisions. They’re understanding the consequences of their actions. Social media alert them to products other consumers consider to be “bad.” Sometimes the government intervenes, as it does with suggested limits on ingredients such as sodium or an expected ban on trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils.

The industry collectively went on the offensive in 2010, when 16 of the largest food and beverage processors created the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) and pledged to introduce lower-calorie options, lower the calories of current products and reduce single-serve portion sizes, all in an effort to reduce the calories customers consume by 1.5 trillion calories by 2015.

As we reported in January 2014, those processors quickly exceeded their goals, eliminating 6.4 trillion calories by the end of 2012.

And, as we noted earlier, America’s three largest soda makers pledged on Sept. 23 to reduce calories contributed by their beverages by 20 percent over the next 10 years through a combination of product shuffling, repackaging and smaller portion sizes

Working on: Feeding the world

Critics of Big Food lower the volume when talk turns to feeding the world’s growing population. Most scientists agree it appears mathematically impossible to feed the 9 billion people expected in 2050 with current agricultural methods that in most regions already are very efficient. Especially without harming the planet in the process. Unless there is a strong injection of technology.

The three-way tug of feeding the world/not harming the Earth/using technology has created a concern and debate that draws in not just the food industry and agriculture but world politics, economics, ecology and science and technology.

The concern was brought to the fore in January 2011 when the United Kingdom’s Government Office for Science published “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability.”

“The case for urgent action in the global food system is now compelling,” Professor Sir John Beddington, chief scientific adviser to the British government and head of the Government Office for Science, writes in the foreword. “The needs of a growing world population will need to be satisfied as critical resources such as water, energy and land become increasingly scarce. The food system must become sustainable, whilst adapting to climate change and substantially contributing to climate change mitigation. There is also a need to redouble efforts to address hunger, which continues to affect so many. Deciding how to balance the competing pressures and demands on the global food system is a major task facing policy makers and was the impetus for this Foresight Project.”

The people we talked to for this story don’t think we can do it without at least some genetic engineering of plants.

“It’s interesting that we have more than 200 medications on the market that are recombinant. They’re saving or improving lives and no one asks questions. But people won’t accept the technology when it’s applied to food,” says Clemens.

Arnot also supports genetically engineered ingredients, “but only if deemed socially acceptable,” he allows. “Farmers and food producers have an ethical obligation to dramatically increase food production without increasing impact on the environment,” he says. “A variety of technology, including genetically modified (GM) seed, allows them to fulfill that obligation – providing the best opportunity to meet the needs of a growing population with safe, nutritious and affordable food using the same amount of land.

“We understand consumers’ growing concern and confusion about the safety of GM foods. But GM technology has been extensively studied for more than 20 years and the overwhelming consensus of respected scientists and researchers around the world is that GM foods do not pose a health risk.
“[But] the increased use of GM technology should be accompanied by increased transparency from the food system to address consumer concerns, not only about food safety, but about environmental consequences and issues regarding corporate influence on our food system,” Arnot continues.

"Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from and how it’s produced – and there are many ways the industry can provide that information in meaningful ways.”

Even the association representing major food companies has come to grips with consumers’ demands for labeling of genetically engineered ingredients. The Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA), which has worked to defeat state-by-state mandatory GMO labeling measures, is now working with the Safe Affordable Food Coalition to create a federal GM label solution.

So what to do?

There’s a little bad but a lot of good coming from the food & beverage industry. How to maximize the good?

“It’s clear we have failed to communicate at a level that people understand,” says Clemens. “Into this void steps the fear-mongers.”

“Playing whack-a-mole with issue management is a game we’ll never win,” adds Arnot. “We’re either attacking or being attacked. And relying on science to defend a position does not appear to be working.

“We need to regain the ethical high ground,” Arnot continues. “We need to identify issues earlier. We need to have discussions with consumers and other groups, to determine what really is in the food industry’s long-term best interests.”

“Consumers need to take responsibility too,” says Clemens, although he admits that’s been a difficult game. “When you do anything to excess, whose fault is that? The food industry can only help them govern their behavior with 100-calorie packs and smaller portion sizes. People vote with their wallets.” If they keep on buying “bad” products, the food industry will keep on making them, he says.

“Science tells if we can do something. Society tells us if we should,” says Arnot. “If the food industry comes to the conclusion that something is the ethical choice for society, then take the lead in discussing it, defend it. And if it’s not the ethical choice, take the lead in finding other solutions” in an open forum that the consumers can see and participate in.

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And now, your thoughts...
What do you think about Big Food and its portrayal? Is it good? Bad? Leave a comment below to get the conversation started.

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