Don’t Ask, Do Tell

Oct. 18, 2022
If we want Big Food to be more responsible about health, it shouldn’t be a request.

If there were a CEO Hall of Fame, Indra Nooyi, who headed PepsiCo from 2006 to 2019, would be in it. By any relevant standard, she was a superstar, driving up sales and revenue while more than doubling the stock price. She also was known for a sense of corporate social responsibility that included pushing PepsiCo toward improving the healthiness of its product portfolio.

But that doesn't mean she was universally admired throughout her tenure, especially regarding the “healthiness” part. I remember reading an account of her being accosted by an impatient shareholder who thought her emphasis was misplaced: “What are you, Mother Teresa? We’re Americans! We eat chips and drink soda!”

There’s an unpleasant whiff of xenophobia in that statement, but the man had a point. Let’s face it: PepsiCo makes most of its money selling fried starch and sugared water.

That exchange came to mind when I came across a report from the Access to Nutrition Initiative, purporting to rank 11 of the world’s largest food processing companies according to how healthy their products are, and their attitude toward nutrition in general.

This is the second such ranking; the first was four years ago. The Access to Nutrition Initiative people strike a dubious tone in discussing the industry’s overall approach: “While all companies have placed a greater focus on nutrition in their corporate strategies since the first index was released in 2018, their actual products have not become healthier, and they are not making sufficient efforts to safeguard children from the marketing of unhealthy products.”

To me this raises a couple of fundamental questions: What efforts should they make? What efforts can and should they be trusted to make?

Just about every company on that report’s list derives a large part, if not an outright majority, of its sales from foods and beverages that are patently unhealthy. Whether it’s candy, breakfast cereal with truckloads of sugar, or fatty processed meats, unhealthy products make a lot of money for these behemoths. Asking them to squelch that is asking them to commit economic suicide.

That’s not to say they should do nothing. They should certainly be encouraged to develop (or establish in the first place) a portfolio of healthier products. But I’m not sure how effective that would be.

No, if we want Big Food to safeguard the nation’s nutritional health, we’ll have to tell them what to do, not ask. The report makes a gesture in this direction when it talks about front-of-pack nutritional labeling: “In the absence of clear government guidelines, companies are encouraged to adopt an interpretive front-of-pack labeling system in the U.S. (as is in place in other countries).”

Well, those other countries – there are only a few – didn’t “encourage” food companies to start revealing on the front label how much fat, sugar, etc. is in their products; they made them do it. I highly doubt that food companies in Chile, for example, would voluntarily put stop signs on their front labels. If we make front-of-pack labels voluntary, they’ll become just another marketing tool.

Yes, the heavy hand of the government should only be a last resort. But expecting food companies to make big changes to portfolios of unhealthy products that make them lots of money will yield nothing but bland, anodyne statements of support, with very little actually changing – just as the folks at the Access to Nutrition Initiative documented over the last four years.

One recommendation the ANI people made that I hope the industry will adopt is: Stop lobbying against governmental efforts to improve America’s nutrition. It’s bad enough that you have to be required to do the right thing; kicking and screaming while it happens will not be a good look.

About the Author

Pan Demetrakakes | Senior Editor

Pan has written about the food and beverage industry for more than 25 years. His areas of coverage have included formulations, processing, packaging, marketing and retailing. Pan worked for Food Processing Magazine for six years in the 1990s, where he was operations editor (his current role), touring dozens of food plants of every description. He has also worked for Packaging and Food & Beverage Packaging magazines, the latter as chief editor, during which he won three ASBPE awards. He is a graduate of Stanford University with a BA in communications.