by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-industry

Aug 20 2014

Money in food

It’s a slow news week so I’m digging in to some items saved over the course of the year.

Here’s one from The Hartman Group, a market-research consulting firm: “Why [software] investors are pouring their lettuce into food.”

The article is about start-ups funded by software billionaires, but its point—there’s money to be made in food—reminds me of Fred Kaufman’s work on food commodity trading.

Making money from food is good when it keeps people employed and pays living wages.

It’s not so good when it adds to world hunger.

Aug 13 2014

Sales of packaged, processed foods are declining: Three reasons why

Everybody agrees that the packaged food industry isn’t selling as much as it used to.  Here are three explanations for this trend.

1.  The packaging: The Wall Street Journal says it’s all about the old-style packaging that makes foods seem unnatural.  Clear packaging works better for sales.

2.  More sophisticated consumers: The Hartman Group research and consulting firm has a new report analyzing this trend: “Recipe for Growth in Packaged Foods:”

The biggest long-term challenge facing the U.S. food industry is that taste preferences are changing. This is most apparent among highly urbane and educated consumers, where the arbitrary boundaries of “too sweet” and “too fatty” are altering in ways inimical to the core food science paradigm of the U.S. food and beverage industry.

The U.S. food industry routinely serves crude flavor profiles associated with the unsophisticated farm cuisine of Middle America: heavy on salt, dairy and animal fat and, in the past half century, sugar…For years, there was growing demand for these flavors in all sorts of foods, primarily because U.S. preferences were not changing.

Now they are. The increasing multiculturalism of the U.S. population plus the globally well-traveled, savvy upper-middle class have created a large population of consumers intentionally seeking complex flavor profiles imported from much more sophisticated food cultures.

3.  Not enough corporate social responsibility: Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign achieved two coups in the last week or so.  First General Mills and now Kellogg have signed on to its Climate Declaration which commits them to reducing greenhouse gases produced in their processing chains.  Oxfam organized more than 200,000 signatures on a petition—and produced a report, Standing on the Sidelines—to induce these companies to pay more attention to their effects on climate change.

Food advocacy is making headway.  Keep at it!

Feb 21 2014

Reading for the weekend: Lethal But Legal

Nick Freudenberg.  Lethal but Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health.  Oxford, 2014.

Lethal But Legal

 

I spoke last night on a panel celebrating the release of this book.  I gave it a rave blurb:

Lethal But Legal is a superb, magnificently written, courageous, and thoroughly compelling exposé of how corporations selling cigarettes, guns, cars, drugs, booze, and food and beverages enrich themselves at the expense of public health.  Even more important, Freudenberg tells us how we can organize to counter corporate power and achieve a healthier and more sustainable environment.  This book should be required reading for anyone who cares about promoting health, protecting democratic institutions, and achieving a more equitable and just society.

I will be using this one in classes.  Congratulations to Nick Freudenberg, director of Hunter College’s Food Policy Center, for producing this distinguished work of scholarship.

Jun 27 2013

World Health Organization takes on the food industry

I’ve just been sent a copy of  the opening address given by the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan, to a Global Conference on Health Promotion in Helsinki on June 10.

Here is an excerpt from her extraordinary remarks:

Today, getting people to lead healthy lifestyles and adopt healthy behaviours faces opposition from forces that are not so friendly.  Not at all.

Efforts to prevent noncommunicable [chronic] diseases go against the business interests of powerful economic operators.

In my view, this is one of the biggest challenges facing health promotion…it is not just Big Tobacco anymore.  Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda,and Big Alcohol.

All of these industries fear regulation, and protect themselves by using the same tactics.

Research has documented these tactics well. They include front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt.

Tactics also include gifts, grants, and contributions to worthy causes that cast these industries as respectable corporate citizens in the eyes of politicians and the public.

They include arguments that place the responsibility for harm to health on individuals, and portray government actions as interference in personal liberties and free choice.

This is formidable opposition. Market power readily translates into political power…

Not one single country has managed to turn around its obesity epidemic in all age groups.  This is not a failure of individual will-power. This is a failure of political will to take on big business…

I am deeply concerned by two recent trends.

The first relates to trade agreements. Governments introducing measures to protect the health of their citizens are being taken to court, and challenged in litigation. This is dangerous.

The second is efforts by industry to shape the public health policies and strategies that affect their products. When industry is involved in policy-making, rest assured that the most effective control measures will be downplayed or left out entirely. This, too, is well documented, and dangerous.

In the view of WHO, the formulation of health policies must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests.

Dr. Chan was courageous to say this so clearly.  Would that our health officials would be as brave.

May 17 2013

How to recognize industry groups in disguise

Michele Simon and the Center for Food Safety have just come out with a new report: Best Public Relations Money Can Buy: A Guide to Food Industry Front Groups.

 This report explains how how Big Food and Big Ag promote their agendas through organizations with consumer-friendly names such as the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Center for Consumer Freedom, and the Alliance to Feed the Future.

The report is guide to recognizing such groups for what they really are.

It’s great to have it.

Addition: Here’s Michele Simon’s discussion of her new report.

Mar 21 2013

If we want food companies to act ethically…

I was fascinated to read Michael Mudd’s piece in the New York Times on Sunday, “How to force ethics on the food industry.”  Noting that the court overturned Mayor Bloomberg’s 16-ounce soda ban, he said:

But governments should not be deterred by this and should step up their efforts to protect the public health by limiting the marketing tactics of food companies. Anyone who believes these interventions are uncalled-for doesn’t know the industry the way I do.

…The industry is guilty because it knew what the consequences of its actions might be. Large food processors employed a flock of Ph.D. nutritionists and food scientists. The connection between calorie consumption and weight gain was always as plain as the number on the bathroom scale. But instead of acknowledging this and taking corrective action to sell a better product more responsibly, food processors played innocent by blending in with the crowd of causes.

This sent me to dig through my files to search for what I’d saved about Mr. Mudd’s efforts at Kraft.  Here, for example, is the front page of USA Today, July 1, 2003.  Kraft chose USA Today to announce its new anti-obesity initiatives, and gave it an exclusive to do so.

The initiatives included, among a long list, elimination of all in-school marketing, setting nutritional criteria for marketing practices, and establishing meaningful criteria for health claims.

Even at the time, I was dubious:

They have to demonstrate what it is they’re actually doing before I can start turning cartwheels about this…Kraft has other credibility problems when it comes to marketing healthier products…Philip Morris Co., the tobacco giant now called Altria Group, owns 84 percent of Kraft [Altria sold off Kraft in 2007].

One year later, Kraft announced  that  it had begun to act on its promises.  After another six months, Kraft introduced its Sensible Solution  program  to label “better-for-you” products. leaving plenty to be dubious about.  By 2004, Michael Mudd was no longer with Kraft.

In 2007, I sent a couple of students out to see whether Kraft had kept its promises.  Not a chance, as we documented.

How come?  Food companies are not social service agencies.  Their job is to sell products.  And, as Michael Moss explains in Salt, Sugar, Fatthey must do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

As Mr. Mudd now puts it,

It’s time to end the charade and mandate the needed changes that the industry has refused to make. 

Sep 18 2012

Today’s debate: The Wall Street Journal asks who’s responsible for preventing obesity?

Betsy McKay of The Wall Street Journal organized and moderated a debate on this question.  I was a participant along with Brian Wansink , the John S. Dyson professor of marketing at Cornell University and Michael D. Tanner, senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

The debate is lengthy—you can read all of it online—but here are my initial responses to the two questions asked of me.

WSJ: What role should government play in addressing the obesity epidemic?  

DR. NESTLE: The government is up to its ears in policies that promote obesity. To name only a handful: supporting production of food commodities, but not of fruits and vegetables; permitting food and beverage companies to deduct marketing expenses from taxes; permitting SNAP benefits [food stamps] to be used on any food, thereby encouraging food companies to market directly to low-income groups.

Research on the prevalence of obesity shows that after decades of remaining at the same level, it began to increase sharply in the early 1980s. Our sense of personal responsibility did not change then. What did change was the food environment, transformed by food industry imperatives to increase sales, to one that increasingly urged people to “eat more” by making it socially acceptable to eat anywhere, anytime, and in very large amounts. In this kind of food environment, all but the most mindful eaters overeat. Few of us are in that category.

The food, beverage and restaurant industries collectively spend roughly $16 billion a year to promote sales through advertising agencies, perhaps $2 billion of that targeted at children. Marketing to children is well established to encourage kids to want advertised products, pester their parents for them, and believe that those products are what they are supposed to be eating. The “I am responsible” argument does not work for children (I’m not aware of evidence that it works well for adults either). Because regular consumption of junk foods and sugary drinks is linked to obesity in children, marketing these products to them is overtly unethical.

To expect food and beverage companies, whose sole purpose is to increase sales and report growth in sales every quarter, to voluntarily stop marketing to children makes no sense. On ethical grounds alone, government intervention is essential.

Given the personal and economic costs of obesity—currently estimated at $190 billion a year—governments have many reasons to promote the health of their populations. Just ask the military.

WSJ: Let’s talk about some specific initiatives. Will Mayor Bloomberg’s cap on soda sizes reduce soda consumption? What about the proposed municipal tax of a penny an ounce on sugary drinks in Richmond, Calif.?

DR. NESTLE: If only education and personal responsibility worked to improve eating behavior. Brian Wansink’s research clearly shows that his own students, diligently educated to understand the effect of large food portions on eating behavior, will still eat more when given more food—and, more seriously, they will underestimate the amount they have eaten.

Education must be backed up by a supportive environment. So why not create a food environment that makes it easier for people to eat less? Mayor Bloomberg’s idea of capping soda sizes at 16 ounces is an interesting approach to doing just that. A 16-ounce soda is not exactly abstemious. It is two standard servings, 50 grams of sugar and 200 calories.

To suggest that food laws will not change behavior makes little sense. For one thing, anti-obesity initiatives have scarcely been tried. For another, the history of anti-smoking interventions suggests quite the opposite. Attempts to get smokers to quit by invoking personal responsibility made little headway. Smokers quit when the government made smoking so inconvenient and expensive that it became easier to stop than to continue.

The intense response of soda companies to Mayor Bloomberg’s cap on soda size is testimony to the effectiveness of regulatory approaches. The companies would not be putting this kind of effort or spending millions to oppose an action they expected to fail.

Aug 20 2012

Does the future hold jobs in the food industry?

Right now, the food industry employs roughly 12% of the U.S. work force.  This includes jobs in agriculture, food and beverage product manufacture, and food and beverage service.  Many of these jobs, of course, are minimum wage.

But reading Sunday’s New York Times makes me wonder how many of these and better jobs will be replaced by robots, and much sooner than I had imagined.

The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost…the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today.

…And at Earthbound Farms in California, four newly installed robot arms with customized suction cups swiftly place clamshell containers of organic lettuce into shipping boxes. The robots move far faster than the people they replaced. Each robot replaces two to five workers at Earthbound, according to John Dulchinos, an engineer who is the chief executive at Adept Technology, a robot maker based in Pleasanton, Calif., that developed Earthbound’s system.

From the standpoint of industry, once the price of robots drops sufficiently their advantages far outweigh their stupidity.

Robots don’t call in sick, get pregnant, get into fights, have affairs with fellow workers, ask for raises, or threaten to go on strike.

What will it be like to live in a society in which vast segments of food production and service are replaced by robots?

Back to the farm, anyone?

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