by Marion Nestle
Feb 25 2010

The latest in food ingredients: bribery!

Who knew that the food ingredient business ran on bribes?  The New York Times (print edition) calls its report of the latest scandal, “Hidden Ingredient: The Sweetener.”  By “sweetener,” the Times is not refering to aspartame or even Splenda: it means bribes.

You are an ingredient supplier and want a big food company like Kraft, Frito-Lay, or Safeway to buy your products?  Easy.  Bribe their purchasing managers.

In my book, Food Politics, I discuss food industry sales tactics ranging from soft (advertising, lobbying) to hard (manipulating media, cozying up to federal officials, and suing critics).  These, as I point out, are legal.  Fixing prices, is not.  Neither is bribery.

This is not a pretty story.  Managers were bribed to purchase inferior ingredients such as moldy tomato sauce.  Companies relied on the suppliers for quality assurance.

The moral: companies need to do their own product testing and consumers need to demand that they do.

Thanks to William Neuman of the Times for his excellent investigative report, handicapped as it was by not being able to interview the jailed perpetrators.

  • Wow. What a world we live in. One more reason to eat local, fresh, whole foods as much as possible.

  • Erin B

    How do these people engaging in bribery stand to put food in their mouths (not to mention their family’s) knowing that others are doing the same and that whatever they eat could be potentially contaminated? Further, where the heck is their conscience? I can understand not having a conscience about a product that doesn’t affect you or that people can choose whether or not to consume, but this is FOOD people!

    As meatlessmama says, all the more reason to eat local, fresh, whole foods whenever possible.

  • Louis Collins

    Bribery and graft are as old as the hills and I suspect they will be around long after the hills become valleys. But the problem, today, is that one bribe for that batch of moldy product can now affect thousands instead of a handful of people. With our current industrial food system, one person’s pocketing of cash can lead to widespread illness, even death.

    I completely agree with the need for more product testing as well as strengthening the laws to catch more of these perps. When profit is the main reason for a business’s actions, rigorous testing is the only way to ensure that health and safety are not compromises.

  • Just wanted to clarify that you weren’t calling for in-house quality assurance which could shift problems from decisions being made in the suppliers interest, to decisions being made in the company’s business. I think more transparency can be such a boom for high quality businesses. When you are transparent about all of the great things you are doing in terms of the extent you go to assure safety& quality, consumers listen. It’s indirect competitive marketing because it brings doubt in the consumer eye as to what exactly the other companies are not doing. Trust is so important to establish in any relationship whether its personal or business. Big companies have a problem with this, but consumers need an active voice, and this blog is such a great portal to the information consumers depend on. Thanks!

  • This is rather disturbing. Could the food industry get any worse?

  • Subvert

    As more and more food companies have processors “co-pack” their products (have someone else procure, produce and package their products and then put their name on it), there is less control over the product and process quality in terms of inputs, ingredients, etc. To save on cost, many branded food companies and retailers selling private-label products have streamlined their Quality Assurance and R&D staff to a point that it is not possible to cover and monitor the many end-product suppliers, supply chains, ingredients and sub-ingredient suppliers, etc. That said, there is a lot of reliance on suppliers and producers to maintain specifications; adhere to them; and produce, package and label products correctly and honestly. While I think that instances like this are rare, I do think that the current system allows for this sort of thing to go on. Take home message – the less processed your food is, the less likelihood that it has been adultered…

  • Sherene C

    I am in procurement for a different industry. It is so easy for managers to take bribes from suppliers. I’m surprised this hasn’t been made public in the past. I’m glad this is being exposed on a national level. More companies should be investigated. I hope this encourages consumers to want to take control over where their food is sourced and its quality.

    This behavior is disgusting!

  • Sadly the food in jail will be better than the trash they were buying for our consumption. Where is the justice in this world.

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  • steve

    I`m very happy that information that is available on particular encouraging foods in site is helpful.

  • Jill

    I’m more curious how they can say that these moldy tomato products have not sickened anyone and are not a health risk. Really?? Not everyone who gets sick from their food goes to the doctor. And why are there federal limits to the amount of mold if there’s no health risk???

  • Emily

    Right, that does it, I’m canning a year’s worth of farmers’ market tomatoes this summer. I wonder how much a year’s worth of tomatoes actually is….

  • Emily

    Wait, this is a gem: “Mr. Turner’s lawyer, John A. Azzarello of New Jersey, said Mr. Turner was not aware that SK Foods was shipping tomatoes with high mold counts and other defects.” Um. He thought they were just giving him extra money for being such a swell guy? ‘Cause that’s how business works….

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  • Harry Hamil

    For someone who has a PhD in a scientific discipline, is a highly regarded educator and is regularly characterized as an expert on food safety, Dr. Nestle, I find this blog not only distressing but also a case of dissembling. Your words show no concern for accurate reporting other than a link to the “New York Times” story itself. From your title on, you sensationalize, exaggerate and, ultimately defame an entire industry over the actions of one company. The fact that this is a blog is no excuse for this type of shoddy work. Were you my student, I would grade it as an “F.”

    Furthermore, because you have cited the NYT article, your commentary gives the impression that all of your statements and opinions are supported by the underlying article. They aren’t. The NYT article does not support your title nor sentences 1, 4-6 and 11. And your conclusion in the second to last paragraph demonstrates your bias and political agenda not what occurred in this case. It also gives the impression that none of the companies tested the ingredients they received which the article clearly states is not true.

    Finally, Dr. Nestle, I would bet everything I own that all of the tainted product purchased by Kraft was processed under a true HACCP plan not one of those counterfeit HACCP plans that you want the Congress to require for every food facility registered under the 2002 Bioterrorism Act. If so, the HACCP plan would have had a Prerequisite Program or true Critical Control Point (CCP) which accounted for the hazard of excessive mold and the testing you advocate would have been unneeded.

    So it is clear who I am, I disclose the following: I am a small grower, distributor and retailer of local, healthy food. We don’t even sell any products made by any of the companies named in the NYT article. I am one of those working to amend the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510) Dr. Nestle supports. I am doing so because the current version of S 510 will destroy the local healthy food movement; thereby reducing the amount of healthy food available to Americans. I will be happy to defend every statement I have made if written to at

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  • Phil Schoner

    The most dangerous food additive being pushed upon the public is vitamin D. (It is not a vitamin.) It is key to the functioning of the immune system. Our bodies make and regulate all the “vitamin” D we need for proper functioning. Adding it to foods upsets this balance. Go to for the full details.

    Phil Schoner

  • Nice post.Just wanted to clarify that you weren’t calling for in-house quality assurance which could shift problems from decisions being made in the suppliers interest, to decisions being made in the company’s business.

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