by Marion Nestle
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. 

  • I agree Marion, and tweeted the same article yesterday with this headline “A food industry that glorifies profit before it’s own people’s health? Reject the greed and choose wellness culture”. It seems like a dark bottomless pit when it comes to corporate power and greed. It’s great the NYT does these pieces. But how do we educate our society as a whole. First I think we have to recognize government and industry are not separate. They are both part of our capitalistic system. Ethics gets lost in the fray as our economy is based on profit. Our culture glorifies profit. The only way to stop bad profiteering is to stop buying their goods! People need better choices and options! Lauroly from World Wise Beauty


    Let’s not mention the National Salt Reduction Initiative (in concert with Mayor Bloomberg). That might ruin the effect of painting the food industry as the evil corporate villian.

    I don’t know why I am so often reminded of that old media saying: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Perhaps because everything I read in the media is dramatic kabuki theater–or Snidely Whiplash and Nell.

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  • Free Palestine NOW

    Why not resort to a tried and true tactic? Invade the food industry and occupy it. Before too long you will have those evil food industry animals ground into the dirt so they can’t do much more than lob the occasional box of fruit loops at you. Then you will have them right where you want them! By then you will have “settled” in the best market segments and old order industry people can go pound sand, no?

  • This is an amazing way to look at this, thank you for permanently changing my perception, 🙂 it’s not too often that someone has such powerful words.

  • Marion you said it yourself “Food companies are not social service agencies, their job is to sell products”. The bottom line/profit is the most important to these companies, especially in competitive markets. Unfortunately that’s the way it is.

  • Suzanne,

    Yes, a for-profit company has a fiduciary obligation to produce profits. But how far does this obligation really go? If a company has to choose between two paths; one diminishes profit, the other kills people but makes a profit. Is their obligation really to take the later? I don’t think so.

    Elise Rothman d’Hauthuille, EAI Repository
    Equine Assisted Interventions – Research & Funding

  • The key to combating this is education. If people are informed they can take actions to improve their own health. The problem is the same large industries responsible for this are responsible for the huge bureaucracies ruining our education system (i.e. gym and physical activity not even included any more, and kids spend time learning for standardized tests instead of learning to think for themselves). As one can see in the war on drugs, government intervention rarely stops someone from getting what they want.

  • brainmatters


    “Unfortunately that’s the way it is.”

    It doesn’t have to be so. Regulation of unfettered capitalism is the remedy.


    Education is needed, but will take a long time to pay off, even if initiated–which there is no sign of.

  • You’re right to be dubious about any claims made by the big companies in the food industry. Just the words “food industry” make it clear what it is. The future could be led by ethical food producers but it won’t be any of the big names that we already know. I think our hope comes from new, smaller companies and local businesses – provided they’re not swallowed up by the big businesses.

  • This reminds me of that documentary, “Super Size Me”. McDonald’s came out with a healthier food line to counter the movie. But once the hype died so did the health concerns. McDonald’s went back to business as usual.

    We need to voice our opinion more and really pressure the food industry for change. It might seem like an impossible task but articles like this one will change the world.