Ray Goldberg, Harvard Business School Professor of Agribusiness, Emeritus, but still running a seminar that I have attended annually for about 25 years, often challenges me to think more constructively about how food businesses should respond to pressures from public health advocates. His 2018 book, Food Citizenship (for which I was interviewed and videotaped) illustrates some of the back-and-forth we have had over the years.
Recently, in response to my “industry-funded study of the week” posts, he sent me several thought-provoking questions, which I respond to here with his permission.
RG: How can the private sector support nutrition research without being accused of a conflict of interest?
MN: With great difficulty. Industry-sponsored research is inherently conflicted when research questions are designed for marketing purposes, which much—if not most—industry-sponsored research now is. Such research almost invariably produces results that favor the sponsor’s interests. As I explain in Unsavory Truth, I get letters all the time from trade associations requesting proposals for research projects to demonstrate the benefits of the products they represent. There is a big difference between designing a study to demonstrate benefits (a marketing question) and one asking an open-ended what-happens question (basic research). If companies want to fund basic research, they could contribute to a common pool administered by an independent third party such as the NIH. But food companies don’t want to take the risk of paying for research that might come out with inconvenient results. In my book, I suggest taxing food companies to create a research fund that would be administered independently. That’s the only way I can think of that would work.
RG: How does the consumer end up having confidence in the statements of those in the food system who really do have integrity and who really care about their customers and society and the environment? I trust the Wegmans because I know them personally. How does the Food System build back trust?
MN: It’s interesting that you mention Wegmans (I often shop in the one in Ithaca). It is a family-owned business, not publicly traded. I recall hearing Danny Wegman explain the advantage of family ownership at one of your seminars. It’s not that family members don’t want to make money; it’s that they don’t have to be greedy . They can do things for their customers that publicly traded supermarkets cannot. As long as Wall Street expects food companies to make a profit and to grow their profits every 90 days, companies must respond by pushing their most highly profitable products every way they can, regardless of whether poor health is collateral damage. If companies want the public to trust them, they have to be trustworthy. But investors don’t reward integrity; they reward profits.
RG: The food system needs people who care about the health of people, plants, animals and our environment but who is providing the leadership that you and others want in that system?
MN: If they want to sell products, large food product companies (Big Food) has to appeal to public demands for health and sustainability. They are trying to move the Titanic as quickly as they can and still maintain the same profit margins. Big Ag is way behind. I’m seeing a worldwide consensus that we need food system approaches to solve world food problems. These firmly link agricultural policy to health and environmental policy so as to address hunger, obesity, and climate change. at the same time. A largely, but not necessarily exclusively, plant-based diet does that and it’s what all food policies should promote. At the moment, American agriculture and dietary guidelines are outliers in ignoring those linkages. We badly need to catch up. I see international leadership on this issue, but not here. Is Harvard training food business leaders to address these needs? You tell me where the American leadership is. I don’t see it coming from the top. It has to be bottom up. Fortunately, lots of young people are interested in food issues and the leadership is going to have to come from them.