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Marketing and the Ethics of Big Food

09 July 2014

In another edition of the MOFAD Roundtable series focused on honest dialogue about tough food issues, experts came together at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development to hash out the ethics of “big food” marketing, writes Øistein Thorsen, principal consultant, Benchmark Sustainability Science.

As usual the President of MOFAD Dave Arnold chaired a panel, featuring Michele Simon, President of Eat Drink Politics, Howard Moskowitz, Chairman of iNovum, Christina Roberto, Assistant Professor of Social & Behavioral Sciences and Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, and Derek Yach, Executive Director of the Vitality Institute.

Who’s Responsible: Consumers vs. Food industry vs. Government

The debate kicked off with the panelist assigning guilt and responsibility for the current food-fueled health crisis facing the US. Ms Simon kicked it off by questioning the assumption of “an equal footing” behind questions like “Is it up the consumer to eat right or the food industry to provide the right food?”

The information available to consumers cannot be compared to the vast amount of R&D and marketing resources companies deploy to make us eat the processed, salty and sugary food they produce, she claimed.

“Publically traded companies’ first legal responsibility is to their shareholders, not to the health of consumers,” she continued. “As a lawyer, my view is that companies should obey the law, and should not indulge in deceptive marketing practices.”

Howard Moskowitz, came to the industry’s defense claiming that there is a popular trend at the moment to bash food companies.

“How much of this criticism is real versus being driven by people trying to sell their books and consulting services, I don’t know,” he said.

His assertion was that food companies’ purpose is to create food that consumers want, that will sell well and create a profit, within the boundaries of the law.

“To the degree their offerings are healthy – that’s wonderful, but as long as it’s legal, it’s all good.”

Dr. Moskowitz discounted any role of government regulation with reference to the failure of centrally planned governments in Eastern Europe. His real issue was with the general public, questioning “why is the consumer so stupid?”

“And why doesn’t the do-gooders spend more money educating the consumer rather than railing against the companies?” he wanted to know.

Dr. Roberta, first brought up the role of policy and government regulation in shifting corporate and consumer behavior. What exactly causes obesity is still to an extent an open question she asserted, but a lot of scientific evidence is pointing to sugary drinks playing a disproportionate role.

“So why don’t we address this through policy change like we have done with other pressing public health issues,” she asked, “like making it a legal requirement to use seatbelts in cars, taxing tobacco or putting Fluor in our drinking water?”

As someone who as spent years in both public (WHO) and private (PepsiCo) sectors Dr. Yach presented a convincing rebuttal of Milton Friedman’s oft repeated mantra that publically traded companies’ first legal obligation is to maximize short term profits for their share holders.

Referencing extensive work by Lynn Stout, a legal scholar, along with legal precedence, he argued that the law does not support the idea that shareholders should be the only constituency that matters.

“The economic case for corporations defining their purpose in terms of serving the needs of investors, corporations and society at large – so called “Shared Value” – is even stronger than the legal one,” he claimed. “At PepsiCo we called this approach Performance with Purpose.”

Making Healthy Choices

Fresh FoodsThe main issue of contention between the panelists centered around the most effective approaches to help consumers make healthy choices. Ms. Simon was exasperated and argued that education alone never works.

“It has never worked before,” she said. “Maybe there is something wrong with your historical view of education,” countered Dr Moskowitz.

He made the case for deploying the marketing geniuses at Madison Avenue that have served the food industry so well to the task of getting American children to eat healthy. Dr. Roberta agreed, saying evidence shows that marketing junk food to children can be very effective.

“Why don’t we try to use the same strategies to market healthy food?” she asked. Ms. Simon countered that any marketing to children – regardless of what you are selling – is immoral and most likely illegal.

“If a child doesn’t understand they are being marketed too, they are being exploited. That’s the meaning of ‘Inherently misleading’ advertising,” she said.

Dr. Yach and Dr. Roberta agreed that the most effective type of healthy food education for children, is simply to bring them to farms and teach them how to cook.

The bigger problem we’re facing, according to Dr. Yach, is that current economic incentives are misaligned with public health goals. The USDA, for example, is mandated to focus on yields and price, not to look at relative nutritional value.

The result is that ingredients for processed foods – such as corn and soy - are cheaper than vegetables and other healthy ‘real foods’. We have to correct this, he argued, and the most effective tool is to make buying healthy foods convenient and affordable.

In an experiment involving 250,000 people in South Africa, the Vitality Group found that discounting 10,000 items in supermarkets deemed as ‘healthy’ drove better choices. Encouraging healthy choices is also an area that is perfect for private and public sector collaboration, Dr. Yach asserted.

“If healthy choices are generally promoted by the social services delivered by the state, it in turns creates a market and demand for private companies to fill with good products.”

The dialogue closed on a relatively positive note with several speakers pointing to concrete change already happening.

“Six trillion calories have been taken out of the food chain by the world’s 16 biggest food manufacturers” said Dr. Yach.

Investors are starting to look at food companies’ strategies to water preservation as well as contribution to obesity. Dr. Roberta held up increased industry and government collaboration around meeting the WHOs goals around non-communicable diseases.

“But remember”, Ms. Simon reminded everyone, “this is not just an intellectual debate. Communities without access to healthy food are suffering. They need our help and engagement. They need a seat at the table.”


Oistein Thorsen

Principal Consultant, trie

Top image via Shutterstock

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