Grist – by way of Andy Bellatti’s Small Bites blog – published an interview with Bruce Bradley, a former marketing director with fifteen years of experience with companies like General Mills, Nabisco and Pillsbury. Now that he’s out of the game and has been put onto the locavore/real food movement, he’s blogging about what he’s learned from the perspective of someone with experience on the other side.
The interview has some pretty interesting comments, a few of which I wanted to highlight. The full interview can be read in context here.
Q. On your website you write that you’ve “seen some disturbing trends in the food industry over the past 20 years.” What have you found most insidious?
A. The landscape has changed dramatically since I started my career at Nabisco in 1992. In response to Wall Street profit pressures and the growing power of retailers like Walmart, the food industry has undergone a tremendous wave of consolidation and cost cutting.
This has hurt our food supply in many ways. First, huge, multinational food companies now dominate the landscape. Wielding far greater lobbying power and much deeper pockets, these companies have been very successful in stagnating food regulation. Second, cost savings have been a key profit driver for the industry, but they’ve had a devastating impact on both food quality and food safety. Think factory farming and GMOs, just to name a couple of examples. Third, as consumers’ health concerns have increased, processed food manufacturers have become even more aggressive in making dubious health claims or co-opting fad diets to market their brands and develop new products.
The net impact of this transformed landscape has been disastrous from a public health perspective — with obesity rates skyrocketing and a never-ending flood of food recalls.
I’ve written about this before, but I think a hard reality here is that we have grown monsters. Our trust of these companies and what they offered us allowed them to turn into allowed that developed interests that extend beyond simply “creating good food that people like.” It had to become about protecting investments, increasing profit margins at all costs and saying whatever it takes to get your dollars. Might be a great way to do business financially, but as customers we have to remember what’s at stake, here.
Q. On your blog you say, “confusion is one of the tried and true tools of the processed foods industry.” Can you say more about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways these companies confuse us?
A. I think one of the main ways the processed food industry is trying to grow and defend their business is by funding self-serving research. The goal of these studies isn’t to uncover “the truth” or to improve public health. Instead, the research is carefully constructed to create sound bites and statistics to help market their products or combat potential regulation. This is one of the primary ways we end up with conflicting studies that confuse consumers on what they should eat or drink.
Is this purposeful misdirection? Intent is always tough to prove, especially if you don’t have firsthand knowledge. Research tends to be the work of a select few within processed food companies, and I was never part of one of those groups. That said, if you dig into these studies and their methodology, you can usually find the telltale signs of how they have “stacked the deck” in their favor.
I want to make sure that people pay close attention to this point, here, about self-serving research. Very rarely, these days, is research presented to the public for the sake of the common good – that is, research doesn’t happen just for the good of society. These days, research is funded mainly for profits, or for investigation into creating a product for profit…. and you can bet your bottom dollar that no company is sharing THAT research.
Q. What are three things you think every consumer should know about Big Food?
A. Big Food is profit-driven. Don’t be fooled into thinking a brand or the food company that owns it cares about you or your health.
Think critically. Most claims and advertising by Big Food companies are meant to manipulate you, not educate you. Read your labels and do your research.
There is no free lunch. Over the long-term, you always get what you pay for. Cheap food is very expensive once you add up the true costs — like the taxes you pay to subsidize Big Food companies, health consequences like obesity or diabetes, the devastating harm to our environment, and the inhumane treatment of animals raised within the industrialized food system.
All three of these things, to me, boil down to one key thing that people tend to take for granted, and that’s where we choose to put our trust. More often tcompanies placing our trust in companies and their “research” has left us unhealthy and overweight, and we need to do what we can to swing the tide toward the direction of plant-centered eating.
What do you think? If you had a chance to interview Bruce, what would YOU ask?