Confessions of a former Big Food executive
Photo: Casey V. PhotographyA few weeks ago, I learned of a relatively new blog about food industry deception, but with an interesting twist. The blog’s author is Bruce Bradley, who spent over 15 years as a food marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco. He has since, in his words, “become more educated about the risks and environmental impact of eating processed foods,” and is now a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enthusiast.
Recently, I had the chance to ask Mr. Bradley about the industry, his blog, and the people behind today’s processed food companies.
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 genetically modified organisms (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.
Q. How does the food industry respond to those in the public health and nutrition arena who systematically call them out? Is there is a legitimate fear that one day “the people” will realize how unhealthy many of their products are?
A. The average person working at a food company doesn’t view public health and nutrition “food cops” as a threat. In fact, they are embracing many of the ideas coming from these sources. For example, books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma were extremely popular when I was at General Mills, and I learned about CSAs from a Research & Development scientist working on one of my teams.
Now if you’re talking about the Big Food company executives, I do think they feel threatened. However, most of these executives tend to dismiss those who “call them out” as wrong or misinformed, versus taking a serious look at changing their business model. After all, these executives and their companies have a huge interest in maintaining the status quo.
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.
Q. As a registered dietitian, I am very disappointed by fellow RDs who choose to work for the likes of PepsiCo and Wendy’s. Have you ever felt disappointed by the behaviors of any of your food industry peers?
A. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note my response is biased; not too long ago I was one of those people who worked at a Big Food company. But would I like to see more people from within the food industry take a stand for real food? Yes, I would. Nevertheless, my experience is that the vast majority of employees are good, honest people who are simply trying to “play by the rules of the game” set by food industry leaders, their lobbyists, and our government.
I prefer to focus my efforts on increasing awareness that the rules of the game aren’t protecting consumers. Changing the rules is my objective, and I’m hopeful that along the way my blog and my book, Fat Profits, will help convince people from all walks of life, including those who work at Big Food companies, to join me and take a stand for real food.
Q. What are three things you think every consumer should know about Big Food?
- 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.