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How Everybody Can Win the War Against Big Food

Hank Cardello

With two-thirds of American adults tipping the scales these days as overweight or obese, the same lawyers and activists who took on Big Tobacco are now sharpening their knives for their next target: Big Food. A look at activist crusades against the automobile, tobacco, and other industries over the last century provides three lessons: The war will be long, both sides will dig in, and the losses will be unnecessarily heavy all around.

History shows there is a better way, but it will demand unusual cooperation by all, especially by the $1.2 trillion food industry, whose primary challenge is to recognize the attack not as a threat but rather as an incredible new profit opportunity. The activists, for their part, must engage the industry not with diatribe, which can lead to protracted legal battles, but by understanding the industry’s pressures and playing to its best interests. Common ground abounds for both sides. If the activists discover it, they will see that the industry’s marketing savvy and financial clout can be turned into instruments for benefiting consumers.

More than a dozen law firms that took on tobacco firms in the last decade now have filed suits against companies like ConAgra and PepsiCo, charging them with misleading labeling and health claims. In September, New York City’s Board of Health approved Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on sales of sodas bigger than 16 ounces at restaurants, movie theaters, and food carts. It will go into effect next March if the soda lobby fails to contest it successfully. And Bloomberg isn’t finished. He’s crusading against junk food in prisons and potato chips in Bronx bodegas. The Federal Trade Commission recently won a settlement against Dannon over claims about its products’ health benefits. In July, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued General Mills for allegedly putting artificial ingredients in Nature Valley products marketed as natural.

The history of activist movements against an industry’s controversial products and practices is a study of long, costly battles with little quick relief, especially to consumers. Consider that by the 1960s more than 50,000 people a year were dying in car crashes, despite the fact that crash experts had been sounding the alarm about safer car designs since as early as the 1930s. The alarm went unheeded by U.S. automakers for many more decades; they embraced safety only when they lost market share to more safety-conscious competitors. Consider, too, that more than 2.5 million lives could have been saved if everyone had quit smoking when the U.S. Surgeon General first unveiled tobacco’s dangers back in the 1960s. The tobacco industry fought for 50 years to stave off public health efforts to tax and ban smoking, and many lives were lost.

Well-meaning activists are dusting off their old strategies of research, regulation, and litigation to use against Big Food. Trying to force the risk-averse food industry to jettison time-proven brands and add healthier products will be a slow process. The industry has long memories of expensive, high-profile flops. Even countering the lawsuits will be less costly than risking another debacle such as New Coke or McDonald’s McLean Deluxe sandwich.

Yet both sides are overlooking a golden opportunity that could help everybody win, food companies and consumers alike. In fact, the obesity crisis may just be the food industry’s biggest market opportunity over the next 10 years.

Hard to swallow? Consider what might have happened if American automakers in the 1960s had begun designing and building safer and more fuel-efficient cars just after Ralph Nader first published his seminal book, Unsafe at Any Speed. Instead, their response to activists like Nader (whose book took the industry to task for resisting safety features) was to dig in their heels. They resisted adopting voluntary safety improvements because, they claimed, “safety doesn’t sell.”

So the U.S. auto industry let foreign competitors like Volvo and Mercedes-Benz take the lead in adding features such as three-point seat belts, crumple zones, and side air bags. It also allowed Japanese automakers to make strides in safety and fuel-efficiency and rapidly gain new U.S. customers. U.S. automakers found out the hard way that safety did indeed sell. By 2009, when two-thirds of the public said that safety was the most important factor in buying a new car, U.S. car manufacturers’ share of the American market had plunged by more than half since 1965, from 91% to 44%. Safety turned out to be a huge moneymaker for the auto industry, not an immense financial burden.

In contrast to automakers, look at how the beer industry responded to activist groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which began targeting the alcoholic beverage companies about three decades ago. Top brewing companies got ahead of the issue. They worked to lighten up both the alcohol content and the calories in their beer, and they began a campaign to encourage people to drink responsibly. Light beer now accounts for four of the top five best-selling beers. The top brewers have doubled their profit margins, even while losing market share to wine and liquor and spending $875 million over the past three decadesand while telling people not to drink too much.

The soft drink industry has been fighting activists who paint it as the bad guy in the obesity crisis. It should take a cue from its brethren in beer, and, indeed, from its own success in selling more water and fewer sugar-sweetened products. Consider that soft-drink makers today enjoy some of the highest operating profit margins in the food industry, even though some have reduced their calorie footprint (the average calories sold per capita) by a quarter over the last decade. Zero-calorie carbonated beverages and bottled water are now a bigger part of the mix, and consumers are clamoring for them. Instead of fighting the campaign against Big Gulps, the soft drink industry should be looking for the next big opportunity.

New research is already proving that the profit opportunities are there. One study by my organization, the Hudson Institute, has found that food companies with higher percentages of healthier food sales in their portfolios report healthier bottom lines. Hudson, an independent policy research organization, recently looked at 15 consumer goods companies that sold varying percentages of “better for you” products with reduced calories, marketed in smaller portion sizes, or whole-grain and other foods generally recognized as more wholesome. These products accounted for less than 40% of the companies’ sales between 2007 and 2011 but drove more than 70% of their sales growth. Companies selling above-average levels of better-for-you foods and beverages enjoyed higher operating profits, larger returns to shareholders, and a better image among consumers, branding studies have shown.

In short, the food industry can still enjoy healthy profits while doing the right thing, urging restraint and selling products that deliver more nutrients or fewer calories.

What will it take to get the entire food industry to hear this message, instead of spending time and resources fending off its attackers? First, activists and the industry need to change the rules of engagement. When hardcore activists begin to oppose an industry, industry executives become defensive and competitive. Under attack, they grow even more opposed to change and dig in and fortify their positions. Message to activists: Pursuing harsh regulations and litigation only prolongs the time it takes to reach a solution.

Materials science provides the perfect analogy for this problem. When it is backed into a corner, the food industry, which is highly traditional, can become an immovable, impervious solid. The activists display combustible gas behaviors. They’re highly reactive, sometimes explosive, but unable to change the solid very much. Only a liquid state can get anything done, but neither side is willing to undergo a fundamental change.

The public health outcry over less nutritious food promises to be very combustible. Many have compared it to the fight against Big Tobacco, which is now paying a $206 billion settlement to states that claim that smoking-related illnesses increased their Medicare costs. Activists hope to paint food as, like tobacco, a highly addictive threat to public health.

The escalating war against Big Food has a key difference: Unlike tobacco, food companies manufacture a necessity to public health, and nobody can argue that it shouldn’t exist. Its antagonists need to approach this industry differently. Most of all, food executives need to look behind the vitriol and see a very real opportunity, to make more money and do good at the same time.

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