Weekly Comment

Food industry must face its faults

Related tags Food industry

The food industry must be honest if it is to convince consumers -
and audiences - that it is not the corporate monster portrayed in
the media.

Fast Food Nation, which premiered in Cannes this month, puts the spotlight firmly on the ethics of the global food industry. Those in the business do not exactly come out smelling of roses. The movie, a fictionalised take on Eric Schlosser's 2001 best-selling exposé of the same name, covers all aspects of food production, from migrant workers to underhand marketing campaigns. Making a dollar is the bottom line. Ethical considerations go pretty much the same way as the offal in the fictional Colorado abattoir. The film builds on a growing sub-genre of investigative reporting - the food industry as an amoral behemoth that exploits, poisons and destroys. Fast Food Nation was a bestseller, and Schlosser's next book, Chew on This, is likely to go the same way. Consumers are not only becoming more actively engaged in what they eat. They are also becoming highly distrustful of the food industry, and highly receptive to industry-bashing stories. Much of the criticism that is routinely heaped on the food industry is undoubtedly unfair. To take an easy example, there is no doubt that the sector is only one part of the equation when it comes to both the causes and solutions of the current obesity epidemic, although food firms have increasingly found themselves to blame. The sector is also one of the most highly regulated in the world, and at the end of the day, people in the western world do have a degree of choice over what they eat. There are also plenty of ethical food companies out there - but then again, there are some that are not. How then does the food industry, currently struggling under shrinking margins, increasingly tight regulations and growing health concerns, respond to growing criticism over its conduct? It needs to treat consumers with respect. Too many sectors of the industry respond to, say, scientific evidence of something being bad, by publishing their own spurious research refuting these findings. This is fine when there is poor science at work, but when the evidence is practically irrefutable, whose interests does this serve? Certainly not the food industry's. Putting your head in the sand and ignoring the truth means there is a book out there to be written by a budding Schlosser. And people will not like it when they find out that they have been deliberately confused. In the US, groups representing the beef, dairy and fast-food businesses are deploying a PR army to counter the launch of the Fast Food Nation movie. McDonald's is reportedly sending out 'truth squads' to set the record straight. This tactic will only work if the food industry levels with consumers. The food industry is not an amoral monster, but nor is it entirely blameless when it comes to issues ranging from obesity to environmental damage. These points must be addressed if consumer trust is to be rebuilt. The US food industry states on its Best Food Nation website that it welcomes open debate. It should do. The food industry can be, and is, a source of good. But only by acknowledging the bad will this ever be accepted by consumers who have developed an insatiable appetite for scare stories and scandal. Anthony Fletcher is the editor of FoodNavigator.com and is a specialist writer on food industry issues. With an international focus, he has lived and worked in the UK, France and Japan. If you would like to comment on this article please e-mail anthony.fletcher@novisgroup.com.

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