Former Kraft executive vice president Michael Mudd’s scathing editorial on food companies and their tactics in The New York Times is not to be missed. Written on the heels of the decision by a New York court to strike down New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to limit portion sizes on sugared beverages, Mudd leverages his years of experience within the walls of one of America’s greatest food processors to sound the call for change.
“Governments should not be deterred by this and should step up their efforts to protect the public health by limiting the marketing tactics of food companies,” Mudd writes. “Anyone who believes these interventions are uncalled-for doesn’t know the industry the way I do. I was part of the packaged food and beverage business for more than 20 years. As the national waistline grew, the industry sought refuge in the fact that the obesity epidemic has many causes. It has insistently used that fact to fight off government regulators and justify why it should not have to change what it sells or how it sells it.”
As if that wasn’t damning enough, Mudd makes it expressly clear that Kraft and other similar processors knew — and still know — exactly what the harm they’re doing in terms of their customers’ health.
“The industry is guilty because it knew what the consequences of its actions might be,” Mudd continues. “Large food processors employed a flock of Ph.D. nutritionists and food scientists. The connection between calorie consumption and weight gain was always as plain as the number on the bathroom scale. But instead of acknowledging this and taking corrective action to sell a better product more responsibly, food processors played innocent by blending in with the crowd of causes. It’s time to end the charade and mandate the needed changes that the industry has refused to make.”
In the editorial, Mudd says he, too, defended the status quo for a time.
“Then, as obesity’s prevalence increased in the ’90s, I argued for change,” he writes. “Today, more than eight years after leaving the industry because of its failure to reform, I still struggle with the paradox that defined the business. In so many other ways, these are good people. But, little by little, they strayed from the honorable business of feeding people appropriately to the deplorable mission of ‘increasing shareholder value’ by enticing people to consume more and more high-margin, low-nutrition branded products.”
Mudd also refutes the idea that Kraft and companies like it are simply giving consumers what they want — not forcing them to eat it.
“Over the years, relentless efforts were made to increase the number of ‘eating occasions’ people indulged in and the amount of food they consumed at each,” he writes. “Even as awareness grew of the health consequences of obesity, the industry continued to emphasize cheap and often unhealthful ingredients that maximized taste, shelf life and profits. More egregious, it aggressively promoted larger portion sizes, one of the few ways left to increase overall consumption in an otherwise slow-growth market.”
Mudd concludes that not only does the food industry know it has a problem, it uses tactics similar to those of the National Rifle Association in its attempts to camouflage itself as just one in many causes of the growth in obesity.
“Food companies must be made to change their worst practices,” he adds. “After years of foot dragging and hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying fees, it’s obvious the industry won’t change on its own. Quite simply, change will have to be forced — by public pressure, media attention, regulation and litigation.”
Add this stinging revelation to this week’s Mother Jones post about the remarkable nutritional similarities between Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Kellogg’s Reduced-fat Cheez-its crackers, which quotes a nutritionist at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health as saying the Kraft product “actually has a few extra additives, even compared to Cheez-its” but that “otherwise, the two … are pretty nutritionally equivalent.”
Dairy long has avoided the stigma attached to processed foods. But when people think of Kraft, they think of macaroni and cheese. And as is often the case, many processed foods rely on great-tasting cheese or dairy products to give them the flavor profile and mouthfeel consumers want. The dairy industry would do well to examine the end uses of the products it sells and think twice before putting dairy’s halo at risk. And that doesn’t mean milk producers get a pass, either. Producers have a responsibility to communicate with their cooperative leaders to ensure this matter is being taken seriously.
The time for shrugging and filling a customer’s request without thinking about the bigger picture has come and gone.