Rise of the Food Priests
Rising political activism in the food sector reflects broader trends that promise to impact the overall economy. This analysis offers insights for major industries that confront ideologically-motivated scrutiny in the areas of health, safety, and the environment.
Introduction and Summary
The political and cultural environment on food issues has shifted over the last two decades to an extent that the Trump Administration at best might be an abeyance of activity – and only at the federal level – and at worst might spur local and state activity to compensate for federal decisions. While calorie and sugar consumption have been the focus of recent policy initiatives, the cultural environment has tied together wide-ranging food issues – from product advertising and food science to animal rights concerns and environmental impacts – presenting the industry with an order-of-magnitude intensification of political risk. The last year has seen a flurry of activity at the state and local levels that represents the initial actions of a broad-based, coalescing movement – from the overwhelming victory of a 2016 Massachusetts ballot initiative to provide chickens with more cage space,1 to New York City’s decision – in violation of explicit federal preemption – to enforce menu-labeling regulations for food retailers.2
Applying the approaches of the war waged against major tobacco companies, Food Priests increasingly shape the political and cultural environment by:
- Targeting corporations with escalating accusations and advocating increased regulation at every level of government;
- Leveraging industry concessions to legitimize attacks, galvanize further anti-corporate activism, and highlight risks to other industry players; and
- Combining the above to catalyze unprecedented government intervention.
Food Priests: Definition
The term Food Priests describes the community of advocates who seek government intervention to upend mass consumption choices. The choice of the word “Priests” reflects the intense commitment of these food-sector activists, who pursue transcendent objectives of purity and connectedness. Amid prosperity that even after the financial crisis remains unprecedented, Americans’ health and wellbeing have decayed by numerous metrics. Rather than looking within American society and addressing the interior sources of social capital decay and anxiety, Food Priests seek to convert Americans to the proposition that external factors — specifically corporate interests — are the source of their distress.
Although concerned with a variety of issues, Food Priests commonly embrace two core beliefs: First, the profit motive of large corporations in the food sector incents the development of dangerously appealing and addictive products. Second, humans lack, as a result of corporate decisions, the free will to change their consumption patterns. Food Priests often pursue reforms through alliances with environmental, anti- corporate, and animal rights interests.
Escalating Accusation: Defining Debate Terms by the “Tobacco Wars”
The “Tobacco Wars” that raged from the 1960s through the 1990s serve as the defining event for Food Priests. In the same way that the risk posed by cigarettes to children propelled restrictive regulations and taxes, Food Priests allege that large food-sector corporations – the contemporary equivalent of Big Tobacco – engineer products to addict new generations to fatty, sugary, and salty foods. Kelly Brownell, a Yale professor of psychology and public health, typifies this comparison: “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.”3
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ellen Goodman explains that, while slightly different, “the campaign against smoking provides a model … to label restaurant foods and expose the tactics of Big Food.”4 For some, such as science writer Gary Taubes, it is critical to “demonize the food industry” if we are to ever cure obesity.5 Today, approximately nine million Americans live in jurisdictions with soda taxes, which as late as 2013 did not exist.6 If policy follows culture and rhetoric, the lessons of the “Tobacco Wars” suggest that such taxes foreshadow more significant and comprehensive measures.
As University of North Carolina researcher Barry Popkin explains, “[soda taxes are] not different from tobacco taxes,” which began at the state level and set the precedent for action by the federal government.7 Julia Belluz, senior health correspondent at Vox, observes that the “fight over soda taxes is looking eerily similar to the Tobacco Wars,” adding that many researchers and other health officials “have started to worry that some of the food on offer in America is a health hazard in need of government intervention.”8
Food Priests’ logic for government intervention rests on the view that the food industry has made food so appealing and cheap so as to render humans incapable of resisting over-consumption. Richard Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, recently opined in The New York Times, “The processed food industry has transformed our food into a quasi-drug.”9 Friedman cites research tying economic and social depression to a reduction in D2 receptors (“reward circuit” dopamine receptors) and a reduction in D2 receptors in turn to a greater sense of reward from calorie consumption or drug usage. Thus, the consequence of over-consumption is a greater dependency on consumption to experience happiness. Notably, Friedman highlights the advertising industry’s role in enticing people to consume, concluding that “even the most self-disciplined can fall prey to a food or drug addiction under the right mix of adversity and stress.”10
As companies make concessions in response to attacks or to reduce risk, the unintended consequence appears to be legitimizing the core accusations leveled against the corporate food sector. For example, Panera Bread, which is less franchised than many other well known chains, recently conducted an extensive review of “more than 450 ingredients and ultimately reformulated 122.”11 This two-and-a-half year process required working with 300 vendors.12 Matt Teegarden, a graduate fellow in food science at The Ohio State University, summarizes the vulnerability created by this approach: “It promotes the perception that scientific-sounding food additives are harmful, unhealthy substances that do not belong in foods. Their scientific names, admittedly, may not sound super appetizing, but in no way does that mean they are unsafe.”13
The embrace by individual corporations of the terms of debate as defined by Food Priests has incentivized campaigns targeting specific foods, companies, and industry segments. Blogger Vani Hari, ranked in 2015 as one of the 30 most influential people on the Internet alongside Barack Obama and Kim Kardashian,14 has pressured successfully Subway, Chipotle, and Kraft, among others, to remove chemicals and preservatives without any serious public discussion of efficacy or tradeoffs.15 In this way, attacks on restaurant, food service, and related companies involve more than quantifiable health and economic goals.
Near-Term Trends and Impact
Confusion regarding the actual benefits and risks of modern food production and distribution abets increased government intervention. For example, while 88 percent of American Association of Advancement of Science (AAAS) members report in polls that it is “safe” to eat genetically modified foods, only 37 percent of the public agrees.16 The safety of consuming food grown with pesticides has a similarly sized deficit of 68 percent versus 28 percent.17 Pew Center researchers Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy note: “The divides over food do not fall along familiar political fault lines. Nor do they strongly tie to other common divisions such as education, income, geography or having minor children.”18 The one standard differentiating category in which there is correlation is age: young Americans, more than their parents, reportedly agree with Food Priests’ message.19 Furthermore, although Americans report feeling informed about their food choices, they also feel unable to adopt corresponding lifestyle changes.20 This perception of a deficit of individual agency presupposes government action.
Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Hanns Kuttner warns that the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans has strayed from its focus on nutrition and rootedness in sound science to embrace academic and political opinions related to sustainability. The possible result of this trend: “Americans will be told they should buy only locally-grown produce or avoid certain foods – like meat or dairy – altogether.”21 As 24 percent of Americans report hearing news stories about the health effects of food every day and an additional 43 percent report hearing multiple such stories each week, the evidence suggests a growing demand for government involvement across the entire food industry.22
Although the election of President Donald J. Trump might temporarily reduce the velocity of change, Food Priests have made great advances. At the same time, this success has occurred in the absence of a serious examination of the true costs, benefits, and possible unintended consequences of major changes to the most successful system in history of safely providing affordable food at scale. Moreover, even as Food Priests benefit from certain cultural trends, the movement toward ever-greater individualism through personal choices in belief and conduct presents a serious obstacle to regulations that would meaningfully increase prices and/or limit food options. A more informed and meaningful discussion of these issues will require companies in the sector to consider new approaches to a complex and vexing set of political risks.
1 “Massachusetts Results,” The New York Times, February 10, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/elections/results/massachusetts.
2 Press Release, “De Blasio Administration Announces New Calorie Labeling Rules,” New York City Department of Health, May 18, 2017, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/about/press/recent-press-releases.page.
3 Michael Moss, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” The New York Times, February 20, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html.
4 Ellen Goodman, “Putting obesity out of business,” The Boston Globe, July 24, 2009, http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/07/24/putting_obesity_out_of_business.
5 Susan Berfield, “Fed Up Review: Food Addiction Isn’t a Metaphor,” Bloomberg, May 15, 2014, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-05-15/fed-up-review-food-addiction-isnt-a-metaphor.
6 Julia Belluz, “The US had no soda taxes in 2013. Now nearly 9 million Americans live with them.,” Vox, June 8, 2017, https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/6/6/15745908/soda-tax-seattle-philadelphia-sugar-drinks.
7 Julia Belluz, “In a devastating blow to the beverage industry, 4 cities passed soda taxes,” Vox, November 9, 2016, https://www.vox.com/2016/11/9/13571902/soda-taxes-vote-san-francisco-oakland-boulder-albany.
9 Richard Friedman, “What Cookies and Meth Have in Common,” The New York Times, June 30, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/opinion/sunday/what-cookies-and-meth-have-in-common.html.
11 John Kell, “Panera Says Its Food Menu Is Now 100% ‘Clean Eating,’” Fortune, January 13, 2017, http://fortune.com/2017/01/13/panera-menu-completely-clean.
13 Kavin Senapathy, “Should Customers Fall For Panera’s New Gimmick? Food Scientists Weigh In,” Forbes, September 13, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kavinsenapathy/2016/09/13/should-customers-fall-for-paneras-new-gimmick-food-scientists-weigh-in.
14 “The 30 Most Influential People on the Internet,” Time, March 5, 2015, http://time.com/3732203/the-30-most-influential-people-on-the-internet.
15 Susannah Cahalan, “The controversial rise of the ‘Food Babe,’” New York Post, March 29, 2015, http://nypost.com/2015/03/29/the-controversial-rise-of-the-food-babe.
16 Cary Funk and Lee Rainie, “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society,” Pew Research Center, January 29, 2015, http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society.
18 Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy, “The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science,” Pew Research Center, December 1, 2016, http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights.
21 Hanns Kuttner, “How to Sustain Sound Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” Hudson Institute, May 2014, https://hudson.org/content/researchattachments/attachment/1408/kuttner_cover.pdf.
22 Funk and Kennedy, ibid.