Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Food Industry Playbook

In his book Question of Intent, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler described a playbook/script the tobacco industry used in fighting the storm of protest over its practices and products. The script consisted of constant challenges to science and hence denial that smoking kills people, that secondhand smoke is bad, that nicotine is addictive, etc. – and the script was executed to perfection by industry executives, scientists, lawyers, and others. Following the script created a public health disaster, Kessler said, by stalling actions that might have saved millions of lives.

It is important to ask whether a food industry playbook has emerged and if so, what its consequences will be. The food industry is more diverse than the tobacco industry and is acting in a less organized way. Nonetheless, the positions of major segments of the industry, expressed to some extent through the trade associations, fall into a predictable set of behaviors and key messages. Many of the players are taking action to:

  • Introduce products perceived to be healthier.
  • Publicize corporate social responsibility.
  • Emphasize the contributions of physical activity – rather than diet – to obesity
  • Claim that personal responsibility is at the heart of the nation’s unhealthy diet.
  • Plead that personal freedom is at stake, and thus government should not contemplate regulation or legislation.
  • Vilify critics with totalitarian language, characterizing them as food police, leaders of a nanny state, and even “Food Nazis and Food Fascists.”
  • State that there are no good or bad foods, hence no food or food type that should be targeted for change
  • Dispute the research, to plant doubt, each time science produces findings unfavorable to the industry.