Wednesday, February 27, 2013 :::
New York Times magazine has a 10,000 word article on the packaged food industry based on a book that's coming out; I take from it the vague impression that the author wishes his facts conveyed something different from what they do, which is that it is largely in fact the case that companies making food that is more convenient than healthful are doing so because that is what the bulk of consumers, through their buying habits, demonstrate that they want.
If disclosure laws aren't too onerous, there may be room for requiring somewhat better disclosure of nutritional information, though there are a number of incidents (including the posting of nutritional information in restaurants in New York City) in which this has not led to healthier choices by consumers. That said, at least such laws are limited in their ability to curtail genuinely free choices of consumers, and if they do have an impact, one's first-pass inference would be that it has improved that freedom:
(The Finnish response worked. Every grocery item that was heavy in salt would come to be marked prominently with the warning “High Salt Content.” By 2007, Finland’s per capita consumption of salt had dropped by a third, and this shift — along with improved medical care — was accompanied by a 75 percent to 80 percent decline in the number of deaths from strokes and heart disease.)
It is worth noting, however, that this may unduly increase the relative salience of that information relative to other information; there may be some neutral sense in which the consumers' decisions are being moved away from their "true" choices. The industry, though, doesn't seem to show evidence of attempting to pull the wool over anyone's eyes; they seem persistently to be moving away from products that consumers don't buy:
Later, a low-fat version of the trays was developed, using meats and cheese and crackers that were formulated with less fat, but it tasted inferior, sold poorly and was quickly scrapped.
The Frito-Lay executives also spoke of the company’s ongoing pursuit of a “designer sodium,” which they hoped, in the near future, would take their sodium loads down by 40 percent. No need to worry about lost sales there, the company’s C.E.O., Al Carey, assured their investors. The boomers would see less salt as the green light to snack like never before.
Not only do the food companies experiment with more healthful options, they believe that, all things equal, the increased healthfulness makes their products more attractive to consumers, and gives them an advertising hook — which may be why you see items prominently marked "low sodium", "less sugar", etc., as you walk down the grocery store aisle. If such products "taste inferior", however, many consumers will prioritize their taste preferences over health preferences.
Indeed, much of the article seems to barely conceal a desire to tell people that their preferences are "wrong", and that they should have elite preferences imposed on them.* The diverse array of foods available means that even a smallish niche is catered to; even one third of possible voters gets no say in a purely democratic system, but one third of potential pasta sauce consumers (as mentioned in the article) is a huge market, illustrating how capitalism, when it functions even reasonably well, is so much more empowering of the little guy than democracy is. If what you want is physically possible — not, by and large, "healthier than that thing that exists, but just as cheap, tasty, and convenient, too" — then if it's not being provided, you are probably a tiny minority in your desires. Your attempt to overrule the market is, in this case, an attempt to force almost everyone else to make the same choices you want to make.
Instead of blaming "the industry", then, it makes as much sense to blame "the consumer". Of course, "the consumer" is not a monolith — in a competitive marketplace, any individual consumer is effectively unable to sway the food options available. Indeed, so (to not quite the same extent) are the food companies; "the food industry" is not a monolith either:
“Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it. That’s what they want. If we give them less, they’ll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you’re sort of trapped.”
At least from a moral standpoint, this makes "holding the industry accountable" a nonsense phrase — the "industry", even more forcefully than a firm, is not a moral agent. On the other hand, if you do truly have good reason for imposing a change on the marketplace, creating laws or tax structures is the way to do it; you have to change the marketplace in some sense. If you do that, in fact, it won't necessarily even hurt individual food companies all that much; each firm loses fairly little from a change if all of its competitors have to make the same change. A diminution of freedom, if it is imposed, will mostly fall on the consumer.
The article does end with a couple thousand words on marketing:
The selling of food matters as much as the food itself.
Sort of. If one item will require less effort to sell than the other, firms are certainly going to take that into account, and, as the rest of the article makes clear, firms don't believe that all items are equally easy to sell — they put a lot of effort into product development. Marketing certainly affects sales — most benignly, by letting consumers know what's out there — but something causes a firm to try to develop and sell one product instead of another. Frito-Lay's marketing department didn't simply happen to be temporarily incompetent when trying to sell a low-fat product with inferior taste; there was a lack of genuine latent consumer demand, unlike the situation with the other, more successful product innovations.
* There is some extent to which other peoples' health decisions impacts the rest of us, by virtue of our paying for their healthcare. The obvious solution to this would be to insist that people bear the costs of their health decisions, but we seem to be moving even farther from this.
::: posted by dWj at 10:29 AM