The Food Industry: When Ethics Just Isn’t Enough

The issue of ethics in the food industry never really goes away, but there are times when it garners more than its usual share of headlines. About a month ago, the New York Times published a lengthy piece called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” by Michael Moss, author of “Salt Sugar Fat.” The piece is a riveting look at the often-cynical moves made within the food industry within recent decades to use our tastebuds against us, to use our love of salt and sugar and fat to persuade us to buy products that are making us more overweight and less healthy.

The next headline had to do with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to push back by banning supersized sugary drinks. The move had many fans. Not among those fans: Starbucks, which said it simply would not comply, the American Beverage Association, and New York State Court Judge Milton Tingling, who accepted the ABA’s request to block Bloomberg’s plan.

Most recently, and related to all of the above, the New York Times recently ran an opinion piece on the need to impose stricter regulations on food companies in order to slow the industry’s otherwise seemingly inexorable march toward ever more addictive, and less healthy, prepared foods. The piece was written by a guy named Michael Mudd, a former executive VP at Kraft, no less.

Mudd’s key point is essentially that if the food industry is going to be reined in, government is going to have to do it, since the industry shows little interest in restraining itself. In other words, to borrow Mudd’s words, government is going to have to “force ethics” on the industry.

There are at least two significant problems with framing the issue this way.

The first problem has to do with chalking it all up to a lack of ethics. This is entirely the wrong diagnosis. Or, to be precise, even if the food industry suffers from an ethics deficit, that deficit is not necessarily the root cause of the problem. The unfortunate truth is that there are some problems for which “more ethics” simply is not a viable solution. Ethics is about finding rules that make social living better, but it assumes some overlap of interests. In particular, ethics only works where we have a shared sense that our lives—or our businesses—would go better if we followed a few rules. Ethics isn’t fundamentally about self-sacrifice; it’s about mutual restraint for mutual benefit. That’s why ethics is generally important in business: harmony is good for business. But it’s still a competitive game, and at the end of the day all the competitors want to win. Unless you can show the food industry that its interests will somehow be promoted by playing by a different set of rules, then an ethical solution just isn’t in the cards.

There’s a second reason why ethics isn’t enough. Ethics involves restraint on self-interested (or profit-seeking) behaviour. But the notion of restraint presumes some understanding of where to draw lines. But consider the dilemma faced by any company that sells a fundamentally sugary or fatty food, like Coke or Twinkies or Doritos. These products are delicious, and harmless if consumed as most of us consume them, namely in moderation. When the Coca Cola Company sells me a can of coke, it does absolutely nothing remotely unethical. I’m a grownup, well-informed about the nutritional characteristics of Coke, and besides this one coke is meaningless, health-wise.

But, yes yes, we all know that anyone drinking too much Coke is going to suffer ill effects, and a society that drinks too much Coke is going to suffer too. But how much is too much? No one can say. And simply imploring the Coca Cola Company to “be more ethical” is useless, here. True, we can implore them not to advertise in a way that targets kids, or not to promote ridiculously huge servings, but that leaves the fundamental paradox of their product untouched. Even a scrupulously ethical — indeed, saintly — Coca Cola Company would still find itself uncertain as to how to market its product. How would you sell a product that many people enjoy harmlessly, but that in the aggregate causes trouble?

Finally, the plea for “more ethics” in the food industry misses entirely the fact that that the food industry’s pattern of supplying us with excessive quantities of fat and sugar and salt constitutes a classic social dilemma, a situation in which each person’s (or company’s) behaviour is individually reasonable, but collectively disastrous. We’re poisoning ourselves with junk food for the same reason we’re burdening our atmosphere with giant quantities of carbon dioxide. Not because we’re stupid or unethical, but because my own efforts to reduce carbon emissions (or yours, or yours, or yours) are neither necessary nor sufficient to make a difference. Coke can’t solve the obesity problem. Nor can McDonalds. Nor Kraft. Nor… you get the picture.

So, yes, feel free to call for greater regulation of the food industry. But recognize that in doing so you’re not calling for more ethics. You’re admitting that even ethical companies can produce unwanted outcomes. A good understanding of the role of ethics in business must include some appreciation of the range of problems at hand, including the ones for which ethics is unnecessary, as well as the ones for which ethics simply is not enough.

2 comments so far

  1. Marcos Vizcaino Gerlach on

    Yes, ethics has to do with the individual perception it has on it. You might want to try to look for fairtrade products which are a tick expensiver than regular ones( not always) but you are doing something for a better world. Governments will not ban products that are contraproductive for the health of consumers just becuase is a lot of money on stage

  2. Patricia Thiel on

    When a product in small amounts can be dangerous it is important for government safety regulations to help prevent consumer harm by forcing a company to cease production. As noted in your article the current forms of most products are not harmful if consumed in small amounts and using legal paternalism to limit a consumer’s choice in the marketplace takes away their right to freedom of choice. By all means, if and when it is determined that small amounts of these products become dangerous, that will be the time to think about utilizing the government to help people who cannot help themselves.


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