Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Food business is getting more and more murkier as the "war of attrition" now going on between a hostile consumer activism on one side and the not too transparent food industry under attack. It is difficult to take sides because both the warring parties have their jobs cut out and it is for others who are less biased and more receptive to reasoning to decide about what they want to believe. The stakeholders in food business include the manufacturer, consumer, government, social activists, environmentalist and scientific community. While government has its massive vigilance and safety enforcement responsibilities as mandated by the governing system in vogue, consumer needs to be well informed about the quality and safety of food available in the market. The manufacturer who is in business will invariably focus on his bottom line and no one can blame the industry if it offers products most acceptable to the consumer. Scientific community and social activists work for improving the quality and safety of food by focusing on inappropriate practices and unhealthy trends while the environmentalist has a role to ensure that food production does not vitiate the healthy environment of the human habitat.

What should be the criteria one should use in selecting the right product from the market shelves? Most consumers "eat" the products through their eyes and are attracted by the presentation of the product with all the glory of a slick appearance. The eyes also play a role taking stock of the situation and helps in selection of desired product. The front of the pack labeling regulations in vogue in almost all countries generally provide very valuable information about the nature of the product, its weight, ingredients used, expiry date, nutritional content and some times the retail price also. Branding of food products by reputed manufacturers is meant to create a lasting experience in the minds of the consumer about their good quality. If the product appeals to the consumer, repeat purchases become a reality. Many accusations and insinuations hurled at the organized industry will have to be viewed critically and objectively because mislabeling, misinformation, false claims, lower quality of products, uncertain safety credentials will all ruin the reputation of a normal company and therefore every opportunity must be given to seek clarification through discussion and transparency in order to really crucify them.

How funny it is for any one to blame the industry for all the "sins" in the world with no rhyme or reason! A plethora of diseases like CVD, blood pressure, diabetes, kidney ailments, liver problems, obesity, cancer etc are supposed to be caused by processed foods! If so what has been the role of government agencies with enormous power in preventing these "merchants of death", as the food industry is being called to day? Are not the food scientists, nutritionists, health professionals etc equally responsible for the modern day "sickness" that ails the society? Has the citizen, on whose name the fight is going on to apportion the blame. no role to play or no responsibility to be careful in food selection? These are inconvenient questions no body wants to answer because every body is guilty of not doing what he or she is supposed to be doing, trying to pass on the buck to others!

Recently there has been serious accusation regarding the role played by the flavor companies in promoting unhealthy foods, making them too attractive to be shunned! With a fair degree of transparency already in place under the labeling provision, a literate consumer has all the tools available to discriminate between bad and good foods and if this power is not exercised judiciously who is responsible for the consequences of this folly? It is true that there are a sizable number of manufacturers who indulge in unethical practices in labeling correctly but the existing mechanism of taking them to task is well designed, at least on paper. This is an area where industry must introspect and sooner they practice transparency in labeling and marketing, better it will be for improving their image among the consumers. Unless confidence on the industry to play a fair game is generated this slanging war will go on and on perpetually. The role of scientific community is not above board in this murky blame game because there is practically no unanimity on any scientific aspect relating to food quality, safety, nutrition, healthfulness and acceptability. There are millions of publications emerging every year on different aspects of food but there are controversies galore with practically no unanimity on any issue! How can a consumer understand these matters steeped in technical terms and what the industry can do in using the information correctly? Though WHO and FAO are in the forefront in unifying and synchronizing standards of food safety, each country has the liberty to use or ignore them depending on its economic interests, ignoring the impact on the consumer.     

In an interesting debate recently some one asked why the industry has to make food taste so good, tempting the consumer to over eat! The insinuation is probably directed at some of the major flavor manufacturing companies who are being blamed for seducing the food processing industry to make the food products more and more flavorful and tasty. How can any critic blame that there is an unholy nexus between the flavor industry and the food manufacturers for a high degree of secrecy shrouding their activities? After all secrecy is a part of industrial culture in a fiercely competitive market place and there is no place for any charitable considerations. Added to this, provocative statements like "flavors are so stimulating, they hijack our brain." do not help to douse the passion evident in the arguments of critics blaming the flavor industry. Food manufacturers are blamed for manipulating the product recipes by "dumping" ingredients like sugar, fat and salt which are supposed to stimulate appetite setting in motion a cycle of desire and consumption" among the consumers leading to a society of over eaters! Advocating transparency will have to be tempered with the fact the it should not try to destroy the industry and this is where moderation is called for. While industry can do better by being more transparent without affecting their economic interests too much, consumers cannot be over aggressive in seeking information that cannot be placed in the public domain and only way this can be done is through better and more effective communication between them. 

As obesity, food safety and chemicals in foods constitute some of the most pressing issues of concern to the consumers as well as the policy makers in the government, industry cannot sweep them under the carpet and if business environment is to improve, these issues must be adopted as those of the industry also. Future depends on the success of food industry in integrating these issues into their business philosophy. 


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