Saturday, 13 September 2008

HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business

HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business (Part 1)
HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business Part 2 - Making a Difference
High Fructose, Low Budget: The Alternative Advertisement

The recent release in the US of adverts sponsored by the corn industry to promote high fructose corn syrup as being ‘not that bad’ has sparked much discussion about the ethics of marketing unhealthy products to the public.

These adverts were deeply misleading and obviously designed to capitalise upon the ignorance of consumers. Yet to anyone who knows the facts they were so wide of the mark they could almost have been a joke. When I watched them I nearly spat my breakfast onto the laptop.

Weasel Tactics
The levels of indignation are reflected by the breadth of coverage it has received in our community, where it was roundly condemned in the following places, to name just some: Ross Training, Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb, Modern Forager, The IF Life. To see the original videos, go to any of these articles.

This is, of course, nothing new - although the weasel tactics employed here do mark a new milestone in treating the consumer with contempt. Big business has been lobbying for, and marketing products which are patently bad for us for years. Slick advertising and well-groomed, plausible front-men have become the modus operandi for companies peddling ostensibly unacceptable products to somehow acquire for them a veneer of acceptability.
Big Business
The sugar lobby are amongst the worst offenders. In this article we witness the absurd spectacle of an industry trying to promote a product on the basis that used in a different way (i.e. not eaten!) it's not harmful; and, as this news story illustrates, they are equally at home with straightforward bullying. When you see the roll-call of garbage-peddlers who were in league with the Sugar Association as they tried in 2003 to strong-arm the World Health Organisation into withdrawing healthy eating guidelines, it’s not hard to see their angle.

As for the tobacco industry, where do I start? After all these years they still wheel out wheezing spokespeople in times of crisis to advocate ‘freedom of choice’. One can’t help feeling as if these self-confessed smokers and advocates of choice are in some way being exploited, in spite of their clear complicity.

Pharmaceutical companies are the toughest bunch of all because their products are ostensibly acceptable. Perhaps this is how they managed to ease themselves into a position of almost unassailable power. For so long everyone just assumed they were the good guys – we took our eye of the ball. Now, when find that they are manipulating data to suit their marketing needs and funding lavish trips for doctors to acquire influence, we have become aware of their true might.

The bigger the business, the greater the power and the slicker the machine. Provided someone in a well-cut suit with a good haircut can keep a straight face whilst saying...

…blah blah blah moderation blah blah …

- then continue to keep a straight face whilst countering damning evidence with...

...the evidence we have seen does not support this...

... then somehow, by sleight of hand and sheer chutzpah they get away with it. We are hypnotised by the gibberish, mesmerised by the gloss.
Not Fundamentally Evil
Naturally, it is tempting to brand these people and the companies they work for as bad, or even evil; but the uncomfortable truth is that these people are probably no more or less evil than you or me. They are just doing their job and too lazy, broke or ignorant to confront the fact that their job indirectly causes suffering.

In my line of work I am indirectly involved in the promotion of some of the products I rail against in this blog. Shame on me, you might say. Why don’t I quit my job and get new job planting trees? Money. Security. Ambition. Hypocrisy, perhaps. But I promise I am not a bad person.

Likewise, the companies cannot, by definition, be evil. They are simply a collection of people, policies and processes that have evolved under the system we know as capitalism. The company is owned by the shareholders but run by the employees. The shareholders want the company to continue making profits because this pays their bills. To keep the shareholders happy the employees must take whatever actions are most likely to keep the company making profits so that their wages continue to be paid and they can pay their own bills.

Even the shareholders are arguably no worse than the employees themselves. You could question the ethics of their investments but I am guessing that for the most part they are not bad people.
The Corporation as a Sociopath
In the film The Corporation, the way companies behave was examined in the context of psychiatry. The conclusion was that when examined in these terms, companies exhibit the traits of a sociopath. In other words, someone

…who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience (dictionary.com)

I believe this is fundamentally at the root of many of our problems with big business pushing products that are bad for us. A collection of people with no particular desire to harm others, when assembled into a group under the corporate system, end up conspiring to do so. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

The majority of the time, this is not a problem. Most companies are making products that people want to buy. We have regulations that ensure those products meet certain standards and laws to enforce those regulations; and even in the worst companies (such as tobacco manufacturers) there will be a presumption to favour the consumer’s wellbeing when there is more than one choice but no effect on profit.
Painting themselves into a Corner
The problem comes when two circumstances align.

First, product development accelerates faster than research and regulation. HFCS is a good example – if we had known about its effects when it was first being introduced into foods, would it have got this far? Banning something on which few profits depend is easy because there are no lobbies. Maybe the research was there but the regulators we slow. Either way, the problem is that very often, the organisations developing the products have more money to spend than the researchers and regulators.

Second – and this is the key one - a company gets itself into a position where its financial wellbeing depends on continuing to sell a product that turns out to be bad. It paints itself into a corner.

In the case of tobacco companies, there really was nowhere for it them go with their products when it started to become clear that tobacco was a killer. You may ask why the CEO doesn’t stand up at the board meeting and say “I think we should fold the company because we sell poison.” I guess he could, but the board would oust him; and even if the board all agreed with him, they could not get it past the shareholders, who, after all, own the company; and the shareholders are not going to throw away their investment. If they were that way inclined, their money would be invested elsewhere.

The corn industry, at some point, decided that HFCS was the way forward. They invested in infrastructure and supply chains and developed a healthy customer base. Evidently they have got themselves to the point where a lot of their revenue depends on HFCS and for them it’s a no-brainer: they must find a way to preserve that revenue stream using whatever means necessary. When someone’s back is against the wall, they act unreasonably – this appears to apply to sociopaths too.
Are we Doomed?
Don’t get me wrong – there are some shits out there. I made some assumptions and simplifications to allow me to develop my point. Clearly there have been and continue to be individuals in companies who themselves behave psychopathically and could reasonably be called bad; but stick with me here – what I am saying is that for the most part this is not the case. For the most part, people are just doing what they must to live their life. They have constructed a view of the world to allow them to live their lives without daily fretting.

“Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.”

~Demosthenes, prominent Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens.

So are we doomed? I don’t believe so. In Part 2 I will tell you how I think the little man can make a difference.

See Also:
HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business Part 2 - Making a Difference
High Fructose, Low Budget: The Alternative Advertisement

6 comments:

Mini said...

Interesting points you make there Mr M. I am not sure the sugar industry is up there with the Tobacco & Pharmceutical industries an the pariah's of society although they do make a credible 'bronze medallist' in my humble opinion! As you quite rightly pointed out there is the tobacco industry we all know are bad. I am in total agreement about the pharmaceuitical business. Remember it wasn't that long ago that a few people died at the hands of a drug company in a clinical trial. Then there's the scores of people that have had suicidal thoughts and actually acted upon them after taking the 'happy drug' Prozac, allegedly of course!

Methuselah said...

...and those are just the things we found out about. I dread to think what else they have been covering up.

Asclepius said...

You might want to Google 'The Natural Confectionary Company'. An Australian company which makes 'jellies' and other chewy sweets which are "99% fat free" and contain no 'artificial coluours and flavourings'. Their dietary advice assures us that these sweets contain "no nuts or dairy products"! (http://www.tncc.com.au/sites/tncc/index.php?pageId=38)

As with Julian Graves et al, the language of the site evokes ideas of 'health' and 'goodness', but this is misleading in the extreme.

Maybe you should contact some more of these companies and ask them:-

1) Do they keep up with nutritional science?

2) Are they aware of the Sugar Hypothesis?

3) If they are aware of the Sugar Hypothesis, do they feel obliged to provide appropriate cautionary advice about the consumption of sugars (in the same way they appear to be aware of the Lipid Hypothesis and trumpet the fact that their sweets are low in fat)?

For TNCC, you could extend this last question to deal with sugar-pushing to kids given the use of cartoon characters in the advertising.

I think there are parallels with the current financial turmoil. Regulators have their heads in the sand whilst the sugar markets are making hay while the sun shines. The sugar hangover will be paid in health rather than dollars - although a dollar cost will eventually follow.

Methuselah said...

Asclepius - thanks for the link. In fact Mini (the first commenter on this post) sent me a bag of sweets from the 'Natural' Confectionary company. Scandalous! Top ingredient? Sugar. I think they need to have the process by which refined sugar is made explained to them...

I have been disappointed with the response from the other companies but will not be letting up. I may telephone them. Your questions are just the sort of thing with which I need to contront them.

Paul said...

If you are nervous about high fructose corn syrup in your colas, sign up with a campaign to get cola companies to use beet or cane sugars at http://www.thepoint.com/campaigns/dear-high-fructose-corn-syrup-please-get-out-of-us-colas-thanks-america

Hopefully this takes us to the next step in moving beyond high fructose corn syrup & promoting better corporate responsibility. I'm crossing my fingers and am trying to have a bit of faith.

As a side, excellent site. It's informative and then some. Nice job putting it together. It's a lot better than the wikipedia entry I started from earlier today.

Methuselah said...

Paul - glad you like the site, and thanks for the link. Just checked it out and joined up - will be interesting to see if it can get some momentum.

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