Food Inc. and ethics in business

Morgan Housel’s twitter handle took me to a NYT article on a Mexico village that is drowning in coke because they have no water! From there, I read articles about Colombia’s fight against the soda industry , Chile’s fight against obesity, etc.

The article on Malaysia where nutritionists take money from food giants opens up interesting questions on ethics vs. prgmatism.

All the articles are brilliant fodder for B-Schools, for students of pubic policy and for the food industry practitioners.

Many questions arise in my head:

Precisely, who are the food industry leaders trying to benefit? The managers themselves? The shareholders? Who are these shareholders? Mutual Funds? Asset Management Companies? Pension Funds or managers themselves again, as shareholders?

Don’t they have children and grandchildren and do they feed them soda, burgers and sugar, regularly?

How would they like to be remembered by posterity?

What should a laissez faire government do?

Should it let the food industry do what it does while it runs educational campaigns against sugar, soda and fat? Is that feasible? Will the government do it? Are governments somehow insulated from capture, coercion and co-dependencies with the industry? In some of the cases above, even educational campaigns have been muzzled, campaigners threatened or the campaign diluted.

Do these staid campaigns run by government departments stand a chance against cartoons, animations that lure children to consume unhealthy foods?

In the world where information is available at the touch of a few key strokes or punching of buttons in the phone, can parents not do a better job of informing themselve and their children? Or, am I underestimating the seduction of ‘sins’ in these times?

What is the moral equivalent of tempting children to consumer sugar, fat and soda and luring them to smoke? I am watching the 4-hour ‘Century of the Self’ documentary that aired on BBC. I have watched two episodes. Ed Barnays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, came up with the tactic to get women to smoke, calling it the ‘torch of freedom’! More on that later and in a separate post.

These issues and conflicts open up dilemmas for management education and educators. Multinationals and big domestic companies fund these institutions. Students there learn business ethics. They go and work for these companies too. Look how fiendishly complex all these become?

Is it possible at all for someone to reform these institutions from inside and is there a win-win solution that exists? If it does, is it grasp-able within a horizon that is relevant, meaningful and profitable for management and managers to personally gain from it? Otherwise, they have no incentive to pursue them.

Even activists who come to office promising to reform such practices and make society more humane immediately realise the gravity of the challenges and their internal contradictions. They depend on these companies for employment generation – direct and ancillary. How does one arrive at a meaningful costs and benefits? Costs are immediate – when these businesses threaten to and do close down  but benefits in terms of better health for children and citizens are more diffuse and long-term and hard to measure.

Even in Chile, where the battle appears to have been won, notice the possiblity of a reversal after the elections. Where and when does one declare victory? Or is it ephemeral? Or, are these initiatives doomed to failure and that martyrdom is the only glory? Am I being too pessimistic? Or, that some children and some parents will have irrversibly lerant their lessons for the better and they will carry on the torch and that the message will slowly diffuse? May be, it will.

Amidst all this, is the nutritionist in Malaysia, the most pragmtic where idealism might not produce results but will produce news-stories and secure martyrdom but not much else beyond that?

For his part, Dr. Tee said the obesity risk in Malaysia would be worse without companies’ help, and he couldn’t accomplish his goals without their support.

“There are some people who say that we should not accept money for projects, for research studies. I’m aware of that,” Dr. Tee said. “I have two choices: Either I don’t do anything or I work with companies.” [Link]

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