Richard Smith: What to say to a food company

Richard SmithWhat should you say to a major food company if asked to speak to its senior managers? A friend of mine, a cardiovascular epidemiologist, received such an invitation and emailed friends asking for advice on what to say.

The context is that some people consider food companies to be like tobacco companies. They are making money out of selling unhealthy products. The major difference is that we can imagine—and hope for—a world without tobacco companies, but food companies are highly likely to have a continuing (and probably increasing) role.

This is what I thought my friend should say to the company.

1. You should engage in debate with everybody, even critics who may seem ignorant and abusive—and your spokespeople should be sure to stay polite no matter how much they are provoked. (I advise this to everybody: speak to your “enemies.”)

2. You should be as transparent as you can possibly be, remembering that very little is gained by keeping things secret.

3. Don’t be defensive, but make sure you have something to be proud of .

4. Steadily reduce the harmful components of your food–salt, sugar, fat, etc. You may be surprised how far and how fast you can go.

5. Move steadily into a healthier product range. It makes business sense as more and more people want healthier foods.

6. Be science driven but always remember values.

7. Be very serious and responsible about the environment, especially carbon and water consumption.

8. Encourage your employees to be as healthy as possible and help them in practical ways.

9. Use your marketing power to encourage healthier and more sustainable living.

10. Never be ashamed about making a profit and work to deepen people’s understanding of the importance of profit. (Many readers may disagree with this one. People, especially in Britain, are funny about profit, particularly when you consider that we get almost all of our products and services from for profit companies. I wrote a blog for the Guardian on the case for profit
(, and it evoked some very angry responses.)

11. Think boldly and regularly about the future (important for all organisations).

12. Stay ahead of public and political opinion: don’t have to be forced into doing the right thing. (I bet the drug companies would tell them this.)

13. Recognise your international responsibility and try as hard as you can to use the same ethical standards everywhere.

14. Recognise the importance of partnership even with partners who make you feel uncomfortable.

What would you say to a food company?