Recently, DFPI’s co-founders had the opportunity to email Bruce Bradley — who spent over 15 years as a food marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco — a series of questions.
Our interview follows:
1) What made you take the leap to leave the industry in 2008?
I left the food industry mainly for personal reasons. My father was seriously ill, and I wanted to spend more time with him. That said, I also saw a lot issues going on within the food industry, and I was growing increasingly frustrated. So after spending over fifteen years as a food marketer, I knew it was time to make a change.
2) How did your colleagues react to your calling out of the food industry?
The reaction has been mixed. Some of my former co-workers have been very supportive, and I think my stance has increased their awareness of the many challenges in Big Food. Most, however, have distanced themselves from me. I’m not sure if they feel threatened by my opinions, or if they’d simply rather not associate with a former food marketer turned food advocate. Regardless of their motivation, it’s clear my decision to call out Big Food hasn’t been received well by many of former colleagues.
3) In your experience, what are the real motives behind Big Food companies hiring dietitians? Are RDs truly viewed as valuable employees whose knowledge and skills are needed to “sit at the table together”, or are RDs viewed as another form of marketing/PR to help improve a company’s image?
To answer this question properly you need to start with some perspective on what it’s like to work within Big Food. First off, the majority of people who have chosen to work at these companies don’t believe processed food is unhealthy or potentially dangerous. Second, when food companies recruit dietitians, only those individuals who are willing to tow the company line on nutrition are hired — independent thinkers need not apply.
So are RDs just sitting at the table to keep up appearances? Yes, in some cases RDs are complicit to some pretty awful nutritional claims made on packaging and advertising. But I have found some Big Food dietitians who have been willing to take unpopular stands. Although they may not address some of the fundamental issues within food companies, they have been willing to draw a line and say, “that goes too far.” So while many dietitians are merely mouthpieces for Big Food, there are some who work within food companies to prevent even more serious abuses from hitting grocery store shelves.
4) As far as you know, what perks/incentives exist that might draw RDs into working with Big Food companies?
I imagine RDs are drawn to Big Food for the same reasons people from all different career tracks are—higher salaries, great benefits, and in some cases enticing bonus and stock option plans. I also think that historically there has been some allure to working on food brands. After all, it’s kind of fun working on a familiar brand that’s in most households or launching a new product that gets advertised on television.
However, as dietitians have become more aware of the dangers of processed foods and how food companies manipulate people into eating more and more, this allure has certainly diminished. In fact, I’m guessing many of the RDs working in Big Food might already be embarrassed of their association with the industry.
5) From the time you left the industry until now, what, if any, changes have you observed as far as marketing tactics go?
I think the most striking change has been how Big Food is getting even more aggressive with the marketing its products. In the past five years consumer interest in healthier, real foods has continued to gain momentum, and this has put increased pressure on food manufacturers to make even more misleading, egregious claims on their highly processed product line-up.
Unfortunately, thanks to Big Food’s well-funded lobbying efforts, government regulators have failed to act and consumers continue to be barraged with foods that are packaged to look healthy, but in reality are filled with empty calories and harmful additives.
6) Do you think having more Big Food execs come forward would help make a difference in the public health discussion? If so, what are some ways we can persuade them to follow in your footsteps?
I definitely think having more execs speak up will accelerate change in a positive direction. It’s a real challenge, though. When you’re working in the industry, there’s such a focus on delivering profit expectations that it’s hard for even the most rational executive to allow an opposing view to sink in. In my case, it was only after I had gained some distance from the industry that I could see more clearly what was truly going on.
I believe the key for gaining traction with leaders in the industry ultimately depends on consumers and retailers demanding food manufacturers change the way they do business. Certainly the food movement has grown and made tremendous progress in the past ten years, but right now it still lacks critical mass.
7) What message do you have for DFPI’s supporters?
Creating a movement for change within any industry or professional association isn’t easy. In the long run, persistence and integrity will always pay off. So be true to your beliefs, speak honestly, and avoid the temptation to make extreme statements that reduce your credibility.
What great parting words!
DFPI values and appreciates anyone who takes a stand for what is right, especially when that stance isn’t the most popular. We are very thankful for Mr. Bradley’s brave voice and for his time in answering our questions.