Government, media and campaign groups all target food for criticism. After a series of scares through the 1990s, the industry has now been blamed for rising obesity levels. Chris Lyddon asks why food makers can’t seem to avoid controversy and looks at one US group’s radical answer.

Consumers’ Association policy specialist Sue Davies feels that the food industry is always going to live in the spotlight. “It’s so central and important that it will always be the focus of criticism,” she told “Food is something we cannot do without. It generates lots of different responses, whether cultural or social or emotional.”

And the series of food scares which had hit the industry meant a focus on food safety was inevitable. “The food industry is becoming increasingly globalised, with many benefits for consumers, but there are also questions in people’s minds, particularly about how we guarantee safety,” she said. “Some food companies have risen to the challenges this presents, others haven’t especially on some of the issues like genetic modification (GM).”

With the focus now on diet and obesity, the actions of a few companies were damaging the image of the industry. “If you see misuse of health claims, with products claiming health benefits which don’t exist, then people tend to become sceptical,” she said. “Some companies exploit things to increase sales rather than make a positive contribution with health claims. We’re always finding products that make health claims and then turn out to be half sugar.”

“We’ve seen in the UK the food companies start to make announcements that they are changing practices on, for example labelling, but with some it’s been very difficult and they’ve ended up looking resistant to change,” Davies added.

But there were huge differences. “There’s a tendency to talk about the food industry as if it’s all the same,” she said. “It’s incredibly diverse.”

The environmental organisation Friends of the Earth has been among the most outspoken critics of the food industry. “The food industry will remain under the microscope,” Friends of the Earth food campaigner Pete Reilly told “Past disasters mean that science has lost a lot of its credibility in the last couple of decades,” he said. “For example with genetically modified food, people feel that they don’t accept the assurances of the scientists.”

“There has been a history of disasters,” he said. “I don’t think the food industry can deny that, or the agricultural industry for that matter.”

Consumers getting more demanding

But it was also a question of affluence and changing attitudes brought by greater wealth. “I think people are getting more demanding about what they want,” Reilly said. “People are getting richer so they can afford to be more choosy about what they eat.”

There was also a greater awareness of and concern about the impact of the food industry. “People have also become more aware of the wider impact of food on the environment and on other bits of the food chain,” he said. “For example the profits of the companies at the top are the results of paying very low prices.”

The Food Commission is another campaign group which has turned the spotlight on the food industry in Britain. It is particularly concerned about the marketing of food to children. “If you look at the foods most promoted to children, three quarters of them are high in fat or sugar or salt,” Annie Seeley of the Food Commission told “Parents are not happy about these sorts of foods being marketed to children.”

She criticised the food industry for blaming the rise in obesity on overall lifestyle. “They have not accepted the evidence on promotion to children,” she said. But there were exceptions. “There are people out there doing really good things,” she said, citing a BBC decision to use its “Tweenies” children’s television characters to promote healthy food. “They’re really making steps forward,” she said. “It puts pressure on other people to follow that good practice.”

US food industry fights back

There are people who believe the food industry should be taking an aggressive approach to countering criticism. One such organisation is the US-based “Center for Consumer Freedom,” which has gone on the offensive against what it sees as “the growing fraternity of “food cops”, health care enforcers, militant activists, meddling bureaucrats, and violent radicals who think they know “what’s best for you”.

“Our organisation has been around since the mid-1990s,” communications director Mike Burrita told “The food industry was constantly on the defensive. No one was questioning the motives of the groups doing the attacking,” he said. “We try to bring a bit more balance to the debate.”

He accused many activist groups of having “some kind of political agenda”. “Virtually every segment of the food industry is being attacked by the same group,” he said. “There are organisations that are anticorporate in structure. They don’t like it that there are companies that feed millions of Americans and make money out of it.”

The Center is highly unpopular with some campaigners, such as the US Organic Consumers Association: “One of the most vicious corporate front groups in America is the so-called Center for Consumer Freedom, which specialises in attacking the organic movement and public interest groups opposed to genetic engineering and industrial agriculture.”

According to Burrita, support for the Center comes from “restaurants, food companies and increasingly contributions from individuals who are tired of having their food choices dictated to them”.

“There are people who are very resistant to having these groups telling them what to eat,” he said. “There are people who have been long time opponents of fat taxes etc.”

There was a need for active opposition to well funded anti-food industry campaigners, he said. “You get activists with tremendous sources of funding from foundations and lawyers and a sympathetic hearing from the media.”

Burrita singled out one group, involved in the debate about obesity, as an example. “The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine constantly comes out with studies on why you shouldn’t drink milk or eat dairy products,” he said. “It always gets listed and no-one reports the fact that it’s a front organisation for PETA (animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). It’s always on the TV. People are duped into thinking it’s a legitimate physicians’ organisation.”

The Center runs a website, called, which gives what it says are funding details of a wide range of campaign organisations. “This site, a part of the network, is committed to providing detailed and up-to-date information about the funding source of radical anti-consumer organisations and activists,” its website says. “We have analysed over 410,000 pages of IRS documents to create this database, and new information will be added every month.”