They knew they were making us fat, and put profits first

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Michael Moss’s Sunday Times Magazine cover story offers the goods in several respects, but no more so than at the beginning, in which he describes a meeting in 1999 — that’s 14 years ago — in which the honchos of Big Food gathered for a rare summit.

Nestlé was in attendance, as were Kraft and Nabisco, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. Rivals any other day, the C.E.O.’s and company presidents had come together for a rare, private meeting. On the agenda was one item: the emerging obesity epidemic and how to deal with it.

The gathering of such unlikely bedfellows itself was a tacit acknowledgement — 14 years ago! — that it had a role in, or more importantly, exposure over the globesity epidemic.

Clearly, the meeting changed nothing, as obesity rates have only continue to rise and food-product formulations and marketing strategies have only grown more sophisticated. We know that the tobacco competitors had meetings like this, and why not: Their products were slowly reducing life quality and life expectancy for its customers, too.

For the record, Moss reports, it was Stephen Sanger, head of General Mills, who torpedoed any industry shift:

Sanger began by reminding the group that consumers were “fickle.” (Sanger declined to be interviewed.) Sometimes they worried about sugar, other times fat. General Mills, he said, acted responsibly to both the public and shareholders by offering products to satisfy dieters and other concerned shoppers, from low sugar to added whole grains. But most often, he said, people bought what they liked, and they liked what tasted good. “Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”

To react to the critics, Sanger said, would jeopardize the sanctity of the recipes that had made his products so successful. General Mills would not pull back. He would push his people onward, and he urged his peers to do the same. Sanger’s response effectively ended the meeting.

He’s even got the double-initials thing, just like Gordon Gecko: “Gluttony, for lack of a better word, is good,” he could say, in the Big Food sequel to “Wall Street.” (See also: His Wikipedia page.)

About the author: Michael Moss is an investigative reporter for The Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his reporting on the meat industry. His magazine story is adapted from “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” which will be published by Random House this month.

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