An Interview with Michael Moss

Michael Moss, Pulitizer Prize Winning Journalist and Author of "Salt Sugar Fat"
Michael Moss, Pulitizer Prize Winning Journalist and Author of “Salt Sugar Fat”

Michael Moss is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Salt Sugar Fat, winner of the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Writing & Literature, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter formerly with the New York Times. His writing focuses on the food industry in context of health, safety, nutrition, politics, marketing, corporate interests, and, finally, the power of individuals to gain control of what and how they eat. He has been a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, New York Newsday, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and an adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. He recently took time out from his work on his next book – HOOKED: Food and Free Will (to be published by Random House) to talk to us.

why?

Agency Review:

It’s probably safe to say that food – as a public health issue – has exploded over the past decade in ways that would have been fairly inconceivable to those of us who grew up in the 1960s. Now, we know you won a Pulitzer in 2010 for reporting on E coli, hamburger and food safety. Is that what prompted you to dig deeper into the food industry? Or are you just a glutton for punishment? Because clearly food production, health and business have become a sort of third rail of American discourse and anyone who investigates them is opening himself up for a ton of grief.

Moss:

Well, it is perhaps telling that before I stepped on this third rail of food I was traveling through the Middle East seeking out jihadi militants for some clues on how the war on terrorism was fueling their business.

And that in 2005 I had picked a fight with the Pentagon over its failure to equip soldiers with armor, which forced me to report in Fallujah and other garden spots of war-torn Iraq.

But on food I blame none other than my editor in the investigations group of The New York Times, Christine Kay, who in late 2008 was looking for something “safer” for me to do after one of our colleagues got kidnapped by the Taliban, and she spotted an event in Georgia, the state not the country. An outbreak of salmonella poisoning had been traced to a factory processing peanuts, and because these peanuts were being used as ingredients in hundreds of products made by some of the largest food manufacturers, she saw this as a window on the $1 trillion processed food industry about which, we felt, we knew very little.

Agency Review:

So, out of the fire and into the frying pan, as it were…

Moss:

Exactly. My reporting there and on E coli in meat showed how that industry had lost control over much of the food chain, but in early 2010 a meat industry source suggested I look into the health consequences of some things his industry was intentionally adding to their products, over which it had absolute control. He was concerned about the vast loads of salt added to processed meats, but it was soon clear to me that sugar and fat rounded out what might be called unholy trinity of ingredients on which the food industry became so dependent to make their products low-cost, convenient and irresistible. And that, as they say, seemed like a story worthy a book.

Agency Review:

So a story on salmonella in peanuts led to a story on E coli in meat led to a broader story on meat processing led to a book on food. Is this consistent with the way stories develop for you generally? Following threads to see what they connect as opposed to having a pre-ordained path or thesis that you’re trying to prove? Is that as true in Fallujah as it was, say, at Frito-Lay?

Moss:

Yes. One of the most challenging things for investigative journalists is not having any expertise, unlike reporters who cover a particular beat. We tend to bounce from subject to subject, and the most difficult chore is often simply finding a good “pond” to go fishing in for stories. I take inspiration from wherever I can, whether smart editors or great sources. And then once that pond becomes apparent, one story hopefully leads to another, or in my case now, one book leads to another. One of the dangling issues in Salt Sugar Fat was the question of whether junk food is actually addictive, and if so exactly how, and so I’m pursuing that head on with my next book, Hooked: Food & Free Will.

fairness

Agency Review:

One of the things that so impressed us about Salt Sugar Fat was how remarkably even-handed it was. It was neither “Big Food are a bunch of heartless thugs” nor “Consumers are a bunch of class-action-lawsuit-seeking couch potatoes”. And while that earned praise from us, we’re sure you’re receiving serious flack from both sides of the table. So first, are you?

Moss:

Am I getting flack? Nothing all that body armor I had to buy for Iraq can’t handle.

No, really, the industry had one complaint, that I didn’t write enough about their more recent efforts to unhook themselves from salt-sugar-fat. And on the other side, some readers wished I’d included a what-we-can-do section, which I might have done if I had had any clue about how to resolve this crisis of obesity and other food related health problems. (Only now am I getting some ideas in that regard.)

Agency Review:

Okay, and second, how did you manage to stay fair (and dare we say “balanced”) on such a volatile and emotional topic?

Moss:

The fairness and balance, I think, comes from my own basic curiosity about how things work in the world, and from the book’s main premise as per the subtitle: Just how did they do it. The aim was to be non-judgmental, but deeply reported with powerful facts that spoke for themselves. And always, as a journalist, but especially one who does investigatory work, I demand of myself that I put myself in the shoes of the people I’m writing about to understand their view and perspective on things.

Agency Review:

Then lets pivot the question a bit because that attempt at empathy that you describe is at once rare and refreshing in today’s journalism; why do you think it is largely absent from reportage these days – or are we just looking in the wrong places, or have we an unduly rosy view of the past?

Moss:

Unduly rosy about the past we are, I think. There is some terrific investigative reporting being done today that is edgy and fresh but also fair and true and reflective of the world’s and people’s complexities. And the lousy stuff was always there.

That said, I worry a lot about the media succumbing to financial pressures and rushing stories that pretend to be investigative without having done the necessary hard work. My former editors on the front page of the Wall Street Journal used to scoff at “he said, she said” journalism that seeks to strike a balance by simply quoting lots of people on all sides. Rather, they would push their reporters to sort that out for the reader, and drive a hard narrative line. But that requires reporting the hell out of a story so you can write forcefully with facts, not with opinion. And that takes time and money.

learning

Agency Review:

One of the most surprising, and frankly, fascinating aspects of Salt Sugar Fat is how the folks at Altria are, at least according to your reporting, trying to take learnings from the tobacco industry and apply them to the food industry. “Denial is not enough, think about solutions” says Geoff Bible at one point in your book. Amazing. But are they? Do you think Kraft have learned anything useful from the Phillip Morris experience? Are they operating differently, or is it even applicable?

Moss:

We should speak in the past tense on this, because by 2008 Altria (Philip Morris) was fully divesting its Kraft ownership, which for some two decades had made it the largest food manufacturer in North America.

Agency Review:

Noted…

Moss:

But I, too, was struck by the curve of that ownership, in the tobacco executives evolved from nudging their food managers into stronger sales to warning them privately in the early 2000s that they would face as great of trouble over salt-sugar-fat and obesity as the tobacco industry was facing over smoking and health. A cabal of insiders at Kraft responded by steering the company into an anti-obesity initiative that included some fairly amazing things, including a pull back on advertising to children and restrictions on the amounts of salt-sugar-fat their food scientists could use in developing new products. I devoted a whole chapter to this saga in part because this effort forced Kraft to confront the very difficult question of whether it, even unconsciously, was doing things that could encourage people not just to like its products, but to over consume.

I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone who hasn’t read the book, so let me say simply that Kraft, having been forced to embark on this initiative unilaterally without the industry as a whole joining in, ran into some trouble in the cookie aisle.

Agency Review:

“Very difficult” indeed. Like trying to make an aircraft carrier pirouette. Or said another way, salt, sugar and fat are not just ingredients IN their business plan, they are the foundational building blocks OF their business plan. Take them out of their products and Kraft is a fundamentally different company. It would be like Ford Motor Company saying “okay, we’re gonna stop making cars now, and only make tanks”, which, of course, they DID, during World War II, but it took a worldwide Depression and the threat of Hitler for it to actually happen.

Moss:

Your point being?

Agency Review:

That what you’re talking about is a scale of voluntary change that is inconceivable for a company of Kraft’s size. We literally can’t think of something to compare it to. When you spoke to the folks at Kraft about this, were they aware of the magnitude? And do you think they’re on the path to achieving it?

Moss:

One of the things that really surprised me in crawling around the underbelly of the processed food industry is how risk averse these big companies are. Indeed, the old timers who invented things like instant Jello pudding and microwaveable popcorn scoff at their own companies now, complaining that there is no real innovation going on. As Geoffrey Bible, the former Philip Morris CEO told me for the book, the reason for this is job security. It takes money to engineer new products, more money to test them with consumers, and with 9 out of 10 new products failing to catch on, managers see any real boldness on their part as nothing short of risking their jobs.

This is hugely critical now that Kraft and the rest of the food manufacturers are coming under intense pressure from consumers to create truly healthier versions of their products. This kind of innovation is risky. And I’m guessing we’re going to see the following, as we did with the recent Heinz takeover of Kraft: the food giants will deal with declining sales by cutting costs and then doubling down on those products that still have strong appeal with many people, and it will be up to adventuresome start-ups with VC money to do the real inventing of products that are tasty, healthy and convenient all in one.

control

Agency Review:

Periodically we find ourselves embroiled in conversations about “the nanny state” – a world in which everything is provided “for” us, a society in which the citizens begin to expect, and then demand, that everything be done for them. And as we read Salt Sugar Fat we became intrigued with how the food industry intersected with this complaint.

On the one hand, people don’t want the government telling them what they can and cannot eat, what they should and should not eat. On the other hand, it’s clear from your book that there are all kinds of, at best, “unintended consequences” of the food we eat.

Or said another way, when the things you buy are not what you think they are, don’t you need someone to explain that to you before you become addicted? And is that really a “nanny state” at all?

Moss:

I like to point out when I’m giving talks about food that for many of us, if not most, the concepts of choice and free will may be something of an illusion when it comes to shopping for food. The grocery store is hardly a level playing field. It and the food manufacturers are doing everything they can to shape our buying habits, and not in ways that nutritionists are happy about. It starts with the advertising even before we get to the store, and continues with the soft music, the bright neon colors, the store layout leading us to the prominent displays of junkier foods.

Agency Review:

And yet, what you describe is, increasingly, an outdated method of shopping for just about every product EXCEPT food. Books, electronics, clothing are already increasingly purchased online and beyond the bricks and mortar. Do you see the rise of internet shopping having the same impact on the food industry that it has on other industries, and do you think that by taking away some of the grocery-store tricks you describe, it will effectively level the playing field a bit?

Moss:

I love my shopkeepers, and like buying from them directly. But I live in a privileged corner of Brooklyn, which is teeming with greenmarkets and co-ops and fish mongers and well-stocked groceries, and not far from me are people who have to travel miles to get to a grocery store. So yes, I’m thinking that online grocery sales and deliverers have a huge potential to not only eliminate these food deserts. They could help people remake their eating habits and force the grocers to respond in kind.

Agency Review:

What about the government?

Moss:

Consider the one thing the government has managed to inject into this equation: forcing the companies to disclose their ingredients. These get snuck into that tiny fine print box on the back or side of the package called the Nutrition Facts, while the companies control the far more powerful real estate of the package front, where they put their best foot forward in bold large print– NEW, MORE PROTEIN, ADDED CALCIUM, LESS SALT – that tends to deflect further inquiry into the fine print. I’m hoping that in absence of more government intervention, readers of Salt Sugar Fat will become more empowered as shoppers simply by knowing what the companies and grocers are up to.

Agency Review:

Fair enough, but what we were actually trying to get at was this idea that the foods you focus on were, by and large, created to solve particular problems – generally how to combine convenience and cost and taste and distribution – and NOT to address overconsumption. But when these products ARE over-consumed, that is, when they ARE used in ways, in a sense, beyond the intentions of makers, new problems develop. Which is fine, if everyone knows that they’re, in a sense “misusing” them. But consumers by and large, DON’T know that. They think that what they’ve been doing is healthy, or at least, not unhealthy. Putting, then, the onus of explanation on the manufacturer to say “No, eating a ‘party size’ bag of potato chips, every night, by yourself, is not good for you.” And to get back to the original question, should that whole exercise be a part of the business plan of food companies?

Moss:

Yes.

Agency Review:

(laughter)

future for food

Agency Review:

Now that you’ve traveled deep into the world of food and food manufacturing – been through its history and its present – what does its future look like? Are the cultural forces that drove decisions based on convenience still in play? Or does the aging of the Baby Boomers and the rise to prominence of the millennials and other generations that have very different worldviews create new challenges for the food industry? Are the protests around food and health gaining enough momentum to really change the game? Or, are the challenges going to be the same as they ever were, with companies seeking new ways to address them?

Moss:

Whew. Got a couple of hours? In short, I think we’re at a crossroads where consumers are increasingly caring about what they put into their bodies, and apparently, acting on that concern.

Agency Review:

Why now? What has changed that’s made this a higher priority for this generation? We agree with you that it IS, we just can’t figure out WHY.

Moss:

One in three adults are now clinically obese. Another one in three are overweight. Kids are turning up with adult-like signs of heart disease. Diabetes is rampant. And as American-style processed fast food is increasingly going global, all of this is now spreading around the world, making food-related disease only second to tobacco as a public health menace, with vast burdens on public health costs and lost productivity.

That’s the grim reality, the price being paid, by our over-dependence on foods that were designed to be convenient and low-cost but not healthy. And more and more people seem to be recognizing this, both in their own lives and as public policy.

Agency Review:

Okay, so situation is exceptionally dire and the public and public health officials are sounding the alarm. But they have been for a while, right? What’s different now?

Moss:

What’s different is that one after another food manufacturer in early 2015 has reported significant hits to their revenue and, even more startlingly, CEOs are citing consumer health concerns and a growing distrust of their products for this hit on revenue. This is putting pressure as never before on the food companies to act in significant ways to improve the health profile of their products.

I spent the first year after the book came out saying that if too much salt-sugar-fat was a big part of the food health problem, then the solution is to have companies cut back on these three, and many of them are now laboring hard at this. But when you talk to nutritionists, they don’t talk about salt-sugar-fat as their first concern. They talk about the need for us to double our intake of vegetables and whole fruits, and that’s the challenge that the food industry now faces, I think.

Agency Review:

So it’s not about taking things out as much as it’s about putting things in?

Moss:

Exactly. If companies are going to play a significant role in this changing world of consumer demand for better eating, they’re going to have to consider not just reducing the bad boy ingredients, but finding ways to get good stuff, including vegetables and fruit, into their packaged goods. Cost is a huge issue, so this might require changing the farming equation to emphasize produce instead of the field corn (used for ethanol, corn syrup and livestock feed) that now dominates agriculture. But just think of the marketing opportunity here, and the power of being able to say on the front of a box of Hot Pockets, for instance, not just that they have less salt-sugar-fat, but that they have “three servings of vegetables.”

Agency Review:

But see, this is the challenge in a nutshell. People don’t buy what they’re supposed to want, they buy what they actually want. And for what you describe to work, you not only have to market the solution, you also have to market the problem and educate the consumer – and do you really see all that messaging happening in a Hot Pockets ad? And if it doesn’t happen there, where?

Moss:

What do I know? I’m just a journalist.

But here is what I glean from smart people who are thinking that all of the following has to happen together to solve the food health problem:

Smart education of kids to get them excited about fruits and vegetables and cooking, who in turn will help get their parents excited, because it’s a lot easier to create good eating habits than to fix bad ones;

A realignment of agriculture to grow more of that stuff instead of field corn for ethanol and syrup, which will bring down the price and improve the quality of broccoli, apples and peas;

Better access to better food for shoppers, and some innovation to make produce more convenient to buy and prepare;

Smart marketing and advertising for produce and healthier products that doesn’t preach but entices;

Development of products that weave healthy eating and convenience and great taste and low cost all together;

And maybe some targeted government intervention keyed to preventing the health costs of bad eating habits.

And if companies like the newly configured Kraft want to keep making junk food without warning people about the consequences of overeating that stuff through better labeling and packaging, etc., why not make them pay for the cost of treating diabetes?

future for you

Agency Review:

And what’s next for you? Your first book, Palace Coup, was about the Helmsleys – quite a far cry from the world you cover in Salt Sugar Fat. You’ve covered everything from armor for soldiers in Iraq to housing for the elderly and beyond. It would seem that almost anything is a possibility. So what’s the next area that you’re diving into? Or is there a through-line that I’m just missing?

Moss:

I’m continuing to report on food, looking especially for ways to tell stories through video and the powerful new venues like Vice and Buzzfeed.

Agency Review:

That’s intriguing because it echoes something we’ve heard from other journalists – this understanding that they are not “newspaper people” so much as storytellers trying to adapt to an ever-expanding universe of media. Are you finding, however, since you came up as a newspaper writer, that the new media, to paraphrase McLuhan, is impacting your message?

Moss:

It’s causing me to investigate ways to reach more people with creative but still quality journalism. For example, last year at the Times I created a series of eight 90-second videos called “What’s In It” that delved into the science and marketing of big brand food products to explain how they hook us, and we went with animation because much of the stuff at play is happening in your brain. You can find them online. They are deceptively simple. A couple of weeks of deep reporting and animating went into each one, to get them right and meaningful and still fun. I’m hoping to do even more things like that.

Agency Review:

Very cool. And you mentioned earlier a sort of follow up to Salt Sugar Fat?

Moss:

Yes, the next book, with Random House, is underway. It’s called Hooked: Food and Free Will, and in the mode of being a glutton for punishment, the intent is to step hard on the third rail of junkier food as an addiction.

Agency Review:

Are you focusing purely on the idea of physical addiction, or does the scope of the new book also include some of what you talked about above – the marketing and promotion that creates an emotional addiction as well?

Moss:

My running list of things that make us really vulnerable to eating too much junk now numbers about a dozen, of which the perfect combination of salt-sugar-fat is only one factor. So yes, marketing and promotion is a big part of my focus.

You can read our review of Michael’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Illustration of Michael Moss by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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