When I ask people to name the largest food company in America, most don’t realize the answer is PepsiCo. You may just think soft drinks when you hear the name, but PepsiCo actually owns a dizzying array of food and beverage brands across five massive divisions: Pepsi-Cola, Frito-Lay, Gatorade, Tropicana, and Quaker Oats. As I recently told CNBC for their documentary, Pepsi’s Challenge, perhaps the leading maker of sugary drinks and salty snacks should bear some responsibility for America’s bad eating habits.
To examine the company further, I ask in a lengthy article just published online in the City University of New York Law Review, “PepsiCo and Public Health: Is the Nation’s Largest Food Company a Model of Corporate Responsibility or Master of Public Relations?”
The article describes how PepsiCo utilizes an array of public relations maneuvers to convince Americans to keep buying its products, despite copious health advice to the contrary. Moreover, PepsiCo engages in lobbying and other underhanded behavior that defy its self-proclaimed “Performance with Purpose” image. These tactics include:
- Describing questionable products such as baked chips and diet soda as “better for you” while attempting to engineer healthier junk food with such novelties as “drinkable oats.”
- Exploiting an increasing desire for local food with “farmwashing” ad campaigns for potato chips.
- Hiring respected public health experts and medical doctors to represent the company, creating an illusion of having a health-oriented mission, instead of being driven by profit.
- Continuing to market its unhealthy products to children, despite numerous promises to the contrary, and lobbying to undermine federal policy aimed at reducing junk food marketing to kids.
- Inserting its self-serving public relations message into a respected annual scientific report funded by top health foundations.
- Buying off nonprofits by engaging in a host of philanthropic efforts such as its ubiquitous Pepsi Refresh program, all the name of moving more products.
- Aggressively marching into the developing world to ensure continued growth globally as western markets become saturated with salt, sugar, and fat.
Throughout the article, I show how PepsiCo uses deliberately vague language in its annual report and other documents in which the company claims to be a responsible corporate citizen, thereby making evaluating such claims impossible. We cannot trust PepsiCo or any other food company to “do the right thing” when it comes to fixing the mess they got us into in the first place.
Download the full article, published in Volume 15.1 of the City University of New York Law Review here.