Kraft Foods Group, you may have heard, is engaged in a dust-up with more than 275,000 online petitioners unconvinced by the food giant's assertion that dyes used to produce the distinctive orange hue in one version of its Macaroni & Cheese pose no health risk.
The greater significance of this standoff, however, is not in how Northfield-based Kraft colors its products but in the way this latest awareness-raising skirmish and others like it stand to color consumer opinions of the food industry and its role in the nation's health and health care costs.
Whatever is on your stove top or in your microwave is nothing compared to the potential seeds of revolt simmering across this country.
So many controversial issues are in a state of flux right now: How Americans regard and govern the food industry, gun control, gay marriage, immigration laws, climate change and the legalization of marijuana are all in play. Some are destined to reach the kind of full-boil status that make hot button issues hot, agitating for sweeping change. Others will not. What's striking is the increasing speed with which so many of these matters that recently were anything but front-of-mind have climbed the nation's agenda toward the tipping point to action.
And for whole swaths of industries that previously could afford to focus on the math of return on investment, there now is the complex calculus of swift-shifting politics, public opinion and cultural change — fueled by social media's ability to coalesce like-minded people into a single powerful force.
"Large companies, like political figures, have to be in tune with current public opinion to be successful today, and they also have to be aware of where popular opinion is going so they can be successful tomorrow," said Tilden Katz, managing director of the Chicago office of APCO Worldwide, which advises businesses on public affairs issues. "They have to have some sense of where public opinion is going so that they can either meet it or beat it or anticipate it so they don't find themselves restricted in selling to their target market."
It is possible to run counter to growing public sentiment by targeting an intensely passionate niche of loyalists. The tobacco industry long resisted change and now courts a consumer base that is similarly undeterred by scientific evidence of health risks, increasing government restrictions and taxes, and changing social attitudes that cast them as outcasts. A company known for its support of a particular cause can withstand pressure from those who oppose it if its customers are unbowed.
But even if the battle plan is to adopt a bunker mentality, lobbying hard against change and refusing to throw opponents even the smallest bone of concession, it helps not to be blindsided by the onslaught of evolving groupthink. There's no benefit to being caught flat-footed if there are to be new restrictions on how and to whom a product is marketed, greater scrutiny of what is in the product and how it affects consumers.
"The best companies are thinking not just about what their customers will want, though that's critical for today, but where society is going so there's (the flexibility) to operate more broadly, even when it's hard to say what the tipping point is," Katz said. "They anticipate change and get ahead of it. They realize where public opinion is going and adjust their operations to be in sync, or they risk being left behind. You could be a successful politician in the early 1960s, even if you were against the Civil Rights Act. That doesn't work too well today."
Personally, I am the son of a man whose chemical packaging business took a considerable hit for failing to anticipate, among other shifting sands, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. A can of the banned pesticide DDT with his company's logo on it sat rusting on a shelf in our family's suburban garage long after his death, testament to the inability to see what was in the air.
Spurring the environmental movement was Rachel Carson's 1962 "Silent Spring." There is now a growing canon of film and literature attacking the food industry, the newest of which is Michael Moss' "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."
Moss tells of the science and strategy behind making food ever more irresistible, the industry's recognition of risks in this pursuit and the tremendous toll that it's taken on our nation's health and budget. It's a high-profile and compelling salvo in the effort to get Americans to embrace a new mentality about how, why, when, where and what they eat. And it may push those who produce and sell that food to weigh the long-term risks and benefits of current practices.
Companies such as Kraft, Deerfield-based cousin Mondelez International and Oak Brook's fast-food kingpin McDonald's are part of the conversation, as is the need for consumers to change lifestyles and accept personal accountability. But one senses heightened sensitivity within that sector.
Sometimes it pays to fight, as in the beverage industry's battle against New York's proposed ban on the sale of large containers of sugary drinks. Other times it pays to make concessions, as McDonald's and other restaurants did by posting calorie counts next to menu items, giving consumers already in line to order relative data on which to make a choice — if they want.
"You look responsive," Katz said. "You can make a change. But you're not fundamentally switching your model."
In the food fight, like the others, there are molecules of change in motion, and whether they will bond to create something bigger, we don't yet know.
Not long ago, there was a debate over meat processors' use of techniques to produce leaner beef, damned as "pink slime" by critics. Today's it's a discussion of Kraft's use of Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, with the company noting that it offers "14 varieties of Mac & Cheese with natural colors or no colors at all."
Tomorrow's menu is uncertain. But it is from small gestures that large movements gain momentum.