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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Behind enemy lines in the supermarket wars

I wonder how many parents would buy Lunchables for their kids if they knew that a team of food technicians, product marketers and cigarette company executives developed this longtime staple of the American school cafeteria.

Yes, you read right –– cigarette company executives.

Lunchables production started in the summer of 1988. Bob Drane, who was then Oscar Mayer’s vice president for new business strategy, developed these meals-ready-to-eat, which come in white plastic trays that are packaged in school bus-yellow paper boxes.

As it happened, Oscar Mayer merged with Kraft in 1988, and that same year, Philip Morris, the tobacco industry behemoth responsible for the Marlboro Man, bought Kraft for $12.9 billion. So when Drane needed $30 million to fund 10 assembly lines to spit out Lunchables, he appeared before a Philip Morris executive board to plead his case.

Sure, Lunchables were full of salt, sugar and fat, but they had the potential to make millions –– billions even. Of course the Philip Morris executives approved Drane’s funding request.

I learned all of this reading “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” the recent bestseller by New York Times reporter Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize winner. Moss’s 347-page tome shines a bright light on the dark side of America’s processed-food industry, which has made an incomprehensible fortune peddling cheap food products whose primary purpose is to make life more convenient for overscheduled, overworked American families, with little regard for health considerations.

“Salt, Sugar, Fat” tears down the veil that for too long shrouded the processed-food industry, uncovering its obsession with the almighty profit margin and the cutthroat competition that has defined its marketing practices. Children and the poor have long been the innocent victims of the so-called “supermarket wars,” which pit mega-corporations against one another as they ruthlessly vie for ever-greater territory in grocery store aisles. The Lunchable is but one of thousands of weapons in this ceaseless battle.

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