The Junk Food Industry’s Drug Problem

There’s a crisis related to junk food in America, but unlike in the past, the problem is not that people are eating too much of it and harming their health. Instead, consumption levels are declining, darkening the prospects for companies that depend on selling products filled with saturated fat and sugar.

The reason for this is the arrival of Ozempic and other weight-control medications that are highly effective in controlling the urge to overeat. From a public health perspective, this is great news. These drugs have the potential to substantially reduce obesity and related medical problems such as diabetes. Use of the drugs is soaring, and analysts expect millions more to follow suit.

While pharmaceutical companies are making a killing from these high-priced drugs, the food industry is faced with reduced demand. Most vulnerable are those companies that profit from binge eating, especially the snack food sector. According to the Wall Street Journal, executives at these firms are being barraged with questions from investors about the impact on profitability and stock prices. Wall Street analysts are pointing to vulnerability for manufacturers such as Hershey, Mondelez International (which makes Oreos, among other things) and Hostess Brands (Twinkies, etc.).

Not long ago, companies such as these were riding high as Americans boosted their junk food consumption during the pandemic. Kellogg was pressed by Wall Street to split into two so that its faster growing snack business (Pringles, Cheez-It, etc.) would not be held back by the less dynamic breakfast cereal operation. The separation was recently completed, but now the new Kellanova snack company may be less appetizing for investors.

A recent report by Barclays also sees negative consequences for fast food chains, soft drink producers and even cigarette companies, given anecdotal evidence that the drugs may also suppress the urge to consume other addictive substances.

These financial warnings serve as a stark reminder of how much American packaged food producers and fast-food chains have profited from unhealthy consumption patterns that they themselves helped to bring about.

It is unclear how these industries will respond to the Ozempic revolution. In the short term, they may root for the health insurance companies currently doing whatever they can do to avoid coverage for drugs that have a list price of up to $16,000 a year. Those refusals are already being met with legal challenges.

If they continue to cater to those who cannot gain access to the drugs or choose not to use them, the snack food makers will in effect follow the lead of the tobacco industry, which continued to profit from the addicted while overall smoking levels declined.

It is also possible they will choose the higher-road approach of modifying their product lines to include more nutritious offerings. Many food companies have already taken this approach. The problem is that these foods are often not significantly healthier. For example, Kellogg’s (and now Kellanova’s) Nutri-Grain bars are widely criticized for being high in sugar and low in fiber. Packaged food companies have paid out millions of dollars in class action lawsuits accusing them of making unsubstantiated health claims for their products.

The best outcome would be if large numbers of people freed of their addictions by the new drugs choose to focus their diet on fresh foods, and the worst packaged brands wither away from lack of demand.

Burger King’s Tax Dodge is Just the Latest of Its Restructuring Schemes

mergerkingNothing says America like hamburger chains such as Burger King, yet the fast-food giant is the latest company to put tax dodging above national loyalty.

The home of the Whopper wants to carry out one of the so-called inversions that are all the rage among large U.S. corporations. Burger King is proposing to merge with the much smaller Canadian doughnut and coffee chain Tim Hortons and register the combined company north of the border, where it would be able to take advantage of lower tax rates on its U.S. revenues.

An interesting twist is that a large part of Burger King’s financing for the deal is coming from Warren Buffett, who apart from his investment prowess is known for his statements calling on the wealthy (individuals, at least) to pay more in federal taxes.

While many are criticizing Buffett for hypocrisy, the sage of Omaha seems to be taking refuge behind Burger King’s claim that the deal is not tax-driven but is instead a growth opportunity. That does not pass the laugh test, but it is true that Burger King has been willing to submit to frequent restructuring in its never-ending quest to emerge from the shadow of its much larger rival McDonald’s.

In its 60-year history, Burger King has undergone many changes. In 1967 founders James McLamore and David Edgerton sold the chain to the flour giant Pillsbury, which for two decades struggled to find the right formula for the company. In 1989 Pillsbury was taken over by Britain’s Grand Metropolitan, which continued the ceaseless experimentation. After Grand Met merged with Guinness to form Diageo, Burger King did not fit well with a global company focused on alcoholic beverages.

In 2002 the burger chain was taken over by private equity firms Texas Pacific Group (now TPG Capital) , Bain Capital and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners. After they extracted what they could from the company, the buyout firms arranged for an initial public offering that would allow them to profit even more. Four years after the IPO, the chain was taken over by another private equity firm, 3G Capital of Brazil. After only two years, 3G took a portion of Burger King public again. Now 3G, which partnered with Buffett on the takeover of H.J. Heinz, is at it again with the Tim Hortons deal.

One thing that is clear from this history is that Burger King is not, in fact, a purely American company. But that doesn’t legitimize the Canadian inversion. All it shows is that Burger King’s problems predated the Tim Hortons deal.

The chain has gone through a dizzying series of ownership changes that have probably done little to help its underlying business. And there’s also the issue of how that business is structured. As the Wall Street Journal points out, Burger King is essentially an “assetless company.” It owns less than 1 percent of its nearly 14,000 worldwide outlets, with the rest in the hands of franchisees.

This means that the company is largely removed from the day-to-day operations of its outlets and is instead focused on the royalties it collects from the franchisees. This means that it, even more than other fast-food chains, can claim to be uninvolved in controversial matters such as wage rates and other employment practices.

That posture may no longer be tenable. The recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board holding McDonald’s jointly liable for labor and wage violations by its franchise operators may very well be applied to other chains.

For decades, Burger King has been treated as a pawn in the financial machinations of global corporations and buyout firms. Now its owners want U.S. taxpayers to help underwrite the latest scheme. Hopefully, they won’t get their way this time.

McDonald’s and the Road to the Fast Food Strike Wave

fast-food-strike-AP46472623_620x350As this is being written on August 29th, there are reports that fast-food workers are staging walkouts and protests in some 60 cities. Many of the actions are directed at McDonald’s, which makes sense, given that it is the largest and best-known player in the industry.

Yet what makes a focus on McDonald’s even more appropriate is the company’s history. More than any other restaurant operator, it has worked to suppress pay rates, enforce harsh work procedures and prevent unionization. In other words, it epitomizes everything that the current strikes are trying to change. The following is an overview of that disgraceful history.

From its earliest days in the late 1950s, McDonald’s went to great lengths to maintain total control of its underpaid work force, using techniques such as lie detector tests and rap sessions that supposedly were meant to give workers a chance to air grievances but were mainly designed to give managers a sense of who the troublemakers were.

This non-union philosophy did not go unchallenged. When McDonald’s sought to open its first stores in San Francisco in the early 1970s, the company was confronted by unions and local politicians who opposed city approval because of the labor policies of the company. It took a long court battle before McDonald’s prevailed. In the late 1970s the fast-food chains faced an intensive campaign in Detroit by an independent group called the Fastfood Workers’ Union.

In 1990 a group called the Campaign for Fair Wages staged protests at McDonald’s outlets in the Philadelphia area to protest the fact that workers at inner-city locations were being paid less than those in the suburbs.  In 1998 a group of workers at a McDonald’s outlet in Macedonia, Ohio went on strike and sought representation by the Teamsters union, but the effort fizzled out.

Apart from resisting unions, McDonald’s long lobbied in the United States for a lower minimum wage for teenagers, who made up the large majority of the company’s labor force. When the Nixon Administration came out in support of the idea, Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey charged that it was a quid pro quo for a $255,000 campaign contribution that McDonald’s chairman Ray Kroc had made to Nixon’s re-election campaign.  After years of debate, the “teenwage” concept was finally adopted by Congress when the minimum wage was revised in 1989 (the two-tier system expired in 1993).

Unions have been a bit more evident among McDonald’s operations in other countries. In Ireland, Sweden and a few other countries, unions were successful in negotiating working conditions, but the company and its franchisees still sought to keep unions out wherever possible. This policy became a target of a militant labor campaign when the company opened its first outlet in Mexico in 1985. The restaurant workers union laid siege to the facility and forced it to shut down until a successful representation election was held.

Unions in Denmark launched a boycott of the company in 1988 after franchisees refused to sign a collective bargaining contract. After about eight months the company relented and agreed to join the employers’ group that negotiated with the Danish hotel and restaurant union. In the 1990s McDonald’s resisted union drive in countries such as Canada, Russia and Indonesia. Like Wal-Mart, it later agreed to cooperate with state-controlled unions in China.

McDonald’s has also faced pressures about working conditions in its supply chain. In 2000 the company was rocked by reports that a Chinese sweatshop employing under-aged workers forced to toil up to 16 hours a day was producing toys for its Happy Meals. McDonald’s and its U.S. supplier announced that they were cutting ties with the Chinese subcontractor involved. In 2005 thousands of Vietnamese workers who produced Happy Meal toys staged a two-day strike to protest abusive conditions on the job, and the following year a violent protest occurred at a Happy Meal toy supplier in China.

Actions such as these prompted McDonald’s to join with Walt Disney and a group of NGOs in what was called Project Kaleidoscope to promote better working conditions in the Chinese plants producing goods linked to the two companies. A 2008 report by the initiative spelled out some broad principles and claimed that a group of 10 target facilities had succeeded in improving working conditions.

Back in the United States, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which had just successfully pressured the Taco Bell chain to take responsibility for ensuring that farmworkers who picked the tomatoes used in its outlets were treated decently by suppliers, issued a call in 2005 for McDonald’s to do the same. After two years of campaign pressure, McDonald’s gave in and signed a three-way agreement with the Coalition and the growers under which the restaurant chain agreed to pay one cent more per pound for tomatoes to boost farmworker pay.

McDonald’s response to the farmworker campaign shows that, when put under enough pressure, it will make concessions. Let’s hope that the strikers can raise the heat to that level.

Note: This post is drawn from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on McDonald’s, which can be found here.