Big Food has fallen in love with Big Data

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Of all the major industries, food has been the slowest to succumb to the lure of data collection. Retail, for instance, has figured out how to anticipate the entire story of your life, starting from the moment you first search for “engagement ring” or “maternity clothes,” and it will never let you go, even if things don’t turn out as planned. But Big Food has lagged far behind, depending on traditional advertising and name recognition. Companies like Kraft, General Mills, and Conagra have started collecting customer data, but according to a Boston Consulting Group study, their databases are one-tenth the size of retail companies.


That will be changing. Big Food has discovered that big data leads to big business. And since the pandemic has forced many people to do their grocery shopping online, it’s been much easier to collect it.

“For a food brand it’s really no longer about who has the biggest factory, or who has the biggest media budget,” Taylor Smith, a partner at Boston Consulting Group, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “It’s about what data you have and how you use it.”

Food companies have already been combing social media, which was how Kraft learned in 2019 that teenagers were displeased with the size of the microwavable mac and cheese cups. (They are pretty small.) Within a few months, the company began manufacturing Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Big Bowls to feed the hungry masses.

There were also clumsy attempts at data collection: in 2019, General Mills changed its Box Tops for Education Program so that customers had to send in scans of their entire grocery receipts. That way, the company reasoned, it could see what else people were buying with their cereal. But the people were not happy: they could see what the company was up to and felt that their privacy was being violated.

Now, the Star-Tribune reports, the big food companies have resorted to more stealthy means, such as monitoring Peloton subscribers to see whether they prefer healthy food or junk food and collecting data on online recipe searches and appliance purchases. (It turns out that despite the rise of the Instant Pot and air fryer, people still prefer the good old stovetop and oven; accordingly Conagra began manufacturing a line of sheet-pan-ready meals.)

Just wait: in the future, you do one search for cereal, and you’ll be seeing Frosted Flakes in your social media algorithms for years to come. You will never escape. It’ll be grrrrreat.




Back when I was on social media, I would occasionally do joking “mess with the algorithm” posts like “I’m pregnant” or “guess what you guys, I got into the gender studies program at Bard College!” (always with a follow-up post or a comment clearly explaining to my befuddled friends what I’d just done) and sure enough, I got some weird ads and suggested content, and I even outright lampshaded it by posting that old Calvin and Hobbes comic where Calvin games the reader-survey system in his favorite magazine.

Likewise, I have been an Amazon customer since 2003. As such, not only do I get recommendations based on stuff I bought forever and an age ago, I also get recommendations based on the taste of numerous ex-lovers for whom I have bought gifts over the years during our no-longer-extant relationships. Approximately five percent of “you might like” stuff from Amazon has any bearing on my actual taste in 2021, and even that seems more coincidence than anything.

Same’s true of Steam. My taste in games has evolved since 2009. The algorithm never caught up.

I used to think nothing on Earth was dumber than your average human. Then I met your average computer. Artificial Stupidity...