Food for Thought: An Interactive Exercise in Ethical Decision Making
by Leah Kaplan, Elodie O. Currier, Mohammed Omar, and Ornella Tchoumie
Food for Thought is a simulation game designed to show participants how ethical challenges might arise and quickly escalate in their professional work.
Simulation games, sometimes referred to as wargaming exercises, are commonly used to understand how decisions might lead to various consequences. They are particularly useful for exploring decision-making under uncertain or complex conditions. The purpose of the Food for Thought simulation game is to show participants the ways in which ethical challenges might arise as part of their professional work. In the game, participants collaboratively develop solutions to address an ethical challenge facing a hypothetical food-manufacturing company. Participants experience how problems may quickly escalate and push them into increasingly challenging situations. This game is suitable for use as an interactive exercise during a FASPE interdisciplinary session or as a follow-up activity with FASPE alumni. The game could also be used to stimulate discussions about ethical decision-making in other academic or professional settings.
- The game takes 2-3 hours to play (see timing section for shorter vs.longer versions. The longer timing allows for more discussion as well as a final reflection).
- The game is designed for business, law, and design & technology professionals and students.
- The game is suitable for any number of people, though ideally each professional cohort within the game will be made up of at least two players.
This game explores complex interactions among business, legal, and technical issues. As a result, it is most appropriate for individuals studying or working in the fields of business, law, and design & technology. No domain-specific knowledge is required, however, so individuals outside these three groups are also encouraged to participate. The game is suitable for any number of people, though a minimum of six players is ideal, allowing for at least two people per cohort.
There are increasing calls from activists to improve food safety regulation in the United States. Your company, Schmeatpackers, is one of the largest global meatpacking companies and has had a few problems with minor food contamination in the past, including one costly product recall. In the past few years, however, the company hasn’t noticed any major outbreaks and you have achieved record sales this past year. Despite these successes, there are concerns that current testing protocols might not catch mutating bacterial strains that could threaten human health.
Your company was recently notified that the U.S. government is considering revising current food safety guidelines. At this early stage, you have the potential to help shape what these new guidelines might look like. Prepare for a meeting with senior leadership to advise on how (or if) the company should engage with the safety guideline development process.
The following position papers highlight some of the specific ethical considerations each sort of professional might face given the presented scenario. They also include some potential ideas for approaches to solutions. Participants are encouraged to draw on their own professional experiences and ethical frameworks to develop and consider additional solution pathways.
Business Position Paper
You are a seasoned business executive of Schmeatpackers with 20 years of experience in sales, marketing, and operations. As you think through the decision of whether and how to participate in refreshing food- safety guidelines with the government, your mind swirls with possibilities, faced with the great variety of issues to account for.
You have an “old friend” in the government, who casually mentioned during a golfing session at Karelago that the new guidelines the government is considering would require significant investment in new pathogen detection technology. This technology investment would impact not only your bottom line but your EPS (earnings per share). “Analysts from Batman Sachs are going to eat me alive on the next earnings call,” you think and shudder.
But the situation is worse than that; the technology investment would require you to close a plant in Kansas, and 1,000 US-based employees would be made redundant. Repositioning those employees within the organization would be impossible. You’d likely have to offshore those operations.
“So how should I engage the government?” you wonder. You know that having a seat at the table may allow you to shape the guidelines in a way that is laxer and might mitigate how much technology you would have to invest in. This would allow you to optimize for:
- Shareholders, given you can mitigate the impact of the regulations on your bottom line and your EPS.
- Your own employees in Kansas, where you can still make a case to keep most of them if you drive down costs far enough.
- Your market position, as you create advantages over your main competitors (e.g., by urging the government to require packaging compounds that match those in your current supply chain).
However, if you are part of the taskforce that drafts more lax guidelines and they result in an outbreak, Schmeatpackers could face both legal and reputational risk.
You sigh, knowing you may face reputational risk for refusing to participate at all.
As you stare out at the sunset and feel the summer breeze, you think it’s time to schedule a call with your technological and legal advisors. You need to achieve consensus on three questions before you advise senior leadership on how to engage with the government.
- Does Schmeatpackers partner with the government at all in reshaping food safety guidelines?
- What is the ideal model for engaging with the government?
- What is your stance on how stringent the guidelines should be?
Having your team on the same page will be critical; the government will want to hear from your tech experts and lawyers as well.
Design & Technology Position Paper
You are a mid-career professional with a Ph.D. in Biotechnology from the University of Cambridge. You have recently been appointed head of research and development (R&D) at Schmeatpackers, a large food processing company. You have been aware of minor food contamination issues at the company for some time. Nonetheless, the company has always met FDA food safety requirements.
Building on your doctoral research, your R&D team recently developed a new food testing technology that is better at detecting a new type of pathogen, FASPE-coli, in food. With this improved detection capacity, you’re now noticing that some Schmeatpackers products contain this new pathogen. There’s currently no scientific consensus about the effects of FASPE-coli on human health, with some studies finding minimal impact while others suggest there could be serious, even deadly, repercussions. There have not been any significant outbreaks, so you have chosen to stay quiet. This is your first executive role, and you want to make a good impression on the company's board of directors. Any decision you make will have a significant impact on your career.
At a recent food safety research conference, you learn about new efforts within the FDA to revise food safety guidelines. This could be a good opportunity to mandate testing for FASPE-coli in food production facilities and implement your new testing technology—technology you could even potentially patent. Rolling out the tech across Schmeatpackers’ plants, however, would likely be very expensive. You’ve also noticed that while your new testing technology is good at detecting FASPE-coli, which could be deadly, it performs slightly worse at detecting other types of pathogens that can cause minor illness, ones that are currently covered by FDA regulations.
You consider coming clean to the FDA about the FASPE-coli contamination at your plant, though you know this could have severe consequences for the company. If FASPE-coli is added to new FDA regulations, regulators could shut down the plant, and the company could be sued for millions of dollars. You could also lose your job.
As you stare out the windows of your large, corner office, you mull over some of your different options:
- Collaborate with the government in improving food safety guidelines and encourage adding mandatory testing for and regulation of FASPE-coli. This is a good option if you believe the current food safety guidelines are inadequate and that, despite existing scientific uncertainty, FASPE-coli does present a serious threat to human health. By working with the government, you could develop new approaches to make food safer for everyone.
- Advocate for implementation of your new pathogen detection technology in Schmeatpackers’ plants and convince the FDA regulators to use your technology. This is a good option if you believe the current methods for detecting harmful pathogens are ineffective. By implementing your new technology, you could ensure that harmful pathogens are identified before they cause harm to consumers. Implementing your technology as it is now, however, comes with the risk of missing detection of certain less harmful (but still currently regulated) pathogens. Widespread adoption of your technology in collaboration with the FDA could also discourage potential development of other solutions for detecting FASPE-coli.
- Focus your research on an emerging market (slaughter-free meat) and advocate for food safety guidelines to be defined more broadly. This would be a risky option, but focusing on slaughter-free meat could be a way for the company to get ahead of the competition. The slaughter-free meat market is growing rapidly, and consumers are becoming more interested in sustainable and humane food options. You could pivot your research efforts to focus on developing these technologies and push for a broader shift in thinking about meat both within your company and within the FDA. On the other hand, focusing your time and efforts on this area of research could set you behind your other R&D colleagues whose work may more directly relate to the company’s immediate bottom line. Also, if the company is found to be violating food safety guidelines while trying to develop these new meat substitutes, it could face serious consequences.
- Another option is to resign from your position. This would allow you to advocate for revisions to food safety guidelines in whatever manner you feel is best but also means giving up your job and career. For now, you need to prepare for an upcoming call with your law and business colleagues to discuss whether and how to engage with the government.
Law Position Paper
One year ago, you moved from practice as a regulatory attorney at a large firm to Schmeatpacker’s government affairs unit within the office of the general counsel. You are one of the more junior members of the department—most attorneys have been inhouse for at least five years and are fiercely loyal to the company and its “way of doing business.”
The office of the general counsel is very well-staffed and rarely outsources nonlitigation work. As a result, you’ve been able to hear about some of the legal challenges facing the company in departmental meetings. Most recently, there have been:
- Proposals to aggressively pursue intellectual property rights to force competitors to license Schmeatpackers machinery, processes, or tests. Patenting new technology and offering it as a business-to-business service could open new lines of profit and improve Schmeatpackers’ competitive position, but it could also limit the adoption of any novel safety equipment developed by Schmeatpackers. Some have proposed using the government regulatory process to advocate for standards which could only be satisfied with Schmeatpackers equipment or tests.
- Stress about an upcoming negotiation window with Schmeatpackers’ employee union. The union has previously accepted a lower wage in return for heightened safety guarantees, but many local unions at Schmeatpackers plants have voiced complaints about Schmeatpackers’ compliance with health and safety standards, including some instances of operators voicing concerns about issues with food contamination. Some attorneys in the HR department are worried that a significant safety incident or a potential whistleblower complaint could lead to litigation with the union over the existing contract or give the union a stronger negotiating position as regards a new contract.
- Concerns over regulatory risk if new safety regulations introduce enhanced liability or create a liability floor or statutory cause of action. If the FDA guidelines—or other regulations from Federal or State government—impose new requirements or standards, it could create more opportunities for litigation to be brought against Schmeatpackers.
- Concerns over disclosure of any of Schmeatpackers’ food safety practices. Given public sensitivity to the realities of the work of meatpacking, avoiding disclosure of Schmeatpackers’ practices when possible tends to be prudent. However, this must be balanced with the need to be transparent with various parties, such as courts, business partners, and regulators.
There is quite a bit of pressure on the government affairs department to ensure that the new FDA guidelines don’t make any of these issues worse. As a bit of new arrival hazing, your department head has tasked you with presenting to the board about whether and how to engage with the guideline-drafting process—your first significant presentation for the department.
The presentation should consider three main questions:
- Does Schmeatpackers partner with the government at all in reshaping food safety guidelines? Partnering with the government could allow Schmeatpackers to take the lead on creating guidelines (or even draft guidelines that would give them a competitive advantage) but would likely require more transparency.
- What are the legal benefits and drawbacks of varying approaches to regulatory posture? What is the most beneficial approach to guideline development? Rigid guidelines requiring the use of Schmeatpackers’ new FASPE-coli testing products could shut competitors out of the market or force them to license Schmeatpackers’ own products. It would also, however, lock Schmeatpackers into adopting the technology itself. Looser guidelines would give Schmeatpackers fewer fears about liability and could assist in preserving employee relations, especially in Kansas.
- How can engaging with the guideline development process assist in resolving other legal questions for Schmeatpackers? Beyond the potential PR benefits of being a “leader” on new safety guidelines, working with regulators could prevent these developments from evolving in ways that would actively harm Schmeatpackers’ legal positions elsewhere. Further, working “behind-thescenes” could allow for information sharing with regulators without full transparency to the public. Schmeatpackers’ office of General Counsel works closely with the business and technology departments: as a newcomer, it’s vital that you consider their stances as well.
Die Roll Scenarios
1: One day, a whistleblower exposes that the company has identified the presence of FASPE-coli, an emergent pathogen, in some of its products. There is currently no scientific consensus about the effects of FASPE-coli on human health. Some studies have found minimal impact on human health, while others suggest it could be quite dangerous or even deadly. Despite this scientific uncertainty, the company is now facing a public relations nightmare as food safety advocates launch a public attack campaign suggesting that Schmeatpackers’ food is unsafe. An internal memo from the company’s board of directors states that everyone should deny the accusations from the whistleblower, and anyone who does not will be sued for defamation.
2: Factory workers in Kansas hear about the discussions related to implementing new testing technology and the potential for their plant to shut down as a result. In response, the workers begin a strike demanding that food safety guidelines remain the same and that no new testing technologies are introduced. Your company is losing millions of dollars as a result of the strike.
3: A new scientific study published by a top-tier university finds that small quantities of FASPE-coli, an emergent pathogen, can lead to hospitalization and death amongst children and the elderly. Prior to this study, there was no scientific consensus about the effects of FASPE-coli on human health, but this new study raises new and more serious questions. Schmeatpackers leadership knows that FASPE-coli is present in some of its products.
4: One of your direct competitors announces that they are in the process of developing industry-leading testing for their own meatpacking facilities, including the development of new tests for “emerging pathogens” that they hope will someday become industry standard. Bringing Schmeatpackers’ test for FASPE-coli to market could allow you to preempt them as an industry leader. The technology, however, has not been tested at scale.
5: Outbreaks of FASPE-coli shut down three Schmeatpackers plants. There is currently no scientific consensus about the effects of FASPE-coli on human health. Some studies have found minimal impacts on human health, whereas others suggest it could be quite dangerous or even deadly. While no workers have died, over 40% of each plant has called out sick with severe gastrointestinal symptoms and fever. The shutdown not only costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in productivity loss but also has potentially massive PR and HR risks.
6: The Department of Justice brings charges against two plant managers from a directly competing firm in Kansas for bribing FDA inspectors to overlook safety violations, including contamination of products with FASPE-coli. Before meeting with attorneys, one of the plant managers posted a long message to their Facebook page stating that “every plant in Kansas bribes the FDA. That’s the cost of doing business.” Doing an internal investigation could help clear Schmeatpackers’ name, or it could reveal wrongdoing by our own plant managers. Beyond the PR and legal risks, evidence of bribery would make it very difficult for Schmeatpackers to be involved with the guideline development process.
Coin Flip Scenarios
1: Congressional Investigation: Following the events of [Die-Roll 1 Outcome], Congress has launched an investigation into the standards and practices of the entire meatpacking industry and has subpoenaed Schmeatpackers’’ CEO and key officials to testify. The board has requested the advice of each of your departments not only on whether to comply with the subpoena but also on how to frame their testimony and the broader image of the company.
2: Preparation for IPO: Schmeatpackers’ CEO has decided that the market is ripe for an (ill-advised) initial public offering of Schmeatpackers’ stock. As you prepare for the IPO, decisions will have to be made about how to position the company in the media, in reports to the SEC, and in investor diligence documents. The CEO and the rest of Schmeatpackers’ board want to extract the highest possible initial price. A stock option will certainly be part of your total compensation in the event of a successful IPO.
Potential Reflection Questions
Depending on the audience, these questions may be a helpful jumping-off point for working through some of the ethical issues raised by the crisis simulation. Facilitators may wish to provide more scaffolding for younger participants or those participating as an introduction to professional ethical issues.
- How did the “crisis” introduced by the die roll change the ways you thought about the road forward?
- How do crises stress your sense of ethics? Do time pressures and heightened risk reduce opportunities for ethical decision-making?
- What elements of crisis response were missing from this simulation? What pressures would you face in a real crisis scenario? Would they change your decisions?
- How did your role influence your decision-making and the way you interacted with your peers?
- If you had been making these decisions without the input of other disciplines, how would that have changed things?
- What role does communication between disciplines play? What information did you learn from other industries that changed your approach?
- How did you balance your personal interests (e.g., career advancement, job security, stock options) with public interests?
- Do some crises give greater influence to one discipline over another? What is your duty to others when your discipline takes the lead?
- How did you weigh public interest (e.g., preserving public health for the sake of public health) with business interest (e.g., avoiding FASPE-coli to avoid PR issues)?
- How do the actions of competitors influence these kinds of decisions? What are the additional costs of being the “ethics leader” of your industry? Are there benefits?
- How does consumer pressure factor into ethical decision-making? What about employee pressure? How does this differ from rules imposed by the government?
- [3-Hour Version only] How did the decisions you made in the first crisis shape your approach to the second crisis?
- If the order of crises were reversed, how would that have changed your decision-making?
- What would it take for you to resign? Is resigning an ethical decision during crises? Is it an effective way to protest decisions you don’t agree with?
- [3-Hour Version only] How did publicity (either through disclosures as part of an IPO or through Congressional inquiry) factor into decision-making?
- How does transparency (or lack of transparency) influence ethical decision-making?
- How do pressures to “spin” or “market” a company's approach as “ethical” change decision-making? Do these pressures lead to decisionmaking changes that go beyond initial, surface-level approaches?
Leah Kaplan was a 2023 FASPE Design and Technology Fellow. She is a PhD candidate in systems engineering at George Washington University.
Elodie O. Currier was a 2023 FASPE Law Fellow. She is a 2023 graduate of Vanderbilt Law School now working for the Federal Judiciary.
Mohammed Omar was a 2023 FASPE Business Fellow. He is a project leader at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
Ornella Tchoumie was a 2023 FASPE Design and Technology Fellow. She is a product manager on the privacy and compliance team at Workday.
Food for Thought was developed by Leah Kaplan, Elodie Currier, Mohammed Omar, and Ornella Tchoumie based on ethics discussions and simulations during the 2023 FASPE Business, Law, and Design and Technology Fellowship trip. The simulation’s structure is inspired in part by the Mercury Game, a sustainability role playing exercise developed by Henrick Sellin and Noelle Eckley Sellin in conjunction with the Harvard University Program on Negotiation, and is influenced by THIMUN and North American international relations simulations.
Henrick Selin and Noelle Eckley Selin, Mercury Stories: Understanding Sustainability through a Volatile Element, MIT Press (2020).
Jeffrey A Tucker, Poke and Sniff: A Lesson from 1906, Brownstone Institute (June 29, 2022), https://brownstone.org/articles/poke-and-sniff-a-lesson-from-1906/ Doug Hamilton, The Inspection System - What Is HACCP?, PBS (2002), https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/evaluating/haccp.html
Centers for Disease Control, E. coli (Escherichia coli) - Questions and Answers, CDC (last visited June 22, 2023), https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/general/index.html
Ted Genoways, Close to the Bone: The Fight Over Transparency in the Meat Industry, New York Times Magazine (Oct. 5, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/09/magazine/meatindustry-transparency-fight.html?_r=0
Madlen Davies and Andrew Wasley, Blowing the Whistle on the Meat Industry, Bureau of Investigative Journalism (Set. 19, 2017), https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2017-09-19/blowing-thewhistle-on-the-meat-industry
Recommended Associated Reading (Law)
Supreme Beef Processors, Inc. v. USDA, 275 F.3d 432 (5th Cir. 2001) and Doug Hamilton, Supreme Beef v. USDA, PBS (2002), https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/evaluating/supremebeef.html.