Archive for the tag “big food”

Prop 37 Fails: Why We Can’t Rely on Policy to Change Our Food System

On Tuesday, Californians voted on Proposition 37, which if passed, would have required the mandatory labeling of genetically-modified foods (GMOs). Ultimately, the proposition failed by a relatively narrow margin: 46.9 percent to 53.1 percent. This indicates that close to half of all California voters (or more than four million people) would like GMOs labeled and greater transparency on the part of the food industry. As for those who voted no, many were likely swayed by the aggressive marketing (read: propaganda) efforts of the Big Food companies that poured more than $45 million dollars into the “No on 37” campaign.

According to public health lawyer Michele Simon, Big Food companies like Monsanto, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, Nestle, and Kraft, which donated funds to “No on 37” engaged in lying, scare tactics, misrepresentation, and various dirty tricks to protect their profits and keep California voters uninformed about their food choices.

None of this should surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the power that Big Food corporations wield and the deception they employ to encourage consumers to buy products that are causing harm to their health, the environment and their communities.

The problem with the tactic employed by proponents of Prop 37 is that the food movement attempted to directly confront Big Food in a legislative, policy-based battle. Prop 37 proponents worked in the arena that Big Food controls. Our governmental food agencies are strongly influenced by Big Ag and Big Food through lobbying and PAC donations. As Americans, we function under a state of corporate socialism and in no situation is this more apparent than when it comes to our food.

Engaging a government with deep ties to Big Food was a valiant and courageous effort, but the proposition’s failure shows that the food movement should rely more on itself and less on the government. This is the same government that appointed former head of public policy at Monsanto, Michael Taylor, as deputy commissioner of foods at the FDA. This is also the same government that continually hands out subsidies to the producers of the largest commodity crops like corn and soy, which are predominately (upwards of 90 percent) GMO. The federal government also determines the content of school lunches across the country and exhibited its allegiance to Big Food corporations when Congress voted to keep the designation of pizza as a vegetable in school meals — much to the pleasure of Big Food companies like ConAgra and Schwan’s, which manufacture and sell these products to schools.

Tom Philpot pointed out recently that if that food movement wants to make this bold of a move, it had better be ready for a fight. Or put more pithily, Philpot quotes Omar of The Wire, “‘Come at the king, you best not miss.'”

The real answer to usurping power from corporations like Monsanto, Kraft and Coca-cola lies in navigating terrain these corporations aren’t already deeply entrenched in. The “Yes on Prop 37” campaign raised nine million dollars to get its message out but was outspent fivefold by Big Food. The food movement learned a valuable lesson in the failure of Prop 37: We can’t outspend Big Food and we can’t out campaign them — but we can outsmart them.

This is precisely why the food movement should be operating with more stealth, savvy and direct-action style engagement. One example of this and an immediate solution to the lack of labeling on GMO foods is for consumers to label foods themselves (visit labelityourself.com). This site provides ready-made warning labels for GMO foods and advocates for guerrilla-style tactics. “Label It Yourself is a decentralized, autonomous grassroots campaign born out of our broken food system,” according to the site. “We have been asking our government to label food products so we can make educated decisions about what we eat. The government has ignored our requests and so we are taking matters into our own hands.”

Mandating the labeling of GMOs in California would have been an enormous victory for the food movement but the fact that Prop 37 failed indicates that we need to speak louder and with more ferocity. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it has become abundantly clear that time is of the essence. Big Ag is the second largest contributor to climate change and it accounts for roughly a third of emissions globally. We can’t wait to be saved from the devastation that climate change is bringing to our communities.

Localizing our food supply and minimizing the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides presents a viable alternative to Big Ag’s devastating forms of food production and has the potential to create truly sustainable and resilient communities. But let’s not wait for legislation or for the government to cut ties with Big Food — let’s cut those ties ourselves as we develop, build, and connect the localized food communities that are forming all over the country. We can create an alternative food infrastructure. It’s time for the “food movement” in its myriad and infinite permutations, to coalesce into a force to be reckoned with. This didn’t happen with Prop 37 or a legislative battle but it can be done. What are we waiting for?

Written by Kristin Wartman and Erika Lade, also published on The Huffington Post

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Downsizing Soda: A Drop in the Bucket

The controversy surrounding New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent plan to ban sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces ranges from praise for taking on “America’s expanding waistline” to deriding him as a “nanny” for infringing on our personal choices and freedoms. But what’s largely missing from the debate is a real critique of the true villain in this battle—Big Food.

Those who favored the decision heralded Bloomberg: The Washington Post, in an editorial, writes, “The country need [sic] innovative leaders with a similar determination to take on America’s expanding waistline.” Frank Bruni writes in The New York Times, “Cry all you want about a nanny state, but as a city and a nation we’ve gorged and guzzled past the point where a gentle nudge toward roughage suffices. We need a weight watcher willing to mete out some stricter discipline.”

Those who feel our ability to buy a 32-ounce container of Coca-Cola has become the stand-in for civil liberties, such as the Center for Consumer Freedom, placed an ad in New York City newspapers, featuring Bloomberg as a “nanny” with a tagline that reads: “You only thought you lived in the land of the free.” Jon Stewart did a bit last Thursday lamenting the fact that he agreed with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who said Bloomberg was taking away our personal freedoms. And a New York Times editorial claimed the Mayor was overreaching, writing: “[T]oo much nannying with a ban might well cause people to tune out.”

In the meantime, Big Food still has free reign to produce and market harmful products with virtually no regulation or oversight. So far, the government has been incredibly weak on regulating food producers and advertisements. Last year, the Obama administration proposed voluntary guidelines for the types of food advertised to children. The guidelines were extremely modest, allowing for two-thirds of processed foods to remain unchanged and placed mostly insignificant caps on the allowance of sugar, fat, and sodium in products marketed to kids. Even these voluntary guidelines were called “unworkable and unrealistic” by one prominent industry group.

This is not the case in Europe. In 2007, the French government ordered all food advertisements to carry warning labels telling consumers to stop snacking, exercise, and eat more fruits and vegetables. These warning labels are found in advertisements on television, radio, billboards, and the Internet for all processed, sweetened or salted food and drinks. Other European countries have taken similar measures. In Sweden and Norway, all food and beverage advertising to children is forbidden. In Ireland, there is a ban on TV ads for candy and fast food and the ban prohibits using celebrities and sports stars to promote junk food to kids. According to Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bebe, snacking is generally discouraged in France and children eat three meals a day with one small snack around four in the afternoon.

Regulations like those in Europe are the kind that could help to encourage new cultural norms around food in this country—and they don’t target the consumer by banning or taxing particular foods but rather they force corporations to label their unhealthy products and abide by advertising regulation.

Professor and author of Weighing In, Julie Guthman, had this to say about the ban: “Ultimately, I would prefer to see regulation at the point of production. If we as a polity think that sugary drinks are detrimental to public health, we shouldn’t allow them to be produced,” she said in an e-mail. This would surely be a more radical solution since it would place the burden on the corporations rather than the consumer. Guthman said the ban is a better idea than a soda tax because, “A regressive soda tax punishes those who have the least ability to pay.” But she’s weary of the ban since it still targets consumers and  “focuses on the size of the drink which would seem to suggest that individual consumers can’t make good decisions. That is terribly paternalistic,” Guthman said.

The idea of a super-size soda ban is a broader variation of Bloomberg’s proposed plan last year to disallow the purchase of soda with food stamps. Critics of this initiative felt it was also paternalistic and stigmatized the poor who would not be able shop like other consumers. The difference with the current soda ban is that all New Yorkers would be affected and it is here that the ban may potentially bring benefit by creating new cultural norms around food and beverage choice.

A 2010 study completed by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that the barrage of fast food advertising makes kids think processed, junk foods are “normal and expected.” The same can surely be said for the increase in portion sizes. As long it is “normal” and culturally accepted to drink a 20, 32 or 64-ounce soda along with that burger and fries people will continue to do so.

As Ronald Bayer, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia put it in The New York Times, “The behaviors that harm our collective health are not, by and large, the result of bad or foolish individual choices. These “bad habits” are shaped by our culture, social arrangements and commercial interests.”

Ultimately, this ban may prove ineffectual since consumers will still be able to buy the equivalent of the larger size sodas in other ways, like buying two bottles or going to restaurants where refills are free. And of course, sodas are not the only problem when it comes to our unhealthful diets.

Mayor Bloomberg is brave to go head-to-head with Big Food by limiting portion size and trying to create a new norm but this tactic might further distract from the underlying problem of our virtually unregulated toxic and super-sized food supply. If nothing else, the proposed ban highlights the deeply complex and troubling conundrum that our current food system presents. Something clearly must be done—it just seems that regulating and curtailing the powers of Big Food would be a better place to focus our attention rather than merely capping the portion size for one of many sugary, addictive, non-nutritious substances at our never-ending disposal.

Paula Deen: From Big Food to Big Pharma

Paula Deen’s public admission that she has Type 2 diabetes and her follow-up announcement that she is also a paid spokesperson for the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, and its diabetes drug, Victoza, has sparked an interesting debate about the deeper issues surrounding our food system—especially the impact it has on the many people diagnosed with diabetes. And according to Deen’s comments on the Today show, she implies to her millions of fans, that the primary ways to deal with this largely diet-related disease are through personal responsibility and pharmaceuticals.

Indeed, when Al Roker, asks her if she is going to change the way she eats and the foods she cooks, Deen says, “Honey, I’m your cook, I’m not your doctor. You are going to have to be responsible for yourself.” Evading the question, Deen puts the onus back on the individual to decide what foods to eat or not, despite the fact that she promotes unhealthful and processed foods on TV. The one comment she does make about food choice is “moderation,” one of the most meaningless and confusing bits of nutrition advice. In fact, this is what the industry giants often use as their defense for harmful, unhealthful foods.

Personal responsibility and consumer choice are solutions heralded by conservatives and liberals alike—the idea being that ultimately good health comes down to what we choose to buy and eat. But it’s not that simple.

There are three main issues when it comes to the myth of personal responsibility about food choice and they get at the root of our nation’s health crisis: The public’s confusion about nutrition; the lack of time and knowledge about real home cooking; and the promotion of quick fixes like drugs, diet foods, and fads in lieu of addressing underlying causes. The Paula Deen diabetes story manages to hit on every single one of these issues.

Americans suffer from nutrition confusion, thanks to an array of conflicting and often inaccurate public health messages, misleading labels and claims on packaging, and a lack of nutrition knowledge by many doctors, dietitians, and other health care providers.

Deen’s cooking, and now her public diabetes announcement, only adds to this confusion. During the Today show interview she repeatedly mentions the amount of fat in her recipes, as do many in the media reporting on the story. “For 10 years, wielding slabs of cream cheese and mounds of mayonnaise,” a New York Times article begins, “Paula Deen has become television’s self-crowned queen of Southern cuisine.”

But real, unprocessed cream cheese and mayonnaise are not the problem. The issue that mainstream media has largely overlooked is that Deen uses the processed, packaged versions of these foods, which are full of chemicals, additives and trans-fats. Actual home cooking would require whipping these foods up herself in her kitchen using real ingredients. And that is the real story behind Deen’s diabetes diagnosis: Her health problems are largely due to her reliance on packaged, processed foods that are the foundation for many of her recipes.

Even though her cooking show is called Paula’s Home Cooking, there’s a lot going on in her kitchen that is as far removed from home cooking as you can get. Many of her recipes include “ingredients” like Krispy Kreme doughnuts, biscuit mixes, cans of mushroom soup, and sour-cream-and-onion flavored potato chips. This is processed food cooking, not home cooking.

Heaping the blame on all the “fat” she cooks with only serves to confuse the public further. A New York Daily News article also cites fat as one of the main culprits in Deen’s cooking and her diet. But the most recent research indicates that when it comes to diabetes, fat is not the problem. The problem foods are sugar, refined white flour, chemical additives, artificial sweeteners and flavors, trans-fats, and the various other chemicals and additives found in the processed foods that abound in Deen’s recipes.

Now Deen is pushing the idea that taking medicine is the real solution to diabetes. On the Today show, she says, “Here’s what I want to get across to people, I want them to first start by going to their doctor and asking to be tested for diabetes. Get on a program that works for you. I’m amazed at the people out there that are aware they’re diabetic but they’re not taking their medicine.”

According to Deen, the reason she waited three years to go public with her diagnosis was because she didn’t have anything to give her fans. “I could have walked out and said, ‘Hey ya’ll, I have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.’ I had nothing to give to my fellow friends out there. I wanted to bring something to the table when I came forward.” So what is she bringing to the table? A sales pitch for a diabetes drug that costs $500 per month and has some seriously troubling side effects, including thyroid cancer, as Tom Philpott reports.

Just think of the kind of influence she could have wielded had she come out with a new cooking show that focused on using fresh, real food ingredients that cut way back on sugar and refined carbohydrates. In fact, if she had done so and eaten this way for the past three years she might have reversed her own diabetes diagnosis, which is entirely possible given the right diet.

But instead, Deen is getting paid to leave that task to a drug company. This isn’t her first corporate sponsorship (here she peddles Smithfield ham) and I doubt it will be her last. Diabetic and diet foods can’t be far behind in products she’ll attach to her name.

Alas, we can’t fairly discuss personal responsibility without taking into account the under-regulated advertising industry that pushes cheap, convenient, and processed foods on an overworked and cash-strapped population. Add to this the diminishing knowledge on how to shop for, cook, and prepare foods from scratch and we have a serious problem.

As Deen now joins the 25.8 million other Americans suffering with diabetes, she “brings to the table” the ideas of moderation, personal responsibility, and the drug Victoza as the solutions. She could do so much more with all the power she wields.

Anthony Bourdain put it squarely when he said of Deen, “If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us.” And this was before her diabetes announcement. Bourdain has also said that Deen is the “worst, most dangerous person to America.” He might have a point.

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