Do you really know what you’re eating?

Obesity: the scourge of our modern societies. Not to talk about food, but this word has a pretty bitter taste doesn’t it? Yes, the facts can’t be lying at this point: The Americans do look like all the science-fi, futuristic parodies made of them (yes, even Disney gave us a subtle hint in the animated movie Wall-E!). Two out of three of them are considered to be either overweight or obese.

And as the « obesity epidemic » phrase started to make its way trough public awareness, the question that remains was: what is its cause, and how did we get it?

The problem isn’t new; it just became too substantial to be ignored. And the first concerns were raised at the very beginning of the epidemic. In 1977, the Mc Govern report of the Senate Special Committee on Nutrition was looking into the connexion between heart disease and the type of diet people’s had. And that’s when the experts on nutrition warned the Senator Mc Govern obesity would be the number one for of malnutrition in the US. The Committee eventually issued the first dietary goals in the US. That’s where the Food Industry retaliated: the egg, sugar, dairy and beef associations united and rejected the report, demanding a rewrite. Unluckily for us, the goals were indeed revised. And the industry came out of this with a brand new market: the low-fat products. But there was still an issue: how to make it taste as good without the fat? The response was added sugar. And what is the main cause for chronic metabolic diseases? « sugar » responded the World Health Organization in in 2002 (Technical Report Series, No. 916). What’s terrifying is that it is added in 80% of all the food items.

So why? Why isn’t the food market more regulated you may ask? Well, it has been a debate for almost half a century now.

Who are the good guys really?

On the surface, one would think that the food industry is actually trying to do the right thing. Whether it’s about obesity prevention, gym classes financing or support to Michelle Obama’s campaign “Let’s move”, the biggest companies seem to take part in many programs, and above, they want us to know how involved they are. 
“They very visibly donate to schools and non profit groups. And they always argue that the answer is exercise, exercise, exercise — even when they are defending high sugar (Coke) or high fat (McDonalds) food” says James Morone, John Hazen White Professor of Political Science and author of « Obesity, Litigation, and the New Politics of Public Health ».

To prevent public opinion from turning against them, the food industry even accepted to take self-regulation measures such as the limitation of the size of beverages at school, a smart choices food labelling or restrictions on advertisement for young children. “The food industry is very, very savvy about blunting the threats to its image” and to do so, the companies have developed a very efficient strategy to construct a positive image.

Anything could work! So don’t be surprised to learn that the CEOs of many companies such as Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s, Nestle USA, Mars or Kellogg’s have recently written an open letter to denounce the impact of climate change on farmers and agriculture. An executive from the Unilever firm, Tom Langan, very seriously said that even if the company reached all of its sustainability goals, “it won’t make a difference by itself”. He even severely added “we need governments to be involved”, to prove that if things aren’t moving, Congress is the one to blame! – Not a glimpse of hypocrisy behind these words of course. In fact, the Food industry has for years emphasized its involvement in environment programs, whether it’s to develop renewable energies or to stop deforestation. How noble of them, you’ll tell me. Yet, we’re still waiting for them to back up Obama’s Clean Power Plan or to speak up for any climate action in the US Chamber of Commerce, where they’ve been M.I.A. on the environment’s supporters side.

What is hiding behind the cover?

In spite of this attempt to look good, the reality is quite a different picture. If you scratch a little, you’ll see the relentless pressure over the legislative system. The lobbies are very active in pressuring the lawmakers. The annual expenditures for food lobbies have tended to surge since the 1990s. Food firms spend a lot of money so as to support the different lobbies. And there are plenty of powerful organizations. Take The National Restaurant Association, for instance, its gathers more than 300,000 restaurants, and they all agree to not provide any nutritive information. The Center for Consumer which opposes the healthy food. The American Council for Fitness and Nutrition is backed by Coca Cola or Kraft Foods and regularly publishes articles promoting the industry.

Even tough there are many interest groups, a certain type of control is applied. Indeed, lobbies have to disclose their funding. It follows the American wishful thinking which considers that lobbies exist in any event so that we’d better control them in order to have more transparency. Nevertheless, theory remains theory and practice rarely resembles it: lobbies are often accused of playing down the amount.

Lobbies have been playing this game a long time now, they perfected the process. They support scientist financially (crazy how expensive science is!) and in return the science support them, by giving speeches or writing reports. They also have a powerful hand on the organization of the political life behind the media. Discretion on the right subject is much-needed.

Now let’s talk rhetoric: their critics of the health advocates are blatant and are backed by a very organized network. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is a shocking case in point. The GMA is the main lobby for food industry. The organization is in permanent conflict with both the states and the Federal Government about the reduction of chocolate and drink distributors at school. Of course they also lead actions on other nutritional matters.

The GMA succeeded in being a leadership figure, a communicating industry’s approach, manufacturer-retailer collaboration and scientific and regulatory affairs expertise at the same time. What a performance you may say! Cooperating with the legislators and the experts enables them to play a role in the political landscape. They manipulate the population too with a huge communication complex across the country.

So, now… Does the word « corruption » comes to mind? There are no denying lobbies have infiltrated power and without you even knowing, they aim just the same at infiltrating your home, your plate, your fridge… and your mind.

What about the consequences of such an organized and bold process?

As expected, they create a dark political landscape. Congress members are obviously convinced or at least influenced. Both chambers have become a puppet in the industry’s hands. As a matter of fact, their decisions and the implemented legislation are biased in their favor. And yet, they try to convince us that they are really interesting in changing laws. Well, that’s very touching, isn’t it? In reality, they make a pretense of reforming legislation but these reforms are superficial. They are actually not tough-minded progress! They won’t change the current situation in any way. They only are drawing our attention away from the real issues! But don’t fall into the trap. Although some Congress members would like to improve legislation, their illusions quickly vanished. They realized how impossible it is owing to a frozen context. Moreover, they are pressured over. That’s the reason why they give up bringing health in our country without being aware of changing their behavior and their ideas. Thus, legislation evolves very slowly due to an obstructed legislative branch, especially with the checks and balances system. There is plethora of ways to block a legislation such as filibuster, refusing that a law comes to the floor or changing the rules for consideration on the floor (open rules increase the opportunity of amendment). Needless to say passing a law is nothing short of a miracle nowadays. Even if the majority is not influenced, the rare ones can easily introduce hurdles. Legislation fails to the extent that it does not produce the changes the current issues require. In the end, food industry always finds a means of keeping the power and limiting the magnitude of law.

That’s why, when we asked John Morone if he believed that an efficient legislation about health policy could pass, he responded: “The American political system is literally not organized to permit efficient legislation. Over time, the American political system has become quite chaotic with many veto points in which people can block or change legislation. This is very, very different from the French system which is less easily penetrated by interest groups. So the answer is simple: under normal circumstances, efficient legislation in the US is not possible. Crazy but true. »

As soon as an action is taken, if the food industry happens to fail to prevent the passing of legislation, at the very least the companies always end up twisting it to their own advantage. Take the example of Obama’s MyPlate program. Built on the British “Eat Well Plate”, the idea was to replace the old pyramid of the recommended daily food by a plate, which is way more visual and practical. The operation received a broad consensus and it finally looked like an objective measure on people’s nutritive needs. However, make no mistake about it: the food industry managed to twist it, again. Indeed, despite the release of many studies showing that dairy products may cause health issues, they’re still shown as “indispensable” in the plate, thanks to the lobbies, which even succeeded in being on the main page of the program as a food to eat in bigger quantity.

This can be explained very simply: The Center for Nutrition Policy and V Promotion (CNPP), created in 1994 within the US Department of Agriculture to define the country’s nutrition guidelines, is composed of more or less objective nutritionists, dietitians, economists and policy experts, but most importantly it is chaired by Robert Post who is a former researcher whom on behalf of the food industry contributed to create advertisement to influence children to eat high-fat foods. What a way to create an impartial and fair institutional process…

This is the way the food industry operates: by infiltrating lobbyists in federal department, they influence Congress at his deepest core. By surreptitiously modifying any new legislation, they prevent any action from potential whistleblowers. And by publicly testifying as part of the obesity prevention campaigns, they win over public opinion.

One major concern is food advertising, especially targeting children, because it’s shaping life-long habits. And yet again, when Congress tried to regulate food advertising, the response was always the same: it is an assault on free enterprise, free speech. The industry was opening a larger public debate, calling out the federal government a « Nanny state », intruding too much into the Americans lives, the kind of speech the media is very responsive to.

So, in 1977, with the first attempt first by the federal Trade Commission, broadcasters, advertising agencies and toy companies all banded together to prevent the Federal Trade Commission from regulating children television. Again, in 2004, facing the same critics, the industry is claiming it can police itself, just like the families can choose to eat whatever they feel like to. And the result? An increase of the advertisement of 60% between 2008 and 2010.

This may be their greatest victory yet: they shape from the cradle not only our habits, our life styles, but above all the perception we have of the industry. Young kids associate it with their schools because of the endorsement, and also with their favorite hero or celebrity. And food is everywhere, on every screen, every store, every mind all the time. We are not guilty of eating to much or exercising too little, we are guilty of turning a blind eye on who has the dirty hands.

Un article de Cézanne ROBIN, Alice SOLAVAGGIONE et Lucie BROYET

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