In recent months the major food companies have been trying hard to convince Americans that they feel the pain of our expanding waistlines, especially when it comes to kids. Kraft announced it would no longer market Oreos to younger children, McDonald’s promoted itself as a salad producer and Coca-Cola said it won’t advertise to kids under 12. But behind the scenes it’s hardball as usual, with the junk food giants pushing the Bush Administration to defend their interests. The recent conflict over what America eats, and the way the government promotes food, is a disturbing example of how in Bush’s America corporate interests trump public health, public opinion and plain old common sense.
The latest salvo in the war on added sugar and fat came July 14- 15, when the Federal Trade Commission held hearings on childhood obesity and food marketing. Despite the fanfare, industry had no cause for concern; FTC chair Deborah Majoras had declared beforehand that the commission will do absolutely nothing to stop the rising flood of junk food advertising to children. In June the Department of Agriculture denied a request from our group Commercial Alert to enforce existing rules forbidding mealtime sales in school cafeterias of “foods of minimal nutritional value”–i.e., junk foods and soda pop. The department admitted that it didn’t know whether schools are complying with the rules, but, frankly, it doesn’t give a damn. “At this time, we do not intend to undertake the activities or measures recommended in your petition,” wrote Stanley Garnett, head of the USDA’s Child Nutrition Division.
Conflict about junk food has intensified since late 2001, when a Surgeon General’s report called obesity an “epidemic.” Since that time, the White House has repeatedly weighed in on the side of Big Food. It worked hard to weaken the World Health Organization’s global anti-obesity strategy and went so far as to question the scientific basis for “the linking of fruit and vegetable consumption to decreased risk of obesity and diabetes.” Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson–then our nation’s top public-health officer–even told members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association to “‘go on the offensive’ against critics blaming the food industry for obesity,” according to a November 12, 2002, GMA news release.
Last year, during the reauthorization of the children’s nutrition programs, Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois attempted to insulate the government’s nutrition guidelines from the intense industry pressure that has warped the process to date. He proposed a modest amendment to move the guidelines from the USDA to the comparatively more independent Institute of Medicine. The food industry, alarmed about the switch, secured a number of meetings at the White House to get it to exert pressure on Fitzgerald. One irony of this fight was that the key industry lobbying came from the American Dietetic Association, described by one Congressional staffer as a “front for the food groups.” Fitzgerald held firm but didn’t succeed in enacting his amendment before he left Congress last year.
By that time the industry’s lobbying effort had borne fruit, or perhaps more accurately, unhealthy alternatives to fruit. The new federal guidelines no longer contain a recommendation for sugar intake, although they do tell people to eat foods with few added sugars. The redesigned icon for the guidelines, created by a company that does extensive work for the junk food industry, shows no food, only a person climbing stairs.