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Food Giants' Endless Appetite for Profit

An interview with author Michele Simon, whose latest book covers the ruthless manner in which corporate giants market junk foods to boost their profit margin.
 
 
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In recent years, the United States of America has morphed into what one writer calls "the United States of Arugula." The rise of the celebrity chef, of the 24-hour Food Network, and Martha Stewart's do-it-all perfectionism has brought on a similar yearning for all things gourmet.

During the same time, a number of notable books have shined a light on the darker side of our new food obsession. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Peter Singer's The Way We Eat, among many others, showcase how the decisions we make at grocery stores or restaurants affect us and the planet. But very few books address the policies that shape the food supply and influence eating habits in this country, policies that make some foods cheap or expensive, that bring us "fresh" asparagus from Argentina, and that arguably have led to our current epidemics of obesity, diabetes and other health problems brought on by our food choices.

Michele Simon's new book, Appetite for Profit aims to address this oversight. Simon is the founder of the Center for Informed Food Choices and Research and Policy Director for the Marin Institute, and Appetite for Profit helps illuminate the many ways that food companies -- from General Mills to McDonald's -- market the unhealthiest foods to boost their profit margin and fight any attempts to reverse this trend. AlterNet spoke with Simon over the phone earlier this month.

Matthew Wheeland: First off, tell me how the book came about. You've obviously been working on these topics for a long time, so why now?

Michele Simon: I've been following the food industry and government policy for many years, but, really, in the last couple years the national debate has been heating up around the obesity epidemic and other topics.

Where I got the idea for the book was at a conference in 2004 hosted by ABC News and Time magazine. It was called "The Summit on Obesity" and they said they were bringing together 500 of the nation's top experts to forge solutions to the obesity epidemic. Giving the keynote address was former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, a man who knew nothing about public health, but he was giving his cheerleading speech about how we all "had to spread the gospel of personal responsibility," which sent chills down my spine. [Laughs]

He then went on to talk about all the major food companies and what a great job they were doing in coming on board, and one of the companies he mentioned was Coca-Cola. And Thompson said something to the effect that Coca-Cola has stopped marketing in schools, which I knew wasn't true.

Then a funny thing happened: He took questions from the audience. A man got up from the audience by the name of Charles Brown, who is a representative from Indiana. He wanted to know that if Coca-Cola was such a responsible company, then why had they sent five lobbyists to his state capital to kill his piece of legislation that would have required just half of all beverages sold in the school vending machines to be healthy? Well, Tommy Thompson didn't have a very good answer to that, and he just kinda stammered and said, "Well, I don't know anything about that, but if it happened again, you call me."

So that was kind of my eureka moment, because I realized that Representative Brown probably wasn't the only politician finding himself on the receiving end of this kind of lobbying, and I realized there was this kind of dichotomy, this hypocrisy where, on one hand, you had major food companies claiming to be part of the solution and meeting with these top government health officials to say that they were on board, but, on the ground in legislatures, where some policies were trying to get passed, it was a totally different story, or basically business as usual.

I felt that this needed to be exposed, so I put it together with a lot of other examples of hypocrisy and responses to it, so the book is basically an expose of the various ways that major food companies are responding to the criticism that's been leveled against them -- and rightly so -- and then basically tearing apart their claims and exposing the truth behind it and showing how it is just a lot of PR.

MW: You mentioned the personal responsibility argument, essentially that it's not up to producers to make entirely healthy foods -- that people should be responsible for knowing what they're eating so that they can get a healthy diet that also includes some of these foods that they're making also other foods. What's your take on what's wrong with the personal responsibility argument -- isn't there something to be said for the decisions we make?

MS: Those of us in public health who are working on nutrition policy don't say that there's no role for personal responsibility, but the food companies like to say that the entire burden rests upon the individual's shoulders. But how can we even begin to talk about making better food choices when the food industry is spending $36 billion a year to market the wrong kind of food? It seems rather disingenuous for a company to spend that kind of money and then turn around and blame the consumer when that marketing actually works.

And if we're talking about getting people to make more informed, more educated choices, then why is the restaurant industry dead set against requiring nutrition labeling in chain restaurants, a policy that advocates have been trying to get passed at the federal level and now also at state and local levels?

If the food companies were serious -- and we're talking about the restaurants now because we do have nutrition facts labeling on packaged foods -- the restaurant industry has gotten itself exempted from that legal requirement, and obviously they're afraid of consumers getting their hands on that basic nutrition information about such items as a Big Mac.

Maybe if people knew that, and I don't know the exact number off the top of my head, but that there's 700-plus calories in a Big Mac [editor's note: McDonald's has recently begun added nutritional information for its foods, but it leaves much to be desired], then they might choose something else, and that would harm their bottom line.

And finally, we have a tremendous problem in this country when it comes to access to healthy foods. We can't assume that everyone has the same ability to make healthy food choices, when in many neighborhoods in this country the only choice is between Burger King and McDonald's, or the corner liquor store where the choices range from Doritos to Fritos. So we can't talk about personal responsibility and making better choices unless we look at this issue from a social justice standpoint, and that's really where policy comes in to play.

The question is: Why is it that the default for so many people is to eat unhealthy? Why is the easier option, the more accessible option, the cheaper option, to eat unhealthy foods? We need to flip that situation, and that is a function of policy-making. There are many ways the government's policies are undermining peoples' ability to make healthy choices, and similarly, in many ways, the food industry itself is obstructing the ability of consumers to make healthier choices.

MW: Along those lines, there's been no shortage of food books in the last few years, some of which are explicitly about the politics of what we eat, but with the exception of your book and Marion Nestle's Food Politics, I can't think of any that talk about the policies that lead to these foods and how we ended up getting where we are. Why do you think that is?

MS: Well, for decades in this country we've had a focus on food that's been largely individualized, so the whole diet focus, the whole nutrition focus are both aimed at individual choices. Part of it is that there's a lot of academic nutrition research going on, but much of it is reductionist and scientific, not looking at the bigger, holistic picture of nutrition and the politics behind it.

Marion Nestle to her credit was a real trailblazer in this field, and for years before it became popular, she was writing about these issues. It took her book in 2002 to really popularize it and get it onto the public's radar screen, and since then we have had greater discussion about it.

But we look at almost every issue in this country too much through an individualized lens. Take even the major problems with the environment, where we tend to look at solutions in terms of personal driving behavior instead of looking at the oil industry and how they have engineered highways to be car-friendly and things like that.

And when we talk about nutrition, too often the approach is simply individual education, and I think the nutrition profession, in addition to the researchers, nutritional professionals and educators need to wake up and really take responsibility for a failed approach to good eating habits.

The good news, though, is that there is a movement now to look at food choices more in this environmental / policy way, and that is really critical. But I will say, even then, I don't think everyone is taking a hard enough look at the role of the food industry and the politics, but there is some shifting going on in that field to recognize that educating people one by one is not the way to go.

MW: It's easier, perhaps, to get people interested in the politics of their food because everyone eats, presumably every day, so you can get people to confront the topic on a daily basis. But when you start talking about policy -- on any front, but food policy is a perfect example -- it's such a knotted issue where there's no obvious root problem or place to begin.

I found that your take on advertising, and especially advertising to kids, was really effective because again, this is something that everybody sees countless times every day. Does this seem like a promising way to get people thinking about how these policies have come in to being?

MS: It's interesting because I've been doing a lot of radio interviews lately, and I find that when I talk to a lot of audiences, I still get a lot of push-back on the marketing and, in other words, that people are not quite seeing the power of marketing. Especially a lot of us who are more educated or live a little more privileged lives, shall we say, we don't want to admit that marketing is as powerful as it is.

MW: Sure, everybody believes that they're immune to the power of marketing.

MS: Exactly, which I just find hilarious, because the food industry doesn't spend $36 billion without expecting a damn good return on their investment, and they don't do that without putting all of the research dollars in place to make sure that that money is spent as wisely as possible.

I think the emerging strategy to focus on children is a good one, because it's easier for people to get outraged and wrap their heads around the problem of targeting young children with marketing messages. Obviously it's important to worry about how adults are targeted, too, and we shouldn't give up on adults while we're worrying about children, but I'm certainly persuaded that children should be a real focal point.

MW: And it makes sense also because it's a more contained focus, and as you talk about a lot in the book, this is where a lot of eating habits get developed, so if you can start to develop good habits in childhood, it makes a big difference in the long term.

MS: Prevention is key, no question about it. It's interesting to me that so many people have a hard time understanding the power of marketing. Marketing to me is a good way to point out the problems because when I talk about regulating, people get very nervous about the hand of Big Brother taking away your god-given right to a Big Mac.

I don't have a problem if you want to eat at McDonald's, but let's look at the marketing messages and make sure that the companies aren't exploiting children and that in general they're not marketing deceptively. The book is many examples of what I see as deceptive marketing, and that's also why I think there's plenty of room in there to look at what's going on.

MW: In terms of hope for progress on these issues, do you think that the change in Congress might make a difference?

MS: Well, up to now we've sadly only had one champion in Congress for children, and that's Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa. Although he may not be so good on the agriculture side, because he hails from Iowa he's by necessity a bit beholden to the corn interests there. But, nonetheless, he has been a champion for children and has been very vocal about the problem of food marketing to children. My hope is that with this shift in power he might find some friends, and that perhaps he can push a couple of bills through.

But what I most hope for is an upcoming school-food bill that would require the Department of Agriculture to update the nutrition standards around what's called "competitive foods," like soda and junk food, or everything that's sold outside the school meal program, which competes with the meal program. I have some hope for that bill passing, but I don't have a whole lot of hope for what will come out the other end because we have to rely on the USDA to promulgate regulations, and that historically is a process that's not gone very well -- obviously, given the fact that the administration is still Republican.

I think the new Congress will give us some opportunities for dialogue and debate around these issues, but I'm not that hopeful that they're going to wave a magic wand and make the problem go away.

The other policy I want to discuss is the Farm Bill. As a caveat, I'll say that it's not my main area of expertise, but what I do know is that we have an opportunity with the 2007 revision of the Farm Bill. It's important because that's where we set our priorities around agriculture and food production.

There's something like $25 billion worth of food subsidies in that piece of legislation, and most of the money tends to go to a very small number of crops, including soybeans, corn and wheat. All three of these crops basically perpetuate the unhealthy diet of Americans because specifically soy and corn are fed to cattle. ... That is how we get factory-farmed cattle, which is what keeps Americans eating a meat-centered diet -- basically what keeps meat prices so cheap.

Of course, a by-product of this corn production is high fructose corn syrup. Michael Pollan eloquently describes in his book how the entire food system has been "cornified," as he says. And to me it's insane that we are using our taxpayer dollars to subsidize this massive corn-growing industry, which does not benefit, and in fact undermines, the public health.

The Farm Bill, then, represents an opportunity to change that. Of course, there are many big-moneyed interests that make sure that things don't change, that the system gets perpetuated every time the Farm Bill comes around, and this is probably going to be no exception, but this time there are groups across the country trying to organize and change it.

If we're trying to affect farm policy that interests folks, I encourage them to get in touch with one of the many food policy and environmental groups out there. There are many aspects of the Farm Bill that are important, and it's also an education opportunity for people who don't understand that every piece of food that you pick up from the supermarket has some kind of policy connected to it, and this is very critical for people to get -- the Farm Bill isn't something that only concerns farmers, it really concerns all of us because everybody eats.

MW: Anything else especially promising in the next year or two that we should be watching out for?

MS: I think we're going to continue to see some battles in state legislatures, and although I'm not sure how hopeful I am about the results, it's certainly a trend we're going to keep seeing. But I always like to think that the movement in schools is a sign of hope. The fact that so many people have gotten the energy to try to make changes in their local schools is encouraging, and I always urge people to get involved not just in schools but in their communities.

To me the strongest ray of hope is in the enormous number of programs that are going forward around what I call alternative food systems, the whole sustainable agriculture movement, the local foods movement -- this idea of really creating sustainable, local alternatives to the industrialized corporate food system. That's where I really take the most hope, and there are unbelievable numbers of people working on this.

I was in a conference in Vancouver last October for the Community Food Security Coalition's annual meeting, which was held in coordination with a sister organization based in Canada. There were a thousand people at this conference, all working on trying to get farmers' markets in, community supported agriculture, community gardens, you name a big idea and it was being worked on by folks at this conference.

These movements are making a lot of headway and positive changes, and they're making a big difference for a lot of people, especially in neighborhoods that are so desperate for truly healthy foods. For people who want to get involved in those kinds of projects, there is no shortage of opportunities for them.

Matthew Wheeland is a former editor at AlterNet. He is currently managing editor at GreenBiz.com and lives in Berkeley, Calif.