Michele Simon

The Government-Industry Conspiracy that Promotes Crap Food in School

People often ask me, “How does lobbying work?” Last week it was with fat and sugar, when the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) hosted its 32nd annual Capitol Hill Ice Cream Party. Some 6,000 bowls of ice cream were served up to Sen. Tom Harkin, Reps. Pete Sessions, Robert Aderholt, Jeff Denham, John Shimkus, Ron Kind and Lamar Smith, among others, according to Politico.

Schools are especially vulnerable to dairy industry influence. With the recent controversy over the sugar content of what the industry euphemistically calls flavored milk, marketers are desperate to maintain this lucrative market and captive audience. The USDA-supported milk checkoff program (fluid milk has a checkoff program separate from dairy products such as cheese and ice cream) promotes campaigns — such as Chocolate Milk Has Muscle and Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk — that tout the nutritional benefits of flavored milk. Milk checkoff educational materials and other forms of industry pressure have even been used to change the minds of some school officials who wanted to remove flavored milk.

Both the industry and government defend the dairy checkoff program by saying it’s paid for by farmers. While technically true, the federal government oversees and approves almost every aspect of the program. Far from being just a privately funded program, USDA employees attend checkoff meetings, monitor activities and are responsible for evaluation of the programs. The U.S. Supreme Court has even upheld the legality of the checkoff programs as “government speech,” finding that “the message ... is controlled by the federal government.”

Ironically, these funds are directly used to promote junk foods, which contribute to the diseases the federal government is allegedly trying to prevent. As Kiera Butler of Mother Jones points out in her recent coverage of my report, the USDA’s dairy checkoff program is in direct conflict with several federal nutritional tenets. For example, while the USDA says to “avoid oversized portions,” its checkoff program supports Taco Bell’s Cantina Double Steak Quesadilla, which has 750 calories and 29 grams of fat. The USDA also wisely recommends drinking beverages “without added sugars.” But its dairy checkoff program helped McDonald’s develop its McCafé Frappé Mocha, with 450 calories and an incredible 57 grams of sugar accounting for about half those calories. (The American Heart Association recommends (PDF) no more than 100 calories from added sugars per day for women and 150 for men.)

As a time when the nation is suffering from an epidemic of chronic disease due to poor diet, does it make sense for the federal government to tell Americans to avoid foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat while engaging in the promotion of those foods? The federal government should stop mandating industry fees that undermine public health and end the dairy checkoff program.

Parke Wilde, a professor and food economist at Tufts University puts it this way: “The meat and dairy industries can do what they like with their own money. The public power of taxation should be used for the public good.” He also calls on the government to stop undermining public health, writing that checkoff messaging “should serve our stated public-health goals at a time when health care costs are threatening to bankrupt the government.”

A USDA representative told Mother Jones that “any changes in USDA’s authority over these programs would have to come from Congress.” Great idea. Maybe our representatives can get to work on that, right after they finish their ice cream.

This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera America on July 2, 2014.

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Follow the Honey: 7 Ways Pesticide Companies Are Spinning the Bee Crisis

If you like to eat, then you should care about what’s happening to bees. Did you know that two-thirds of our food crops require pollination — the very foods that we rely on for healthy eating — such as apples, berries and almonds, just to name a few. That’s why the serious declines in bee populations are getting more attention, with entire campaigns devoted to saving bees.

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Call It Pop Or Soda, But San Francisco's Coming for Big Soda With New Bill

This article originally appeared at Eat Drink Politics, and is reprinted here with their permisison.

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Junk Food Lobby Targeting State Capitals Across the Country to Prevent GMO Labeling

In secret documents that I uncovered in November, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (aka food industry lobbyists) laid out its five-point plan for opposing the labeling of foods containing genetically-modified organisms or GMOs. First on the list: “To oppose all state efforts that would impose mandatory labels” including state legislation. With more than 20 states having introduced state bills to require GMO labeling, the junk food lobby has its work cut out for it. But they’ve wasted no time as the 2014 legislative session gets underway, starting with targeting the New Hampshire capital.

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How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children

Pop quiz: Who do you think funds the hundreds of Ronald McDonald Houses around the nation? McDonald’s right? Sort of, but not really. While McDonald’s gets 100 percent of the brand benefit from Ronald McDonald House Charities, the burger giant only provides about 20 percent of its funding globally. At the local level, it’s closer to ten percent, with some of that money coming from donation boxes at McDonald’s outlets, that is, from customers.

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Junk Food Lobby Forced to Disclose Secret Donors in Campaign to Stop GMO Labeling

Just a few weeks ago, attorneys for the No on 522 campaign were feeling rather smug when a lawsuit filed against them by a group called “Moms for Labeling” was dismissed. As I wrote last week, consumer class action attorney Knoll Lowney sued the No on 522 and the Washington DC-based Grocery Manufactures Association (lobbyists for major food corporations) for not disclosing the donors behind GMA’s $7 million-plus donation to stop I-522, which would require genetically-engineered foods to be labeled. The judge threw out that case on a technicality.

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Junk Food Lobbyists Sued for Money Laundering in Washington State

In the final weeks leading up to Election Day, the debate over measure I-522 in Washington State is getting even uglier. As I recently explained, the Grocery Manufacturer Association, the nation’s largest trade group for the processed food industry, has been flexing its muscle to oppose the labeling of genetically-engineered food, both at the federal and state levels. Now, a lawsuit brought by a non-profit called “Moms for Labeling” alleges that GMA crossed the line by not properly disclosing who is behind the whopping $7 million-plus the trade group has donated to the No on 522 campaign so far.

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Death Of the Happy Meal

A few weeks ago, USA Today announced: "Taco Bell will shock the fast-food industry on Tuesday by announcing plans to drop kids meals and toys at all of its U.S. restaurants.” CEO Greg Creed told the paper: “The future of Taco Bell is not about kids meals. This is about positioning the brand for Millennials."

Some were skeptical about the announcement, given that kids' meals only represent half of one percent of Taco Bell's overall sales. While increasing pressure on the fast food industry to stop marketing to children wasn't the main reason for the change, it's still a significant development.

That a large fast food company thought it could gain a public relations boost by showing off what amounted to a failed business strategy is a sure sign of success by children’s health advocates. Restaurant executives have heard the message loud and clear: Marketing junk food to children is a scourge on their industry and any move that distances your company from such negative PR is a good thing.

The move also leaves McDonald’s increasingly isolated in its steadfast refusal to change its ways. Taco Bell is not in fact the first or only company to abandon children as a target market. In 2011, Jack in the Box announced it was pulling toys from its kids’ meals, explaining to Reuters: "Our advertising and promotions have focused exclusively on the frequent fast-food customer, not children."

And this recent article from NBC News describes how, as fast food “grows up,” more chains are retiring old-fashioned, child-oriented mascots and themes for a more modern marketing approach. The article cites childhood obesity concerns as playing “a significant role” in this decision making. Also, mascots such as Ronald McDonald just don’t fit the modern world, particularly as more upscale food chains gain popularity. The article explains:

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Why the Center for Science in the Public Interest Is Wrong Not to Support Genetically Engineered Food Labeling

You may have noticed the impressive grassroots movement gathering steam lately over the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. Recently, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to enact a law to require such labels, and 26 other states have introduced similar bills this year. Millions of Americans are demanding more transparency in the food supply and our elected officials are finally responding, after decades of work by groups like Center for Food Safety (CFS). 

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Should We Be Calling on Industry to Market 'Healthy' Food to Children?

Last week at a childhood obesity conference, I participated in an important panel to discuss what has become a controversial strategy among some advocates for children’s health: calling on industry to market “healthy” food to children.

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Connecticut Makes History as First State to Pass GE Food Labeling Law

This week, Connecticut won the honor of becoming the first state to pass a law requiring genetically-engineered foods to be labeled. (The governor has indicated he will sign.) It was really only a matter of time. The disappointing defeat of Prop 37 last fall in California (thanks to a massive industry disinformation campaign) sparked a national movement that has resulted in labeling bills getting introduced in about half the states.

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10 Most Absurd Lies Told By McDonald's CEO

Last week at McDonald’s annual shareholder’s meeting, CEO Don Thompson got caught off-guard when a team of 15 advocates, led by Corporate Accountability International, descended upon corporate headquarters to question the fast food leader’s relentless exploitation of children and communities of color.

Leading the way was Tanya Fields, executive director of the BLK ProjeK and mother of four. In her dramatic statement, Fields described her neighborhood in the Bronx as a “food swamp filled with corner stores and fast food,” noting that with three outlets within walking distance of her home, “McDonald’s happens to be the biggest alligator in that swamp.” She concluded: “Sorry, but four apple slices in plastic packaging won’t cut it.”

McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson’s response was to ignore Fields altogether and instead give the usual cheerleading speech about all the great things his company was doing. Then he took questions, and the fun really began.

Here are the top 10 lies told by Don Thompson during the Q&A session:

In response to 9-year-old Hannah Robertson (read her statement):

1) “First off, we don’t sell junk food, Hannah.”

Where to even begin? A quick look at the menu belies that statement, while this “big breakfast” item packs more than 1,000 calories: half a day’s worth.

Thompson tried this spin more than once:

2) “We sell lots of fruits and veggies at McDonald’s and we sell side salads for a dollar on the dollar menu.”

In 2011, McDonald’s made a big deal about how it would automatically include apple slices in Happy Meals. Considering that McDonald’s is now the single largest purchaser of apples in the nation, that may qualify as “lots of fruit.” Then again, the company is also the single largest purchaser of both beef (a billion pounds a year) and potatoes. I suppose Thompson would count fries as a vegetable?

While it’s true McDonald’s sells a side salad on its dollar menu (one of 13 items), if you only have a one dollar to spend, what’s the likelihood you would choose a small salad over the 310-calorie “grilled onion cheddar burger”?

3) Claiming “chicken nugget Happy Meals and fat-free milk” are healthy.

According to the McDonald’s website, Chicken McNuggets contain roughly 30 ingredients, including: sodium phosphates, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate and calcium lactate.

The “fat-free milk” Thompson touted numerous times is actually chocolate milk, containing10 grams of added sugar, which as registered dietitian Andy Bellatti told me, is more than 75 percent of a day's worth for children ages 4-8 (per the American Heart Association’s guidelines). He added: “As it is, American children are consuming an exorbitant amount of sugar; no one should be encouraging sugary beverages simply because they contain calcium and vitamin D.”

Next, in response to a question from Corporate Accountability International about how McDonald’s is getting kicked out of hospitals over obvious concerns about the conflicting messages, Thompson claimed:

4) “Many hospitals have asked us to come back in or to never leave.”

Thompson must be forgetting about how the CEO of Truman Medical Center in Kansas City kicked McDonald’s out just last year, citing an “inconsistent message.” Perhaps Thompson was also unaware of at least three other hospitals that had ended their contracts with McDonald’s prior to Truman: Lurie Children’s Hospital (formerly Chicago Memorial Hospital), Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Vanderbilt Medical Center and Parkland Health & Hospital System.

Also, Thompson must have missed this memo: more than 3,000 health professionals and institutions from around the world have signed a letter urging McDonald's to stop marketing junk food to children.

Continuing the healthcare theme was a powerful statement by pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Andrew Bremer, who called out the CEO for the company’s marketing to children: “Last year you said, and I quote: ‘Do me the honor… of not associating us with doing something that is damaging to children.’ Well with all due respect, Mr. Thompson, your corporation is doing just that.”

In his response, Thompson seemed to be getting a little desperate, sidestepping the issue of marketing to children altogether, claiming:

5) “We provide high-quality food, we always have. It’s real beef, it’s real chicken, it’s real tomatoes, real lettuce, real fruit, real smoothies, real dairy, real eggs.”

Really? The “real eggs” in an Egg McMuffin are “prepared with” the following:

Liquid Margarine: Liquid Soybean Oil and Hydrogenated Cottonseed and Soybean Oils, Water, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Mono and Diglycerides, Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate (Preservatives), Artificial Flavor, Citric Acid, Vitamin A Palmitate, Beta Carotene (Color).

Even the “real smoothies” contain unpronounceable additives. See for example, the “fruit base” of the McCafe Mango Pineapple Smoothie, which consists of:

Water, Clarified Demineralized Pineapple Juice Concentrate, Mango Puree Concentrate, Pineapple Juice Concentrate, Orange Juice Concentrate, Pineapple Puree, Passion Fruit Juice, Apple Juice Concentrate, Natural (Botanical Source) and Artificial Flavors, Contains less than 1% of the following: Peach Puree, Cellulose Powder, Pear Juice Concentrate, Xanthan Gum, Peach Juice Concentrate, Pectin, Citric Acid, Colored with Fruit and Vegetable Juice and Turmeric Extract, Ascorbic Acid (Preservative).

But wait, there’s more. The Mango Pineapple Smoothie also contains “low fat smoothie yogurt,” consisting of: “Cultured Grade A Reduced Fat Milk, Sugar, Whey Protein Concentrate, Fructose, Corn Starch, Modified Food Starch, Gelatin, Active Yogurt Cultures.” And did I mention the 47 grams of sugar? But I am sure it’s “real sugar,” right Mr. Thompson?

Next, continuing to pound Thompson on marketing to kids was Kia Robertson (parent of Hannah; see Kia’s statement here). Then the CEO trotted out the tired industry defense on exploiting children:

6) Globally, we follow guidelines on responsible marketing to children.

Parents in Brazil would beg to differ. Just last month, McDonald’s was fined $1.6 million by the consumer protection agency in Sao Paolo for violating local laws on targeting children.

Here in the U.S., McDonald’s is far from responsible. A report from Yale University found that McDonald’s targets children as young as age 2 at Ronald.com. (This site now redirects to HappyMeal.com, where children are forewarned at the top of the page: “Hey kids, this is advertising!”)

The Yale report also found: “Although McDonald's pledged to improve food marketing to children, they increased their volume of TV advertising from 2007 to 2009.” Preschoolers saw 21 percent more McDonald's ads and older children viewed 26 percent more ads in 2009 compared to 2007. So much for guidelines.

Then Thompson actually said these words:

7) “And we are not marketing food to kids.”

Two words: Happy Meals.

8) To further this point, he claimed “We are not marketing in schools.”

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, see herehere, and here for Ronald McDonald visits to schools. Corporate Accountability International’s report contains more examples of school sightings of McDonald’s clown ambassador.  The company likes to claim, as CEO Thompson did, that Ronald is “just a clown” and that he doesn’t actually hawk food per se, never mind the branding.

McDonald’s also promotes “McTeacher’s Nights” in which, as the company describes it: “Educators, students, parents, and friends are invited to their local McDonald’s to ‘work’ and raise money for a designated school related cause.” Free labor plus free PR for McDonald’s, how brilliant is that?

In more defensiveness, (you almost had to feel sorry for him) CEO Thompson next tried this line:

9) We are not the cause of obesity.

Did he not see "Supersize Me"?

OK, McDonald’s is obviously not the only cause of our nation’s health woes, but research has shown a connection between the location of fast-food outlets and adverse health outcomes in communities.

For example, one study found that nearly one-third of U.S. children ages 4 to 19 eat fast food, which increases the risk of obesity due to an increase in daily calories. Another study showed that students with fast-food outlets near their schools were more likely to be overweight, and to consume more soda and fewer fruits and vegetables. And this connection was stronger for African-American children, while a third study found a similar pattern among low-income African-American adults. Speaking of which…

In response to Michelle Dyer (see her statement here), who challenged Thompson on McDonald’s marketing to communities of color, the African-American CEO began by joking, “this hits kind of close to home, wonder why that is?” Then he got very defensive, claiming:

10)  “We do not, have not, will not, try to target people of color… I’ve been here 23 years. I know we don’t do that and we wouldn’t do that. We don’t do that under my leadership.”

These three McDonald’s websites speak for themselves:

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Merchant of Death Steps Down: A Look at the Deadly Work of Philip Morris International's Outgoing CEO Louis Camilleri

This week, when tobacco giant Philip Morris International hosts its annual shareholders’ meeting in New York, the company will honor outgoing CEO Louis Camilleri for his years of service. But a look back at Camilleri’s tenure shows a trail of death and destruction unworthy of celebration.

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Busted: Food Myths Brought to You By Corporate Front Groups

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing about Proposition 37, the California initiative that would require foods made through genetic engineering to be labeled, a policy that is common sense in 61 other countries, but has been denied to Americans thanks to lobbying by Big Biotech. One of the most prominent food myths perpetuated by the likes of Monsanto is that we need genetic engineering “to feed the world.”

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Are Corporations and Big Banks Making a Windfall From Food Stamps?

Perhaps you've heard: At a time of record need for food assistance among America's poor, the U.S. Senate is poised to cut roughly $4.5 billion from food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which 46 million Americans -- one in seven of us -- rely upon.

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How Junk Food Giant PepsiCo Is Buying Up High-Ranking Experts to Look Like a Leader in Health and Nutrition

Last month PepsiCo set off a firestorm among angry bloggers when the company attempted to buy its way onto the popular ScienceBlogs (run by Seed Media Group) with its own offering called Food Frontiers. Apparently, the actual scientists didn't appreciate having their space invaded by PR flaks. One blogger put it succinctly, "I don't care how many PhD scientists they hire, PepsiCo is a corporation, not a research institute, for crissakes!" Within two days, ScienceBlogs apologized and pulled PepsiCo's plug, but not before some disgusted bloggers quit altogether. (Food Frontiers continues to live on PepsiCo's corporate Web site.)

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Pepsi Teams up with White House to Whitewash Worthless Snacks and Sodas

When, back in February, First Lady Michelle Obama formally announced her Let's Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation, only one food company released a press release on the very same day in glowing support -- PepsiCo.

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Suing the Pants Off SpongeBob

The case may sound silly, but it's not. SpongeBob SquarePants is being hauled into court in Massachusetts. His crime? Exploiting young children and contributing to escalating rates of obesity and diabetes. How can a cartoon character be guilty of such things? By corporate marketing run amok.

Late last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) announced their intention to sue Viacom (parent company of Nickelodeon) and Kellogg for unsavory marketing practices aimed at children under age 8. By all psychological measures, such children are too young to understand the persuasive intent of advertising.

It should come as no surprise to parents that these and other companies use popular children's cartoon characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer to hawk all manner of junk foods high in fat and sugar that are virtually devoid of nutritional value. The scientific findings released last month by the revered Institute of Medicine was also not a shocker: These marketing practices work, especially on impressionable young children, whose eating habits are just being formed.

Children's advocates have been fighting for 30 years to get companies to stop exploiting kids, to no avail. It has become painfully clear that consumer groups' calls for government action are now falling of deaf ears. As a result, CSPI and CCFC are turning to litigation as the only remaining remedy available.

And who can blame them? When the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Health and Human Services held a "workshop" last summer on childhood obesity and food marketing, the result was a massive public relations opportunity for junk food companies. Six months later, the agencies have yet to release a promised report on the proceedings, let alone promulgate regulations to actually address the problem. Similarly, Congress has taken no action.

And all the while food companies claim to be "part of the solution" when it comes to childhood obesity. But industry's version of solving the problem means no government tinkering with profit-making. Rather, industry favors "self-regulation," which translates to the fox guarding the henhouse. The Children's Advertising Review Unit, industry's self-appointed and corporate-funded regulatory body has failed miserably. As Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa -- one of few champions for children left in Congress -- has noted: "CARU, frankly, has become a poster child for how not to conduct self-regulation."

When all the other legal avenues have failed: government regulation, legislation, and industry self-regulation, that leaves one remaining option -- litigation.

And yet, this case is bound to suffer the slings and arrows of those who would label any lawsuit aimed at industry for contributing to obesity as "frivolous," the right wing's favorite moniker for any case aimed at curbing corporate excesses. But this case and others like it sure to follow are not about blaming any one company for making people fat. They are about getting irresponsible food and media corporations to stop using deceptive marketing practices to lure vulnerable children into a lifetime of destructive eating habits.

But what about the parents? Corporations are fond of blaming overworked and stressed out parents for giving in to their children's requests for unhealthy food. After all, children don't drive themselves to McDonald's, they say. But if food and advertising companies really want parents to be the decision makers, then they would market children's products only to adults. But instead, they go around the parents by directly targeting children. Corporations foster what advertising experts call the "nag factor," along with other tactics designed to undermine the parent-child relationship.

At an upcoming trade show called "Kid Power" devoted solely to marketing food and beverages to children, junk food peddlers can learn countless tricks of the trade at workshops such as, "Character Development to Create an Emotional Connection" and "Utilizing Branding to Create Increased Value Perception Among Kids In School Cafeterias." How is a parent supposed to compete with all of that psychological marketing savvy?

If both science and common sense tell us that it's inherently deceptive to market to young children, then it should stop. This is a lawsuit whose time has come. With every other legal avenue closed to protect children, suing the worse offenders is the last resort. Let's hope this door doesn't slam shut too. Children deserve better.

Government Abandons Children to Big Food

With rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, you might think that when the federal government convenes a meeting on how food companies market food to kids, talk of how to regulate industry practices might actually be on the agenda.

But you'd be wrong. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) co-hosted a workshop in Washington entitled "Perspectives on Marketing, Self-Regulation, and Childhood Obesity." But what should have been a forum on how to set limits around the marketing of junk food to children turned into a PR opportunity for industry. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) got it right when he said in his opening remarks that "corporate America spends $12 billion a year on food ads to kids because it works."

The only reason that FTC and HHS bothered to hold the meeting at all was that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended they do so in its report on childhood obesity last year. Specifically, the IOM called on the government to "convene a national conference to develop guidelines for the advertising and marketing of food and beverages directed at children." They also recommended that "the Federal Trade Commission have the authority and resources to monitor compliance with food and beverage advertising practices."

But none of this was even remotely discussed in Washington. And no wonder. By conservative estimates, a full two-thirds of the panelists -- hand-picked by the FTC and HHS -- had financial ties to either the food or advertising industries. To add insult to injury, from the chairman of the FTC on down, nearly every government official who had the chance made clear that regulation of junk food ads aimed at children was not on the table and wouldn't be anytime soon. FTC Commissioner Thomas Leary went so far as to warn against the government becoming a "nanny state." If this sounds familiar, it's because that's usually the industry's line.

And the industry should thank Uncle Sam for providing it with a very expensive press conference. Among the 350 attendees were reporters from all the major outlets. And sure enough, much of the media spin included the industry promises of doing right by America's kids, with only a modicum of criticism from public interest groups.

For example, Nickelodeon took the opportunity to announce that its popular children's character, SpongeBob, will soon be hawking spinach and carrots. Notably lacking was any promise of removing his image from such unhealthy products as Pop-Tarts, Kraft Cheez-Its and Breyer's cookie-dough ice cream.

Also, the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) -- the major trade group for the food industry -- announced with much fanfare a set of recommendations to boost self-regulation, an obvious attempt at staving off any government intervention, as if they had anything to worry about. But what GMA conveniently neglected to mention was how they are on record as opposing just about every school nutrition bill across the country. So much for caring about children's health.

The food industry works hard to keep the focus on self-regulatory mechanisms such as the Children's Advertising Review Unit, the industry-supported five-person shop that cannot possibly monitor all the ways that children are bombarded with food marketing these days. Yet, Elizabeth Lascoutx, director of CARU, presented her organization as doing a stellar job of monitoring food ads, making several misleading statements in the process (which seems ironic for the head of an organization charged with monitoring deceptive advertising). For example, she said that McDonald's had agreed to alter an ad campaign to show healthier choices in their children's ads, when in fact, the company disagreed with CARU's determination that the commercials were misleading.

Coca-Cola also took the opportunity to misrepresent itself. Abigail Rodgers, vice president of "Wellness Strategies and Communication," claimed that the company does not sell soda in elementary schools. Trouble is, a survey of Kentucky schools revealed that soda is sold in 44 percent of elementary schools. And Coca-Cola was a powerful lobbying force against four legislative attempts to pass a state bill to get soda out of schools. But Ms. Rodgers forgot to mention this and other state bills Coca-Cola has helped kill or weaken, including those in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Connecticut, Indiana and Oregon.

There was precious little opportunity for advocacy representation or public participation. Only a handful of panel slots were allotted to public health or children's advocates. Even then, their voices were drowned out by the likes of PepsiCo and Kraft, who were each given two separate opportunities to speak, an honor not bestowed on anyone else. Moreover, questions from the audience were tightly controlled by government officials, pre-screened by moderators. Only in response to pressure from advocates did the FTC alter the agenda at the last minute to include a brief "open forum" at the very end of the day, after all the reporters and most attendees had already left. Clearly Uncle Sam was not interested in hearing from the public on this matter.

Senator Harkin said he hoped that the meeting would not be just window dressing, but it turned out to be far worse. The motto of the Federal Trade Commission is "For the Consumer" but with this meeting, it might as well have been "For the Industry." But it is certainly not "For the Children."

The Junk Food Lobby Wins Again

On Tuesday, Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell vetoed what would have been the nation's strongest school-based nutrition law. With one stroke of the pen, she put to rest an extremely contentious three-year battle to rid Connecticut schools of soda and junk food.

Similar scenarios are being played out in state capitals all over the nation, where high-paid lobbyists of multi-national corporations such as Coca-Cola are swooping in to foil the efforts of local nutrition advocates, educators. With rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, state legislatures have become a major battleground over the sale of junk food in public schools.

Ironically, the most common argument made against such bills is that schools should maintain "local control" over nutrition policy. But Governor Rell's reasoning is hard to swallow. She invoked the word "local" no fewer than 16 times in her 3-page veto message. However, many school policies are made at the state and even national level. Perhaps the governor has heard of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" policy?

But Rell is not alone. All over the country, politicians deep in the pockets of the junk food lobby are using the excuse of "local control" to defend their indefensible positions on school nutrition. Trouble is that local school districts are lured by the much-needed cash generated by soda and junk food sales. Yet, as many parents are realizing, no amount of money can justify sacrificing children's health.

Same Story Elsewhere

Recent examples of similar corporate influence include how in March, the Kentucky state legislature passed a compromise bill that bans soda only in elementary schools. Kentucky nutrition advocates were worn down after battling Coca-Cola lobbyists for four years. Allowing companies to continue to sell soda in middle and high schools was the only way the bill could possibly pass.

Also, Arizona passed a law in April that bans the sale of soft drinks and candy during the school day, but only in kindergarten through eighth grade. The provision that would have extended the ban to high schools was added and removed from the bill several times, but ultimately, the junk food lobby got its way.

And in May, a strong piece of legislation was completely gutted in Oregon thanks to corporate lobbying. The bill would have banned carbonated soft drinks, candy, and fried pastry products in schools. But the law that passed calls only for schools to have "wellness policies." The Oregon Soft Drink Association donated $91,000 in campaign contributions to state politicians last fall. Three key lawmakers--members of the education committee--received $2,000 each.

High-powered Lobbying Tactics

The showdown in Connecticut involved an eight-hour House debate in which lawmakers engaged in such stall tactics as relating memories of being deprived of candy as a child. (Who cares and why is this is a basis for policymaking?) The original bill would have allowed only water, juice, and milk to be sold during the school day, but a compromise reached at the end of the marathon session allowed diet soda and sports drinks to be sold in high schools. Then the bill had to go back to the Senate, where it had already passed. But this time, lawmakers there attempted to delay the process by adding no fewer than 10 unrelated amendments, such as requiring smoke detectors in school bathrooms.

And in a particularly underhanded move, while the bill awaited the governor' s signature, a sign mysteriously appeared on the inside of a high school vending machine that read "Let the state know how you feel about the state getting into your lunch program", followed by Governor Rell's e-mail and phone number. The sign was not approved by the school, as is required for all public postings.

To do its bidding, Coca-Cola hired Patrick Sullivan, of Sullivan & LeShane, which the Hartford Courant has called "the most influential lobbying firm in the state." For his services, Sullivan is paid $80,000 annually by Coca-Cola 's New York division, plus an additional $7,350 a month by its New England subsidiary.

What Connecticut Governor Rell failed to mention in her veto message was her own possible conflict of interest: The other co-founder of this lobbying firm, Patricia LeShane, has served as the governor's campaign advisor.

Proposals to rid schools of unhealthy food and beverages are currently pending in several other states where similar battles are being fought. For example, in California, nutrition advocates are back asking lawmakers to get soda out of high schools, which were exempted from a measure passed two years ago thanks to soda industry lobbying. How many years must go by and how many precious resources must be spent on accomplishing what should be common sense policy? And when will politicians begin to show real leadership by placing the health of our children above corporate profit?

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