Junk Food Nation: Who’s to Blame for Childhood Obesity?

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.
by Gary Ruskin and Juliet Schor
The Nation, August 29, 2005

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
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.
Growing industry influence is also apparent at the President’s Council
on Physical Fitness. What companies has the government invited to be
partners with the council’s Challenge program? Coca-Cola, Burger King,
General Mills, Pepsico and other blue chip members of the “obesity
lobby.” In January the council’s chair, former NFL star Lynn Swann, took
money to appear at a public relations event for the National Automatic
Merchandising Association, a vending machine trade group activists have
been battling on in-school sales of junk food.
Not a lot of subtlety is required to understand what’s driving
Administration policy. It’s large infusions of cash. In 2004 “Rangers,”
who bundled at least $200,000 each to the Bush/Cheney campaign, included
Barclay Resler, vice president for government and public affairs at
Coca-Cola; Robert Leebern Jr., president of federal affairs at Troutman
Sanders PAG, lobbyist for Coca-Cola; Richard Hohlt of Hohlt & Co.,
lobbyist for Altria, which owns about 85 percent of Kraft foods; and
José “Pepe” Fanjul, president, vice chairman and COO of Florida Crystals
Corp., one of the nation’s major sugar producers.
Hundred-thousand-dollar men include Kirk Blalock and Marc Lampkin, both
Coke lobbyists, and Joe Weller, chairman and CEO, Nestle USA. Altria
also gave $250,000 to Bush’s inauguration this year, and Coke and Pepsi
gave $100,000 each. These gifts are in addition to substantial sums
given during the 2000 campaign.
For their money, the industry has been able to buy into a strategy on
obesity and food marketing that mirrors the approach taken by Big
Tobacco. That’s hardly a surprise, given that some of the same companies
and personnel are involved: Junk food giants Kraft and Nabisco are both
majority-owned by tobacco producer Philip Morris, now renamed Altria.
Similarity number one is the denial that the problem (obesity) is caused
by the product (junk food). Instead, lack of exercise is fingered as the
culprit, which is why McDonald’s, Pepsi, Coke and others have been
handing out pedometers, funding fitness centers and prodding kids to
move around. When the childhood obesity issue first burst on the scene,
HHS and the Centers for Disease Control funded a bizarre ad campaign
called Verb, whose ostensible purpose was to get kids moving. This
strategy has been evident in the halls of Congress as well. During child
nutrition reauthorization hearings, the man some have called the Senator
from Coca-Cola, Georgia’s Zell Miller, parroted industry talking points
when he claimed that children are “obese not because of what they eat at
lunchrooms in schools but because, frankly, they sit around on their
duffs watching Eminem on MTV and playing video games.” And that, of
course, is the fault not of food marketers but of parents. Miller’s
office shut down a Senate Agriculture Committee staff discussion of a
ban on soda pop in high schools by refreshing their memories that Coke
is based in Georgia.
A related ploy is to deny the nutritional status of individual food
groups, claiming that there are no “good” or “bad” foods, and that all
that matters is balance. So, for example, when the Administration
attacked the WHO’s global anti-obesity initiative, it criticized what it
called the “unsubstantiated focus on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods.” Of course,
if fruits and vegetables aren’t healthy, then Coke and chips aren’t
unhealthy. While such a strategy is so preposterous as to be laughable,
it is already having real effects. Less than a month after Cadbury
Schweppes, the candy and soda company, gave a multimillion-dollar grant
to the American Diabetes Association, the association’s chief medical
and scientific officer claimed that sugar has nothing to do with
diabetes, or with weight. Industry has also bankrolled front groups like
the Center for Consumer Freedom, an increasingly influential Washington
outfit that demonizes public-health advocates as the “food police” and
promotes the industry point of view.
Meanwhile, public opinion is solidly behind more restrictions on junk
food marketing aimed at children, especially in schools. A February Wall
Street Journal poll found that 83 percent of American adults believe
“public schools need to do a better job of limiting children’s access to
unhealthy foods like snack foods, sugary soft drinks and fast food.” Two
bills recently introduced in Congress, Massachusetts Senator Ted
Kennedy’s Prevention of Childhood Obesity Act and Iowa Senator Tom
Harkin’s Healthy Lifestyles and Prevention (HeLP) America Act, both
place significant restrictions on the ability of junk food producers to
market in schools.
Interestingly, this is a crossover issue between red and blue states.
Concern about obesity and excessive junk food marketing to kids is
shared by people across the political spectrum, and some conservatives,
such as Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and the Eagle Forum’s
Phyllis Schlafly, as well as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger,
have argued for restricting junk food marketing to children. This may be
one of the reasons New York Senator Hillary Clinton has once again
become vocal on the topic of marketing to children, although Senator
Clinton has called not for government intervention but merely for
industry self-regulation, requesting that the companies “be more
responsible about the effect they are having”–exactly the policy the
industry wants.
A vigorous government response would clearly garner the sympathy of the
majority of Americans. The growing chasm between what the public wants
and the Administration’s protection of the profits of Big Food is a
powerful example of the decline of democracy in this country. Let them
eat chips!