A food fight in California

by Pitt Griffin on October 20, 2012 · 0 comments

in Economics, Science


Capitalism is on the ropes – but don’t blame the Democrats. It is business itself that finds capitalism inconvenient. Why? Capitalism works when the consumer makes rational choices, based on the free flow of information. But business has decided that it is not in its best interest for the consumer to have too much information.

Consider food. The food companies put bucolic images on their packaging. But our food is made in food factories far removed from the pastoral bliss of the mythic family farm. It is a commodity business that makes money by shaving cents off the cost of production. Animal rights are sacrificed on the altar of profit and the health of the consumer takes second place to the welfare of the investor. To this end, industrial food fights tooth and nail to keep unpalatable truths from the American consumer.

The latest exhibit of the opacity of industrial food is the campaign it is waging against Proposition 37 in California – a proposition that would require food producers to label genetically modified foods (GMOs) – not ban them, not tax them – just tell people what’s in them.

But that is a bridge too far for industrial food. They have spent $35 million to defeat the measure. In one advertisment the announcer sententiously intones “They’re at it again. Special interests pushing a proposition that would create more government red tape, more lawsuits and higher costs. This time it’s Prop. 37. A food labeling scheme written by trial lawyers to benefit trial lawyers”.

Let’s examine those claims. There is no evidence that trial lawyers are behind anything. There is no legal jeopardy in telling the truth. What red tape and higher costs? Food companies have no problem printing the most tenuous health claims on its packaging, how hard is it to say “contains GMOs”?

But putting profits ahead of people is nothing new for the food industry. Calorie counts on fast food menus? Let’s fight that.  The food pyramid? Let’s fight that.

It doesn’t stop with secrecy. Industrial food will go to the mat to keep their product cheap and in your face. Taxes on sugary drinks? Let’s fight that. Good food in schools? Let’s fight that. Limits on product sizes? Let’s fight that.

The food industry wages their war for the right to bring second-rate food to the American table by rolling out sham populism. The campaign against taxes on sugary drinks in New York is being fought by a group called “New Yorkers Against Fair Taxes” which claims to be“a growing coalition of concerned New Yorkers – hard working individuals, struggling families, and already-burdened small businesses”. 

Some of these “already-burdened small businesses” include the American Beverage Association, Coca Cola, the Corn Refiners Association, McDonalds, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the National Restaurant Association and more. You get the point. Apparently this is an industry that takes Mitt Romney’s claim that “corporations are people, my friend”  literally.

Why is the industry so concerned? On the anti-tax website they claim, “A new tax on beverages – including juice drinks, sodas, sports drinks and iced teas – would hit hardworking New York families the hardest. There could not be a worse time to ask them to pay more for the groceries they buy”.

Is the soda business really concerned about these poor New Yorkers? Oh please! They spend millions to advertise fattening, nutrition-free drinks to the poor – who would be physically and financially better off if they didn’t buy these drinks in the first place.

Taxes on cigarettes reduced smoking. Is there anyone who thinks that poor Americans are worse off because of tobacco taxes? Actually there is – Henry I. Miller MD. Miller has an interesting biography. In the 1990s the tobacco lobby identified him as a potential “expert” witness to the idea that there was no link between smoking and disease. What made him so attractive is that he worked at the NIH and the FDA.

Good science may have conclusively proved that smoking causes illness, but that hasn’t stopped this industry flack from taking another “scientific” stance. He authored a book called “The Frankenfood Myth” – making it clear where he stands in the food debate.

And now he has popped up in industrial food’s fight against honesty in marketing. The group “Say no to 37” (another of these sham populist entities) implied, in one of its TV spots, that he was on the staff of Stanford University. It had to stop running the ad because Miller is not associated with Stanford University – an institution which uses the scientific method – but is a Fellow at the Hoover Institute – a conservative think tank that is an independent unit within Stanford University.

So what! – its a semantic difference you might say. The difference is important. Academics at Stanford must submit their work to peer review, whereas, fellows at a think tank you can say whatever they want – put it another way, they can twist, spin, distort or just plain lie.

Defenders of the food industry’s policy of obfuscation claim that their is no evidence that GMOs are unhealthy. But that claim is irrelevant. I grant you that the long-term effects of eating GMOs are unknown, but there is little agreement by food scientists about anything to do with food. Is fat in the diet good or the devil; should we eat no carbs, low carbs or lots of whole grain; should we eat no flesh or is fish fine – chicken?

But even with this uncertainty which consumer would lobby for the end of the nutrition label on the back of the package? Conservatives argue that individuals should be free to make their own choices. Fair enough – but then denying them the information to make those choices is unfair. And is just one more example of corporate rights being given ascendancy over individual rights.





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