In December 2006, I interviewed author Michele Simon about her book, "Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back." The excerpts below are from that original interview, which took place on WORT, community radio in Madison, Wisconsin. For more information on Michele and her work, please visit her website.
Judith Siers-Poisson (JSP): How did you personally become so involved and interested in food politics?
Michele Simon (MS): It started about 10 years ago when I was struggling with my own weight and turned to a vegetarian diet and, lo and behold, I lost the weight I was struggling with. And then, from there, I started to learn all of the other ways our diet impacts our own health, in addition to the environment, animal welfare, and labor, and so many aspects of society -- I was just amazed at how much was impacted by those food choices.
I was just getting my law degree at the time and then I started investigating further only to find that it wasn't just a simple matter of nutrition, but rather that our food choices are impacted by very carefully -- and sometimes not so carefully -- constructed policies by the federal government and are in turn influenced by corporations. So I started to investigate further and since then have really written about and tried to educate people about these very important social, economic, political forces that surround our food choices.
JSP: What prompted you to write this book in particular?
MS: In the last few years I've really been focusing on the debate that's been swirling around this public health crisis that we find ourselves in. The media has sort of caught up to the rest of us who have been screaming about this problem for some years, in that we have so many health problems that are caused by eating the wrong kinds of foods. So, I was at a conference about 2 years ago, called the Summit on Obesity, and this was a big event sponsored by Time magazine and ABC News. Giving the keynote address was then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, and he was up there giving his cheerleading speech and talking about how all the major food companies were doing such a great job of coming on board and helping to solve the problem, etc. And one of the companies he mentioned specifically was Coca Cola.
But then a funny thing happened during the Question & Answer period -- a politician got up, a man by the name of Charles Brown from Indiana, and he wanted to know from Tommy Thompson that if Coca Cola was such a responsible company, why had they sent 5 lobbyists to his state capitol to kill his bill, which would have only required half of all beverages sold through school vending machines to be healthy.
It was at that moment that I realized there was this disconnect, this hypocrisy going on, where on one hand the major food companies were claiming to be part of the solution, claiming to change their ways, while on the other, there was this on the ground reality that this politician was experiencing in which the food companies were conducting business as usual and lobbying against common sense policies to improve public health. And so I investigated further and found that Representative Brown was not the only politician finding himself on the receiving end of some heavy-duty corporate lobbying, and so I decided to expose that, and many other hypocrisies, in the book.
JSP: That story seems to indicate government complicity with the corporate campaigns. In your research, have you found that complicity to be intentional, or to denote more a lack of government oversight?
MS: There are different things going on. I think to some extent, overall we have a corrupt political system and it doesn't really matter if we are talking about food, or the environment, or transportation, name your topic -- the government agencies are pretty much captured by the industries they're supposed to be regulating. Food is just one more example of that. It's particularly disturbing when it comes to food issues, though, because of the enormous public health impact that the complicity is having.
I think to some extent it's just the normal political problems that we have with our system, but what's so disturbing about how it operates with food is that it's one thing for the government to turn a blind eye to, for example, consumer groups who are trying to get them to regulate and to do their jobs. But what often happens with food is even worse -- we have many examples of government actually adopting the industry line.
For example, I talk about the latest edition of the dietary guidelines, and we also just got the new food guide pyramid. This is where the government is supposed to be telling the American public how to eat: it's dietary advice. In addition to it being corrupt, and not based on real science because of the influence of the major food sectors.
In these guidelines, for the first time, we have the ridiculous development of the government telling the American public to exercise. Now, I have nothing against exercise and nothing against promoting that as a health message, but the problem is that they've mixed up the message of exercise with dietary advice, and that plays right into the hands of the food corporations who want to, at all cost, deflect attention from their marketing practices.
So exercise has now taken on a very political tone because the food corporations like to say that the problem of obesity epidemic is not related to eating the wrong kinds of foods, not related to food company marketing practices -- oh no! It is simply because our nation is a bunch of couch potatoes that need to get off our lazy duffs and exercise.
JSP: It's putting personal responsibility ahead of corporate responsibility.
MS: Exactly, and that's the name of the game -- to keep the focus on the individual, and exercise is a very good way to do that. So now we have the government complicit with this, when they really should be telling us how to eat.
JSP: There's another aspect to this. I heard a piece on NPR that the federal WIC (Women Infants and Children) support guidelines are changing to encourage and add fresh fruits and vegetables to the items that can be purchased with the benefits. It's remarkable that it had to be added, but the dairy industry is kicking into high gear to fight that because while WIC is saying that a certain amount of the benefit can be used for fruits and vegetables, there isn't going to be additional money in the fund, so those purchases are going to be taken away primarily from dairy sales, and the dairy industry is very upset about that.
MS: Right, and the reason why it's taken so long to get that shift to happen is exactly due to the dairy industry lobby and influence. Over the years WIC has been quite a boon to the dairy industry and they've done a good job of keeping it that way. But finally there's been a crack and the government can no longer ignore the fact that people need to be eating more fruits and vegetables and of course we need to ensure that our most vulnerable populations get the help they need to do so. Of course to have the dairy industry rallying against this just shows their true colors -- they're not interested in good nutrition, they're interested in maintaining their own bottom line.
JSP: One of the first major points you make in your book is that industry self-regulation doesn't work for inherent reasons. Can you lay those reasons out for us?
MS: There are so many reasons! What we're basically talking about is corporations policing themselves. The analogy that I credit to Joel Bakan, the author of the book "The Corporation," is this: imagine a world where we allowed crime to be self-regulated. We don't allow this concept of self-regulation to be applied to individual behavior when it comes to murder, robbery, rape -- we actually have laws in place to make sure that people don't break them and we punish them if they do. But somehow we allow corporations to adopt this idea of self-regulation and it's just insane. Clearly, they have a conflict of interest -- you cannot possibly trust corporations, who are legally required to continue to make money for their shareholders. That's their sole reason for being. It isn't part of their corporate structure to care about social issues like public health, the environment, etc. So this idea that we should allow them to self-regulate, to police themselves, is just crazy. They can't, it's just not part of what they are designed to do.
JSP: One of the points that you make is that there are no consequences for non-compliance with self-regulation. It's like breaking a New Year's resolution -- no one from outside comes in and holds you accountable for that. One result is that some corporations have gotten huge PR boosts for initiatives they've announced and launched, at least on paper and in front of TV cameras, that have never materialized.
MS: My favorite example of that is McDonald's and its whole trans fat promise. Trans fat has now taken on a lot of attention from media and policy makers. It turns out it's a deadly substance -- it causes heart disease -- and people are upset about it. So McDonald's promised in 2002 that it would remove trans fats from its cooking oil. Here we are four years later, and they haven't followed through on the promise yet. This caused a lawsuit to be filed for false advertising and the company wound up settling for something like $8 million and having to post signs in their restaurants saying, "Oops, sorry, we haven't actually removed the trans fat after all." They're still to this day making excuses about why they haven't made the change.
You might ask why they would make that claim and not follow through. The answer is that they got a lot of good PR. The news was on the front page of newspapers around the country, so people think they've already made the change, and if people think McDonald's is a health food company, they might keep shopping there, and even shop there more. But of course, when you get right down to it, McDonald's is extremely concerned about changing the taste of its French fries -- a signature product -- and they've been having a hard time finding a substitute that they think maintains that flavor that people keep coming back for. It always comes down to economics and they are afraid of making a change that will lose money. Interestingly, though, in countries like Australia and Israel, McDonald's has made the change. So, it can be done, they just refuse to do it. Of course now New York City has banned trans fats, so McDonald's will have to figure it out or face fines there, and other cities as they implement bans.
A lot of these companies will make changes for a short period of time, get the great press and accolades, and then quickly go back to business as usual when the economics demand it.
JSP: I'm guessing that a lot of people in the general population assumed when they saw those announcements by McDonald's that the change had already been made. I'm sure that was intentional.
MS: Absolutely, and that's exactly the goal of the announcement: to put that idea in people's heads. That's why one of the tips that I talk about in the book is that whenever you see any announcement by a company, read the original source. Don't take an article in the media at face value because reporters can be sloppy and often don't even get the facts right, let alone do their homework enough to get any opposing views for their story. The press release itself, though, will often have a lot more information than a secondary report, so one of the things to look at is whether the change has actually been made, or are they just promising to do it at some unspecified time in the future? That distinction is critical to understand what is really going on because clearly, primarily what they want is to get the PR benefit from it.
Again, this goes back to the failure of self-regulation. Even when companies do make changes, because they are voluntary, and it's all up to them to decide whether to keep the changes or not, often they don't. That's why we need enforceable policies in place, to make sure that companies maintain these changes based on law.
JSP: I think there's something about the American mindset -- Americans aren't the only ones struggling with obesity but we certainly seem to be leading the pack (in a not very positive way). We seem to be addicted to quick fixes. I think each of us could easily rattle off a couple dozen quick fix diets or eating plans.
MS: I agree, and we have to look at how that happened -- it's really no accident. The very phrase "convenience foods," which was created by industry, comes from their desire to make us think that we need to rely on convenience foods. I always ask, "Convenient for whom?" It's obviously very convenient for the food manufacturers to create all the frozen entrées and charge a lot of money. Yes, you're right, a lot of people have gotten into that mode of thinking, but I think it's obviously perpetuated by a food industry that only has its best interest at heart.
I think it takes a mindset shift on our part, but it also means changing the environment so that truly healthy fresh food is more available and less expensive. There are a lot of people who don't even have access to wholesome foods. So it's a combination of changing mindsets to eat healthier foods, and to see that it doesn't have to be a chore to eat healthily, but also not having as the default picking up a Happy Meal for your child at McDonald's. We have to change that so that healthy foods are more available and more affordable for more people. For me, this really comes down to being a social justice issue. I think we really have to get away from blaming people and while personal responsibility is certainly important, we have to make sure that the choices are available to everyone.
JSP: In the book you address the issue of front groups. Can you explain what those are?
MS: A front group is basically an organization that puts itself out as one thing, but in reality is funded by something else, usually an industry. Their purpose is to hide their true intentions. They sound like they're the good guys, but lo and behold, their funded by some corporate interest. One of the best examples, and one that I highlight in the book, is the Center for Consumer Freedom. This sounds great, right? Who could be against consumer freedom! Well it turns out that they aren't for consumer freedom at all. They are basically funded by the restaurant industry, tobacco and alcohol, and were founded by the notorious tobacco lobbyist Rick Berman. What's troubling about this organization is that they are very much inserting themselves into the dialogue around food marketing and who is to blame for this public health crisis that we are facing. So for example, Rick Berman will write op-ed pieces and get them published in national publications. Sometimes the newspaper will bother to note that the Center for Consumer Freedom is funded by the restaurant industry, but often they don't. So when you see an op-ed that says that soda has no impact on obesity -- which is the kind of stance the Center for Consumer Freedom will take, despite the science that we have that says that it does indeed -- you might think that he is a scientist since he is talking about science. But in reality, no one at the Center for Consumer Freedom has a science background, despite its proclamations regarding science.
It's very troubling to me that we have media outlets around the country quoting these front groups, printing their op-eds, their letters to the editor, printing their ads (including ad campaigns saying that obesity is hype and other lies). They're certainly effective at getting media attention.
Other groups continue to form and it's tricky, because their names sound like they might be good. Another example is the American Council on Fitness and Nutrition. That's one of my favorite ones because it even sounds like it could be a government agency -- when you use the word "Council" it sounds very official. But this one is also funded by the major food corporations and basically we can't trust anything they have to say.
JSP: You talk about "nutriwashing" in your book. Can you explain that, and talk especially about how it's been applied to processed food?
MS: I got the term from "greenwashing," from the environmental movement and what's going on right now, similar to how big oil companies say they want to save the environment, big food companies -- because they're on the defensive -- are responding by saying that they are changing their ways and making healthier foods.
One example that I talk about is PepsiCo, which is an interesting case because they not only make the beverages, but they own Frito Lay and many other brands. They have created a special seal program, which they call the "Smart Spot." It's a green and white symbol -- because of course green means healthy -- that they've slapped on their processed foods to make consumers think that they are health foods. The Smart Spot can now be found on such wonderful products as Diet Pepsi, Gatorade, baked Cheetos, and other highly-processed, devoid of nutrients products. It's quite amazing, really -- these companies have no shame.
I've talked to people who think that these are a government-approved seal, and why wouldn't they? It certainly looks like it could be. And Pepsi isn't the only one -- Kraft Foods, also a major conglomerate, has come up with its own self-defined seal of approval called "Sensible Solution," which is also green and white. They've slapped their seal on products specifically aimed at children because they've taken a lot of heat for marketing to kids. So now, Fruity Peebles cereal, that wonderful health food, is now a Sensible Solution, so moms can feel good about buying that product. Similarly, many of their Lunchables products, awfully processed foods, are also labeled Sensible Solutions.
This is a scam going on with major food companies to make sure that people keep coming back for more because they'd have a big problem on their hands if people start realizing that there's not much nutrition lurking in those foods.
JSP: How can average citizens fight back against the food industry? You've talked about the personal food choice approach -- what about on a larger scale? I really like that the subtitle of your book is "How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back." You don't just lay out the problems, but approaches to solutions.
MS: Of course the first step is to take a look within, and see what you're doing and how it can be improved. But I always like to say that while it's a good place to start, changing your personal eating habits is not enough. It's also important to realize that we have a much broader social problem on our hands and that we need to look for ways to improve the food supply for everyone.
The options to get involved vary, and will depend on what personally drives someone to action. For example, there are a lot of people working to get healthier foods into schools. So if that interests you, it's a great place to jump in and see what activity there is on that issue in your community. Similarly, there are many community and regional groups trying to get fresh local foods into neighborhoods where it is so desperately needed. For instance, working with corner liquor stores to stock fresh produce. There really is no shortage of projects like this to get involve with. On a broader political level, there are state-based and national groups working to improve our food supply, like Organic Consumers Association, or others working on more nutrition-based strategies.
In the book I have a whole appendix of do-good groups that people could get involved with, support financially, or engage with in a more concerted way. I do encourage people to do that. We also have, for example, the Farm Bill, coming up for renewal in 2007 and there are a lot of people organizing around that. It's a massive piece of legislation that affects practically everything we eat. There is so much to do, on a variety of levels, that I really encourage everyone to get involved in whatever resonates with them.