Among the many great articles (be sure to check out Ted Genoways’ insightful piece on the meat industry’s transparency fight), is one by Michael Pollan which details how the food industry managed to retain its political grip over Washington over the last eight years, mainly by aggressively lobbying against public health behind the scenes while publicly putting on a charitable and concerned face.
As you read this piece, consider that many of these lobbying and trade groups have ties to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (many of them will be at next week’s conference, proudly claiming that they are “part of the solution”).
- “In order to follow the eight-year drama starring Big Food and both Obamas — for soon after the inauguration, the first lady would step in to play a leading role — it’s important to know what Big Food is. There are at least four distinct levels to this towering food pyramid. At its base stands Big Ag, which consists primarily of the corn-and-soybean-industrial complex in the Farm Belt, as well as the growers of the other so-called commodity crops and the small handful of companies that supply these farmers with seeds and chemicals. Big Ag in turn supplies the feed grain for Big Meat — all the animals funneled into the tiny number of companies that ultimately process most of the meat we eat — and the raw ingredients for the packaged-food sector, which transforms those commodity crops into the building blocks of processed food: the corn into high-fructose corn syrup and all the other chemical novelties on the processed-food ingredient label, and the soy into the oil in which much of fast food is fried. At the top of the Big Food pyramid sit the supermarket retailers and fast-food franchises.”
- “An industry is deemed excessively concentrated when the top four companies in it control more than 40 percent of the market. In the case of food and agriculture, that percentage is exceeded in beef slaughter (82 percent of steers and heifers), chicken processing (53 percent), corn and soy processing (roughly 85 percent), pesticides (62 percent) and seeds (58 percent).”
- “So while it is something of a simplification, it does make sense to talk about Big Food as a single entity — and an impressively powerful one at that.”
- “The new administration mounted what would turn out to be its most serious challenge to the food industry. In fulfillment of Obama’s pledge to America’s small farmers and ranchers, the administration began an ambitious antitrust initiative against Big Food, investigating the market power and anticompetitive practices of the poultry, dairy, cattle and seed industries.”
- “Big Meat, in particular, was not happy. It opened its wallet, spending roughly $9 million on lobbying in 2010, not including political contributions to members of the agriculture committees in Congress. One of those committees called Edward Avalos, a U.S.D.A. undersecretary, to Capitol Hill to defend the new rules in a hearing at which the poor fellow was grilled mercilessly for doing his job. (The story is well told in Christopher Leonard’s recent book, “The Meat Racket.”)”
- “In March 2010, Michelle Obama gave a speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Association that surprised many of the executives in the room with its sophistication and toughness. She issued a stern challenge to Big Food, doing it in such a way as to make clear she wasn’t about to fall for the industry’s usual bag of P.R. “health” tricks.”
- “In response, the industry adopted a clever two-track strategy to deal with the challenge laid down by the first lady. On a very public track, industry leaders engaged the foundation that she formed, the Partnership for a Healthier America, in negotiating a series of private-sector partnerships — a series of voluntary efforts that the industry hoped would help avert new regulations — a possibility that Obama raised in her speech. Supermarket retailers pledged to promote more healthful foods in their stores, like fresh produce. A group of 16 leading food makers pledged to reduce the total number of calories in the food supply by a whopping 1.5 trillion. Food makers pledged to reduce harmful ingredients in processed food, like salt and sugar, while boosting healthy ingredients, like whole grains. In exchange for entering into these agreements, several industry partners were granted invaluable photo ops with the first lady. In the case of Subway and Walmart, she made appearances in their stores.”
- “Making junk food incrementally less junky is a dubious achievement at best. It tends to obscure the more important distinction between processed food of any kind and whole foods. What began as a cultural conversation about gardens and farmers’ markets and real food became a conversation about improved packaged foods, a shift in emphasis that surely served the interests of Big Food.”
- “Even as Big Food sought to publicly partner with the first lady in her war on obesity, it engaged in a much less visible campaign to forestall any new law or tax or regulation threatening its freedom to make and market junk food. Big Food’s biggest victory on an issue Michelle Obama cared about was its success in derailing voluntary guidelines for marketing food to kids.”
- “In the years after, Big Food scored a series of victories over even the most reasonable attempts to rein in its excesses. Remember the pledge to Iowans to regulate CAFOs (“just as any other polluter”) and stanch the flood of animal waste they were loosing on rural America? For the government to regulate CAFOs at all, it must first know where they are and how many animals they house, a survey the E.P.A. has been trying to conduct since 2008. But in July 2012, after lobbying by meat producers, the E.P.A. dropped its effort just to count the nation’s CAFOs.”
- “Surely there is a lesson here for the food movement — a collection of disparate groups that seek change in food and agriculture but don’t always agree with one another on priorities. Under that big tent you will find animal rights activists who argue with sustainable farmers about meat; hunger activists who disagree with public-health advocates seeking to make soda and candy ineligible for food stamps; environmentalists who argue with sustainable cattle ranchers about climate change; and so on. To call this a movement is an act of generosity and hope. But whatever it is, it has been no match for Big Food, at least in Washington.”