How deceived we are!
"Pizza Sauce" being considered potentially a vegetable is one of the most deceiving statements the public can hear. "In other words when looking at how many vegetables have to be served in a school meal program pizza sauce, two tablespoons of it, was allowable as a vegetable which is obviously something that serves the frozen pizza industry very well but it doesn’t really help kids be healthier." ~Michelle Simon
Words from the Food Revolution Summit:
Next we interviewed Michele Simon about how the food industry undermines your health and how to fight back. Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, an author, and the president of Eat Drink Politics. Highlights included: “The food industry’s job is to sell more products and increase shareholder value. But when they market their products in ways that are deceptive, claiming to be healthy when they really aren’t, then people suffer as a result. They keep America eating their highly processed junk-food.” “The same companies that claim to care about kids are actually lobbying to make sure they keep their highly processed junk food products in front of kids at all costs.” “A recent report found that many popular brands of breakfast cererals are higher in sugar than Hostess Twinkies. Industries have been saying they are self-regulating and don’t need outside interference. But this report found that they aren’t even following their own lame guidelines.” “We can argue about marketing to adults because they have some decision-making abilities, but children are extremely vulnerable and there is a moral issue here.” I saw a children’s T-shirt recently, that said: “If you love me, don’t feed me junk food.”
Introduction to the interview:
Ocean Robbins: Welcome to The Food Revolution Summit where we explore how you can heal your body and your world with food. This is Ocean Robbins and I am joined by my dad, John Robins, in welcoming our guest now Michele Simon. Michele Simon is one of the world’s leading experts on the politics and practices of the food industry. She is a public health lawyer specializing in industry marketing and lobbying tactics. Michele is the author of Appetite for Profit: How the food industry undermines our health and how to fight back. She’s also President of Eat Drink Politics, an industry watchdog consulting business. Michele’s groundbreaking 2007 report on alcoholic energy drinks lead to a federal band. Her work has inspired millions of people as she works on issues like food safety, agricultural policy, deceptive health claims, nutritional labeling, school food policy and consumer empowerment. In an industry that is too often dominated by big money, Michele is standing up for the voice and wellbeing of all of us. She has a Master’s Degree in Public Health from Yale University. She received her law degree from the University of California Hasting College of the Law. And Michele we are just so excited to have you on this call. Here to interview you is my dad, John Robbins.
John Robbins: Thank you Ocean. And I join Ocean in welcoming you, Michele, and to our listeners who are about to have a real treat in hearing your voice, your wisdom, your insights, penetrating and passionate as they are. I want to ask you just a few months ago Congress decided that pizza sauce might be considered a vegetable to qualify for the national school lunch program. What happened there and how does the processed food industry get away with stuff like this?
Excerpt from the interview:
Michele Simon: What I usually try to frame it is obviously the first step is to take look at your own dietary practices, how you feed your kids, etc. I think these days there’s more and more awareness. The good news is that more and more people are aware of how they eat and wanting to make better choices for themselves and their families whether that’s cutting down on animal products, eating more whole grains, more real food not processed food, etc, perhaps buying more food locally if they happen to have access to a farmer’s market, etc and those are all good things and certainly a good place to start. However, I also always stress that that’s not enough. We can’t stop at just a personal behavior change because we have all the rest of society out there where unfortunately too many people do not have the same choices or do not have access to the same types of truly healthy and affordable fresh food that many of us are more fortunate to have. That’s really where policy change and the politics comes in. Once we look around our own kitchen cupboards then it’s time to look beyond our own homes and neighborhoods and say why is it that even for example, for me I’m just a mile or two away in West Oakland in California there are people who don’t even have a supermarket. I am extremely fortunate in my neighborhood I can walk in any direction, not have to get in my car, but actually walk in any direction and run into a full fledge supermarket and a farmer’s market once a week. That is not true for my neighbors in East Oakland and West Oakland. I feel like I have moral responsibility and something I have also chosen as a professional vocation but I feel like people who are fortunate and privileged to be able to make healthy food choices have a moral obligation to look for ways to change that for everyone else and to make sure that we are all able to access truly health food. There are a number of different ways to do that. It can be through improving school meals in your child’s school district. It can be through helping some [unclear 08:54] food program improve local food access for poor neighborhoods. It can be going up the mayor state and federal level. There is no shortage of good food programs opportunities to get involved. I always encourage people to find some way that speaks to you and sparks your interest.
John Robbins: Conventional wisdom has it that we are each responsible for what we put in our mouths and therefore its people’s own fault if they make poor food choices. But you have been a leader in pointing out that this is only a half truth because food industry marketing bears much of the blame for the nation’s health crisis. Do you think it would be accurate to say that the food industry today is actually undermining our health?
Michele Simon: Without the subtitles of my book, I would even say five years later that is so true. Yes, in a number of ways. It’s not sort of a conspiracy theory. It’s not that the CEOs of Kraft and McDonald’s and Coca Cola are sitting around trying to figure out how to make people unhealthy. What they are doing is sitting around trying to figure out how to sell more products. It just so happens that processed foods really are the least healthy products for us. The name of the game in capitalism is gross and food companies have to grow or they die. The only way to grow is to obviously keep selling more products. Once they saturate one geographic market, they have to go to the next geographic market which is why we have all of the major food companies are multinational in scope. They’re not just ruining America’s health now they’re going overseas to ruin the health of Europeans and increasingly in the developing nations’ citizens who are getting more money and are able to purchase more animal products and processed food and wants to be like America. While they’re [unclear 10:44] they’re going to get sick like America.
John Robbins: There’s actually more Baskin Robbins stores now in Tokyo than there are in Los Angeles.
Michele Simon: Wow. There you go. The food industry’s job is to sell more products. It’s not even their fault; that’s just what they do. The problem I have is when they are deceptive about it or when a company like McDonald’s claims to care about kids and claims to be making changes to their Happy Meals when it’s really just a lot of window dressing. Then they also market their products in a way that is deceptive. We have a number of products on the market that are trying to claim to be healthy because the food industry hears the human cry. They realize they have a public relations problem on their hands that America’s suffering from a number of diet related diseases that the media and policy makers are asking questions about how did this happen and what role the food industry plays. They have to respond some how. They can’t just ignore it and do business as usual. They respond in a way that means that they have to essentially have to spin their products as good for you. Leading companies like Kraft and Pepsi Co are masters at this – coming up with healthier Cheetos and diet sodas are supposedly better than regular sodas and so forth, any way they can keep America eating their highly processed, unhealthy junk food. That’s largely what I try to point out – not to believe the spin because at the same time these companies are claiming to be a part of the solution and proving their products and so forth, behind the scenes it’s business as usual. It’s just like that example that we discussed earlier with the school meals. The same companies that claim to care about kids are actually lobbying to keep the status quo and to make sure to keep their highly processed unhealthy foods in front of kids at all costs. It’s really just a big show game. The companies on one hand have their PR song and dance. Wal Mart is another company that’s doing all kinds of – they just came out with a new symbol that they’re going to show off in their stores to supposedly help customers make healthier choices. This is just a game. It’s just a game to keep consumers in the dark about the truth of the extremely unhealthy food supply and make sure that they keep growing their offers for shareholders.
John Robbins: Wal-Mart sells 21% of the groceries purchased in the country now. Most of that’s in rural areas but the company is in tense now into expanding into urban markets particularly in New York recently and they are positioning themselves in the market as the answer to urban food deserts. What do you think will happen if the company succeeds in penetrating urban markets?
Michele Simon: Honestly it’s one of the scariest prospects that I can think of because we know from Wal-Mart march across rural America that the economic impacts of this monster retailer have been devastating. It’s devastating in a number of levels, obviously closing up mom and pop stores all over the country that couldn’t compete with Wal-Mart, but also in terms of employment. Wal-Mart of course comes in claiming to be a savior with jobs. Obviously they do create some jobs but the evidence shows that they destroy more jobs than they create. Then the jobs that they do create are extremely low pay. Wal-Mart is notorious for their labor violations. For example they are extremely hostile to unions, union busting. Any place that a union has attempted to be formed in a Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart responds by shutting the entire store down. They did this in Canada once and they did with meat packers who tried to unionize and they just did away with meat packing. They are an extremely hostile company when it comes to labor. You wonder, “What does this have to do with food?” The issues are all connected. You have to ask, “If Wal-Mart workers are being treated so badly, how many of them are on food stamps?” This has come up over and over again. The fact that essentially the federal government and the state governments and local governments for that matter have to subsidize the Wal-Mart workers because they’re being paid so little, that has an impact on all of us as tax payers and so forth. To think the devastation that Wal-Mart has caused across rural America coming to urban America is really frightening. We already have some evidence to see what will happen in urban areas. They opened several stores now in Chicago and the same things that studies have shown and in food markets as well. There was one study that looked at what’s the impact of surrounding food retailers with these Wal-Mart opening in Chicago. Sure enough, just like they put every five and dime store out of business across rural America, they’re putting food retailers out of business because Wal-Mart is becoming one of the largest food retailers. For them to increase this effort to come into urban areas it’s honestly one of the things that keeps me up at night. Then there’s the impact on the food supply. Yes, they are positioning themselves as the answer to food deserts. Well, what kinds of food are they going to be brining into these local markets? Not local food. They claim – they give us lip service to local food but we know that Wal-Mart’s business motto is to squeeze the supplier. If they’re getting fresh produce, who’s the supplier? The farmer. Farmers are already extremely under paid. Small farmers are becoming a dying breed in America. To have Wal-Mart’s business motto applied to local produce, I can’t imagine local farmers getting a fair shake. We know that they won’t. There are many potential negative impacts to this march into urban areas by Wal-Mart and cities need to fight back. The good news is people in New York are wise to this and they don’t want Wal-Mart in their communities, at least some of them are and there’s a huge debate going on. I really think that communities really need to see the devastation that Wal-Mart has caused elsewhere and fight back. And I do think we’ve seen some of that already.
John Robbins: It seems like food corporations have become masters at invading our
consciousness and getting us to eat what we shouldn’t eat, to eat more than we should and to vote for people who serve their financial interests without much regard for our health yet most Americans are too busy making a living and dealing with the pressures in their lives to muster the energy that would be needed to rebel effectively against this indoctrination. What are some of the most effective things our listeners who are committed people can do?
Michele Simon: We talked a little bit about it earlier, but I’ll just add to that. In addition to making changes yourself I think helping to share information with the people closest to us, who are obviously hopefully open to these messages about how to eat a healthier diet. I know many people are frustrated by family members who don’t necessarily want to hear from us when it comes to improving our diets, but I’ll say my own mother has made changes over the years. She’s certainly come around from the unwilling stages to realizing that I’ve been right all along about eating a mostly plant-based diet. So I think people can change at some point. The good news is I know it seems overwhelming and of course we know the food industry has way more power in Washington and in statehouses around the country, we do have the people power and we do have the truth on our side and we certainly have morality on our side. I feel that there is increasing awareness and a willing movement to try and fix this problem. And that is evidence, not just by changes in data around farmers markets and so forth that we’re seeing out of the government that’s encouraging, but also just in terms of how many local projects and programs and non-profits and even for-profit companies that are picking up on these messages and changing the way they sell food. There’s just so much going on. There is really this explosion of energy and effort to try to fix this. Some variety of different angles so it really is about finding what speaks to you again either if it’s from a personal standpoint or hopefully political. I always also encourage people even if your interest is in cooking or something at a very base level around food, it’s important to connect to the political. To look for ways to support groups that are trying to for example connect the farm bill the largest agricultural policy that comes out every four years, we tend to just watch it happen. Someone I know called it a spectator sport. Get involved with the groups that are fighting for a better farm bill because that is so crucial to the foods that we eat.