Stop Big Food From Using the Playbook of Big Tobacco

On June 12, 1957, Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney stated that “evidence pointed to a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer,” thereby changing the official position of the United States Public Health Service. This small but significant move opened the door to regulation of Big Tobacco, beginning a battle that came to a head last week with the FDA being granted the most power over the industry to date.

Now, more than a half a century after that first declaration, that same date brought the movie Food, Inc. to theaters, a film that reveals the dysfunction of our food system. With obesity rates at the highest point in history, contaminated food regularly sickening thousands, and government estimating we will continue to spend 6.2% more on healthcare annually (this year, an additional $200 billion, more than our annual economic growth of 4.1%), it is clear that we have a problem as big as smoking: an addiction to cheap, unhealthy food perpetuated by an industry intent on maximizing profits at the expense of our health and our land. It is time to regulate Big Food by changing the culture in Washington that allowed it to proliferate.

According to a recent study [pdf] by Kelly D. Brownell and Kenneth E. Warner at Yale University, the food industry is using “similar legal, political, and business strategies” that were once employed in tobacco, including dismissing peer-reviewed studies that make a connection between their product and disease, paying scientists to produce pro-industry studies, denying the addictive nature of their products to create doubt in the minds of consumers, and advertising heavily to children. A powerful lobby also ensures that agribusiness as usual is maintained in Washington.

But we know the food system as it stands right now isn’t working, and that it isn’t sustainable. Cheap processed food requires commodities like corn, soy, wheat, and rice. The production of these crops currently depends on industrial-scale, acreage-intensive monoculture that is in turn not feasible without surplus water, cheap oil and fertilizer, and a stable climate, all of which are at risk for becoming scarce.

Instead of taking a seat at the table, Big Food has renounced as “junk science” peer-reviewed studies showing the correlation to obesity with the proximity to a fast food restaurant. It has actively denied the science proving the relationship between soda consumption and weight problems and diabetes. Big Tobacco spent years insisting that there wasn’t enough evidence that smoking caused lung cancer. The results were that millions of people had to die before the government acted.

Good health, food safety and sustainability will never exist in our current food system. Big Food is standing in the way of change with agribusiness campaign funding and corporate ties moving through the Washington revolving door that brings lobbyists, consultants and strategists to high level positions. Historically, thirty-two members of the Senate Agriculture Committee and fifty of the House Agriculture Committee have had these ties to industry.

We were able to rattle the grip of Big Tobacco loose and we can start to do so now with Big Food by tightening campaign finance reform. Agribusiness is one of the largest lobbying interests in the capital, spending nearly 140 million in 2008 according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In creating a system based on public financing, their power could be greatly diminished. Food production is controlled from seed to supermarket shelf by a handful of companies [pdf], who are in effect deciding what we can and cannot access to eat. 83.5% of all beef-packing was controlled by 4 companies in 2007, while the numbers for pork-packing (66%), chicken processing (58.5%) and turkey (55%) reflect the same lack of competition. This extends to soy bean crushing (80%) and wet corn processing (74%), both sectors producing many of the ingredients in the processed foods we consume. President Obama has promised to take a hard line on anti-trust regulations, including those impacting agricultural companies. This would be a great start to building a better food system.

In addition, our government should fully fund unbiased studies assessing the long term sustainability of our food system. Most food research is funded by industry, and therefore focuses on biotech and other subjects that favor its development, rather than forming true assessments of the safety of our food and the lasting health impacts of our current food system. We can also change the incentive structure by incentivizing better farming practices like crop rotation, intercropping, smaller-scale food and animal operations that improve the air, water and land quality of the local environment.

President Obama can also nominate a Surgeon General who could set the tone for a better food system. A strong Surgeon General should warn Americans about the longterm health effects of consuming fast foods, and educate and advise the public about the outcomes of unbiased government studies. He/she should also oversee the labeling of foods for their possible detrimental health effects. The tobacco industry no longer has the power to advertise wherever it pleases, nor can it advertise to children; cigarettes are properly labeled with health advisories. A similar tack needs to be taken with unhealthy food.

While millions still die of smoking related illness every year, it’s not too late to lift the veil from Big Food, and in doing so, save lives and public health for years to come.

h/t to Bonnie Powell and Naomi Starkman

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  1. Tuesday, June 16th, 2009
    Paula, I enjoy your work. Didn't know how to contact you offline. Just an FYI that I've linked to your recent posts from Cult of Green in two posts about similar subject: Monsanto enlists Astroturf group vs. Food Inc. and Big Food's Parallels to Big Tobacco. Best, Ken