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Wednesday
Jun052013

Food Fight Breaks Out on Left

In a piece for The Huffington Post today, I explain how the left and the far-left are bickering over not only the role of government, but of the private sector, in the fight against obesity. Can industry be part of the solution? Or, as the far-left insists (and actually admits), must they submit to radical left-wing demands?

A major schism has developed among left-of-center food activist groups who influence food policy.

On the left, are the liberal Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign who believe that a business case can be made for industry to offer consumers healthier and lower calorie food options. They are trying to foster an environment where portion-controlled snacks, healthy frozen entrees, and alternatives to sugary soda will be good for Big Food’s bottom line. They figure that if consumers demand healthy options, industry will respond to meet the demand. Sure, there’s a subtle threat when “encouragement” comes from the White House, but the focus, literally, is on the carrot, not the stick.

On the far left, however, are the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), self-styled food lawyer Michele Simon, and a cadre of strident activists who believe sticks, in the form of aggressive government interventions, are the way to fight obesity. In their world-view, food companies acting in their best interest can’t be a part of the solution, because they are the problem. The far-left voices are influential; their fiery rhetoric gets them rewarded with plenty of media.

The sticks include soda taxes, distorted prices, and marketing restrictions like those placed on the tobacco industry, as if food and tobacco are evil twins. Nonsense.

The skirmish on the left bubbled up early in the year when a Coca-Cola commercial called for everyone to be a part of the obesity discussion. The ad, titled “Coming Together,” points out that obesity is caused by consuming more calories than we burn, and that calories come from many sources, including its own products. Coca-Cola also touts that, consistent with the First Lady’s approach, it is offering lower calorie options, providing more clear calorie labeling, and selling smaller serving sizes. There’s a constructive role for everyone in the effort to reduce obesity.

But the ad drew outrage from the likes of CSPI, whose Executive Director, Dr. Michael Jacobson, told Reuters that the company is “trying to pretend they’re part of the solution instead of part of the problem.” He scoffed at the notion that Coca-Cola could make positive changes without hurting its business. He charged that if Coca-Cola was serious about being part of the solution, it would stop advertising sugary drinks completely, charge more for them than lower calorie options, and end their opposition to soda taxes.

The divide on the left widened last week when the White House’s Sam Kass heaped praise on some of the world’s largest food companies. The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, which includes Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé, and Kraft, among their members, announced that according to their own analysis, 16 members had met their pledge to the First Lady’s Partnership for a Healthier America by cutting by 1.5 trillion the number of calories sold last year, compared with the 2007 baseline. The news came at an event at the Bipartisan Policy Center hosted by former democratic congressman and Clinton Administration cabinet member Dan Glickman. Joining him was RWJF’s Senior Scientist,Dr. C. Tracey Orleans, who heads up the left-wing group’s anti-obesity program. RWJF is running an independent review of the industry’s calorie cutting claim.
Kass welcomed the industry announcement, saying if the numbers are confirmed by RWJF, this is “another step towards improving the health of families and we are encouraged by their leadership, yet we know much more work is ahead to ensure a healthier future.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Dr. Orleans referred to the announcement as a “great example of industry leaders publicly committing to address obesity, especially childhood obesity.” And as if to rub salt in the wounds of industry-vilifying food police, Dr. Orleans echoed the Coca-Cola ad theme, saying “It is going to take all of us working together” to address obesity.

The prominent anti-food industry voices on the far left must be steaming mad that the White House and the usually reliably-left RWJF are supportive of the industry claim. I asked Michele Simon whether companies can be part of the solution to obesity, or whether they must always be the opposition. She wrote that “the best way for industry to be ‘part of the solution’ is to stop causing the problem.” She, like CSPI’s Dr. Jacobson, thinks the only way industry could be part of the solution is to “stop obstructing” her public policy goals. 

The positive news on calories, while still preliminary, belies the far-left view that voluntary approaches will “never work,” as Michelle Simon puts it.

If consumers value having lower calorie options, low-calorie pre-packaged portions, healthy and convenient frozen dinners, industry’s interest in making money will align with the public health goals.

By reflexively criticizing industry, rather than finding ways to bring stakeholders together, food police do more harm than good. When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Michelle Obama represent the right-wing alternative to food police, the nation’s political middle should take it as a sign that we’ve tacked far enough to the left.

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