It was (Big) business as usual in 2015.
Big Food, Big Agriculture, Big Chemicals, and Big Soda faced off against public health advocates, and the public was all too often the Big Loser. Here are some of the more notable food policy highs and lows from the past year.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics selected Kraft Singles as the first product to earn its new Kids Eat Right nutrition seal. The Academy, representing 75,000 health professionals, advises Congress in developing regulations that shape national food policy. It also counts PepsiCo, Kraft, and ConAgra Foods among its corporate sponsors. In a Daily Show segment, Jon Stewart summed up the announcement by explaining “the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is an academy in the same way this [Kraft Singles] is cheese.”
In his first official act as the newly elected commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, Sid Miller declared a statewide ‘amnesty for cupcakes,’ symbolically squaring off against what he calls the federal overreach of school nutrition guidelines. He also reversed a 10-year old ban, returning deep fryers and soda machines to school cafeterias.
In other childhood obesity news, the president of Cinnabon and a former Coca-Cola president were keynote speakers at the annual conference of the School Nutrition Association.
Dow and Monsanto doubled down on herbicides this year. Their first generation GMO seeds were bestowed with herbicide-resistant genetic material that allowed crops to survive the bounteous spraying of toxins. Now that weeds have adapted with their own toxin resistance, the agro-giants have newly engineered seeds that are able to tolerate more powerful chemicals and have brewed up companion cocktails combining old and new herbicides. The World Health Organization and the EPA have both voiced concerns about their carcinogenic effects on humans. Expect to see the chemical cocktails on your local garden center shelves in time for spring planting.
Stunning news came out of an anti-obesity group called the Global Energy Balance Network. The organization burst on the scene this years with an advisory board stocked with respected scientists and physicians all bearing the message that we’ve been wrong about the link between diet and obesity. Despite the 40,000 or so relevant studies that pop up in a quick Google Scholar search, the group’s vice president, Steven N. Blair, a top exercise scientist with the University of South Carolina, dismissed the link with this statement: “Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on, and there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”
The Global Energy Balance Network proved to be nothing more than a front for Coca-Cola, a little detail that was omitted in GEBN materials. Founded entirely on millions in unrestricted funds provided by Coca-Cola, the soda company selected the organization’s leaders, edited its mission statement, and suggested content for its website. Side note: in the last few years Dr. Blair received $3.5 million in research funds from Coca-Cola. Just saying.
Food safety, transparency, and traceability took a hit this year when Congress repealed the country-of-origin-labeling rule on beef and pork. This came as we were still reeling from the news that even Chipotle, with its fresh ingredients and best practices, was vulnerable to a series of foodborne illness disasters. Then we heard about the new strain of E. coli appearing on Chinese pig farms that is more virulent and antibiotic resistant than anything we’ve ever seen, able to shake off even anti-pathogen drugs of last resort.
Slave ship shrimp, anyone?
It’s not all bad news from 2015.
We have a First Lady who continues to push for better school nutrition. The American appetite for fast food is finally waning. Trans fats and food dyes are disappearing from many processed foods. We’re losing our taste for sugared cereals, sodium-heavy canned soups, white bread, margarine, and corn syrup sweetened beverages. Calorie intake dropped for the first time in decades mostly because of improved product labeling and effective public health messaging.
In the new year we’ll continue to butt heads over GMOS and antibiotics, soda taxes and marketer access to child-oriented media. Resources aren’t aligned with our nutritional goals, and corporate interests are too cozy with policy makers. Here’s hoping that in 2016 common sense prevails and the public’s interests are put ahead of profits.