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Inside Story Americas

The politics of food in the United States

The US is the fattest nation in the industrialised world so why are its politicians not doing more to tackle the issue?
Last Modified: 12 Feb 2013 12:23

The National Institutes of Health estimate obsesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in the US and it is suggested that by 2030 over 40 percent of the population will be clinically obese.

"They [AND] represent 74,000 registered dietitians. These are nutrition professionals who are really on the frontlines of the nation's diet-related chronic disease epidemic so these are the professionals whose job it is to teach Americans how to eat right .... This is part of the explanation for why Americans aren't getting the straight information they need about how to eat right when the very professionals who are supposed to tell them that information are being influenced by America's largest food companies."

- Michele Simon, president of Eat Drink Politics

It is a problem that costs the US healthcare system nearly $150bn a year.

But the issue is not lacking in national attention. First Lady Michelle Obama has called obesity a national security threat and launched various initiatives to promote healthier eating. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has banned the sale of so-called 'big gulp' large size sodas in his city.

But politicians seem loathe to introduce legislation to counter obesity and the food industry has spent millions of dollars lobbying politicians over the years.

Moreover, the food lobby is also sponsoring supposedly independent groups like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

A new report by Michele Simon's watchdog firm Eat Drink Politics alleges that the top nutrition organisation in the US has been compromised by its extensive ties with the food industry.

It says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics listed 38 industry sponsors in its 2011 annual report, which is nearly four times higher than in 2001.

Processed food giants ConAgra and General Mills have been sponsors for 10 of the last 12 years.

The AND's list of approved continuing education providers include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods and Nestle. Amongst the courses listed, one sponsored by Coca-Cola that said sugar is not harmful for children.

"They look at it as a huge opportunity to add credentials to their products, to make them seem healthier ... what would sound better than to have a soft drink partnership with nutrition professionals .... If you just look at pictures, photographs of these AND events, to see the huge sponsorship, stations at these events ... you just have to scratch your head and go, 'I can guess there's a role for soft drinks and candy in my life but should they really be taking such a prominent role in such a nutrition and dietetic association?' .... They are obviously trying to influence dietitians and they tried to portray themselves as healthier foods when they are not."

- Bruce Bradley, a former food industry executive

The report accuses AND of staying away from lobbying for nutrition policies that might upset corporate sponsors, such as limits on soft drink sizes, soda taxes and labelling genetically modified foods.

The president of the AND says the report contains factual inaccuracies. According to him, "the report is a mixture of facts, most of which were obtained from publicly accessible pages on the Academy's website – and opinion and speculation on the author's part.

"The report consists of publicly available facts filtered through the author's opinions. She is of course entitled to her opinions. But opinions are not facts. Let me make it clear that the Academy does not tailor our messages or programmes in any way due to influence by corporate sponsors and this report does not provide evidence to the contrary."

To discuss the issue, Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, is joined by guests: Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who is president of Eat Drink Politics, a consulting firm that campaigns to improve public health; and Bruce Bradley, a former food industry executive who worked for companies including General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco.

Inside Story Americas asked a number of food industry bodies and lobbyists to appear on the programme.

Those unable to take part included the American Beverage Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Grocery Manufacturers Organization, and the Center for Consumer Freedom.


OBESITY IN THE US:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducts obesity surveys
  • CDC survey: Over one-third of the adults in the US were obese in 2009-2010
  • CDC survey: 17 percent of the children and teens in the US were obese in 2009-2010
  • CDC survey: Between 2000 and 2010, obesity increased among men in the US
  • Obesity-related medical costs were estimated at $147bn in 2008
  • Food industry has paid $107m to political campaigns since 1990
  • In 2012, $24m was given to politicians running for congress
  • The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) was founded in 1917 and has 74,000 members - all food and nutrition professionals
  • Its corporate sponsors include food industry companies
  • Sponsors which include Coca-Cola, Nestle, Kraft foods and PepsiCo help AND provide continuing education programmes

 



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