Food Labels, Corporations, and the Media

The food industry clearly has too much power in Washington. It took 10 years before the FDA finally got the industry to list trans fats on food labels. That law takes effect in 2006. In the meantime, millions of people have suffered obesity, disease, and death — even though the science has been known for more than 40 years. Unfortunately, the labeling law is too weak — which reflects the power of the food industry in Washington.

Originally published 2004

The Power of the Food Industry

The food industry clearly has too much power in Washington. It took 10 years before the FDA finally got the industry to list trans fats on food labels. That law takes effect in 2006. In the meantime, millions of people have suffered obesity, disease, and death, even though the science has been known for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, the labeling law is too weak — which reflects the weakness of the FDA.

It’s not the FDA’s fault, course. The FDA is staffed with well-meaning people who are trying to do the right thing. But they’re understaffed and politically outgunned. The FDA is understaffed because a government which refuses to tax its corporations — or even to pursue and collect taxes it is rightfully owed — is financially starving itself. In the process, it is starving the goverment agencies that were established to protect it’s citizens. The FDA is politically outgunned because corporate campaign contributions and powerful lobbyists speak with a much louder voice than even clearly documented science.

Since trans fats kill slowly, American corporations haven’t gotten in trouble for using them. And since the partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats are profitable, American corporations continue using them. They’ve been outlawed in Europe and Canada for decades. But those political systems have found ways to balance the needs of corporations with those of workers, consumers, and the environment. Here in America, corporations are king. They run the political system. And our children are paying the price.

We’re paying the price, too, of course — in reduced health and increased health care costs. But ingredients like partially hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup weren’t part of the food supply in the 1970’s. So anyone who grew up before then at least had a decent start on a healthy life. But our children are growing up with this crap in their mouths every moment of their lives. Obesity levels are rising, and doctors are observing that “adult” diseases are occurring in children at an ever earlier age.

Learn more: What’s Wrong with Trans Fat Labels?.

Effects of the Labeling Law

So far, the labeling law appears to have had a couple of good effects:

  • Increased awareness of the dangers of trans fats, and
  • Reduced use of partially hydrogenated oils

But there is a cautionary tale here, as well. Those beneficial results may not last, and their timing may be giving us clues as to just how far out of control things really are.

Increased Awareness

Let’s start with “increased awareness”. As a result of media attention, the public is more aware of trans fats than ever before. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there is something slightly suspicious about the timing of these media alerts.

As the law gets closer to taking effect, media coverage has been rising. It is looking very much as though the public will become fully informed only moments before the danger has passed. This is a serious charge that needs investigation, but I’ve seen it now in a couple of cases, and I beginning to think that the timing I’ve observed isn’t a coincidence.

For example, I recently saw a great FrontLine episode on SUV’s. It seems that for the past 10 years, they have been prone to rolling over. So in addition to guzzling gas because of their size, allowing car manufacturers to evade emissions restrictions because the vehicles are classified as “trucks”, and killing people in other cars by riding over their bumpers, it turns out that SUV’s are also killing their owners by rolling over. It also turns out that the auto industry knew that, and simply sat on the information.

Interestingly, they only had to widen the wheelbase a few inches to solve the problem. But that would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It was cheaper to settle the occasional lawsuit. So they pocketed the profits for 10 years until, now, the wheelbases will finally be widened.

So now, we’re hearing about the story. Now, moments before the problem will go away, we find out what a problem it has been. And guess what? The story will help to sell a lot of new SUV’s. After all, everyone who has one of the old ones will want to trade it in, won’t they?

So now I’ve seen SUV’s and partially hydrogenated oils come into the media limelight just as laws are changing to eliminate the problems they cause. Is that a coincidence? Or is it the result of giant corporate conglomerates that own both auto manufacturers and media outlets, both food manufacturers and media outlets?

With giant corporations owning each other, they don’t bite each others fingers. They work together for their mutual benefit. Unfortunately for us, it’s not always to our benefit.

When it comes to media coverage of things like SUV problems and partially hydrogenated oils and SUV’s, for example, timing is critical. If you do it too soon, manufacturer profits are reduced. If you do it too late, media coverage is inconsequential, and the media doesn’t get credit for being “alert guardians of the public interest”.

Clearly, media coverage is timid best when it comes out just before it no longer makes any difference. It needs to be far enough in advance that the media can claim to have sounded an early warning bell, but no so far ahead or so vigorous that it imperils manufacturing profits. That’s the kind of timing I’ve seen in two cases now. Is it a pattern?

Reduced Use of Partial Hydrogenation

Then there is reduced use of partially hydrogenated oils. That’s another positive impact of the labeling law — so far. Some companies, like Frito Lay, stopped using partially hydrogenated oils the moment the law was passed in 2003 without even waiting for it to fully take effect in 2006. That’s a wonderful step. But there is a reason they didn’t do it sooner: Using partially hydrogenated oils saved money, which increased their profits. Had they stopped using that ingredient before the law took effect, they would have been at a competitive disadvantage.

That competitive pressure shows just how necessary government action really is. Unless all companies are constrained, a company that really wants to do the right thing finds itself unable to compete. After all, the science has been known for decades. But a even a company that claims it is a high-minded outfit that cares for the consumer preferred to ignore it until the law was passed.

The problem of course, is that the American government is run almost exclusively by corporations, rather than consumers. There is none of the political balance we find in Europe and Canada. American citizens desperately need a vehicle that puts the political process back into their hands. The Citizens’ Advisory is just such a vehicle.

A Cautionary Tale

So far, we’ve seen one danger of corporate conglomerates: When one corporation can own another, and one of them is the media — or if a conglomerate is large enough to determine editorial policy by dint of its combined advertising budget — then the media can no longer be trusted to provide timely information. Instead, you keep finding out what you should have know 10 years ago and, in the meantime, you’ve paid the price.

We’ve also seen the danger of unregulated corporate behavior. Left to their own devices, corporations choose the direction that maximizes profits. Foods that cause disease slowly enough don’t create waves. If the ingredients are cheaper, corporations will use them. But, since corporate money dominates the political process, we’re finding it very difficult to regulate their behavior. Even large governments agencies that used to be regarded as powerful — agencies like the FDA, SEC, and IRS — are finding it increasingly impossible to act as an effective brake on corporate behavior.

We know that trans fats are dangerous. We know they cause disease. But food manufacturers have been using ingredients that contain them for decades. They make you sick, of course. But they do it slowly. And if a giant conglomerate happens to include a medical industry as well, what do they care? The conglomerate as a whole will make even more money when you do. In other words, corporations have no incentive to regulate themselves. They must be regulated externally, or they will not be regulated at all.

But the final aspect of the cautionary tale derives from the fact that the trans fat labeling law is atrociously weak. It appears to allow for as much as 2.2 grams of trans fat in every single serving — and the “suggested serving” can be something as atypical and unnatural as “half a candy bar”.

As a result of that horrendous loophole, products are beginning to appear on the market that claim “0% trans fat”, while the ingredient list still shows partially hydrogenated oil. That’s a loophole big enough to drive a truck through, and food manufacturers are making a freeway out of it.

The question, will the public remain alert to this problem? If it doesn’t, then where is the incentive to avoid partially hydrogenated oils? Will Frito Lay’s good intentions evaporate? Will they return to using partially hydrogenated oils? And if partially hydrogenated oils remain in use? Will media attention disappear, as a result, to keep from impacting food industry profits? Only time will tell.

The bottom line here is that the trans fat labeling law is weak — because the FDA is politically weaker than it needs to be — because the American government is financially weaker than it should be, relative to corporations — because our politicians depend on corporate money to win elections — because the media plays a deciding role in close elections. We don’t have just one problem. There is a chain of problems we have to fix.

Copyright © 2004-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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