America’s Fast-Food Fat Fist-Fight

A confluence of food purity and health issues is galvanising corporate responses to sugary foods and drinks as well as “pink slime” meat additives. J BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the public outcry as well as the corporate responses to these questions in America over the past several days.

For untold millennia, “the big man” who was in charge of things, sitting confidently in front of the fire, under the thatched roof, or at the “great place” usually was just that:  a big man.

That’s because, unlike most of the other people in his band, clan or tribe, the big man got enough food – sometimes at the expense of everybody else – so that he could grow in girth. Size mattered. Pretty much everybody else didn’t, though, which is why they were thinner, shorter and probably died earlier in life.

Girth and love handles were symbols of wealth, health and fertility. (Remember too, those Neolithic pint-sized stone fertility statues, like the famous Willendorf Venus, which show chubby or zaftig figures. Would they have been powerful symbols of success or items of religious veneration if they had been thin, wan, woebegone representations?)

Over the centuries, however, agricultural progress meant that farmers were generating increasingly significant surpluses, but they were still stymied by the difficulties of transportation – the real chokepoints for trade in commodities. In the early 1800s, for example, farmers on the American frontier found it almost impossible to export their increasingly abundant grain crops via the appalling roads headed back east.

The solution was to distil their crops into corn or rye whiskey and float rafts or flatboats loaded with jugs and barrels of hooch to New Orleans and then onward to markets in the eastern states and the Caribbean islands by ocean-going ships. Then the Eire Canal in America opened up the great granary of the Midwest for bulk exports, followed by the railroads, steam-powered shipping and, finally, shipboard refrigeration made the crucial differences in developing a thriving worldwide trade in foodstuffs. Variety and convenience were becoming attainable goals.

Even before the great 19th century transportation revolution, the first great worldwide super-crop was sugar. Before commercial sugar cane cultivation in the Caribbean, having a sweet tooth could cost you. Sweeteners from sugar beets or honey were expensive and not sufficiently available. But, once bulk sugar cane became the Caribbean Basin’s pre-eminent crop – an agricultural domain that was, of course, totally dependent on brutal slave labour – refined sugar, molasses and rum made from molasses all generated enormous wealth for growers. And it thoroughly changed the diet of the world.

Together with commercial canning/tinning, freezing, and the availability of various chemical preservatives, the world’s diet has been fundamentally transformed in the past century and a half. We now consume fresh Spanish grapes in South Africa’s winter,  Australian beef and New Zealand lamb is standard in the UK, “fresh” tomatoes artificially ripened with ethylene gas are eaten year-round, Brazilian oranges are grown for breakfast juice worldwide, and an unending plethora of convenience foods – loaded with astonishing amounts of sugar and extenders, chemical preservatives and other additives – is ubiquitous. This new diet may be convenient, but most doctors and nutritionists are convinced it is unhealthy in all kinds of ways.

In America at least, there have been three great waves of action to deal with food standards against harmful contamination. The first came at the beginning of the 20th century from exposés like Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, and included the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. The second wave was in the 1930s with the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. And now, most recently, there has been growing public indignation against manufactured processed foods packed with sugars and additives and a movement towards healthier eating – not to mention fears by some over a so-called Franken-food/genetically modified foods industry.

In response to all this, in the past several days, the Disney entertainment conglomerate joined with first lady Michelle Obama to announce that all products advertised on its various child-centric television channels, radio stations and websites will now comply with a new set of nutritional standards. These restrictions will even apply to those Saturday-morning cartoons on ABC stations owned by Disney, which have been a key conduit for flogging sugar-coated cereals to children for generations.

As a result of this decision, items such as Capri Sun drinks and Kraft Lunchables meals – big sellers both – plus a cornucopia of candy, sugared cereal and fast food, will no longer be acceptable advertising material, Disney says. In addition, the company says it will reduce the amount of sodium by about 25% in about 12 million children’s meals served annually at its theme parks.

Covering this announcement, The New York Times reported “Disney will also introduce what it calls Mickey Check in grocery store aisles: Disney-licensed products that meet criteria for limited calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar can display a logo — Mickey Mouse ears and a check mark — on their packaging and the logo will also include the slogan, ‘Good For You — Fun Too!’ ”

One small fly in the ointment, though, is that these new guidelines will only come into effect in three years’ time because of long-term contracts with advertisers. As a result, parents will have to endure three more years of importuning from children in shopping trolleys who beg their parents to buy this gunk.

Disney says its decision will apply to any programming aimed at children under 12, including popular live-action programmes. With this decision, Disney rivals like Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network will now face pressure to follow Disney’s lead. Robert Iger, Disney’s chairman, told the media: “Companies in a position to help with solutions to childhood obesity should do just that. This is not altruistic. This is about smart business.”

In making its decision public, Disney said it was actually following recommendations the government originally proposed a year ago to encourage the food sector to overhaul the way it has been marketing its products to children. There is obviously a commercial upside for Disney in all this. They argue this decision positions the company as the brand families can trust – and that this, in turn, will boost sales of all the other stuff they sell, including Pixar DVDs, branded baby clothes, theme park-packaged vacations – and the millions of other branded products that are worth billions. It also positions Disney to be the gold standard for kid-centric but more nutritious food.

As Iger told the press, health food for children is already a very solid business for Disney – in the past five years its customers had bought about two billion servings of Disney-licensed servings of fruit and vegetables. This just makes it better.

Industry critics, like Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, admits that Disney’s plan will put it “far ahead of competitors,” although Wootan added Disney’s standards are lower than those her organisation would like to see – Disney’s 10 grams of sugar per serving is almost double what the CSPI had hoped for. Wootan adds: “This limits the marketing of the worst junk foods, but it won’t mean you’re only going to see ads for apples, bananas and oranges, either.”

Disney says it developed its new nutrition standards in association with experts in the field and further said these guidelines are based on the government’s own “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”, along with the self-policing efforts of Burger King and Campbell Soup. Disney has received gold standard praise: Michelle Obama issued a statement that said: “With this new initiative, Disney is doing what no major media company has ever done before in the US — and what I hope every company will do going forward.”

Disney’s announcement has come on the heels of a New York City proposal to ban the sale of those giant-sized bottles of carbonated sodas and other sugary drinks – as a response to the growing incidence of childhood obesity. Previously, US food companies had been opposing government regulations on advertising to kids, saying they could clean their dirty plates all by themselves.

But in the Big Apple, the soda industry is battling back against New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban. Their tactic has been a full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times, picturing Bloomberg as an imperious nanny. The ad reads: “Bye Bye Venti: Nanny Bloomberg has taken his strange obsession with what you eat one step further. He now wants to make it illegal to serve ‘sugary drinks’ bigger than 16oz (454 grams). What’s next? Limits on the width of a pizza slice, size of a hamburger or amount of cream cheese on your bagel?” The advertisement adds taglines – “You only thought you lived in the land of the free” and “New Yorkers need a mayor, not a nanny.” Naturally, too, radio hatecaster Rush Limbaugh has chipped in his two cents on the proposed plan, lambasting it in his usual, barely restrained fashion.

Bloomberg’s plan would apply to bottled soda and fountain drinks containing more than 25 calories per 275 grams, but would not include alcohol, fruit juices, diet soda or any beverage at least half milk in content. Grocery stores and convenience stores would be exempt. The mayor says his proposal is based on public health issues, rather than some kind of gustatory Puritanism. Or, as his honour says, the city now spends $4-billion a year on healthcare for overweight residents, and these offending drinks are the most significant factor in the increasing number of obese or overweight New Yorkers.

Defending his plan, Bloomberg told a national television news broadcast, “In New York City, smoking deaths are down to 7,000 a year from something in the 20s. Obesity deaths are at 5,000 and skyrocketing. Obesity will kill more people than smoking in the next couple of years.”

Not surprisingly, the New York City Beverage Association says such a ban will have little discernible impact on the obesity rate. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? “The New York City Health Department’s unhealthy obsession with attacking soft drinks is again pushing them over the top,” comments Stefan Friedman, the association’s spokesman. He adds: “The city is not going to address the obesity issue by attacking soda because soda is not driving the obesity rates. In fact, as obesity continues to rise, CDC data shows that calories from sugar-sweetened beverages are a small and declining part of the American diet.”

Bloomberg argues in response that the proposal is “purely education. It forces you to see the difference, in the case of the two different-sized cups. The public does act when they get the information. And all we’re doing here is saying, ‘If you want to order 32 ounces of soda, in a restaurant that we supervise, this restaurant must give you two 16-ounce glasses.’ ” If the city’s regulatory structures approve the proposal, it could take effect as early as next March. But, one has to wonder where Disney would come down on this plan – for or against – if it had a theme park in New York City.

Meanwhile, besides her tie-up with Disney, Michelle Obama is launching a healthy-eating cookbook, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Garden’s Across America. This follows her “Let’s Move” youth physical fitness campaign and the establishment of a highly publicised kitchen garden on the White House grounds. As the first lady said on a major morning TV show: “It is definitely a passion — getting our kids in this country eating healthy, helping families make good choices about how they eat and stay active — and this book is a way to talk about our journey but also talk about the challenges that we face as a nation around health”.

In the midst of all of this, a growing number of American school districts are no longer ordering the so-called “pink slime” beef product that was the focus of a major public health uproar earlier this year. According to the country’s department of agriculture, 47 states that participate in its subsidised National School Lunch Program are no longer ordering ground beef to feed millions of children daily if it contains a product known as “lean finely textured beef”. At this point, only Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota are still ordering beef for school lunches that contain this meat-filler product.

Pink Slime has actually been around for decades, and regulators say it is safe to eat, but its nickname has now become so widely known and universally greeted with such a scowl of disgust that it is now a very tough sell. Technically it is made out of fatty bits of beef heated and then treated with a whiff of ammonia to kill any bacteria. Sounds really yummy.

In response to the growing outcry, the department announced a few months ago that it would now give schools the choice of purchasing beef without pink slime in it, for the 2012-2013 school year. The government continues to insist this stuff is safe, affordable and nutritious and that it reduces overall fat content in meat – it just has a nickname that makes it sound like a prop for a bad SF film.

In the current economic climate, though, it was inevitable its manufacturers would argue this disgust with the slime had become a job-destruction issue. One manufacturer, Beef Products Inc, said in an email to the media: “Based upon the misrepresentations that have been pervasive in the media to this point, it comes as no surprise that the majority of states have currently elected to purchase ground beef that does not contain lean finely textured beef,” and that as a result it will be forced to close three of its four processing plants.”

Can one now imagine rightwing Republicans standing in front of a shuttered pink-slime manufacturing plant and blaming Barack Obama’s nanny state and the left-wing media for the job losses – all while eating a plateful of the stuff?
Even if Americans haven’t made up their minds about whether anyone over the age of 16 can own an armoury of dangerous firearms, American public pressure seems to be coalescing again around the idea that the government has the right to protect its citizens from food that can kill you, although this movement may need to be wrapped in the cloak of private enterprise doing what it does best – respond to market pressures.

Of course this might all be moot if science pulls a fast one on us. I’m just waiting for an actual reprise of the Woody Allen film  Sleeper – when the lead character, played by Allen, comes out of his cryogenic casing, he is presented with a drink, a cigar and a huge steak. He’s told – surprise – it’s been discovered all these things are actually good for you! DM

Read more:

  • The Food and Drug Administration website
  • Promoting Nutrition, Disney to Restrict Junk-Food Ads at the New York Times
  • Disney’s guidelines at the company’s website
  • Soft Drink Industry Fights Back, Depicting Bloomberg as Nanny at the ABC News website
  • Michelle Obama Champions for Healthy Eating in ‘American Grown’ in Essence magazine
  • New York City Mayor Bloomberg Seeks Ban on Super Size Soft Drinks at
  • Disney’s new diet for kids: No more junk food ads at the AP
  • Schools turn their noses up at ‘pink slime’ at the AP
  • Evolution’s Sweet Tooth, a column by evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman in the New York Times
  • What Is Food?, a column by Times magazine food columnist Mark Bittman
  • How Sugar Changed the World at the website

Photo: Women participate in a Zumba exercise class in a low-income neighborhood of Denver May 15, 2012. With a majority of Colorado adults and nearly 25 percent of the state’s kids obese or overweight, free workout classes organized by non-profit LiveWell Colorado are providing more access to physical activity in the fight against obesity. Photo taken May 15, 2012. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)


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