Attacks on the ‘Food Police’

So who are these “food police” we’re starting to hear so much about? The term has begun showing up in media accounts of campaigns to reform school lunch or in discussions of the food industry’s growing legion of critics in the media. It’s the “food police” who want to get soda out of the schools and who argue that fast food outlets should disclose nutritional information about what they sell. The “food police” supposedly want to take away your constitutional right to a Big Mac — or, at the very least, your right to enjoy a Big Mac with a clear conscience.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is often mentioned as a leading institution in the world of food law enforcement. Yale University professor Kelly Brownell, whose concept of culinary law-and-order includes proposals to tax junk food, is a prominent member of the force. Several authors have been added to its ranks as well — Eric Schlosser and Marion Nestle hold high positions down at the stationhouse and, apparently, I have recently joined the force as a new recruit. I’m honored to be counted in their company, but before I accept the badge I want to take a moment to think through the implications of the title.

As near as I can determine, the whole notion of the “food police” got its start in the fevered brain of Rick Berman, a lawyer and former restaurant industry executive who founded the Center for Consumer Freedom. This nonprofit organization was originally funded by the tobacco and restaurant industries to fight smoking bans in bars and restaurants. Fresh from that resounding defeat, the “center” (it’s unclear whether there’s anything more to it than Mr. Berman, his Web site and his sizeable budget) expanded its mission, which is summed up on its site: “The growing cabal of ‘food cops,’ health care enforcers, militant activists, meddling bureaucrats and violent radicals who think they know ‘what’s best for you’ are pushing against our basic freedoms. We’re here to push back.”

The Center for Consumer Freedom is actually not a consumer group, but an astro-turf (that’s faux grassroots) advocacy group funded by Big Food to discredit those in the media and government who would do anything — including litigate, regulate and, apparently, express disagreeable opinions — to interfere with the industry’s freedom to make as much money as possible selling us junk food. Many of the same groups that Big Tobacco launched to attack its critics (including the Center for Consumer Freedom and the Heartland Institute) have seamlessly moved into attacking the critics of Big Food. This is hardly a coincidence: large segments of the food industry share corporate parents with Big Tobacco. Not surprisingly, the highest priority of these groups is to counter every suggestion that food, like tobacco, is a public health issue that demands public education and action.

In an interview with the trade publication Chain Leader a couple of years ago, Mr. Berman explained that one of the best ways to “push back” against criticism of the industry was to “shoot the messenger.” That can take many forms, including the personal attack: the site has made pictorial fun of the fact that Professor Brownell, who writes on obesity and advocates junk food taxes, is not quite as buff as a leading “food cop” is supposed to be.

But though the phrase seems to have begun its life in this right-wing corporate incubator, it’s been picked up all over the place, and is now used unselfconsciously even in the pages of The New York Times. Last Tuesday, the Science Times section ran a piece about the unintended consequences of the campaign to reform school food under the headline, “Well-Intentioned Food Police May Create Havoc With Children’s Diets.” Well, at least these food cops are “well-intentioned.” But the phrase should be examined closely before being so lightly tossed around.
To describe critics of agribusiness as cops or police is to imply that their messages are somehow repressive, while the activities and competing messages of the food companies represent the opposite: freedom, a word they dearly love. When a journalist writes critically of the cooking or marketing practices at McDonald’s, he is somehow interfering with people’s freedom to enjoy their chicken nuggets — the journalist stands for control. Yet for some reason the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by McDonald’s to market its food represents not control but freedom. Keep in mind that this marketing involves the routine manipulation of children — bribing them with toys, enticing them to eat more with cleverly designed packaging and portion sizes, and deploying the arts of food science to exploit their inborn cravings for fat, salt and sugar. So who exactly is the more “controlling” party here?

American food companies spend an estimated $36 billion to market food to us — that is to say, to get us to eat more of their products than we otherwise would. Their techniques include putting health claims on junk food (my current favorite: Whole Grain Lucky Charms); supersizing portions; slipping high-fructose corn syrup into every imaginable and heretofore unsweetened product; and offering seemingly healthy alternatives to high-fat foods that turn out to be just as fattening (check out McDonald’s new grilled chicken Caesar salad with Newman’s Own dressing: more calories than a Quarter Pounder).

Now compare this $36 billion worth of powerful, hidden and manipulative messages with the voices on the other side endeavoring, openly, to point all this out — in articles, books, academic studies, op-ed columns and a handful of independent films. How much is spent getting that message out? Marion Nestle addresses the discrepancy in resources in her book “Food Politics.” She compares the $1 million spent by the National Cancer Institute on its Five a Day for Better Health campaign (to get Americans to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables) to the $32 million spent in 2004 to advertise a single minor food product — Cheez-Its.

Some of the same food companies that preach the virtues of freedom of choice are considerably less enamored of freedom of thought and opinion. They decry litigation against the food industry, yet when Oprah Winfrey, a “food cop,” did a show suggesting there might be mad cow disease in the U.S. beef supply, the beef industry sued to silence her, using one of the “veggie-libel laws” that agribusiness has secured in more than a dozen agricultural states. Under these laws it is a crime to speak ill of a food product. For a journalist today, it is far riskier to criticize a rib-eye steak than a human being.

(Oprah won her suit, at an estimated cost of $1 million, though you have to wonder if she’ll ever do another show on the beef industry. Her concerns about the American beef supply turned out to be well-founded; since her program aired 10 years ago, three cases of mad cow disease have turned up in the U.S.)

But while the food industry is quite prepared to attack its critics using veggie libel laws, it seeks to insulate itself from litigation by pushing Congress and state legislatures to pass “cheeseburger laws” that grant the industry immunity from obesity lawsuits. Eric Schlosser, the author of “Fast Food Nation,” knows how the industry “pushes back” against its critics. In April The Wall Street Journal reported that McDonald’s had launched a campaign to attack “Chew on This,” a new book by Schlosser and Charles Wilson. The company distributed a memo to franchisees, alluding to plans to “discredit the message and the messenger.” According to The Journal, several groups affiliated with the conservative Washington lobbying firm DCI Group, which counts McDonald’s and Coca-Cola among its clients, launched attacks on Mr. Schlosser.

One charge is that he supports the decriminalization of marijuana. (He outlined his position in an April 2004 essay in The New York Times, “Make Peace With Pot.”) This might not seem terribly germane, until you remember that “Chew on This” is directed at middle school children. Mr. Schlosser reports that several schools that invited him to speak about the book have received letters urging them to cancel his talks on the grounds he is not fit to speak to children. Hecklers, industry representatives and pamphleteers have also been showing up at his public appearances.

Healthy debate, you might say. But debate is healthy only when it is conducted openly, and that is surely not the case here. As Mr. Schlosser pointed out in a recent e-mail message, “One of the fundamental differences between us food police and these food pushers is that we put our names on what we write, whereas these food companies hide behind front groups, and the front groups refuse to disclose their corporate funding. They love the word ‘freedom’ but try to destroy anyone with a different point of view.”

For more information on the campaign against Mr. Schlosser and his new book, go to Source Watch documents the links between various public relations and lobbying firms and their corporate funders.