Diet and Weight Loss: The Food Industry Flexes Its Muscles

Forget those feel-good ads. Forget the photos of food industry executives standing next to First Lady Michelle Obama. The food lobby has been out in force to thwart the government’s efforts to improve the public’s health. Some examples:

Schools. Companies that sell food to schools are working with (mostly) House Republicans to gut the recent improvements in school meals. If they get their way, kids will be eating less fruits and vegetables and more salt and white bread.

The industry is hiding behind the School Nutrition Association, the misnamed organization of cafeteria directors that gets half its funding from food companies. Never mind that this generation of kids is the heaviest ever and will likely have the highest rate of diabetes ever.


Spuds. The potato industry, working with Democrats and Republicans from potato-growing states, is trying to get white potatoes into the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Special Supplemental Nutrition program. Never mind that women and children already eat plenty of white potatoes and don’t need the government to give them more. The welfare of potato growers and processors clearly comes first.

Trans fat. Food manufacturers want to weaken, if not kill, the Food and Drug Administration’s proposal to revoke the approval of partially hydrogenated oil, the main source of heart-damaging artificial trans fat. Never mind that trans fat can easily be eliminated from processed foods. So far, Argentina, Austria, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland have done it, and their food industries seem to have survived perfectly well.

Sodium. Companies that I’ve talked to are unhappy that the FDA plans to propose goals for lowering sodium levels in processed foods. Even though the targets would be voluntary, companies fear that their higher-sodium products would look bad (which they are) and that the guidelines would eventually become mandatory. Never mind that halving sodium consumption would save about 100,000 lives and tens of billions of dollars annually.

Food companies want to feed at the trough of government subsidies or continue marketing foods that are unnecessarily unhealthy. Yes, I know, that ain’t exactly stop-the-presses news. Big Food has been successfully pressuring politicians for decades.

In 1980, for example, the food, advertising, and broadcasting industries strong-armed Congress into stripping the Federal Trade Commission of much of its authority to regulate advertising directed to children, after the agency said that those ads manipulate naïve minds. To this day, the FTC has less power to stop unfair advertising aimed at children than advertising aimed at adults.

In a more recent example, in 2012 the food industry got Congress to kill draft voluntary guidelines for marketing foods to children. Even that excellent proposal apparently was too much for junk-food advertisers.

If we could listen in on company lobbyists as they yammered away in the halls of Congress, I bet we’d never hear them utter the words “improving kids’ health”…because that simply isn’t their concern.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Executive Director

Center for Science in the Public Interest

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