Q&A with Michele Simon: Helping consumers see past junk food "nutriwashing"
Michele Simon, public health attorney and author of Appetite for Profit, wants people to rethink what they are eating and why. She peers through the food industry marketing to see what big packaged food manufacturers and restaurant giants are really selling. I reached her at her office at Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog group, where she is research and policy director. The first part of our interview ran last week. The second part is below. It has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: When I was reading the book, I thought one of your greatest services was to explain what some of these organizations with very consumer-friendly names actually do. The Center for Consumer Freedom being a lobbying group for the food industry, for example, or the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition publishing research articles without talking about its corporate backing. How did you choose which groups deserved scrutiny?
A: The ones that showed up in the press the most were the ones that stood out. The Center for Consumer Freedom is the most notorious. CCF's leader Rick Berman got started with funding from Philip Morris and then expanded to alcohol and food. He took out full page ads in major newspapers making fun of lawyers and disputing that obesity was even a problem. They would also get free press for this. Reporters quote CCF "experts" sometimes without explaining they are a front group.
Other newspapers have published op-eds by CCF disclosing that the center is funded by the restaurant industry. The American Council for Fitness and Nutrition also has been able to get numerous op-eds and letters to the editor published, often without their industry funding being revealed.
Q: The Center for Consumer Freedom asked you for your financial records at one point. Was this just a request for your 990 tax reporting form or something more? And what sort of interaction did you have with them?
A: They did ask for my 990s. I had published an op-ed critical of Burger King. The ink was barely dry on the newspaper when I got a letter from CCF requesting the financial records for my nonprofit. It was just me and a part-time assistant. I didn't have a big staff. I had to make a lot of phone calls. I knew some other groups who had also been harassed by Berman. Because my nonprofit was so small, I didn't have to file with the IRS. I wrote back saying that I have no 990, so leave me alone. They wrote me back again saying that wasn't good enough. So then I sent them a copy of the IRS form that said I don't have to file a 990. They were obviously just trying to intimidate me and waste my time.
Q: Did you hear from them after the book?
A: No but they have this stupid website listing people they call the food police and have me up there.
Q: You talk about that a lot in the book. When did that idea of "food police" or "they're restricting your freedom" start to creep in to the national discussion about obesity?
A: This is a tactic from the tobacco industry. Marginalizing your critics has been done for a long time. It's a tactic that comes from the right wing strategy of criticizing people who think government should regulate. The whole idea of the nanny state goes back to the 1970s, when we had some good things happening around consumer protection, and then corporate America woke up and realized they had a big problem on their hands if the Ralph Naders of the world kept winning. The idea of the food police doesn't just come out of food. It comes out of this larger backlash to the consumer movement.
Q: You repeatedly talk in the book about how overeating is not a matter of personal responsibility. But isn't it? A study just came out earlier this year that showed the average body mass index in the US is much higher than in Japan, Switzerland, or Germany and yet those countries also have fast food and potato chips and soda. Aren't people there just doing a better job of eating a more balanced diet?
A: If you started out living in Japan and are of normal weight and you moved to the United States, you will take on the American eating habits, if not in your own generation, then probably by the next generation. That's what the research shows, that the next generation of immigrants develops Western-style health problems. So it's not genetic, it's an environmental cause.
Other countries are catching up to us, too. Just give them some time. The UK is getting pretty close to America's numbers in terms of obesity and heart disease. This is the same trend we saw with tobacco. As some countries become increasingly hostile to smoking, the tobacco industry has figured out it needs to go to the developing world to find new customers. Smoking rates in the US have dropped dramatically, but globally they continue to rise.
You will see the same trends with diet-related diseases. The food companies have been on the march in the developing world and will continue to be on the march.
Q: You point out in the book that the American Diabetes Association receives funding from companies such as Kraft Foods, J.M. Smucker and H. J. Heinz. And you ding them for partnering with Cadbury Schweppes, the candy and soda maker. Have you found any evidence at all, though, that these corporate sponsorships have affected the policy stands that ADA takes or the research it supports?
A: I didn't look at ADA on their policy positions, just the fact that they were taking money. But with the American Heart association, I did write about how there were a number of states that were supporting school nutrition bills that would restrict soda and junk food. For example, Rhode Island's state AHA affiliate was supporting this sort of school legislation, and then something strange happened. Several people with state AHA affiliates said they were told to stop endorsing these state bills on school vending machines. That directive had come from the national office. That's a direct cause and effect, where the American Heart Association has financial corporate ties and made a policy choice as a result.
Q: Let's talk about this idea of nutriwashing fast food, as you call it. How did you come up with that term?
A: It came out of greenwashing, which came out of whitewashing. We needed some way to describe what companies were doing. I've seen some people say healthwashing, which may be even a better term.
Q: I love the idea of whole grain Lucky Charms. Where were they when I was a kid? My dad forbid us from eating "junk cereals," as he called them.
A: You just slap the phrase "whole grain" on any junk food and it magically turns healthy.
Q: The Smart Choices campaign is another example of that.
A: History just keeps repeating itself. PepsiCo had the Smart Spot symbol, and then the food industry came up with Smart Choices. It's like Groundhog Day. We go through the same charade every year or so.
Q: You actually got to see some of the discussions first-hand about how programs like this get started.
A: The most fun I had for the book was when I got to attend this conference of defense lawyers for the food industry. They were all talking about plaintiff's lawyers and making it sound as if there was a glut of lawsuits coming from this army of plaintiff's lawyers. It was just so over the top, how these lawyers were describing what was going on. I wanted to get up and say, "What are you talking about? Where is this army, because I'd like to join them."
The main group promoting this idea was a law firm who was hoping to get money out of the food industry to help them defend against this imaginary avalanche of lawsuits that, of course, never materialized. The name of the game for defense lawyers and trade groups is to present something really ominous so that they will then be hired to fix it. The funniest part of the conference was when the company put up a slide quoting an article that I had written saying that junk food was the next tobacco. They were using my words to make the point that the food industry should be worried.
The whole experience was strange but revealing in a number of ways. For example, I talked with one consultant who was excitedly telling me about their plan to hire third party experts on behalf of food companies so they could publish scientific papers and op-eds on behalf of the companies. Nobody would know that the food company had paid this third party expert.
Q: It's the same thing with ghost writing for the pharmaceutical companies. How did you organize your time in writing this book and how long did it take?
A: When I signed the book contact, the publisher gave me four months to finish it. It was pretty stressful. I didn't have a full-time job then. I was freelancing and teaching and juggling a few things like that. But that four months deadline did force me to focus on finishing the book. Luckily, I already had a good chunk of it done, but I did have to hire someone to help me copy edit. That made a big difference. Then organizing it to have it all logically flow was a challenge. I would say that, over time, it took two years of researching and writing with four months of focused work to make it into a publishable book.
Q: Are you working on another one?
A: I do have an idea for another book, but I also have a full-time job. So we'll just have to see what the future brings.
Photo credit: Klaus Nahr via Flickr