Nutrition / Public Health

“Ethical Issues in Food and Nutrition,” a Lecture by Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH

This Friday, October 19th, Dr. Marion Nestle presented her take on what she calls Ethical Issues in Food and Nutrition. It’s been almost 10 years since the release of her book, Food Politics, a breakthrough text on the issues surrounding the food industry, nutrition, and health, which now has a permanent home in many American bookshelves. The points from Friday were meant to update the public on the most current situations concerning food policy, ranging from First Lady, Michelle Obama to New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

First Lady, Michelle Obama and School Food: In February 2010, Michelle Obama announced the White House’s Let’s Move campaign, shortly followed by the formation of the Childhood Obesity Taskforce. Recommendations from the Institute of Medicine helped formulate a list of proposed changes for school food, later outlined in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010. However, the USDA’s Final Rule in 2012 overturned two main clauses: no limit is to be made on weekly servings of starchy vegetables, and yes, tomato sauce (on pizza) is still considered a vegetable. However, lunch will be capped at 850 calories for high school students.

The Ethics… Over $5.6 million was spent by U.S. potato, tomato, and frozen pizza companies to lobby against the proposed changes to starchy vegetables and tomato sauce. Meanwhile, Republicans Steve King and Tim Huelskamp, sponsors for the “No Hungry Kids Act,“ continued to call the 850 calorie cap unfair. Marion Nestle pointed out that a Burger King Whopper and Sundae equate to 820 calories (not even 850).

New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg and Soda: January 2007 saw Mayor Bloomberg’s creation of the Food Policy Task Force. The Soda Tax went out the window. Five years later, the “Soda Ban” was approved by the NYC Board of Health. The Ban didn’t do much to help Bloomberg’s image as a “nanny mayor;” the American Beverage Association went as far as to doctor an image of the mayor, dressing him up in a blue dress-suit and matching pastel scarf. The mayor’s response, “Oh I would never wear that dress. It’s so unflattering.”

The Ethics… The ABA isn’t only dressing up the mayor; locals were hired for an impressive $30 per hour to dress up in t-shirts that read “New Yorkers for Beverage Choices”and instructed to wear them around Union Square. Mountain Dew compared the Ban on prohibition, while head of Honest Tea, Seth Goldman, spoke about how the Soda Ban would hurt his smaller-size company (but Seth wasn’t too Honest and forgot to mention that his company is owned by Coca Cola). In case that didn’t change the minds of New Yorkers, the ABA sent residents postcards in the mail that read, “Freedom of Choice.

Currently, the ABA, along with the National Restaurant Association and Korean-American Grocers Association, are taking the New York City Board of Health to court, claiming that the ban is a violation of the 1st Amendment, and New York City residents have no right in choosing who the Mayor appoints as his advisers so the ruling is biased. All this is no surprise; Pepsi Co. spent an alleged $29 million lobbying nationwide against the Soda Tax; $2.2 million was spent on Richmond, California alone. Pepsi Co. attempted to clean up their image to suit a healthier clientele, but stocks fell and the company returned to traditional advertising.

Conclusion:  The question behind ethics is forever changing, and thus the future of food and nutrition is for us to decide   In 1962, we asked “Is it ethical for ‘junk food’ manufacturers to market to children or to low-income populations? In 2012, we ask, “Is it ethical to oppose public health? To support an unhealthy default? To market junk food in developing countries?”

“Food companies don’t wish to make customers unhealthy,” Marion stated, “Food companies want to make a profit.” There exist clear differences between the goals of the industry and those of public health. So the real question is, how can we give the food industry a healthy appetite for profit?

A few more questions to ponder. Is it ethical…

  1. for “junk food” companies to promote physical activity?
  2. for a restaurant not to take a stance on obesity?
  3. to market healthy products to children?
  4. to stigmatize the overweight and obese?
  5. to place a ban on large sugary drinks?
  6. to stigmatize “big organic?”
  7. to oppose proposition 37?
  8. to place a tax on soda?
  9. to allow food waste?
  10. to chlorinate water?

*****

You can find Marion Nestle’s new book, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or the University of Calories Press.

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