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Q&A with Michele Simon: Behind the Battle Lines of Local Food Wars

Q&A with Michele Simon: Behind the Battle Lines of Local Food Wars

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We all know that people in the United States spend a lot of time eating. By the latest global estimates, we are among the most overweight people on the planet. But we also spend a lot of time talking about what we eat, writing about it and legislating about it.

The arguments over the food supply and how it should be regulated do not fall neatly into political camps. This is why people who profess support of President Obama's policies were angered when Michelle Obama had nice things to say about Wal-Mart's plans to offer healthier foods in its stores. Similarly, a new food labeling plan announced by two food trade groups was met with skepticism in many quarters.

As Michele Simon, public health attorney and author of Appetite for Profit, sees it, these debates often have a familiar ring because our fascination and frustration with food seems to have no bottom. I caught up with her on the phone at her office at Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog group, where she is research and policy director.

Q: Appetite for Profit is your first book, right? What started you down the path to this book?

A: The "aha" moment came in 2004. At that time I had been doing a lot of freelance writing and had my own nonprofit. I was following closely the media's focus on obesity and the food industry response, and I attended an event called the Summit on Obesity, hosted by Time magazine and ABC News.

The secretary of health and human services at the time, Tommy Thompson, gave the keynote address and was talking about personal responsibility. He also said he was working with various food companies who were on board finding solutions to this problem. He claimed that several companies were responsible corporate citizens, and Coca-Cola was on his list. Then he took questions form the audience, which turned out to be a mistake because one of the questions came from a legislator from the state of Indiana named Charlie Brown. He wanted to know why if Coca-Cola was such a responsible company did it send five lobbyists to his state to kill his bill that would have required only half of the beverages sold in school vending machines to be healthy.

I realized that couldn't be the only disconnect between what was being said on the national level and what was happening locally. And, sure enough, I found many stories like that one. I realized there was this larger story to tell. On the one hand you had the food companies claiming they were changing their ways and making food healthier, and behind the scenes, they were doing everything they could to block common-sense efforts like the one Charlie Brown had come up with for his state. That was a story I knew wasn't being told and needed to be told.

Q: It seems there have been a number of books tackling similar topics. Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma come to mind. What books did you read before writing this book? And what sort of gaps did you hope your book would fill?

A: I read Fast Food Nation, and I was a longtime fan of Marion Nestle even before she published her first book, Food Politics. Because of everything that was already out there, it was somewhat of a challenge to convince publishers that this was something new.

Q: So how did you try to persuade them?

A: What hadn't been told before was how food companies were claiming to be improving their business practices making grand announcements that they were going lower the fat in their cookies and slightly shift how they market their products so they weren't contributing to childhood obesity and so on. And people were falling for it. I felt that it was important to get underneath these press releases and get to what was actually going on.

Marion Nestle did a great job in Food Politics of laying out the situation at the federal level. But nobody had looked at what was going on at the state level, and there was a lot going on. Often we can't get anywhere in Washington, DC, but a lot of health policy occurs the local level. These champions for health were getting stymied, and I wanted to get those stories out.

Q: Is this also part of the reason why you chose this idea in the book's subtitle, "How to Fight Back"?

A: Some previous books did end with some sort of blueprint for public policy. Fast Food Nation did that. I actually struggled without how to do a blueprint. Then I realized that it wasn't so much the blueprint that I needed to provide but instead offer specific ways, for example, to read a press release and how to ask the right questions. I wanted to help people with how to sniff out what is behind what companies are saying.

I also wanted to take a much broader view of the problem. I find too often in food policy we tend to address the symptoms of the problem without realizing that the problem is much broader. Having more nutrition labeling or reducing the fat content in French fries is not going to solve the problem. I wanted to leave people with the idea that what we are doing now isn't working and we need a fresh approach. And that would require a massive movement.

Q: When you talk about decoding press releases, I assume that was prompted by seeing a lot of uncritical coverage of food issues in the past. Can you give me some examples?

A: It was disappointing to find industry press releases practically reprinted verbatim in media outlets that should have known better. I have a number of examples of stories that were printed where the headline is lifted directly from the press release. Sometimes the press releases actually were more honest than the stories. The story might say that Kraft is going to redo its entire food line, but then that isn't what Kraft had said at all. Reporters didn't ask some basic questions. Why do companies announce these things so far ahead of time? Wal-Mart announced that it is going to make a change in five years. My reaction is, "Show me what you have done, and then I will be impressed. Then I will write a story."

Q: Couldn't it also be that companies are trying to generate some positive buzz at a time when they are working to push through some local agenda? For example, Wal-Mart has certain cities that have never allowed it in. Couldn't it be that Wal-Mart is right now trying to make a push into places like San Francisco or New York and so wants to generate some good press?

A: A company like Wal-Mart has both a national agenda and a local agenda and they operate in parallel. For example, Wal-Mart is trying to get into New York, and its strategy is to put out nonsense reports about how the company is going to increase jobs there, never mind all the jobs that will disappear when a Wal-Mart moves in. They do things very strategically at the level in which they are working. They don't do something on the national level with the hope of achieving a local goal, at least not directly. It's not that hidden what they are trying to accomplish.

Q: You start out in the book by defining Big Food, and you name Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Co, Kraft Foods, General Mills and McDonald's. In making that choice, to define them as one monolithic group, did you set up a situation that presents all of them in an equally unfavorable light instead of zeroing in on what specifically some of them are doing wrong and where others might be doing something truly beneficial?

A: It's simply a shorthand way to talk about the food industry that gets the point across that these are major multinational companies. Obviously, there are differences in how they are operating. I did give very specific examples on the companies that I chose to call out. It's somewhat ironic that the companies I did choose were the ones making the most noise about improving their practices.

Then you have companies like Carl's Jr. or Burger King, which are notorious for ignoring demands to make food healthier. Carl's Jr. is very proud of having no interest at all in placating the "food police." That is more honest. They are doing what they say they are doing. They are not pretending to have morphed into a salad company, as McDonald's has tried to portray itself.

Q: Did you find any companies that were doing the right thing?

A: I get that question a lot. I suppose my local farmer is doing the right thing growing my spinach and carrots. I'm not sure what else I'm supposed to point to. In my mind, the answer does not lie in companies that are raping our environment and torturing animals. I did mention one company, b. good in Boston. They are a fast food company that is trying to source good ingredients.

But, in general, the question of whether the big companies are doing the right thing is the wrong question to be asking. We need a much broader, deeper critique of what's going on. It's just window dressing to say we should praise McDonald's for selling salad. McDonald's is not in the salad-making business, so why do I care? Especially when the salad still costs $6.00, and the cheeseburger is still $1.00.

Q: Okay. But how do you distinguish between companies working to preserve their ability to sell their products and companies actively working to "undermine our health" as the book title states?

A: All of these companies have the same goal in mind: to maximize profits for shareholders, and they will do it any way they can. Some companies will try to get good PR. Other companies think they can operate around the criticism. They are basically doing the same thing the tobacco industry did. They do all kinds of things to figure out the right chemical combinations to get people hooked on their food.

Q: Do you see them as similar to tobacco companies in other ways?

A: Of course we have to eat, but there's no reason to smoke. So there are some obvious differences, but many of the corporate tactics are similar. Tactics like deceptive marketing, hiding what is really going on, buying science and creating institutes, hiring third parties to present the science as if it were independent, buying up experts and putting them on advisory boards, and lobbying like crazy.

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Q&A with Michele Simon: Helping consumers see past junk food "nutriwashing"

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[...] represents an improvement, but consumers shouldn’t let themselves be fooled. Ultimately, the industry cares far more for its shareholders than it does about the health of its customers. [...]

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