Food fight 2013 is taking shape. And the food police have gone from being on the offensive, to simply being offensive. Their radical and unpopular agenda has driven them to demonize industry, paint Michele Obama as a corporate shill, and to characterize food marketers as akin to child molesters.
At stake now is whether the First Lady's "Let's Move" campaign continues to emphasize personal responsibility, individual choice, and voluntary collaboration with the private sector. Or, will the popular program succumb to pressure from strident voices who insist that obesity is a public health emergency that can only be solved by expanding the role of government, limiting consumer choice, and demanding that regulators work against, rather than with, the food industry.
Weighing in on the left, are regulation-hungry activists like Dr. Yoni Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa. His fiery YouTube video last month drew more than 200,000 views, was the basis of headlines in the Los Angeles Times, and rallied the food police to renew their campaign for more government regulation against his sole stated cause of obesity: under-regulated corporate peddlers of inexpensive calories.
In his screed, Freedhoff lays the blame for obesity on public health officials for not doing more to pressure people to "legislate change." He says governments are also to blame, since they have not issued enough regulations, changed enough laws, spent enough money, or instituted enough fat taxes.
He says we need government and public health officials to intervene, since industry isn't to blame for doing it's job, which he says is to "misinform consumers" in their quest to sell as many cheap calories as possible.
In his talk, Freedhoff fails to even pay lip service to notions of individual choice and personal responsibility. By talking about only government, public health, and industry, he left out the most important part of the equation: the consumer. Is this the type of expertise that should be driving important health decisions? A fiery speech makes for viral videos, but doesn't necessarily lead to sound policy.
Praising Ms. Obama from the right doesn't come easy. Certainly, there are examples where she's stumbled. But by and large, her approach and results deserve recognition.
Remember, those of us who oppose obtrusive government intervention don't deny that obesity is a serious public health problem that needs attention. But we disagree that this is a crisis that justifies radical government interventions. Instead, consider some outcomes of the First Lady's measured approach.
Walmart, by doing what it does best, has lowered the cost of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products. It also pledged to assist manufacturers to reduce by 10% the amount of sugar they sell by 2015.
Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and other chains has voluntarily changed their kids menus to include a choice of a fruit or vegetable and low fat milk with every meal.
And the First Lady has praised the country's largest food manufacturers for pledging to cut 1.5 trillion calories from the food they sell by 2015.
Yet despite this progress, or perhaps because of it, the food police have doubled down in their effort to attack industry.
In a widely published op-ed, one leader of the nanny state movement, attorney Michele Simon, criticized the First Lady's Let's Move accomplishments as "public relations gestures" which won't work well in fighting obesity. In a broadside against the campaign, she writes, "negotiated deals with the likes of Wal-Mart cannot become a substitute for actual policymaking." According to the activists, you can't make progress in the war against obesity as a partner with industry, since they are the enemy.
At the top of the food police wish-list is a restriction on the advertising of foods they don't want people to eat. As Dr. Freedhoff puts it, "We need to stop allowing the food industry to target our most vulnerable and precious population, our children." In advocating for this radical advertising ban, National Action Against Obesity founder Meme Roth is less subtle in evoking thoughts of child molestation by referring to food advertising to children as "predatory" and arguing that we shouldn't let food company executives have a "relationship with our kids." In their zeal to advance an unpopular agenda, its the food police who've become the real creeps.
Anti-obesity crusaders like to demonize whatever they've decided is "bad" as "junk food." But when eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet, there really is no such thing as junk food. A ban on advertising to kids is appropriate for tobacco products, where any use of the product is injurious, and perhaps some activists believe that any consumption of foods they dislike is tantamount to smoking. But any nutritionist worth his sodium chloride will confirm that your grandmother was wise in telling you just to do things in moderation.
Yet "moderation," "personal responsibility," "parenting," and even "exercise" are inconvenient concepts to those like Michele Simon, who's website, appetiteforprofit.com deem corporate profits as the underlying cause of obesity.
Mrs. Obama has shown that industry's appetite for profit isn't the problem, but that by working together with all sectors of society, voluntarily, that the appetite for profit, not more government, is our best way to help lead us to make better health decisions.
The author, with his dog, BB. (Photo credit: Amy Fechter)
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.