FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Junk Food and Crazy Leftists

by RAVI KATARI

An extraordinary investigative piece appeared in the NYT Magazine this week.  It adapted from an upcoming book by Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, the result of years of poking and digging through the processed-food industry.  Moss’ work reveals conscious efforts by the “junk food” industry over the last several decades to make their products more addictive and alluring to the consumer population by combining food science with crafty advertising strategies.

For example, he explains how Lunchables came to the rescue of the Oscar Mayer company whose meat products were suffering from associations with high cholesterol, heart attacks, and strokes.  Using organized focus groups to characterize its primary consumers, the company was able to discover that working moms were desperate for quick, convenient, and healthy options for their kids’ lunch.  In the mothers that struggled to balance nourishing their children properly while getting to work on time, they found “a gold mine of disappointment and problems.”  So they engineered a prepackaged lunch which contained sliced meat, crackers, and processed cheese in just the right proportions.  Thus, Lunchables were born and flew off the shelves soon after.  It was not long before a sugary dessert and soda were added to the mix to boost sales: a strategy Moss refers to as “when in doubt, add sugar.”

The lunch kits solved the convenience problem by employing a household strategy in consumer capitalism: shifting costs to the externality pool.  That is, manipulating nutritional content and public perception to maximize sales while disregarding the negative health consequences to the public which are serious.  As Moss notes in his article, obesity among both adults and children have gone through the roof.  The CDC reports that in 2010, 35% of American adults and 17% of American children were obese.  Furthermore, the annual medical costs associated with obesity could be as high as $147 billion as public health researchers have estimated.  Other outcomes are effected too including the prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, and gout to name a few.

obesity_large
Andreyeva T, et. al. (2007). Obesity and disability: a shape of things to come. Retrieved February 20, 2013, from the RAND Corporation web site: http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9043-1.html

The public health risks were known and the strategies were employed consciously.  It’s not a conspiracy.  By now everybody knows that Lucky Charms is not a balanced breakfast.  It’s simply our peculiar market forces at work: “People could point to these things and say, ‘They’ve got too much sugar, they’ve got too much salt.’  Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it.  That’s what they want.  If we give them less, they’ll buy less, and the competitor will get our market.  So you’re sort of trapped.”  [Geoffrey Bible, former C.E.O. of Philip Morris].

I’m not condemning Count Chocula or advocating the banning of junk food.  I only hope to point out the dichotomy that exists between personal and corporate responsibility.  Existing legislation simply doesn’t incentivize the latter.  Costs to the public–both financial and physical–don’t factor into the budgets of the “junk-food” industry.  And this readily generalizes to tobacco, oil, transportation, polymer materials, and so on.  Quantity is more profitable than quality.  Addictive is more profitable than healthy.  These are simply the peculiarities of our system.  Consequently the industry is free to push products that have been engineered to be addictive just as ordinary citizens are free to eat them: “The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.”

One will often hear arguments that attribute these consequences to being inherent to capitalism or claim that anything else would encroach on personal liberty.  But this is certainly not the case.  We have legal methods of internalizing externalities.  A carbon emissions tax is one example.  Another is the proposed tax for sugar-sweetened beverages.  But these are extremely difficult to implement due to the overwhelming political power of the modern corporation which often holds these measures to be restrictive and overly bureaucratic.  However, these arguments are inconsistent with everyday experience.  The U.S. is an extraordinarily free society, but it’s not totally free.  We are required to obey traffic laws, property rights, and patent monopolies which are agreed-upon restrictions of personal liberty.

So the average citizen has to accept limited restrictions to personal freedom for the good of society, but we find that corporations are largely free of such restrictions.  Moss’ article contains examples of corporate strategists becoming overcome by guilt due to their socially irresponsible behavior.  Their attempts to make changes to the system, however, are met with hostility which reveals quite a bit about the possibility of change within the system.  Jeffrey Dunn, former senior executive at Coca-Cola, attempted to end the marketing of Coke in public schools.  This caused quite a stir and one bottler wrote a vicious letter to the company.  According to Dunn, “He said what I had done was the worst thing he had seen in 50 years in the business.  Just to placate these crazy leftist school districts who were trying to keep people from having their Coke. He said I was an embarrassment to the company, and I should be fired.”  Soon enough, Dunn was fired.

That consumer advocates are demonized in the U.S. is no secret.  The use of the term “leftist” in the above quote is telling and reeks of classist propaganda.  What troubles me is that I don’t know what sort of understanding readers are supposed to glean from Moss’ article.  The results of his investigation are impressive, but the picture he paints has a sort of trite familiarity.  We’ve all heard stories about tobacco lobbying and pharmaceutical mismarketing, but in the end we’re left with a sort of impotence and resignation in regards to our current situation.  We know about the Surgeon General warnings on cigarette packs, but we have no idea how they got there.  The general perception is that being anything but a spectator has too many associated costs e.g. being fired or labeled a “crazy leftist”.

When externalities grow so large that their effects can no longer be ignored, the public has no choice but to become participants in its own affairs.  And, in my view, public participation is always a good thing.  The problem, however, lies in the sequence of such events.  If large scale consequences such as obesity, exploding commodity prices, and drought tell us anything, it’s that the damage has already been done.

Ravi Katari works for a health law firm  in Washington D.C.  He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Biomedical Engineering.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 21, 2017
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Finance as Warfare: the IMF Lent to Greece Knowing It Could Never Pay Back Debt
CJ Hopkins
Goose-stepping Our Way Toward Pink Revolution
John Wight
Firestarter: the Unwelcome Return of Tony Blair
Roger Harris
Lenin Wins: Pink Tide Surges in Ecuador…For Now
Shepherd Bliss
Japanese American Internment Remembered, as Trump Rounds Up Immigrants
Boris Kagarlitsky
Trump and the Contradictions of Capitalism
Robert Fisk
The Perils of Trump Addiction
Deepak Tripathi
Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley
Sarah Anderson
To Save Main Street, Tax Wall Street
Howard Lisnoff
Those Who Plan and Enjoy Murder
Franklin Lamb
The Life and Death Struggle of the Children of Syria
Binoy Kampmark
A Tale of Two Realities: Trump and Israel
Kim C. Domenico
Body and Soul: Becoming Men & Women in a Post-Gender Age
Mel Gurtov
Trump, Europe, and Chaos
Stephen Cooper
Steinbeck’s Road Map For Resisting Donald Trump
February 20, 2017
Bruce E. Levine
Humiliation Porn: Trump’s Gift to His Faithful…and Now the Blowback
Melvin Goodman
“Wag the Dog,” Revisited
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima: a Lurking Global Catastrophe?
David Smith-Ferri
Resistance and Resolve in Russia: Memorial HRC
Kenneth Surin
Global India?
Norman Pollack
Fascistization Crashing Down: Driving the Cleaver into Social Welfare
Patrick Cockburn
Trump v. the Media: a Fight to the Death
Susan Babbitt
Shooting Arrows at Heaven: Why is There Debate About Battle Imagery in Health?
Matt Peppe
New York Times Openly Promotes Formal Apartheid Regime By Israel
David Swanson
Understanding Robert E. Lee Supporters
Michael Brenner
The Narcissism of Donald Trump
Martin Billheimer
Capital of Pain
Thomas Knapp
Florida’s Shenanigans Make a Great Case for (Re-)Separation of Ballot and State
Jordan Flaherty
Best Films of 2016: Black Excellence Versus White Mediocrity
Weekend Edition
February 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Rogue Elephant Rising: The CIA as Kingslayer
Matthew Stevenson
Is Trump the Worst President Ever?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Flynn?
John Wight
Brexit and Trump: Why Right is Not the New Left
Diana Johnstone
France: Another Ghastly Presidential Election Campaign; the Deep State Rises to the Surface
Neve Gordon
Trump’s One-State Option
Roger Harris
Emperor Trump Has No Clothes: Time to Organize!
Joan Roelofs
What Else is Wrong with Globalization
Andrew Levine
Why Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban?
Mike Whitney
Blood in the Water: the Trump Revolution Ends in a Whimper
Vijay Prashad
Trump, Turmoil and Resistance
Ron Jacobs
U.S. Imperial War Personified
David Swanson
Can the Climate Survive Adherence to War and Partisanship?
Andre Vltchek
Governor of Jakarta: Get Re-elected or Die!
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Destruction of Mosul
Norman Pollack
Self-Devouring Reaction: Governmental Impasse
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail