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Junk Food and Crazy Leftists

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.

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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.

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