August 21 2012

What's Next in Food Regulation

Julie Gunlock

There’s a new front in the food wars and this battle will be fought in the courts and in the halls of Washington’s very powerful regulatory agencies.

On the lawsuit front, ABC News reports that a Mississippi lawyer who landed a multimillion dollar settlement from "big tobacco" is taking on the food industry, claiming some food makers mislead consumers about their products' health effects.

Don Barrett, a trial lawyer from Lexington, Miss., said his firm has filed 27 cases and counting, hoping to quickly whip another "deceptive" industry into shape.

Barrett -- a relative newcomer to the world of food industry fraud, having filed his first case in April -- is drawing on his past battles with tobacco companies. In 1998 he was part of a major legal victory over the tobacco industry.

"The health claims they made for tobacco, and the denials they made about it being bad for you, they affected people's health," he said. "Perhaps the food industry doesn't affect people's health as directly, but people have the right to know what they're getting."

So, the lawsuits will be built on the charge of “food industry fraud” suggesting food manufacturers aren’t being honest with their customers.  That’s an interesting tactic and an incredibly frightening strategy because as I see it, nearly every type of food could be charged with this “crime.”

Take eggs. Recently eggs have come under attack by researchers who claim eggs impact on the human cardiovascular system is worse than cigarette smoking (cue the eye roll).  But let’s compare smoking to eating eggs.  While smoking has zero health benefits aside from being an appetite suppressant (hey fat-shamers, where’s your support for smoking?), eggs have a number of healthy qualities.  They contain important vitamins and minerals as well as serve as an excellent and affordable source of protein and antioxidants.  Eggs also strengthen bones and teeth and improve eyesight. It therefore seems ludicrous, even dangerous, to demonize the egg because of potential harm its yolk can cause the human heart.  But under this new “food industry fraud” framework, would egg producers be guilty of fraud for listing eggs as healthy? 

Let’s take cheese as another example.  Often vilified as a high fat food item, cheese has myriad healthy benefits for adults and children.  My children eat gobs of cheese—sliced, melted on bread and potatoes and pasta, covering broccoli and as a dip for crackers.  But, would the cheese industry be guilty of fraud for not warning me that it is high in saturated fat which can lead to heart disease?

Salt is another product regularly targeted by the food nannies for the ingredient’s (now debunked) relationship to cardiovascular disease.  But salt is a critical component to the body’s health. In fact, studies now show a low salt diet has certain risks on its own.  So, should the salt industry put itself out of business to avoid charges that it’s misled its customers?

Commenting (in a predictably supportive way) on the lawsuits, Yale University Prevention Research Center Director Dr. David Katz charged food companies with “blatantly tricking consumers” into thinking a product is healthy by using the example of a jam-maker that used five different sweeteners in its jam so that it could list apricots as the first ingredient.   This, Katz suggests, gives the impression that the product is healthier. 

But I would suggest there’s another reason for this type of labeling.  I’m not convinced that food manufacturers are trying to trick their customers as much as they’re trying to satisfy the food nannies who maintain a near constant drum beat that certain ingredients are bad, toxic, deadly.  Most recently, the food nannies have focused on sugar and the products that contain sugar like soda, snack foods, and jams and jellies.  This relentless fear mongering is naturally creating tension for food manufacturers who want to provide their consumers with a healthy product that still tastes good.  In other words, with the increasing demonization of certain ingredients, food manufacturers are trying to find ways to reduce the appearance of these targeted food items (sugar, salt, fat, taste). 

Is that ok?  It’s arguable that it’s not but it’s at least understandable that food manufacturers are under intense pressure from advocacy organizations using dubious science.  Maybe if the food nannies would stop demonizing these ingredients, food manufacturer wouldn’t feel so nervous about listing sugar as the top ingredient and then consumers would be better informed. 

And Katz’s use of jam as an example just illustrates how unreasonable the food nannies have become.  Let’s think about it: is sugar really bad in something like apricot jam?  Nope. In fact, it’s critical to jam tasting…well, like jam.  What’s clear to me (a jam maker) is that food “expert” Dr. Katz doesn’t make it into his kitchen very often and he’s certainly never made jam.  Because if he’d ever made it—from scratch, using fruits just picked—he’d know that jam needs sugar…lots and lots and lots of sugar.  It’s what makes it taste good. 

In fact, even sugar hater and NY Times food writer Mark Bittman adds a full ½ cup of sugar to a pound (about a small pint box) of fresh blueberries in his recipe for Fast Blueberry Jam.  And Alice Waters—perhaps the world’s most smug foodie and proponent of food regulations—doesn’t hold back on the sugar she adds to her jam recipes.  Some canners even add equal amounts of sugar to fruit.

But most reasonable people understands that jams and jellies stick around the fridge for a while—doled out in rounded tablespoons most mornings, and are rarely eaten by the cupful (unless of course you watch one of those sad WWII movie where inevitably some child gets his hands on a rare can of jam and begin eating it by the fist-full).

But to the food nannies, sugar—in any amount—is harmful and potentially deadly.  This narrative was advanced in a recent 60 minutes piece (which I wrote about here) where Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviews noted sugar critic Dr. Robert Lustig who famously declared sugar to be toxic.  To drive home the toxic message, Gupta explained that recent research on humans shows the human body reacts immediately to sugar. Yeah, it’s called the “holy crap, that tastes good” effect.  We know most food nannies aren’t familiar with this feeling, but it’s nothing new.

Of course, what Gupta didn’t mention is that the research he focused on in his report isn’t yet completed (in other words: we don’t know anything yet) nor has it been peer reviewed. But that matters little when you’re trying to keep up the panic about food in this country…or pushing for food regulations as Dr. Robert Lustig is actively doing.  In fact, in February, he suggested sugary foods be taxed like booze and cigarettes:  

In an editorial published today in the journal Nature, the UCSF doctors, Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis, said the ballooning rates — and costs — of obesity, diabetes and other diseases, mean it’s time for regulators to lump sugar into the same category as booze and cigarettes and put similar restrictions on its sale and availability.

Increased control is necessary, they say, because efforts to keep excessive sugar out of the American diet have failed. “So far, evidence shows that individually focused approaches, such as school-based interventions that teach children about diet and exercise, demonstrate little efficacy.”

The authors say the government should consider taxing any processed foods that have added sugar, including soda, juice, chocolate milk and sugared cereal.

Other efforts should aim to make sugary foods and drinks hard to get, like imposing age limits for buying soda and controlling when and where sugary foods are sold. They also envision something like a sugar-free zone around schools.

But Lustig and his gang of sugar haters have a much bigger thing in mind; they want the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to remove sugar from its Generally Regarded as Safe list (this designation gives companies complete control over how much of this ingredient is added to the final food product.  In other words, if sugar is removed from this FDA list, the food nannies will have a whole new universe of potential government regulations to explore—literally putting food manufacturers at the mercy of some government bureaucrat who will have control over the very recipes used in products.  And it won’t stop at sugar.  Salt, certain kinds of oils, colorings, and certain preservatives would soon follow. 

 

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