Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Food Fights and Political Philosophy

Misinformation followed us like a plague.
   - Paul Simon, Peace Like a River

Two seemingly distinct issues about the food we eat demonstrate how the radical, minimalist approach to government espoused by the dangerous rightists adrift in the land cause direct harm to us, the eating public.The radical right would like even less government involvement in food safety and purity just at a time when we need more. Much, much more.

The first issue concerns the soft drink sugar tax working its way through New York State's Legislature. The second is a report from Pew Charitable Research that totals up the economic impact of food-borne diseases, a shocking $152 billion per year.

I came across this article in Advertising Age on Wednesday (March3). It clearly stakes out the positions of the Alliance For A Healthier New York (pro) and the American Beverage Association (con, surprise).

"Sugar-sweetened beverages play a significant role in New York's obesity epidemic," Lisa Altshuler said in a statement from the alliance. "This campaign is about sending a message that by adding a small excise tax on soda and other sugary drinks, we can reduce consumption of these empty calories and make real progress towards making all New Yorkers healthier."

The penny-per-ounce tax will be put against threatened health care cuts on the table due to the recession. Makes sense.

"New Yorkers aren't buying at all that this tax has anything to do with public health, nor that a penny of it will go to health programs," said Kevin Keane, senior VP-public affairs at the American Beverage Association. He goes on to contend that "People view it as an overreach when government uses the tax code to tell them what to eat or drink."

But what Mr. Keane is really arguing for is the rights of the industry he represents to continue to slowly and sadistically poison our children with sugar. No one needs reminding that the childhood obesity rate in the country is of epidemic proportions. The general rate for kids is about 15% and for poor children an astronomical 40%. The beverage industry then is victimizing the least informed among us, and those who most need healthier foods in their diets.

If the beverage industry came out with self-governing rules mandating warnings broadcast in the media, or voluntarily placed warning labels on bottles, he might have a very small case. But they don't and he doesn't.

The fact is that the government - which means all of us - has a vested interest in better health.

The FDA is responsible for monitoring food safety. Its budget for 2010 is around $3 billion. Yet society incurs $152 billion yearly in costs related to tainted foods. (See US News Report on the Pew findings by clicking here.)

One would think that until the efficacy of the FDA increases enough to come close to eradicating tainted food, that its budget should increase. However, our old friends, the lobbyists, funded by agribusiness, supermarket chains, mass meat producers and fast food chains, lean hard on politicians, from the federal government on down to the most local level.

(Keep in mind that the FDA also monitors drug and supplement safety. So, we can factor in another enormous set of costs being passed onto society through egregiously poor oversight. There are fewer than 8,000 FDA inspectors on the job.)

Every year 76 million Americans are sickened by impurities in food. Thousands die. Hundreds of thousands miss work. Billions are spent on medical treatment.

During the past 35 years, the decrease in funding for inspection of our food supply has forced FDA to impose a 78 percent reduction in food inspections, at a time when the food industry has been rapidly expanding and food importation has exponentially increased. FDA estimates that, at most, it inspects food manufacturers once every 10 years.
      - 2007 Food and Drug Administration subcommittee report

This has been due to a radical ideological shift right from the 1970s when the FDA was one of the MOST trusted government departments (81%) to today when it is one of the least trusted (at 36%).

The most persistent line of attack was concisely expressed by Newt Gingrich, who dubbed the FDA the "number-one job killer in America." This is misinformation of the most despicable kind.

Let us say for a moment that the $152 billion in economic impact could somehow be translated directly into jobs. $152 billion would represent 2.5 million jobs per year at the above-average pay of $60,000 per year. I'm not enough of an economist to project what $152 billion dollars over ten years (a total of $1.5 trillion) would do if it were invested in infrastructure, research, green energy, or education, but I am sure the multiplier effect would be spectacular. 

There are some real consequences of right wing radicalism. But people keep voting for these most monstrous of human beings.

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