Consumer Choice

I added a new category today, which means I’ve added a new topic to my revolving group of topics: Food. Right now, the main thrust of my posts will deal with the food branch of the unhealthy commodities industries, but it could be expanded over time to cover other aspects of food, such as food workers, or… I don’t know, genetically-modified food. We’ll see.

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During the recent discussion around New York City’s proposed portion cap on sugary drinks, the beverage industry’s refrain, like the tobacco industry’s before it, was one of “personal choice.” They claim that people choose the high-calorie/low-nutrition products, in the ever-large sizes, they offer for sale. Without thinking, others echo this refrain when dove-tailing their own agenda with that of the unhealthy commodities industry.

In the same New York Times article I referred to in Follow the Money the intensity with which food companies pursue the “perfect” food was described:

    Frito-Lay had a formidable research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year, and the science corps focused intense amounts of resources on questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items. Their tools included a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, discovering things like the perfect break point: people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.

This is just one company and one product line, and it doesn’t include a dime of marketing or advertising money. Up against this, we’re told we have to exhibit “will power” and “personal responsibility”. We’re told that taking this away takes away our freedom of choice, as if anyone outside the industry chooses this.

It has always been the case that the food offered to the majority of people by capitalist food producers/distributors has been of poor quality. A quick Google search this morning yielded the following:

    Proceedings American Pharmaceutical Association Eighth Annual Meeting,
    Held In Boston, Mass., September, 1859,
    With The Constitution And Roll Of Members.

    Excluding, then, from the class of adulterations all cases of substitution, impurities, and accidental contaminations, adulteration may be thus defined: It consists in the intentional addition to an article, for the purpose of gain, or deception, of any substance or substances, the presence of which is not acknowledged in the name under which the article is sold.

    Your Committee feel that perhaps they may bring forward some facts, not in all cases agreeable, and that they may be met with the oft repeated statement that “the public wish the adulterated articles,” that “pure mustard and cream of tartar will not sell,” coffee with burnt peas and apples in it is “richer,” and more “nutritious,” but we feel constrained to say this pretended regard for the wishes and tastes of the “public” is most generally based upon a slight interest for the pecuniary welfare of the manufacturer or trader. [Emphasis mine.]

Another example:

    In London there are two sorts of bakers, the “full priced,” who sell bread at its full value, and the “undersellers,” who sell it under its value. The latter class comprises more than three-fourths of the total number of bakers. (p. xxxii in the Report of H. S. Tremenheere, commissioner to examine into “the grievances complained of by the journeymen bakers,” &c., Lond. 1862.) The undersellers, almost without exception, sell bread adulterated with alum, soap, pearl ashes, chalk, Derbyshire stone-dust, and such like agreeable nourishing and wholesome ingredients. (See the above cited Blue book, as also the report of “the committee of 1855 on the adulteration of bread,” and Dr. Hassall’s “Adulterations Detected,” 2nd Ed. Lond. 1861.) Sir John Gordon stated before the committee of 1855, that “in consequence of these adulterations, the poor man, who lives on two pounds of bread a day, does not now get one fourth part of nourishing matter, let alone the deleterious effects on his health.” Tremenheere states (l.c., p. xlviii), as the reason, why a very large part of the working-class, although well aware of this adulteration, nevertheless accept the alum, stone-dust, &c., as part of their purchase: that it is for them “a matter of necessity to take from their baker or from the chandler’s shop, such bread as they choose to supply.” [Emphasis mine.] … Tremenheere adds on the evidence of witnesses, “it is notorious that bread composed of those mixtures, is made expressly for sale in this manner.”

So when people say that it’s a matter of choice, or the converse, “personal responsibility,” you know they’re lying.

Follow the Money — Addendum

When I wrote my most recent piece, Follow the Money, I cobbled together so much information that it became too long, with too many extended quotes. I knew when I hit the Publish button that it needed more work, but I had become impatient — I’d worked on it for two days already. Anyway, I revised it again yesterday and now it’s done.

There was one part I cut though, that I think is important, regarding public health initiatives and personal responsibility:

    In the food arena, a great example of this would be in New York City, where the health department has banned trans fats in restaurants. So if you go to New York now, you can’t get trans fats in the restaurants. Now you could try to solve that problem of people eating trans fats, and having heart disease as a consequence of it, by personal responsibility. You could say, “Okay, well, let’s educate people about trans fats.” But it’s a pretty hard concept to understand. Restaurants would have to label them. People would have to have options within restaurants, trans fat versus no trans fat. And you see you’d have this complex, burdensome system that would never work. And so, that would be an example where personal responsibility wouldn’t get the job done but government intervention would. And so, in New York City, they’ve decided that we can’t default to personal responsibility there, we need to take action. And that would be an example of a real success story from a public health point of view.

Follow the Money

I’m not ready yet with my next installment in the gentrification series, so I’ll return to one of my other recurring topics, a small-business association whose stated goal is preventing 7‑Eleven stores from opening in the East Village. I am referring, of course, to No 7‑Eleven NYC. They posted a flurry of tweets two days before the law was to go into effect banning the sale of sugary drinks in cups or containers larger than 16 ounces. Here is one of them:

In another tweet No 7‑Eleven NYC posted, they advance the idea that once in place, the law will be ineffective, because people will go into 7‑Elevens and bodegas to buy their sodas (which they seem to think they will then be permitted to take into restaurants and movie theaters), but in the one above they claim that the ban will hurt bodegas. The fact is that, while the ban would not have affected 7‑Eleven, neither would it have affected bodegas. Bodegas don’t sell sugary drinks in cups, and bottles and cans would not have been affected by the law.

But there are bigger issues than this. Back in January they tweeted:

The day after Judge Milton Tingling blocked the ban from going into effect, the NY Times ran an article detailing the relationship between the soft-drink industry and community groups around the country:

    Dozens of Hispanic and African-American civil rights groups, health advocacy organizations and business associations have joined the beverage industry in opposing soda regulation around the country in recent years, arguing that such measures — perhaps the greatest regulatory threat the soft-drink industry has ever faced — are discriminatory, paternalistic or ineffective.

    Many of these groups have something else in common: They are among the recipients of tens of millions of dollars from the beverage industry that has flowed to nonprofit and educational organizations serving blacks and Hispanics over the last decade, according to a review by The New York Times of charity records and other documents.

These activities echo those of the tobacco industry, that for decades contributed to minority and women’s organizations, encouraging them to focus on concerns other than smoking. Leaders faced a real conflict: either accept the money, or speak out about the disproportionate toll of tobacco on the health of minority populations. Women’s groups, heavily supported and buoyed by support for events like the Virginia Slims Tennis Tour, were silent on the rapidly escalating epidemic of lung cancer in women, focusing instead on breast cancer and other problems. (Advocacy Institute 1998).

When speaking publicly about their products, the beverage industry uses a playbook similar to that used by the tobacco industry, that focusses on “personal responsibility,” raises fears of government action destroying personal freedom and civil liberties, criticizes studies that hurt the industry as “junk science,” and promotes physical activity over diet.

Both industries’ tactics rely heavily on “personal responsibility” arguments that claim regulation isn’t necessary because it’s up to consumers to make healthy choices, yet they spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually to undermine personal responsibility. On February 24, the NY Times published an article describing the efforts food companies have made over the years to addict people to their products:

    As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or “bliss,” point). …

    “[M]outh feel.” This is the way a product interacts with the mouth, as defined more specifically by a host of related sensations, from dryness to gumminess to moisture release. … [T]he mouth feel of soda and many other food items, especially those high in fat, is second only to the bliss point in its ability to predict how much craving a product will induce. …

    “[S]ensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. … 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.

Efforts to encourage these industries to self-regulate are failing. Instead, the companies are consolidating power by building financial connections with health agencies and non-governmental organizations — and using that power to lobby politicians to oppose health reforms. In the February 23 issue of the English medical journal The Lancet, a team of researchers from around the world wrote:

    [T]hrough the sale and promotion of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink (unhealthy commodities), transnational corporations are major drivers of global epidemics of [non-communicable diseases] NCDs. … Despite the common reliance on industry self-regulation and public—private partnerships, there is no evidence of their effectiveness or safety. Public regulation and market intervention are the only evidence-based mechanisms to prevent harm caused by the unhealthy commodity industries.

On the day the ban was halted, No 7‑Eleven NYC retweeted:

That’s where they stand.

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Further reading: