Friday, November 13, 2015

Is the Center for Consumer Freedom no longer working on soda?

The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) is a classic industry-funded front group, secretive about its funding sources and utterly mercenary in its writing.

I once enjoyed debating soda policy in New York City with J. Justin Wilson from CCF in Episode 1 of a series of roundtables organized by the Museum of Food and Drink.

The Center was on my mind recently, after watching the the excellent 2014 documentary Merchants of Doubt on Netflix. There is a related book by the same title.

The Center's once-lively website now seems moribund. Here is a chart of its number of Headlines posts in the past year. The remaining activity seems focused only on attacking animal welfare organizations, not on other old favorite topics such as defending soda.

The last mention of sugar sweetened beverages that I could find was almost a year ago, covering some trivial beverage industry victory in Howard County, Maryland.

From the topic coverage, we can guess who the CCF's current funders are. Perhaps, with increased scrutiny, other industries have been providing less funding to CCF. One imagines that this organization operates on a strictly "pay to play" basis. It is hard to picture CCF continuing to cover a topic based merely on principle.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Marion Nestle's Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)

Marion Nestle's new book is Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) (Oxford University Press, 2015).

The book is thorough, balanced, hard-hitting, and motivating. It covers health effects, industry structure, marketing to adults, marketing to children, marketing overseas, policy responses, and advocacy movements.

The writing is clear, unassuming, and terse.

The coverage of health effects is persuasive. Nestle discusses cutting edge concerns without overstatement or exaggeration (additives and cancer, particular properties of fructose). She more strongly emphasizes the main established links with even-handed and authoritative force (tooth decay, liquid calories, links to overweight and obesity, and type II diabetes).

Nestle avoids many possible pitfalls in such a book. Though she quotes industry propaganda that paints her as a shrill critic of the modern food system, her own writing shows her to be a careful listener and reader of diverse perspectives. She calls out what is wrong, yet never demonizes opponents. Her chapter on Derek Yach, one-time World Health Organization public health champion and later PepsiCo vice president, is insightful and understanding.

Some radical authors of critical books on a particular industry seem ready not just to reform that industry, but perhaps to do away with all other such industries. One gets the sense that the author is using one industry as a vehicle for more broadly condemning the modern global capitalist economy, but the implied alternative remains blurry.

Other more mainstream authors of critical books find themselves lost for something sensible and upbeat to say in the final chapter. I most dislike it when these final chapters resort to empty hopes that well-meaning people in the industry will just see the light and change their ways.

With Nestle, instead, the reader can picture just what would happen if her book becomes influential: leading health organizations would wean themselves from soda industry money, public opinion would become more demanding, state and local advocates would win new policies on marketing, taxation, and school environments, soda consumption would follow tobacco's downward path, and the United States would enjoy lower rates of obesity and chronic disease.

This will mostly happen because of actions outside of the soda companies.
Like businesses in general, food businesses -- even the most socially conscious -- must put profits first. To be effective, advocates must understand that soda and other food corporations are willing to spend fortunes to influence political processes. Without anywhere near that kind of funding, it becomes necessary to find smarter methods for using the political process to counter soda industry marketing.
Nestle delivers a steady stream of advocacy-related diagnosis and suggestions in short well-organized paragraphs at the end of chapters throughout the book. The final chapter then seamlessly provides conclusions that feel consistent with the whole work.

The book is above all informative. For those readers who share Nestle's critical perspective on the food industry, it is obvious that this book would be informative. But here is the greater surprise: this solid book is by far the best source on this topic for any reader, with any perspective on economics or politics.

If I worked for a trade association, or an industry front group, or an esteemed professional association that relies on soda industry funding, or the House Agriculture Committee, or a sugar manufacturer, or a high-powered corporate law firm, I might store this book in my desk drawer rather than my book shelf ... yet I would read it word for word.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Faculty searches at Tufts in (a) food industry marketing and management and (b) food policy implementation and evaluation

The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston is hiring at the associate professor and full professor level in (a) food industry marketing and management and (2) food policy implementation and evaluation, among other areas. Applicants may include researchers in business, economics, psychology and law, as well as public health and nutrition. The Friedman School brings together biomedical, social, behavioral, public health, economics, and food systems scientists to conduct work that improves the nutritional health and well-being of populations throughout the world.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Not yet resurrecting Malthus

In Health Affairs this week, I review The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World (W. W. Norton, 2015), by agronomist and journalist Joel K. Bourne Jr.

In an amusing passage, Bourne visits Bath Abbey in England and looks for the grave of 19th Century economist and minister Thomas Robert Malthus, who was famously pessimistic that food supplies would suffice to feed an overpopulated world.
Indeed, Malthus has been a central figure in this book as Bourne travels the globe, witnessing bread riots in Egypt, interviewing a pesticide-poisoned woman suffering from breast cancer in the Punjab, asking about the environmental sustainability of an industrial-scale pork facility in China, inspecting depleted irrigation systems in the American Southwest, and drinking vodka with farm employees in Ukraine as they reflect on the collapse of the agricultural infrastructure there. Bourne paraphrases the account by the Cornell University economist Chris Barrett of the long-term imbalance between global production and consumption this way: “In other words, the world is running out of food.”

Yet such pessimism is balanced in The End of Plenty by thoughtful attention to promising technological advances and social changes.
Bourne never did find Malthus' grave, which he later heard had been hidden under a pew. After reading this book, one may be concerned about the world food prospect, but perhaps not yet ready to resurrect Malthus.