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Former White House Chef Defends Junk Food Industry

Junk Food Industry

Story at-a-glance -

  • Scott Faber, former chief lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, was hired by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) earlier this year to help undermine the GMO labeling effort
  • Faber claims Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign has led to Americans making healthier food choices, yet the research he uses as evidence reveals child obesity has increased since the launch of the campaign, proving its failure
  • Sam Kass, a former White House chef, food czar and executive director for “Let’s Move” campaign, recently defended junk food industry, saying “people would die” were we to try to get rid of Big Food

By Dr. Mercola

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the junk food industry undermined first lady Michelle Obama's efforts to improve children's nutrition. Initially, her focus was really honed in on organic gardening, eating real food and protecting children from harmful food ingredients, including excessive amounts of sugar.

She was right on target, poised to become a formidable force for children's health — until Big Food stepped in and started pulling political strings.

Food industry pressure completely altered the first lady's plan to tackle childhood obesity through healthier food, shifting the focus to exercise and the importance of "energy balance" instead — a strategy based on fake industry-funded science promoted by industry front groups and their paid academics.

A Page From the Junk Food Industry's Playbook

For example, Coca-Cola Company alone paid $2.1 million directly to health experts, mostly dietitians and academics, during one five-year span. It spent another $21.8 million on pro-industry research, and $96.8 million to various health organizations.

The reason for all this generosity? To influence public health recommendations related to consumption of sugary beverages and other junk food. As noted by Kyle Pfister in his 2015 article on Medium.com:1

"I wanted to dig deeper into this network of influencers to learn more about the strategy. Why were they chosen? What do they have in common? …

I was able to find 63 percent are active on social media — and as a group they have over 180,000 followers on Twitter and 150,000 likes on Facebook. That doesn't include the organizations they work for, just their individual accounts …

[U]pon deeper inspection, many are effective communicators whose influence reaches deep into our culture. That's the whole point …

Many of the dietitians seem to be members of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics recruited around the campaign to promote the new mini Coke cans as a healthy snack."

Moreover, it's quite clear that any commitment the soda and junk food industry has to lower calories is simply a ploy to expand the use of artificial sweeteners, which are fraudulently advertised as a diet and diabetes aid since they actually impair your ability to lose weight and manage your diabetes.2,3

Big Food Now Has a Damage Control Expert Inside the Organic Community

On October 5, a couple of weeks before my article about Mrs. Obama came out, Michael Pollan published a damning article in The New York Times about the Obamas' failure to take on corporate agriculture.4

In it, Pollan mentions Scott Faber, who in 2010 — when Mrs. Obama implored the food industry to clean up its act to protect children's health — was the chief lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

In a shocking twist, Faber was hired by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to represent the organic industry during closed doors negotiations with Congress to undermine the GMO labeling effort.5

In an apparent effort at damage control following Pollan's piece, Faber wrote an article published by the EWG on October 17, in which he lists 10 "Obama food policy wins."6

On this list, he includes improving food safety, clearer food labels, banning trans fat, expanding access to healthy food through new programs, healthier school lunches and creating voluntary sodium restriction guidelines for food makers, among others.

"In particular, first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign encouraged all Americans — especially our children — to make healthier food choices. Although we have a long way to go, evidence7 shows that American eating habits have gotten better since Mrs. Obama launched the initiative in 2010."

Where's the Evidence?

The evidence Faber cites to back up the idea that Americans are making healthier food choices is a 2015 New York Times article,8 which specifically points out that:

"Americans are still eating far too few fruits and vegetables and far too much junk food, even if they are eating somewhat less of it, experts say."

And that's precisely the point. Eating less junk is not the same as eating healthier foods. Moreover, Faber leans on research9 published in 2014 that claimed childhood obesity trends had stalled, remaining stable between 2003 and 2010.

That's not much of an improvement, but even more to the point, another report published shortly afterward showed that childhood obesity has in fact WORSENED after all.10

The researchers used the same data source as the former study, but added another four years' worth, covering the span between 1999 and 2012 instead of 2003 and 2010.

Using this expanded data set revealed that all classes of obesity, but in particular severe obesity — which poses the greatest risk to a child's long-term health — actually increased over the past 14 years. As noted by Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center:11

"This paper will come as a sobering reality check for any who believed the recent headlines about childhood obesity rates plummeting. Severe obesity in children is rising … [and] this is a critical piece of information."

Faber's 'Evidence' Shows Failure of 'Let's Move' Campaign

So have American eating habits really gotten better as a result of the "Let's Move" campaign? Using Faber's own evidence, the answer is no. Just look at the dates.

The "Let's Move" campaign launched in 2010. The NYT article Faber uses as evidence of the campaign's success cites a study that looked at obesity rates between 2003 and 2010, meaning the results have no bearing at all on the campaign since it doesn't include data after the campaign was launched.

That's problem No. 1. Problem No. 2 is that the study that DID include data up to 2012 shows children are fatter than ever, with severe childhood obesity having risen since the launch of the campaign.

Hence, his own evidence base proves he's wrong and the campaign is a failure. This was to be expected, since the campaign does not focus on the source of the problem (toxic, high-sugar and processed foods) and recommends solutions that don't work (just exercise more).

Faber Paints a Rosy Picture Out of Step With Reality

Similar criticism can be applied to other "food policy wins" Faber lists. For example, while banning trans fat is a clear win, can the same really be said for voluntary sodium reduction guidelines — a move that, incidentally, came only after the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sued the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), demanding mandatory standards?12

This example — which Faber chose to highlight — simply supports the notion that the food industry and the FDA rarely do anything that might be beneficial for public health unless forced, either by lawsuits or boycotts.

(Also, in this case, a far more important issue than the amount of sodium is the type of salt used in processed foods, but that issue is in no way addressed.) And what about the claim that school lunches have become more nutritious?13

Here, Faber and the "Let's Move" video narrated by Mrs. Obama (below) appear to be oceans apart from reality. Minor improvements have been made, such as reducing or eliminating sodas in most U.S. schools.

But school lunches are still far from healthy because, again, less junk does not necessarily mean healthier fare is being offered. Just take a look at these articles, "YUCK! A 4th Grader's Short Documentary About School Lunch," and "High School Students Boycott Junk Food School Lunches."

School Lunches Are All About Processed Foods

Processed foods and grain-based snacks are still foundational staples in school lunches, for example, along with low-fat and high-sugar milk products.

And let's not forget that one strategy used to boost the image of school lunches was simply to lump tomato paste (on top of pizza) and French fries in with vegetables. Voila, healthier lunches! And who do we have to thank for this stroke of genius? Why, Big Food, of course. As noted by The Hill in 2014:14

"If you want to know how pizza becomes a vegetable, don't look to the amount of tomato sauce used. Follow the money. Much of the pizza sold in schools comes from a privately held Minnesota company called Schwan Food. In 2011, Schwan was able to leverage its clout in Congress to pass a rider that let pizza basically count as a vegetable in the school lunch program, thanks to its smear of tomato paste.

Potato-state politicians from Idaho and Maine likewise regularly go on offense for that industry, fighting successfully in 2011 to preserve French fries as a regular option in school meals."

Schools Continue to Cut Recess

Last but not least, while Mrs. Obama's video presents a utopian picture of what the "Let's Move" campaign15 is doing to improve nutrition and exercise opportunities in schools, many Common Core schools across the nation have actually reduced or eliminated recess since the launch of her campaign.16

Former White House Chef and Food Czar Reveals His Thoughts On GMO Labeling

Another person who has stepped up in defense of the indefensible is Samuel David "Sam" Kass, a former White House chef who also served as Obama's Senior Policy Adviser for Nutrition Policy from January 2009 until December 2014, and was the executive director for Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move" campaign.

According to Eater.com,17 Kass' time at the White House turned him into "a noted advocate for families cooking at home and a staunch believer in organic gardening." But if that's true, why is he snubbing his nose at GMO labeling? In a June 2016 interview,18 Kass said:

"The real value of this [GMO labeling] debate ultimately will be whether the infrastructure of the progressive 'food movement' … turns to focus on issues that are really important. I think this is one of the least important issues that has taken up a huge amount of our time, energy [and] resources.

Do I think people have the right to know what's in their food? Of course. Do I think a lot of the tactics that have been used based on false science about the safety of these crops is totally wrong? Yes. Do I have concerns about the environmental impact of the overuse of some of these crops and the pesticides that go with them?

Yes. But is it unsafe for people to eat? No. There's just no evidence of that. And I think, in the end, whether it's labeled, whether it's not, we're going to keep going on as is …

I don't think voluntary labeling is going to be a solution that is going to go anywhere … [P]eople can get certified if they don't have GMOs in their food, but that's not the issue. The issue that people are concerned about is knowing what is in all the other products. And you know, it turns out it is in basically everything, so that's the point: It's in everything. And once everybody knows it's in everything they eat, it's like, what are you going to stop eating everything?"

Would People Die If Processed Food Industry Were Replaced With Local Organic Food System?

Earlier this year, Kass became the chief consumer experience officer for Innit, a food technology startup based in California. The company's products use sensors that measure a number of food variables such as weight, temperature and portion size to calculate ideal cooking times and temperatures — all in the name of simplifying home cooking.19

Alas, Kass seems reluctant, to say the least, when it comes to advising the average American to cook with clean, organic ingredients. According to a recent report by Politico,20 Kass:

"[B]lasted leaders of the 'good food' movement on [October 18], saying that to argue that Big Food should be replaced is 'a joke' that would have painful consequences. 'There is no chance for changing the food system unless we work with the industrial food complex,' Kass said in opening remarks during a debate on industrial food at the James Beard Foundation conference in New York City. '... The trillion-dollar food industry is here to stay. It just is.'

Kass … was debating Richard McCarthy, executive director of Slow Food USA, an organization that advocates a return to local food and cooking from scratch. Kass said the food system has 'deep structural problems' and needs reform. 'But the notion that we can just get rid of it and tear it down and replace it just doesn't make any sense. People would die if we did that.'"

Junk Food Kills

The root cause of most health problems can be traced back to a poor diet. Most Americans spend the majority of their food dollars on processed foods, most of which contain one or more of the three ingredients that promote the most chronic disease, namely corn, soy and sugar beets, all three of which are also typically genetically engineered (GE) and contaminated with toxic pesticides. The point that Kass fails to acknowledge is that processed foods are killing people right now.

Worse, the processed food industry he defends is responsible for creating a "lifestyle disease epidemic" the World Health Organization (WHO) says is "a much greater public health threat than any other epidemic known to man."21 Non-communicable diseases that are predicated on lifestyle factors such as diet, smoking and alcohol use now claim more lives than communicable diseases.

Globally, there are also more overweight and obese people than there are underweight ones, and Big Food is responsible for creating this situation.

Just as agriculture has become one of the most significant environmental polluters rather than being a leading environmental steward, the food industry has become a leading source of ill health rather than a source of nutrition, health and wellbeing. In my view, this is unacceptable.

Marketing junk food to kids and knowingly increasing diabetes, obesity, cancer and heart disease rates is unacceptable. The ever-increasing use of toxic pesticides that contaminate food and destroy the soil is unacceptable. Creating vast amounts of pollution and antibiotic resistance is unacceptable.

Spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat legislation and regulation that would protect environmental and human health is unacceptable, and Big Food does all of these things as part of routine business. To say that people would die if we replaced this destructive business model with another is truly disingenuous!

Junk Food Industry Is Following in Tobacco Industry's Footsteps

The processed food industry is most similar to the tobacco industry, and to deny this evil is to turn a blind eye to the problem. The fact of the matter is junk food companies need to be forced to change, through consumer rejection, or they simply will not do it. They will gladly continue to peddle all sorts of untested toxins to an unsuspecting public as long as we let them get away with it. Food companies have repeatedly proven this to be true.

Part of me wonders whether Kass is simply too unprincipled to take a stand on any given issue. On the one hand, he claims to be a proponent of organics and home cooking, and he believes people should absolutely have the right to know what's in their food. On the other hand, he thinks fighting for GMO labeling is a waste of time, and replacing processed junk food with something as sensible as local, fresh produce would condemn people to die.

That's precisely the kind of nonsensical fearmongering Big Food likes to use. What people would die from in the absence of junk food is unclear, since GMO corn syrup, sugar and soybean oil are hardly foundational for optimal health. Those are the primary ingredients in most processed foods — hence the current death toll from diet-related illnesses!

Join the No Joke Campaign

I'm not the only one who is dismayed by Kass' bizarre defense of the junk food industry. The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) even created a petition, asking Kass to acknowledge his error:

"As former White House Chef and President Obama's Senior Policy Adviser for Nutrition Policy, Sam Kass made a name for himself purporting to be a believer in, and promoter of healthy food. Now that [he's] teamed up with Campbell's Soup …

Kass is claiming that 'people would die' if we tear down and replace the trillion-dollar food industry, and that the idea that Big Food should simply go away is 'a joke.' TAKE ACTION: Tell Former White House Chef Sam Kass: No Joke. Toxic Junk Food Is Killing Us!"

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