Junk food is an elixir of capitalism and its terrible twin, war. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist and unofficial White House stenographer, once wrote. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas.”
When a British soldier with whom I worked sent me photographs from Iraq in 2003, I was astonished to see him clutching a jumbo-sized soft drink in the KFC outlet of a Basra barracks. Here was a military invasion sponsored by a brand of fried chicken. Closer to home, David Cameron’s government has tasked Pepsi, McDonald’s and KFC lately with helping to draft new policies on obesity. While some public health advocates have rightly denounced this step as tantamount to allowing cigarette-makers decide how smoking should be regulated, the depressing truth is that this kind of behaviour is viewed as perfectly acceptable by the ruling elite in Brussels.
Later this week Belgium’s EU presidency will host a conference to assess the Union’s work on nutrition. Invitees include those belonging to an obscure group called the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health. Set up in 2005, the ‘platform’ brings together non-profit groups promoting sport and consumer protection with corporations that have a vested interest in making your waistline bulge.
There are no prizes for guessing which side wields more influence over decision-makers. In November the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries in the EU – known by its French acronym CIAA – held its annual conference in Brussels. No fewer than four European commissioners found time to attend. John Dalli, the EU’s health and consumer policy chief, used the occasion to laud the “self-regulation” approach that the food industry favours on such topics as advertisements directed at children (or more accurately, ads that make kids demand certain “treats” from their parents).
Dalli’s prepared script for that meeting gave the impression that all parties to the “platform” broadly support self-regulation. This was misleading. BEUC, the European consumers group, is advocating a ban on TV ads for food products that are high in sugar, salt or fat content between 6am and 9pm.
More generally, the declarations of support offered by the European Commission for “big food” appear distasteful when one considers how CIAA has successfully removed any teeth from proposed new rules on nutrition.
In June the European Parliament capitulated to corporate pressure, when a majority of our elected representatives voted against a “traffic light” system for processed food. The system envisaged had the beauty of simplicity. Each time you picked up a convenience meal in a supermarket freezer, you would know that it was high in cholesterol if the cholesterol level was marked in red.
In one of the biggest lobbying offensives ever seen in Brussels, the food and drinks industry sent 100 times more messages to MEPs than champions of public health did. A few politicians might have deluded themselves that the volume of correspondence they received against the “traffic light” measure meant it faced widespread opposition. The truth was that the industry had infinitely deeper pockets than those on the other side of the argument. Although estimates cited by lobbying watchdogs and some journalists that industry spent €1 billion on the campaign have been refuted by the CIAA, it is extremely difficult to ascertain precisely how much food giants allocate to “buying” votes.
After dragging its heels for a few years, the CIAA only signed up to the Commission’s register of “interest representatives” in recent weeks. Although its entry states a commitment to “full transparency”, it merely tells us that the confederation spent less than €250,000 directly trying to press its case in the EU institutions during the 2009 financial year. There is a strong likelihood that this is an underestimate. Does the figure cover the cost of running a “think-tank” called the European Union Food Information Council (EUFIC)? Despite the confederation’s “transparency”, you have to search hard on the EUFIC website to find out that it is sponsored by Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Unilever and Kraft. Much easier to find are news stories – cleverly presented as objective reportage – insinuating that scientists believe genetic factors are a greater determinant of obesity than the type of grub we eat.
For many years, I was unaware that there could be a connection with high obesity levels in the industrialised world and malnutrition in more impoverished regions. Raj Patel’s book Stuffed and Starved brilliantly explained how these problems are interrelated. The grim statistics of almost one billion people suffering from chronic hunger and how 27% of men and 38% of women in the EU are overweight or obese are symptomatic of the corporate capture of our lives.
One of the more obscene aspects of this inequity is the assumption that there is something natural about restricting good nutrition to the rich. The perverse nature of agricultural subsidies in Europe has meant that only the wealthy can afford wholesome, organic food. The question of keeping the poor healthy has been shamefully neglected; I was shocked to learn that a 20-year-old system of allocating food resulting from EU agricultural surpluses to “most deprived persons” has not had to follow any criteria relating to nutritional standards.
The right to food and adequate nutrition has been recognised as a human right by the United Nations. Why do EU officials think they can trample on this right with impunity?
·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 5-11 December 2010