Food Politics: United States

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FOOD POLITICS: UNITED STATES. Food, the fuel of life and a source of lifelong pleasure, might seem to be the antithesis of politics, a term redolent of power, manipulation, and commerce, but the two are tightly linked. Commercial interests affect nearly every aspect of the systems of food production, distribution, and consumption, from farm to fork. The extraordinary size of the food enterprise and the vast sums at stake readily explain the ferocity of debates about dietary advice to the public, health claims on food package labels, regulations for meat safety, nutritional requirements for school meals, and labeling of genetically modified foods, to cite just a few examples. Debates over such issues derive from the disparate interests of the principal stakeholders in the food system, including the food industry and the consuming public of course but also government regulators, public health officials, and nutrition researchers and educators. Because all stakeholders should benefit from a food supply that is adequate, healthful, safe, environmentally sound, culturally appropriate, affordable, and delicious, the interests of these groups might appear to be congruent. The food industry, however, has an additional and compelling interestto sell products. The conflict between the commercial interests of food companies and the widely varying concerns of other stakeholders is a principal reason why food issues are so controversial.

In this context the term "food industry" encompasses the full range of companies in the United States that produce, process, manufacture, sell, and serve foods, beverages, and dietary supplements (see the sidebar "The U.S. Food Industry"). Taken together the various sectors of this industry provide a food supply so plentiful, varied, relatively inexpensive, and devoid of dependence on geography or season that all but the poorest of Americans can obtain enough energy and nutrients to meet their biological needs. Indeed the U.S. food system as a wholefood produced in this country, plus imports, less exportsprovides enough energy to meet the needs of every man, woman, and child in the country nearly twice over: 3,800 calories per capita per day. This amount is one-third higher than the caloric needs of most men, is twice the level needed by most women, and exceeds the requirements of babies, young children, and the sedentary elderly by even greater amounts. Even if, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates, 1,100 of those calories might be wasted (for example, in spoiled fruit or discarded oil for frying potatoes), the overabundance of food poses a major problem for the industry. It forces competition.

Because people, even those who overindulge, are limited in the number of calories they can consume, a choice of any one food means rejection of others. Thus food companies must convince people either to select their products over competitors' products or to consume more food overall, no matter how consumption or overconsumption might affect nutritional status or body weight. Food, beverage, supplement, and food service companies spend more than $30 billion annually to promote their products to the public, and nearly 70 percent of this amount is applied to convenience foods, candy and snacks, alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, and desserts. In contrast, just over 2 percent is used to advertise foods considered more healthful, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, or beans. Furthermore the annual advertising expenditures for any single, nationally distributed food product are tenfold to fiftyfold higher than the total expenditures by government agencies to educate the public about food and nutrition.

The inequality of funding for dietary advice is only one aspect of U.S. food politics. Food companies also use the political system to convince Congress, government agency officials, food and nutrition experts, the media, and the public that their products promote health (or at least do no harm) and should not be subject to restrictive regulations. To protect their marketing environment, they contribute to congressional campaigns, lobby members of Congress and federal agencies, and when all else fails, engage in lawsuits. Nearly every food company is represented by a trade association or public relations firm whose job is to promote a positive image of the company's product among consumers, professionals, and the media. The companies form partnerships and alliances with professional nutrition organizations, fund research on food and nutrition, sponsor professional journals and conferences, and make sure that influential groups, including federal officials, researchers, doctors, nurses, schoolteachers, and the media, will favor and not criticize their products. To distract attention from health, safety, or environmental concerns, they may argue that restrictive regulations overly involve the government in personal dietary choices and threaten constitutional guarantees of free speech.

Such actions are routine, legal, and thoroughly analogous to the political activities of any other major industrytobacco, for examplein influencing health experts, federal agencies, and Congress. Promoting sales of food raises more complicated issues than promoting use of tobacco, however, in that food is required for life and causes health problems only when consumed inappropriately. Nevertheless the primary mission of food companies, like that of tobacco companies, is to sell products. For this reason alone basic dietary advice to prevent disease by restricting consumption of saturated fat, sugar, salt, or alcohol or to prevent obesity by eating less food in general directly conflicts with the commercial interests of food companies. Similarly, concerns about pollution of air, water, and soil conflict with the economic interests of agricultural producers and giant chicken and hog operations.

Food and politics are connected in ways both great and small, as illustrated in the sidebar "Food Politics in Action." As those examples demonstrate, food is a political issue. Overabundant food and its consequences occur in the context of increasing centralization and globalization of the food industry. Because food affects lives as well as livelihoods, almost any aspect of its production or consumption stimulates attention from interest groups and the public at large. Food issues inevitably involve struggles over the way the government balances corporate against public interests. Although all stake-holders have the same right to use the political system as do food companies, most others are motivated by health, safety, or environmental concerns rather than by profit, and they rarely have equivalent resources. Nevertheless they sometimes achieve political objectives. In this manner struggles over food issues reflect and contribute to essential functions of the American political system.

See also Advertising of Food ; Marketing of Food .


Environmental Working Group. Frazão, Elizabeth, ed. America's Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1999.

Kluger, Richard. Ashes to Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Nestle, Marion. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Nestle, Marion, and Michael F. Jacobson. "Halting the Obesity Epidemic: A Public Health Policy Approach." Public Health Reports 115 (2000): 1224.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Food Guide Pyramid. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1992.

Marion Nestle

The U.S. Food Industry

The huge U.S. food industry is best understood in sectors. The agribusiness sector raises food crops and animals and makes and sells fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, and feed. Other sectors sell machinery, labor, real estate, and financial services to farmers or transport, store, distribute, export, process, and market foods after they leave the farm. The food service sector includes restaurants, fast food outlets, and bars but also service by institutions, such as schools, hospitals, prisons, and workplaces, and by food carts and courts. The retail sector includes supermarkets, convenience stores, and vending machines. This vast food system generates nearly $1 trillion in annual sales, accounts for nearly 15 percent of the U.S. gross national product, and employs 17 percent of the country's labor force. Of the more than $800 billion or so that the public spent directly on food and drink in 2000, alcoholic beverages accounted for about $100 billion. The rest was distributed among retail food enterprises (54 percent) and food service (46 percent).

Within this industry huge national and multinational corporations vie for control of production or sales of specific food commodities. In 1997, for example, just three companies, Philip Morris (Kraft General Foods and Miller Brewing), ConAgra, and RJRNabisco, accounted for nearly 20 percent of all food expenditures in the United States. In 2000 seven U.S. companies (Philip Morris, ConAgra, Mars, IBP, Sara Lee, Heinz, and Tyson Foods) ranked among the ten largest food companies in the world and generated up to $50 billion in sales annually. Others, such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, PepsiCo, Procter and Gamble, and Roche (vitamins), ranked among the top one hundred worldwide. The nearly thirteen thousand outlets of McDonald's, the leading U.S. food service company, brought in about $20 billion in sales in 2000, more than twice as much as its nearest competitor.

These companies and others introduce 10,000 to 15,000 new food and beverage products annually into a marketplace that already contains about 320,000 such items. These items must compete for supermarket shelf space; even the largest supermarkets have room for just 50,000 products. Of the 11,000 new products introduced in 1998, for example, more than two-thirds were condiments, candies and snacks, baked goods, soft drinks, and dairy products (cheese products and ice cream novelties), foods largely allocated to the top ("eat occasionally") section of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 1992 Food Guide Pyramid. Slightly more than one-fourth of the products were "nutritionally enhanced" so they could be marketed as low in fat, cholesterol, salt, or sugar or as higher in fiber, calcium, or vitamins. Some enhanced products, among them no-fat cookies, vitamin-enriched cereals, and calcium-fortified juice drinks, contain so much sugar that they belong at the top of the pyramid even though they are marketed as "healthy."

Food Politics in Action

Two examples, dietary recommendations and trade disputes, illustrate the breadth of ways politics connect to food. Food guides and dietary guidelines sometimes advise restriction in one or another food or component. When they do, industries affected by the advice raise objections. In 1991, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cancelled publication of its Food Guide Pyramid. Producers of meat and dairy foods protested that the placement of their products in the triangular design of the pyramid conveyed an "eat less" message. In turn nutrition and health experts protested the cancellation, arguing that the pyramid design was fully supported by research. The USDA released the guide one year later, after investing nearly a million dollars in face-saving research and agreeing to several design changes favored by meat and dairy producers. In another incident in 2000 the committee developing national dietary guidelines suggested Americans "limit" sugar consumption, but federal agencies changed that word to "moderate" in response to pressures from sugar trade associations. Although sugar contributes calories but no nutrients to diets, the trade groups maintained that existing science did not justify recommendations to restrict sugar intake. Sugar producers famously contribute large sums of money to both political parties, and the agencies did not want to do battle over so seemingly trivial a change in wording.

Trade disputes constitute an example of food politics on a global scale. The United States participates in a treaty with the World Trade Organization (WTO), an international body that sets standards for food safety and domestic farm subsidies. WTO rules are designed to prevent nations from instituting farm policies that might unfairly favor their ability to compete in world markets. In 2001 U.S. participation in the WTO came into conflict with long-standing policies that subsidize agricultural producers to protect them against price fluctuations. The most visible subsidies are price supports for sugar and milk, but taxpayers also support production and market quotas, import restrictions, and marketing and promotion programs for major food commodities. The total cost of such subsidies, most of which go to large agricultural corporations, exceeded $32 billion in 2000. In 2001 at least eight members of Congress, five of whom held positions on committees that consider agricultural policies, personally received farm subsidies ranging from nearly $40,000 to $650,000 annually. In this situation the interests of agricultural producers and their congressional supporters directly conflict with U.S. foreign policy and raise political dilemmas that cannot easily be resolved.