Have Another Helping Of Obesity!

On Monday December 8 ABC offered a Primetime Special: Whos to Blame? Obesity in America: How to Get Fat Without Really Trying. Peter Jennings advanced the notion that assigning personal responsibility is the problem, not the solution. Americans, Jennings insists, are in the grip of an obesity epidemic and added that no one wants to be [overweight]yet, he continued, old and young Americans are getting fatter and fatter and fatter. And with a little help from some friends, Jennings let Americans know that fat is just not their fault. Instead Jennings blamed government and the food industry for first making it possible by producing an abundance of food, and then stimulating obesity by encouraging us to consume.


Jennings interviewed 13 individuals on camera for his story. Eight individuals provided commentary that supported the contention that government policies and food industry practices have, in the words of Peter Jennings, helped to make America fat. Their commentary provided the dominant context for the program, and constituted some 63 percent of the direct quotations aired.

Five individuals were either neutral, (weakly) defended food industry practices, or argued that personal responsibility and free choice should be protected. They supplied a total of 27 quotes; thats a little more than a third of the substantive discussion of Jennings propositions.

Individuals from the Center for Science in the Public Interest were the principal contributors to the program. CSPI supplied its Executive Director, Michael Jacobson and its Nutrition Policy Director, Margo Wootan who, between them, provided 12 quotes, or 16 percent of the on air discussion. They argued forcefully that the obesity epidemic, the existence of which is a given so far as they are concerned, is the fault of the food industry. Jennings did not see fit to mention the fact that CSPI enjoys a long-established reputation as an anti industry consumer advocate earning its living advancing the agendas of its radical funding sources by promoting draconian regulation and scaring the public. CSPI is funded by anti industry foundations such as the Beldon Fund and its supporters get what they pay forquotes like this one from Wootan: [Food industry] pricing practices make a compelling case for requiring fast-food and other chain restaurants to disclose calories right on their menus. Or this, in response to a series of bills introduced into consideration by the Maine legislature that would ban sales of soda and junk food in schools, require calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus, and promote transportation policies that encourage walking, biking, and other forms of exercise: This type of comprehensive legislation is exactly what states should be doing to reverse the obesity epidemic, said Margo Wootan, CSPIs director of nutrition policy. The Maine legislation will make it easier for people to eat well, be physically active, and maintain a healthy weight. Maines figured out that doing nothing about obesity is a prohibitively expensive option. That quote was contained in a press release from CSPI back in February and discloses that CSPI is hardly open minded when it comes to placing blame for the obesity epidemica term it has helped invent.

Jacobson and Wootan were joined in ABCs indictment of agricultural subsidies and food industry practices by Marion Nestle, a professor from New York University, who is the leading proponent of the conspiracy theory linking agricultural subsidies, overproduction of food, low food prices and convenience as contributing causes of the obesity epidemic.

Peter Jennings and ABC aired a broadcast that was not an investigation but an editorial providing a carefully scripted promotion of the views of CSPI and its allies.

ABC and Jennings Relieve Us of Any Responsibility

Now we know, Jennings said, blaming the government because so many people are overweight, way overweight in many cases, will be rejected by those who say that personal health and well-being are a matter of personal responsibility. We were inclined to that point of view. But no more, apparently. Jennings statement followed a couple of quotes by the two individuals who are the most visible and articulate advocates of a government solution to the obesity epidemic they have helped ensconce in the publics imagination.

They are Jacobson and Nestle who announced with total conviction that were encouraged to eat junk food (Jacobson); and we have government policies that promote overeating, from the beginning to the end of the food chain (Nestle). The theory, as they express it and Jennings buys it, is that because America is so good at producing an overabundance of food, an innocent public has no choice but to eat every last bit of it and grow fat in the process.

This project, Jennings proclaims, has proved to us that the processed food industry and the government know full-well what is happening. And they are making a bad situation worse. After hearing that American agriculture is the envy of the world, as Professor Jim Tillitson of tufts University puts it, Jennings says that success has unintended consequences since American farmers producevastly more food than America needs. Abundance has become the enemy.

Jennings goes on to state that agricultural subsidies began as an FDR era policy that simply has never ended. Not many people in government have made the connection between subsidies to agriculture and obesity, says Jennings, but there is one and its very important. And you dont have to take his word for it.

Not when Jennings can turn to CSPIs Jacobson to prove that contention. Does the government take dietary guidelines and nutritional concerns into consideration when its making those grants? Jennings asks. And Jacobson announces, without any substantiation, that there is no concern on the part of the government for public health whatever.

Jennings asks the individual he calls The Bush Administrations man in charge of public health, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson whether Thompson sees any connection between the Federal governments agricultural subsidy programs and nutrition. At this point Jennings establishes a pattern that is repeated throughout the broadcast. Statements favorable to the position that the obesity epidemic is the fault of the food industry and/or government policies go unchallenged. Any contention that is not the case is met with hostility.

Making a Connection

Thompson admits that subsidy programs are not part of an overall strategy, as far as nutrition is concerned. Jennings presses Thompson on the point that there is a connection between the money which government gives to agriculture and nutrition. Do you see a connection? Jennings asks.

Thompsons response seems somewhat out of context, in that he talks about subsidizing particular things and products that are not good for nutrition. We wonder just how particular crops, like corn and soybeans can, in and of themselves, be bad for nutrition. We dont have to wait long for ABC and Jennings to enlighten us.

Jennings queries Tom Stenzel, from the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, whom he asks how much of total federal agricultural subsidies goes towards fruit and vegetables, both production and promotion? Stenzel insists that less than one percent of farm subsidies support fruit and vegetables. Jennings then uses an interpretation of the USDAs food pyramid and subsidies data from that less-than-sterling example of scientific integritythe Environmental Working Group (EWG)to buttress the conclusion that federal policies have been fattening Americans because:

Since 1995, meat and dairy got about three times the subsidies of grains.[And] sugars, fats, the foods government says we should eat least, got about 20 times more subsidies than fruits and vegetables, according to Jennings and the EWG. Try as we might, we could not find a single subsidy entitled fat at the EWG website.

Corn is to Blame

Jennings focuses the most intense criticism on government subsidies for corn, which he calls the most heavily-subsidized crop in America. Jennings also labeled corn cheap, raw material for the giant food industry. And he allows CSPIs Jacobson to allege that subsidized cornholds down the costs of meat and encourages Americans to eat more meat. And in what is perhaps the most gratuitous comment of the program, Jennings blurts: Of course, beef cattle were never intended to eat corn. And so, they have to be given all sorts of antibiotics to keep them healthy. That is a vast oversimplification, but it serves Jennings effort to disparage corn. He goes on to identify another principal cause of the obesity epidemic, popcorn: If you want to see more directly how farm subsidies can lead to obesity, there is no better place than your local theater. The popcorn you eat [there] is made with subsidized corn, says Jennings.

Popcorn is so cheap, he continues, that the bag it comes in costs more than the popcorn. And Jennings transforms the theater popcorn into the metaphor for his programs explanation of the obesity epidemic: cheap corn is a basic ingredient for a processed foodpopcornthat we find irresistible. We top that processed food with subsidized vegetable oil and then wash it down with soda thats sweetened with high fructose corn syrup thats in candy and pretzels and some hotdogs, too.

Jennings might just as well ask Tommy Thompson why the government is forcing us to subsist on a diet of candy, pretzels, hotdogs and soda: Do you believe we should plant less corn and more fruits and vegetables? And when Thompson demurs on the idea of direct government control of agricultural output, Jennings allows Professor Nestle to allege that the government already controls the way food is grown, processed and consumed in this country.

Then Theres That Soy Beans Problem

Jennings then enlightens us to another example of massive government subsidy which contributes to obesity, soybeans. For the part of the public who thought soy was the ingredient in those tofu burgers and meat substitutes health-conscious individuals consumed, Jennings says think again: Most of the soy that people eat is not in its healthy form, such as soy protein, but in the form of oil, including cooking oil and margarine. Jennings indicts soybean oil as the largest source of added fats in the American diet; then without a whit of substantiation alleges that the Department of Agriculture says that nearly twice the number of acres of fruits and vegetables would have to be planted for Americans to follow a healthy diet.

Jennings is not beyond asking leading questions to frame the debate: Why do you think fruits and vegetables get so little support from the Federal government? When he is told by a self-serving fruit and vegetable lobbyist that other divisions of the food industry (Jennings words) are better lobbyists, and then Nestle suggests that huge Agra-business companiesgive the largest campaign contributions to members of Congress, the web is complete.

Jennings disparages the symbols of agricultural abundance that we see in the nations capitol. They are not good things, portraying as they do Americas wonderful agricultural heritage and progress, but are only reminders of how important subsidies are in the political system and how hard it will be to change that, whatever the impact on the nations health.

Jennings even goes so far as to accuse Congress of subsidizing the wrong foods. He challenges Thompson again: Why do you think no one in government has made the connection between agricultural policy and obesity?

When Thompson counter punches and accuses Jennings of painting a picture of an agricultural policy that has been set up in some insidious way to subsidize things that are gonna be bad for our health, Jennings feigns offense and then puts words in Tommy Thompsons mouth:

I didnt suggest it was insidious. Im suggesting that there is a possibility that government subsidizes more food which, as you would say, as the countrys leading health officer, is bad for us, and subsidizes less those foods which you would tell us are good for us and we should eat. At no point does Jennings or his allies in the blame game suggest that the federal government should simply stop interfering in the marketplace and let the forces of demand and supply take their natural course.

Why No Obesity Candidate?

If there was any doubt that Jennings is advancing government and political solutions to a problem he and his food police allies champion, he dispels it: With so many voters in the country desperately trying to lose weight, you might think some clever politician would devise an Ill make you thinner platform. It would at least question for the first time, how Federal agricultural policy helps make us fat.

The remainder of the program is a platform from which the likes of Nestle, Wootan and Jacobson indict, try and convict the American food industry:

Nestle: The cheapness of the food ingredients encourages the food industry to produce processed foods that sit on supermarket shelves, have very cheap ingredients, and can be sold at high prices because theyre branded. No consideration from this expert of the possibility that should those foods, no matter how cheap, simply sit on supermarket shelves rather than appeal to consumers who purchase them, they will soon cease to be produced. We know of no marketing experts willing to argue that branding is sufficient to warrant high prices. Besides, Nestle and Jennings earlier argued that cheap food was the problem. Which is it?

Jacobson, another pop marketing expert, informs Jennings viewers that processed foods aremade fromsugar, water, flour, starch, fat, artificial colorings and flavorings. Yum; he goes on to stateJennings doesnt raise an eyebrowthat the food is nothing. Its the processing. Thats where the profits are. Confused? Jennings isnt.

Jennings, in fact, agrees: A typical supermarket may have thirty, forty, fifty thousand products, most of [which are] processed food made with government subsidized ingredients. In 2002 supermarkets sold $174 billion worth of processed food. We have to wonder just how Jennings defines processed food, or even the term most, because according to the Food Marketing Institute, 2002 total supermarket revenues were $411.8 billion. And, since Jennings alleged total dollar figure for processed food sales in 2002 constituted less than 43 percent of supermarket revenues, well, you get the point.

Jennings next indicts the packaged food industry stating that one thing is absolutely clear. The vast majority of products introduced by the industry in recent years are foods that Americans should be eating less. According to whom? Well, CSPIs Jacobson, of course.

And Jennings adds that last year there were more than 2,800 new candies, desserts, ice creams and snacks, and [only] 230 [of those were] new fruit or vegetable products.

We were looking at the mix of products your industry has introduced in the past 10 or 15 years; it looks like you are giving people a greater choice of food which government mostly thinks are unhealthy for them. And less choice of those which are healthy for them, Jennings said to Chip Kunde of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, clearly not even considering Kunde might want to offer a rebuttal to his charge.

Forget Personal Choice

As for personal choice, heres the telling exchange:

Jennings introduced Rick Berman of the Center for Consumer Freedom, which, Jennings points out, is funded by the restaurant industry. They have been running advertisements criticizing those who criticize the food industry. Actually the Center for Consumer Freedom has aired several very clever ads pointing out the absurdity of tort lawyers filing lawsuits against food producers and retailers on behalf of obese victims.

Berman: What the food companies are doing is just responding to consumer demand.

Jennings: Is it, as far as youre concerned, entirely a matter of personal choice and not at all a matter of marketing?

He answers his own question: Of course what you eat is a personal decision. The overweight and obesity epidemics are a result of people choosing to eat more, eat larger portions, and eat more often. Americans are choosing foods with more sweeteners and more calories. They are drinking more sodas, eating more candy, and snacking all day long. Following that sweeping generalization, Jennings needs confirmation of his bias:

So he asks Nestle, Do you think the food industry is simply giving people the products they want?

Nestle responds that the focus should not be placed on personal choice but instead on the marketing efforts of the food industry. She blames convenience, among other things, and indicts the food industry for deliberately trying to sell more food.

Jennings then goes right at Kunde: In the last 20 years, you have increased the size of your products. You have increased the number of products you introduce. You have increased the marketing of your products. Are these not strategies designed to get people to eat more?

Rather than simply replying Duh! the representative of the Grocery Manufacturers of America says No, and then assures Jennings that the manufacturers are willing to make sure that what theyre offering fits into peoples healthy diets. So much for personal responsibility after all.

Diet and Exercise Are Just Pat Answers

Jennings and his cohorts try to put the final nail in the coffin of personal responsibility by dismissing diets and exercise as merely a convenient answer to obesity for the food industry.

Jacobson: Obesitys not going to be solved through sheer physical activity.We should do that. But thats only part of the battle.

Jennings then informs his viewers that You have to walk for six hours to burn off a super-sized meal at McDonalds. After demonstrating that exercise clearly has an extremely important role to play, Jennings states: Its hard to see how exercise alone is the solution to obesity. We dont recall anyone suggesting that.

And, in a nutshell, whats wrong with the Primetime special is Jennings attempts to cast a complex situation in simplistic terms; to find convenient villains responsible for the obesity of individuals who eat too much, exercise too little, and might prefer not to take personal responsibility for their condition.

-- Paul F. Stifflemire, Jr.