Tuesday, September 13, 2011

MyPlate - With Sponsors Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

Today I've got the great pleasure of presenting you with a guest post from my friend and newly minted RD, Andy Bellatti. Andy's blog, Small Bites, is one of my must reads - if you care about food and food politics, you probably ought to make it one of yours.

Here's his most recent take on America's MyPlate:

With Sponsors Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

It has been slightly over three months since the United States Department of Agriculture's newest food icon, MyPlate, launched. Despite the "this will help Americans fight obesity and chronic disease" PR spin, I was rather underwhelmed by the illustration.

Last week marked the launch of the first MyPlate themed message – "make half your plate fruits and vegetables,” – via a national private-sector partnership program.

According to the MyPlate website, these partners are expected to “promote nutrition content in the context of the entirety of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans” and “specifically disseminate... Dietary Guidelines messages”, among other requirements.

Sounds wonderful and idyllic; until you take a look at who the partners are. The page that lists these companies and organizations offers this quote from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack:

"By partnering with USDA, corporations win, USDA wins, and the American consumer wins. That's a win-win-win situation!"

Alas, the hyperbolic "win-win-win" quickly turns into a sobering "lose-lose-lose" when you dig into what these organizations stand for – and who's funding them. Consider the following examples:

1) American Society for Nutrition: Their slogan -- "excellence in nutrition research and practice" – sounds earnest, right?. Guess again. Among the companies that support ASN's mission (by funding educational programs): Coca Cola, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Mars Inc., McDonald's, PepsiCo, The Salt Institute, and The Sugar Association.

2) International Food Information Council: According to the folks at Sourcewatch, "[IFIC's] staff members hail from industry groups such as the Sugar Association and the National Soft Drink Association, and it has repeatedly led the defense for controversial food additives including monosodium glutamate, aspartame (Nutrasweet), food dyes, and olestra." I can say from personal experience that a few years ago, I briefly met an IFIC executive who dismissed skepticism towards industry-funded research. One sentence of hers -- which, years later, I still vividly recall -- was: "So what if Coca-Cola funds a study? Science is science!". Not quite; objectivity tends to take a backseat when industry gets involved.

PS: IFIC is also staunchly in favor of genetically modified foods.

3) Institute of Food Technologists: In short, a group that profits from food processing. Any time artificial dyes and flavors or synthetic fats and sweeteners are questioned for safety, you are bound to see an IFT spokesperson immediately pipe up in their defense.

4) Produce for Better Health Foundation: This sounds so innocuous, especially when you consider they are behind the federal 'Fruits & Veggies: More Matters' campaign. While this group is all about produce, their stance on pesticides – “consumers are frightened for no reason!” -- certainly raises an eyebrow.

Their list of donors includes some names that are far from synonymous with 'health': Campbell's Soup Company, McDonald's, Monsanto Vegetable Seeds, and Syngenta (an agricultural biotech company).

The above-mentioned examples are the ones that stood out to me most, but they are not the totality of what I consider to be partnerships incongruous to a national message of health.

There's Weight Watchers, which manufactures a wide array of highly processed, and usually sugar-laden “food”. The National Restaurant Association is also listed. MyPlate is teaming up with an organization that is vehemently against calorie postings on menus, and strongly argues for “personal responsibility.” If anything, shouldn't MyPlate encourage Americans to cook more meals at home and reduce the take-out and eat-out habit? The presence of The American Dietetic Association as a partner may seem like a 'good fit', but they take funding from the likes of Coca Cola, Pepsi Co, and Hershey's, and are ultimately in bed with Big Food.

And so, three months out, my initial critiques of MyPlate have only been cemented and magnified as a result of these partnerships. For those who look at this with far rosier glasses than I, riddle me this: how can we truly conceive of bringing about substantial change when the same companies that continually pump out the nutritionally inferior, sugar/dye/pesticide/GMO-laden "foods" that are a direct threat to health are also sponsoring government efforts to improve the health of Americans?
Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a Seattle-based dietitian who approaches nutrition from a whole-foods, plant-centric framework. He also takes a strong interest in food politics, nutrition policy, and deceptive food industry marketing tactics. He is the creator of the Small Bites blog and can be followed on Twitter.

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  1. Roman Korol9:08 am

    A shattering indictment and an imaginative improvement to the MyPlate logo. In me, Mr. Bellatti has a new interested follower on Twitter.

  2. Nicely written and well argued. But what about the plate icon/message itself? Is it useful? Useless? Worthwhile?

    As I have said re: Dr. Freedhoff's posts in the past -- if the initiative is worthwhile, and if guilt money is available from Big Food in a manner that does not compromise the initiative, shouldn't they take the money and run?

    There are principles, sure, and there are realities. I view the war against the forces that have profited on making our society unhealthy as a guerrilla affair.

    Sometimes you can take the money and run. The government will never pay for these types of initiatives -- there is nothing of immediate benefit in it for any short-sighted elected official or bureaucrat.

    If any argument suggests that programs & initiatives that might help people think / eat/ live better can only be funded with money from unsullied sources, then I hate to break it to you -- your war is already over.

  3. Naive question - what is so bad about GMO per se. I know there are examples of bad kinds of GMO (e.g. the seeds featured in Food Inc, or the Bt corn mentioned in the above link), but I've seen other very positive examples.

    Whenever I see someone writing that GMO is bad, period, it makes me a little nervous about ideology versus evidence. Any thoughts, Andy?

  4. Dr. Nick,

    Thank you for your comment.

    As far as the plate itself, if you click on the words "I was rather underwhelmed by the illustration" (in the first paragraph), it will take you to the blog post I wrote on the day of MyPlate's launch.

    You bring up the important issue of 'compromising the initiative'. My concern is that with these sorts of sponsors, the truly helpful and relevant messages are left out of the conversation (ie: "Reduce your intake of added sugar" would never fly since many of these front groups are funded by companies that make sugar-laden products). I truly wonder what MyPlate and the accompanying guidelines would look like without all the Big Food interference.

    I understand that sponsors are needed, but this is truly a disturbing list. I would have been a lot less alarmed if, say, the money was acquired from The Walnut Board, The Pear Board, The Almond Board, etc. Sure, it may mean that when talking about 'nuts and seeds', walnuts and almonds would get most of the press, but that to me is a lot less insidious than working with a front group that has "Monsanto vegetable seeds" as a member.

  5. Roman,

    I appreciate your comment and thank you for the follow.

  6. Travis,

    My issues with GMO have to do with environmental consequences, the very little we know on the effects of GMOs on human health over the long term, and the fact that it is not as helpful of a technology as the agricultural biotech industry wants us to believe. Yields are not higher with GM crops.

    Additionally, most of the GM crops used in the US are hyper-processed byproducts usually used to add sugar or omega-6 oils to processed food.

  7. GMOs reduce pesticide use: http://www.biofortified.org/2009/11/does-using-gmos-really-increase-pesticide-use/

    GMO are rigorously tested (unlike conventional breeding which is less selective and rarely tested).

    Criticisms of recent Bt paper: http://www.biofortified.org/2011/04/nonsense/ also, Bt in lots of dietary sources (including organic): http://www.biofortified.org/2011/05/there-are-a-lot-of-different-ways-for-bt-proteins-to-get-into-our-food/

  8. Colby,

    The GMO topic could be discussed endlessly, especially in a comment thread. So as to not take away from the focus of this post (the politics behind MyPlate), I will simply link to this piece by Tom Philpott of Mother Jones, which touches upon many of the issues with GMO crops (point #3, in particular, is of note).