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Anthropological View

An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Food

Part Three


In the last two issues of this paper we have peeked into aspects of the 'Western World's' problems with food, obesity and the misuse of industrial waste as agricultural fertilizer. This 'new' theme was first brought up in the last article about South Pacific Kava (more commonly known as 'Kava-kava' in Europe and the US) and the misguided decisions of many European countries - and the US, Canada and Australia to try and limit or prohibit its used in medicinal extract form to combat stress. Germany was the country that began the furore, but has turned out to be the last country to make an official decision on it, the relevant German government health authority (the BfArM in Bonn) only making their final decision on 14th June (they were supposed to make it in January) and releasing it to the press on 17th June. Their views? A blanket prohibition, effective immediately, on the sales of all kava-based medicinal products. Their reasons? As pointed out in the kava series, they think it's use may be associated with liver damage - a view which came as a shock to traditional kava drinkers in the South Pacific, particularly those in Vanuatu who have been drinking incredibly strong kava (i.e. stronger than any extracts possibly available in Europe) for longer than any nations in Europe have existed (and without liver problems either). We went into some of the other reasons for the official 'Western' attempts to get 'kava-kava' off the market. Those who have read the 8-part series will not be surprised to soon hear of official attempts to ban St John's Wort (Hypericum) in the very near future. It is a sad situation where money may sometimes be of more importance than real concern for people's health - and here I really mean that 'modern' governments often tend to try and prohibit useful materials from the 'Developing World' if these become too popular and start interfering with profits of more expensive (and often less effective) products of the Big Companies (unless of course the former can be controlled by the latter) whilst still permitting other products (of their own) that may be more harmful.

Where big money rather than health is involved, things can move extremely rapidly. We are now back on the topic of Big Food/ 'junk food', familiar to those who have read this newspaper's last two issues. The decision (mentioned in 'Thinking about Kava - with a 'K', Part Eight, Saturday 25th May 2002) in April 2002 of the US government's IRS (Internal Revenue Service) to class 'obesity' as an 'illness' has opened the door for potential court cases against the 'junk food' industry in the same way that many civil action cases were fought against the tobacco giants in the 1990s. Although the general public in the US may not yet have realized the full implications of the IRS's momentous decision, the Big Food/'junk food' companies have. They have realized that their days as 'untouchable industries' in the US may be numbered, at least in their present state, and they are hurriedly preparing to head the enemy (i.e. the general public) off at the pass, so to speak. That's a polite way of saying that they are now trying to cover their asses. By the end of this month you will begin to hear rumours of a massive publicity campaign, organized and funded by the US 'junk food' giants, telling us that we should eat well and get more exercise - as if we did not already know. This campaign, code-named 'Activate', will target children between the ages of 9 to12 and their parents and is supported by the US's International Food Information Council Foundation. A grand-sounding name, but readers may be interested to know that the IFICF is said to actually be the Big Food industry's lobby group (? a bit like having an International Tobacco Information Council funded by the tobacco industry?). Some say that such a campaign may end up with pre-packed foods such as, say, chocolate biscuits and crisps, labelled with health warnings rather like cigarette packets. But of course minor foods like those just mentioned are not really what the Food Industry is really worried about; they are really worried that the public will home in on the obesity-friendly high fat and salt, etc, content of their staple products, which shall remain nameless. In 2001, 25% of the adult US population visited a Big Food restaurant every day, and during that same period Americans spent US $110 billion on 'junk food'. What may really have panicked the Big Food industry was a December 2001 report by the US Surgeon General, David Satcher, stating that obesity-related health problems cost the US a stunning US $ 117 billion per year! More than the amount spent on 'junk food'! The Big Food industry quickly saw the switched-off light at the end of the tunnel! Anyway, 'for whatever reasons', big companies such as McDonalds, Burger King, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Heinz, Unilever and Monsanto (!) are amongst the backers for the 'Activate' campaign - and for most of those it is not difficult to understand why. To use a culinary term, it can be called 'currying public favour'.

Those with a slightly malicious turn of mind might actually hint that certain companies might be planning a rapid judicious search through their archives with a view to making sure that no untoward documents might eventually be forced to come to light. Obesity-related lawsuits against some of the food companies have already begun in a small way - in the same way as the first lawsuits against the tobacco companies - there have been four recent lawsuits, including two against McDonalds and Pizza Hut. In the fight against the tobacco giants, lawsuits eventually became bigger as the revelations stoked the fires of public outrage. If the litigious situation between the US public, the Government, the Courts (who may, it is said, 'go it alone' if the government doesn't) and the 'junk food' industry regarding obesity does hot up in the same way as the 'tobacco wars', then one may find some similar outcomes. The big tobacco companies - seemingly more concerned with profits than health, as usual - looked for new markets, and targeted the 'Developing World'. Europeans in general often seem to forget about China, but companies concerned with sales do not. What a market for everything - a booming economy (set probably to be the world's biggest by the end of this century, if not well before) and over a billion potential consumers! All potential smokers and consumers of 'junk food'.

There is already a growing obesity problem in certain areas of China. Take dynamic Shanghai, for instance. China's richest city. A Reuter's report from Shanghai at the beginning of this month indicated that nearly 33% of Shanghai children are now, according to a recent study, classed as overweight or obese. Gosh and why China, you say, with all that lovely non-fattening food? Well, times are changing. For the last 20 years, China's one-child policy and booming economy have meant - at least in wealthy Shanghai - that growing family incomes have been lavished on the one child (especially if a boy). The 'in thing' is also to eat at one of Shanghai's many new 'Western' 'junk food' restaurants. So what does one expect? So where will 'Big Food ' go if it receives heavy legal treatment in the US (and later, probably Europe) within this coming decade? Well, China (amongst others) of course! One can actually see a possible situation in, say, 2010, where 'Big Food' is actually selling wholegrain bun tofu-burgers in the US and the normal sort of 'triple-decker cheeseburgers with all the trimmings' in China, Japan, Korea and so on and so forth. Does that sound too far-fetched? Believe me, it is not!

Kirk W Huffman