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Weekly Edition 070: Saturday 29th June 2002

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An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Food - Part Four

Well, we should all know now that the up-and-coming war against obesity (and therefore 'junk food') in the US will be something serious: President Bush (whose advisors always have an eye open for any press opportunity, like Tony Blair's) has now jumped on the bandwagon. In a nationwide radio address on 22nd June he has turned to a new war, the war on fat, and is using himself as an example: "exercise is a daily part of my life, and I urge all Americans to make it an important part of your lives". Urging Americans to eat fruit and vegetables rather than fatty foods and refrain from smoking and excessive drinking (he should know about that: according to a pre-presidential Newsweek magazine profile, he "went to Yale but seems to have majored in drinking at the Deke House" - but then, didn't we all, in one way or another, during our youth), he continued, "I know you're a better worker if you exercise on a daily basis. I know you'll help keep the healthcare costs down in America if you exercise on a daily basis. I know your life will be more complete if you exercise and serve a neighbour in need".

All good advice and well meant, even though the statement is typically American, with pointed references to being a better worker and keeping healthcare costs down. Other national leaders (or their speechwriters) in Europe or elsewhere might have put it slightly differently, with less emphasis on work and medical costs. However, for those with a slightly cynical turn of mind, the US President's speech might actually be seen as part of the 'junk food' giant's campaign (codenamed 'Activate') mentioned in last week's column (which was written on 20th June). The US (and multinational) Big Food/Big Drinks/'junk food' giants have been panicked into a situation where they fear that they will eventually be sued for 'inflicting' decades of high fat/high salt intake on millions of people, so their campaign is aimed to distract attention from the debatable quality of their products to emphasize a situation where current obesity problems are really only the public's own fault through lack of exercise. Very smart. As there are potentially billions of dollars hanging in the balance on this - and this current US presidency is the 'business-connected presidency' par excellence - it is rather easy to see the links.

Some readers may query the relevance of 'food news' from the US in a newsletter devoted to Eivissa/Ibiza. But Eivissa/Ibiza is now part of the 'modern' world (well, at least some parts of it) because of tourism, and it is tourism which has brought Big Food/Big Drinks/'junk food' to the island, whether the island needed it or not. Because of the way the 'modern' world is now interlinked, what happens, for example, in the US in relation to 'junk food' has implications worldwide. Some people say that the US is a nation of incredible contrasts: religious fundamentalism combined with outright consumerism; widespread education but minimal knowledge of the rest of the world unless it affects US business interests; the 'ultimate democracy', but you have to be rich to win an election; the promoter of 'democracy' around the globe, but analysts can be puzzled by the obvious (and some not so obvious) links between what the US calls 'democracy' in other countries frequently meaning the same as 'open to American business interests'; a nation that has the possibility of the world's best health care, but at a price, and millions of its citizens are outside this safety network ; a nation prizing 'free speech', which, if practiced, can sometimes result in the speaker being looked upon as 'un-American'. Some say the best and worst of all possible worlds. A young nation, maybe still with much to learn but with possibly an inherent unwillingness to do so - or possibly not comprehending that there is much to learn. Almost everything seems to boil down to business. One colleague has said recently that the US is basically the world's biggest social experimental laboratory; it may go hell-bent on one type of fad or development for decades and then suddenly completely turn against it. This was the case with tobacco and it now seems that this will possibly be the case with 'junk foods'. Most of us also supposedly living in the 'modern' world, be it Eivissa/Ibiza, the UK, Germany, Canada or Australia, or wherever, will eventually be affected - rightly or wrongly - by what happens in America.

The US congress is, at the moment, pondering the possibility of a special 'health tax' on 'junk food' with special packaging codes and printed health warnings (in the same vein as those on cigarette packets) relating to, e.g., high fat and high sodium contents. The Congress has just now set up a special congressional panel on obesity which, if allowed to pursue its work unimpeded, may eventually come up with some rather traumatic recommendations for 'the American way of life'. Already, though, the incredibly powerful Grocery Manufacturers of America trade group (with annual sales of $460 billion) is urging the panel not to blame the nation's health problems on 'over-eating'. Other business interests will also obviously be 'quietly putting the pressure on' in the corridors of power. That, unfortunately, is often the way things are done in the 'modern' world. In the media we will suddenly begin to see a major publicity emphasis on exercise and 'eating in moderation', and such publicity will often be actually sponsored by the 'junk food' industries or organizations (such as the illustriously-named International Food Information Council Foundation) linked with them. All well and good, but obesity and unfitness in the 'modern' world has not just suddenly appeared overnight, it has been building up for decades with the development of the 'fast food'/TV/'snacks culture. Some can therefore, possibly quite rightly, criticize the 'junk food' conglomerates of hypocrisy by saying that it is only the fear of potential legal action and loss of money that has now made this sudden interest in public health a 'necessity' (for them), and criticism may go so far as to say that the growing PR about 'exercise', etc, is, of course, just a smokescreen to draw public attention away from certain basic problems with certain types of 'modern' fast food.

Certain major US corporations must really be beginning to suffer from the early stages of massive diarrhoea. Take the tobacco giant Philip Morris, for example - it already owes $100 billion to 50 states within the US because of the tobacco wars of the 1990s. It is also, however, the owner of Kraft foods, one of the US's largest manufacturers of hot dogs, biscuits and other 'junk food'. And people are beginning to go for the food manufacturers - and what worries the big companies is that this could become a trend. In May, Meredith Berkman, a New York journalist, began a $50 million class-action lawsuit against a US food manufacturer that had doubled the fat content of what was supposed to be a low-fat item. As she does not expect to win the case, she has rather tongue-in-cheekily claimed the damages are for 'emotional distress'. For readers that may be interested in the way that certain 'junk food' manufacturers are said label the fat content of their products, you may note that certain items labelled as '85% fat free' can actually mean '15% fat'. Not bad, eh?

The UK Royal college of Paediatrics is predicting a US-style 'epidemic' of obesity in the UK, noting that Type 2 diabetes - caused by diet and usually only found amongst adults - is now beginning to be seen in children. The UK's Institute of Grocery Distribution, in a report released in early June, bemoaned the increase in 'snack food' eating amongst children and their lack of skills in preparing food for themselves, noting that UK consumers now eat the second largest per capita quantity in the world of savoury snacks, sweets and cakes.  The UK's Good Food Foundation, in a recent survey of what children thought of as 'cooking skills' were shocked to receive the following replies: making a sandwich (36%), making toast (31%), opening a cereal packet (20%) and cooking chips (11%). So what has happened/is happening in the US has already spread, of course, further afield?

If the tobacco wars are anything to go by, the 'junk food' industry's first line of defence may be to try and minimize the relationship between food and health. General medical opinion in the UK is now that diet - and specifically a diet high in fats, salt and sugar - has a major influence on cardiovascular diseases (including coronary heart disease), cancer, diabetes, obesity and tooth decay. The junk food industry will reply that the situation is too complex to pinpoint one cause for all this and will try and blame, amongst other things, lack of exercise. In Britain, though, the recent Treasury-commissioned Wanless report on the National Health Service has calculated the annual cost to the NHS of diet-related diseases: coronary heart disease 2.4 billion pounds, diabetes 1.3 billion pounds, cancer 2.5 billion pounds, and so on. Health economists estimate that 30% of the risk factors in, e.g., heart disease and cancer can be attributed to diet.

Well, one thinks, the easiest thing to do is to avoid the junk food outlets, let's stick to something safe like cereals (for example). But wait a minute, what about this urgent meeting that began in the WHO headquarters in Geneva on 26th June? Yes, Swedish scientists claim to have found that some modern starch-based high-temperature cooked foods can contain amounts of acrylamide (a chemical used to produce dyes and plastics and - in small quantities - to purify water) and fear there is a link there to cancer. Acrylamide has now been found in breakfast cereals, biscuits, chips and crisps, to name a few. Spurred on by the Swedish tests, a US consumer group began testing a wide range of fast foods and found that McDonalds chips had the highest levels of acrylamide, 7 micrograms per large serving (the US Environmental Protection Agency has set a limit of 0.12 micrograms per whatever for water). European, US, Canadian and Japanese scientists have now gathered in Geneva for a special urgent meeting on the possible acrylamide 'problem' and potential links to cancer. This meeting is going on now, as I write. The spokesman for the Australia New Zealand Food Authority, though, has just made a statement regarding the acryl amide 'problem' and those who have unknowingly been ingesting it for years: "I suspect that the cholesterol clogging the arteries is going to get them before the acrylamide does".

And on that reassuring note I wish you all a good weekend! Smile!

Kirk W Huffman

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