This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Michele Simon.
Michele is a public health lawyer who has been researching and writing about the food industry and food politics since 1996. She specializes in legal strategies to counter corporate tactics that harm the public’s health. For 4.5 years she served as research and policy director for Marin Institute (now Alcohol Justice), an alcohol industry watchdog group. Her groundbreaking 2007 report on alcoholic energy drinks led to a federal ban on these dangerous products.
Michele Simon has taught Health Policy at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and lectures frequently on corporate tactics and policy solutions. She has written extensively on the politics of food, and her first book, Appetite for Profit was published by Nation Books in 2006.
She is also president of Eat Drink Politics, an industry watchdog consulting firm. Simon has a master’s degree in public health from Yale University and received her law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
The Slim Is Simple.org Non-Profit Nutrition Education Effort
[Audio Starts 00:23]
Jonathan: Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor here with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. I am very excited about today’s show because I have a public health lawyer, author, and general food corporation edible product shenanigan exposing author and just general rockstar with us and I say general rockstar because our guest today, Michele Simon, is actually referenced heavily in the Smarter Science of Slim book and her work really did inspire me and her book is called Appetite for Profit. It is one of the best exposes on how the food industry undermines our health and what we can do about that that I personally have ever read. Michele, I am so delighted to have you on the show, so delighted to hear about your story, your book, and your new consulting group Eat Drink Politics, welcome.
Michele: Thanks for having me and my agent thanks you too for all that glowing kudos for my book. Thank you.
Jonathan: I can imagine Michele, I want to dig into your story a little bit because you are a public health attorney in many ways – there’s a lot of bloggers and people like myself who enjoy shedding light on how not health oriented our food supply is and how profit oriented it is, but this your job, this is what you do and this is what you have done in a very formal and official fashion. Can you tell us your story and how you got involved with this movement?
Michele: Sure, it was way back in the mid 90s when I decided to make a shift in my diet just for personal reasons and at that time I was graduating from law school, already had my Masters in Public Health from Yale of all places where I really learned absolutely nothing about nutrition and it was eye opening to me and rather mind-blowing to find out that there are all these important connections between how we eat and our health and the environment and animals and on and on, so it just opened this whole new world to me that I was unfamiliar with.
I looked around and realized well there weren’t really many lawyers taking a harder look at our food system and the politics of food and this is really before the food movement kind of hit the mainstream and became as bigger as it is today. I was very inspired by Marion Nestle’s work and again this is before her book Food Politics even came out and she really made me see in particular the influence of the meat and dairy industry on the politics of food and that set me down this path of taking a closer look at the food industry more broadly and I never looked back.
Jonathan: I love it and what really sparked – certainly you went, you said you never looked back. Was there a moment or was there a realization or you were just like I – because frankly you have dedicated your life to this – I am going to dedicate my professional and personal life to this. What was that moment, what was that information that set you over the edge?
Michele: I guess it was discovering that mostly a plant-based diet is really what is optimal for our health and yet even though the science all reflects that our food environment certainly doesn’t and our very own government doesn’t reflect that science and when I realized why that was – I realized that there was this huge disconnect between the messages that we hear, the standard American diet, and the truth that’s being told and that should be told and, I guess for some reason I have this real desire to tell the truth and I have very little tolerance for what I consider BS and just a lack of transparency and honesty and information and how our government should work.
I don’t know it was like a particular moment, it was clear to me that this was profound, this connection between how we eat and our health and all of the social implications of our food system and though the story wasn’t being told in the right way, that there weren’t enough people really exposing these deep political underpinnings of why things are the way they are. I think of Amy Goodman with Democracy Now saying “They go where the silence is.” That’s how I like to think about my work. I go where no one else is either willing for political reasons or it doesn’t have the same skill set I have or whatever. I like to shine a light on places where there needs to be light shed and really expose the truth of the matter because we are in a crisis stage in many ways, thanks to our really messed up food system and it’s so important that people understand the truth and move forward based on this huge political battle that we are in.
Jonathan: Michele, one thing I would love to – I am going to be a little greedy here because this is for my own edification, if nothing else, for my own information, but I know our listeners would find it useful as well – an area that continues to just make my blood boil and I know you have done a lot of work on, so I want to focus on, is the interaction between the food industry and young people, specifically children, specifically while in schools because we can all debate about what adult should be or not be allowed to do and regulations on adults and yada, yada, yada, but we get into kids and we get into school settings, and we get into places where in some ways we are almost forcing small people to do things that will cause irreparable damage to their health and happiness. Can you just tell us about what’s going on in that world because that’s just getting out of control?
Michele: Yes, you are right. When it comes to just thinking about where we should start trying to fix our very unhealthy food system and the food environment that people live in, it’s no question that children’s health should be paramount and schools of course are a critical setting in which children eat sometimes most of their meals. When it comes to low income children, most of their meals are coming from the school setting, the good news is there is a movement afoot to really improve the dismal quality of school food in most public school districts around the country. I would say we are still a long way to go.
Why is it important isn’t just for the obvious reason is that children are setting up their habits for life, et cetra., but it’s also to me this fundamental ethical issue which is that food companies should not be targeting children. It should be obvious, but some reason in our society, we haven’t come to this understanding that children are vulnerable. They lead with emotions, they don’t understand what marketing is, certainly not at a young age. How is it that we are allowing corporations to essentially act as predators? When it comes to marketing to children, there is no other word for it.
What’s happening is we have this crisis on our hands and companies are targeting children at younger and younger ages because they have to compete with their competitors; Coke and Pepsi need to make sure that they get to the child at a youngest age as possible to ensure brand loyalty for life. Same thing with the fast food industry, whatever food company is, they have got a competitor, they have got to make sure they get the kid hooked on their brand and not the other guy’s brand and children are forming those life-long habits, both on the quality of the food that they are eating plus on the brands that they are choosing. Yet the discussion and the debate around this – and there is fair amount of debate and attention being paid to this problem at least from the advocacy side, but unfortunately the politics of this are impossible because you have these same – usually powerful corporations and their lobby and trade groups in the pockets of Congress just like every other industry and there is the usual politics of fear playing out in Washington where we can’t get any actual regulation. We can’t rein in this incredibly exploitative practice of industry targeting younger and younger children and, what we are trying to do instead is put pressure on the companies themselves to stop engaging in this unethical behavior.
Jonathan: Michele, why do you think – we don’t – I also love the approach of starting with children because it seems like that’s the area we can almost agree on because there is – you are the attorney here, but it appears that there is pretty clear legal precedence to saying that you cannot advertise cigarettes during Saturday morning cartoons and you cannot advertise alcohol during Saturday morning cartoons and in fact even if you use a cartoon camel in your ads, we will still be like, ‘really?’
I mean it is just rampant, it is – actually just recently I think Coca Cola released this BeverageInstitute.net website which is just like screams of the old tobacco institute, it’s this – why is this hard because we have seen this happen with cigarettes, we have done it successfully with cigarettes and now all the work that’s being done around the addictive nature of added sweeteners, is it – maybe it’s just a matter or time or what are your thoughts?
Michele: We’re to start [indiscernible 10:05] done packing all that. First of all actually we have laws – a law on the books to say tobacco advertising is not allowed on TV period. We don’t have any laws regarding alcohol ads, but the difference is food is legal for children to consume. As a clear distinction there, at least under the law, basically we can restrict advertising to children with things which is illegal for them to consume. The same is not true obviously for sugary cereals and the like. However, there is still a legal approach which is to say deceptive advertising is really not allowed under the law and yet we don’t have anyone really pushing the envelope when it comes to bringing legal cases to get that in precedence.
What I am trying to say is there is no question that it’s probably illegal and I have written about this as have others that in other words it’s not first amendment protected speech, so one of the food industries best arguments are political covers really is to say “Well we have a right to market the children because of the first amendment.” Free speech allows us to market. Actually there are limits to free speech and one of them is you can’t market deceptively and certainly if the child can’t even understand what advertising is that’s deceptive advertising, but even though I have said it and other lawyers have said it, we need a court to say it.
That’s really what I am hoping will happen in the future that will get that codified in the law and then really we are going to have a very different situation on our hands because companies won’ be able to target young children because the law says they can’t. Unfortunately, we are just not there yet and again this is partly for political reasons because our federal government isn’t willing to take that stand, but also there are certain legal challenges to even getting that through into a court decision. Also I have to say there is still this political or I should say sort of public opinion problem that’s obvious to you and me, but unfortunately there is a lot of rhetoric out there, longer lines of – the 7-year-old isn’t driving herself to McDonald’s and why can’t parents just turn off the TV and there is a lot of this thinking around, it’s just all up to parents and that’s another reason that’s really hard to even have some of these conversations because we get distracted with this idea that it’s either all up to parents or it’s the corporation’s fault and I am really tired of that false dichotomy because why can’t both things be true?
Of course parents have a responsibility with being a good role model for their child, making sure with the best they can that they are eating healthfully, et cetra., but parents also has responsibility to make sure his child does not run out into the street and yet we have speed limits and speed bumps in neighborhoods and so forth. In other words, it’s a collective responsibility for society to support parents in doing the best job they can and right now we have the opposite situation which is that corporations are undermining about the parents getting in-between the parent and the child and the federal government is just letting it happen.
Jonathan: Michele, I think you hit the nail on the head, you hit many nails on the heads during that, but one of the things that you touched on that really struck me and this may go off the beaten path a little bit here whereas you mentioned okay, it’s illegal to advertise cigarettes on television not just the children, it’s illegal in general and it’s certainly illegal to advertise it to children considering it’s illegal to sell it to children.
Now, this – I am warning you, I am going to go on the weeds a little bit here, but so we smoke tobacco, we chew tobacco and we hold tobacco against our lips. If we were to just eat tobacco, like tobacco is a plant, and if we were to just eat tobacco, where I am getting with this is at the end of the day, there are chemicals that you can put in your body, like food is a collection of chemicals, I mean we are all just electrical impulses, right? Anything that we put in our body whether or not we inhale it or we drink it or we snort it or we inject it or we eat it, you’re still putting things into our body. Why is it – like we say food is legal. In some ways it’s superficial that – I mean you could eat opium from a plant, you could eat tobacco, it will probably make you little sick, but if you ate like a little bit of it, why isn’t – why aren’t edible products which have been designed to cause addiction and have been proven unequivocally to destroy our health seen as completely different from tobacco when they seem to share so much in common?
Michele: I don’t think it’s the mode of ingestion. I mean we have all kinds of controls on pharmaceuticals for example that you swallow. I don’t think it’s that exactly that makes it distinct, but food is just way more complicated than drugs per se and it’s certainly true the sciences emerging that sugar and other components of food may have addictive qualities, but I think we are long way off from treating sugar or other ingredients in food or whole foods, not whole foods, but foods like soda and other junk food. I think we are a long way off and I am not sure we ever will get to the point where we regulate those things like we do drugs or like we think of tobacco and I am not sure that we want to go there.
I think there is a balancing act to play in terms of regulation. If we cross over that line too far, there is a big backlash, people don’t really like – I have really been an advocate of prohibiting food in the way that you are describing, I think that’s not really what it’s about, it’s about regulating the environment, regulating the economics of our food system in a way that discourages the production of the more harmful – I can’t even call them foods, but inputs of foods like the commodities corn and soy that go mostly to feed animals and fatten them up to support our meat-based diet and of course high-fructose corn syrup, a byproduct of corn production. To me, it’s really more about the economics of the inputs into our unhealthy food system that make the least healthy foods cheap and available and shifting that into a way that promotes more healthful products. That is what I advocate for them.
Jonathan: Absolutely, I apologize of my – my implication was not to be that we should ban or outlaw really any kind of edible substance but rather there just seems to be a literally dichotomous view of tobacco because of these characteristics is very clearly and universally treated this way and things which are not completely benign, like spinach for example shares very few characteristics with tobacco. Whereas refined processed Coca Cola and Cheetos and if we look into what’s being done with foods to stimulate certain receptors in the brain, for example saying that it is okay to not have warning labels on these substances to sell them in schools and for our government to subsidize them seems in such sharp contrast with – could you imagine if we would ever sell tobacco that subsidized in schools? We would never do that – there is just such a sharp contrast. You see what I am saying?
Michele: Yes, I totally hear you and a couple of things – things have shifted over time, you may be too young to remember when there was smoking allowed on airplanes, but we have had a huge shift and what’s called cultural norming [sic] when it comes to cigarette smoking and that’s large thanks to the tobacco control movement that has gotten us things like bans on indoor smoking. These things can shift over time and it may be that there comes a time when we think of [indiscernible 18:43] prediction of some people that at some point we may think of soda similar to tobacco, but I just think there is a fundamental – it is different.
I mean the message of smoking is clear, don’t smoke, there is nothing redeeming about it, people can stop smoking and go on with their lives. I just think the food issue, even beverages, are just so much, a thousand times more complicated in terms of our culture, in terms of our emotional bond. I mean the food industry has done a very good job of making these emotional ties to these products. They have put people drinking a Coke under CAT scan and see the parts of their brain light up that have nothing to do with just consuming sugar, but are more about emotional triggers. When they do blind taste test, people have a different reaction to Coke than when they see that it’s Coke. There is something very deep going on there. This is not to say that those same types of brand emotional bonds weren’t developed with tobacco and still are, but I just think we are talking about a very – a much more complicated issue with food and beverages, partly because there are thousand different types of food and beverages that people form these emotional bonds to. It’s just complicated.
Jonathan: It was certainly complicated and in some ways I certainly – I think one of the – at least for me one of the key distinctions is when we say food is about – I am curious about your take – when we say food is – like food is required for life. We can not eat and certainly there are rich emotional ties to food. The question is – I don’t think anyone is talking about food, I think what we are talking about are the edible products and things that didn’t – I mean certainly people enjoyed food and had cultural norms around food for the thousand years ago, five hundred years ago when we were eating more foods and not edible products. Isn’t there a pretty clear distinction between if you can find it in nature, it’s different than if you can’t?
Michele: Right, I am with you there. We share that philosophy and I don’t even like using the word “food” to describe what we were talking about like – I like to say when you walk into a supermarket, you have to hunt down the food. It is certainly not obvious when you walk in, most of what’s in there is not food and it’s not that long ago, it’s more like a hundred years ago that we were eating much less industrial processed food products and much more real food. It’s really in a blink of an eye in the course of human evolution that we have completely changed the way we eat.
Can we go back to a time when that was different? Of course, I would like to think so and that is a movement to encourage people to eat more – we have to use all these qualifiers now, right? We have to call it “real food” or “whole food,” we can’t just say “food” because we don’t have any clear understanding of what food is. The very definition of food has changed and it’s sad to me why – I remember many years ago my father asked why is there a health food aisle in the supermarket, right? That was like 30 years ago he figured that out. It’s crazy that we have to make this distinction, but that’s where we are at because we have a system based on profit motive and we have corporations that have taken the natural food stuffs, the source ingredients and then pulverized them, added chemicals to them, removed all the actual nutrition and turned them into a food product profit motive.
Unfortunately, most Americans have bought into this processed food paradigm. That’s how they are used to eating that’s what’s cheap and available, that’s what mostly – it’s normal and yes can we change that like we’ve changed situation with smoking? Perhaps; I just think it’s going to be a much longer haul and I think it’s going to take some different strategies, that’s where I feel like the tobacco analogy breaks down. It’s not a simple matter of “Oh let’s just tax it and hope that works.” Food is just much more complicated from an economics standpoint, from a cultural standpoint that we need some much more creative strategies to deal with it.
Jonathan: No, I really like that and let’s wrap up the show today. May be I would love to hear what’s some of your and I don’t want to give away the farm here, but do you have a top one, two, or three creative strategies that we as individuals can start to do to help to free ourselves from this affliction?
Michele: First of all, obviously, we have to start with ourselves and our own kitchen cupboards and our families and all that good stuffs which I think is pretty obvious probably to most of your audience, but what I would like to say is it can’t stop there and that’s my primary message is that it’s not enough to just take care of your own household. That we each have a responsibility to people beyond our communities even, for example my neighborhood in Oakland, California, I live within a walking distance to a Farmers’ Market, I can go in any direction any other day of the week to get real fresh food, however, my neighbors just a couple of miles away in West Oakland aren’t as fortunate.
I support projects to help fix that situation and there are no shortage of ways that people can get involved whether it’s in their own communities or supporting groups that are trying to really fix this problem and then there is just this understanding that this is a political battle. It is not just a matter of getting a few more Farmers’ Market into poor neighborhoods. This is fundamentally a political fight that we are in. That means getting engaged at the political level against finding the groups that are doing the work that has meaning to whether it’s the Organic Consumers Association or the Environmental Working Group or Center for Food Safety, there is so much going on.
I don’t have the magic bullet – the magic formula to how to fix this mess. All I know is there is no shortage of opportunities to plug in and to have your voice be heard because nothing is going to change unless we build this movement.
Jonathan: Absolutely, when I think – one thing I will definitely add to that list which I hope you don’t mind and that is ensuring that you are an informed consumer and a great way to do that and I am speaking from personal experience here is to pick up a copy of Michele’s book which is Appetite for Profit. Again, it’s a fabulous read and her website is just chock full of free resources, so that website again is the same as the title of her book, AppetiteForProfit.com and she has also got a wonderful another website for her – it’s consulting group, correct Michele?
Jonathan: It’s called EatDrinkPolitics.com. Again folks, do grab a copy of this book. This is an important read, it’s important to understand that ultimately you are the – in some ways the only person you can trust because there’s a lot of things out there that you would not perceive to be attempting to manipulate you which really, really are and Michele has a really great way of communicating that. Michele I really appreciate all the work you are doing and all the work you continue to do because this to me is the – it’s like the new nicotine is what I call it.
I really do think it’s like this – one of this generation’s big epidemics that must be overcome because fundamentally and we all know this, we cannot live in a society where everyone is diabetic, like the financial burden of that – if you have a 10-year-old who is diabetic; to treat a diabetic for 90 years is not sustainable. Literally, our culture cannot exist if we end up in that place. We have to do something about this, right?
Michele: Yes, I agree. Obviously, we can’t go on. The healthcare system is going to crush under the pressure of this continued crisis due to poor diet and our environment too. All this noise about global warming, which of course is crucial, we need to be connecting those dots to our food system as well. There is a number of ways that I can see the system really coming to ahead and you are right, we absolutely have to get ahead of that and it does start with individuals and taking it out from there.
Jonathan: I love it Michele, thank you so much again. The woman, and the lawyer, and the leader of this movement is Michele Simon. Her wonderful book is Appetite for Profit and if you want a one-stop shop on the web to learn more, it’s a website of the same name AppetiteForProfit.com. Michele, thank you so much for joining us today.
Michele: My pleasure, Jonathan. Thanks so much for having me.
Jonathan: Thank you and listeners I hope you enjoyed today’s show as much as I did and remember; eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon.
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