Government. Industry. You.
The rate of obesity amongst the American public continues to rise, and the Trump Administration must do its part to halt one of the nation’s greatest public health crises. However, President Trump’s Department of Agriculture and Food & Drug Administration have been sharply criticised for relying too heavily on the food industry to self-regulate -- an idea that has proved ineffective in the past. Heavy government mandates are also unlikely to unilaterally solve the obesity epidemic. Instead, a non-partisan and scientifically-focused advisory body that acts as a compromise between these two approaches could be a viable solution that contributes to the health of Americans as well as appeases industry and government concerns.
It’s no secret that the American obesity epidemic is a crisis of epic proportions. Despite the Obama administration’s Task Force on Childhood Obesity and Let’s Move! Campaign, obesity rates have steadily increased since the beginning of the decade. According to the most recent report by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 39.8% of American adults and 18.5% of children are now considered obese.
The Trump administration has inherited this public health crisis and will continue to battle it for at least the next three and a half years. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has already been criticised for halting the implementation of strict Obama-era standards regarding the amount of sodium, whole grains, and sweetened milk present in school cafeterias, as well as for denouncing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps.
Additionally, President Trump’s Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has been condemned for pushing back the compliance date of the new Nutrition Facts Label requirements, which many see as a large concession to major food lobbying groups. All of the aforementioned actions reflect the typical attributes of a right-leaning government and result in a proclivity towards industry self-regulation as the primary method of combatting the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, the food industry cannot always be counted upon to act in the best interest of the American population if a more profitable option exists.
In 1968, research began by Procter & Gamble (P&G), a large consumer goods corporation, to develop a compound that could deliver fat to premature babies. This chemical, eventually named Olestra, failed at its intended job but was found to have a large potential as a substitute in foods. It’s essentially the phony version of dietary fat -- it behaves identically to the real analogue, yet evades digestion by the body.
P&G saw a massive market potential for a food additive that could render even the worst junk food “healthy.” Unfortunately, Olestra had some rather serious health setbacks -- it limited the absorption of essential fat-soluble vitamins and caused severe gastrointestinal (GI) distress at relatively low concentrations. Despite these caveats, P&G continued to lobby the FDA to give Olestra the green light for use in the American food supply. After millions of dollars and several decades of research, the FDA finally approved Olestra in 1996, contingent on the fact that all products containing the compound warned consumers of its potential gastrointestinal effects.
Only four years passed between Olestra’s market launch in 1998 and the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s declaration that the chemical’s existence was “one of the biggest blunders at the FDA.” Furthermore, a 2011 study by Purdue University actually linked Olestra with weight gain -- the very ailment that it was marketed to avoid.
This is just one example of industry’s tendency to prioritise their own profits over the health of consumers. After countless years and dollars spent to push Olestra to market as a way of aiding in weight loss, the side effects of an under-researched and over-idealised chemical rendered it useless and left the American public worse off than it was before. In this vein, the Trump administration’s proclivity towards industry self-regulation is alarming and unlikely to result in any tangible progress towards alleviating the obesity epidemic.
The proper way to regulate the food industry likely lies somewhere in between this approach and one characterised by red tape and frequent government mandates. At the end of the day, the federal government has a duty to advocate for the health of all American citizens and act to remediate the negative effects of the obesity crisis. Likewise, large food corporations operate as traditional businesses and have the ultimate goal of gaining a profit. These two facts are often diametrically opposed to one another and necessitate the existence of a neutral advisory body that is beholden to the American consumer, not to industry representatives or government officials.
This hypothetical committee may be housed within a government department or as part of a separate contracted agency, but must be strictly non-partisan in order for it to operate effectively. It should consist of experts in nutrition, food science, public health, and related fields and should exclude political appointees and those deemed to have conflicts of interest with the food industry. These panel members should hold the responsibility of overseeing scientific research regarding the health and safety of proposed food groups, additives, and nutrients, and most importantly, communicating them to the public. Furthermore, it must receive adequate funding in order to successfully launch these campaigns to reach the vast majority of the American population. Industry is profit-motivated, and consumers that are armed with the most up-to-date nutrition knowledge will exert market pressure on companies to modify their food products in ways that benefit the health of all.
This notion will likely be vehemently opposed by industry, especially those with notoriously large amounts of lobbying power including the beef, dairy, and egg sectors. However, this committee will almost certainly be more palatable than actual legislation — industry is typically averse to government regulation, yet their modus operandi is not conducive to products that will contribute to the overall well-being of the American public. Similarly, government agencies that have longstanding relationships with lobbying groups and trade associations may also pushback against this committee if it is perceived as an infringement on their power. Despite their hesitations, it still remains an indisputable fact that the federal government is at least partially responsible for the health of the American people and should act accordingly.
Clearly, past approaches to combatting the American obesity epidemic have been unsuccessful. This very notion necessitates an innovative, and perhaps radical, tactic to try and ameliorate one of the nation’s largest public health crisis. A non-partisan and scientifically based advisory committee for matters of health and nutrition offers immense promise to aid in this battle, and could be pitched as a middle ground between industry self-regulation and government intervention that would act in the name of the American people. Opposition is likely to arise from all parties involved, but desperate times call for desperate measures -- and the nearly 40% obesity rate amongst American adults is certainly cause for concern.
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.
A modified version of this article appears in The Virginia Review of Politics.