This fall, two very different efforts to make our food supply safer and healthier met with two very different responses from the people who actually make our food.
In New York City, opponents of a proposed ban on large sodas (i.e., soda companies and corn growers) argued loudly that Mayor Michael Bloomberg was stifling consumer choice, saying people should be able to make up their own minds about whether they want to buy soft drinks the size of their heads.
In California, opponents of a ballot measure that would have required labels on genetically modified food (who turned out to be many of the same companies fighting New York City’s soda ban -- more on that later) argued that the “right to know” whether crops have had their genes artificially altered was too expensive and burdensome and would drive up food costs for families.
You see the contradiction here: when consumer choice allows food companies to continue selling oversized sodas, it’s good, but when the simple knowledge of what’s in their food purchases would allow consumers to possibly eschew genetically modified organisms, it’s bad.
The food lobby failed in New York City, where the Board of Health ratified Bloomberg’s proposal in September. The “big soda ban,” as it’s known, will prohibit the sale of some (but by no means all) sugary drinks over 16 ounces in volume. The two most vocal opponents of the law, The Center for Consumer Freedom and New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, strafed the Big Apple with ads howling about consumer rights.
“No one tells [New Yorkers] what neighborhood to live in, what team to root for, or what deli to eat at,” a husky voiceover artist says in an advertisement paid for by New Yorkers for Beverage Choices. “So are we going to let the mayor tell us what size beverage to buy? If we let them get away with this, where it will it end?”
The Center for Consumer Freedom bought an entire page of the New York Times to oppose the ban. Featuring Bloomberg in Mrs. Doubtfire attire and the tagline “New Yorkers need a mayor, not a nanny,” the ad lampooned [pdf] the ban as government overreach. “You only thought you lived in the land of the free,” the ad intones, suggesting that Bloomberg’s “strange obsession with what you eat” will soon lead to smaller pizza slices, anemic hamburgers, and -- fuhgeddaboutit! -- wimpy cream cheese shmears.
And while polls showed that the food lobby largely had the public on its side, those efforts failed to sway the doctors and public health professionals who make up the Board of Health.
Across the country in California, though, the food lobby’s scare tactics worked on voters who turned down Proposition 37, a campaign to require labeling for genetically modified food. Golden Staters could have stemmed the spread of “transgenic” crops (i.e., crops that have had their DNA altered through the artificial insertion of a gene or genes) by approving the ballot measure. Instead, they chose to let genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, remain anonymous on supermarket shelves, at least for now -- a huge victory for the chemical companies, agribusiness multinationals, and junk food conglomerates that opposed the measure.
To call this an upset would be an understatement. Americans support GMO labeling with the kind of universal consensus rarely found in our politics -- routinely, national polls show greater than 90 percent support. You’d think this sentiment would be especially prevalent in California, where cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles offer curbside composting and bustle with organic farmer’s markets. An August poll by Pepperdine University showed, unsurprisingly, that Californians overwhelmingly supported Prop 37 -- by a 2-to-1 margin.
So what happened? It’s simple: a coalition of multinational corporations spent millions on a broad disinformation campaign designed to confuse and intimidate voters. In a torrent of blistering ads, the “No on 37” opposition called the measure a “deceptive food labeling scheme” that would raise costs for families and flummox state regulators with arbitrary and misguided rules. “Thirty-seven would cost California taxpayers millions for more bureaucracy and red tape, and increase food costs for a typical California family by hundreds of dollars per year,” claimed one radio spot featuring the outraged-sounding voices of actors. These claims weren’t necessarily true -- the Secretary of State’s office estimated statewide labeling costs in the neighborhood of only $1 million annually, and possibly less -- but they were repeated loudly and broadly.
Make no mistake -- the corporations lobbying for consumer choice in New York are the very same ones that lobbied against it California. Citizens for Consumer Freedom does not disclose donations (and has faced controversy for allegedly abusing its nonprofit status), but internal documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy turned up familiar names. Its biggest donors in 2001 and 2002 were Coca-Cola ($200,000 in 2001), Cargill ($100,000 in 2001 and 2002), and Monsanto ($200,000 in 2001), all of which spent generously to defeat Prop 37.
These corporations, additionally, are all members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a lobbying behemoth listed on the New Yorkers for Beverage Choices website. The association was also the fourth-largest contributor to the “No on 37” effort, giving a total of $2,002,000. In other words, there are clear links between “No on 37” and the soda ban opposition -- and these alliances run deep.
Giant food conglomerates know that consumers, if given the choice, will likely avoid genetically modified food. But those same companies will still invoke consumer freedom when it suits them, as in the soda fight. It’s clear, though, that they don’t really care about consumer choice at all -- unless it helps their bottom line. And that should leave a bad taste in all our mouths.
Image: Bonnie Natko