Many of us greeted
the unveiling of the government’s new food pyramid with a mixture of
puzzlement and confusion. Indeed, the dizzying layers of rainbow-colored
lines helped distract from the fact that the food industry’s
fingerprints are all over the new dietary guidelines—in ways that hurt
rather than help consumers.
What most people
don’t realize is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s)
original vision for the pyramid included visual indicators to show
people how often they should eat certain foods. Pastries and donuts, for
example, would be marked “occasional.” But these guidelines are now
nowhere to be found in the new “MyPyramid,” thanks to giant food
corporations and their lobbyists.
Perhaps the most
glaring evidence of the industry’s influence is the government’s refusal
to recommend which foods not to eat, while putting a strong
emphasis on individual responsibility. The only mention of unhealthy
foods in new dietary guidelines is a gentle reminder to “know the limits
on fats, sugars and salts.” Also missing are recommendations limiting
the amount of food people eat. Considering that 28 percent of
American men and 34 percent of women are obese, this omission is
But it doesn’t stop
there. The government didn’t budget for a PR campaign to get the word
out about its new nutritional guidelines. So guess who’s coming to the
rescue? The food industry. McDonald’s, General Mills, Philip Morris/Altria’s
Kraft Foods, and other food titans barely waited for the ink to dry on
the new guidelines before volunteering their own PR machines to “raise
awareness.” The Grocery Manufacturers of America—with members like
Cargill and Philip Morris/Altria—also jumped in, offering to distribute
posters and guides to reach 4 million kids.
The majority of food
industry advertising spending goes toward aggressive promotion of sodas,
candy, junk food snacks, alcoholic beverages and high-sugar desserts. In
contrast, Big Food spends an insignificant amount marketing the main
pillars of the food pyramid: fruits, vegetables, beans and grains.
We would feel uneasy
giving Big Tobacco the reins to a government-sponsored tobacco control
campaign. We should feel equally uneasy about the food industry’s
heavy-handed involvement in the government’s official dietary
epidemic is now the nation’s second leading cause of preventable deaths.
U.S. government guidelines on food and nutrition should provide specific
recommendations to limit foods high in sugar and salt, which can
contribute to obesity and other serious health problems, including
diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Our organization is
currently supporting national and international regulations that would
hold food manufacturers accountable for their contributions to the
global obesity epidemic. We are working toward the implementation of the
World Health Organization’s Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity,
and Health, specifically measures to curtail the promotion of junk food
and inform consumers about the dangers of foods high in sugar, salt and
The USDA food pyramid
is a trusted American icon that many of us first encounter in grade
school. It then follows us throughout adulthood as we become parents
ourselves, responsible for planning meals for our families. Something so
essential to our well-being shouldn’t fall into the hands of the food
industry -- or any other private industry whose bottom line could
conflict with what’s best for our health. That’s what makes the food
industry’s incredible influence over the government’s dietary guidelines
so hard to stomach.
Kathryn Mulvey is the
executive director of Corporate Accountability International (CAI),
formerly Infact. CAI is a membership organization that protects people
by waging campaigns challenging irresponsible and dangerous corporate
actions around the world.
© 2005 Minuteman Media