WASHINGTON - The American way of eating is under attack, which could expose the food industry to new junk food taxes, but it's unlikely major reforms are in the offing to quickly alter U.S. food policies.
The increasingly unhealthy American diet has contributed to epidemics of obesity and diabetes. The government and the insurance industry, which pay the cost of treatment, may form an unlikely alliance to demand the food industry play a bigger part in getting Americans on a healthier footing.
Food activist Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food," has called America's dietary habits the "elephant in the room" in the debate over healthcare.
"But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America's fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet," Pollan argued in a recent New York Times opinion piece.
Health experts say spiraling health costs are caused in part by maladies that could be prevented by healthier diets.
"Today, chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease (primarily heart disease and stroke), cancer, and diabetes are among the most prevalent, costly, and preventable of all health problems," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website.
Almost half of all Americans lived with at least one chronic condition in 2005, the CDC said.
Chronic diseases account for 70 percent of all U.S. deaths, and costs for caring for the chronically ill account for more than 75 percent of the nation's $2 trillion health care costs.
PENNY PER OUNCE KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY?
Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity argues the government needs to aggressively combat the problem of unhealthful eating with junk food taxes and by rewriting agriculture policies to promote healthier choices.
"We've recommended a tax on sugared beverages with the revenue being used for either subsidizing fruits and vegetables or programs related to nutrition and obesity prevention," said Kelly Brownell, a Yale professor and director at Rudd Center.
A penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks would simultaneously help divert people from such drinks while also raising billions of dollars for treating related diseases, proponents argue.
Paul Roberts, author of the "The End of Food," agrees the food industry will face pressure from rising taxes. But he also believes change will have to come from people eating the food.
"The food business is only half of the equation: the real change has to start on the demand side, which means finding ways to change consumer attitudes," he said.
The food industry, including Coca-Cola Co (KO.N), already has formed "Americans Against Food Taxes" and has launched a media blitz to oppose soda taxes.
"We built this coalition because we want people to understand that there is a slippery slope here," said Kevin Keene, senior vice-president of the American Beverage Association. "Once you start with beverages, everything else in the grocery cart is on the chopping block."
Beyond the tax issues, foodie activists would like to see America embrace a range of healthier diet changes, getting people to move away from processed foods and consume more leafy foodstuffs, possibly bought at local markets.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched a "Know Your Farmer, Know your Food" initiative and launched a study to assess whether the northeastern United States -- dominated by large cities -- could produce enough food locally to meet market demands.
Skeptics question whether big change is really in the offing. Consumers might not want to stop eating their favorite foods, even with higher taxes, noted Dan Basse, president of the consultant AgResource.
"How do you get them to give up french fries and hamburgers and shift to a healthier diet?" he asked "We just don't have enough availability of spinach, lettuce, the kind of foods you would want to eat if you wanted to shift to something healthy."
There is little support for overhauling U.S. farm supports that subsidize big crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat, which in turn support the big food processing conglomerates.
Author Roberts said the U.S. food sector is entrenched in feeding demand for food that is not raw, healthy and green.
"There will be huge pressure for them to deliver healthier products -- but it's not clear how they will do that without a fundamental change to the business model, which is pretty reliant on the use of heavy processing to add hefty margins to cheap ingredients," he said.
(Editing by David Gregorio)