Who Is Pulling the Strings at the School Nutrition Association?

Why the largest school pizza supplier might be behind the school food lobby’s scuffle with the first lady

Cross-posted from Al Jazeera

photo credit
photo credit

As I wrote in June, a bitter fight erupted in Washington, D.C., when the School Nutrition Association (SNA) — representing the nation’s 55,000 school food professionals — decided to oppose nutrition improvements to federally subsidized school meals, claiming that districts face insurmountable challenges from too many changes happening too quickly. Michelle Obama has made the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 one of her top causes and she is pulling no punches defending the new rules, which require schools to serve lower-sodium and lower-fat meals with more whole grains and fruit and vegetable servings. The result is an unfortunate standoff between the White House and the SNA’s current leadership.

 

At the trade group’s annual meeting last month in Boston, I searched for clues. Why did the SNA reverse its earlier position supporting healthier school meals? I also wanted to hear directly from workers who have the thankless job of serving millions of schoolchildren every day.

 

My first inclination was to suspect influence from the SNA’s food industry sponsors; after all, the organization’s largest donors include Domino’s, PepsiCo and General Mills. But walking through the expo hall, it was clear that the food industry is having no problem meeting the new nutrition rules (a sign of how weak they are). “Whole grain blueberry turkey sausage breakfast sticks” from Jimmy Dean pass muster and, according to an account from Mother Jones, so do “toaster waffles with built-in syrup and endless variations on the theme of breaded poultry.”

 

Asked about the new regulations, the Domino’s rep shrugged them off, saying, “We can turn on a dime.” He proudly told me that the company’s “Smart Slice” pizza was formulated just for schools and even expressed some frustration over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s previous flip-flops (for example, the USDA changed its policy earlier this year on caps for meat and grains), because companies such as his invest a lot of money in making changes. In other words, it could actually be harmful to some vendors for the USDA to reverse course now.

 

As for those actually serving the meals, two food service workers — one from Maryland and another from Texas — told me that the nutrition changes were happening too soon, and all at once. But others, such as a team from New Orleans and another from Maine, didn’t understand the SNA’s position; their schools had been serving healthier meals for years, so the changes are no big deal. In other words, some schools may be struggling, but many others are not. It also means that the narrative the SNA is pushing — that the rules are too difficult to meet — may not be the full story.

 

Success stories

 

Implementing healthier school meals takes time and effort: It requires the cooperation of everyone — from students to distributors to principals. But it’s certainly quite feasible.

 

For instance, during a panel I attended, Helen Phillips, senior director of school nutrition at Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia, described her early transition to healthier meals in 2008, when the Institute of Medicine, a scientific advisory body, first released its school nutrition recommendations. She figured it was where the USDA was headed and wanted to get ahead of the game. It took several years to work out the kinks, she explained, but now the program is a great success. The key was to involve students. “I cannot emphasize enough,” she said repeatedly, “the importance of conducting taste-tests with the kids.”

 

 

Could the SNA’s flip-flop trace at least partially back to Schwan, a top donor whose pizza products can be found in 75 percent of the nation’s 96,000 K–12 schools?

 

Similarly, Kiera Butler recently reported for Mother Jones how the director of food service for Cincinnati’s public schools, Jessica Shelly, steered her program toward a $2.7 million profit. Shelly got her produce distributor to create affordable salad bars so that schoolchildren could choose which vegetables they liked.

 

And success is not just happening in cities. According to Mother Jones, the director of a rural Vermont district where 43 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch said he “had no problems whatsoever implementing the new changes.” Plenty of other success stories also demonstrate that it can be done.

 

The changes are largely a function of willpower, and those districts with the right leadership are not only coping, but also thriving, with some going beyond the minimum standards required by the federal government. More than 200 health and children’s organizations, as well as 19 past SNA presidents, also support the federal changes.

 

So why is the SNA digging in its heels — and picking a fight with the first lady, to boot? Especially when its vendors are already in full compliance and so many of its own members are having such success?

 

Schwan’s way

 

The answer may lie — at least partially — in the SNA’s complicated connections with the food industry. Let’s take a closer look at one of SNA’s patrons (and top donors): Schwan. The Minnesota-based company’s pizza products can be found in 75 percent of the nation’s 96,000 K-12 schools. Of course, Schwan’s products meet the new rules, as pictures from its booth boasting “regulation ready” food indicate.

 

According to the Star Tribune, the company says it has not taken a position on the controversy. But Schwan has a seat on the School Nutrition Foundation’s board (as does PepsiCo); through it, Schwan offers scholarships to SNA members for professional development. More importantly, as the Washington Post explains:

 

 

At a 2012 SNA meeting, a Schwan executive and other industry advocates pushed for the group’s leadership to be more aggressive in asking for changes in the school lunch program, according to a person who witnessed the exchange but requested anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about it.

 

Remember when Congress declared pizza a vegetable? Schwan was behind that too. As the Star Tribune explained in 2011, without pizza sauce counting as a vegetable, schools would have “a difficult time serving pizza without spending more on other vegetables to serve with it — a potential blow to Minnesota’s Schwan Food Co.” On the SNA’s current agenda (PDF) is the removal of the requirement that schools serve a half-cup of either fruit or vegetables to children, which can cause strain on tight school budgets. That sounds exactly like the earlier concern that led to the absurd pizza-sauce-as-vegetable-serving outcome.

 

Could all this explain the chumminess I witnessed between Schwan and the SNA at the Boston meeting? One of the panelists at the SNA’s policy session was Craig Burkhardt, a lawyer with the group’s new lobbying firm, Barnes and Thornburg (whose clients include the National Rifle Association). Afterward, I noticed that the rep from Schwan was the first to greet Burkhardt, congratulating him on a great job; they obviously knew each other.

 

So is Schwan behind the SNA flip-flop? Of course, we can’t know for sure. But if one company really does have that much power over an organization whose mission is to “ensure all children have access to healthful school meals,” those battling for healthier school food have a long fight ahead.

 

School Food Lobby Flip-flops on Healthy School Lunches

Posted from EatDrinkPolitics

credit: USDA
credit: USDA

Perhaps the most visible advocate for improving school food, Michelle Obama is now defending what shouldn’t be such a controversial idea: adding fruits and vegetables to public school lunches. Ask any nutrition expert what foods Americans — especially kids — need more of in their diet, and the answer would be the same: fresh produce. But some Republicans, such as Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, never seem to miss an opportunity to turn a no-brainer into a political battle, particularly when it comes to school food. (Who can forget the pizza as a vegetable debacle?) And just in time to give them the necessary cover, they got a gift from an unlikely source. The School Nutrition Association (SNA) has asked Congress to approve waiver requests for schools that are struggling to comply with federal nutrition regulations aimed at improving children’s health.

 

SNA represents the 55,000 school food directors, nutritionists and other professionals who have the tough and thankless job of feeding millions of schoolchildren every day. Some of its members no doubt face challenges implementing recent nutrition changes required by the feds, mostly caused by the six-cents-per-meal increase that Congress allotted, despite health advocates asking for $1 more. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, as it is called, requires several changes based on scientific evidence, such as lowering sodium while adding whole grains and fruit and vegetable servings, along with an increase in federal reimbursement rates.

 

But instead of finding ways to help schools comply with the new rules, SNA has instead decided to pick a fight with the first lady and dozens of other public health and child-advocacy groups (PDF).

 

SNA originally supported the law when it was passed in 2010 with bipartisan support. And by most accounts, the rollout of the new rules has gone smoothly. But along the way, SNA had a change of heart. Its waiver language was included, for instance, in the agriculture appropriations bill that was passed in late May. (What does the agriculture appropriations bill have to do with school lunches? Technically, nothing. It’s just a convenient political maneuver and an end run around the usual regulatory process.)

 

While good for only one year, the waiver could become permanent, as a recently released SNA position paper (PDF) indicates. Meanwhile, the Senate passed compromise language to study the issue and has scheduled a hearing on child nutrition this Thursday.

 

How did this happen? That’s exactly what Michelle Obama would like to know. At a recent roundtable discussion covered by Politico, the first lady asked: “Why are we even having this conversation? Help me understand why, especially given the fact that the School Nutrition Association worked to pass the original changes in the nutrition standards.”

 

Nobody will take the School Nutrition Association seriously as long as sales of soda, pizza and muffins are paying their bills.

Part of the answer lies in a change in leadership, as reported by Jerry Hagstrom in the National Journal. A longtime lobbyist for SNA with close ties to the Obama administration was let go last year. It seems the new leadership is more inclined to let the group’s food industry connections interfere with doing the right thing.

 

Politico’s food and agriculture reporter, Helena Bottemiller, did some digging into SNA’s corporate connections. She spoke to several former presidents of the organization who said they are “worried that food companies have influenced the group’s agenda” because nutrition improvements “will take a big bite out of sales of popular items like pizza and salty snacks.”

 

It’s not a big stretch, given that half of SNA’s $10 million budget comes from food industry members, according to Politico. Much of the group’s revenue is generated at its annual conference, which brought in $4.7 million in 2012. At the meeting, Bottemiller found, “companies can pay $15,000 to sponsor an education session track featuring a company representative or $20,000 to put their logo on the hotel key cards.” The sponsors listed for the 2014 event, coming up in July, include such partners as Domino’s Pizza, Schwans (pizza again), General Mills, PepsiCo, Tyson Foods, Sara Lee and Muffin Town.

 

Predictably, SNA strongly denies any undue influence from its sponsors, despite the fact that they happen to have a hefty economic stake in the fight over school food.

 

“Proponents of the regulations are trying hard to explain away SNA’s efforts by spinning theories about industry influence,” SNA’s president, Leah Schmidt, told Politico. But, she said, “this is about our members, this is not about the food industry.”

 

How then, does she explain away a letter (PDF) signed by 19 former SNA presidents in support of maintaining the nutrition improvements? The letter urges Congress to “reject calls for waivers” and “maintain strong standards in all schools” and calls on the Department of Agriculture to provide additional technical assistance to help schools meet the new standards. So who is really representing school food professionals, and who is doing the bidding of the junk food industry?

 

SNA’s current leadership may truly believe it is speaking out on behalf of its members rather than its corporate funders; regardless, partnering with companies such as Domino’s and PepsiCo has tarnished the group’s reputation. Last year, I published a report exposing Big Food’s ties to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the trade organization representing the nation’s registered dietitians. The academy’s credibility, I argued, is compromised by its strong affiliations with corporations whose products and aggressive marketing tactics are harming the nation’s health. In both cases, these groups may have valid positions that just happen to align with those of the junk food lobby, but nobody will take them seriously as long as sales of soda, pizza and muffins are paying their bills.

 

 

Whitewashed: How Industry and Government Promote Dairy Junk Food

full report available here
full report available here

Executive Summary

The United States is in the midst of a public health epidemic due to poor diet. While much of the focus has been on obvious culprits such as sugary soft drinks and fast food, dairy foods often get a pass. The dairy industry, propped up by government, has convinced us of the health benefits of milk and other dairy products. But the context of how people consume dairy matters. This report shines a light on the shifting patterns of consumption away from plain milk toward dairy products laden with sugar, fat, and salt.

Report Findings

Dairy Consumption Patterns

• Consumption of milk as a beverage has decreased nearly 50 percent since 1909

• About half of all milk is consumed either as flavored milk, with cereal, or in a drink

• Nearly half of the milk supply goes to make about 9 billion pounds of cheese and 1.5 billion gallons of frozen desserts–two-thirds of which is ice cream

• Cheese is the single largest source of saturated fat in the diet

• 11 percent of all sugar goes into the production of dairy products

 

Government Support for Dairy

• The federal government mandates the collection of industry fees for “checkoff programs” to promote milk and dairy

• USDA employees attend checkoff meetings, monitor activities, and are responsible for evaluation of the programs

• Checkoff money is not supposed to be used for lobbying but USDA gave $2.1 million to the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which lobbies for dairy products overseas

• The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the legality of the checkoff programs as “government speech”, finding: “the message … is controlled by the Federal Government”

Fast Food Promotion Despite Checkoff Being for “Generic” Marketing

• McDonald’s has six dedicated dairy checkoff program employees at its corporate headquarters who work to ensure that dairy plays an important role in McDonald’s product development

• The dairy checkoff program helped Taco Bell introduce its double steak quesadillas and cheese shreds, which resulted in a four percent increase in the chain’s dairy sales

• The dairy checkoff program helped Pizza Hut develop a 3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza and the “Summer of Cheese” ad campaign

• Between 2009 and 2011, Dominos benefitted from a $35 million partnership with the dairy checkoff program, resulting in the company adding more cheese, with other pizza makers following their lead

• Domino’s “Smart Slice” program brought the pizza to more than 2,000 schools in 2011, with help from the checkoff program

 

Dairy Junk Foods in Schools

• 70 percent of milk consumed in schools is flavored

• USDA’s milk checkoff program promotes “Chocolate Milk Has Muscle” and “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk” campaigns to defend chocolate milk

• Industry leader Dean Foods’ TruMoo is a popular brand sold in schools; one serving of TruMoo strawberry milk = 21g of sugar

• Milk checkoff materials were used to change the mind of one school official who was planning to remove flavored milk

• The checkoff-supported “Fuel Up to Play” program contains health messaging that is contradictory to federal dietary advice

• Fuel Up to Play promotes chocolate milk in schools as a way for children to “Fuel Up” with protein and vitamins

 

Misleading Health Claims by USDA Checkoff Program Recipients

• “Cheese can fit into almost any eating plan”

• “Process cheese is made from natural cheese”

• “Cheese contributes essential nutrients for good health”

• “Studies show that when chocolate milk is not an option in the school meal line, many kids don’t drink any milk at all. That means they completely miss out on essential nutrients they need to think, learn and grow”

• “Chocolate milk is the perfect balance of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and protein—a combination that can’t be found in any other beverage”

• “What’s more important: a small amount of added sugar, or missing out completely on a powerful package of nutrients?”

 

Recommendations

The federal government should stop mandatory assessments of the dairy industry and put an end to the dairy checkoff program. At a minimum:

1) Checkoff funding should not promote dairy junk foods that conflict with dietary guidelines or health programs

2) Checkoff funding should not promote name brands such as Domino’s “Smart Slice” pizza in schools

3) Checkoff funding should not promote sugary milk in schools

4) Checkoff funding should not be used for the “Fuel Up To Play 60” program in schools due to questionable benefits

5) The federal government should closely review checkoff recipients’ materials to avoid deceptive or questionable nutrition and health claims

6) The federal government should conduct better oversight to ensure checkoff money is not used for lobbying

In Addition:

7) The federal government should not allow dairy junk foods to be approved as “Smart Snacks” in schools

8) The federal government should not allow sugary milk in school

9) The Women’s Infants and Children’s Program should not be exploited by the dairy industry to allow sugary yogurts

10) State governments such as New York State should stop subsidizing yogurt companies such as Chobani

How Big Chicken Took Over America

reposted from Al Jazeera

 

credit
credit

Last month, an unusual scuffle played out between two federal agencies over a controversial proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase the speed of kill lines for poultry in slaughterhouses. But with testing from Consumer Reports last year revealing that 97 percent of raw chicken breasts purchased at retailers are contaminated with harmful bacteria, and with poultry workers already suffering from numerous job-related injuries, advocacy groups are vigorously opposed to the idea. The rule would also reduce the number of USDA inspectors required to ensure food safety, transferring some of that responsibility to the chicken and turkey companies themselves. But as one former inspector (who worked both for the USDA and the chicken industry) warned, plant workers are not properly trained for inspection, and they are too scared for their jobs to speak up. That’s why groups such as Food and Water Watch are taking out newspaper ads calling the proposal the “Filthy Chicken Rule.”

 

Ever since the idea was first floated in 2012, food safety and worker advocacy groups have been complaining that the USDA is putting profits over health and safety. In March, 68 members of Congress sent a letter charging the agency with inadequately addressing serious concerns about public health, worker safety and animal welfare.

 

In the wake of the controversy, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a study (PDF) that expressed grave concerns for worker safety — from musculoskeletal disorders to traumatic injuries — after reviewing data from a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in South Carolina. Yet to prop up its flawed proposal, the USDA twisted those findings into good news, claiming that “the increase in evisceration line speeds was not a significant factor in worker safety.” (The USDA does not have jurisdiction over worker safety — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does — so its line speed rule can ignore workers.) In a highly unusual rebuke, the director of the NIOSH wrote a public letter on April 7 chastising the head of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service for misinterpreting the data and making “misleading” statements.

 

Safety last on kill lines

 

But let’s back up a bit. As Mother Jones magazine explained last year, “Currently, each factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing kill lines churning out up to 140 birds every minute. Under the USDA’s new plan, a single federal inspector would oversee lines killing as many as 175 birds per minute.”

 

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack defends the proposal under the guise of modernization (an industry code word for deregulation) and claims the new standard would actually reduce bacterial contamination. However, Food and Water Watch found numerous food safety problems with the USDA’s pilot project owing to company inspectors missing defects such as “feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass.”

 

The rule is especially terrible for workers, who already suffer unsafe conditions, resulting in serious injuries and even lifelong disabilities. Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center released a disturbing account of worker injuries and health problems in Alabama poultry slaughterhouses due to what it called “punishing” line speeds. Workers were made to “endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns and respiratory problems.” Also, for many immigrant workers, as the law center put it, “Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent,” making the USDA’s attempt to spin the recent NIOSH data particularly disturbing.

 

Federal agencies appear to be ganging up on the USDA — and rightly so. The Government Accountability Office published a report last year criticizing the USDA’s plan on the basis of inadequate and faulty safety data. Of course, the chicken industry loves the proposal. In fact, the National Chicken Council would prefer not having any limits on line speeds at all.

 

Failing on antitrust

 

None of this comes as a surprise to Christopher Leonard, a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the recently released book “The Meat Racket,” a stunning history of the rise of Tyson Foods — the world’s largest meat company, spanning beef, chicken and pork — and how it transformed the entire chicken industry.

 

Leonard told me the proposed rules are just another sign of the power of the meat industry. Not showing much confidence in the USDA’s leadership, he said, “It shows what kind of laws can effectively be passed under the tenure of Tom Vilsack.”

 

The devastating effects of meat industry consolidation on rural America are vastly underreported and largely ignored by policymakers.

 

The meat industry is so powerful because over the decades, production has consolidated into the hands of a few players. As a result, small farmers and ranchers have either been squeezed out or made to operate under challenging conditions; with so little competition, the major players call the shots. That’s why as a presidential candidate (and in his “Blueprint for Change”) Barack Obama touted the importance of meat industry economic reform. Specifically, he promised to “strengthen anti-monopoly laws and strengthen producer protections to ensure independent farmers have fair access to markets, control over their production decisions, and fair prices for their goods.” The USDA did try to enforce antitrust law and promulgate new regulations to protect farmers and ranchers from unfair business practices. But after much internal debate at the USDA (and with the White House) that resulted in key agency staffers resigning in disgust, the final rule was all but gutted.

 

The Obama administration ultimately caved to industry pressure, which took the form, in part, of an information campaign that portrayed the proposal to protect small producers “as the first step toward economic ruin of the meat business,” according to Leonard. This sky-is-falling scaremongering is a typical industry tactic to maintain the status quo.

 

The failed attempt to enforce antitrust law in the meat industry proved to be an especially painful experience for the many farmers and ranchers who attended a series of workshops co-hosted by the USDA and the Department of Justice in 2010. The idea was for the feds to hear directly from the small producers to learn about the challenges they face. I attended the last event in Washington, D.C., and talked to chicken growers from Arkansas who had come to the capital to share their struggles, such as earning only pennies on the dollar for their labor. But as “The Meat Racket” shows, the devastating effects of meat industry consolidation on rural America are vastly underreported and largely ignored by policymakers.

 

Leonard’s book dramatically describes how Tyson pioneered the vertically integrated system, in which the company owns every step of production, from hatching the eggs to slaughtering and packaging the final products. One step in the process remains “independent” because it’s the least profitable: raising the birds. Still, Tyson retains very tight controls over the growers and their operations, resulting in a kind of serf system. One chicken grower from North Carolina told the USDA at one of the 2010 hearings: “This system takes hardworking farmers and makes them indentured servants on their own land. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that our contract would be canceled if we did such and such.”

 

Big Chicken running scared

 

The National Chicken Council, according to Leonard, “started attacking the book within hours of its publication,” posting one-star reviews on Amazon, putting up a page on its website called “Meat Racket Myths” (PDF) and circulating the Twitter hashtag #meatracketmyths. But Leonard said he was most surprised by “the deluge of anonymous people from inside the industry who thanked me for writing the book. Many of them — manager types who work for Tyson and ConAgra — said that things are worse than I portrayed them.”

 

What is the chicken industry so afraid of? Maybe it’s that if too many people hear the real story about meat production in this country and learn more about the industry’s unsavory practices, they will realize that the heartless corporation behind their boneless chicken patty is destroying rural America. As Leonard told me, “Consumers don’t want to think that the American farmers raising their meat are ensnared in a form of modern sharecropping. The chicken lobby knows how indefensible most of these practices are, so they have to attack the messenger rather than entertaining the truth, which might lead to reform.”

Those reforms would include slowing down, not speeding up, the kill lines in poultry slaughterhouses to improve safety for workers and consumers; ensuring that farmers and ranchers are paid a fair price for their hard work; and enforcing antitrust laws to encourage a more competitive marketplace. But these are the sorts of reforms that we seem to hear about only in campaign promises.

 

Big Soda’s Front Group Arrives Early in San Francisco

 Cross Posted from EatDrinkPolitics

STOP

Ballot measure could become first sugary drink tax in California

 

Earlier this month, lawmakers in San Francisco introduced a bill that would tax sugary beverages at two cents per ounce, thereby setting off the latest big fight with Big Soda. The estimated $31 million in annual revenue would go to local health programs. Voters will decide the measure’s fate in November, with a two-thirds majority being required to pass.

 

It didn’t take long for Big Soda to respond in the way it knows best: by setting up a front group. This one is called, “The Coalition for an Affordable City”, a not so subtle jab at some recent economic tensions in San Francisco. The industry group claims grave concern for residents: “At a time when many San Franciscans confront a growing affordability gap… the last thing we need is a tax that makes it even more expensive to live and work in San Francisco.”

 

Really, the last thing “we” need? “We” as in the American Beverage Association—the lobbying arm of Coke and Pepsi and friends? The bottom of the front group’s website acknowledges the relationship: “Paid for by the American Beverage Association, member of Stop Unfair Beverage Taxes – Coalition for an Affordable City.” Member in chief.

 

Over at Beyond Chron, Dana Woldow skillfully takes down Big Bev’s spurious arguments against the measure, exposing how “some business owners have no idea how they ended up on the Coalition for an Affordable City’s list of small businesses supposedly opposed to the tax.” Industry reps have apparently resorted to lying – claiming the measure was about insurance or health care – to convince local businesses to display a sign in their window saying: “San Franciscans shouldn’t have to pay more.”

 

And just this week, the San Francisco Bay Guardian conducted a sting, also catching Big Soda operatives signing up numerous unwitting local businesses to their list of supporters. In some cases, low-level employees signed on without authority, while other businesses were no longer even open. Also, canvassers presented a very biased view of the tax, not stating where the money would go, and then failing to inform owners they would be placed on an opposition list.

 

These are just the kind of dirty and underhanded tactics I wrote about during the two recent state-wide ballot measure fights to label GMO foods – in California in 2012 and then last year in Washington State. Guess who were among the largest contributors to the No side in both states? Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. (PepsiCo owns much more than beverages.) One way to think of the sugary drink tax fight in San Francisco is that it’s opening another front on Big Food, and the more opportunities we have to wear them down, the better.

 

So far, states and cities trying to pass soda taxes though the legislative process have been facing an uphill battle as they face millions of dollars in lobbying by the soft drink industry. As Judith Phillips, a research analyst for Mississippi State University, told Businessweek: “Whoever is loudest tends to control the discussion and, generally speaking, you buy your microphone with money.” That was has been a hard lesson learned in the GMO labeling fight too: campaigns need money early on, to fight the endless bank accounts of the junk food lobby.

 

In the 2012 election, two other California cities (Richmond and El Monte) each suffered painful defeats on soda taxes due to an onslaught of industry lobbying. But San Francisco does not shy away from controversy and has a proven track record of being a national leader on cutting edge social policies such gay marriage. A progressive, high-profile city such as San Francisco, where a victory would inspire others, just may be Big Soda’s worst nightmare. The campaign has begun gathering a strong coalition with endorsements ranging from the Hospital Council of Northern California to the San Francisco PTA.

 

And polling released last week by the California Endowment looks promising. Two out of three California voters support taxing sugary drinks when the revenues are tied to children’s health programs. (This confirms earlier polling showing that voters are more likely to support soda taxes tied to health services versus a general tax.)

 

These results rattled the American Beverage Association so much that they put out this ridiculous press release a  day prior to the poll results, proclaiming that “Public Opinion Remains Opposed To Taxing, Limiting Soft Drinks,” but without any new research. Specifically, the release claimed: “Nearly two-thirds of Americans oppose additional taxes on soft drinks … according to a number of recent independent public polls.”

 

Really? An astute observer on Twitter named Colin Whooten noticed the related fact-free tweet from @AmeriBev and asked for some backing, tweeting at ABA: “you release a study without citing the source? No bias there I’m sure. How about study details?” In response, ABA cheerfully replied with three links, including this 2013 Associated Press survey that concludes there is “little support” for soda taxes but no underlying data is offered, along with this poll claiming that 63 percent oppose “sin taxes.” However that poll question only asked: “Do you favor or oppose so-called ‘sin taxes’ on sodas and junk food?” – nothing about dedicating revenue to social programs most voters favor.

 

We can expect much more of this in the months ahead. But most San Franciscans are unlikely to fall for such BS and the city’s electorate is pretty generous when it comes to voting for tax measures to fund important programs. And city residents passed a measure in 2012 to “repeal the notion of corporate personhood” – you gotta love that.

 

Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, thinks San Francisco has a real shot at winning this year. (Goldstein’s group failed to get a soda tax bill through the state legislature last year.) He told me that one important difference is how, in contrast to both Richmond and El Monte in 2012, San Francisco’s measure mandates that 100 percent of the revenues be spent on children’s health and community programs. He added:

 

The beverage lobby killed the tax bill in the state legislature. I expect it to be a different story in San Francisco where city leaders are putting together a highly sophisticated campaign to tell the truth about sugary drinks and the beverage industry that markets them. For perhaps the first time in the country there will be a fair fight between soda marketers and a city that cares about its children.

 

A truly fair fight takes money. San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener (one the authors of the measure) correctly predicted in the Guardian that “the beverage industry is going to flood San Francisco with enormous amounts of money spreading misinformation.” You can help level the playing field by donating to Choose Health SF here.

 

The Fallacy of Marketing ‘Healthy’ Food to Youths

Cross-posted from Al-Jazeera Opinion

 Michelle Obama at a Let’s Move event in Atlanta in 2011.  Credit
Michelle Obama at a Let’s Move event in Atlanta in 2011. Credit

Michelle Obama is probably the most popular first lady in recent memory, with approval ratings embarrassingly higher than her husband’s, at least in 2012. She is the picture of health, speaks openly about the challenges of raising two daughters and feeding them right and uses her platform to call attention to the country’s childhood obesity crisis through her Let’s Move program.

 

And yet, with all this going for her, even she cannot make a serious dent in the problem of how food and media corporations are targeting children with junk-food advertising. So instead, she has turned to the easier task of getting a few corporations to pledge to market so-called healthy food to children. First came the announcement with Disney in 2012 that food advertised on its radio and TV channels would have to meet Disney’s nutrition guidelines, and then last fall a deal with Sesame Workshop, the producer of the children’s television show “Sesame Street,” to license its characters to help the Produce Marketing Association promote fruits and vegetables to children. Just last month came the latest pledge, from Subway, which will offer a new kids’ menu and stress healthier eating through an expansive child- and family-focused marketing campaign.

 

These large-scale commitments may sound great, but here’s the rub: Public-health advocates haven’t been asking for more food marketing to children. Rather, for years — even decades — the aim has been to get the marketing to stop.

 

Obama is well aware that junk-food marketing to kids is at the heart of the childhood obesity problem. At the inception of the Let’s Move program in 2010, she sternly lectured the junk-food industry’s trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, “not just to tweak around the edges.” In September, at a gathering at the White House, she had a surprisingly blunt message to food marketers:

 

You all know that our kids are like little sponges. They absorb whatever is around them. But they don’t yet have the ability to question and analyze what they’re told. Instead, they believe just about everything they see and hear, especially if it’s on TV. And when the average child is now spending nearly eight hours a day in front of some kind of screen, many of their opinions and preferences are being shaped by the marketing campaigns you all create. And that’s where the problem comes in.

 

She even called on the industry “to empower parents instead of undermining them as they try to make healthier choices for their families.” Well said.

 

Despite her best efforts, however, curbing junk-food marketing to children is not something the first lady can fix. She is simply in the wrong wing of the White House. Meanwhile, the West Wing has shown little willingness to stand up to the junk-food industry. An effort by four federal agencies to enact better nutrition standards for how food is marketed to children — which, even if passed, would have been only voluntary and therefore unenforceable — was scuttled in 2011 by corporate lobbyists. Barack Obama’s administration has been silent on the matter ever since, apparently content to let the first lady host happy press conferences with Elmo and Rosita from “Sesame Street.” 

 

While Let’s Move grabs headlines, the public discourse has shifted away from the much more important policy discussion at stake: the food industry’s failed attempt to self-regulate. Ignoring food advocates’ repeated calls for increased accountability, fast-food leaders, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, routinely violate pledges of responsible marketing to children, as do cereal giants, such as General Mills. Even in the school environment, where Michelle Obama’s efforts have had some positive impact (e.g., improvements to meal guidelines), junk-food marketing remains a significant problem, as recent research has shown, further demonstrating the weakness (PDF) of self-regulatory pledges from industry. It is not enough to have better nutrition guidelines on school meals when corporations are deliberately targeting schoolchildren in order to build brand loyalty for life. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois, most students, from elementary to high schools, are “exposed to commercialism aimed at obtaining food or beverage sales or developing brand recognition and loyalty for future sales.”

 

Making false promises about marketing to children may even have legal implications. In most states as well as under federal law, it is illegal to engage in false or deceptive advertising, which can include when a corporation reneges on a voluntary pledge to behave responsibly.

 

A focus on healthy-food marketing also distracts us from facing what is fundamentally wrong about corporations targeting children for profit-making. As Susan Linn, the author of “Consumer Kids,” and I argued in June, any type of marketing to kids is inherently deceptive because children lack the cognitive capacity to understand how marketing works, making the practice potentially illegal and, at the least, unethical.

 

Furthering this concern, Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, tells me that from a commercialization standpoint, the “Sesame Street” approach to using characters to market fresh produce is a “terrible idea.” He notes that “the produce aisle was literally the only place in a grocery store where children weren’t being targeted — and where parents could get a respite from the nagging that marketers covet in every other aisle.” He also says that Let’s Move has the wrong priorities. “If you got rid of junk-food marketing and also did vegetable marketing, you’d have a chance. But slapping Elmo on some bananas is not going to compete with sugary, salty, highly processed food with another character on a way-cooler package with a big TV campaign and an advergame to support it.” (Advergames are games on websites, such as HappyMeal.com, aimed at getting kids to play online while immersed in an advertising environment, where they are especially susceptible.)

 

Similarly, Let’s Move’s partnership with Subway is unlikely to prove effective and may even do more harm than good. The largest fast-food company (in terms of outlets) is already known for falsely creating a healthy halo — giving the impression of health to cover up the junk. Most of Subway’s offerings are meat-heavy and overly processed. (Its new Fritos Chicken Enchilada Melt is just one example.) A recent petition asked Subway to remove from its bread a chemical called azodicarbonamide, which is also used in plastics. The company says it will, but details are sketchy.

 

Since Subway wasn’t marketing to children before, few advocates in public health were complaining about it. But now, as the White House announcement notes, the three-year deal represents Subway’s “largest kid-targeted marketing effort to date,” including a promise to “deliver $41 million in media value.”

 

Meanwhile, food and media corporations, including McDonald’s, General Mills and Nickelodeon (the leading channel where marketers target children), are engaging in business as usual, exploiting children with harmful and deceptive messages about what they should eat. Children do not need more marketing to get them to eat well; they just need the junk-food peddlers to stop undermining parents.

 

No one in Washington is even talking about these companies’ tactics. Instead, Let’s Move is engaging in quasi-public-policy-making without the usual democratic checks and balances, such as getting input from multiple stakeholders — or the public, for that matter. But the blame for that lies less with the first lady and more with the president and a hopeless Congress for placing corporate interests above children’s health. Is our federal government so broken that a press conference with the Muppets is the best we can hope for? 

 

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, president of Eat Drink Politics, and author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back.”

 

Holding Big Food Accountable for False Claims of Responsible Marketing to Children

Cross-posted from Eat Drink Politics

12.19

Looking back at 2013, while the food movement made progress in certain areas (such as school food and GMO labeling), when it comes to exploitative food marketing to children meaningful change remains elusive. Let’s Move director and White House chef Sam Kass recently acknowledged the obvious when he said this issue was “really tough” given how much money is at stake for industry.

 

All we seem to hear from the major food corporations about marketing to children are self-serving promises and announcements of future changes. As public health lawyers, that got us wondering, who’s making sure even these minimal commitments are being kept? The question is worth exploring if we want to actually improve children’s diets—not just create positive PR buzz for Big Food. With reports of adults ever-deteriorating eating habits in 2013 coupled with appalling teen heart health, the health stakes are too high to just wait for the food industry to do the right thing.

 

Following on past years, 2013 brought a steady-stream of failed voluntary efforts to protect children’s health:

 

  • A study comparing children’s fast food ads to adult-aimed ads found that McDonald’s and Burger King crafted messages targeting children with a focus on toy premiums and entertainment tie-ins. Such practices were in obvious violation of the companies’ pledges to follow the Children’s Advertising Review Unit’s (CARU) marketing guidelines, and occurred despite numerous CARU enforcement actions.
  • Ninety-one percent of ads for sugary cereals viewed by children were found to violate CARU’s guideline not to exploit children’s imaginations or mislead children about the benefits of using a product by associating sugary cereals with adventure, emotional appeals, play and fun.
  • The former director of nutrition at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criticized the food industry’s nutrition criteria for foods marketed to children as “based…more on the current products marketed by its members than on a judgment about what was best for children.”

 

Meanwhile, major corporations continued to pre-empt public criticism and make additional self-regulatory pledges in potentially misleading ways:

 

  • In May, at McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting, CEO Don Thompson made numerous questionable statements, including that his company was “not marketing food to kids” and “not marketing in schools,” and that they “follow guidelines on responsible marketing to children.” Each of these claims is false and deceptive. Shouldn’t there be some legal accountability for such irresponsible statements at a meeting of shareholders?
  • In June, the industry-led “Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation” jumped the gun on announcing how food corporations had met their pledge to reduce the number of calories in the food supply by 1.5 trillion. But the official scientific evaluation wasn’t (and still isn’t) yet publicly available. What if the real results differ from the industry spin, who is held accountable and what are the consequences if any?
  • In September, McDonald’s signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Clinton Foundation regarding how the fast food giant markets soda with Happy Meals, but as one of us (Simon) uncovered, the fine print didn’t actually match the press release spin. While McDonald’s pledged to fix that misstep, many questions remain regarding the legal and policy implications of such agreements. Moreover, McDonald’s revealed that soda still accounts for 57 percent of the beverages it sells to kids.

 

One bright spot for government oversight of industry self-regulation this year was energy drinks. Energy drink makers found themselves in a perfect storm of criticism and public health concern from the FDA, state and local regulators, and the U.S. Senate. Research into energy drink self-regulation found widespread violations of pledges to not market energy drinks as a mixer with alcohol or like sports drinks. In August, a Senate committee held tobacco-style hearings with energy drink companies, calling on them to stop marketing to children. Whether energy drink marketing will improve remains to be seen, but government hearings are vital to pulling the curtain back on corporate abuses of public trust.

 

Holding the food industry accountable for lying about its ethical business practices has legal precedent. For example, in the late 1990s athletic shoemaker Nike came under fire for its labor practices. The company countered with a public relations campaign and public promises to improve its business conduct. When an independent review found that Nike had not followed through, the company was sued under California law for false advertising, unfair business practices, and negligent misrepresentation. After numerous appeals, Nike eventually agreed to settle the case for $1.5 million.

 

So far, litigation has played a limited role in holding the food industry accountable over junk food marketing to children. However, court action is proving to be a promising tool to stop deceptive food marketing claims like “natural.” Also, food marketers have been taken to court for deceptive health claims on children’s products. Just earlier this month, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a settlement with Abbott Laboratories over deceptive marketing of “Pediasure” products. In light of the mounting evidence of failed self-regulation of marketing to children, it also may be time to pursue Nike-style claims against the food industry for false pledges. If we are to truly hold Big Food accountable for promises about how it markets toward children, we need to use all the legal tools at our disposal.

 

Cara Wilking is senior staff attorney with the Public Health Advocacy Institute, Northeastern University School of Law.

Industry’s Secret Plan to Get the Feds to Kill GMO Labeling in Every State

Cross-posted from EatDrinkPolitics

 

Internal documents from the Grocery Manufacturers Association reveal height of corporate chutzpah. Industry’s solution to GMO labeling is to: “Pursue statutory federal preemption which does not include a labeling requirement.”

 

11.20

With the disappointing results now in from I-522, the initiative in Washington State that would have required labeling of genetically-engineered food (aka GMOs), the looming question is, what’s next? At least for the junk food lobby, that answer in painfully clear: stop this state-level movement at any cost. In the New York Times, Stephanie Strom reports on the dirty details contained in industry documents that I obtained from the Washington State attorney general’s office in the wake of a lawsuit brought against the Grocery Manufacturers Association for illegally concealing donors to the No on 522 campaign.

 

As I explained back in February, the food industry’s ultimate game plan to stop the bleeding in the state-by-state onslaught of GMO labeling efforts is to lobby for a weak federal law that simultaneously preempts or trumps any state-level policy. While we have known that industry would want to put an end to the public relations nightmare happening state by state, this document for the first time reveals the lobbyists’ specific strategy.

 

The details are even worse than I thought and give new meaning to the word chutzpah. I had predicted a federal compromise, where industry would agree to a weak form of labeling in exchange for stripping state authority. But what industry wants instead is to stop state laws to require labeling, while not giving up anything in return. In their own words, the game plan is to “pursue statutory federal preemption which does not include a labeling requirement.”

 

Let me repeat that: The junk food lobby’s “federal solution” is to make it illegal for states to pass laws requiring GMO labeling. Period. End of story.

 

This is not the way preemption is supposed to work. A quick primer. Preemption simply means that a higher law trumps a lower law: so federal trumps state, and state trumps local. This is often the most economically feasible policy approach for business. But it’s also industry’s way of ensuring uniformity and stopping a movement in its tracks. Here is the pattern: a grassroots movement builds over time to enact local or state laws to protect public health or increase the minimum wage, or some other social goal, and industry fights these efforts for years, until they can no longer win. At that point, corporate lobbyists either get their own weak bill passed, or work with advocates to pass a compromise version. In exchange, this new law will preempt or prevent any state or city from passing a different or stronger law. It will also negate any law already passed. Forever.

 

But usually, there is some underlying legal requirement that industry must follow for the concept of preemption to even make sense. The idea is to require some action by industry, with the trade-off for companies to follow one standard instead of 50. Take menu labeling in chain restaurants as a good example. For that issue, there was also a grassroots movement in both states and cities around the nation. So when the National Restaurant Association had enough of fighting those bills, the lobbying group agreed to a federal compromise to require only calorie counts (a weak standard) in exchange for preemption, that is, not allowing any state or local laws to go further. In fact, the Grocery Manufacturers Association itself endorsed this plan.

 

But in the current GMA chutzpah scenario, the federal government would outlaw states from enacting GMO labeling, while food makers would not have to label their products. In other words, industry would stop the grassroots movement and not have to pay any price.

 

Now that the junk food lobby’s true agenda has been revealed, our federal representatives and officials are on notice: The food movement will be holding you accountable to ensure that this democracy-killing power grab does not come to fruition.

 

You can read the entire set of documents from GMA here. Much of the text is redacted, a sign that industry has a lot more to hide.

Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children

Cross-Posted from  EatDrinkPolitics

11.6EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The full report is available here.

Philanthropy is a common way for corporations to generate positive feelings among the public and the media. It is also a time-honored response to criticism of harmful corporate practices, such as McDonald’s lobbying efforts to thwart public policy and its aggressive marketing to children—marketing that demonstrably contributes to today’s epidemic of diet-related disease. And as this report reveals, the actual value of McDonald’s giving is relatively small compared to the corporation’s rhetoric.

 

With McDonald’s facing heightened scrutiny while being increasingly on the defensive over its role in harming child health, the corporation’s charitable activities deserve special examination. Several themes emerged over the course of our research into McDonald’s philanthropic activities that raise serious questions about the substance of the corporation’s charitable giving. They include:

 

• Promoting the McDonald’s brand unremittingly through Ronald McDonald House Charities, despite contributing only a fraction of the charity’s revenue.

 

• Taking undue credit for the generosity of its customers. For example, McDonald’s often claims the “donation box” contributions to Ronald McDonald Houses as its own.

 

• Selling unhealthy children’s menu items by linking their sale to very modest charitable giving.

 

• Profiting from marketing to children in schools under the guise of charity and education.

 

While other corporations have designated foundations, McDonald’s instead created a branded charity that is an extremely valuable PR vehicle. McDonald’s describes Ronald McDonald House Charities as its “charity of choice” but it’s really an extension of the McDonald’s brand. There is no question the cause is noble: mainly, providing rooms either in or near hospitals so parents can be close to their sick children during treatment. Little could be more important than giving families a comforting place to stay together during such stressful times. The cause’s importance, and the extent to which McDonald’s is serving versus exploiting that cause, is all the more reason for gaining a better understanding of McDonald’s involvement.

 

Major Findings

Value of McDonald’s Giving

• McDonald’s philanthropic giving is 33 percent lower than leading corporations.

• The average American earning over $50,000 donates 4.7 percent of their discretionary income to charity, which is 14 times more than what McDonald’s gives.

• McDonald’s spent almost 25 times as much on advertising as it did on charitable donations in 2011.

 

McDonald’s Giving to Ronald McDonald House Charities

• Based on available information, in 2012, on average, McDonald’s donated about one-fifth of the revenues of Ronald McDonald House Charities, the corporation’s “charity of choice”—yet McDonald’s enjoys 100 percent of the branded benefit of this charity.

• Local Ronald McDonald Houses use common disclaimers on their websites to explain how little McDonald’s contributes and to encourage community members to give.

• Local Ronald McDonald Houses (as distinguished from the global Ronald McDonald House Charities entity) report receiving only about 10 percent of their revenue from McDonald’s, including from direct customer donations.

• Ronald McDonald Houses report that the Ronald McDonald name causes many people to assume that McDonald’s provides 100 percent of the charity’s funds – and that this “common misperception” is “absolutely confusing.”

• The Ronald McDonald Care Mobile “Tooth Truck” (a project of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Ozarks) is 50 percent funded by taxpayer Medicaid funds, with the other half coming from community donations.

 

McDonald’s Marketing Disguised as Charity in Schools

• At events called “McTeacher’s Night,” teachers serve as free labor for McDonald’s while parents buy fast food to raise money for schools. While generously boosting sales for McDonald’s, the return for schools can equal as little as $1 per student.

• McDonald’s only donates about 15 to 20 percent of the proceeds from McTeacher’s nights, although the events are billed as fundraisers for schools.

• McDonald’s persistent targeting of school children violates its own self-regulatory pledge to not advertise in schools.

 

Recommendations

• McDonald’s should rename the Ronald McDonald House Charities organization it controls and stop licensing its brand to local chapters and houses to enable these entities to change their name.

• McDonald’s should retire Ronald McDonald and stop marketing to children.

• McDonald’s should conform to philanthropy best practices by being more transparent regarding its charitable giving practices.

• McDonald’s should abide by its voluntary pledge to not market in schools.

• Organizations and schools should reject McDonald’s “partnerships” and funding.

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This report was written by Michele Simon. Many thanks to Seema Rupani for excellent research assistance, to Anna Lappé and the staff of Corporate Accountability International for creative input and much more, to Sarah Short and Susan Miller for financial expertise, to Haven Bourque for top-notch media outreach, and to Ross Turner for professional design. Special thanks to Josh Golin of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood for sharing research on McDonald’s in schools.

 

eatdrinkpolitics.com

stopcorporateabuse.org

smallplanet.org

 

Super-Sized Lies: Why You Can’t Trust Promises by McDonald’s

Image from Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Image from Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Cross-posted from EatDrinkPolitics and Corporate Accountability International

 

The headlines certainly sounded impressive: “McDonald’s to Scrap Soda From ‘Happy Meal’ Ads” and “McDonald’s Ditches Soda In Happy Meal Menus.”  In a grandiose announcement from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (an offshoot of the Clinton Foundation), McDonald’s proved once again that it’s not only the world’s fast-food leader, but also the king of spin. This time, Bill Clinton himself was on hand for the nifty photo op with McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting. Despite the seal of approval from the (mostly vegan) former president, I’ve learned to approach these sorts promises from McDonald’s with skepticism.

 

And sure enough, when I started asking questions about the pledge on Twitter, fellow food activist Casey Hinds helped me locate this document, which seems to be a draft version of a “memorandum of understanding” between McDonald’s and the Clinton Foundation. I say draft because it contains internal notes, and is no longer available on the Alliance for Healthier Generation website where Hinds found it on September 26. (Oddly, the link to the document is still available, but download it fast.) This line jumped out at me right away:

 

McDonald’s may list soft drinks as offering on Happy Meal section of menu boards.

 

That sure didn’t sound like what was in the press release, or what headlines seemed to indicate, or what advocates were crowing over. The press release said McDonald’s would “promote and market only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising.” In fairness, the New York Times and other outlets – like NPR and the Associated Press – did report that “customers would still be able to buy soda,” but the damage was done.

 

So what gives? The explanation is pretty simple. McDonald’s cannot make truly meaningful changes to its menu, because to do so could risk losing money. Certainly not at a time when the company is already worried about losing the coveted Millennials market, and when its kid-friendly theme may be losing steam.

 

Another lost detail was exactly how any promise like this coming from McDonald’s HQ plays out in the 34,000 restaurant outlets around the world or even “just” the 14,000 outlets in the U.S. According to the company, more than 80 percent of outlets worldwide are owned by independent franchise owners, who are increasingly at odds with the mother ship over financial constraints.

 

Earlier this year, a sampling of owners characterized their relationship with McDonald’s corporate on a scale between 0 and 5 as 1.93, with frequent complaints about high costs and low profit margins. Franchise owners cited McDonald’s “aggressive stance on discounting and promoting its Dollar Menu” as a main source of dissatisfaction. And McDonald’s refusal to pay its workers a living wage has exposed more ugly unrest between outlet owners and HQ.

 

This all made me especially suspicious of McDonald’s promise with Clinton to “provide customers a choice of a side salad, fruit or vegetable as a substitute for French fries in value meals.” But the fine print says only that McDonald’s will encourage franchises “to make this choice available to customers at no additional charge” and that the company “anticipates” that the majority will do so. Most important is this huge caveat:

 

Our franchisees are independent business men and women who ultimately determine pricing for all menu items at their restaurants based on many factors, including local market conditions.

 

Translation: McDonald’s cannot control pricing at the local level.

 

This is a very big deal since low prices are obviously a major reason fast food is so popular. Given the economic challenges franchises are already under, why would owners replace fries with salads for free, when vegetables are more labor-intensive, require freshness, and are just plain messy? They won’t, because they can’t.

 

But really, none of this should have been a surprise. More than any other food corporation, McDonald’s has a long history of deceiving the public with empty promises, often resulting in legal action. Here are a few select highlights:

 

  • In 1986, the Texas attorney general’s office had to threaten to sue McDonald’s to get the company to provide clear nutrition information.
  • In 1987, McDonald’s was again investigated by the Texas AG’s office for a series of ads that promoted its food as nutritious; the ads were deemed “deceptive and illegal” and “falsely and deceptively represented that McDonald’s
    food was nutritious.”
  • In 2002, McDonald’s was sued over the use of beef tallow in its cooking oil, which the company had claimed was 100 percent vegetable oil. The case was settled for $10 million and an apology.
  • Also in 2002, McDonald’s made a public promise to remove trans-fat from its cooking oil within six months, but failed to follow through and didn’t bother to tell anyone. A fraud lawsuit was settled for $8.5 million.
  • In 2006, McDonald’s “discovered” that its fries contain one-third more deadly trans-fat than previously thought, and didn’t offer an explanation.
  • In 2011, after losing a heated policy fight in San Francisco to place reasonable nutrition standards on children’s meals sold with toys, instead of complying with the law, McDonald’s found a clever workaround.

 

Also in 2011, McDonald’s claimed to be offering a healthier Happy Meal but nutrition experts Marion Nestle and Andy Bellatti raised serious questions. Then earlier this year, McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson lied over and over at the company’s shareholder meeting, claiming for example, that the company doesn’t market to children, and provides “high-quality food.”

 

That’s why it was so shocking to see advocacy groups who should have known better applauding this latest public relations stunt and getting quoted in major newspapers such as USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

 

And what happened at the Clinton Foundation? Didn’t anybody there bother to read the fine print? Or did they just go along with the charade? Global food corporations like McDonald’s have a long history of using reputable institutions to give public relation stunts like these greater legitimacy.

 

These hollow agreements can have far-reaching implications for public health, and organizations like the Clinton Foundation should be more wary. As healthy food advocate Nancy Huehnergarth recently noted (even as she acknowledged initially being fooled herself), “McDonald’s has already gotten the headlines and press coverage it desired for this pledge, whether it follows through or not.”

 

And that was the whole idea.