The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the primary government agency responsible for American food policy. It was created in 1862 as a regulatory agency to ensure an adequate and safe food supply for the American public and provide dietary advice to Americans. In essence, this agency is supposed to be our protector, like a parent who watches out for us and our best interests above all else.
The food industry is big business and their priority is to make huge profits for themselves and their stockholders, and there’s nothing wrong with this. Free enterprise is the American way.
However, the problem is that from the creation of the USDA back in 1862, the priorities of these two large entities have overlapped. How can you protect public health on one hand and protect the interests of the food industry on the other? Good nutrition is pretty simple, but in America pressure from the food industry makes it almost impossible for any public official to state the plain truth.
For example, as far back as 1917, when the USDA released its first dietary recommendations and launched the food-group format, it ignored research that Americans were eating too much, especially too much fat and sugar, because food manufacturers wanted to encourage the public to eat more. It wasn’t until the 1970’s, when senators like George McGovern started to speak about the connection between overeating – especially fats, sugar, salt and cholesterol – and chronic disease that the USDA began advising people to restrict these foods in their diets. With this new advice came strong objections from the meat, dairy and sugar industries.
The food industry’s greatest allies are in Congress. It’s the job of these politicians to protect the interests of their states, which includes not only the citizens but also the corporations and industries that live there. Therefore, a senator from Texas will support the cattle industry, and a senator from Wisconsin is going to fight for dairy by not allowing any wording into government guidelines that will negatively affect the dairy industry. The food industry (like other large corporations) makes large contributions to political candidates, and in turn, these politicians favor them when it comes to legislation. Also, the food industry spends a tremendous amount of money on lobbyists in Washington. In 2004, $51 million was spent on specific food and agriculture lobbying. Big bucks give corporations a major unfair advantage when it comes to food policy and regulations. Politicians need a lot of money to get elected, and the food and drug companies are some of their biggest backers. In turn, these big companies depend on their friends in Washington who make the food laws and guidelines to slant them their way.
By contrast, the USDA doesn’t spend any money to promote good advice to the public on healthy eating. Do they restrict the amount of salt or sugar permitted in certain foods, or reduce advertising of junk foods to young children? No. Do they support farmers who grow predominantly vegetables and whole grains? No. Yet, they find ways to contribute resources to other food campaigns. Recognize the slogans: “Got Milk?” “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” and “Pork. The Other White Meat.” These campaigns, aimed at increasing Americans’ consumption of dairy, beef and pork products, are part of the federal government’s commodity promotion programs called “checkoff” programs. Checkoff programs demonstrate that what the government tells us to eat is contradictory to where it focuses its time and money.
Have you noticed that unhealthy foods are cheaper than healthy foods? Government policies and practices help lower the prices of unhealthful foods. Government subsidies to farmers since the 1920’s have helped to maximize production, stabilize crop prices, and keep the cost of food down for the American public allowing farmers to stay in business. However, this has led to the overproduction of corn and soybeans which has lowered prices for these crops as well as the foods containing them as ingredients. They have become cheap, unhealthy ingredients found in processed foods that we buy. High fructose corn syrup, found in most sodas and junk foods, is an inexpensive use of corn. Low prices of corn have led to cheap feed for cattle which lowers meat prices, and corn and soybeans provide a cheap way to add flavor to packaged junk food, fast food, beef and pork, and soft drinks. For consumers, these less nutritious foods are cheaper and fit within their budget. These subsidies contribute to the obesity epidemic by making it cheaper to produce and purchase unhealthy, packaged foods.
As a result of the subsidies, growing fruits, vegetables and other grains is less profitable for farmers. If the government subsidized fruits, vegetables and whole grains as they do corn and soybeans, they would be cheaper for consumers to buy, and much healthier. In truth, what the USDA urges people to eat does not match what it pays farmers to grow.