Lawmakers Cave to Food Lobby in War on Obesity

Lawmakers seem reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them cash.

Freedom Fries
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Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Reuters came out with a whopper of a story late last week, harshly taking lawmakers to task for being soft on childhood obesity—something everyone agrees is at serious and epidemic proportions, with rates tripling over the last 30 years.

Even solutions that seemed like the lowest of low-hanging fruit are somehow beyond the reach of our lawmakers. Consider:

Why? The answer is clear. The food and beverage lobby is winning, and winning big.

Let’s put the lens on school lunch. In the pizza-as-a-vegetable debacle, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.—who is up for reelection this year—took the time to write a letter to the Department of Agriculture using language identical to that used by Minnesota-based Schwan Food Company, which has nearly 70 percent of the school frozen pizza market, in addition to their Red Baron, Freschetta and Tony's Pizza brands.

And Klobuchar wasn't alone.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House Education Committee—and is also up for reelection this year— took the time to send a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsak, as well. Kline told Vilsack that the goal of exposing students to different types of vegetables is admirable, but you know, it’s costly and burdensome.

Then there's Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who was ruffled over the way pizza sauce would be counted.  

What did all three have in common? Their campaigns have received regular donations “from both the Schwan Food Company's political action committee and the PAC that represents the American Frozen Food Institute,” reports NPR.

In fact, according to a Sunlight Foundation story out this week, Klobuchar has collected more than $200,000 in contributions from the food industry since she won her senate seat in 2006.

Oops.

As we reported a few weeks ago, even efforts to simply reign in the marketing of sugary foods to our kids have been thwarted by industry interests.

“For the time being, the government’s efforts have been pushed aside, and the industry’s self-regulation is taking hold,” Jon Leibowitz, FTC chairman, told a House Appropriations Committee.

Keep an eye on subtle changes, too. For instance, Michelle Obama’s focus on childhood obesity started with promises that change would come about from food and beverage makers, and retail giants like Walmart.

But look closer, and you might notice those tasks have been pushed aside for the “Let’s Move” component which promotes exercise instead. Exercise is cool, but when the school gym has a soda machine stocked with sugary sports drinks, it blatantly defeats the purpose.

Is the news dark? You bet. Especially when we’re talking about our nation’s children, paired with news that treating obesity-linked diabetes in kids is a lot harder than medical experts realized.

And don’t bother looking for major legislative action on the issue this year. According to the Reuters piece nothing is on the books.

So, what actually is going to happen while the obesity epidemic continues to expand? More talk. This weekend the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is holding their Weight of the Nation conference. Which, coincidentally, is also the name of an HBO documentary series premiering May 14.

What do you think: Should candidates be making a bigger deal about fighting obesity on the campaign trail? Or do we have bigger problems to focus on?

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