The American food industry led the way in the 20th century with the introduction of processed foods that feature lots of salt, sugar (including refined white flour) and fat converted into products that launched us on the earliest mass experiments with obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other chronic illnesses. The promotion of industrial food has been one of the wallpapers of our culture for our entire lives and the lives of our parents and grandparents. The food industry is so comprehensive in their campaigns to eradicate natural food and defend their new markets that they bought up parts of the scientific community. Recently we have learned that American companies even put researchers at Harvard Medical School on their payroll in the 1950s to explain the benefits of this new diet.1
Thanks to capitalism’s insatiable appetite for ever larger sales and profits, the global industrial food industry is now busy spreading their products everywhere. Here is a great little video, “How Junk Food Is Transforming Brazil” 2
Dynamism and innovation are features of capitalism that are celebrated in the mass media and the academy with nearly continuous ritual fervor. What is not celebrated or even readily acknowledged is that the only guiding principle for all of this energy is sales and profits. Sales and profits obey no moral principles or boundaries. They are the purpose of free market enterprises regardless of the consequences, sometimes even funding the creation of falsehoods, or in today’s language alt-facts, to explain away the damage..
Capitalist enterprises will launch new products and carry out massive marketing campaigns to achieve these results regardless of the fallout. This reflects another ever present but not celebrated feature of capitalism, external costs or getting someone else to pay. In the present case, the people to pay are human beings all around the world suffering illnesses created by industrial food.
Providing protections against this behavior is the job of government. At the moment, most governments are substantially captured by corporate interests who are busy preventing protections from being put in place and frequently using the regulatory mechanisms to their own ends. The case of the industrial food industry poses many interesting questions of how one might protect people. How would one construct guidelines about what is acceptable both as an end product and as a production process. For example, some might argue that only animals that have been raised in substantially free range environments should be allowed. Other might say that penned animals are ok, but the waste products (poop, chiefly) must be handled in a way that doesn’t pollute the environment. A favorite for me is that the low food prices common to the US are a result of subsidies generated by low-wage farm workers. What might happen if we guaranteed a living wage for farm workers?
Lots of thorny issues about how one might provide direction to the food industry that is both healthy for consumers and sustainable.
- Kearns, Cristin E., Laura A. Schmidt, and Stanton A. Glantz. “Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents.” JAMA Internal Medicine 176, no. 11 (November 1, 2016): 1680–85. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.5394 and O’Connor, Anahad. “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat.” The New York Times, September 12, 2016, sec. Well. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html.
- Collier, Neil, and Ora DeKornfeld. How Junk Food Is Transforming Brazil. International Times Documentaries. Accessed September 18, 2017. https://nyti.ms/2y5Qukn