An Interview with "Appetite For Profit" Author Michele Simon

Readers, I have a gigantic treat for you today: an interview with food policy activist Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit. For those of you who haven't yet read Michele's book, it is a thorough takedown of the food industry and all the various marketing, lobbying and PR tactics it uses. After reading Michele's book myself, I reached out to her for an interview--and she graciously agreed.

It's fair to say that I don't always agree with Michele's views. But both of us want the same thing: to help consumers get the most out of the food they buy and eat.

So without further ado, here's our conversation, with some striking and provocative thoughts from Michele on GMO labeling, marketing to children, a person's right to overeat--and what it feels like to be labeled a member of the food police:

Casual Kitchen: What in your opinion are the most important food policy activist accomplishments since the 2006 publication of Appetite for Profit? And what changes in the food industry--good or bad--have surprised you the most since you wrote your book?

Michele Simon: We’ve been able to raise a lot of awareness. Food is certainly a hot topic now and that’s a good thing. However, we’ve really not been able to accomplish much in the way of positive policy changes, with a few exceptions, such as improvements to the national school meal program. But the movement is growing stronger every day. As for the food industry, sadly, we’ve seen more of the same public relations tactics that I described in my book, which came out almost seven years ago now. The latest ad campaign from Coca-Cola claiming aspartame is safe is a good example. They’ve gotten more aggressive with some of these tactics, and what’s surprising is that they think people are still falling for them.

What's the next crop of policy accomplishments that you'd like to see?

I think we are just a few years away from seeing labels on genetically-engineered foods. The “right to know” movement is gaining ground in several states and the food industry can’t keep fighting on so many fronts. That will be a huge victory. But you asked me what I’d like to see, which is different than what we will see. I’d like to see food companies stop exploiting children. Sadly, we’ve not made much progress in getting junk food companies to stop marketing to children so aggressively. That needs to stop.

How do you deal with being accused of elitism or paternalism (or even better: maternalism!) in your line of work? How challenging is this part of the job?

It can get tiring, but it comes with the territory. It’s a sign of how Corporate America has been able to hide in the shadows, that the conversation turns to my telling you how to eat. That’s not it at all. I don’t even care how you eat! It’s about leveling the playing field so that people who do choose to eat healthfully have a fair shot at doing so. It’s so that a parent who is trying to do the right thing doesn’t have to fight with their kids over stopping at McDonald’s, every single night. Here is what I say to people who say “it’s all up to the parents.” Yes, that’s true: but that doesn’t make it OK for corporations to exploit children. There are many ways we protect children in society, from child restraints in cars, to speed bumps, to child labor laws. So why shouldn’t our laws also protect children from the predatory marketing practices of an unregulated industry? When it comes to protecting children, yes, it’s paternalism.

One more question on facing criticism: You spend time in Appetite For Profit combating the notion that you and other food policy advocates are just food police seeking to impose ideas on proper eating on others. Why do you think this perception exists, and what's the best approach to deflect it?

Similar to answer above: corporations have become so much part of the background that most people just take them for granted and don’t question the incredibly powerful role they have in shaping how we eat. To deflect that, just point to our public policies around food and show how they are all influenced by the economic interests of the food industry. People like Marion Nestle before me have been demonstrating that for years. We aren’t the “food police,” we’re just pointing out what’s going on. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Do you believe a person has the right to overeat? Or do you believe that the act of overeating imposes costs on others and therefore isn't really anyone's "right"?

I don’t think of the issue in this way. Again, it’s not about telling anyone how to eat. It’s about creating the right conditions or environment for people who want to eat healthfully can choose to do so, affordably. That’s what public health is all about.

As always, I want to foster open-minded debate here at Casual Kitchen. So readers, how would you respond to these questions--and what's your take on Michele Simon's answers? Share your thoughts below!

For further reading:
1) Michele's book: Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How To Fight Back [at Amazon]
2) Michele's website: Eat Drink Politics

Related Posts:
How to Defeat the Retail Industry's Ninja Mind Tricks
Do You Let Yourself Be Manipulated To Buy?
Anticipated Reproach, And Why Vegetarians Seem Like Such Jerks
Ending Overeating: An Interview With Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler
How to Give Away Your Power By Being a Biased Consumer

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chacha1 said...

I'm very much on the fence with regard to corporate food manufacturing and marketing, and I couldn't really answer those questions with anything resembling brevity.

Ultimately I guess I believe that for people who really want to eat healthfully (btw I hate that word), the information is readily available. A person has to be trying pretty hard to stay ignorant about what constitutes good nutrition to not know (e.g.) that drinking soda is bad for you. A person also has to be swimming the backstroke in the River Denial to think that (e.g.) chocolate breakfast cereal is good for you.

And given the magnitude of some of the other challenges facing our society, I think further regulation of food-manufacturers' marketing would be an inexcusable waste of public resources.

Daniel said...

I struggle with this issue too. Even if you consider it the proper role of government to get involved by setting policy here (this alone is a major obstacle for many), is it a good and proper use of society's resources to do so?

Obviously a food activist's answer will be yes and yes. But there are lots of activists across all kinds of industries who also would "say yes" to spending these same resources--in THEIR areas. All of this in light of all the other challenges facing society.

There's one other aspect of this debate: what *really* happens when you significantly limit (or even ban) junk food marketing? There are some unintended consequences that actually are bad--perhaps really bad. I'm hoping to explore this further in an upcoming post.


chacha1 said...

If I were given the choice on how to spend 100 billion public dollars, micromanaging food marketing would not even be on my list. :-)

The Calico Cat said...

I'd love to see the marketing change.

I'm going on Vacation next year & in an attempt to keep costs down, once we arrive, we are going to go to a grocery store & get some provisions. I'd like to be able to buy "healthy" options that are shelf stable - aka "granola bars."

I'm not even sure if this is a possibility...

As for combatting McDonalds or coco puffs, we don't have TV, so my 4.5 year old isn't exposed to it & as a result doesn't ask for it. (His friends in day care expose him to "batman" & "cars" but they have not been able to make him want (or ask for) "fruit leather" emblazoned with those characters.