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The Physicians Committee

The AMA and Agribusiness: The Battle Over Childhood Obesity

By Helen Salsbury, M.D.

This opinion piece was published on October 16, 2007, in The Salt Lake Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The American medical community may have written its boldest and most important prescription ever. The problem is childhood obesity and the diseases that follow in its wake. The prescription is a sweeping change in federal food policies.

Much of the blame for our childhood obesity and diabetes epidemics falls on the Farm Bill, which establishes national food policies that directly impact what our children eat. This important piece of legislation is now up for reauthorization in the Senate, which must work hard to correct the Farm Bill's historical tendency to support and promote unhealthy foods.

In 2005, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $837 million procuring products loaded with fat and cholesterol for federal food programs: meat, eggs, and dairy products. Meanwhile, expenditures for fruits, vegetables, beans, juices, and nuts totaled just a fraction of this amount.

But in June, the American Medical Association (AMA) called for a new emphasis on vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, vegetarian foods and healthful nondairy beverages in school lunches and food assistance programs. The AMA declared that these programs should be based on the health needs of their constituents—not on the price of chicken wings —and federal subsidies should encourage the consumption of products low in fat and cholesterol.

The President's Cancer Panel echoed the AMA's call in its August report, demanding that elected officials "assert their collective political will to change policies contributing to the obesity epidemic."

These solutions come not a moment too soon. Federal law currently requires the USDA to purchase commodity foods - meat, dairy products, eggs and other unhealthy foods - and dump them into school lunch programs. These foods are not selected for nutritional value but are designed to support agricultural businesses by removing surpluses and providing price supports. That's why lunch menus are loaded with cheeseburgers, roast beef with gravy and sausage-and-cheese pizza, while low-fat and vegetarian options are virtually absent. In the most recent federal survey, about 80 percent of elementary and middle schools violate the USDA's own limits on fat in foods.

The problem goes beyond school lunches. The USDA's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is supposed to provide good nutrition to at-risk populations. But WIC operates like Dairy Queen, dumping 24 quarts of milk and 4 pounds of cheese on recipients every month. A woman looking for vegetables will not qualify for a single carrot unless she is breast-feeding. In that case, she will have to make two pounds of carrots last the month. She will get no other vegetables or fruits at all, except in WIC's small farmers' market program, which has limited availability. Small wonder obesity and related diseases are rampant among those who depend on food assistance programs.

So who profits from these skewed priorities? Figures from 2005 show that Tyson Foods, the nation's largest meat producer, scored $46.6 million in federal commodity contracts. Smithfield Foods, the fourth-largest meat producer, received $18.2 million in commodity contracts through two subsidiaries. Pilgrim's Pride and Hormel, the seventh- and eighth-largest meat producers, each received tens of millions of dollars in commodity contracts.

And the companies show their gratitude. Public records show that Tyson Foods' executives have poured thousands of dollars into the company's political action committee, TYPAC, which, in turn, has given money to members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and other members of Congress, as well. Smithfield Foods does the same.

As the Senate takes up the farm bill this fall, America's health is in its hands. If it continues to bankroll agribusiness as usual, we condemn the next generation to the worst health America has ever known. If it promotes healthful foods, it will be the best prescription we have ever filled.

Helen Salsbury is a board certified gynecologist and obstetrician in Florida. She is a member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Write to her in care of PCRM, 5100 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20016.


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