Truth from the Ministry of Plenty

Coke, sponsored by the FDA

Lester Crawford was the most senior offical at the Food and Drug Administration, from February 2002 to his resignation in September 2005. His departure, to join the lobbying firm Policy Directions, Inc coincided with accusations that he’d been less than straight in his disclosures of interest, hiding the fact that he owned a great deal of stock in companies that he regulated. His recent guilty plea gives grounds to be concerned whether regulatory authorities really have the best interests of the public at heart.

This matters to food system-watchers. Take, for instance, the obesity crisis in the US. Debates around obesity pit corporate and peoples’ welfare directly against one another. Corporations do quite well by selling food high in sugar, salt and fat. People do poorly by eating this food. Hence the tension. Against its mandate, the FDA tends to side with the producers, rather than consumers. And who was chair of the FDA’s obesity committee? Lester Crawford.

George Orwell is helpful in interpreting the roles of governmental organs. In 1984 the entire apparatus of government has been distilled down to four ministries:

the Ministry of Truth which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts. The Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war. The Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order. And the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs.

Doing their part to show that Orwell is never out of fashion are the US Food and Drug Administration, part of the department of Health and Human Services. The key words in the organisational title, one might think, are “Administration”, “Human” and “Health”. But there does seem to be a great reluctance to administer anything at all, and when the FDA does get off its arse, it does rather tend towards the fiscal health of corporations, rather than the physical health of humans.

For instance. In 2004, the US government launched its response to the increasing levels of obesity in the country. Amid a patter of back-slaps, the USDA announced its “Calories Count” campaign. At last, the government was going to take seriously the public health problems associated with weight gain. Great things were expected of the FDA – after all, if there was ever an arm of government with the purview to monitor the private sector, responsible for a great deal of unhealthy food production, and the power to reign them in, it’d be the FDA.

The main conclusions of their report were:

  • enhancing the food label to display calorie count more prominently and to use meaningful serving sizes
  • initiating a consumer education campaign focusing on the “Calories Count” message
  • encouraging restaurants to provide nutritional information to consumers
  • stepping up enforcement actions concerning accuracy of food labels
  • revising FDA guidance for developing drugs to treat obesity
  • working cooperatively with other government agencies, non-profits, industry, and academia on obesity research

Ah. So.

The response, in other words, was to do pretty much what it had been doing already. In the words of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, ““Aside from printing up brochures and holding a press conference or two, the government does virtually nothing to educate Americans about [healthy eating] guidelines”.

Well, now we know why. The good people at Bioscience Resource tell us that Lester Crawford, who headed up the FDA’s Obesity Working Group lied to the US senate under conflict of interest rules. He ought to have admitted that he and his wife owned significant shareholdings in Pepsico, Kimberley-Clark, Sysco and Embrex, which are companies regulated by the FDA. Just to reiterate – the head of the FDA’s obesity commission owns stock in companies that make Pepsi-Cola, Mountain Dew, Lay’s, Doritos, and Gatorade, and in Sysco, one of the world’s largest catering companies with $32.6 billion in annual sales.

Surely, then, lessons have been learned at the FDA. In a recent New York Times interview, the organization’s new head, Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, a close friend of George W. Bush, responds to this question:

Q: You seem pretty laissez-faire in your approach to regulation.
A:I wouldn’t call it laissez-faire. I would call it incremental.

It doesn’t take a PhD in Doublespeak to figure this out. We’re not to expect much change at the FDA any time soon. Even if the FDA were to be renamed to “The Department for Corporate Welfare”.