“Can anyone remember life before ‘Ask Your Doctor’ ads?” This question opens Martha Rosenberg’s Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health and hangs over the proceeding chapters. Even the most hardened cynic will be taken aback after reading Rosenberg’s powerful examination of Big Pharma and Big Food, their influence and reach severely miscalculated by an often passive public. It’s a text serves as an instrument of combat against the forces which damage our health while marketing us junk and drugs we don’t need. Rosenberg was nice enough to answer some questions for me regarding how harmful trends and bunk science have become prevalent in our health industry.
Your book examines the enormous prevalence of antidepressants in our culture. How did the pharmaceutical lobby develop such a firm grip on our medical industry?
Direct-to-consumer drug advertising, which began in the late 1990s, is the biggest reason for Big Pharma’s outsized power. It doesn’t just sell antidepressants, sleeping pills, allergy pills and “Purple Pills” (while infusing broadcasters with major revenue), it sells depression, insomnia, allergies and acid reflux disease. DTC advertising has produced a nation of hypochondriacs taking pills for disease “risks” and sometimes actually wanting diseases in order to take highly advertised pills. DTC advertising has reduced doctors to order takers and gate keepers who cater to increasingly self-diagnosing and self-prescribing patients. Nor are doctors immune to the ad messages. Like Wall Street and the chemical industry, Big Pharma is also able to buy friendly laws and, some even say, friendly regulation.
What is the role of the government, specifically regulatory agencies, in protecting us from potentially harmful drugs and foods? Have those meant to provide oversight been subverted or do you perceive it as a matter of collusion?
While obviously the FDA and USDA, which I discuss a lot in Born with a Junk Food Deficiency, are pledged to protect public health, in many ways they really serve industry. The USDA seeks to support good nutrition and prevent obesity but it also helps Big Food market milk and cheese and other fattening foods and buys up surpluses. It is supposed to keep meat safe but protected the identities of US ranches with mad cow disease, putting producers before consumers.
The FDA judges itself on how many drugs it approves, not rejects, and often works in lockstep with industry rushing its blockbusters to market. Vioxx is one example of putting Big Pharma before patients, but bone drugs like Boniva and Fosamax seem to be next, with risks only surfacing after manufacturers got their money. I do not think it is collusion as much as enmeshment.
Many of the food polemics published in the last five years take aim at the health risks associated with meat, but stop short of connecting these personal choices to the wider issue of animal suffering. You certainly do not. Could you talk a bit about why you think the treatment of animals deserves a prominent spot in our discussions about the future of food?
US consumers have a tradition of rejecting products produced from cruelty, whether grape and lettuce boycotts decades ago because of farm worker abuse or the more recent boycotts of products from overseas sweatshops. Yet consumers don’t exercise the same moral judgments with animal products for several reasons. First, in some cases they are unaware because they don’t follow TV and online news. But more often, they want to believe that abuse they see on the Web is the exception and not behind the actual food they’re eating, which would present a moral choice. Some people also believe the concept of “cruelty” isn’t meaningful when the animal is supposed to die.
My research leads me to believe that appalling norms have been industry standards until recent Web exposés—like in the egg industry. Even if people don’t care about animal suffering, operations that abuse animals invariably abuse workers, their neighbors, the environment and the health of those eating their products (because of high levels of veterinary drugs used).
Your book was published before Mayor Bloomberg banned sodas over 16 ounces in NYC. What do you think about these kinds of laws? Do they obscure the actual problem?
I think the proposed Bloomberg ban did a good job of getting people talking about the problem—how obese people are becoming, especially kids, and why. The backlash from the soft drink industry over the ban shows how much money there is in soft drinks and high fructose corn syrup-based foods. But, like with cigarettes, laws can only do so much when people are hooked on something that is bad for them. Curtailing Big Food’s aggressive marketing to kids and its high sugar products would help to stop people from get hooked on bad food in first place.
The subjects you cover will, no doubt, generate indignation. What would you say to someone who wants to do something to fight back against these forces, beyond their own personal food choices?
I’d say that talking to each other, to local and national food outlets, to lawmakers and voting with your wallet can be effective. When breast cancer activists got angry enough about endocrine disrupters like parabens and fragrance in cosmetics (which are linked to breast cancer), brands with no parabens and fragrance appeared in major stores. When enough people said “we’re drinking what?” about rBGH in milk, rBGH-free milk appeared at mainstream outlets and major restaurants. And look what happened with “pink slime.” Welfare reforms are also happening, and in April, Burger King Corp. promised to phase out cruel gestation crates for sows and battery cages for laying hens.