DC Influencer: Marion Nestle, New York University

Marion Nestle, professor at New York University and food policy expert, talks to Jaimy Lee about the soda tax, obesity, and other key issues

Marion Nestle, professor at New York University and food policy expert, talks to Jaimy Lee about the top issues affecting the food industry.

What are the major food policy issues in 2011 this year?

Food safety is right up at the top. The food safety bill passed, but Congress hasn't appropriated funds for it yet. If there isn't funding, the FDA is much more limited and then it will be another congressional demand on the FDA without giving it the resources it needs. In a sense, nothing has changed. It leaves open the old problem of the division between the FDA and USDA, and the incompatibility between the rules of the two agencies and the need to bring what those two agencies are doing more in line with each other.

Obesity is still high on the public health agenda with all kinds of groups looking at ways to try to curb food industry marketing and try to get the food industry to back off on the claims that it's making for food products. Soda taxes are going to come up again. Every single conceivable way in which it would be possible to put some restrictions on food company marketing will be very much there in with large food companies responding with big announcements of programs to try to make their products healthier and in line with First Lady Michelle Obama's plan.

I think we're going to see a lot more backlash from food companies taking advantage of the Republican rhetoric and trying to fight any kind of attempt to control what they're selling.

You mentioned the soda tax. Will it get as much traction and media attention as it did last year?

The soda companies united and put $40 million into lobbying, and that lobbying was very successful. Part of the soda company efforts are to recruit the right-wing rhetoric to focus on personal responsibility and talk about how ridiculous it is for anybody to think that people shouldn't be drinking soda. Nobody's saying that you shouldn't drink soda. It's the quantity. There will be lots of attempts by people who are concerned about public health to try to make the food environment more compatible with healthful eating.

As consumers have become increasingly savvy about how companies market to them, are they becoming as savvy about the role of policy in food issues?

No. People think they're making the choices. They have absolutely no concept of how the environment influences choices and even if they're taught how the environment influences choices, they don't believe it or don't think it applies to them.

You've been critical of corporate responsibility programs in the past.

The companies are stuck in a way. They're required by corporate imperatives to grow their product every 90 days. Whatever they do, as long as it meets that bottom line, they can continue to do it. If they can't make that bottom line, they're not going to continue to do it.

Where do you expect the issue of marketing to children to end up over the next year?

It's going to heat up because companies are still marketing to children. They moved it online so there will be the most intense looks at the Internet, cell phone, texting, and all of those electronic ways in which corporations are doing things to attract children. It's the same problem. If they stop making kids' products, they'll lose money.

What about global food issues?

Prices are going up, or they're still high ñ there's an argument about whether they're really going up. The big issue is income disparity and, as long as that continues, the income gap between the rich and poor continues to widen. We're going to have increasing problems with social unrest and food issues. Food banks are complaining that they can't meet the demand. There have already been riots in some countries over food prices.

And the farm bill?

There are lots of organizations that are starting to produce position papers and working on trying to fix the farm bill to make it more compatible with public health. Groups with interest in one or another aspect of the farm bill, and that means anyone who is interested in food, are starting to gear up to try to get the legislation changed.

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