The New York Times is having one of its better days. Two separate stories expose the same simple but unmentionable truth: capitalists, with the quiet cooperation of the nominally public political structures they dominate, kill and despoil for money.
Story One: “Obviously, we’re all oil industry.”
It comes, of course, with zero analysis and the requisite expression of “surprise.” Nonetheless, The New York Times today runs a rare and valuable report documenting the ordinary heedlessness of corporate capitalists as they go about their businesses. You really should read and remember the whole thing.
If we weren’t a market totalitarian society, all this would not merely be burying deregulation forever, but also exposing the pathetic fraud that is “government regulation.” As the manager of the Lake Charles branch of the supposedly public-spirited supposed overseers of deep-water drilling in U.S. portions of the Gulf of Mexico told the inspectors whose report was shelved until a few days ago, the core attitude of “regulators” is that “Obviously, we’re all oil industry.” And they had the gifts to prove it, too. All without the slightest hiccup to the system, until, of course, the blowout that “nobody expected.”
And, despite their swift and terrible hatred of Production for Use, the powers-that-be claim public enterprise wouldn’t work.
Story Two: “Delay and Divert”
Corporate capitalists try to commodify as much of many human activities as possible. Processed foods are a major staple of this effort to sell you something you could have done, often better and less expensively, for yourself.
Lo and behold, The Times confirms that the agro-food industry operates the same way the oil corporations do.
High blood pressure is rising among adults and children. Government health experts estimate that deep cuts in salt consumption could save 150,000 lives a year.
But the industry is working overtly and behind the scenes to fend off these attacks, using a shifting set of tactics that have defeated similar efforts for 30 years, records and interviews show. Industry insiders call the strategy “delay and divert” and say companies have a powerful incentive to fight back: they crave salt as a low-cost way to create tastes and textures. Doing without it risks losing customers, and replacing it with more expensive ingredients risks losing profits.
When health advocates first petitioned the federal government to regulate salt in 1978, food companies sponsored research aimed at casting doubt on the link between salt and hypertension. Two decades later, when federal officials tried to cut the salt in products labeled “healthy,” companies argued that foods already low in sugar and fat would not sell with less salt.
Now, the industry is blaming consumers for resisting efforts to reduce salt in all foods, pointing to, as Kellogg put it in a letter to a federal nutrition advisory committee, “the virtually intractable nature of the appetite for salt.”
The food industry releases some 10,000 new products a year, the Department of Agriculture has reported, and processed foods, along with restaurant meals, now account for roughly 80 percent of the salt in the American diet. The rest comes from the kitchen salt shaker or occurs naturally in food. In promoting cooking with salt, Cargill and its star chef, Mr. Brown, said they recognized the health concerns and recommended “smarter salting.”
Yet more and more products have added salt. One of the newest: “plumped” fresh chicken infused with a salty brine to add weight or tenderize the meat.
Making deep cuts in salt can require more expensive ingredients that can hurt sales. Companies that make low-salt pasta sauces improve the taste with vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh herbs that cost more than dried spices and lower grade tomatoes.
Robert I-San Lin, who was then overseeing research and development at Frito-Lay, said in an interview that he had been caught between corporate and public interests.
“The public’s concern over high sodium intake is justifiable,” Dr. Lin wrote in a 1978 memo. A handwritten memo titled “Salt Strategy” shows that his staff worked on ways to reduce sodium, including adjusting the fat in potato chips as a way of lowering the need for salt and using a finer salt crystal.
Scientists testifying for the snack industry at a government hearing warned that lower salt consumption could pose certain health risks to children and pregnant women. The food industry also challenged the link between salt and hypertension, emphasizing studies that found no significant correlation.
In what Dr. Lin says was an attempt to divert attention from salt, records show, Frito-Lay also financed research on whether calcium might negate the harmful effects of salt, even though Dr. Lin said he doubted it would really absolve salt. “An effective promotion of ‘Calcium Antihypertension Theory’ may release the pressure on sodium for the time being,” Dr. Lin wrote in a memo at the time.
In 1982, Campbell sponsored an American Heart Association symposium that included a study on calcium, which is now seen as having only a small role in reducing hypertension, and another that asserted that only some people were susceptible to hypertension from salt.
Even as it was moving from one line of defense to another, the processed food industry’s own dependence on salt deepened, interviews with company scientists show. Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called “warmed-over flavor,” which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.”
One glaring issue before the F.D.A. concerns nutrient labels, which for years have overstated the amount of salt the government says is safe to consume. In calculating the percent of the daily recommended sodium intake in each serving, companies use the standard for healthy adults below middle age, a teaspoon of salt, or about 2,300 milligrams. But the recommendation for the vast majority of Americans — children, adults of middle age or older, all blacks and anyone with hypertension — is less than 1,500 milligrams a day.
The F.D.A. announced in 2007 that it was aware of that problem, but it has taken no action. The federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is considering adopting the lower standard for everyone as part of its review of nutrition standards.
The food industry has identified the guidelines as a battleground. The panel needs “to include expertise and perspective related to food product development,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association wrote to the Agriculture Department in nominating 7 of the panel’s 13 members.
Food companies then peppered the committee with their perspective on salt. In a letter, Kellogg said that lower salt guidelines were “incompatible with a palatable diet.”
Gabriel Kolko stands vindicated.
To adapt Marvin: How much more abuse from Mammon can we stand?