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How to Make the Food Industry Healthy

How to Make the Food Industry HealthyThere's nothing more important to the future growth and health of our nation, our companies, and ourselves, than food. For better or worse, we truly are what we eat. Unfortunately, that doesn't bode well for America.

When it comes to public health, our diets, and the entire food industry, our nation's in sad, sad shape. For one thing, two thirds of adults and nearly one third of children in America are overweight or obese. We spend countless billions on miracle diets and health club memberships, but we just keep getting fatter and fatter.

Just as importantly, food is a huge industry. U.S. consumers spend about $1 trillion annually on food, nearly 10 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The food industry employs 16.5 million Americans. That's more than 10 percent of our workforce.

And some of the world's biggest and best-known companies: Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, Kraft, DuPont, and Monsanto, to name a few, are in or related to food.

If ever there was a huge, broken industry in need of a major overhaul that will benefit each and every one of us, food is it. So, I was ecstatic to read industry icon Mark Bittman's first New York Times opinion column post, A Food Manifesto for the Future.

Bittman's piece starts out with a scathing indictment of the industry and goes on to provide a powerful, nine-point proposal, the vast majority of which, I agree with. Here's an excerpt and a summary of his ideas:

"Our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable, conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system."

"Here are some ideas - frequently discussed, but sadly not yet implemented - that would make the growing, preparation and consumption of food healthier, saner, more productive, less damaging and more enduring."

  • End government subsidies to processed food. We're talking $16 billion in subsidies, plus tax write-offs, primarily for corn and soy used in processed and junk food that's all bad for us.
  • Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. That way, small farmers and their employees who produce real food can make living wages.
  • Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. The USDA is chartered to both expand the market for agricultural products and provide nutrition education. These contradictory goals have created a dysfunctional organization. And, while Bittman thinks the FDA's efforts to protect our food supply have suffered from budget limitations, I'm not so sure that's the whole story.
  • Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry. There are sustainable methods of producing healthy meat, poultry, eggs, and fish for consumption without torturing animals. The way we do it today is nothing short of an abomination.
  • Encourage and subsidize home cooking. According to Bittman, "When people cook their own food, they make better choices." He's absolutely right. The Tobak family cooks and we don't eat processed foods. It also helps to have Bittman's indispensible cookbook, How to Cook Everything.
  • Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Bittman says this isn't nanny-state stuff, but "an accepted role of government: public health." I think it's a bit of a slippery slope.
  • Reduce waste and encourage recycling. By some estimates, we waste half the food we grow and we're way behind the rest of the world in terms of recycling.
  • Mandate truth in labeling. Most things labeled "healthy" or "natural" are not. It's time to cut the BS and call things what they are. For example, Coca-Cola's Vitamin Water should be called "sugar water with vitamins."
  • Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture. I'm not sure what this is all about, but Bittman promises to expand on this and his other ideas in the future. Looking forward to it.
That's the summary. Now, even though I'm personally into food, wine, cooking, eating, and all that, I'm not an expert on the food industry. So if you've got an informed or insightful perspective on Bittman's proposal, we'd love to hear it.
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