Opinion

FoodPolitik: Free Speech, digested

The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision was a post-election punching bag. Pundits railed against political spending by corporations, conveniently overlooking the fact that labor unions were top spenders. Now the First Amendment is again under assault —this time from a food-policy academic who wants to cram a left-wing, anti-business philosophy into every grocery bag.

Nutrition professor Marion Nestle’s particular ivory tower is at New York University, where she dishes out anti-food-industry fanaticism. If it tastes good, she’ll find something wrong with it. If it’s also profitable to sell, she’ll go berserk.

We live in a food culture full of labels. Much of what we eat carries a claim that it’s vitamin-fortified, high-fiber, low-fat, organic, trans-fat-free, heart-healthy, low-sodium, or free of added sugar. These are all marketing gimmicks to a certain extent (especially “organic”), but the government tends to permit them as a form of commercial speech, as long as they’re truthful.

Not Nestle. She thinks the First Amendment ought to be gutted, to make way for restricting food companies she doesn’t like from touting their products’ virtues. Apparently, cereal can no longer be considered part of a balanced breakfast.

In a recent letter in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association), she and co-author David Ludwig write:

The founding fathers clearly intended the First Amendment to guarantee the right of individuals to speak freely about religious and political matters, not the right of food companies to market junk foods to children and adults … We hope that legal scholars will examine current food marketing practices in the light of the First Amendment and establish a firm legal basis for bringing this issue back to court.

This isn’t really about stopping “junk food” marketing. Not even “for the children.”

For five years, Nestle sat on the Board of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). If that name doesn’t ring a bell, you may know it by its more common name: the “food police.”

CSPI’s grouchy leader has called for higher taxes on practically everything that tastes good, including butter, milk, cheese, chips, and meat; his group advocates government-mandated limits on salt and federal taxes on soft drinks. CSPI wants the FDA, the IRS, and the rest of our governmental alphabet soup to raid your pantry.

What’s Nestle’s take on CSPI? “I’m a big supporter of what they do. By and large, they’re the major game in town.” Speaking to the New York Times, she said: “I like it better when [CSPI’s leader] takes on the big corporations like McDonald’s.”

Wingnut attacks on corporations are a specialty for Nestle. She has spoken at events sponsored by the American Public Health Association’s Socialist Caucus. (Yes, there is such a thing.) She also presented at the 2003 Socialist Scholars Conference.