Opinion

FoodPolitik: Free Speech, digested

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company

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.

Marion the Contrarian (her inside-the-beltway nickname) has an anti-business, big-government streak a mile wide, but she does find some food-company speech perfectly to her liking. Nestle is a big fan of “No GMO” labels, insisting that “the public wants the right to choose.” She is similarly supportive of “organic” labels and others that give niche food marketers an edge against bigger competitors.

It’s a case of “free speech for me, but not for thee.” In Nestle’s world, food marketers deserve First Amendment protection until they start paying stockholder dividends. If you’re on the Fortune 500 list, her logic goes, you shouldn’t be allowed (without government permission) to tell consumers that the food they’re buying has added vitamin C or antioxidants, or that it’s made from whole grains.

Instead, Nestle wants government to dictate what consumers can be told about the food they eat. She favors a “traffic light” graphic on the front of every food package. Bad (translation: delicious) foods — even those with supplemental folic acid or omega-3s — would get the dreaded red light to ward people away. Presumably, kale and spinach would get green lights.

The idea that corporations don’t have Free Speech rights is ridiculous. A corporation is just an organization of individuals who own fractions of the same commercial venture. The law doesn’t distinguish between corporations — nor should it — depending on their size or their profitability. What’s fair for McDonald’s has to be fair for Organic Valley. And for the guy at your local farmers market.

Free speech is fair. And Marion Nestle, along with her dietary control-freak colleagues, should enjoy it too, whatever their batty theories.

“We are not lawyers,” Marion Nestle conceded in her published call for First Amendment restrictions. No kidding. It’s clear what Marion Nestle is, however: a dinosaur, hopefully the last of her kind, hopelessly wed to the idea that the profit motive hurts, rather than improves, America’s food system.

Rick Berman is president of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit www.BermanCo.com.