This is a guest blog post by Bridgette Kidd, MPH, RD.
As you may have heard, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is finally considering fully addressing the issue of trans fats – an industry developed public health disaster, that up until now, had only been slapped with a Band-Aid. If you take a look at Center for Science in the Public Interest’s timeline (see below) of trans fat history, you can see just how long it has taken to remove the harmful fats from the food supply – and it still hasn’t actually happened yet.
This is the perfect example of how incredibly slow the passing of food policies can be in the United States, and begs the question: Is the sluggish process of conventional policy making the most practical way to create change in our food system?
What else can be done?
As it turns out, a lot.
In addition to the possibility of trans fatty acids losing their generally regarded as safe (GRAS) status from the FDA, a few other processed food wins happened over the last few weeks, but not through the traditional political process. An online petition created by Vani Hari (aka Food Babe) was enough to convince Kraft to start removing potentially harmful food dyes from the children’s versions of their macaroni and cheese. Numerous companies have started pulling the term “all natural” off of product packaging in response to dozens of consumer lawsuits. And the makers of pink slime are voluntarily going to label products as containing “finely textured beef” after the public and media outcry that occurred last year. These are changes that if tackled via conventional politics may have taken decades, if they were ever made at all. Instead, through increased consumer awareness, powerful advocacy work, and clever use of social media, grassroots efforts are proving to be a powerful tool to create change in the midst of slow-motion politics.
Through the power of the Internet, consumers are not only becoming more aware of the problems in our food system, but are also finding the tools needed to sway decision makers. Hundreds of thousands of signatures can be collected for a petition to a major food company with just a few clicks. A short web video about deceptive food-labeling tactics can be spread like wildfire via Facebook and Twitter, causing a food company to re-think its health claims. Well-researched reports depicting shameful industry marketing strategies can be read by thousands without ever being published. In previous decades, these small victories would not have been feasible, or at the very least, would have required a lot more time and money.
While legislative achievements such as guidelines for food marketing to children or a modernized food label might provide more substantial outcomes, these large-scale regulations have proven to be unrealistic in the current political climate. Grassroots efforts, however, continue to gain momentum. By engaging people through smaller changes, we just might be able to pave the way to a political climate that is more receptive of the big ones, eventually leading to the sweeping food system reform we so desperately need.
Bridgette Kidd, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian and nutrition policy advocate based in Columbus, OH. She has contributed to several local, state, and federal policy initiatives aimed at increasing access to healthy food and physical activity. Her research and advocacy efforts focus on the impact of food marketing on diet choices, nutrition and health. Visit Bridgette’s blog, Edible Progress or follow her on Twitter @edibleprogress.