Monday, May 31, 2010

Industry priorities versus public interest

I have talked about the need to limit carbon emissions, and a part of that process is putting a price on those emissions because they have a cost that we have basically ignored. Check out the following quotes from a recent newspaper article...

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...
Now, the industry is blaming consumers for resisting efforts to reduce...
The broadside on the ... industry was taken seriously ... and touched off a scramble by producers to head off regulation, confidential company records and interviews show.
Robert I-San Lin, who was then overseeing research and development..., said in an interview that he had been caught between corporate and public interests.
Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg... said in an interview that... “We will use a variety of strategies, including education, voluntary reduction and potentially regulation,” she said, adding that "we are really at the beginning of the process of shaping our blueprint for action."

As you might guess from the parsing, the article is not about fossil fuels. The quotes are from an article in the New York Times about salt and the food industry. The tactics taken by the food industry as described in the article mirror the industry efforts to avoid decreased carbon emissions. This is illustrated by additional quotes from the article that are less ambiguous but could be just as applicable if the topic was not salt but carbon.

With salt under attack for its ill effects on the nation’s health, the food giant Cargill kicked off a campaign last November to spread its own message. ... The campaign by Cargill, which both produces and uses salt, promotes salt as "life enhancing"...
This is similar to the fossil fuel industry astroturfing, particularly the ridiculous Competitive Enterprise Institute "CO2: We call it life" campaign.

Government health experts estimate that deep cuts in salt consumption could save 150,000 lives a year.
The global warming effects of carbon emissions are my top worry, but the more direct effects of burning fossil fuels. A recent National Academies of Science report estimated at least $120 billion and 20,000 premature deaths from pollution due to fossil fuel burning.

Salt also works in tandem with fat and sugar to achieve flavors that grip the consumer and do not let go — an allure the industry has recognized for decades. "Once a preference is acquired," a top scientist at Frito-Lay wrote in a 1979 internal memorandum, "most people do not change it, but simply obey it."
Many people cannot or do not want to try to imagine the world any different than the current one so dependent on fossil fuels, and that industry is quite content with that.

Dr. Howard Moskowitz, a food scientist and consultant to major food manufacturers, said companies had not shown the same zeal in reducing salt as they had with sugars and fat. While low-calorie sweeteners opened a huge market of people eager to look better by losing weight, he said, salt is only a health concern, which does not have the same market potential.
This is similar to how efforts to cut CO2 are not as readily embraced as efforts to cut more visible pollution like into waters or that causes acid rain. Like too much salt tends to be a quiet, long-term health issue, climate change is a gradual process that tends not to trigger the drive for response in people that threats that seem more immediate do.

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.
Of course much fossil fuel industry money has been pumped toward groups with an eye toward vainly trying to sow doubt about the link between carbon dioxide and climate change. Come time for congressional hearing or other time a talking head is needed, industry-sponsored individuals (sometimes even with some relevant expertise) are trotted out, generally from a very small group.

Rather than challenging salt’s link to hypertension, industry representatives, in the private planning meetings with city officials, cited financial objections: the higher cost of other seasonings and the expense of new product labels and retooled production lines. In a Feb. 1 letter to a city health official, the Grocery Manufacturers Association wrote that “aggressive, short-term sodium reduction has the potential to further raise food prices.”
Similarly as trying to claim no link between carbon dioxide and climate change has become untenable to organizations that want to at least seem respectable, much energy has moved from claims there is not evidence fossil fuel usage causes global warming to declaring cutting carbon emissions is too expensive.

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."
The meddlers want you to have a diet you cannot stand to eat, and those environmentalists want you to live in a cave!

There could be the argument that food, and particularly salt usage, is all about personal choice. There could also though be the argument that if you decide to go crazy with the salt that goes beyond personal choice when you shorten your expected lifespan and require more health care thus imposing some costs on everybody else. Plus not everyone "choosing" high sodium foods may realize it or want to be doing that.

The social cost of climate change from carbon emissions are more difficult to hide from, thus the efforts to deny it or claim it is too high a price to pay. The tactics employed by potentially impacted industries to avoid confronting problems related to those industries' practices are much the same, be it salt in food, carbon emissions from fossil fuel use, smoking...

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