(Dec. 12) Too often, food marketers and government policy are part of the obesity problem instead of the solution.

Subsidized grains and meat and have created a predisposition toward sugar-laden processed foods in the American diet, while shortchanging the importance of fruits and vegetables.

Those were two themes delivered in an ABC “PrimeTime Live” special that aired Dec. 8 — an hour that prominently featured Tom Stenzel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association.

The program had been in production since early in the year, and ABC producers leaned on United and the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation for assistance.

Part of the impetus for the special was a General Accounting Office study released in September last year that highlighted the wide disparity in federal funding of commodity program crops compared with funding for fruits and vegetables.

At the time the GAO report was released, PBH president Elizabeth Pivonka noted that 33% of the typical American’s diet should be fruits and vegetables. Pivonka said the fruit and vegetable sector receives less than 5% of federal food dollars.

Picking up that theme, ABC’s “How to Get Fat Without Really Trying” told an audience of millions that government policy and the food industry share some blame for obesity.

In the show’s opening minutes, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings noted that nearly two of three Americans are overweight and one in three is obese.

While people think it is their fault for being obese, Jennings interviewed sources that said it wasn’t that simple.

“We’re besieged. Wherever we go, we’re encouraged to eat junk food,” said Michael Jacobson, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University, told Jennings that government policies promote overeating “from the beginning to the end of the food chain.”

Jennings acknowledged that many would identify personal responsibility, not government and food marketers, as the principal cause for overweight and obesity.

“We were inclined to that view, ... but this project has proved to us that the processed food industry and the government know full well what is happening,” he said. “And they are making a bad situation worse.”

BURDEN OF BOUNTY

As it relates to government, Jennings examined how the bounty of American agriculture has become a burden.

“The more we grow, the more we eat. Abundance has become the enemy,” he said.

Jennings said there is a link between subsidies to agriculture and obesity.

Jennings asked Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services, whether he saw any connection between subsidies and nutrition.

“There’s no question that if you have money out there and subsidize particular things, that product is going to be grown more. And some of the products are not good for nutrition. If that’s what you are asking me, yes,” Thompson said.

Jennings then interviewed Stenzel and asked about the relative amount of money that goes toward fruits and vegetables from the federal government relative to all of American agriculture.

“You’d have to look at the percentage as less than 1%,” Stenzel said.

QUESTIONING THE PYRAMID

Jennings said ABC wanted to see what the food pyramid would look like if it reflected where the government farm subsidies actually end up.

He said that since 1995, meat and dairy got about three times the subsidies of grains. Meanwhile, sugars, fats and foods the government says we should eat least got 20 times more subsidies than fruits and vegetables.

“There’s a disconnect between agriculture policy and health policy,” Stenzel said. “That’s probably the biggest problem the federal government faces.”

Jennings pointed out that the most heavily subsidized crop in America is corn, and farmers of that commodity receive an average of $5.5 billion in government money every year.

Jacobson told Jennings that subsidized feed corn is fed to chickens, hogs and cattle, and the resulting cheaper meat encourages Americans to consume more.

SWEET, SWEET CORN

Use of corn sweeteners, used in many foods, including candy and soft drinks, has gone up 4,000% since the 1970s.

Nestle said corn is the principle source of sweeteners in the American diet and makes high calorie processed foods cheaper.

Jennings then asked Thompson whether less corn and more fruits and vegetables should be planted.

“Well you can’t make that determination from Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Jennings notes that if Americans were to follow a healthy diet, the USDA has said that nearly twice the number of acres of fruits and vegetables would have to be planted.

He then asked Stenzel why fruits and vegetables get so little support form the government.

While alluding to the power of lobbyists, Stenzel said the fact that the fruit and vegetable industry does not have traditional subsidy programs means that there is not an established group in Congress that fights for fruits and vegetables.

The ABC program also addressed the issue of marketing processed foods to children. Jennings touched on the Federal Trade Commission’ foiled attempt to limit advertising to children in the 1970s.

The FTC came under attack by the Congress and it has been silent since then on the issue, despite rising obesity rates.

“Clearly, when you look at the consequences of the public health crisis we have today, government has got to step in,” Stenzel said, comparing to the tobacco issue of 20 or 30 years ago.

PRIME TIME COUP

Tracy Fox, a nutrition consultant representing PBH, said an entire hour of prime time devoted to nutrition policy was a coup.

She said she has seen two reactions to the news special in Internet message boards devoted to food policy. One point of view is that the special overlooks personal responsibility.

The other response, more common, is a sense that government should play a more aggressive role in helping to promote healthy eating.