(Feb. 4) The Bush White House might as well put a sign in the front yard renaming itself the Sugar Shack.

After its attack on an international effort to improve health, it appears this administration is driveling sloppy, sugary goo.
In case you hadn’t heard, eating fruits and vegetables won’t reduce your risk of obesity or diabetes, or so says the science, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Yes, that same department charged with improving our health has taken a rather controversial stance on the Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Healthy, an initiative of the World Health Organization.

And it might mean the difference between implementing a global strategy that would make a centerpiece of eating fruits and vegetables or, well, implementing nothing.

The WHO and the Foreign Agricultural Service in April developed a health report with some pretty good recommendations. Limit energy intake from fat. Don’t eat so many sugar-heavy foods. Cut out the salt. Eat more fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts.

Pretty innocuous stuff … some would even call it healthful.
That report, “Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases,” was part of the basis for the WHO strategy, a first draft of which came out in November.

Which leads us to the part that really turned heads in the Sugar Shack.

The draft recommends that national food and agricultural policy be consistent with protection and promotion of public health. In other words, subsidies and marketing dollars would be doled out on the basis of relative importance in the diet.

Talk about a way to tick off the sugar industry, not to mention the dairy, grains and livestock industries that have grown so unjustly fat at the public trough.

So in mid-January the Bush administration knew it must act. It had to delay the global health effort, and quickly sent to Geneva a team led by William Steiger, a special assistant to Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson.

Upon arrival, Steiger didn’t even bother mincing words, criticizing the report as not “transparent and open.”

He said the WHO should not suggest governments link scientific evaluation of diet to policy decisions like advertising and agricultural subsidies. Governments might be misled by special interests, he said, ironically.

After asserting the big thumb of Uncle Sam in special meetings with WHO technocrats, Steiger got his way. The draft will gather dust for now. Score one for the Shack.

Problematic for Steiger, though, is how his stance does not stand up to common sense.

Of course eating fruits and vegetables would help Americans fight obesity.

And many doctors recommend that diabetes patients eat fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet that keeps sugars in check.
Even the Food and Drug Administration loosened its grip on health claims in July when it said it would allow marketers to say that eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day can reduce the risk of some cancers and other chronic illnesses.

And it flies in the face of Bush’s own Healthy Communities initiative, which he funds to the tune of $125 million, all in the name of preventing diabetes, obesity and asthma.
Steiger’s assertions even contradict those of his boss, whom he surely was speaking on behalf of.

At United’s 2002 Public Policy Conference, Thompson was invited as keynote speaker. He noted how each year a million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes and how 200,000 people die from the disease annually.

Thompson then told the produce industry that 60% of diabetes cases can be prevented by losing 10-15 pounds, watching calorie intake, eating more fruits and vegetables and walking 30 minutes a day. Sounds like an endorsement to me.

Granted, WHO’s global strategy has its downside, including suggesting penalties upon consumers of unhealthy foods. Any so-called “fat tax” is not a desireable option.

The call for world governments to support production and marketing of fruits and vegetables is commendable. But if countless third-world nations build export-oriented distribution chains, as the strategy calls for, that would have to be troubling for the domestic produce industry, already beset with cheap imports.

The U.S. spends $406 million a year supporting WHO, so we must be careful to get what we want out of the organization.

Yet the Bush administration must not flippantly poke a stick in the spokes of international initiatives that could improve health by encouraging healthy living. It must have better reasons than a wild assertion that there is no scientific evidence that eating fresh produce reduces obesity or diabetes.

So the next time Bush starts talking about Mars, adjust your television set. He may be talking about the mysterious, alluring red planet. Or he may be dreaming of the tempting sugary concoction available at supermarket checkouts nationwide … even in a vending machine just down the hall.

In the Sugar Shack, any kind of double talk is possible.