Food Industry Reform Needed In U.S.

Food writer Michael Pollan thinks food industry reform goes hand in hand with health care reform. Host Guy Raz talks to Pollan about how to improve America's eating habits and wean the country away from the cheap, unhealthy food produced by big agribusiness.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

In an opinion piece this week in the New York Times, Michael Pollan writes:

Professor MICHAEL POLLAN (Journalism, University of California Berkeley; Author, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto"): The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care.

RAZ: That's Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says most health care spending in America goes to treat preventable diseases, many of them linked to diet. And according to Pollan, one of the leading products of the American food industry has become patients for the American health care industry.

Michael Pollan, how does the food industry create business for the health care industry?

Prof. POLLAN: Well, as you suggest in your intro, we've got an epidemic of chronic disease linked to diet. It represents a significant part of the money we're spending on health care. We're talking about type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, many types of cancer. And right now the one that is really threatening to bankrupt the health care system is type 2 diabetes, which the CDC estimates that one in three Americans born after the year 2000 may well get, and that's really expensive to treat. You know, the government's about to put itself on the hook to pay a lot of these costs and they could well swamp the new health care system.

RAZ: Michael Pollan, President Obama was in Minnesota today to stump for his health care reform plan. Minnesota, of course, is a big agribusiness state. It's one of the country's largest corn producers. You target high fructose corn syrup in particular and you talk about how the government both subsidizes this product and the treatment of type 2 diabetes caused in part by the consumption of this product.

Prof. POLLAN: Yeah, that's the big contradiction of our system. And we have a set of agricultural subsidies that are designed in such a way that they encourage farmers to overproduce things like corn, and that big corn crop gets turned into soda in the form of high fructose corn syrup and other sweetened beverages.

We know that adolescents are getting about 15 percent of their calories from these drinks. One of the reasons that soda is so popular is it's cheap, and the reason for that is that the high fructose corn syrup is so cheap, and then we're also paying for the cost, the damage that all that cheap sugar is doing to our health.

RAZ: You write that the health care industry actually gets more profit from, for example, amputating a diabetic's leg rather than preventing that person from getting diabetes in the first place. How is that?

Prof. POLLAN: Well, it's one of the perverse incentives we have. You know, much money is made in treatments and very little money is made in prevention. When you're doing prevention, you're addressing everybody. You know, you're counseling a lot of people who are never going to get diabetes.

So one of the things that happens, I think, under the rules changes that are being proposed, in even the weakest of the health care bills on offer right now, would change those incentives I think in a very positive way. At least on part of the health insurers, they would be on the hook in a way they're not now. They will have a direct financial interest in preventing every new case of Type 2 diabetes or obesity or heart disease.

RAZ: Large agribusinesses do make food cheaper. There's no question about that. How do you make your case particularly when we're in the middle of an economic crisis?

Prof. POLLAN: You know, nobody likes food to get more expensive and everybody likes cheap food. But it's important to understand the real cost of cheap food. You pay one way or another. The food may be cheap to the consumer, but the cost to your health and the cost to the system, when you add that together, it's not so cheap.

RAZ: What do you propose to do for people who don't have easy access to fresh produce, to high quality food?

Prof. POLLAN: Sure. Well, there are many different levers we can pull. I mean, we can look at food assistance. What if all those food stamps recipients also got a $20 or a $30 monthly coupon that allowed them to buy fresh produce or go to the farmers' market? That would suddenly draw farmers' markets into the inner cities to reap all that cash.

RAZ: What if health care is overhauled and it doesn't change the American diet in any way?

Prof. POLLAN: We'll go broke. If we don't get a handle on these health care costs, the new system or the old system, we'll go broke. And that's why I think that really food is the elephant in the room when we're talking about health care.

RAZ: Michael Pollan is Knight professor of journalism at UC Berkeley and the author of several books, including "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." He joined us from Berkeley.

Michael Pollan, thanks so much.

Prof. POLLAN: Thank you, Guy.

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