So, if we DO have this sense that we are living at the edge of a chasm, in an evil and unjust world just waiting and hoping for change, it’s because there are a lot of people out there who find it in their interests to take every issue and morph it into a life and death struggle between freedom and complete oppression.
This ended up in my inbox this afternoon.
There are plenty of things wrong with stories like this (more on that in a minute) but you see them everywhere these days, about a whole range of issues, all meant to evoke the kind of over the top panic manifest in the comments below the article. Government is out of control, we’ve lost all those quaint and delightful freedoms we had once upon a time. First, they came for the walnuts…
Of course, we have the luxury of complaining about the FDA regulating something as relatively minor as the health claims of walnuts because we’ve had decades of the FDA protecting us from the worst excesses of the food industry (paging Upton Sinclair, Mr Sinclair to the white courtesy phone…), but our complacency about the safety of our food and drug system, and the reflexive (industry sponsored) anti-government rhetoric of groups pushing the rollback of the legislation which gave us clean air, clean water and safe food is truly damaging. The rhetoric of ultimate struggle here is being used to mask a push for an extreme form of corporate “freedom of speech” in which corporations can say whatever they wish to get people to purchase their products. Instead of placing the burden on the corporation to produce a safe and effective product, it is left to the individual consumer to evaluate the health and safety claims made on behalf of those products and to seek remedy after the fact, or to merely waste time and money on products hoping for dramatic benefits that never materialize. And because the struggle is so basic, so fundamentally Manichean, corporations and those who represent their interests feel justified in twisting and manipulating the facts to manufacture the impression of a world dramatically out of balance; corrupt, squalid and on the verge of chaos if not already lost.
(Full disclosure: I have been known to indulge in a handful of walnuts from time to time, both by themselves and occasionally as a healthy part of an oatmeal cookie, and there is currently a canister of the delicious soon-to-be contraband in my pantry)
Let’s set aside the fact that this “news” is over a year old (the FDA letter in question was dated 22 February 2010). Let’s also set aside the fact that the article in question here is being presented by a site clearly driven by ideology and willing to selectively quote sources so as to completely misrepresent that pesky old “reality” (which, as we all know, has a definitive liberal bias) in a way which helps serve their mission of fanning ideological fury and righteous anger on the part of a deliberately misinformed public. Let’s also set aside the fact that LifeExtension “magazine” is a publication which presents its findings in support of a company that sells “nutritional supplements, including minerals, vitamins, herbs and hormones” and can therefore hardly be considered a neutral party in the discussion. The piece which seems to have prompted the New American article can be found here.
So, having set aside the generally artificially trumped up character of this press-release-masquerading-as-news published to help convince the ‘public’ that the evil government is once again trying to take our constitutionally protected right to eat tasty and nutritious nut treats, what are we left with?
Claim #1: That wacky, out of control FDA is trying to suggest that walnuts, healthy, tasty, grown on a tree walnuts, are drugs!!
Definitively no. The FDA is drawing Diamond’s attention to the fact that their marketers have drifted over the line from suggesting that walnuts are healthy snacks to making a claim that walnuts can prevent disease. The FDA did not make the claim that walnuts are drugs, Diamond suggested that they were, and that they could be used to “treat” (this is the language that Diamond used) cancer, depression, arthritis, high cholesterol and, who knows, maybe even male pattern baldness and the common cold. Diamond can make those claims, but if they want to do so, they have to go through the approval process for new drugs to prove scientifically that they are safe (okay, most likely a no-brainer unless you are allergic to nuts) and more importantly EFFECTIVE for the treatment that is being claimed for them. Nuts may be tasty and good for you. This is not what diamond was claiming. They were stating, without a scientifically verifiable claim based on evidence, that eating nuts could treat disease. This claim moves the product in question from a food to a drug. In the absence of such a scientifically verifiable claim based on evidence, this is just a marketing ploy preying on people’s fear of diseases for which we don’t currently have good cures.
Claim #1.5: Those walnuts are not only drugs, they are going to be considered illegal drugs, up there with cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.
Because it sounds more alarmist to suggest that not only is that corrupt old FDA going to overreach and limit the claims that can be made about a product to only the verifiable truth, it is actually going to start sending the black helicopters and SWAT teams out to seize your nuts!
Claim #2: Diamond was only educating the public about the value of nuts as a part of a healthy diet.
Nope. Diamond was making a drug claim in arguing that eating nuts could be used to “treat” health conditions. They are well within their rights (not to mention correct) to argue that eating nuts can be healthy, and that healthy lifestyles are correlative with lower incidence of disease. The FDA’s problem here, if you read their letter, is the “misbranding” of a food as a drug. You can be pretty certain that if walnuts were actually proved effective for the treatment of a disease, someone would come out and say so, and Diamond would be only too happy to publish that proof. The simple fact is that there is no such direct evidence. The result of this intervention by the FDA was that Diamond changed their packaging soon after receiving the letter. Everything worked out fine, and Diamond is still free to sell nuts to the healthy snack-seeking public.
Claim #3: The FDA is acting as the strong arm of a government, whoops! “an out-of-control police state where tyranny [reigns] over rationality” and is trying to “censor” and “suppress” health information produced by public minded corporations whose only interest is in serving the health needs of the average American.
Oh, give me a break. This kind of ‘life or death’ rhetoric is completely uncalled for. If it were not for the FDA and other relevant government regulation, we would have no one to balance the corporate profit motive and provide the public with accurate, scientifically verifiable information to counter the often outrageous claims made by industries on behalf of anything they want to sell us. No, the FDA is not perfect, and its activities need to be monitored by a well-informed and skeptical public, and to that end i am happy that they are required to publish everything they do. If nothing else, it made it easy for me to go read the actual letter they sent rather than making me rely on the out of context quotes ‘autotuned’ by the writers of these articles to push the widest range of buttons and stir up the deepest currents of existential panic in their readers.
Claim #4: The FDA wants producers of healthy foods to be silenced so that marketers of “garbage foods” can be “advertised endlessly”
Another instance of blatant hyperbole. The FDA did not take any step to prevent Diamond from marketing their products as healthy snack foods. They acted to prevent them from making a particular medical claim about those products. I agree that it is ridiculous that potato chip manufacturers are able to put the words “heart healthy” on their packaging, but you can bet they are careful to do so in a way that the legislation allows. It’s not the FDA’s fault if that legislation has been so corrupted by pressure from corporations that it allows such a surreal claim to be made.
Claim #5: It’s all a conspiracy between the FDA, garbage food manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies to keep Americans fat and sick
I tend to regard any argument that needs a recourse to elaborate conspiracy theory as not worth the time to listen to, let alone refute, although if I WAS feeling amenable to conspiracy mongering, I might be tempted to look first to those members of congress taking money and meetings with lobbyists from garbage food manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies, or accepting uncritically the “model legislation” produced by industry representatives.
The REAL conspiracy, er… I mean the REAL news (aka, the buried lede)
The hard working folks at the New American and LifeExtension are trying to protect the public from the evil FDA, which is unconstitutionally trying to restrict the freedom of speech of those poor, downtrodden corporations. But you can do something about it! The real news here is the Free Speech About Science Act, which would allow corporations to tell you whatever they wanted to without some “sordid,” corrupt, corn chip-pushing government bureaucrat wagging their fingers. Because if we just let the free market take care of everything, American companies would (out of the goodness of their hearts, mind you) lower cholesterol, eliminate obesity, cure erectile disfunction and allow us all to peacefully enjoy our Milk-Bones in a Commie-free world. After all, corporations have as their ultimate goal the health, safety and welfare of the American public. They would never sell anything that was unhealthy or dangerous, or market something as being healthy when it isn’t, right?
Since American corporations only have their customers’ best interests at heart, anyone who opposes them must be evil. And more than that, they are wicked and cruel, working to keep valuable health information out of the hands of the public. It’s good versus evil, with the FDA proudly holding open the barn door for the four horsemen to ride in and conquer.