The Diet Detective: Talking Food Politics With Author Michele Simon

I heard about the work Michele Simon was doing as a public health lawyer and advocate through the academic grapevine. She's been zealously focusing on the food industry and food politics for 15 years. 

When I caught up with Michele via e-mail and phone and asked her about food politics, here's what she said:

Diet Detective: You're an attorney by training, so what moved you to get involved in the politics of food?

Michele Simon: Around the time I was graduating from law school I decided to make some changes in my diet. The more I read, the more I realized how much policy and politics impact our food choices and the information we receive about food. At the time (the mid-1990s), food wasn't yet such a hot topic, and I realized that we needed more lawyers writing about this connection. I was also inspired by the work of Marion Nestle, but this was even before her first book, Food Politics, was published.

Diet Detective: How would you describe the current food movement in the United States? Why is it becoming more prolific?

Michele Simon: The way I see it, we have two parallel tracks. One, an increasing awareness of the importance for both people and animals of eating fresh, real food (as in not overly processed), preferably grown locally and produced ethically. Thanks to the efforts of many activists, small farmers, policymakers, writers and others in this movement, we are seeing great progress. The second track is the rest of America (the majority) who may have heard of these ideas but for whom eating a truly healthy diet remains far out of reach, either because it's not available or because it's too expensive. And too often that reality gets lost in the happy conversations about what's going on.

Diet Detective: The subtitle of your books is "How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back." Can you explain?

Michele Simon: I was inspired by that subtitle for two reasons. First, the food industry is responding to criticism from various quarters by claiming to be changing its ways, but really all we are seeing is a lot of fancy marketing. Products like "whole grain" Reece's Puffs cereal or baked Cheetos, etc., are examples of what I call "Nutriwashing"—companies trying to dress up junk food to look as if it's good for you.

The other main way the food industry undermines our health is by lobbying against government policies that would change the food environment and help make us healthier. Instead, the industry wants us to believe that voluntary action is all that's needed. It's this charade of "self-regulation" that is the most insidious form of undermining our health, because it takes the place of legally enforceable policy making that could actually improve things.

Diet Detective: How is our current food system tainted by corporate influences?

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