The article is based on a speech delivered by Dr. Damayanthi Perera at the symposium held at the Annual Scientific Sessions of the Medico Legal Society of Sri Lanka.
Dr. Damayanthi Perera, nutritionist and an independent researcher, Ms. Deepika Seneviratna, Assistant Government Analyst, Mr. Yasantha Kodagod, Deputy Solicitor General and Dr. Ruwan Wijayamuni, the Chief Medical Officer of the Colombo Municipal Council presented papers at the symposium while Mr. S. B. W. de Silva the President of the Medico Legal Society chaired it. Attorney General Palitha Fernando PC was the chief guest.
The Medico Legal Society was founded in 1937 and currently having a membership over 700 representing the fields of law, medicine, science and law enforcement. There were 60 free papers presented in the afternoon session representing the fields of law, medicine, science and law enforcement.
re we poisoning our children; is a topical subject but I would like to modify the title slightly to, Are they poisoning our children? I leave that to you to decide who, they are. This presentation is not about conventional forms of food poisoning. This is about ‘white collar food fraud’ and ‘slow poisoning of our children’ via ultra-processed food and mind- poisoning (via mass media advertising and professional promotions; i.e. brand promotions and prescriptions). Concerned professionals and consumers have a right to use the Precautionary Principle to safeguard public interest.
Post World War II globalisation is partly the result of planning by politicians from the Global North to break down borders hampering trade. Globalisation is dubbed ‘Neo-economic colonisation’ or Coca-colonisation. Transnational Companies (TNCs) undermine time-tested ‘Traditional Diets’, food cultures and agricultural practices to boost the sale of highly unnecessary, harmful and potentially harmful ultra-processed ‘Transnational Diets’ (i.e. burgers, colas and other fizzy drinks, imitation milk, margarine (fake butter), unnecessarily fortified breakfast cereals, noodles, malted milk, yogurt etc, Genetically Modified Food and agro-chemicals.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) was created in 1995 to regulate the global free trade. An important observation is that parallel to WTO-driven globalised, unrestrained free trade, there is a global epidemic of obesity dubbed Globesity. There is also an increase in diabetes, cardiac disorders, cancer and other diet related diseases leading to long-term debility and premature death of millions of consumers from industrialised nations and their children. Global food companies are changing global diets, global disease patterns and death patterns.
Many Americans in the prime of their life are ailing or dying due to morbid obesity (Pai, 2006), diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other diet-related chronic diseases. In the UK, children as young as three are dying, literally chocking on their own fat. (UK Parliamentary Select Committee on Health: Third Report, 2003). Remember, babies do not choose their food neither read food labels. Most disturbingly, it has also been reported that children of this generation from industrialised nations are facing the prospect of dying before their parents (IASO, 2009-10). Ultra-processed, industrial foods produced by industrialised nations are largely responsible for reversing the Post World War II gains in life expectancy. What an achievement!
‘Food companies unable to increase their sales in the United States have moved marketing campaigns for their products to emerging economies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with predictable effects on the body weights and health of those regions’ populations (Nestle, 2002, Rev.ed.2013).
In essence, humanity has finally arrived at the most dangerous era of human civilisation – Death by ultra-processed, industrialised Diet.With various ‘simulated (fake) milk’ products in the market and faulty western nutrition and agricultural practices and policies. We can expect a similar scenario in Sri Lanka too, unless effective nutrition and agriculture policies and consumer protection measures are introduced soon. It is in this context that we need to examine the issue of poisoning our children.
Advertising, Trade Puffery and Mind Poisoning
‘Neither the print nor audio visual media take an interest in the welfare of the consumer on whose doorstep or living room, the most elaborate trade puffs are landed on a mass scale. For instance, sections 28 and 29 of the Proposed Consumer Protection Authority Bill, holds a trader liable for misleading or deceptive conduct, and false representations made in connection with product promotions. Instances of advertisements violating these laws and regulations are not all that rare. Nevertheless, the media, which is very much a ‘partner in crime’, is absolved from any liability’. If the media organisations develop a more responsible approach towards advertising it will be a definite and healthy turn towards consumer welfare (Gunatilake, LST Review; Volume 13 Issue 175 May 2002, Pg. 18).
The Food Industry engages in aggressive, unethical, ‘Brand Promotion’ via print and electronic media using trade puffery, legal loopholes and regulatory lapses to grab the biggest market-share. Ultra-processed food products are also promoted through direct and indirect, unethical medical and nutrition promotion and patronage. TNCs buy professional allegiance, collusion or silence via unethical sponsorships, research grants, etc. Consumers are duped into purchasing harmful and potentially harmful ultra-processed food products. Such organisations and professionals are betraying the public trust and are failing in their public duty.
Worryingly, advertising is not regulated in Sri Lanka and the advertising industry and the media are having a field day, literally at the expense of consumers. Ironically, even many media, medical and legal professionals have fallen prey to advertising gimmicks and the plight of the ordinary consumer is unfortunate. Therefore, even belatedly, it is time to bring in effective mechanisms to regulate advertising.
Transnational companies are undermining our time-tested food culture and agricultural practices that have evolved successfully over thousands of years, simply to boost their profit. Post-Green Revolution agriculture(which is in reality an agro-chemical marketing revolution)is destroying the global eco-system at an alarming rate due to agro-chemical based intensive agriculture and animal farming models promoted by industrialised nations. When the environment is poisoned, the entire eco-system perishes. Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown aetiology (CKDu) appearing in epidemic proportions in the North-Central Province of Sri Lanka and spreading to the rest of the country is an example of a ‘deadly system’ that poisons the eco-system in the name of modern agriculture and increased yields.
Just to cite one example of slow poisoning, Cadmium contained in agrochemicals is a ‘silent, serial killer’ and a ‘prime suspect’ in the aetiology of CKDu. ‘Cadmium is a chemical with a long half-life (17-33 years in man), where small daily exposure over long periods leads to accumulation of toxic levels in the kidney’ (Garrow & James, 1996, pg. 533). Similarly, global citizens are being poisoned slowly through the modern, Western food system. Should we not worry about the ever increasing cocktail of chemicals added to our food, in the name of processing and preservation? ‘Extended shelf life’ may lead to ‘reduced real life’ for consumers! Following are examples of two great professional blunders.
Many consumers may not be aware that partially hydrogenated fats containing toxic Trans Fatty Acids (TFAs) and TFA laden partially hydrogenated margarine recommended and endorsed whole-heartedly by the American Heart Association, American Dietetic Association and many other Apex Health Organisations to prevent heart disease caused heart disease! It has been estimated that more than thirty thousand consumers per annum in America may have died due to heart diseases caused by such food. This figure excludes those who suffered heart ailments due to the same (Willette & Skerrett, 2001, pgs. 28, 74, 82). Those who may have died of cancer have not been estimated.The bottom line is: Consumer beware, highly processed food may kill or maim.
Many margarine brands are not hydrogenated today but margarine is nothing but a cheap imitation of butter sold with a fancy price tag and the use is highly questionable. Note: Hydrogenation is detrimental to health but the process is still used in many countries due to the power of the oil lobbies (Erasmus, 1993, pg.105). Another western blunder is, the man-made (scientists) Mad Cow Disease (MCD) that led to CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) or the human form of MCD that killed many cows and beef consumers in the UK. Details are beyond the scope of this article.
In addition to the long known toxicity of fat-soluble vitamins (A & D etc.) and minerals such as iron, zinc, etc. in excess, there is emerging data that calcium supplementation may lead to heart disease. When you switch on the TV, many product advertisements boast that their product contains added vitamins and minerals – some even twice the requirement. How justifiable is it to add unnecessary vitamins and minerals to milk, instant noodles, yogurt etc? (indiscriminate fortification). These are the foods consumed regularly by the children. There is a global move by the global fortification industry to promote mass fortification of staple foods. Details are beyond the scope of this article and have been published elsewhere (Perera, 2013). There is an urgent need for public debate and discussion on mass fortification, GM food and rice.
Fake Milk and Fake Gold The milk industry markets simulated milk powder brands containing many questionable ingredients, as products are superior to natural milk. Such products are promoted heavily via the mass media and nutrition and medical patronage and prescription. These products contain various ingredients that may be harmful on the short and the long-run (Valleys, 2008). If you are duped in to purchasing imitation as a product better than gold, at a much higher price, how would you feel? Refer following section for more details.
Is History Repeating With the Plus, Plus
Those in nutrition and medicine may be aware of the chequred history of the transnational infant formula manufacturers. History reveals that during the 1930s, aggressive and unethical marketing of infant formulas in developing countries resulted in severe malnutrition and death of thousands of infants. The International Code on the Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes (World Health Organisation – WHO) was subsequently developed as a result of relentless public pressure and consumer boycotts of Nestlé products.
The Code prohibits advertising of infant formulas for children below one-year. To make good any financial losses that can arise as a result, the industry has resorted to ‘manufacturing’ simulated milk powder for children over one-year and marketing them under various brand names. Please note: Children over one-year do not need any special milk powder. This is a false need created by the milk powder industry. Also note: Only cows can produce real milk. The following citation titled ‘Milk and Murder’ highlights the perverse influence of commerce on child health.
Milk and Murder ‘If your lives were embittered as mine is, by seeing day after day, this massacre of the innocents by unsuitable feeding; then I believe you would feel as I do that misguided propaganda on infant feeding should be punished as the most criminal form of sedition, and that those deaths should be regarded as murder’ (Dr. Cicely Williams, commenting on the title of her speech, Milk & Murder, 1939). ‘
‘In 1939, a woman doctor spoke at the Singapore Rotary Club. Dr. Cecily William’s subject for the evening was Milk and Murder. Cicely Williams charged the artificial baby food industry with murdering babies by promoting their milk as food for infants. Ironically, the president of the Rotary Club, who presided over the meeting that evening, was the local president of Nestlé.’
‘Dr. Williams’ scathing indictment of artificial feeding of infants was followed in the 1960s by Dr. Derrick Jellife’s research on the impact of artificial feeding on the health of babies. He coined the term “commerciogenic malnutrition” to highlight the connection between commerce and increase in bottle feeding at a special meeting organised on the issue by the Pan American Health Organisation -PAHO’ (The Boycott Book).
Dr William’s speech and Dr.Jeliefe’s reference to severe malnutrition of bottled fed babies as “commerciogenic malnutrition” highlight the perverse influence of commerce on child health. Their statements are more valid today than then.
Due to globalisation and ‘unrestrained’ free trade, healthy traditional diets are influenced negatively and the ecosystem is destroyed. TNCs use many unethical marketing practices such as undermining wholesome, natural food such as rice and milk as nutritionally inadequate to promote branded, fortified food products. They also create a fear psychosis in the minds of the consumers via the mass media to promote sales of fake milk, fake butter (margarine) and even soap. Currently, some brands of yogurt and soap are marketed via creating a bacteria-phobia (i.e., an unnecessary fear regarding bacteria). Gene-engineering is complemented with mind- engineering (i.e., brainwashing).
There is a nexus between the TNCs, Western governments, media, professional associations, and ironically even the United Nations (Hertz, 2001; Nestle, 2001, 2010; Palmer, 1988, Rev.2009, Chapt.15). Sri Lanka lacks strong and powerful consumer lobbies and the country is a haven for such TNCs. The following is an interesting eye opener for consumers.
Marion Nestle, Professor of Human Nutrition and author debunks the irrationality of functional foods: ‘These days, food products constructed for this purpose are classified in their own special category and are variously called, ‘functional foods,” designer foods,” or sometimes, nutraceuticals.” I much prefer the designation ‘techno-foods…….’ (Nestle, 2002, Rev. 2013, pg. 295). Please note the word ‘constructed’.
‘Functional foods are about marketing, not science or health’. …..European Food safety authority has been so reluctant to allow health claims for most functional foods much to the distress of marketers (Nestle, 2010) but public health officials have been slow to respond to protect public health (Stuckler & Nestle 2012, loc. cited; Nestle, 2001).
So what is the final answer? Leave the 320, 000 ultra-processed, food-like substances on the supermarket shelves and purchase natural or minimally processed food. It will be good for health as well as for your wallet, and this is called ‘Voting with your Wallet’. When you see those advertisements on TV, promoting powdered milk products for children over one-year, remember that they are not real milk but milk-like substances!
‘.... And you are better off eating whole fresh foods rather than processed food products. ........ For a while it used to be that food was all you could eat, today there are thousands of other edible food-like substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages elaborately festooned with health claims, which brings me to another, somewhat counterintuitive, piece of advice. If you are concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food is a strong indication that it is not real food and food is what you want to eat ‘(Pollan, 2008).
Available data indicate that ultra-processed food is killing or maiming the Western consumers. Nevertheless, despite the evidence, the Global North is exposing the Global South to deadly epidemics of obesity, diabetes and other Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) such as cancer and CKDu by marketing and promoting unhealthy food products and agro-chemicals. There is also relentless pressure and coercion to accept highly unnecessary, dangerous and potentially dangerous fortified food and Genetically Modified (GM) food and rice. If Williams was alive, what would she call this - murder or genocide?
When you see advertisements full of fake science, industrial love and corporate humanity, I hope you will now be able to see through the trade puffs and the hype. Monteiro et al. (2010) highlight the need to enact laws to protect the people from commercial exploitation by Transnational Companies.
1. Fresh, liquid milk is the best.
2. Natural foods need little or no advertising. Do not purchase food products that are advertised with various claims. Use natural or minimally processed food on a regular basis.
3. Children over one-year, pregnant and lactating women or the elderly do not need the so-called ‘specialised milk or special age-specific milk or food products’. Such products contain unnecessary and questionable ingredients that may pose short and long-term health problems.
4. Nature provides natural, safe, healthy and nutritious food. Avoid fortified or enriched milk and milk products (yogurt), beverage (malted beverage, etc.) and food (biscuits, instant noodles). Common fortificants are: Vitamins, minerals, synthetic DHA & ARA, probiotics etc. Purchase non-fortified products and lobby for change. Margarine & skimmed milk are required to be fortified with vitamin A & D by law, but both are not natural food.
5. Avoid Energy Drinks - They may be dangerous and excess energy leads to obesity.
6. If a Professional Association or a professional recommends or prescribes any simulated (fake) milk products or highly processed, branded food products with added vitamins, minerals or novel ingredients (synthetic DHA, ARA etc.), request for information on natural or minimally processed alternatives to the product, the necessity, the cost benefit and the short and long-term safety of the product. You have a right to request for a written prescription.
7. Exercise your consumer rights – unlike Medicine, Nutrition is not a regulated profession in Sri Lanka. Check the credentials of the prescriber, and if possible, for any conflicts of interest
Knowledge is the key to good health & survival – not ‘Branded Food’.
Consider the ‘Seven Golden Survival Rules’ as your free ‘Life Insurance Policy’.
Today we live in a dangerous era in human nutrition where the lines between ‘science’ and ‘nonsense’ and ‘natural food and fake food’ are blurred to those blinded by money, perks and privileges offered by the industry. It is sad to see professionals who are willing to sacrifice the lives of children and other consumers literally for a plate of rice at a Star-Class Hotel.
In a globalised world, knowledge is the key to good health and survival -- not branded, expensive food products or the so-called ‘Functional Food’ touted aggressively via the mass media. The take-home message is that all natural foods, including natural water are functional. Novel and ultra-processed, industrial food may be dysfunctional and dangerous and may lead to long-term debility or death.
With more than 300,000 processed food products (prostituted food) on the global market, you need a Nutritionist and professional advice on food and nutrition not to learn about what to eat, but what not to eat. Mind the quacks but beware of the industry-friendly professionals and self-proclaimed Nutrition Experts.
The author highlights the need to adhere to natural and ‘minimally’ processed food for health, longevity, economic and environmental reasons. Choose or prescribe natural or minimally processed food.
A key conclusion of this presentation is that we do not have to expose our consumers to the predicament faced by the consumers of industrialised nations. We have a golden window of opportunity to save our consumers, the environment and the economy by educating and empowering the consumers and enacting the necessary laws to protect the consumers. The question is, whether there is a will for collective action; I leave it to you to decide.
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