Thursday, July 04, 2013

U.S. corporations spread fast-food, meat, and obesity around the globe

Photo: Sally Kneidel

American men gained an average of 19 lbs between 1980 and 2010; American women, 18 lbs. Those are among the fastest weight gains in the world, writes Leslie Patton of Bloomberg News. Much of that weight gain can be attributed to aggressive marketing by fast-food companies such as McDonald's, Domino's Pizza, and Yum Brands (KFC). Heavy sales of processed and packaged foods are also to blame, as described in Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss's new expose, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

Food activists in the U.S. have worked hard to educate the public on the dangers of fast-food, and have made some progress in persuading fast-food restaurants to carry a few less-fatty alternatives.

Plunder abroad

Having saturated the American market, fast-food corporations are now exploiting more vulnerable and less-wary territories abroad. According to the Waistline Index compiled by Bloomberg, men in Mexico, Brazil and Chile are gaining weight these days on a diet high in fast-food, processed food, and sugary drinks.

Likened to smallpox

Tim Lobstein, director of policy and programs at the International Association for the Study of Obesity in London, compares the globalization of the American diet and its health effects to the transmission of smallpox and measles when Europeans entered Central and South America 300 years ago. "The parallel now is the big transnational corporations also setting foot in these remote areas and bringing non-communicable diseases," such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Domino's now has more international locations than U.S. locations.

China a prime target

These efforts to expand markets into un-plundered territory is not entirely new. In my 2008 book Going Green, I and my co-author reported that Tyson Foods entered an agreement with a Hong Kong-based group in 1997 to begin locating poultry complexes throughout China, each designed to process half a million birds per week. At a 2005 food summit in Chicago, a Tyson executive said that Tyson saw its investments in China as laying the "foundation for profits in the coming years."
China's meat consumption per capita doubled in the 20 years between 1985 and 2005, and is still rising today. Yum (KFC) now has 5200 locations in China; the Chinese rate of diabetes is expected to pass that of the U.S. by 2030.

What to do?

Avoid supporting exploitive companies that blatantly value profits over all else, and that target especially vulnerable populations (including American children). Give your food dollars to someone else. Take care of your own family's health by eating plant-based foods. In doing so, you'll also be cutting down on the vast greenhouse-gas emissions associated with the livestock sector, and you'll be choosing a more humane lifestyle.

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