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Breakfast of Progressives: Cheerios and Breast Milk

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Breakfast of Progressives: Cheerios and Breast Milk

In 2007, the Department of Health and Human Services toned down an advertising campaign informing the public of the potential health risks of not breastfeeding babies. Naturally, the formula industry had a cow, and they lobbied hard against the ads and won. The campaign was watered down so as to have little impact on the breastfeeding rate in the United States, which, at 30%, lags behind Europe. The agency also decided not to promote a study which found that breastfeeding is, according to The Washington Post, “associated with fewer ear and gastrointestinal infections, as well as lower rates of diabetes, leukemia, obesity, asthma and sudden infant death syndrome.” (If this seems like an odd issue for a young, single male to be championing, the HHS has reported that children who aren’t breastfed are 40% more likely to suffer from Type 1 diabetes, a disease that afflicts both of my sisters.)

It helped, of course, that formula companies are part of the pharmaceutical industry, and that the administration in office at the time was the most amiable to Big Pharma in history—an administration that, it should be noted, took little to no measures to assist new mothers in its eight-year tenure. The Post described the formula industry’s lobbying efforts as “a full-court press to reach top political appointees at HHS, using influential former government officials, now working for the industry, to act as go-betweens,” including former chairman of the Republican National Committee Joseph A. Levitt. Political interference into public health and safety pales in comparison to the Bush administration’s other known crimes, but the larger issue here sheds light on the right’s ideological opposition to the new administration’s desire to allow government to function as it was intended.

Right-wing loons like Michelle Malkin have been up in arms this week over the Food and Drug Administration’s concerns over Cheerios’s claims that it can lower cholesterol by four percent in six weeks, and that it can help fight against cancer. It’s bad enough when foods claim to help reduce cholesterol because, as it usually states in tiny print, “a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease” (yes, eating healthy foods is healthy), but there’s nothing special about Cheerios. It’s like the sidewalk taking credit for the increased health of avid walkers. General Mills might as well encourage parents to serve Cheerios with breast milk and then say the cereal provides children with vital immune system benefits.

The FDA is doing exactly what it was designed to do: protect consumers from misleading or unsubstantiated claims—something David Theroux of The Independent Institute calls one of Obama’s “’progressive’ (i.e., authoritarian) absurdities.” In response to all the media coverage, General Mills has issued a statement saying that their claim that Cheerios can lower cholesterol by a certain percentage in a fixed period of time has been “featured on the box for more than two years,” that “the science is not in question,” and that the FDA is merely interested in how the information is presented. Critics of the FDA’s move think it’s silly, but how information is presented is key to good messaging—something the right has clearly forgotten.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.