Friday, January 06, 2006

In 2003, The Bush-Era FDA Supported Corporate Friends And Industry-Friendly Science. Now, A Consumer Watchdog Group Wants To Fight Back

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is readying a class-action lawsuit against Frito-Lay in Massachusetts, which has some of the friendliest pro-consumer protection laws in the country.

It is accusing the company of deceptively marketing its "light" potato chips, after forwarding more than 3,700 consumer health complaints to the Food & Drug Administration over the last nine years, including 396 it filed last week.

The chips are made with olestra, a fat substitute in foods and in processing, including frying and baking. The Clinton-era FDA approved olestra in 1996, with the specification that U.S. labels for foods including olestra must state that the fat substitute may cause abdominal cramping and diarrhea (Olestra, which is manufactured by Proctor & Gamble under the trade name olean, is a molecule of table sugar linked to soybean or cottonseed oil that is too large for the body to absorb or digest.) The warning was reviewed and confirmed in 1998.

The science behind the warning didn't change after President Bush took office in 2001, and yet, the Bush-era FDA in 2003 agreed with a P&G petition and concluded that the latter label statement was no longer warranted.

Why? Because of the merging of several events:

-- Several years of lobbying by P&G, with help from various conservative "experts" and conservative media.

-- Significant campaign contributions to key Republicans, including the Bush campaign in 2000.

-- A Bush Administration that heavily leans toward removing obstacles for its corporate friends.

Forget the 3,700 health complaints. Forget the science. This was a case of you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Regardless of whether the lawsuit succeeds -- and it faces a huge uphill battle -- consumers should ask themselves: did the Bush Administration look out for consumers' best interests when it reversed earlier FDA decisions, or did it look out only for its corporate friends?

The answer should be clear. Corporate interests came first. Here's how it happened:

P&G and Frito-Lay, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, had a lot riding on the success of olestra. P&G had spent $200 million over 25 years developing the fat substitute, and with Frito-Lay constructed a $200 million olestra-making plant in Cincinnati.

In the mid-1990s, P&G asked scientists -- some of whom had earlier been paid P&G consultants, to write letters of recommendation for olestra. It also underwriting a 1996 conference whose panelists included a P&G scientist and two P&G consultants, the results of which were later published as a bound volume in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science, which are distributed to more than 700 libraries. By doing so, it could point to industry-friendly research in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

That helped get the FDA to approve olestra, but that approval came with the warning label. Sales of Frito-Lay's Wow! Chips and P&G's Fat Free Pringles, each launched in 1998, were initially strong, but quickly declined.

P&G quickly went back to the lobbying drawing board.

Conservative "experts" soon began advocating for a change, calling the Clinton-era FDA "too conservative" and "irresponsible." This in spite of two studies from Proctor & Gamble, in 1993 and 1995, supporting the FDA warning.

The conservative noise machine also began discrediting olestra critics, including CSPI. Among those leading the fight were Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who attacked the watchdog group via a column in USA Today, failing to note that his institute receives $125,000 annually from P&G's foundation. Also helping wage war against the watchdog group was The New Republic's Stephen Glass, who soon thereafter was found to be a habitual liar.

At the same time, P&G and PepsiCo more heavily tilted their campaign contributions to favor Republicans, both at the presidential and congressional levels. P&G, for example, splits its contributions almost evenly among Republicans and Democrats in the early 1990s, but from 1996-2000, more than 80% of its contributions went to Republicans -- the opposition party.

Is it any surprise that the Bush-era FDA changed its ruling on the need for a warning label?

Perhaps as a thank you, each company favored Republicans in their 2004 contributions.

With the warning label obstacle overcome, sales began to turnaround.

But sales for Frito-Lay sharply increased a year later, when the company changed its products name from Wow! to "Light," a move CSPI says "was designed to intentionally deceive people into thinking that the product was an entirely new olestra-free lower-calorie chip."

It's because of the perceived deception that CSPI is undertaking its lawsuit. Chips in Frito-Lay’s “Light” line include Doritos Light, Lay’s Light original and barbecue, Ruffles Light original and cheddar and sour cream, and Tostitos Light.

P&G continues to use the Fat Free Pringles name. Two other chip makers, Herr’s and Utz, dropped their olestra chips. Canada and the United Kingdom both rejected the use of olestra.

Even in consumer-friendly Massachusetts, the CSPI lawsuit is a longshot.

Edgar Dworsky, a former consumer attorney with the Massachusetts attorney general's office, said the FDA's decision in 2003 to do away with the olestra health warning would seem to protect Frito-Lay from any legal action. ''I think the case is sunk," he told the Boston Globe.

But at least somebody is trying to look out for consumers, and take a stand against the Bush Administration's corporate-at-any-price approach.


Anonymous RebelOne said...

My daughter became very ill after eating Wow chips.

She driving up here to Georgia from Florida and kept snacking on the chips. She had to stop the car because she started vomiting. She thought she had a flu. After she reached my house, I saw the bag of chips on the front seat of the car. I then knew what had made her so sick. She said that there was no warning on the bag that she could see.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous MountainLaurel said...

An ex-boyfriend had a horrible reaction to the Olestra version of Doritos. And he had only eaten a few of them. The sort of reaction that involves changing your drawers several times in one night. Very unfortunate.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous stevietheman said...

Olestra causes G.A.S.
Greasy Arse Syndrome.

1:08 PM  
Anonymous rob of wilmington, del. said...

I think we're getting sidetracked.

Yes, olestra has negative effects on people. But please understand the poitics at hand here. The same problem -- corporate interests over consumer interests -- gets played out on a daily basis, whether we're talking about mercury levels in fish, unsafe mines, clean air, logging rights, etc. Every single time, the Bush Administration has brought in industry types and lobbyists to work in its administation, to rewrite existing rules to make them more corporate-friendly. The people get screwed over.

That mine in West Virginia had been cited hundreds of times for violations. But the Mine Safety Health Agency levied tiny little fines, and there was no incentive for the mine operator to imporve the site. Now, you can choose to blame the Bush Administration for the accident or not, because it may have happened even if the administration was pro-worker. But the fact is that by taking a pro-business, anti-worker stance, the administration all-but-guaranteed something bad would happen.

In this case, had the administration done nothing, some people would get sick eating properly labeled chips. But by taking the pro-business, anti-consumer approach, the administration is guaranteeing a portion of the population will get sick from the product, because there is no incentive for the product maker to warn consumers.

2:44 PM  
Anonymous stevietheman said...

Conservatives might argue that if consumers are negatively affected by a company's products, then consumers would turn against the company and take their business elsewhere... a la the "free market".

Of course, they also don't care about all the damage inflicted before the free market eventually does its magic.

Perhaps a boycott against P&G is in order, since the Bush regime won't do anything about them?

2:44 PM  
Anonymous chat_noir said...

2002: FDA has logged more complaints about olestra than it has
For Immediate Release: April 16, 2002

New Olestra Complaints Bring Total Close To 20,000—More Than All Other Food Additive Complaints In History Combined

WASHINGTON— The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today forwarded to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more than 200 new complaints of adverse reactions from consumers who had eaten snack foods containing the indigestible fat substitute olestra. With close to 20,000 reports forwarded to the agency from both CSPI and olestra developer Procter & Gamble, the FDA has logged more complaints about olestra than it has about all other food additives in history combined.

The new batch of complaints comes on the heels of Procter & Gamble’s sale of the Cincinnati, Ohio, factory that manufactures olestra and reports that Frito-Lay is pulling its Wow!-brand chips from some grocers’ shelves in an unusual “reverse market test.” Frito-Lay’s Wow! Chips reportedly have eaten into sales of low-fat Baked Lay’s chips, which are olestra-free. (Frito-Lay pays P&G a licensing fee to use the synthetic fat in Wow! chips.)

Wonder how many complaints that the FDA has received, now almost 4 years later.

2:44 PM  
Anonymous ash said...

And you know what, Rob? Some of those "portion of consumers" who get sick may be conservatives, since allergy knows no political affiliation, even - gasp - relatives of Republican lawmakers.

Then, I wonder, how might that affect legislation?

7:23 PM  

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