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Do New Food Labels Go Too Far?

Aired February 27, 2014 - 18:28   ET


SALLY KOHN, CO-HOST: Wolf, we might be able to eat better if the food industry wasn't sneaking junk in most of what we buy.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: Unfortunately, what the Food and Drug Administration proposed today is nothing more than symbolic liberalism. The debate starts right now.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, Michelle Obama's new food labels. Is the mom in chief going too far?

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: Should I be eating this or not? Is this good for my kids or not?

ANNOUNCER: Is it the first lady's job to make us healthier or is the nanny state out of control?

On the left, Sally Kohn. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Margo Wootan, a health and nutrition activist, and Rick Berman, who opposes government overreach. Should Washington help you be healthy or is it wasting your time and tax money? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


KOHN: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Sally Kohn on the left.

GINGRICH: I'm Newt Gingrich on the right. In the CROSSFIRE tonight guests on opposite sides of this country's food wars. It is a legitimate concern to worry about the health of the American people. Michelle Obama's done all of us a favor by starting a conversation about nutrition. But the food labels she unveiled today are nothing more than symbolic liberalism.


OBAMA: We're overhauling these labels to make them easier to read and understand.


GINGRICH: We've been ignoring government labels for 23 years. So now we're going to spend an immense amount of money on a multi-year process to rearrange the information, make it larger and add even more that you'll never read or use. Because it makes liberals feel good. It is pure symbolism.

KOHN: Actually, it's not symbolic at all. It makes us liberals thinner, and that's our secret trick to living longer, and then winning more elections. That's what you won't see on your food labels.

GINGRICH: You do lead a rich fantasy life.

KOHN: In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Margo Wootan, who's director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom.

Rick, let me start with you. Obesity accounts for as much as $146 billion in health-care costs in this country. And from my perspective, that makes it not just a personal issue. Right? This is an issue that affects all of us, certainly as taxpayers. Don't you think there's some government responsibility to do something about this crisis?

RICK BERMAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR CONSUMER FREEDOM: Well, first of all, there's always been thin people, and there's always been fat people. And now what you're suggesting is because we have Obama care, and the government is now saying that it's our responsibility to keep everybody healthy, they can then bootstrap themselves into telling people what to do to stay healthy.

KOHN: Wait a second. Wait. This isn't a new thing. When I was a kid, George -- the first George W. Bush, we all exercised. We had to exercise with Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is nothing new.

BERMAN: So exercise is fine. I don't have a problem with that. But when you start to do the things that we're now hearing from Michelle Obama, when you start -- when you start to hear people saying, "We're going to control what you eat," as opposed to encouraging people to exercise, you're going to a bridge too far. We're either going to control the availability of foods; we're going to tax certain foods; we're going to sue people because they're selling certain foods. That's the bridge too far that the American public is not buying.

KOHN: Is that just speculation, Margo, or is that what's happening?

MARGO WOOTAN, DIRECTOR OF NUTRITION POLICY, CENTER FOR SCIENCE IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Rick wants to make it sound like the government is going to come storming into your home and take the Doritos out of your cupboard. And that's not at all what's being proposed.

What Michelle Obama announced this morning is updating a policy which went into effect under the Bush administration. It's 20 years old. Science has evolved a little bit. It's time to emphasize some nutrients, taking a few off. This is tweaking with something that Americans are used to, like, and use pretty regularly.

JONES: Let's...

GINGRICH: Come back for a second. Because the government can come storming into your home. There was a...

WOOTAN: Not to take your Doritos.

GINGRICH: Well, there was an Amish farmer who created a buying group very similar to the Dallas Buyers Club for whole milk. It's illegal to sell whole milk...

KOHN: Raw milk.

GINGRICH: ... raw milk in Pennsylvania. It's not legal to take it across the border. He had some customers in Maryland. The federal government attacked his farm in order to stop him.

If you look at "The Dallas Buyers Club," which is up for the Oscars this coming Sunday, the whole point of the movie is, here's a guy who's about to die who wants who wants to take some vitamins, who's told by the FDA he can't take them because they might be dangerous for his health. And this is -- the government has raw power that is different than just advice.

Recently some idiot at the FDA decided that Mimolette cheese was inappropriate. It's never hurt anybody. There were no cases of bad health. That French cheese is no longer allowed in the United States. I mean, this isn't about raw power, not just about a list.

WOOTAN: No, the kinds of nutrition policies that the first lady is working on are things that most parents want and applaud her for. Getting junk food out of schools. Over the last two years, there have been more improvements to the nutritional quality of the school lunch program than in the last decade. We're already investing $15 billion a year in this nutrition program. The food should be nutritious. It's a nutrition program.

BERMAN: At the end of the day, forgetting school lunches for a minute, what we're talking about here is whether or not it's the government or people like Margo whose group represents some people who think that everything put out by food companies is bad. We're talking about people who are trying to control other people's behaviors, other people's desires, other people's choices.

At the end of the day, the labels are meaningless. As Newt said, these labels have been around forever. So you make the labels bigger. You make the colors a little bit different. At the end of the day, people are not responding to these labels.

WOOTAN: That's not true.

BERMAN: Wait a minute. There's a study in New York after Bloomberg put in his own -- his own set of requirements, people were now getting the amount of calories, the amount of grams of sodium, the amount of fat. and were people's behavior changing?

WOOTAN: That was...

BERMAN: Yale and New York University -- Yale and New York University said that the labels meant nothing. KOHN: You got two studies in, her turn now.

WOOTAN: So if you look at the totality of evidence, there are a couple of small studies which don't have enough statistical power to pick up the kind of public health effects that you see from policy change.

But the good, well-designed big studies on menu labeling show that people do change what they eat. Not everybody, but about one in six people reduce their calorie intake in a fast food lunch by about 100 calories. From a public health standpoint, that makes a difference.

GINGRICH: Let me ask you a question.

BERMAN: A hundred calories in a day -- 100 calories in a day...

WOOTAN: It makes a difference.

KOHN: Childhood obesity has gone down by about 43 percent for the first time in history. That is a result of...

BERMAN: Ah, certainly not the result of those labels.

KOHN: You will give this credit to Coca-Cola?

BERMAN: Actually, Coca-Cola voluntarily pulled a lot of sodas out of schools.

WOOTAN: After we sued them.

BERMAN: No, no, no. Cola-Cola, Pepsi-Cola...

KOHN: After they were embarrassed for making them on high fructose corn syrup.

BERMAN: High fructose corn syrup and regular sugar have the same amount of calories.

WOOTAN: Rick and I agree on something, so let's just take a moment.

BERMAN: The high fructose corn syrup thing is ridiculous. And people who say that dairy is equivalent to crack. People who say that transfats are equivalent to rat poison. The hysteria around food has gotten to the point where the conversation is totally dysfunctional. And that is why we can't have a logical conversation about what we should do about health in this country.

GINGRICH: Let me ask you a question. We've had these particular labels for 23 years. Obesity has gotten worse.

WOOTAN: Twenty-one.

GINGRICH: Well, 1991.

WOOTAN: 1994.

GINGRICH: OK. They have -- obesity has gotten worse. Now, let me give you an example.

WOOTAN: But that started.

GINGRICH: Let me give you an example of why I -- why I distrust this stuff. Yes, this is Chunky Monkey, one pint. In the original version for 20 years, the U.S. government told you that a serving of this was one-fourth of a pint. The number of Americans who ever got a pint and ate one fourth -- and I will say they're about to be slightly more honest.

KOHN: Newt excluded. Newt excluded.

GINGRICH: The FDA's about to become a little bit more honest, because they're now saying it's actually two servings on the grounds of, which may actually be close.

My only point is you go back and look, Vitamin A and Vitamin C were vital. For 20 years our government told us they were vital. They're apparently dropping them in the new proposal.

WOOTAN: They're still essential nutrients, but people are getting enough vitamin A and C that they're not the most important thing to list. If a company wants to continue to list them, they can voluntarily. But studies show that Vitamin D and potassium are nutrients that most Americans aren't getting enough of. And so that's information that people want and need. So those nutrients are going to be added.

BERMAN: This is crazy.

WOOTAN: That's not changing nutrition advice. That's just advancing as time goes by.

BERMAN: So as people go in and buy this pint of ice cream, they're not going to look at the label and say, "Well, let's see. I'm only allowed to eat a quarter of this, or I can only eat a half of this, because they just changed the serving size." They're going to eat as much of this as they want to. This stuff about putting a label on here and telling you what to eat is ridiculous.

KOHN: As someone who, first of all, as someone who looks at food labels, I disagree with you, No. 1.

But No. 2, let's also be clear. The American public wants this. Let's put up some numbers. You know, 67 percent of Americans want to show calories at chain restaurants. Fifty-five percent want to ban unhealthy food ads for kids.

Rick, you're trying to paint the American people as not wanting this. They do want this and shouldn't your -- the people you work for, shouldn't they make the customer happy?

BERMAN: You know, at the end of the day, if you ask people the right question that you've just been asking and you ask it the right way, people will say, "Yes, I'm supportive of that."

If you say to people, "Are you going to change your behavior because of this?" Whatever they say on a survey is meaningless. The question is what do they actually do? Margo said small surveys don't count. The problem is, if that small survey had reversed the results, she would be parroting it and parading it out here, saying it's a great survey.

WOOTAN: It was a small study that lacks statistical power. I've been talking to moms all across the country.

BERMAN: This is Yale University and New York University, and now all of a sudden these people don't know how to do a survey.

WOOTAN: I said the statistical power in those studies was not big enough to pick up the level of effect that...

BERMAN: You're a nutritionist and a dietitian. Right? You're a nutritionist and a dietician. They take smart people from NYU and Yale, and you're saying, well, they don't really know how to do a survey.

WOOTAN: I didn't say that. I said, if you have to look, I am a scientist. I have a -- you know, that's my field of study. You have to look at the totality of the evidence in order to know what the effect is. You can't just -- you're cherry picking one study that agrees with you...


KOHN: There we go. We've learned that...

WOOTAN: ... the evidence.

KOHN: ... tends to pick the studies that they like, but it doesn't actually get to the essential issues here, which we'll come back to in a second, when I ask Rick just how hands off he wants the government to be when it comes to our health? Do we want smoking for 11-year-olds or drunk driving, anyone?


KOHN: Welcome back. Our guests are debating Michelle Obama's new food labels.

I think we can all agree with the first lady on one thing. Our country is overweight, and in part here's why. According to a study, our government has spent $19 billion to subsidize things like junk additives such as high fructose corn syrup. In other words, we pay factory farms to produce the very things that make us fat.

By comparison, we spend just $289 million subsidizing apples, even less on vegetables.

I'm not against subsidies. We're not even going to get into that. But I am against a stupid policy that makes us obese. And you got to wonder why our government spends its resources these ways. Well, here's a hint: the food industry spends $30 million a year lobbying for unhealthy investments just like this. In fact, a lot of those investments are from companies like Coca-Cola, Tyson Foods, Arby's, companies, sir, that you represent.

What's your thought on this?

BERMAN: My thought on all of that?

KOHN: Well, your thought of why is it -- you attacked --

BERMAN: What's the question?

KOHN: You attacked Ms. Wootan for her interests --


KOHN: -- without representing your own interest, which is you are a lobbyist for the food corporations that would be hurt by the kinds of nutrition policies Michelle Obama is promoting.

BERMAN: First of all --

KOHN: So, are you putting those corporate interests ahead of public interests?

BERMAN: No, because you're asking it of me personally, what you need to understand is that I have a very libertarian -- very libertarian perspective on all this. And I do believe that consumers are entitled to make their own choices.

Now, if it turns out that somebody wants to drink a Coke or wants to drink a Pepsi or wants to buy a hamburger at Arby's, it's fine. If they want to eat too much of it, they're going to do themselves harm, and that's their problem as well.

I do believe that if companies are offering products that people want, that it's the capitalistic system, the free market system, the American system and there's nothing wrong with that.

If the food is unhealthy, per se, if it's toxic, per se, we have a different issue. And then, of course, we need to have government agencies to see whether they have healthy food.

KOHN: What about when those costs, though, those companies, some of the companies you represent are purposefully trying to push unhealthier food options on the American public and we end up paying the cost of that in health care costs?

BERMAN: I don't know what you're -- there is nothing unhealthy about a soft drink. There's nothing unhealthy about a hamburger.


BERMAN: If you drink it all day long, or you're going to drink too much of it --

KOHN: I'd like to hear from the nutritionist on this one, sir, not the corporate lobbyist.

BERMAN: But that's a personal responsibility issue as to whether you abuse a product. It's OK to drink alcohol as long as you don't abuse it. It's OK to smoke a cigar as long as you're not smoking them all day long.

KOHN: Margo?

WOOTAN: But Rick wants to make it sound as if the food companies don't have policies themselves. The real nutrition nanny in this country are Coke, Pepsi, McDonald's, the food companies policies and practices have more impact on how much people eat and what people eat than the government by far.

The government at least when they adopt a policy, they put it out for public comment. There's a vote in the Congress. The people have some say. But corporate policies, practices, promotions are pushing people, up-selling huge portions that people didn't eat 50 years ago.

BERMAN: So this is like people are morons and --

WOOTAN: That's not it. It's what's transparent.

BERMAN: Coca-Cola -- Coca-Cola wants to sell them a drink that these morons are going to buy it even though they don't want it?

WOOTAN: How can you make an informed choice without information?

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: Let me ask you a question. The fact is if you're on food stamps, women are significantly more likely to be obese than if they're not on food stamps. If the government wants to reflect on a place to avoid obesity, they would profoundly rethink the food stamp program, because, in fact, there's a clear statistical database there that's big enough, I think even you would agree, that it's something we should be looking at.

This is not a New York -- this is not an NYU or Yale study, it is a fact that women on food stamps are more likely to be obese than if they're not on the food stamps. And the food stamp system has fed into poor neighborhoods having grocery stores and community stores with very few vegetables very little fruit. It's been a very real problem.

WOOTAN: You know, one interesting comparison to food stamps is looking at the WIC program, which is a nutrition program for women and young children. And they've added fruit and vegetable vouchers to the program since 2009. And we've seen a very positive effect on the diets of will and children and we've also seen it affect the neighborhoods because now these smaller stores are carrying fruits and vegetables because people have money to buy them.

KOHN: Because if you want people to have money to buy good food, maybe they should have better wages. Let's talk about that. BERMAN: When you talk about neighborhoods, it reminds me of something. Colorado is the thinnest state in the country. Louisiana --


KOHN: -- marijuana.

BERMAN: They may soon be fatter because of marijuana, right?

WOOTAN: They're the least fat states.

BERMAN: They are the least fat, whatever you want -- semantics. But they are thinner than all the other states. They have the smallest percentage of obese people.

Louisiana is the fattest state. It used to be Mississippi.

Now, the question is, when you're attacking hamburgers, when you're attacking soft drinks, which are sold in fast food restaurants, it's interesting that Colorado has more fast food restaurants per capita than either Louisiana or Mississippi. So, if the people in Colorado are making different choices but not because these companies are putting a fast food restaurant on every corner --

KOHN: Listen, hang on a second. Just to be clear -- I like hamburgers as much as the next gal. I'm not attacking hamburgers.

I am however agreeing with Margo that government should have a role in deciding what is nutritious and safe for people to eat --


KOHN: -- and not just leave it to corporations.

BERMAN: But here's what's happening -- first, you demonize it. First, you demonize it --

KOHN: I didn't demonize it.

BERMAN: That's what the labels are about, because here's where Margo wants to go. Margo wants to go --

WOOTAN: It's value neutral information.

BERMAN: Come on, now, Margo. You guys have supported color coding.

WOOTAN: The nutrition fact label --

BERMAN: OK, red is very bad.

Now, once you get something demonized well enough, then you can start to tax it more. And we've seen this --

KOHN: You're making a whole set of assumptions. BERMAN: I understand where this goes.

KOHN: I do want to know where you would go with this because among other issues and you brought them up yourself, issues like smoking, issues like drinking. If you're saying, and you've said that parents should decide what's good for their children and not government. So, do you for instance think that we should -- you know, we once allowed cigarette advertising with Joe Camel to kids. We stopped doing that. Cigarette smoking declined.

Should we allow kids to buy cigarettes, again?

BERMAN: No. The country made a decision and tobacco is an unusual product. It's an usual -- in fact, it's very unusual that we still allow tobacco to be sold. Tobacco is not hamburgers, it's not soft drinks and it's not pizza and it's not ice cream or cakes or cookies.

So, when you start to conflate the two, you really start to confuse the issue.


KOHN: OK. In one second, let me ask a related one then. You're part of lobbied push to lower the legal blood alcohol level for driving. Do you think people should drive drunk, if they want to? Again, get government out of the way?

BERMAN: I think people should have a glass of wine and drink and drive as well as they are within the legal limit and none other than Candy Lightner, who started Mothers Against Drunk Driving, lobbied with me and said the very same thing that she was against drunk driving but she was not against alcohol and she was not against people drinking responsibly prior to driving.

No less -- no less a person than the founder of MADD.

GINGRICH: So, let me go to another extreme. You're taking on the libertarians.

Let's assume just for a minute, the case to this argument, that the new wave of nutrition information is not dramatically more effective than the old wave. What's the next step for government to do? Should the government, for example, should Obamacare charge more or give you a lower subsidy if you're obese? Should airlines charge more if you weigh a lot more?

You know, I brought this along the Japanese government is now apparently actually measuring people's waistlines. So, should we now have the Obama waistline measurement test? Which I will fail.

But from your perspective, what level of coercion would you tolerate in order to get people to get to what you think is appropriate?

WOOTAN: The kind of policy -- I mean, the policy that was proposed today to provide people with information so they can make their own choices is not labeling a food as bad. It's giving people information so they can make their own choices. And another big thing that I work on is getting junk food out of schools.


We -- stay here and we want you at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. Should government have a role in reducing obesity? Tweet yes or no using #crossfire. We'll have the results after the break.

We also have the "Outrages of the Day". Mine comes from Illinois where your records for Obamacare were under the control of a terrorist.


KOHN: Welcome back.

Now, it's time for our "Outrages of the Day".

I'm outraged that a bill to help America's veterans died in the United States Senate today because Republicans can't even once set aside their own narrow partisanship to do something for the good of America. This bill would have improved veteran access to health care services and expanded educational and job trainings for vets.

We can all agree that's a good thing, right? Well, Republicans who are hell-bent on packing political landmines into the bill literally sacrificed our veterans for their own partisan agenda. That is sad, that is irresponsible and it is outrageous.

GINGRICH: Once again, Harry Reid's dictatorship has failed to deliver for the American people.

KOHN: Oh, yes, let's blame it on Harry Reid.

GINGRICH: I'm outraged on behalf of all of you who want to feel secure in Obamacare's ability to protect your confidential health information.

Let's look to Illinois for a case study. They arrested a woman who has been counseling applicants to Obamacare. She is a terrorist.

According to "National Review", she had taken part in several bombings in Israel, including an attack that killed two students. She served 10 years before Israel freed her as part of a prisoner exchange.

So, she came to the United States, lied on her immigration papers and passed an FBI background check which found she committed no criminal offenses. That should make everyone feel really secure your health records will be just fine under Obamacare.

Let's check on our feedback results. Should government have a role in reducing obesity? Right now, 52 percent of you say yes, 48 percent say no.

What do you all think?

WOOTAN: It's the way it's worded. Government should play a role along with parents and schools and communities and all of us.

KOHN: Rick, quickly.

BERMAN: I look to converting to 52 percent to a more sane position.

KOHN: To a free corporate reign utopia of libertarianism.

Thank you to Margo Wootan and Rick Berman.

The debate continues online at, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Sally Kohn.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich.

Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.