Is Soda The New Tobacco?

A stalled farm bill. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "soda ban." The USDA's mistaken support of "Meatless Monday." What a dramatic week in the world of food politics.

Read more about the health debates, political posturing and corporate antics below.

Excerpts from the "soda ban" hearings:

At Wednesday's soda ban hearings in New York City, amidst accusations that the soda industry is comparable to big tobacco, lighter comments came from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who claimed that bagels, cheesecake and red velvet cake were behind his girth, not soda. The other speakers were decidedly less jovial. The hearings, which lasted for over two hours, provided a chance for medical professionals, soft-drink officials (see also: Honest Tea Might Have A Bloomberg Problem) and politicians to make the case for or against the sale of sugary drinks over 16 oz in restaurants, movie theaters, delis and chains. And as is usually the case with Mayor Bloomberg's health initiatives, the debate was heated.

A few choice comments from both sides:

  • "If you hold up the playbook and script from the tobacco companies and hold up the playbook and script for the beverage industry, they look remarkably similar." — Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center
  • "There's no comparison. Cigarettes can kill you. ... Soft drinks are a treat to be enjoyed in moderation – they can play a role in a healthy, balanced and active lifestyle." — American Beverage Association spokesman Chris Gindlesperger
  • "Soda in large amounts is metabolically toxic. It's obvious that this is the right thing to do." — Walter Willett, a professor at Harvard School of Public Health
  • "What is the government going to tell me next? What time to go to bed? How big my steaks should be?" — New York City Councilman Daniel Halloran

The city's Board of Health (appointed by Bloomberg) will vote on the proposal on September 13th. If they approve it, New Yorkers will have six more months to drink a tub full of soda at the movie theater before it's outlawed.

USDA endorses Meatless Monday

Fury over the soda ban hearing aside, the USDA created its own controversy by accidentally endorsing Meatless Monday. The campaign, which encourages consumers to take one day off a week from eating meat, was mentioned in an internal USDA newsletter on Monday as one of several iniatives that could reduce the staff's environmental impact.

Unsurprisingly, the Department of Agriculture's endorsement of a program that tells Americans to eat less meat did not sit well with the beef industry. J.D. Alexander, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, wasted no time in releasing an outraged response, saying, "When it comes to health, beef has an amazing story to tell. Beef is a naturally nutrient-rich food, helping you get more nutrition from the calories you take in."

Alexander wasn't alone. Congressman Steve King (R-IA) took to twitter, writing: "USDA HQ meatless Mondays!! At the Dept. of Agriculture? Heresy! I'm not grazing there. I will have the double rib-eye Mondays instead" @SteveKingIA.

The USDA scrambled to release its own statement that denounced its endorsement of Meatless Monday, claiming that the newsletter did not receive proper clearance. The USDA followed this up with several tweets, emphasizing again that it did not support Meatless Monday. Read the incendiary newsletter for yourself here.