Standing Up for Citizen Journalism

Back in July, many of you saw an Associated Press story which reported that “[s]everal food writers, including a New York Times reporter, have been subpoenaed by a meat producer as part of its $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit against ABC in regards to the network’s coverage of a beef product dubbed ‘pink slime’ by critics.”

Because of my successful Change.org petition in 2012, some of you asked whether I, too, had received a subpoena from Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the plaintiff in this lawsuit and the maker of lean, finely textured beef (“LFTB,” aka “pink slime.”)  I didn’t speak about it publicly at the time but, based on a motion filed by BPI in South Dakota state court, I knew a subpoena was likely on its way.  In mid-August, BPI’s process server showed up at my door.

Although I’m not a party to or otherwise involved in BPI’s lawsuit, BPI wants all of my private communications in 2012 with the parties they’ve sued, including employees of ABC News and the two former USDA microbiologists who first expressed concern about the meat filler in private emails, some of which were later made public by the New York Times.

I do have information responsive to this request, but I’m asserting the protection of the First Amendment and Texas’s “shield law” (a statute giving journalists a qualified privilege against disclosure of their material in cases like this) so that my confidential communications, source material and work product remain private

Here’s why I felt it was important to take this stand.

Whether the issue is GMO labelinganimal welfare practices, or the disclosure of questionable ingredients — from the yellow dye in mac-in-cheese to the LFTB hidden in ground beef — consumers clearly care about food transparency.  And precisely because we’re not affiliated with traditional media outlets, food policy bloggers like me have the freedom to focus exclusively on such issues, often devoting considerable time and effort to inform readers about, and advocate for, these causes.  But if bloggers and other “citizen journalists” are going to face lawyers and subpoenas whenever they gather information on potentially controversial topics, they may well think twice before they post.  And that sort of chilling effect ultimately harms us all.

I’ll keep you informed of any developments with respect to the subpoena.  And thanks to my attorney – better known around here as “Mr. TLT” – for taking time out of his own busy work schedule to represent me in this matter.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 9,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join over 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here.  And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Bettina Elias Siegel

Is It Wrong to Market Even *Healthy* Food to Kids?

That’s the contention put forth by public health lawyer Michele Simon (Eat Drink Politics) and Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, in a recent article.

Noting — as I often have on this blog — that cognitive deficits make children especially vulnerable to the persuasive power of advertising, Simon and Linn object to any use of cartoon characters and other standard tactics for marketing to kids, even for objectively healthy foods such as this:

kung fu edamame

Here’s the crux of their position:

Some advocates argue that deceiving children to eat healthy food is good strategy. But such tactics are actually harmful. A primary goal for advocates should be for children to develop a healthy relationship to food. Foisting character-branded products on children undermines that effort. Marketing to children does more than sell products — it inculcates habits and behaviors. Marketing branded produce such as Kung-Fu Panda Edamame to children instills the unhealthy habit of choosing food based on marketing cues such as celebrity, rather than on a child’s own innate hunger, taste, or good nutrition.

Simon and Linn then point to some countries in Europe with bans (to varying degrees) on children’s advertising and assert that “[w]ith enough political will, lawmakers could pass new laws banning marketing to children without running afoul of the First Amendment.”

Putting aside First Amendment issues (which are not, as the authors seem to imply in the article, a matter of settled law),  I do fervently hope that someday our kids can live in a commercial-free world.  But, speaking as a realist, I also think it will be a very long time before the necessary “political will” manifests itself in this country.

Let’s not forget that in 2011 even purely voluntary children’s advertising guidelines — a far cry from an outright ad ban — fell victim to the food industry’s powerful lobby.  Worse, as the Reuters news agency noted in a 2012 special report on food industry lobbying and childhood obesity:

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

Until such a time as we might have a blanket ban on advertising to children, the processed and fast food industries are reaching our kids at an unprecedented rate – to the tune of almost $2 billion in annual expenditures — and not just through traditional channels such as television, print and school sponsorships, but also through new media such as mobile devices, “advergaming,” interactive campaigns and contests, YouTube videos and more.  And, almost invariably, such advertisements promote unhealthy foods.

Faced with this grossly uneven playing field, I’m not especially troubled by putting Dora the Explorer on a bag of carrot sticks if it helps, even in a small way, to rectify that balance.  On her Eat Drink Politics Facebook page, Simon expressed concern that such manipulation overrides children’s innate hunger cues, but as I responded there:

I don’t believe that positive messaging for whole foods is ever going to override hunger cues.  In other words, I don’t believe any amount of “Sponge-Bobbing” of spinach is going to make kids gorge on spinach. I think overeating has to do with the addictive properties of highly processed food, a la Michael Moss’s “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.”

Ideally, though, I’d want to spend less time putting cartoon characters on any products and far more time teaching kids media literacy, arming them with the ability to see through all attempts to manipulate them via advertising and marketing.  That’s because, even in countries with children’s advertising restrictions in place, the food industry — surprise, surprise — still manages to reach children.  As the Guardian newspaper reported just last week, the World Health Organization found that, despite a British ban on the advertising of foods with high salt, fat and sugar content during children’s programs, there has been an overall increase in junk food advertising at other times of the day, such as the “family viewing” period between 6pm and 10.30pm when  shows popular with all age groups, like “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The X Factor,” are aired.

Putting aside the flaws in the British ad ban (which, the WHO report notes, is not as strong as blanket bans in a few other EU countries), it’s self-evident that no amount of legislation could entirely insulate children from food advertising in today’s world, where even the inside of the bathroom stall is now considered fair game for marketers.

For that reason, I recently was motivated to help teach young children about food industry manipulation by creating my own kids’ video about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory.”  Garnering almost 11,000 views in the five weeks since its release, I’m  gratified by the positive response it’s received so far.

One homemade video is just a tiny drop in the bucket, of course, but there are many others like me out there focusing primarily on the “inoculation” side of the children’s advertising equation. Parents and teachers can access entirely free media literacy curricula from sources like PBS’s “Don’t Buy It” program, the UK-based Media Smart website, as well as the exciting programs and curricula created by the Yale Prevention Research Center under the leadership of Dr. David Katz.  (In a future post I’ll be sharing more about the latter, which have already reached hundreds of thousands of children.)

Ad bans and media literacy instruction are not mutually exclusive, of course, and I certainly stand with Simon and Linn in their desire to limit harmful media messages directed at kids.  But until our legislators are able to resist the allure of food industry contributions and influence, I’m perfectly willing to take some pages from Big Food’s playbook if doing so can help push children in the right direction when it comes to healthy eating.

But what do you think about all this?  Is it wrong to use cartoon characters and similar methods to encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Have you taken the Lunch Tray’s reader survey?  It just takes 2-3 minutes to fill out and will help me with a redesign of the site.  Thank you! :-)
Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Bettina Elias Siegel

Ex-BPI Employee Sues Me, Jamie Oliver and ABC News Over LFTB Controversy

Yesterday I learned that Bruce Smith, a former environmental health and safety officer at Beef Products Inc., has filed a pro se lawsuit in Nebraska state court relating to last spring’s controversy over BPI’s lean, finely textured beef product.  I’m one of the named defendants, along with ABC News, Jim Avila, Diane Sawyer and Jamie Oliver.  I have not been served with the suit.

In his complaint, Mr. Smith claims to have suffered the negligent infliction of emotional distress due to the loss of his job at BPI last May.  Mr. Smith has also self-published a book entitled Pink Slime Ate My Job, the sale of which he appears to be promoting in connection with his lawsuit.

For the time being, I’ll have no further comment except to say that I’m confident the First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans, including bloggers like myself, against meritless attempts at censorship like this one.  I will vigorously defend my right, and the rights of all of us, to speak out on matters of public importance and to petition the federal government, as I did through Change.org, to change any policy with which we disagree.

My sincere thanks to all of you who’ve already expressed support and/or extended offers of assistance as I prepare to defend myself against this lawsuit.  I’ll keep you posted regarding further developments as warranted.

Before signing off, a reminder that the stringent comments policy I published last spring remains in effect.  Anyone who feels the need to include personal attacks, profanity or anti-semitic sentiments in their responses to this or any other post will not see their comment appear in this forum.  Moreover, all future comments from any sender violating this policy will go directly to my spam filter and I will not see them for moderation.

[Ed. Update: As of 12/19/12, this blog’s comments policy has been updated to indicate that I will summarily block any “commenters using aliases and multiple email addresses to appear to be more than one reader. I will use my reasonable judgment, based on IP addresses and other information, to determine if a commenter is engaging in this practice.”]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 5,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Bettina Elias Siegel

Breaking: BPI Sues ABC News For $1.2 Billion Over “Pink Slime” Coverage

Beef Products Inc., maker of lean, finely textured beef (aka LFTB and commonly referred to as “pink slime”) has announced this morning that it is filing a state court defamation lawsuit against ABC News arising out of the network’s coverage of the product this past spring.   The suit seeks $1.2 billion dollars in actual and punitive damages.

At a press conference which is still underway as of this writing, BPI’s lead attorney alleges that ABC News made roughly two hundred false and misleading statements about the product and that the network “improperly interfered” with the relationships between BPI and its customers.

ABC’s response was short and to the point:

Statement from Jeffrey W. Schneider, Senior Vice President, ABC News:

“The lawsuit is without merit. We will contest it vigorously.”

Here’s the take of leading food safety lawyer Bill Marler:

I just do not get the liability. I just do not see it.

On damages – IMHO, most have been self-inflicted by BPI. I was in the BPI plant in 2009 and talked to them about the coming NYT story and they should be transparent.

Legal commentator Popehat looks forward to the lawsuit and its First Amendment implications.

I’ll share updates regarding the litigation as warranted.

Because news of this lawsuit is likely to stir the passions of LFTB supporters, before I sign off I’d like to remind everyone of my stringent comments policy.  Sadly, this reminder is necessary in light of the profane and sometimes overtly antisemitic comments which LFTB supporters have regularly attempted to post on this blog over the last several months.  Please be aware that all such comments will be automatically deleted at my discretion and the commenter’s IP address will be placed permanently in my spam folder.  Thank you.

[Ed. Update 9/13/12 11:15 CST:  Here is the actual complaint.  In addition to ABC News, other named defendants include the two USDA microbiologists and the former BPI employee who appeared on ABC’s reports regarding LFTB.]

 

 

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 4,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Bettina Elias Siegel

Does the First Amendment Bar Regulation of Kids’ Junk Food Advertising?

Just before the “slime wave” hit, I was in the middle of a draft TLT post analyzing a scholarly article proposing that tighter restrictions on the advertising of junk food to kids are not barred by the First Amendment, a key defense offered by the food industry against such restrictions.

As a former lawyer — even, at one time, a food advertising lawyer for a huge conglomerate  — and as someone who has written extensively on industry regulation in this area (see, “Fox Guards Henhouse:  Industry’s ‘Self-Regulation’ of Children’s Food Advertising” and all the related posts linked thereto), this is something I wanted to think and write about in depth.

Well, it looks like I’ve been scooped today by Mark Bittman who has his own “Opinionator” piece in the New York Times on this question.  It’s definitely worth a read.

Bittman seems to accept the premise of the scholarly piece that the First Amendment poses no bar to greater regulation.  If after I finish my own analysis I have nothing more to add, I’ll just give you a quick “What he said.”  If not, I’ll share my own post with you as planned.

On a personal note, I was taken aback to see that my much beloved, former-Harvard Law School constitutional law professor Kathleen Sullivan (the kind of prof who kept you enraptured for an entire class) was hired to represent the food industry’s views on the issue.  But I suppose I can’t take Professor Sullivan to task until I’ve had a chance to evaluate her arguments.

Stay tuned.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 2,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Bettina Elias Siegel