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Book Review: Risking the Public’s Health, Exposing the Hidden Practices of Big Pharma and Big Food

Bill Wiist from Northern Arizona University reviews ‘Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health’ by Martha Rosenberg.

Firstly, because the title of the book is “Born with a Junk Food Deficiency” I feel it is important to clarify what the book is and isn’t about. I was initially unsure about the focus of book until I read the Table of Contents and found that it is divided into two sections: oddly, the first is about the pharmaceutical industry; the second, about components of the agriculture industry. The book is not about junk foods as we usually think of them: sugary sweetened beverages or foods high in sodium or fat. Fast-food restaurants are barely mentioned. The book is not about genetic nutritional deficiencies, or junk food dietary behaviors. However, what the book does do is to present detailed case studies of the practices of the pharmaceutical industry and specific components of the agriculture industry that are harmful to human and animal health. If you are incited to anger or despair at unbridled unethical and immoral human behavior reading this book is likely to incite. If you are sickened in your heart by cruelty to animals, be warned that the descriptions in this book are graphic and disturbing. All of which I think will stimulate discussions about how we allow some corporations to run rampant over our right to safe medications and food, about treatment of animals with whom we share this planet, and about the need for greater, more democratically determined regulation and enforcement.  I hope such discussions will stimulate remediation of the effects of laxity and action to better protect the health of the public and animals from harmful corporate practices.

Image credit: Orin Zebest

The portrait of both industries painted by Rosenberg is of corporations that often operate similarly to the Munchausen syndrome by proxy, deliberately exaggerating, fabricating, and inducing health problems for their own profit. Rosenberg describes cases in which companies created a false disease to sell a product, knowingly promoted and sold harmful, ineffective or untested products, falsified or fabricated research data, fought labeling, inspections and other regulatory efforts to protect consumers, patients, or employees, and marketed those products through health professionals, celebrities, health organizations and front groups without disclosure of the financial ties to industry. Case studies include products ranging from Vioxx, Seroquel, Neurontin, Premarin, Fosamax, Lyrica, to recombinant bovine growth hormone in milk, antibiotic resistance, mad cow disease, and genetically engineered fish. Other case studies focus on deplorable egg production and animal slaughtering operations revealed by undercover investigations by animal welfare organizations such as Mercy For Animals.

Consistent throughout the case studies is the listing of institutions and individuals who facilitate the harmful corporate practices. The book identifies those I’ve termed the “co-dependents” to the industries.  Rosenberg names the names. In example after example she tells how disease-named not-for-profit health organizations, health professional organizations, universities, medical journals, newspapers and magazines, patient “information” websites and front organizations often work at the behest of, collaborate with, or fail to adequately critique the harmful operations of industry. Particularly revealing are those purportedly objective scientists the author names whose labors, and biased testimony, research and reporting are purchased by and carried out on behalf of industry.

Supposedly above it all is what I call the “indulgent parents”: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many of the case studies describe how the agencies failed to investigate, failed to enforce regulations, relied on industry reports, lobbyists, scientist and political friends rather than research evidence, and ignored their own investigator’s reports, or imposed relatively meager penalties.

Image Credit: Images Money

Because of the misleading title and the two disparate sections, it appears that the book was compiled from separately written, stand-alone articles not intended for a single book. The author does not integrate the issues raised in the various chapters into common themes or patterns, does not draw conclusions nor make recommendations. The recitation of one incident after another without such integration left my outrage fatigued and looking for the “and here’s what we can do!” There are other books about the pharmaceutical industry and food industry that address many of the same issues raised by the author, with perhaps a more thorough analysis of the research, and written in a scholarly style more familiar to health professionals. That is not to say that Rosenberg’s case studies are not documented from medical literature and journalistic sources.  Overall, the author has written captivating and moving case studies that deserve to be read by the lay public, health professionals, elected officials, and government employees. And, the book holds up a mirror into which pharmaceutical and agriculture industry officials and employees could benefit from looking.

‘Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health ’ by Martha Rosenberg is published by Prometheus Books (US$24). ISBN: 9781616145934.

Bill Wiist is a Senior Scientist in the Interdisciplinary Health Policy Institute, and Professor of Health Sciences at Northern Arizona University Interdisciplinary Health Policy Institute. The author declares no conflict of interest.

Books reviewed in Speaking of Medicine are independent of the book’s publisher. Reviewers do not receive a fee but are allowed to keep the review copy of the book.

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