How food became a weapon in America’s culture war

First came the politics of right-wing grievance. Then came the new foodie culture. Together, they combined to create one toxic food fight.

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The Nation

Illustration by Tim Robinson

On August 7, National Review published an article lambasting the US Department of Agriculture’s decision, announced in May, to broaden the prohibition of discrimination in federally funded nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The writer’s argument centered on a Christian school in Tampa, Fla., that, he wrote, was being “forced by the government to choose between adherence to the laws of man and those of God.”

There is disagreement over what the broader prohibition actually means, with the department insisting it is aimed only at ensuring that LGBTQ+ students and others are not denied access to these nutrition programs, either explicitly or through intimidation. But many conservatives say the change opens up schools and other institutions to lawsuits for not having gender-neutral bathrooms or for using pronouns that correspond to biological sex.   

There is much here to unpack, but that’s for another day. The relevant story, for our purposes, is in the op-ed’s headline: “A New Low in the Radical Left’s Culture War: The Weaponization of Food.”

The “weaponization of food” is nothing new, of course. For as long as there has been human conflict, food has been used as a weapon. The Romans starved Carthage. The Germans starved Leningrad during World War II. The CIA force-fed hunger-striking prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. And just this year, Russia bombed the Ukrainian port of Odessa to disrupt grain exports.

National Review, though, was getting at something different: food as a front in the nation’s ongoing culture war, a proxy for larger issues of character, morality, and patriotism.

The magazine’s finger-pointing at “the radical left” notwithstanding, it was the right that pioneered the use of food to smear its opponents—in this case, to frame liberals and progressives as “elite” pushers of the nanny state. The strategy took hold in the 1990s and evolved over the ensuing decades, as what we eat and how it’s produced became a national debate, and as culture clashes—over affirmative action, gay marriage, school curricula, abortion, and so on—seeped into every corner of our lives. 

Patrick Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, in Houston, is often cited as an opening salvo in the new culture wars. AP Photo/Ron Edmonds.

As the final decade of the 20th century dawned, the nation’s politics were changing. There was a growing clamor on the right, led by Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich and firebrand pundit Patrick Buchanan, to abandon what they described as the “morning in America” pragmatism of the Reagan era and exploit the cultural divides that had opened up a generation earlier around the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the environmental movement.

Buchanan summed up the sentiment in 1988: “The Republican moment slipped by…when the GOP refused to take up the challenge from the left on its chosen battleground: the politics of class, culture, religion and race.” Buchanan’s GOP convention speech in 1992, in which he invoked a fight for the “soul of America,” is often cited as the opening salvo in the modern culture war. 

While the right was reorienting around a politics of grievance, America’s relationship to what it ate was also undergoing a seismic shift. The 1980s had birthed the “celebrity chef” with the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman, and Alice Waters. “California cuisine,” a vegetable-centered approach that blew up at Chez Panisse, Waters’s Berkeley-based temple of seasonal eating, provided an earthy (and earnest) counterpoint to the fusty steakhouses and French restaurants that had long dominated the high-end dining scene. As Ronald Reagan enshrined trickle-down economics, kneecapped the federal regulatory regime, and unleashed Wall Street’s rapacious id, those who thrived in this greed-is-good era feasted on smoked salmon pizza at Spago in Los Angeles and truffled chicken breast at Jams in Manhattan.

Over the next 10 years, this highbrow “foodie” culture spread beyond the scene-makers to become something resembling a national obsession. Whereas the main concerns at mealtime had traditionally been quantity, cost, and convenience, food was now—as David Kamp described in his book The United States of Arugula—“a fundamental facet of our cultural life, a part of the conversation, something contemplated as well as eaten.” 

Food, in other words, became cool.

Signs of this shift were all around. The Food Network launched in 1993, driving an aspirational entertainment industry that turned cooking into a spectator sport. That same year, Chipotle was born, marking the rise of the fast-casual restaurant. Farmers markets cropped up around the country. Fusion cuisine, from fajitas to Chinese chicken salad, was everywhere. The food blogger crawled from the digital swamp, and people gathered on message boards to trade tips on where to find the best barbecue or tacos in town.  The US Chamber of Commerce declared 1999 the “year of the restaurant.”

To the right’s new Kulturkrieger, eager to recast themselves as populist champions of “real America,” all this gustatory fuss proved irresistible. Painting coastal liberals as out-of-touch elites rhapsodizing over French cheese and expensive wine was a natural extension of the “limousine liberal” line of attack used by earlier generations of culture warriors. In 1988, Rush Limbaugh launched his decades-long rant against brie-eating liberals as he took talk radio to the dark side and made it a force in conservative politics. That same year, foreshadowing what was to come, Dan Quayle, the Republican candidate for vice president, swiped at the Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis, for suggesting to Iowa farmers that Belgian endive was a viable alternative to corn and soybeans. “His idea of farm production is growing flowers in Harvard Yard,” Quayle said of the Massachusetts governor.

It would have been easy to dismiss this new food fight as little more than a fashionable twist on routine political posturing. But as the conversation around food got bigger in the ’90s, the stakes also got higher. Mounting evidence that the American way of eating was causing serious health problems spurred talk of reform. Obesity, which had risen sharply over the previous decade, was deemed a national crisis. Rather than engage with reformers, however, the right simply broadened its culture war around food, politicizing the debate in ways that had significant consequences, not only for public health but, eventually, for the nation’s response to climate change. Indeed, the weaponization of food would escalate beyond partisan name-calling, becoming a matter of life and death.

Obesity v. the Twinkie Tax

By the time Bill Clinton was elected president, in 1992, obesity was just emerging as a prominent public-health concern. Between 1980 and 1990, the percent of American adults who were obese jumped from 15 percent to 23 percent, and a series of reports had raised the alarm about the nation’s growing weight problem.

Before long, medical authorities began using terms like “national crisis” and “epidemic” to characterize the problem. Rates of diabetes and other diet-related health issues also were rising, and the soaring cost of treating them became part of the argument for action. Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general, launched “Shape Up America!” a national campaign to get people to exercise and eat a healthier diet. “Smoking kills 500,000 people a year; obesity-related conditions kill 300,000,” Koop said at the time. 

Clinton himself played a role in the heightened attention to obesity. During the 1992 campaign, his weakness for fast and otherwise unhealthy food—and his corresponding struggle with his weight—was widely discussed and lampooned in the media, including in an iconic skit on Saturday Night Live. Clinton’s nickname was Bubba, and it was suggested that his love of chicken enchiladas (made with something called Smooth Melt Cheese), jalapeno cheeseburgers, barbecue, pie, and the like was integral to his regular-guy appeal with voters—kitchen-table issues, you might say.    

When he came to Washington, though, Clinton quickly ran afoul of the critics of the American way of eating. Before the president-elect even settled in the White House, a group of prominent chefs—led by Alice Waters—sent a letter urging him to eat a more healthful diet and set a better example for the nation. “Just seeing what Clinton eats is pretty distressing,” Waters told The Washington Post. “McDonald’s and Cokes. It’s a terrible image.”

President Bill Clinton’s fondness for fast food, and his struggle with his weight, helped make the nation’s obesity problem front-page news in the 1990s. Photo by Joyce Naltchayan/AFP via Getty Images.

The retort to this tsk-tsking came quickly. A Boston Globe columnist told the “culinary busybodies” to “get out of [Clinton’s] kitchen.” 

US presidents are, of course, routinely picked at by all manner of interest groups. It comes with the job. But in this instance, the nit being picked had staying power, and the stage was set for a more consequential fight over fat. 

In December of 1994, Kelly Brownell, then the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, published a short op-ed in The New York Times in which he called for a tax on “foods with little nutritional value,” as part of a strategy for addressing the nation’s obesity problem. The focus on “personal responsibility” and “willpower” was misguided and punitive, he wrote, shaping a “view that the body can be molded at will and that an imperfect body reflects a flawed personality.” Instead, Brownell argued, we should treat obesity as a product of the physical and economic environments in which we live. Just as we taxed alcohol and cigarettes, a tax on fatty and sugary foods would, he claimed, reduce their consumption and “the revenue could be used for public exercise facilities—bike paths and running tracks—or nutrition education in schools.”

The right’s culture warriors pounced, dubbing Brownell’s proposal the “Twinkie tax” and Brownell himself a member of the “high-fat Gestapo.” Needless to say, Congress never embraced Brownell’s proposal, and the debate over taxing unhealthy food continues today. When Donna Shalala, Clinton’s Health and Human Services Secretary, was asked if she supported a “Twinkie tax” on junk food, she quipped: “Not with this president.” A decade later, Clinton had quadruple bypass surgery, and today he’s a vegan. Make of that what you will. 

What could have been a moment of reckoning for a complex problem that cuts across political and socioeconomic lines, instead became mired in the rapidly expanding culture war. 

It’s no coincidence that The Center for Consumer Freedom (known at the time as Guest Choice Network) rose up in 1995, backed by money from the tobacco and restaurant industries, and began inveighing against the “growing cabal of activists … meddl[ing] in Americans’ lives.” Its targets included the “self-anointed ‘food police,’ health campaigners … animal-rights misanthropes, and meddling bureaucrats” who “all claim to know what’s best for you.” 

Big government had been effectively demonized during the Reagan years (with Clinton carrying the torch into the new century). This response by The Center for Consumer Freedom to a 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed urging the government to spend more money to fight obesity illustrates how the Center leveraged the specter of the dreaded nanny state to defend the interests of the food industry: “We know too well what happens when government gets an open invitation to go into its ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’ role—more regulations. Can you imagine government regulation of menu selections or mandatory calorie contents by each menu item? This may sound unlikely, but the industry must pay attention when the Wall Street Journal devotes a half-page editorial to the public’s eating habits.”

In the US, beef, and the culture that surrounds it, is iconic, the embodiment of how Americans like to see themselves: free, independent, strong.

Each year, it seemed, the rhetoric escalated. In 2000, when the latest installment of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal government’s main source of nutrition advice, came out, Clinton spoke on the need to improve the nation’s diet. “We’re eating more fast food because of our hectic schedules, and we’re less physically active because of our growing reliance on modern conveniences, from cars to computers to remote controls.” In response, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed that likened the president’s message to fascism. “[I]f Bill Clinton really wants ideas for a healthy eating crusade, he must surely look to the only political regime that thoroughly made them part of national policy: Nazi Germany.”

Meanwhile, Americans kept getting heavier. In a 1999 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said obesity “spread rapidly during the 1990s across all states, regions, and demographic groups in the United States.” 

Can you libel a cow? 

In terms of symbolic value, few foods can rival meat. Throughout history and around the world, the consumption of meat has been tied to virility and prosperity, even to our very human-ness. In the US, beef, and the culture that surrounds it, is iconic, the embodiment of how Americans like to see themselves: free, independent, strong. It has always been central to this country’s aspirational culture—getting ahead meant meat on the table—and we built a food system that ensured it remained abundant and cheap. Today, we consume more of it than any other country. 

It’s no surprise, then, that meat would figure prominently in the nation’s ongoing culture war over its diet. As the food fights unspooled in the ’90s, meat had yet to move to the center of the ring. Nevertheless, the decade still managed to provide a glimpse of what it would look like when it eventually did.     

It may be hard to recall, more than a decade after her eponymous talk show ended its 25-year run, just what a phenomenon Oprah Winfrey was in the 1990s. She was the biggest of stars, wealthy and beloved. On an average weekday, some 13 million people tuned in to watch her discuss everything from her own struggles with weight to formerly taboo subjects such as rape and incest. The Oprah Effect, as her influence was called, shaped everything from the business of television to book publishing to charitable giving. Her cultural power was unrivaled—and unbeatable. In 1997, some Texas cattle barons found this out the hard way.

They had sued Oprah over a comment she made on her show the year before, during a segment about “mad cow disease”—or bovine spongiform encephalopathy—a brain disorder in cattle that can spread to humans via infected meat and tissue. It is rare, incurable, and fatal. At the time, the British government had recently acknowledged that people were dying from mad cow disease, after years of downplaying the risk, and even though no human cases had been recorded in the US, concern was growing, along with media coverage of the issue.

Oprah Winfrey celebrates outside the courthouse in Amarillo, Texas, after a jury ruled in her favor. Winfrey had been sued by Texas cattlemen for allegedly defaming the beef industry in one of her shows. AP Photo/LM Otero.

Among Winfrey’s guests that day was Howard Lyman, director of the Humane Society’s Eating with a Conscience Campaign. Lyman, a former cattle rancher turned vegetarian, insisted the risk of mad cow infecting the US beef supply was high, due to the widespread practice of adding rendered animal parts—ground-up tissues and bones of cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals—into cattle feed as a cheap source of protein. Visibly alarmed, Winfrey said to her audience, “Now, doesn’t that concern you all a little bit right there, hearing that? It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger. I’m stopped.”

The cattlemen sued under Texas’s False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products law, one of more than a dozen such laws—known as “food-libel” or “veggie-libel” laws—adopted in the early ’90s to protect the food industry against consumer advocates and other critics. The legislation was spurred by a 60 Minutes report, in 1989, that said exposure to alar, a chemical used to regulate the growth of apples, posed a long-term cancer risk, especially in children. Later that year, the Environmental Protection Agency banned alar, citing its “unacceptable risks to public health.” 

Panic ensued. Supermarkets pulled apples from their shelves; schools in New York City and Los Angeles—the nation’s two largest districts— removed apples and apple products from cafeterias; and apple growers lost a lot of money. In 1991, a group of growers in Washington State sued for defamation, but the case was dismissed because the growers were unable to show that the 60 Minutes report was false. The veggie-libel laws came quickly on the heels of the alar case, designed to make it easier for food producers to sue for defamation.    

Under the Texas version, it is illegal to knowingly make false claims about a perishable food product’s safety for human consumption. The cattle barons claimed they lost more than $10 million in business as a result of Winfrey’s comment.   

The trial, a spectacle from start to finish, took place in the panhandle city of Amarillo, in the heart of Texas beef country. Texas Monthly described the case as an “uproarious Texas range war,” pitting “a group of rich Texas cattle barons, the classic symbols of old frontier Texas, against an even richer black Chicago talk-show hostess, a classic symbol of modern-day American success.” It drew “an array of down-home West Texans and East Coast-educated lawyers, solemn New York Times reporters and bubbly Entertainment Tonight correspondents, bombastic vegetarian protesters, courthouse demonstrators wearing cow costumes, and even a marching kazoo band that stood outside the courthouse one bone-chilling winter day to play the Andy Griffith Show theme song, allegedly Winfrey’s favorite tune.” 

If the plaintiffs were expecting a home-court advantage, they were mistaken. Oprah moved her weekly show from Chicago to Amarillo for the six-week duration of the trial, and the city swooned. Per Texas Monthly, “phone lines across the Panhandle temporarily shut down one afternoon after an 800-number advertising tickets to tapings of Oprah in Amarillo flashed across television screens. A spokesman for the show said 215,000 calls came in within thirty minutes.” One prominent local trial attorney grumbled, “I don’t know if our local cowboys are going to come out on top of this damn deal. We’ve already got wives of respectable ranchers sneaking around town, trying to get tickets to Oprah’s show.” 

The cowboys did not come out on top. Oprah and Lyman were acquitted, in part because the judge ruled that cows were insufficiently perishable to be covered by the Texas law. But for the meat industry, the case was not a total loss. In fact, it may have done exactly what the leaders of that industry wanted: intimidate. There was considerable discussion in the trial’s wake of the chilling effect the new defamation laws could have, given that most consumer-advocacy organizations, to say nothing of private citizens, don’t have Winfrey’s financial resources. 

And those laws remain in force today. In 2017, Disney, the parent company of ABC News, reportedly paid at least $177 million to settle a lawsuit by Beef Products, Inc., brought under South Dakota’s food-defamation law. At issue, you may recall, was a news report that questioned the safety and nutritional quality of “pink slime,” a low-cost filler used in mass-market ground beef that was officially known as “lean finely textured beef.” 

The existential food fight

In recent years, the meat-driven culture war has reached new levels of absurdity, with right-wing internet memes about “soy boys,” meant to denigrate men who choose a plant-based diet as insufficiently masculine, and claims that liberals want to ban meat. When Texas Senator Ted Cruz was running for president, in 2015, a campaign ad showed him cooking a strip of bacon on the muzzle of an assault rifle. Earlier this year, the southern home-cooking chain, Cracker Barrel, was accused of going “woke” by outraged customers when it announced the addition of plant-based sausage to its menu.     

This nonsense is driven in part by the degraded discourse of the Trump era, but more so by the increasingly embattled state of the meat industry. A growing chorus of critics—including animal-welfare and environmental activists and health-conscious consumers—have begun filing lawsuits and posting damning videos that indict industrial meat production for everything from chickens reared in tiny cages to water and air pollution caused by the tons of waste that giant feedlots generate.

Climate change, though, is where the game is really changing for meat. The food sector, top to bottom, generates nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. And the meat industry alone, by some estimates, accounts for nearly 60 percent of all greenhouse gasses produced by the food system. We cannot address climate change without changing how we produce our food, and that will likely involve reducing the amount of meat we eat. 

The narrative around meat in America was shifting.

The issue of climate change began to emerge in the national consciousness in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the role of agriculture in climate change, including animal agriculture, was not a significant part of the public conversation back then. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the 2006 book that galvanized the food movement in America, author Michael Pollan mentions climate change only in passing, noting that, “We seldom focus on farming’s role in global warming, but as much as third of all the greenhouse gasses that human activity has added to the atmosphere can be attributed to the saw and the plow.” 

Over the last decade, though, as the effects of climate change became increasingly observable across the country, from extreme drought and heat to heavy rain and floods, it was no longer possible to ignore agriculture’s role. The wild weather hit farmers hard, forcing the conversation about climate change into areas of the country that have been most resistant to accepting its reality. 

At the same time, new reports, from the UN and other international authorities, drove media coverage of the myriad environmental problems with industrial meat. Cow burps, which release a significant amount of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, became a hook for endless news stories. Plant-based burgers and nut-milks began snatching market share, with proponents crowing (prematurely, as it turns out) about putting an end to the meat industry.  

The narrative around meat in America was shifting.  

The industry and its allies responded, adopting tactics used for years by the fossil fuel companies to fight the climate-change narrative: dispute the science, tar critics as radicals, and trumpet the essentialness of the product—meat feeds the world. Big Meat has even added an audacious new twist, declaring meat part of the climate solution. Meanwhile, state legislatures, from Wyoming to Mississippi, began making it illegal for the plant-based alternatives to use words like “beef” and “sausage” on their packaging. The Center for Consumer Freedom, still on the case, took out full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post attacking plant-based meat for its reliance on additives. In response to a UN report on climate change that urged a reduction in meat consumption, a Fox News host told viewers, “I don’t care because I want my meat and I believe that it was placed on here for us to eat.” 

The full force of this counteroffensive was on display in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats introduced The Green New Deal, a legislative blueprint for dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Among its various proposals, the resolution said the government should work “collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.” 

The Green New Deal said nothing about meat consumption or vegetarianism or the problems with cattle ranching. Nevertheless, as the right ginned up its culture-war attack, dismissing the resolution as a “socialist manifesto,” there was a tell-tale focus on meat. 

At a press conference outside the Capitol, Utah Rep. Rob Bishop took a page out of Rush Limbaugh’s playbook, deriding the resolution as the product of “eastern urbanites without a clue what it’s like to live in the wide-open spaces of the West.” Then he did Rush one better, unwrapping a hamburger and taking a bite, claiming such an act would be “outlawed” if the ideas in the Green New Deal became law. President Trump weighed in, of course, saying there would be “no more cows” if this agenda were adopted. And on it went. 

Two years later, in 2021, the culture-war crazy resumed when President Biden announced a plan to cut US greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. As with the Green New Deal, Biden said nothing about meat consumption. But the right began spewing a preposterous stream of falsehoods. Fox News wailed that Biden’s plan would cut 90 percent of red meat from the nation’s diet, limiting people to one burger a month. Larry Kudlow, a former Trump adviser, said Americans would have to “throw back a plant-based beer with your grilled Brussels sprouts” on July 4.     

Today in America, food arguably divides people more than it unites them, thanks in part to decades of manufactured controversy, done for political gain and corporate profit. The consequences are staggering: 42 percent of adults and nearly 20 percent of children are obese, at an estimated cost of $170 billion a year in healthcare spending. Thirty-seven million people have diabetes. One person dies every 34 seconds of cardiovascular disease.
As awful as that is, however, it may not ultimately matter much. The USDA has projected that Americans will  eat a whopping 224 pounds of red meat and poultry, per capita, this year; and—in yet another sign that the culture-war rhetoric is having its intended effect—research has shown a growing gap in demand for beef  between conservatives and liberals. Still today in farm country, “climate change” is a political term, one that is mostly avoided. Instead of acting, we continue to argue about whether we have to change our relationship to food to avoid the mayhem of climate change—even as the mayhem is already underway.

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