The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It
In yesterday’s post, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) talked with Robyn O’Brien to find out what motivated her to start AllergyKids, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting children with food allergies. In Part 2 of this two-part interview, O’Brien tells us more about her book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, which was released by Random House yesterday. — Publisher
BPGL: After bumping up against so many obstacles as you looked for answers, it must have been quite a change to have support from the team at Random House. How do you feel about the experience of getting your message out by publishing a book?
O’BRIEN: Having been so isolated in the story and so dismissed initially — and slandered — to be now in a position where I have this remarkable team at Random House pushing it out — it’s incredibly humbling. It took me a long time to trust that other people were going to advance my message, because it had been so tough early on. And it took a while to trust that Random House was really my team, given how isolating the journey had been. I kept doing things myself, and they had to tell me, “You need to leave this to us.” I really had a hard time with that because I hadn’t been able to trust too many people up until that point.
Now, it’s amazing, because the team has done a remarkable job with the book. The head of publicity said, “You can’t not feel absolutely compelled to do something, once you read that book.” It’s so inspiring to see how people can be inspired by my story and by the information.
I’ve been asked in interviews, “Are you angry? Are you mad?” I say, “The last thing the world needs is another angry mom. We don’t have time to be angry.” Our kids are sick. We all are. And under our commercialized health care system, in which sickness sells, there is profitability in this illness, so there is very little incentive to keep chemicals out of our food supply. So ten years ago, while government agencies in other countries were protecting the health of their citizens, the financial health of these corporations were the priority here in the US. We’ve got to fix this as fast as we can, which means, we just have to get to work. There’s no time to be mad.
BPGL: One of the chemicals you highlight in your book is recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH. There’s been a lot of press about the detrimental effects of injecting rBGH in lactating cows, both in the adverse affects on cows and on people who drink milk — particularly children. Some people have called the use of rBGH a crime. What’s your stance on the issue?
O’BRIEN: Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) was introduced in 1994. It was the first genetically engineered protein and is a synthetic hormone that enhances the lactating profitability of dairy cows. It was hugely controversial. Some definitely consider it criminal what has happened. I’ve been interviewed by Robert F. Kennedy who wrote a book called Crimes Against Nature. I really, honestly would love to co-author one with him called Crimes Against Our Children. It’s criminal. And it’s not just against children. rBGH has been banned by governments around the world because this synthetic hormone elevates a hormone in the bloodstream called Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). An elevated level of IGF-1 in the blood is linked to prostate, breast, and colon cancer. According to the Breast Cancer Fund, only 1 out of 10 breast cancers are genetic, which means 9 out of 10 of them are environmentally triggered. Shouldn’t we be doing our part to control these environmental triggers the way governments around the world have been doing?
BPGL: Can you file a civil suit?
O’BRIEN: I’ve been approached by law firms as, to many, this story is reminiscent of the tobacco industry. I am not an attorney, so it is not my place to define whether this is a civil suit or a class-action suit. And my concern is that in 2005, under the Bush administration, there was a bill passed — it’s known as the Cheeseburger Bill — that basically says, should any of the chemicals in our food supply be proven to cause harm, the corporations responsible for having them in the food supply are not liable.
BPGL: Can we get that bill overturned by President Obama’s administration?
O’BRIEN: It will be interesting to see, especially because his kids have allergies and asthma. I am very hopeful. I have recently written an article, “Heavy Metal in Our Daily Bread,” about the contamination of high-fructose corn syrup with mercury. Perhaps Michelle can give President Obama one of those discerning looks of hers, with Sasha and Malia at hand!
BPGL: We have not learned what his wife is going to be spending her time on. The contamination of our food supply could be her issue.
O’BRIEN: I would love for Michelle to embrace the role that clean food plays in our health care for children, because it very much ties into health care costs. Sick food, sick people and our sick health care system are interrelated. The chemical contamination of the American food supply places a tremendous economic burden on our health care system. You have to start implementing preventative measures, and one of those measures is to remove the chemicals from the food supply the way that governments around the world have already done.
BPGL: When you wrote this book, you talked to a number of doctors who backed up your claims. Who did you work with?
O’BRIEN: I worked with amazing scientists and researchers from Harvard and beyond. One of my heroes is Dr. Kenneth Bock, who wrote the foreword for The Unhealthy Truth and is a published Random House author of Healing the New Childhood Epidemics. He appeared on Good Morning America with me. He looks at the environmental toxicity of our children, which I highlight in my book. Again, my point in the book is, can we conclusively say that, singlehandedly, genetically engineered proteins are responsible for the allergy epidemics? No. But there’s enough of a concern that led governments around the world to remove these chemicals from the food supply because of the novel proteins and allergens that they contain.
I read a lot of FDA hearings from 2004 in which scientists were trying to alert us of the dangers in the food supply. But sadly, their concerns were dismissed and replaced with industry-funded research. I think what’s fortunate for all of us is that we have just had a changing of the guard. There have been so many reports out of the FDA saying, “We’re trying to protect the food supply,” and they haven’t been able to.
BPGL: Why do you think doctors don’t have the power to persuade the food industry from using harmful chemicals to produce food?
O’BRIEN: It’s simply a money thing. That’s why it has been a grassroots movement, and that’s why it’s so remarkable to have a team like Random House working to inspire and inform our nation of 300 million eaters. The influence of the food industry — from lobbying efforts to a man profiled on 60 Minutes called “Dr. Evil” — and the financial muscle of these industries is amazing. We’re not just talking corporations, we’re talking the soybean industry. It’s absolutely all about money. No one has the money to compete with these industries.
BPGL: Are any legislators supporting your cause?
O’BRIEN: Yes. We have some amazing leaders. I actually have a friend in DC who has just offered to hold a Senate hearing on it. Locally, Senator Mark Udall has been a champion for our health in Colorado. And Senator Whitehouse has been amazing in his efforts to inform and inspire. Senator Boxer in California has been a tireless advocate for environmental issues. And Senator Dodd has young children with food allergies. There are a lot of people who are doing their part to improve our food system. One of the things I’m working on for the website is to write these letters that people can just sign and send off to their Congressional leaders.
BPGL: Have you ever been contacted by Monsanto?
O’BRIEN: I have been contacted by someone from one of their law firms. It was pretty funny. She called, and she was asking these questions. I thought, this is really interesting, given that this firm is associated with Monsanto. She was saying that she had a child with food allergies. So I started asking her questions that only a mom with a child who had food allergies would know the answers to, and she couldn’t answer them. I thought, I don’t have it in me to follow up with this person at this point in time, and left it at that.
I write for a lot of blogs, and it’s been entertaining to see some of the comments that I get. I tend to follow the advice of President Obama, who says the only things he reads are the criticisms. And boy do I get them! I can just get ripped by some bloggers who are commenting on my stuff. It’s obvious they’ve got this vested interest that they’re protecting. So one of the things I highlight in the book is how these tactics have been used against people like me: shoot the messenger tactic, destroy the credibility of the person talking. It will be really interesting when we launch, which is why, in the write up, Random House says “one brave woman.” It really is for the sake of our children.
BPGL: Are you afraid for yourself and your family?
O’BRIEN: My husband and I dealt with the decision we had to confront: How will they intimidate us? They’re going to try to do who-knows-what. Other messengers have had their credit scores messed with. They’ve had all kinds of strange things happen. In November of 2006, when Jeff and I decided to pursue this, we did it with our eyes open, knowing that there might be some hard tactics, which is also why I highlight in the book how these tactics have been used on other people .
“Berman Exposed,” the profile by CBS 60 Minutes, calls Richard Berman “Dr. Evil.” It’s unbelievable what that man does. He’s a lobbying guy from the food industry. I think what’s interesting is that it’s gotten so bad and so corrupt, and the children are so sick, and Alzheimer’s is so prevalent, and cancer is so prevalent, that these former FDA scientists can’t live with themselves.
Every time I’m in the press, whether it’s Good Morning America or something else, I always get a handful of whistle blowers [contacting me] — though I prefer to think of all of us as “truth tellers.” Part of my job is to try to listen to all of these voices, to discern who’s credible, who’s really got some meat on their stuff. And in launching the book, one of the pages I’m setting up on my site at www.robynobrien.com will be a “Truth Teller” page, because there are going to be so many people who have remarkable insight to share — from the corporations to the government agencies.
BPGL: So, you are inviting people to start writing to you?
O’BRIEN: Yes, on the Contact page at www.robynobrien.com. Together, we have a powerful story to share. We are our own best resource.
BPGL: Have you considered making a movie about this?
O’BRIEN: People ask that a lot. My husband and I just laugh. I suppose that The New York Times article referring to me as “Food’s Erin Brockovich” launched that idea, as people seem to get their heads around it easily.
BPGL: Knowing your analytic mind and the love you have for your family, I’m wondering if you’ve taken some security measures?
O’BRIEN: You are not the first to mention that. My husband said, “People know who you are now.” They joked in The New York Times article about a conspiracy theory and asked, “Does she need to look in her rear view mirror?” Everybody’s joked about that since I unearthed all of this. It was funny at first, and then it sort of got not funny. And now, it’s part of my story, and everybody goes there. Who can blame us, we grew up reading John Grisham and watching The Bourne Identity!
We had to go there. My husband, Jeff, and I had to go there, and think, Okay, there are bad people in the world, and they don’t want this information out. George Clooney does an awesome job of conveying this kind of story in Michael Clayton.
In the film The Future of Food, Deborah Garcia exposes a lot of this. It is a remarkable film, if you haven’t seen it. I asked her the other day, “Did you ever get threatened?” She said, “No, because it would have been horrible publicity for them.” So, a lot of it is faith. There’s a lot of faith. There’s a lot of making sure I’ve done everything I can. I’m not perfect; there are going to be flaws. However, the overwhelming evidence is absolutely critical that it be put out in the public.
BPGL: You’re courageous.
O’BRIEN: To your point, I have a friend who consults for executives, and helps them manage fire drills. And she volunteered to counsel me. In the winter of 2006, it was brutal. The concerns you have, you can only imagine how that is internalized when you unearth a story like this. And then I struggled with, if I don’t try to tell this story, if I don’t have the courage to tell this story — knowing what I know, ten years from now when all of these children are developing leukemias and cancers — how will I be able to live with myself, if I haven’t tried to do everything I could to get the message out? It was just like, you couldn’t win. You couldn’t escape the story. The publicity team at Random House said, “You cannot unlearn this once you learn it.” For the life of me, I cannot understand why we have not valued the lives of the American children the way children in other countries have been valued.
BPGL: Did you get support from researchers and scientists?
O’BRIEN: There are remarkable people who have been trying to warn us of these dangers for decades. I am honored to narrate their story in The Unhealthy Truth. And there are others who chose to turn a blind eye.
BPGL: Do you name those who ignored the problem? Do you ask them, “How can you live with yourself?”
O’BRIEN: Not explicitly, but given the “Who’s on First” routine that these guys pull, I write in the book, “Seriously, Gentlemen, will you please make up your mind?” You have scientists essentially saying, “Oh my god, we are putting our population at risk for something we don’t know what the consequences will be.” And it’s documented in FDA transcripts.
Find out more in Robyn O’Brien’s new book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It.
Part 2: The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It (Top of Page)
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