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April 2004, Volume 10, Number 2

How We Eat: 2002, Obesity

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistic's Consumer Expenditure Survey for 2002, there were 112 million "consumer units," with an average of 2.5 persons, 1.4 earners and two vehicles; two-thirds were homeowners, and the average age of the reference person was 48. Average consumer unit income before taxes was $49, 400, income after taxes was $46,900, and expenditures were $40,675.

These household expenditures included $5,375 for food (13 percent), and food spending was split 58-42 percent, included $3,100 for food eaten at home (eight percent, or $60 a week) and $2,300 for food bought away from home. To put food spending in perspective, other significant expenditures were housing and utilities, $13,300; transportation, $7,800; health care, $2,350; apparel, $1,700; entertainment, $2,100; cash contributions, $1,300; and tobacco products, $320.

The largest food-at-home expenditures were for meat and poultry, $800, and nonalcoholic beverages, $255 (milk and cream were another $130). Expenditures on fresh fruits ($178) and fresh vegetables ($175) totaled $353, or $6.80 a week (processed fruits averaged $116 and processed vegetables, $84). The average household spent more on alcoholic beverages, $376, than on fresh fruits and vegetables, $53.

The 112 million consumer units spent an average of $353, for total spending of $40 billion in fresh fruits and vegetables. Even though strawberries are picked directly into the containers in which they are sold, and iceberg lettuce gets its film wrapper in the field, in 2000 farmers received an average 16 percent of the retail price of fresh fruits and 19 percent of the retail price of fresh vegetables, so $353 from the consumer means $61 to the farmer (0.16 x 178 = $28 + 0.19 x 175 = $33). Farmers do not pay all of this $61 to farm workers- farm labor costs are typically less than a third of farmer revenue, meaning that farm worker wages and benefits represent about $20 per household a year, or less than one half of one percent of average.

This means that consumers who pay $1 for a pound of apples, or $1 for a head of lettuce, are giving 16 to 19 cents to the farmer and 5 to 6 cents to the farm worker.

What would happen if the influx of immigrant workers were slowed, farm wages rose, and the increase in farm labor costs were passed through to consumers? In 1966, the fledgling United Farm Workers union won a 40 percent wage increase for table grape harvesters, largely because Bracero workers were not available. Average farm-worker earnings were $7.56 an hour for US field and livestock workers in 2000, according to a USDA survey of farm employers, and a 40 percent increase would raise them by $3 to $10.58. If this wage increase were passed fully to consumers, the 5 to 6 cent farm labor cost of a pound of apples or a head of lettuce would rise to 7 to 9 cents, and the retail price would rise by 2 to 3 cents.

For a typical household, a 40 percent increase in farm labor costs translates into a two to three percent increase in retail prices (0.175 x 0.33 = 6 percent, farm labor costs rise 40 percent, and 0.4 x 6 = 2.4 percent), so total spending on fruits and vegetables would rise by $8, from $353 a year to $361 a year. However, for a typical seasonal farm worker, earnings could rise to $11,200 a year, up from $8,000. These wage increases may lead to farm productivity improvements, so that consumer prices may decrease rather than increase.

Obesity. A new survey, SizeUSA, made 240 measurements of 10,000 people in 13 cities nationwide using a light-pulsing 3-D scanner, and found that Americans are larger than before. The clothing industry considered the average woman to be size 8, which is a 35-inch bust, a 27-inch waist, and 37.5-inch hip; white women aged 18 to 25 came in, on average, 38-32-41, with white women aged 36 to 45 coming in at 41-34-43. The SizeUSA medianght was 5 feet 4 inches for women and 5 feet 9 inches for men; women weighed a median 148 and men 180 pounds. Asked for their perception of how much they weighed, 51 percent of men and 38 percent of women said they were "about the right weight."

In March 2004, the House approved on a 276 to 139 vote the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, which would prohibit suits against McDonalds and other restaurants on the ground that their food makes customers fat; supporters said that overeating is a problem for individuals, not the courts. The food industry has been supporting similar legislation, nicknamed the Baby McBills, in 19 states.

However, lawyers defending Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, KFC-Yum Brands and Krispy Kreme from obesity lawsuits cite 10 prominent cases against food companies, including five that had some success, such as McDonald's paying $12 million to settle a complaint that it failed to disclose beef fat in its French fries and Kraft agreeing to stop using trans fats in Oreos.

The next round of suits is expected to be filed under consumer protection laws, accusing companies of, for example, advertising a product as low-fat without mentioning that it is high in sugar and calories. Many of the cases are likely to target foods aimed at children. The Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law is expected to file suits against the food companies by 2005, noting that tobacco cases got traction only when lawyers began bringing cases on grounds of deceptive marketing rather than personal injury.

Some obese Americans are having their stomachs surgically shrunk so they can eat less; expenditures on stomach-shrinking surgery topped $3 billion in 2003. The American Society for Bariatric Surgery says the surgery costs an average $25,000, and there were at least 103,000 stomach-shrinking surgeries in 2003. The procedure usually staples some of the stomach, limiting how much can be eaten, but is high-risk, and reports of people eating more so that they can qualify-patients must normally be at least 100 pounds overweight-has led to more complications.

The World Health Organization estimates that a billion adults are overweight and at least 300 million are obese. These include two-thirds of US adults who are overweight and a third who are obese.

Rob Stein, "As Obesity Surgeries Soar, So Do Safety, Cost Concerns," Washington Post, April 11, 2004. Kate Zernike, "Lawyers Shift Focus From Big Tobacco to Big Food," New York Times, April 9, 2004.

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