A Conversation With Robyn O’Brien


unnamedBy Stephen J. Kotz

Robyn O’Brien, the author of “The Unhealthy Truth,” which examines the relationship between the modern American food industry and the epidemic of food allergies among children and the increase in diseases like cancer and diabetes, will present “Generation Rx: Feeding a 21st Century Family,” a seminar sponsored by the Wellness Foundation of East Hampton on Thursday at 7 p.m. at East Hampton Middle School.

Given your background, you are an unlikely candidate as an advocate for healthy diets. How did you get here?

I worked for a Houston investment fund that managed $20 billion. I was the only woman on the team so, of course, I covered the food industry. It was ironic because I really couldn’t cook. I left work to raise my children and had every intention of going back to work in finance, but then my youngest child developed a serious food allergy.

Instead of throwing everything into my work in finance, I threw everything into understanding food. I was pulling the numbers and pulling the data, which is what I had always done — What was happening to American children was shocking:

From 1997 to 2007, there was a 267-percent increase in hospitalizations for food allergies. Today, one in seven children has some type of food allergy. It sounds so foreign to say these kids are allergic to food because the epidemic came on so quickly. For those of us in our 40s and 50s, a carton of milk or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wasn’t always a loaded weapon sitting on the table.

This epidemic has been handed to this generation. How do we keep our kids safe? How do we keep our food safe. It’s junked up with so many additives, hormones and pesticides.

Then you’ve got nonprofits that are supported by companies like Kraft and Monsanto that are supposedly doing research into this stuff. Typically, when you have industry supporting research, the findings of that research tends to favor the industry.

Can you provide some specifics about recent changes to the food supply?

Take the dairy industry. They began to inject artificial growth hormones into cows. The business model makes perfect sense: Make more milk at a lower cost. But those hormones made the cows sick with everything from skin diseases to mastitis. The answer was to put them on heavy doses of antibiotics.

In the 1990s, the U.S. was the only country to introduce this kind of milk to the marketplace. Other countries said, ‘We’re not sure about the safety of this. Let’s study it first.’ In the U.S., the approach was the opposite. The FDA said, ‘It hasn’t been proven to be harmful, so let’s allow it.’

There are a growing number of children with corn allergies. In the late 1990s, they were able to engineer pesticides into the DNA of corn, so as the plant grows it releases its own pesticide. That corn is now regulated by the EPA as well as the USDA.

Are you are saying we can’t rely on the government to safeguard our food supply?

I look at the USDA, the FDA and the EPA as really marketing arms for their industries. Tom Vilsack, the head of USDA, was named the Bio Tech Governor of the Year [when he was governor of Iowa]. You can’t hold your breath and wait for change to come from Washington.

You advocate for an organic diet, but isn’t difficult for the typical American family to commit to that given the lack of availability and higher prices for organic foods?

Fortunately, there are signs that change is coming to the marketplace. There is increasing demand, and corporations are rising up to meet that demand. Organic Valley and General Mills recently announced a partnership. A decade ago that would have been unthinkable.

Many American companies, like Kraft and Wal-Mart, have responded to the demands of foreign markets that don’t allow the same ingredients that are allowed in this country.

I think if there is market demand here, they will respond. This is fixable. We just have to make enough noise.

Robyn O’Brien will speak at the Wellness Foundation’s Fall Speaker Series event this Thursday, September 29 from 7 to 9 p.m. at East Hampton Middle School Auditorium, 76 Newtown Lane in East Hampton. For more information, visit wfeh.org.