Much of what we eat and how we eat it is decided by politicians and on Wall Street, according to Marion Nestle.

Nestle, author and public health and sociology professor at New York University, discussed the corporate and political influences on American agriculture industry during a recent appearance at the University of Washington in Seattle, part of the school’s “Food: Eating your Environment” lecture series.

“You can’t understand anything about how people eat until you understand how the agricultural industry works,” Nestle said.

Summarizing the dramatic changes within the food industry in the last 20 years, Nestle said that after the end of government subsidies farmers received to not farm, food production increased and the industry became more competitive.

That drove food prices down, she said, which encouraged consumers to buy more food and go out to eat more frequently, usually being served or sold larger portions.  Nestle thinks that is one of the biggest factors contributing to the national obesity problem

“Larger portions have more calories,” Nestle said. “If there’s one thing I could teach, it would be that.”

Meanwhile, laws regarding the types of claims food companies can make about their products changed. 

For example, Nestle pointed to federal laws that prohibited food companies from making health claims about food products until Congress relaxed those rules.  Suits brought by the Food and Drug Administration against food companies making questionable claims were tossed out on First Amendment, free speech law grounds.

Nestle applauded the Federal Trade Commission for recently stepping in and trying to do what she said the FDA no longer will do.  She cited the FTC’s recent move against the beverage maker POM Wonderful for exaggerated claims about  the health benefits of pomegranate juice.

Nestle takes offense to what she called, “self-endorsements,” when companies make up their own nutritional guidelines and then advertise that their food products meet those guidelines.

Saying that food safety regulation needs to improve, Nestle endorsed Senate Bill 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which would create a single agency to regulate the food industry.  The bill has been blocked in the Senate and Nestle doesn’t have much hope it will pass in the upcoming session.

“We have the same food safety system as in 1906 when Upton Sinclair wrote ‘The Jungle,'” Nestle complained. “This is a place where we need advocacy.”

She sees growing signs of such advocacy, and evidence that a “food revolution” is taking place.  In just the past year, Nestle noted, the number of farmers markets has increased by 16 percent and consumers are increasingly demanding organic foods.

The food industry needs to be more socially responsible, but consumers can force that by taking personal responsibility for what they eat.

“You need to vote with your fork,” Nestle told her audience.