Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 22 2014

Food Policy Action rates Congress on food issues

Food Policy Action announced the release of its second annual National Food Policy Scorecard last week, ranking members of the House and Senate on their votes on key food-related issues.

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Food Policy Action is unique among food advocacy organizations in its explicit use of the political process.  Its goal is to

promote policies that support healthy diets, reduce hunger at home and abroad, improve food access and affordability, uphold the rights and dignity of food and farm workers, increase transparency, improve public health, reduce the risk of food-borne illness, support local and regional food systems, protect and maintain sustainable fisheries, treat farm animals humanely and reduce the environmental impact of farming and food production.

How?  By holding legislators accountable for their foods on food and farming issues.  Hence: The Food Policy Scorecard.

I discussed the previous scorecard in December 2013.

On this round, Food Policy Action awarded scores of 100 to 71 members of Congress – 54 in the House of Representatives, 17 in the Senate.

It awarded scores of zero to 35 members.

The scores are given for votes on bills related to key food issues:

  • Hunger
  • Food aid
  • Food labeling
  • Farm subsidies
  • Sustainable farming

The website makes it easy to track your legislators’s votes.

I looked at Senators from New York.

  • Kirsten Gillbrand scores 85 (she lost points by voting against reducing federal insurance subsidies for rich farmers and against protecting states’ rights to require GMO labels)
  • Charles Schumer scores 100

This is a valuable tool for anyone who cares how politics works in America.  Let’s hope it encourages citizens to hold their representatives accountable and legislators to think twice before voting against consumer-friendly food and farming bills.

 

Oct 20 2014

Food professionals’ relationships with food companies: a Q and A

In the past few weeks, I’ve been sent several questions asking my opinion of food professionals’ relationships with food companies.   I thought I would deal with them at one time (all are edited for succinctness and clarity):

Q.  I am a food science student looking into career options in the food industry. I love food science and truly believe that processing food is a good idea that can positively impact the planet and its people.  I want to do something worthwhile,, but I still need to eat.  Can’t the food industry be changed from the inside? Can’t you advise good companies, people, or places where I could start my search? 

A.  I have met social entrepreneurs who strongly believe that businesses can be ethical, do good, and still make heaps of money.  Maybe so.  If you are going to try that route, I think it essential that the company be family or cooperatively owned, and not publicly traded.  You might take a look at food companies incorporated as Benefit Corporations. These are now authorized in about half the states to consider the interests of all stakeholders, not just shareholders, when making decisions.  They are different from B corporations certifying companies that meet certain sustainability criteria.

Many companies work hard to reduce their environmental impact.  But the real question is what they are doing about health impact.  Are they going overboard on health claims?  Are they marketing to children?  These are questions I’d want to ask.  In your shoes, I’d start by looking at companies making products that you like, feel good about, and would be proud to be associated with.   And then take a closer look at how the companies operate.   Working for food companies is always a good learning experience, but if you really want to change the world, you might be better off with a nonprofit agency.

Q.  I’m a graduate student in nutrition and I would like to know what recommendations you may have for students to navigate conflicts of interest with food companies when beginning a career.  I intend to pursue an academic career but am concerned that my credibility as a scientist could be compromised by my participation in industry-funded publications and research. 

A.  It’s great that you are asking such questions. From the standpoint of ethics, that’s an important first step.  You should most definitely publish your research, no matter how it is funded.  Be sure to disclose potential sources of funding bias and conflicts of interest.  While you are doing your research, you can take special care to control for potential biases—conscious and unconscious—in your study design, conduct, and interpretation to ensure that they are not influenced by the funder.  In searching for jobs, you might consider those in academia, government, and NGOs that are less likely to require you to compromise principles.  Finding such jobs may not be easy, but you will be OK if you are always ethically transparent and as straightforward about biases as it is possible to be.

Q.  Do you believe that relationships between the food industry and nutrition professional organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the Association for Nutritional Science (ASN) are problematic? Why?

A.  Sponsorship by food product makers puts nutrition professionals in conflict of interest.   Nutritionists ought to be advising clients and the public about what to eat to stay healthy and prevent chronic disease.  This necessarily means promoting consumption of some foods but discouraging consumption of others.  Nutritionists cannot speak truth to clients and protect corporate sponsorship at the same time.  If nothing else, food industry sponsorship gives the appearance of conflict of interest and makes AND and ASN appear as arms of food company marketers.  But it also affects—or appears to affect–AND ’s and ASN’s positions on key issues in nutrition and health.  Overall, financial relationships between these organizations and their food industry sponsors undermines the credibility of their positions on food issues.

Q.  What sort of changes do you think the Academy needs to make in order to make food industry relationships more beneficial to its members and the public overall?

A.  Nutrition and food professional organizations need to establish a firewall between corporate sponsorship and content or opinion.  This requires setting up rigorous guidelines for what food companies can and cannot expect from their donations.  They should not, for example, be permitted to sponsor content sessions at meetings, not least because opinions expressed at sponsored sessions rarely appear objective.  The organizations should have complete control over how and where corporate donations and company logos are used.

Q.  How can relationships between health professionals and the food industry be beneficial for public health overall?

A.  The role of health professionals is to give the best advice possible about diet and health.  The role of food companies is to provide profits to shareholders.  These goals are not the same and are only rarely compatible.  In my experience, people who want to work for food companies to change corporate culture from within do so from good motives, but soon discover that corporate imperatives take precedence over health goals. If health professional organizations want their advice to be taken seriously, they must establish and adhere to rules and guidelines designed expressly to protect their integrity.

Q.  I read your post on the revolving door,  It seems to me that your underlying premise is the notion that any company that makes food is indicted as part of the big evil food conspiracy. Surely, you can’t really believe that. 

A.  Of course I don’t. But food companies are not social service agencies.   Their job—their legal responsibility—is to continuously expand sales and distribute ever-increasing profits to shareholders.   If they can do this and promote health at the same time, more power to them.  But people would be healthier eating food, not food products.  In our present system, products are far more profitable and the focus on them is rarely works in the interest of public health.

Food and nutrition professionals need to make a living.  Unfortunately, jobs in industry pay better–and sometimes a lot better–than jobs in government or NGOs.  That’s the real dilemma that underlies all of these questions.

Oct 17 2014

This week’s book: Defending Beef

Nicolette Hahn Niman.  Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production.  Chelsea Green, 2014.

The subtitle says it all: “The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher.”

Really?

Really.  She’s not kidding.

I did a blurb for this one:

Issues related to the long-term health effects of red meat, saturated fat, sugar, and grains are complex and I see the jury as still out on many of them.  While waiting for the science to be resolved, Hahn Niman’s book is well worth reading for its forceful defense of the role of ruminant animals in sustainable food systems.

As this might suggest, I have a more cautious interpretation of the science she summarizes, but there are plenty of reasons why eating meat can help improve human nutrition, especially when the animals are raised as humanely and sustainably as possible, which the Nimans most definitely do on their beautiful Bolinas ranch.

Vegetarians: does she convince you?

Let the debates begin.

Oct 15 2014

School nutrition standards: the latest update

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine food issue dealt with such matters as what kids around the world eat for breakfast, and what happens when second graders are treated to a seven-course, $220 tasting meal.

But it also carried a major investigative piece by political reporter Nicholas Confessore about how the once-bipartisan school lunch program has become a political battleground.

when Michelle Obama started Let’s Move!, her campaign against child obesity, in 2010, the members of the School Nutrition Association were her natural allies…the Obama administration got behind the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, an ambitious bill that would impose strict new nutrition standards on all food sold in public schools. A generation raised on Lunchables and Pizza Hut, the bill’s authors believed, could learn to love whole-wheat pasta and roasted cauliflower…But to pass the bill, the White House needed to enlist not only Democrats and Republicans in Congress but also a host of overlapping and competing interest groups: the manufacturers who supplied food to schools, the nutrition experts who wanted it to be more healthful and the lunch ladies who would have to get children to eat it.

They succeeded with the nutrition experts, but failed to account for the cozy financial relations between the food product makers and the School Nutrition Association (SNA).

As I’ve discussed previously, the SNA, backed by product manufacturers, is now fighting the White House, the USDA, and research evidence that kids will indeed eat healthful food and will be better off for it.

Center for Science in the Public Interest has this to say about what’s happening with school meals.

school food fat cats

 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has a new infographic on how “Healthier School Meals Matter.”

Bettina Siegel, the Houston school lunch blogger at The Lunch Tray, and food consultant Nancy Huehnergarth, in consultation with SNA members, posted an open letter to urge SNA members to oppose the organization’s stance on school nutrition standards.

As Bettina Siegel describes, the SNA promptly sent an e-mailed “urgent message” from its board of directors to all 55,000 members, saying the association was “troubled” to learn about the open letter.

SNA welcomes the diversity of opinions in our association, and we consider all member input when developing or approving SNA positions…Members should be aware that this letter will try to discredit the association and limit SNA’s efforts to advocate on your behalf for any kind of flexibility under the new standards.

This inspired Nancy Huehnergarth to write an op-ed for the Hill. 

School food service directors, if you dare publicly disagree with the policy direction of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) you are in for an unpleasant surprise.  Your voice will likely be quashed…While SNA members have now been reprimanded and criticized for expressing divergent opinions through a sign-on letter, views held by SNA’s corporate sponsors seem to be welcome with open arms…Something is terribly amiss with the SNA leadership when a reasonable, respectful, member-driven request is quashed without even a discussion, while corporate sponsors are allowed to propose the association’s legislative positions. I strongly urge supportive SNA members to sign on to the open letter and ignore the intimidation tactics. The health of America’s schoolchildren, and the reputation of your organization, depends on it.

And so it does.

Oct 14 2014

Today’s food politics of Ebola

Ebola is much in the news, and for good reason.  It is highly contagious, difficult to contain, and deadly.

In food studies, we say that food is a lens through which to view the most important problems of society.  Here are some thoughts on the food politics of Ebola.

Dietary Supplements for Ebola Prevention or Treatment

The Council for Responsible Nutrition, the trade association for supplement manufacturers, has found it necessary to issue an advisory on use of dietary supplements to prevent or treat Ebola infections.

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the Natural Products Association (NPA), and the United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) are therefore endorsing the following unified advisory for marketers and retailers, as well as for consumers of dietary supplements:

  • Marketers and retailers of dietary supplements are urged to refuse to stock or sell any supplements that are presented as treating or curing Ebola virus disease, or preventing Ebola virus infection.
  • Marketers and retailers should refrain from promoting any dietary supplement as a cure or treatment for Ebola virus disease.
  • Anyone who believes they may have Ebola virus disease or may have come in contact with the Ebola virus should contact a healthcare professional immediately. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information on Ebola virus disease and the proper actions to take if you suspect you are ill.

The knowledge that no known treatment exists for Ebola has not stopped supplement manufacturers from advertising the benefits of their products for this infection.

FDA Warning Letters

The FDA has stepped in and issued warning letters to three manufacturers marketing their products as possible treatments or cures.  The FDA letters, which make interesting reading, went to:

Marketing of Nutritional Supplements

A simple Google search of “supplements Ebola” turned up this kind of information this morning:

The Ebola virus can be destroyed naturally – despite what you’ve been told To date, not a single virus has been tested that is not inactivated (killed) by a large enough dose of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Many other antioxidants have similar virucidal effects, but vitamin C appears uniquely to be of greatest potency and clinical efficacy, as its simple chemical structure allows for it to be disseminated throughout the body with little restriction… Vitamin C is both very potent and optimally bioavailable in accessing any viral infection.

And this:

The substances in the Natural Allopathic protocol for Ebola offer a power unequalled in the world of medicine that we can harness to save many lives of people infected with Ebola…. Magnesium salts, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), iodine, selenium and vitamin C are concentrated nutritional medicinals that have been used in the direst of medical circumstances…The core of the Natural Allopathic protocol redefines the way emergency room and intensive care should be practiced on Ebola patients with proven fast-acting, safe, concentrated and mostly injectable nutritional medicines. If the Ebola infection truly gets out of hand, it is comforting for parents to know that they can legally administer these same medicinals if infected people are treated at home. All of the Natural Allopathic Medicines can be also taken orally or used transdermally (topically) to almost the same effect if treatment is started early enough.

How Can Supplement Makers Do This?

The ability of supplement manufacturers to claim health benefits for their products, and mostly get away with it, is a result of congressional action in passing the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which essentially deregulated these products.

Twenty years later, the supplement industry is deeply divided between responsible and irresponsible manufacturers, both allowed by law.

As the president and CEO of one supplement company puts it,

The industry of 1994, roughly $8 billion in sales, has experienced compounded double-digit growth every year since DSHEA became law…DSHEA opened the door to growth, innovation, new science, new discovery and a nation of wanting consumers enchanted with the thought that there are natural solutions to their individual health needs…20 years later, it’s time to take a hard look at what DSHEA doesn’t provide to the industry today. The barrier to entry into this industry continues to have no hurdles; DSHEA does not define the boundaries of consumer trust… The generations of today, and the generations of tomorrow will demand transparency, they will demand efficacy, and they will demand quality and safety from all of us.

Clearly, they aren’t getting that now.

Other Connections to Food Politics

Chocolate

Politico writes:

EBOLA THREATENS WORLD’S CHOCOLATE SUPPLY:  Ivory Coast, the world’s largest producer of cacao, the raw ingredient in M&Ms, Butterfingers and Snickers Bars, has shut down its borders with Liberia and Guinea, putting a major crimp on the workforce needed to pick the beans that end up in chocolate bars and other treats just as the harvest season begins… the outbreak already could raise prices…Prices on cocoa futures jumped from their normal trading range of $2,000 to $2,700 per ton, to as high as $3,400 in September over concerns about the spread of Ebola to Côte D’Ivoire.

Food safety

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler points out that Ebola started out as a foodborne illness.    Its most likely source was infected bushmeat that transferred the virus to human handlers.

Following standard food safety procedures is always a good idea while hoping that health officials get this epidemic under control.

 

Oct 13 2014

Rules for calorie labeling on restaurant menus: where are they?

Remember menu labels?  We’ve had them in New York City since 2008.

In 2010, President signed national menu labeling into law as part of the Affordable Care Act.  The FDA proposed rules for labels in 2011, collected comments on the proposed rules, missed the July 3, 2014 deadline for issuing them, and by all reports sent them to the White House Office of Management and Budget last April.

What is the holdup?  Lobbying of course.

  • The delay on releasing the final rules is widely reported to be due to lobbying efforts by industry groups.  Known to have visited the White House and FDA officials are, among others, the Food Marketing Institute, Publix Super Market, Schnuck Markets, Kroger, Dominos Pizza, the Pizza Hut Franchise Association and Hungry Howies.
  • The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the National Grocers Association (NGA) and Food Industry Association Executives (FIAE) held a lobbying “fly-in” to prevent FDA’s final menu labeling rule for calorie disclosures being extended to grocery stores.
  • A bill backed by the supermarket industry is the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act (H.R. 1249/S. 1756) which would require menu labeling only for establishments where the majority of business is derived from restaurant-type food.

As for whether menu labels do any good:

At the moment, studies of the effects of menu labeling are restricted to laboratory models or situations in New York and other cities that passed such laws within the last few years.

More definitive research must wait for the final FDA rules and their application.

How about releasing the rules soon?  They’ve been dragging on way too long.

 

 

Oct 10 2014

At last! Amy Bentley’s “Inventing Baby Food”

Amy Bentley.  Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Transformation of the American Diet.  University of California Press, 2014.

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My esteemed colleague Amy Bentley, who came to NYU to so competently kick-start our programs in Food Studies, has produced her long-awaited study of the baby food industry.

My blurb for it ended up as part of the cover design:

Amy Bentley’s engaging, brilliantly researched book is a revelation.  Who knew that all those little baby food jars could tell us so much about the commercial, cultural , and personal history of food in America..  Inventing Baby Food is an instant food studies classic.

This doesn’t quite do justice to this book.  It’s wonderfully written, terrifically illustrated, and thoughtfully historical in how it grounds infant feeding practices in their past and present social context.

Here’s Amy on what this book is about:

Not all mothers feel as I do about feeding their children, and there are innumerable ways to be a nurturing parent that do not involve food.  Still, providing food is so closely connected to nurturing that even mothers who feel secure in their status but aren’t able, or don’t like, to prepare food probably feel a twinge of guilt over it.  As the following chapters demonstrate, the practice and advice changes over the years; the science becomes more refined and findings shift; and corporate capitalism continually explores and shapes the material culture of infant feeding, uncovering and instilling in parents previously unknown desires and needs.  Yet the connection among feeding nurturing, and being a “good mother” remains constant.

Enjoy!  I did.

Oct 8 2014

Some thoughts on military might: obesity, candy, and the USDA’s arms race

Mission: Readiness versus obesity

As I noted in an earlier post, Mission: Readiness, an organization of former high-ranking military officials concerned about obesity and other health problems in military recruits and personnel, has issued a hard-hitting defense of USDA’s school nutrition standards.

New Picture (1)

But the military loves giving candy to kids

Dr. Karen Sokal-Gutierrez, who is engaged in international programs to reduce sugar-induced tooth decay among children, sends the results of her Google search for “US Military give children candy.”

Halloween candy buy back: To prevent tooth decay in US children, this program is having us send our candy to servicemen. Do they eat it themselves, or do they give it to local children where they serve?

A historical perspective on generations of military candy practices

US troops endanger Afghan children by giving them with candy

Images for US soldiers giving children candy

Dr. Sokal-Gutierrez notes that it’s not just the military that give children in developing countries candy—it’s also tourists and aid workers in developing countries and refugee camps.

She understands why it feels good to do this, but points out that the children might not have toothbrushes or dental treatment.  Candy, she emphasizes, contributes to severe tooth decay, mouth pain, malnutrition, problems in school, etc.

Why is the USDA Buying Submachine Guns?

Another reader, Kris Gilbertson, asks this question based on an article in Modern Farmer.

According to a USDA press rep, the guns are necessary for self-protection.

“OIG [USDA's Office of the Inspector General] Special Agents regularly conduct undercover operations and surveillance. The types of investigations conducted by OIG Special Agents include criminal activities such as fraud in farm programs; significant thefts of Government property or funds; bribery and extortion; smuggling; and assaults and threats of violence against USDA employees engaged in their official duties,” wrote a USDA spokesperson.

One can only resort to cliche: food for thought.

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