Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 22 2016

GMO labeling: Politico’s winners and losers

I’m just back from Spain and feeling lazy today so I’m just going to “borrow” Politico Morning Agriculture’s Jenny Hopkinson’s take on stakeholder positions on the GMO labeling bill passed by Congress and waiting for the President to sign it, which he is expected to do.

To recap: The bill allows three options for labeling GMO foods.

  • A QR code requiring a smart phone (the option favored by industry)
  • A symbol to be developed by USDA
  • A statement that the food contains genetically modified ingredients (the option favored by pro-labeling groups)

If the President ignores the veto campaign and signs the bill, the USDA will be responsible for writing regulations for all this.  In the meantime, here are some of the highlights of Jenny Hopkinson’s winners and losers.

Winners:

  • Sen. Debbie Stabenow: The ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee pretty much got everything she wanted. In pushing the issue to the last few days before the law in Vermont took effect, Stabenow, who has long called for a balance of preemption with some sort of disclosure, forced Republicans to accept her terms or let the food industry deal with Vermont’s law….
  • SmartLabel: The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s newest technology venture stands to do well should companies embrace electronic and QR code labeling in the way the group thinks they will – and it sets the groundwork for companies to quickly address future food fights. The concept has been backed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and has a lot of big companies singing its praises….members will be charged just $5 per SKU, and non-members $15 per SKU…But given the huge number of food companies out there, it’s certainly not chump change. And the precedent it sets when the next labeling crisis comes up is potentially priceless.
  • President Obama: In a 2007 campaign stop, then-candidate Obama promised to label GMOs in food. When he signs the bill, he will have done just that. Credit also needs to go to his agriculture secretary, the aforementioned Tom Vilsack, who helped lay the groundwork for the eventual legislation and has already directed his staff to get cracking on implementation.
  • Pro-labeling advocates: While they have made it explicitly clear they don’t like the deal, pro-labeling groups should be patting themselves on the back…all companies must disclose what’s in their products…a testament to the power of advocates who stuck to their position and made it clear to lawmakers that consumers have the right to know.

Losers:

  • GMA and the food industry: Admittedly MA [Morning Agriculture] went back and forth on which column GMA and the food industry should be in. Stopping state GMO labeling has long been the group’s top priority – but it’s come at a huge price…after spending hundreds of millions fighting state labeling campaigns and in court battles and lobbying lawmakers…On the other hand, the legislation gives food companies at least another two years – likely longer thanks to lawsuits – before they must label…
  • The Non-GMO Project: This third-party certification group – you’ve likely seen their butterfly logo all over the grocery store…But since the bill now lets them make that claim, The Non-GMO project and other certification groups stand to lose a big part of their market.
  • Sen. Pat Roberts: The Agriculture Committee chairman and Kansas Republican gets much credit for successfully championing a bill through Congress that included the preemption called for by the food and agriculture industries. But he was largely outmaneuvered and prevented from reaching his top goal of making GMO labeling voluntary.
  • Vermont: The quirky New England state may have made GMO labeling a high-profile congressional fight, but in the end its law will be in effect for less than a month. That’s a lot of time, money and effort by lawmakers and regulators for small benefit.

You don’t have to fully agree with her analysis—I wonder whether pro-labeling advocates really won on this one—to appreciate how clearly she has identified the broad range of stakeholders in this bill.

Happy weekend: There is still time to sign on to the many “veto it” campaigns (like this one from Vermont Right to Know, for example).

Jul 20 2016

How did Philadelphia pass a soda tax?

I’m at the Summer Academy in Global Food Law and Policy in Getxo, Spain speaking about Soda Politics and was happy to see Healthy Food America’s analyses of how Philadelphia passed a soda tax.

Jim Krieger starts out with a reminder that all cities are different and all politics is local, but in this case Philadelphia did an outstanding job on the

  • Political path: a budget proposal to be passed by the City Council
  • Timing: end of budget speech while still a new mayor
  • Framing: source of revenue to fund pre-K
  • Community base: a coalition
  • Financial support: Bloomberg and Arnold foundations
  • Media buzz
  • An effective champion in Mayor Jim Kenney  

All of these are essential elements in any advocacy campaign.

Casey Hinds, also of Healthy Food America, focuses on why Mayor Kenney’s messaging was so effective.  She quotes from his

This last interview is particularly inspiring.  He knew what he was doing, and why.

KENNEY: It never was a grocery tax. From my perspective and my opinion, their miscalculation is that they thought the people were stupid and that they would totally eat the idea of a grocery tax. In the end, diet [beverages] became part of it because it was part of the negotiation to get us the nine votes or the 13 votes we needed. It was always about sugar-sweetened beverages. It was never about anything else. I think people recognize that this was a way to generate significant revenue without raising their real estate taxes, without raising their wage taxes, without raising business taxes, because those are all the taxes that we’ve always [used] to fund education.

…BOTTEMILLER EVICH: So when the other cities, states, call you, what are you going to tell local officials about going down this road?

KENNEY: Tie it to initiatives that the public wants. Build a coalition around those initiatives. And just continue to grow the coalition and don’t worry about the big money. It’s clear now that the big money isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

We need more politicians like this.

Jul 19 2016

Check out who funded this study of kids’ lunches in Brazil

Brazilian researchers have published a study clearly aimed at countering Brazil’s dietary guidelines, which the authors say, include advice to “avoid fast food.”

The study, which looked at the nutritional quality of children’s lunches, comes to three conclusions:

  1. The nutrition quality of lunch in fast food restaurants is similar to a typical Brazilian meal [Really?  Who paid for this?].
  2. The restaurant meals could fit into a balanced diet from time to time [Of course.  Anything can].
  3. Every meal observed here could be improved with regard to sodium and fiber to promote children’s health in adulthood [Ditto].

Did you guess?

The authors acknowledge Equilibrium Consultancy which led this study. Funding by McDonald’s Corporation for the project was primarily to Equilibrium.

This is yet another industry-funded study with results favorable to the sponsor’s interests.  These especially require scrutiny of hypotheses, methods, and interpretation and repetition by independently funded investigators.

Jul 18 2016

City Voices: Hard Truths about Eating Healthy

I am a member of the New York Academy of Medicine and am happy to say that its Institute for Urban Health has just published a terrific new report in its City Voices: New Yorkers on Health series.

This one, published in June, is called “Food and Nutrition: Hard Truths about Eating Healthy.”

Capture

It is utterly remarkable and, in my experience, highly unusual.  The authors actually asked low-income community residents in Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens what they think about their diets, risks for chronic disease, and challenges to eating healthfully.

If you care whether people of low income have financial and physical access to decent food, this report is essential reading.

Food advocates: If you are looking for something useful to do, read this report.  It makes the needs clear and also suggests where interventions might best be targeted.

I’m always complaining that public health advocates need to ask people in communities what they think.  These authors did that, and look how useful it is!

Jul 15 2016

Big Sugar and Florida’s Everglades: Money Talks

The Los Angeles Times has reprinted a story about Big Sugar’s hold on Florida politics.  The story appeared first in the Miami Herald (but don’t even try to read it there; the ads make the site impenetrable).

The LA Times version is worth a look.

Between 1994 and 2016, a review of state Division of Elections records by The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau shows, the sugar industry led by United States Sugar and Florida Crystals has steered a whopping $57.8 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns. (The total does not include federal contributions.)

It appears to be money well spent. On issue after issue, regulators, legislators and governors have erred on the side of softening the impact of adverse rules and regulations on cane growers and other powerful and polluting agriculture interests, including cattle operations north of Lake Okeechobee.

The sugar industry beat back a voter-approved amendment that would have forced it to pay for cleaning up its own nutrient-rich runoff into the Everglades, instead shifting much of the cost to taxpayers. It won repeated delays of strict water quality standards. It has fended off calls for buyouts even after one of the largest companies, U.S. Sugar, offered to sell itself to the state. And it has undermined attempts to use a second constitutional amendment, Amendment 1, to be used to buy farmland for Everglades cleanup.

You have to love U.S. sugar policy.  It’s just so weird.

On the one hand, we have dietary guidelines that say “Limit calories from added sugars.”

On the other, we support sugar prices with a system of sugar quotas and tariffs that makes U.S. sugar cost more than sugar on the world market (but not enough to decrease consumption).

We let sugar producers indiscriminately pollute land and water and “encourage” elected officials to turn a blind eye and shift the costs of cleanup to taxpayers.

If ever we needed evidence why linking agricultural policy to health and environmental policies is so essential, the contradictions of sugar policy make the case.

Jul 14 2016

How to reduce SNAP caseloads? Easy. Just set a 3-month limit.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has just released an analysis of the recent decline in SNAP caseloads.

Bigger SNAP Declines in States Newly Imposing Time Limits

Some SNAP participants may be finding jobs along with an improving economy and going off the rolls.  Good for them.

But a more likely reason is that states like Florida, Missouri, Alabama, and Arkansas instituted a 3-month time limit in January.  The limit appleis to “unemployed childless adults without disabilities.”

Other states are doing this too.

If you want your state to reduce its SNAP expenditures, here’s one way to do that.

And if there aren’t jobs?  What are poor people supposed to do?

Jul 13 2016

Should FDA be an independent agency?

A couple of weeks ago, Politico reported that six former commissioners of the FDA agreed that this agency needed to become independent of its present location in government.

The FDA is presently one of eight agencies in the Public Health Service of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The former commisioners think the FDA would be better off having

either Cabinet-level powers or the autonomy of agencies like the Federal Trade Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission. They argued that the FDA, which regulates more than a quarter of the economy and deals with critical food and drug safety, is harmed by bureaucracy, meddling politicians and confusing budgetary lines in Congress.

Politico quotes former commissioner David Kessler: “The micromanagement from on top has probably gotten to the point where an independent agency is necessary.”

Every decision made by FDA officials must be cleared not only through the FDA bureaucracy, but also through that of HHS—and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

This explains why the FDA appears to—and does—move at pre-climate change glacial speed.

But that’s not the only structural problem that impedes the work of this agency.  The other big one is how it gets funded.

The FDA is a public health agency housed in the health department.

BUT: it gets its congressional funding from House and Senate Agricultural committees.

These can hardly be expected to be sympathetic to the FDA’s regulatory mission to keep foods safe and labeled accurately.

This happened for reasons of history.  In its earlier incarnations, the FDA was part of the USDA.  It moved, but its funding didn’t.

These calls raise issues about the structure of food regulation at the federal level.  I’ve written about calls for a single food agency often on this site.  This may be a good time to consider how best to deal with food policy in the next few years.  We badly need:

  • Food policy linked to health policy
  • Better linkage of the FDA’s and the USDA’s food safety regulation
  • Better coordination of food and nutrition policy overall

It’s great that the commissioners started this conversation.  It’s one well worth continuing.

 

Jul 12 2016

The latest in food-industry sponsored research: Pears!

I completely understand that the food business is fiercely competitive, not least because the U.S. food supply provides about twice the calories needed by the population on a daily basis—4000 calories each in 2010—and companies have to sell all that.

The makers of processed foods and drinks spend fortunes marketing their foods in this environment.  Now producers of fruits and vegetables feel that they too need to compete.  They form trade associations to do this for them and to pay for research they can use to market their products as “superfoods.”

Meet, for example, the Pear Bureau Northwest, which pays for research and sends press releases about its only-to-be-expected positive results, in this case “New Research Indicates Regular Fresh Pear Consumption May Improve Blood Pressure in Middle-Aged Men and Women with Metabolic Syndrome” (my emphasis).

I like pears.  They are delicious when ripe.  But superfoods?  Really?

As always, the operative word is “may.”

This study compared the effects of eating 2 medium-sized fresh pears or or 50 g of a pear-flavored drink per day for 12 weeks.  Well, duh.

In my collection of industry-funded studies last year were two sponsored by the busy Pears Bureau Northwest.

Systematic Review of Pears and Health. Holly Reiland, BS Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD.  Nutrition Today November/December 2015 – Volume 50 – Issue 6 – p 301–305.  

  • Conclusions: Animal studies with pears suggest that pears may regulate alcohol metabolism, protect against ulcers, and lower plasma lipids. Human feeding studies with pears have not been conducted. In epidemiological studies, pears are combined with all fresh fruits or with apples, because they are most similar in composition. The high content of dietary fiber in pears and their effects on gut health set pears apart from other fruit and deserves study.
  • Funding: The authors received a grant from USA Pears in the past. The authors provided their own funding to allow this article to publish as Open Access.
  • Comment: Pears are a great fruit but the marketing purpose of this study is evident from this press release from the Pear Bureau Northwest: “While the body of evidence connecting pear intake and health outcomes is still limited, USA Pears has been contributing to research efforts by commissioning independent studies to learn and affirm the heath attributes of pears. Visit www.usapears.org for additional pear research, nutrition resources and recipes.”

Fresh Pear Consumption is Associated with Better Nutrient Intake, Diet Quality, and Weight Parameters in Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2010.  O’Neil CE, Nicklas TA, Fulgoni VL (2015) J Nutr Food Sci 5: 377.

  • Conclusion:  Compared to non-consumers [of pears], consumers were 35% less likely to be obese (p<0.05). Fresh pears should be encouraged as a component of an overall healthy diet.
  • Funding: Partial support was received from the United States Department of Agriculture/ Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS)…Partial support was also received from Pears Bureau Northwest.
  • Comment: I’m guessing the same result could be obtained by looking at consumption of any other fruit.  And to prove my point that this is about marketing, here’s the press release.

Will this research help sell more pears?  We will see.

Is it wrong to want to have more pears sold?  Not at all, but why do this at the expense of any other fruit, all of which contain valuable nutrients.

If pears are superfoods, all fruits are superfoods.

Eat the ones you like.

 

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