Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 17 2014

The food industry’s trillion calorie reduction challenge, evaluated

Remember the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF)—16 big food companies that account for about one-third of calories in the marketplace—and the companies’ pledge in 2010 to reduce the total number of calories they sold by 1.5 trillion by 2015?

As I wrote in my post on the pledge,

What are we to make of all this?  Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt?*  History suggests the latter possibility.  Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products without doing anything, and every promise helps stave off regulation.

On the other hand, the RWJF [Robert Wood Johnson Foundation] evaluation sounds plenty serious, and top-notch people are involved in it.  If the companies fail to do as promised, this will be evident and evidence for the need for regulation.

So now we have the RWJF-funded evaluation.

The study examining HWCF’s pledge shows that the largest calorie cuts came from sweets and snacks; cereals, granolas and other grain products; fats, oils and dressings; and carbonated soft drinks.  The companies participating in the pledge sold 60.4 trillion calories in 2007, the year defined as the baseline measurement for the pledge. In 2012, they sold 54 trillion calories. This 6.4 trillion calorie decline translates into a reduction of 78 calories per person in the United States per day.

Barry Popkin and his colleagues in North Carolina report this evaluation in two parts.  The first says:

The 16 HWCF companies collectively sold approximately 6.4 trillion fewer calories (–10.6%) in 2012 than in the baseline year of 2007. Taking
into account population changes over the 5-year period of 2007–2012, CPG [Consumer Package Goods]caloric sales from brands included in the HWCF pledge declined by an average of 78 kcal/capita/day. CPG caloric sales from non-HWCF national brands during the same period declined by 11 kcal/capita/day, and there were similar declines in calories from private label products. Thus, the total reduction in CPG caloric sales between 2007 and 2012 was 99 kcal/capita/day.

The second paper looked at sales data for households.  It concludes that although sales of calories declined, they were already declining before the pledge.

Post-pledge reductions in calories purchased from HWCF brands were less than expected, and reductions in calories purchased from non-HWCF name brands and PLs [Private Labels] were greater than expected after economic, sociodemographic, and secular factors were accounted for.  If the 16 HWCF companies had been able to maintain their pre-pledge trajectory, there should have been an additional 42 kcal/capita/day reduction in calories purchased from HWCF products in 2012 among households with children.

Mary MacVean’s account in the Los Angeles Times quotes any number of experts calling this an impressive achievement that will not, however, “reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity, especially among poor people and some minority groups.”

She quotes Popkin:

The calories purchased has really gone down. And most of the decline is in the kind of food you and I would call junk food or junk beverages.. But not all the news is positive…What we don’t have is an increase in beans, whole grains, produce.

Much publicity will be made of this small step in the right direction.  But what does it mean?

Is the reduction in calories due to lower sales of packaged foods in general—the secular trend—or to food companies’ taking the pledge seriously.  I vote for secular trends—fewer sugary soft drinks and sugary cereals.

The lack of evidence for increased purchases of healthier foods also is troubling.

Big retailers still show no evidence of promoting healthier foods.

Overall, this pledge is about selling packaged food products, not foods.

And what counts is what’s actually eaten.

The bottom line: Eat your veggies.

If you do—and manage to keep packaged, highly processed foods to a minimum—you don’t need to worry about any of this.

 

Sep 16 2014

Trade negotiations continued: the meaning of “culturally appropriate food”

While I’m thinking about trade negotiations, I came across this example of why trade negotiators fight over every word.

NPR’s The Salt reports that member nations of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are in the process of developing guidelines for responsible investment in agriculture and food systems.

Responsible investment, they say,

is essential for enhancing food security and nutrition and supporting the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security. Responsible investment is a significant contribution to enhancing sustainable livelihoods, in particular for smallholders, and members of marginalized and vulnerable groups, creating decent work for all agricultural and food workers eradicating poverty, fostering social and gender equality, eliminating the worst forms of child labour, promoting social participation and inclusiveness, increasing economic growth, and therefore achieving sustainable development.

The guidelines are responding to concerns over “land grabs” — the term used to describe how corporations and governments are taking advantage of unclear land ownership in developing countries to buy up large tracts, regardless of consequences for previous users of the land.

Land grabs displace small farmers and have become the focus of advocacy by Oxfam.

In contrast, says FAO, responsible investment contributes to food security and nutrition through:

Increasing sustainable production and productivity of safe, nutritious, diverse, and culturally acceptable food and reducing food loss and waste.

At issue is the meaning of “culturally acceptable.”

The US delegation demanded a definition, objecting that the lack of one could lead to trade barriers against, for example, genetically modified foods.

It suggested this:

For the purposes of this document, consumers, through the free exercise of their choices and demand, determine what food is culturally acceptable.

In other words, says The Salt, “as long as somebody wants to buy it, it’s fine.”

The African delegations forged a compromise.

In the current version of the document, “culturally appropriate food” enables

consumer choice by promoting the availability of and access to food that is safe, nutritious, diverse and culturally acceptable, which in the context of this document is understood as food that corresponds to individual and collective consumer demand and preferences, in line with national and international law as applicable.

Aren’t you glad they got that settled?

Sep 15 2014

Book alert: Getting to Yum

Karen Le Billon.  Getting to Yum: The 7 Secrets of Raising Eager Eaters.  HarperCollins, 2014

I’m a big fan of Le Billon’s work (see comments on her previous book) and also blurbed this one, as you can tell from the cover.  Here’s the whole blurb:

What I love best about Getting to Yum is how it celebrates the fun and joy of parenting—even of picky eaters.   Following Le Billon’s advice and playing the games described in this book should make it a pleasure to teach kids about delicious food, encourage healthier eating habits, and counter the relentless marketing of junk food, without ever turning the dinner table into a battlefield.  Any parent eager to get kids to eat vegetables must read this instant classic right now. 

Sep 12 2014

More on food trade: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP)

Here’s another post on US food trade agreements.  This is a hot topic right now but so complicated—so many agreements and policies, and so many look-alike abbreviations—that the specific policies are not easy to understand.

As I mentioned in a previous post on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, The US has trade agreements with 20 countries, and believes these provide many benefits such as “fueling economic growth, supporting good jobs at home, raising living standards and helping Americans provide for their families with affordable goods and services.”

Trade negotiations must create win-win situations for both partners, or they fail.

They run into trouble when one partner has higher food safety standards than another.

T-TIP: The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

Americans may hardly have heard of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP),but it has caused large public protest demonstrations in Europe.

T-TIP, according to the US Trade Representative, is

an ambitious, comprehensive, and high-standard trade and investment agreement being negotiated between the United States and the European Union (EU). T-TIP will help unlock opportunity for American families, workers, businesses, farmers and ranchers through increased access to European markets for Made-in-America goods and services. This will help to promote U.S. international competitiveness, jobs and growth.

The EU puts the matter more succinctly.  TTIP (no hyphen), the EU says

aims at removing trade barriers in a wide range of economic sectors to make it easier to buy and sell goods and services between the EU and the US.

Sounds good, no?

As PoliticoPro explains, “U.S. ambassadors heart TTIP.”  It reports that the US ambassador to Sweden went on a 7-day, 400-mile bicycle ride wearing a TTIP tee-shirt to sell the agreement “to small businesses, local political leaders and everyday citizens” through videos describing its benefits.  And,

In Germany, the U.S. embassy is offering grants of $5,000 to $20,000 for activities promoting the trade deal, while American diplomats in the Netherlands have upped the awards to $24,000.

Why the heavy sales pressure?

It turns out that plenty of people do not “heart” the deal.  In the TTIP regulations are provisions that would

  • Allow foreign companies to sue governments over regulations that damage business, even if they put consumers at risk.
  • Allow harm to the environment.
  • Reduce EU food safety standards: bring U.S. poultry rinsed with hyperchlorinated water into Europe, for example.
  • Protect regional food names like Parmigiano-Reggiano (the US doesn’t like this one)

The EU denies that these are problems.

On the other hand, a new report out from the European Parliament says that while reducing tariffs will increase agricultural exports from the EU to the US by 60%, and imports from the US by 120% (by 2025), there are some risks to EU producers, especially those producing beef and suckler cows.

Unless the US and EU achieve “regulatory convergence,” meaning similarity in standards, EU producers may face the increased costs of complying with their own more stringent regulations in use of GMOs, use of pesticides, and food safety standards for meat.

The secrecy issues

Like other trade negotiations, T-TIP negotiations are exempt from the usual transparency requirements.  The EU explains why:

For trade negotiations to work and succeed, you need a certain degree of confidentiality, otherwise it would be like showing the other player one’s cards in a card game.

For a quick explanation of the secrecy and other concerns, see the video “TTIP: A Race to the Bottom” produced by The Greens/European Free Alliance.

The Greens point out that Corporate Europe Observatory, which tracks lobbying on TTIP, has

focused on the agribusiness sector showing that food multinationals have taken the largest share of Commission lobbying efforts for TTIP. There are fears such efforts have resulted in a corporate capture of the TTIP agenda, driven by some of the largest companies operating in both regions. It is likely to further add to calls for greater transparency in the negotiations, and may even risk stalling the deal altogether if efforts are not made to address public concerns surrounding its secrecy.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) is especially concerned about the secrecy of negotiations over the food safety provisions.   Negotiations, IATP says

are conducted largely as if they were private business deals. Despite many public interest issues that are subject to “least trade-restrictive” criteria in the TTIP and other so-called Free Trade Agreements, access to draft negotiating texts is restricted to negotiators and their security-cleared advisors, overwhelmingly corporate lobbyists. About 85 percent of 566 advisors to the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) come from various industry sectors.

The IATP’s analysis of leaked drafts of the agreement is enough to explain why trade agreements are so hard for mere mortals to fathom.  Lobbyists, however, are paid to know exactly what the provisions are, what they mean, and how to make sure they are worded to benefit their corporate employers.

Stay tuned.

Sep 10 2014

Congress vs. EPA’s Clean Water Act

I’m trying to understand what’s going on with the bill the House passed on Tuesday to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from doing what it proposed to do last April: define its ability to protect bodies of water in the United States against agricultural pollution.

Specifically, the EPA proposes that under the Clean Water Act, it can enforce pollution controls over:

  • Most seasonal and rain-dependent streams.
  • Wetlands near rivers and streams.
  • Other types of waters that have uncertain connections with downstream water (these will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis).

The Clean Water Act gives EPA the authority to set wastewater standards for industry, including agriculture.  The Act

  • Establishes the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges.
  • Grants EPA authority to implement pollution control programs.
  • Sets water quality standards for contaminants.
  • Makes it unlawful to discharge pollutants without a permit.

The Clean Water Act most definitely applies to agriculture:

According to the account in The Hill, the bill prohibits the EPA from establishing any regulations based on the proposals.

  • The EPA says the proposals do not expand the agency’s existing authority over US waters.
  • But Republicans, joined by some Democrats, say the proposals expand EPA jurisdiction over trivial bodies of water.

Trivial, of course, is a matter of perception.  Agricultural pollutants cause much damage to US waterways.  The proposals are aimed at containing some of the damage.

No wonder agribusiness wants to stop EPA from enforcing the Clean Water Act’s provisions.

The White House says it will veto the bill.  Let’s see what happens in the Senate.

 

Sep 9 2014

Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation weighs in on added sugars

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff sent me Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation’s  new position statement on Sugar, Heart Disease, and Stroke.

Its major recommendation is just like the one from the World Health Organization:

The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends that an individual’s total intake of free sugars not exceed 10% of total daily calorie (energy) intake,and ideally less than 5%.

The Canadian government, the Foundation says, should:

  • Ensure clear and comprehensive nutrition labelling of the free sugars content in the Nutrition Facts table of all packaged foods, grouping all sugars together when listingingredients on product packaging, and standardized serving sizes on the Nutrition Facts table.
  • Restrict the marketing of all foods and beverages to children.
  • Educate Canadians about the risks associated with free sugars consumption through public awareness and education campaigns.

Shouldn’t we be doing that too?

As Dr. Freedhoff puts it, it’s “Amazing how forceful and sweeping public health organizations can be when they don’t need to worry about upsetting their industry partners.”

Sep 8 2014

Trade issues: eye-glazing, but worth the trouble. Today: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)

Sunday’s New York Times discussed how foreign governments are dropping millions on Washington DC think tanks to fund reports explicitly designed to influence government agencies to set policies favorable to the donor country’s interests.  One such interest is food trade with Asia.

The line between scholarly research and lobbying can sometimes be hard to discern.

Last year, Japan began an effort to persuade American officials to accelerate negotiations over a free-trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), one of Japan’s top priorities. The country already had lobbyists on retainer, from the Washington firm of Akin Gump, but decided to embark on a broader campaign.

Akin Gump lobbyists approached several influential members of Congress and their staffs…seeking help in establishing a congressional caucus devoted to the partnership, lobbying records show. After those discussions, in October 2013, the lawmakers established just such a group, the Friends of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To bolster the new group’s credibility, Japanese officials sought validation from outside the halls of Congress. Within weeks, they received it from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to which Japan has been a longtime donor. The center will not say how much money the government has given — or for what exactly — but an examination of its relationship with a state-funded entity called the Japan External Trade Organization provides a glimpse.

In the past four years, the organization has given the center at least $1.1 million for “research and consulting” to promote trade and direct investment between Japan and the United States. The center also houses visiting scholars from within the Japanese government…one Japanese diplomat…said the country expected favorable treatment in return for donations to think tanks.  “If we put actual money in, we want to have a good result for that money — as it is an investment,” he said.

Ah yes, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  Let’s start with the context: The US has trade agreements with 20 countries.

These, says the US, provide many benefits:

Trade is critical to America’s prosperity – fueling economic growth, supporting good jobs at home, raising living standards and helping Americans provide for their families with affordable goods and services.

Obviously, Japan must think the TPP will do all that and more for Japan.

But trade negotiations run into trouble when one partner has higher food safety standards—Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures—than another.

This is an issue in current negotiations over the TPP.

Like other trade agreements, the negotiations are conducted in secret.

Over the past two years there has been a steady drip of stories about the secretive negotiations regarding the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Members of Congress and congressional staffers have been stymied in their efforts to perform some measure of oversight while major corporations have reportedly been given unfettered access and influence over the deal. The public has been kept almost completely in the dark regarding negotiations that affect everything from food prices to our ability to innovate on the Internet…Historically, international trade negotiations have happened through the World Trade Organization…Trade negotiators have had trouble closing major deals over the past decade, in part because the public, and sometimes their elected officials, have stood up to decry these secret negotiations, demanding oversight opportunities and setting up websites to post leaked drafts of the agreements.

According to PoliticoPro, negotiations on TPP with Japan and 10 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region are close to conclusion, but pork producers, other farm groups, and Republicans are insisting that Japan eliminate all agricultural tariffs and completely open its market to U.S. agricultural exports.

Japan says it can offer improved market access but cannot eliminate all tariffs because of pressures from its own farm groups.

At the end of July, some House members demanded that Japan—and Canada—be dropped from the TPP if they do not agree to eliminating tariffs.

Trade negotiations work in predictable ways.  for example, despite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which allows unfettered imports from Mexico, the US is imposing tariffs on Mexican sugar to prevent flooding the US market with cheap supplies that undermine sales of US sugar (NAFTA allows this).

The moral: In trade agreements, each country looks to maximize its own interests.  Hence: Japan’s lobbying via Washington think tanks.

Sep 5 2014

Never mind low-carb v. low-fat: Get a Lab (dog, that is)

A reader who prefers his name to go unmentioned writes this in response to yesterday’s post about low-carb v. low-fat diets:

Hi Marion,

It is pretty simple.

1. Calories in, Calories out!

2.  Eat less. I cut out beer and ice cream.

3.  Get a Labrador retriever and walk everyday. If you don’t the dog will drive you crazy and probably destroy your house.

I got my first Lab in 2002 and weighed 240.  I am on my second Lab and now continue to weigh about 210 after having lost 35 pounds by 2006, and have crept up about 5 pounds.

It ain’t complicated!

He could make a fortune.  Just think: the “Get a Lab” diet—a guaranteed success!

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