Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 23 2015

Weekend reading: Liz Carlilisle’s Lentil Underground

Liz Carlisle.  Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America.  Gotham Books, 2015.

 

I did a blurb for this one:

What does it take to farm sustainably—and make a living?  Liz Carlisle tells the engrossing story of the “audacity rich, but capital poor” Montana farmers who thought lentils were the answer and stuck with them until proved right.  Anyone who dreams of starting a farm or wants to know how organic farmers can overcome the obstacles they face will be inspired by this book.

Jan 22 2015

Seattle menu labeling improves calorie awareness and use

A study just published in the American Journal of Public Health demonstrates some benefits from menu labeling.

In 2009, a year after New York City, Seattle required calorie labeling on the menus of restaurants.  Its evaluation found:

Calorie information awareness and use increased significantly from 2008 to 2010…the proportion who saw and used calorie information tripled, from 8.1% to 24.8%…White, higher income, and obese respondents had greater odds of seeing calorie information….Significant increases in calorie information awareness and use following regulation support the population-wide value of this policy.

As Helena Bottemiller Evich reports in Politico, this is

a finding that gives some hope to the advocates of FDA’s menu labeling final rule, released in November 2014 with a Dec. 1, 2015 implementation date, especially as some industry groups continue to push Congress to narrow the impact of the Affordable Care Act mandate so it doesn’t apply to grocery stores and movie theaters along with restaurant chains.

Menu labeling went national when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010.  It’s taken the FDA this long to get the rules out.

In the meantime, evaluations of New York City’s policies and now Seattle’s continue to show some benefits—at least among people who look at the labeling.

As I keep saying, calorie labeling most definitely affects my menu choices, but I tend to look at such things.

Jan 21 2015

Why voluntary guidelines for marketing to kids can’t work

Some of the reaction to yesterday’s post commenting on guidelines for voluntary restrictions on marketing to kids focused on political realities.  Given that our current Congress is highly unlikely to enact mandatory guidelines, improving voluntary guidelines is the best we can do.

Maybe, but some members of Congress are willing to take action.

Take a look at Buzz Kill, a report on the marketing of highly caffeinated energy drinks by the staff of Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) in coordination with the staff of Senators Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)

Concerned about the effects of these drinks on the health of America’s youth, the Senators held hearings and sent a questionnaire to the 16 major companies that make these drinks “to assess the extent to which the energy drink industry as a whole will commit to voluntary measures that will better protect young consumers and prevent misuse.”

Buzz Kill summarizes what they learned from the 12 companies that responded.

  • Only 4 of the 12 companies said they would not market to youth under age 18 (these companies constitute 90% of the market).
  • Only one company committed to all specific measures: labeling products as not intended for youth under age 18, restricting advertising buys to media where no more than 35 percent of the audience is under age 18, restricting social media access for youth under age 18, and avoiding featuring youth under age 18 in energy drink marketing campaigns.
  • All but one of the responding companies said they would not market, sample, or sell their products in K-12 school settings, but 2 companies used equivocal language.
  • 6 of 10 companies said they were willing to report adverse advents; 3 of 10 said they would do so under specified conditions, and 1 refused to report.
  • 3 companies that belong to the American Beverage Association, which says its members are committed not to market caffeinated energy drinks as sports drinks, do so.
  • Most of the 12 companies label caffeine content on their products, and say they will not promote rapid or excessive consumption or the mixing of energy drinks with drugs or alcohol.
  • 4 of the 12 companies (representing 90% of the market) refuse to commit to protecting adolescents from targeted marketing campaigns.

Summary: the companies that own 90% of the energy drink market are largely unwilling to do much to stop marketing their products to kids under age 18.

Buzz Kill comes with recommendations.  Here’s the first:

To protect youth, all energy drink manufacturers should cease marketing of energy drink products to children and teens under the age of 18 and sales of these products in K-12 school settings. Companies should engage with distributers and other third-party entities to ensure all contractual partners are bound by this commitment. Additionally, companies should put in place social media and online restrictions, and cease online appeals and marketing to children and teens.

It also comes with an ask: write a letter to the companies asking for stronger voluntary commitments.

It says nothing about regulation.  But Buzz Kill provides plenty of evidence that nothing short of regulation will get these companies to stop such practices.

The Europeans are regulating energy drinks.  We can too.

Jan 20 2015

The latest report on food marketing to kids: Healthy Eating Research

Healthy Eating Research (HER), a group sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has just released a report on food marketing to kids, an issue brief with recommendations, and an Infographic summarizing the report’s major points.

The recommendations are aimed at the food industry’s voluntary guidelines for what and how junk foods can be marketed to kids.  These are famously weak and HER set out to tweak them to make the recommendations stronger.

This report provides an excellent summary of what’s wrong with marketing to kids.

But its recommendations are disappointing.  Here they are from the Infographic:

Picture1These are undoubtedly too small for you to read and, in any case, are written so tentatively—they do not use the word “should”—that they require translation.  Here’s mine:

Guidelines for food marketing should apply to:

  • Kids age 14 or younger (not 11)
  • Audiences containing 25% or more of kids under age 14 (not 35%)
  • Both food products and brands (not just products).
  • All marketing aimed at kids, everywhere kids are (not just TV or Internet)

These are tweakings of voluntary guidelines.

I don’t see the point.  If we really want the food industry to stop marketing unhealthy foods and drinks to kids, the guidelines can’t be voluntary and tweakings are unlikely to help.

Food marketing to kids is flat-out unethical and should stop.

The industry will never do this voluntarily.

That’s the issue such reports need to address.

Jan 16 2015

Reading for the holiday weekend: agricultural controversies

Two new books deal with a range of issues under current debate: GMOs, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, farm subsidies, local food, livestock raising methods, organics, and what have you.

The first calls on good government to take action to resolve the controversies.   The second takes a cost/benefit approach and argues for technological change to settle the issues.

Singly or together, both should stimulate debate—in and out of the classroom.

F. Bailey Norwood, Pascal A. Oltenacu, Michelle S. Calvo-Lorenzo, and Sarach Lancaster.  Agricultural & Food Controversies: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Oxford University Press, 2015.

New Picture

 

Andrew Barkley and Paul W. Barkley.  Depolarizing Food and Agriculture: An Economic Approach.  Routledge, 2015.

The issues discussed in these books are not easy to resolve.  Research on them is limited and incomplete.  Viewpoints differ widely.  Depolarization—or detente, as USDA Secretary Vilsack called it last year—will not be easy.  It’s worth taking the trouble to understand the basis of the debates and these books are a good place to start.

Happy holiday.

Jan 14 2015

Institute of Medicine releases report: Framework for Assessing Food System Effects

The Institute of Medicine has just released A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System.

The report is enormous (my paper copy weighs more than 5 pounds) and it is about as wonky as these things get.

It’s underlying purpose is buried in the Preface.

The U.S. food system provides a remarkably varied food supply to the U.S. consumer at lower cost than nearly anywhere else in the world. Many are concerned, however, that the cost of food in the marketplace may not reflect its true cost. Some of the costs of food production and distribution are not reflected in the marketplace price of food but are “externalized,” borne by other aspects of the health, environmental, and social domains of our society.

This report is about how to establish a basis for calculating the true cost of industrial food production.

The committee did not actually calculate such costs.  The report just says what researchers need to consider when making such calculations.

Even without having done that work, the report is a fabulous resource for understanding the the effects of the US food system on health, economics, the environment, and society.

It establishes the framework and explains how to use it:

  • Recognize effects across the entire food system
  • Consider all effects
  • Account for complexities
  • Choose appropriate methods

Reading through this takes some doing.  Here, for example, is what it says about using the framework:

The framework provides a set of design considerations for planning an assessment of the food system across the domains of health, environmental, social, and economic effects. It invites the user to think explicitly about system boundaries, dynamics, heterogeneity across space and populations, and the range of driving forces that shape food system outcomes…What this framework suggests is that all else does not remain equal and that any meaningful assessment must consider the likely and unintended consequences of proposed change for the status quo when its performance is in question.

The report gives specific examples of how the framework works for examining the effects of advice about eating fish or fruits and vegetables or changing the way hens are caged.

An Epilogue has some concluding thoughts.  Some selected examples:

  • Comprehensive studies of food systems that use all principles of the committee’s framework are rare in published literature.
  • Policies or actions that aim for an outcome in one domain of the food system (e.g., health) can have consequences not only in the same domain, but also in other ones (e.g., environmental, social, and economic domains.
  • Even though major improvements in the U.S. food system have resulted in the past from the introduction of new technologies, needed future improvements in the system may not be achievable solely through technological innovation and may require more comprehensive approaches that incorporate non-technological factors to reach long-term solutions.

The report ends with some recommendations, among them:

  • The committee recommends that Congress and federal agencies continue funding and supporting the collection (and improvement) of federally supported datasets that can be used for food system assessment studies along with consideration to creating new data collection programs as priorities arise.
  • The committee also notes the need to build human capacity in the field of systems science research.
  • The committee intends the report to stimulate broad thinking about the consequences of food system policies and actions beyond a single dimension.

OK food system analysts: get to work.  Find out what industrial food production really costs—economically, socially, and environmentally.

Here are the documents:

Jan 13 2015

Another food safety scare: this time, crocodile bile?

Yesterday’s New York Times contained this remarkable news item from the Associated Press, reproduced here in its entirety (thanks to Maya Joseph for making sure I didn’t miss it):

Contaminated traditional beer has killed 56 people in Mozambique, health officials said Sunday. In addition, 49 people were admitted to hospitals in the Chitima and Songo districts in Tete Province, and 146 people have been examined for signs of the poisoning, a district health official, Alex Albertini, told Radio Mozambique. Those who drank the contaminated brew were attending a funeral in the region on Saturday, Mr. Albertini said. The authorities said they believed that the drink was poisoned with crocodile bile during the course of the funeral. The woman who brewed the beer is also among the dead.

A little checking around brought me to The Guardian, which explained:

When a crocodile is killed, its gallbladder must be immediately removed and buried in front of witnesses to stopped the bile being used as a poison, according to some African traditions.

But wait!

David Kroll writing in Forbes questions the accuracy of this report.  He did some homework and found an 1980s article from an African medical journal written by professor N.Z. Nyazema, a clinical pharmocologist at the University of Zimbabwe (whom Kroll is trying to track down).  Professor Nyazema says:

It is widely believed that the bile from the gall bladder of a crocodile is very poisonous. The bilenduru is used as poison which is added to beer or stiff porridge, sadza, of an unsuspecting victim. It is not easy to buy this poison neither is it easy for anyone to kill a crocodile solely for the purpose of obtaining the bile. But with a good fee one can obtain some of the poison from a special n’anga [a traditional healer of the Zimbabwean Shona tribe]…It is reported that the poisoning occurs at special occasions like beer drinking: The nduru is said to be introduced into the beer by dipping the finger or nail where a small amount is placed: This will suffice for the purpose.

Kroll sensibly asks: “In the current tragedy in Mozambique, I can’t imagine just how much bile would’ve had to be added to 210 liters of brew for so many deaths to occur.”

Good point.  He suspects digitalis from foxglove.

I’m crossing this one off my list of food ingredients to worry about.  Whew.

Jan 12 2015

Drink less soda? Coke cuts jobs.

That Coca-Cola is cutting between 1600 and 1800 jobs in the next few months, 500 of them in Atlanta (Coke’s home town), is big news.

Why is Coke doing this?  According to the New York Times, the company says:

  • “to streamline our business”
  • “to help fund the stepped-up marketing it believes is needed to drive up beverage sales”  (oh, great)

IBTimes offers another reason:

And as the Wall Street Journal explains, “Austerity is the new flavor at Coca-Cola”:

Atlanta-based Coke plans to ax at least 1,000 to 2,000 jobs globally in the coming weeks, the biggest thinning of its ranks in 15 years. It is also introducing stricter budgeting, telling executives to swap limousines for taxis, and dropped its lavish Christmas party for Wall Street analysts.  The moves are part of a $3 billion cost-cutting plan Coke announced in October after warning it would miss profit targets this year and next as consumers drink less soda, for decades its cash cow. The austerity push is a culture shock for a company that traditionally has grown, not shrunk, its way to prosperity.

The business press is much less interested in the health benefits that will accrue as a result.  These don’t count on Wall Street.

They should.

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