Jan 1 2010

What’s up with food and nutrition in 2010?

My San Francisco Chronicle column, now appearing in print on the first Sunday of the month, is also online.

Its title:  “Hot food issues ready to boil over this year.”

Q: What do you think will happen with food and nutrition in 2010?

A: I wish I could read the leaves while I drink tea, but the best I can do is tell you which issues I’m going to be watching closely this year.

Hunter Public Relations recently asked 1,000 Americans which food-related issues they thought were most important in 2009. The top three? Food safety, hunger and food prices. For the decade, the winner was childhood obesity.

I have my own top 10 list of hot-button issues for 2010, and here they are:

  • Hunger: More than 35 million Americans get benefits to which they are entitled under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly, food stamps). The economy may be improving, but not quickly enough for millions who have lost jobs, health care and housing. Will Congress do anything this year to strengthen the safety net for the poor? It needs to.
  • Childhood obesity: Rates of childhood obesity may have stabilized, but we all want to figure out how to prevent kids from gaining so much weight that they develop adult chronic diseases. I expect to see more efforts to improve school food and make neighborhoods more conducive to walking to school, riding bikes and playing outside.
  • Food safety regulation: Congress is sitting on a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration some real authority for food safety. The bill does not do what is most needed – establish a single food-safety agency – but is a reasonable step in the right direction. Let’s hope Congress gets to it soon.
  • Food advertising and labels: The long-dormant FDA and Federal Trade Commission are getting busy at last. In the wake of the Smart Choices fiasco, the FDA is working to make package labels less misleading and easier to understand. The agencies have proposed nutrition standards for products marketed to children. These voluntary standards fall far short of my preference – an outright ban on marketing junk foods to kids – but puts food companies on notice that their products are under scrutiny. The FDA is also working on designs for front-of-package labels. I’m hoping it chooses a “traffic-light” system that marks foods with a green (any time), yellow (sometimes) or red (hardly ever) dot. Expect plenty of opposition from the makers of red-dotted products.
  • Meat: The meat industry has been under fire for raising food animals under inhumane conditions, using unnecessary hormones and antibiotics, mistreating immigrant labor, and polluting soil and water. Now it is also under fire for contributing to climate change. Recent films like “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh” and books such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” are encouraging people to become vegetarians or to eat less meat to promote the health of people and the planet. I’ll bet the meat industry pushes back hard on this one.
  • Sustainable agriculture: The back-to-the land movement has loads of people buying local food, choosing foods produced under more sustainable conditions and growing their own food. The number of small farms in America increased last year for the first time in a century. Seed companies cannot keep up with the demand. It will be fun to follow what happens with this trend.
  • Genetically modified (GM) foods: My book, “Safe Food,” comes out in a new edition this year, so I am paying especially close attention to debates about GM foods. The FDA’s 1994 decision to prohibit labeling of GM foods continues to haunt the food biotechnology industry. By now, nearly all American soybeans and sugar beets (95 percent) are GM, as is most corn (60 percent). But when the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved GM sugar beets in 2005, it neglected to perform the required environmental impact assessment. On that basis, environmental groups want to ban further planting of GM sugar beets. The dispute is now in the courts.
  • Chemical contaminants: The FDA has yet to release its report on the safety of bisphenol A, the plastic chemical that acts as an endocrine disrupter. Shouldn’t it be banned? The bottling industry says no. Watch for fierce arguments over this one.
  • Salt: Nutrition standards allow 480 mg sodium (the equivalent of more than 1 gram of salt) per serving. A half cup of canned soup provides that much. A whole cup gives you 4 grams and the whole can gives you 8 grams – much more than anyone needs. Nearly 80 percent of salt in American diets comes from processed and restaurant foods. Companies are under pressure to cut down on salt. Will they? Only if they have to.
  • Dietary advice: The new edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which the government publishes every five years, is due this year. What will it say? I can’t wait to find out.

Those are the issues I am tracking these days. My one crystal-ball prediction? We will be hearing a lot more about them this year.

Happy new year!

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  • http://www.petconnection.com/blog Gina Spadafori

    I think more than hunger for many is access to decent food. Marion, there’s a route I have to take frequently, a busy street with a large apartment complex on one side and a large liquor store on the other. I always see a lot of women and children on the apartment side, and the cars in the lot are battered and old. I’m guessing a lot of the women — single mothers — have no transportation.

    Many’s the time I’ve seen women and children — or horrifying, given the traffic on this street, just children — crossing the street back from the liquor store with some “snacks” for dinner. I’ve yet to see one even carrying back a piece of fruit. It’s all packages — chips, candy bars and sodas.

    I think urban gardening and projects like the one run here in Sac by Soil Born Farms (http://www.soilborn.org/) will be one of the issues as we go forward. Many have lost the knowledge of how to eat well for little money, and coupled with the loss of access to the unprocessed ingredients to good food … well, as I said: People are eating, but in ways that will hurt them in the long run.

  • http://www.petconnection.com/blog Gina Spadafori

    P.S. Happy New Year! from one of your biggest fans. :)

  • Cassie

    All of your items are interesting and important, but the one I’ve really felt lately has been the issues surrounding meat. I like meat, but I hardly ever buy it anymore. Every time I read an article about how commercial meat is produced, it just pushes me more toward vegetarianism.

    The kind of meat I want to buy is very expensive, which cuts down on the quantity of meat my family consumes. And even when I find meat that I think will be acceptable, such as bison that is grass-fed, I worry about what happens to it when the animal is killed inhumanely.

    I have an acquaintance who humanely but illegally kills his own cows, mostly for his own family’s consumption. I wonder if these sorts of activities will spread?

    Thanks for all your blog posts, and your books!

  • Anthro

    @Cassie

    North Star Bison in Wisconsin (northstarbison.com) kill their bison as humanely as possible. They separate the doomed from the herd, truck them to another area, and shoot them in the head. Instant death. They then have one-half hour (I believe) under the law to get them to a licensed processor, which is what they do. It’s a family farm and they ship in dry-ice containers all over the country. It’s not cheap, but it’s a fair price and they have specials and bulk prices. One of the things they do that impresses me is that they never take the young from the mothers too soon. This operation is as humane as it gets if you are going to eat flesh.

    I visited them in the winter and sat on the pasture fence and watched these magnificent animals huddling together in a snowstorm with chunks of ice/snow on their backs. They were majestic even in these circumstances. It was not easy to take home a cooler full of burgers that day and we eat it sparingly, more or less as an occasional treat.

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  • http://www.biofortified.org Karl Haro von Mogel

    Marion, I believe I have pointed out to you before on your blog that your description of the 1994 FDA decision is incorrect. The FDA does not prohibit labeling of foods derived through genetic engineering, nor does it prohibit the labeling of foods that are not derived through genetic engineering. It’s decision in 1994 was not to REQUIRE labeling of GE foods. There’s a huge difference between the two and I hope you will correct the record on this statement of yours in the SF Chronicle.

  • Paula Moon

    Anthro,

    Thank You much for your clear (crystal…) insights. Although I am vegetarian, as you share what is in your Heart, you open my Mind.

  • Anon

    The GHG cost of meat production may be considerably overstated, given the following:

    On the US Food Policy blog is this post – US dairy industry’s “sustainability plan” http://usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com/2009/12/us-dairy-industrys-sustainability-plan.html

    One of the websites linked in that post is to a site with a presentation by Dr. Mitloehner, UC Davis, with this conclusion (http://airquality.ucdavis.edu/pages/events/2009/greenacres/DairyMitloehner.pdf):

    “In the United States, transportation accounts for at least 26% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions compared to roughly 6-8% for all of agriculture, which includes less than 3% associated with livestock production.”

    In his publications (http://animalscience.ucdavis.edu/faculty/Mitloehner/pubs.htm) is this recent paper:

    Pitesky, M., K. Stackhouse, and F.M. Mitloehner. 2009. Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contributions to Climate Change. Advances in Agronomy, 103: 1-40.

  • Philip

    There is an interesting article here
    http://healthjournalclub.blogspot.com/2009/11/armageddon-bug.html
    on how researchers in Australia tried to devise, using genetic engineering a contraceptive virus for mice and instead created a version of mousepox that was incredibly lethal

  • Cassie

    @Anthro,

    Thanks for the link. I live in northern Illinois, so that’s very accessible for me.

  • http://sodiumgirl.com sodiumgirl

    Dr. Nestle -

    I was so pleasantly surprised to see that a reduction of salt made your list of health and food issues. I was diagnosed with Lupus Nephritis 6 years ago and as a result suffered kidney failure. I was determined to rely on as little medicine and medical intervention as possible and began to live on a low to no sodium diet. My kidneys ended up partially regenerating and I am no longer on dialysis nor do I currently need a transplant. I have wonderful medical attention, but I think altering my diet allowed me to have some self-control over my health. I started a blog to help others (whether they have diabetes, high blood pressure, or overall want to eat in a more healthful manner) keep a low sodium diet in a successful and satisfying way. Thank you again for shedding light on this subject!

  • Kristin

    Does it seem strange that 2 of the biggest concerns are hunger and obesity? Seems a bit contradictory. But do you see that both are really suffering from the same thing? Malnutrition!

    We live in the land of plenty and yet, people are still suffering. There is an abundance of food and food programs, and enough food in this country to feed everyone. Most people in this country do not go to bed with an empty stomach. And yet the people as a whole suffer as though that were true. I believe the over-riding tragedy is that basically there is no food left in our food.

    No matter if you eat organic, or grass fed, or open range, etc… There are significant nutrient losses in our foods that due to our agricultural practices can never be replaced. Now more than ever supplementation of our diets is necessary. In order to have any chance at health we must replace the missing nutrients in our foods.

    I came a cross a documentary recently – http://www.foodmatters.tv . This is one of the most compelling documentaries I have ever seen and there is information contained in it that every person needs to know. The glimpse of hope is that this is just a portion of the research proving that nutrition directly impacts health and that real food supplements can and do give the body what it despirately needs for health.

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  • http://www.biofortified.org Karl Haro von Mogel

    Earlier, I left a comment asking about a statement that you made in your New Years SF Chronicle column. Naturally, I wouldn’t expect that every comment gets answered, but I think this issue is important because it also appeared in print and it is the second time I pointed it out on your blog. You said:
    “The FDA’s 1994 decision to prohibit labeling of GM foods continues to haunt the food biotechnology industry.”

    My understanding of the FDA’s 1992 (not 1994) decision is that there was no prohibition of labeling GE foods, in fact, they even outlined several instances in which it must be labeled, such as if there is a nutritional difference, for example. The FDA decided that it would not require GE labels if it didn’t significantly alter the food, which is very different from prohibiting such labels. Do you agree?

    Here is the FDA page describing this:
    http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/FoodLabelingNutrition/ucm059098.htm
    And the 1992 document, in more detail:
    http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/Biotechnology/ucm096095.htm

  • Marion

    @Karl: You are of course strictly correct. Companies using GM ingredients are perfectly free to say so. But companies that want to say they are NOT using GM ingredients can only do so if they (1) prove that none of the ingredients are GM, and (2) publish a disclaimer that there isn’t any difference between GM and GM-free ingredients. The entire point of Monsanto’s lobbying the FDA NOT to require labeling (which I witnessed first-hand as a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee) was to make sure that food companies would not disclose GM ingredients. The FDA ruling effectively discourages disclosure, but that’s not the same as prohibition, except in practice.

  • http://www.biofortified.org Karl Haro von Mogel

    Marion, thanks for responding to my comment. I seem to recall that part on the the FDA website on how they advise against labeling, so I do agree that they discourage labeling. I can also understand from their perspective that they have tons of labels to evaluate to figure out what labels are misleading people and what aren’t and that they would not like to have to get into regulating GE labels when they stem more from social rather than scientific reasons.

    I hope that in the future then, that you will consider describing it as discouraging labeling while also requiring it in certain circumstances. Otherwise your readers will almost certainly get the wrong impression about the current policy.
    Thanks!

  • http://geneticmaize.com Anastasia

    “companies that want to say they are NOT using GM ingredients can only do so if they … publish a disclaimer that there isn’t any difference between GM and GM-free ingredients.”

    Where does this have to be published? I haven’t seen any such disclaimer on labels that say things like “GM Free”.

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  • http://www.biofortified.org Karl Haro von Mogel

    Re: Anastasia, Yes I noticed that, too. I wonder if a certain labeling organization is aware of this?

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