Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 9 2015

The Lancet series on obesity policy (in case you missed it)

Some time ago, I posted the terrific Lancet infographic on obesity policy.

Here are the series articles (or at least the abstracts) that go with it.

Jun 8 2015

The Blue Bell ice cream recall: a roundup

I was interested to read Michael Taylor’s comments on the recall of Blue Bell ice cream contaminated with Listeria.  Mr. Taylor is Deputy FDA Commissioner for food safety.

This was an outbreak in which 10 people were hospitalized and three died.  The best place to begin on this is on the CDC website for the Blue Bell outbreak.  It provides excellent graphics summarizing the number of cases and where they occurred:

This outbreak was particularly awful because inspections had found severe violations of standard food safety procedures, yet the company ignored them.  The result: people died.

Mr. Taylor asks if this outbreak could have been prevented with better FDA regulation.  In 2010, Congress passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) but it’s taken time for the implementation.  Taylor says:

the preventive controls for human food rule, if finalized as proposed, would require that companies like Blue Bell have a written food safety plan, based on an analysis of likely hazards, and companies would have to show us that plan during inspections.Listeria monocytogenes is a classic example of a hazard that a company should be controlling. Under the proposed standards, companies would be required to have the right controls in place to minimize hazards and would have to verify that their controls are working.

But, he says, to implement the law, the FDA needs funding: “If we do not get the funding, we will lose momentum, and implementation will be badly disrupted.”

Congress, no doubt, will continue to keep the FDA on a short string.  No industry likes being regulated and the food industry fights regulation in every way it can.

The FDA needs to do more to ensure food safety but can’t without inspectors.

That leaves legal approaches.  For these, I go right to the websites of the Marler-Clark law firm, which specializes in food safety cases.

Here’s what Bill Marler and his colleagues have had to say about the Blue Bell case (most recent first and I may be missing some):

Marler-Clark is filling a critical regulatory gap by suing companies that cause foodborne illnesses and deaths.  But this is after-the-fact.

As Bill Marler has been pleading since 2007: please put me out of business.

Prevention would be much, much better.  Hence the need for more FDA resources.

Update, June 12: The CDC concludes its investigations and the FDA releases reports

Jun 5 2015

Weekend reading: Agricultural & Food Controversies

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

This book purports to take an objective look at “why equally smart and kind people can form vastly different opinions about food.”

Good luck with “objective.”

These authors are professors in agriculture departments in state universities (Oklahoma and Florida) who wish that controversial subjects in food and agriculture could be explored “while paying respect to the character and intellect of both sides.”

But then they take on liberals.

Liberals, they say, “have a negative view of big business, and…comprise the majority of food activists, and you have a story that can explain the rise of many agricultural controversies.”

With this established, they take on issues such as pesticides, fertilizers, carbon footprints, GMOs, farm subsidies, local food, and animal welfare.

Although the authors seem to be struggling to be fair to the positions of “liberal activists,” they tend to judge those positions as overly simplistic.

In the view of this liberal activist (I prefer advocate, however), this book ends up reflecting the authors’ strong ties to—and defense of—industrial agricultural models.

This is a good place to start to understand the non-liberal activist perspective.

Jun 4 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership: Why WikiLeaks is offering $100K for a copy

WikiLeaks is offering $100,000 for a leaked copy of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, says the Washington Post.   It especially wants to see the agricultural chapters, as do we all.

For the WikiLeaks video (and pitch) that explains why it wants those TPP chapters, click here.

It’s worth trying to understand the TPP.  Since my earlier post on it, I’ve been collecting items to help clarify the various stakeholder positions on this agreement.

For the TTP  

The Obama administration, for reasons incomprehensible to Paul Krugman, among others, is very much for it.  It claims across-the-board benefits for U.S. agriculture.  For example:

Vegetables: U.S. exports of fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP countries face tariffs as high as 90 percent. Under the agreement, tariffs across the TPP region will be cut, offering new market access opportunities to U.S. producers and exporters of fresh and processed vegetables. In 2014 the United States exported almost $5 billion in fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP region.

The USDA’s has produced fact sheets on what TPP can do for individual states.   I checked the one for New York.  The expected benefits to the state are expressed generically, not specifically to New York State:

Fresh and Processed Vegetables: U.S. exports of fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP countries face tariffs as high as 90 percent. Under the agreement, tariffs across the TPP region will be cut, offering new market access opportunities to U.S. producers and exporters of fresh and processed vegetables. In 2014 the United States exported almost $5 billion in fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP region.

Dubious about the TTP

  • Start with Robert Reich’s 2-minute video: “The Worst Trade Deal You’ve Never Heard Of.”  He calls it a Trojan horse.  It allows corporations to sue governments for passing regulations that might affect corporate profits, among other bad things.
  • Paul Krugman votes “thumbs down” on the TPP.  He argues that trade agreements aren’t all that economically beneficial  and seem to be mostly about intellectual property rights–patents and the like.  He asks: “Why, exactly, should the Obama administration spend any political capital – alienating labor, disillusioning progressive activists – over such a deal?”  His slides illustrate these points.
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren tells Rachel Maddow that corporate lobbyists and executives—not the American Public—are involved in the TPP negotiations.
  • Joseph Stiglitz makes the same point.
  • Henry Greenberg and Stephanie Shiau write in the Journal of Public Health: “As it stands the TPPA poses serious risks to global public health, particularly chronic, non-communicable diseases. At greatest risk are national tobacco regulations, regulations governing the emergence of generic drugs and controls over food imports by transnational corporations.”
  • Eric Crosbie, MA, Mariaelena Gonzalez, PhD, and Stanton A. Glantz write in the American Journal of Public Health about how trade agreements prioritize investment and intellectual property rights over health.

WikiLeaks may be on the right track here.

Jun 2 2015

Industry-sponsored research: this week’s collection

Every time I collect five, I’m posting studies sponsored by food companies or trade associations that show benefits of the sponsor’s products.

I would love to be able to post industry-sponsored studies with results contrary to the sponsor’s interest, but I’m just not finding any.  If you run across some, please send.

Here’s this week’s batch, with comments on the last two:

Probiotic supplementation prevents high-fat, overfeeding-induced insulin resistance in human subjects. Carl J. Hulston, Amelia A. Churnside and Michelle C. Venables British Journal of Nutrition (2015), 113, 596–602 doi:10.1017/S0007114514004097.

  • Conclusion: These results suggest that probiotic supplementation may be useful in the prevention of diet-induced metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
  • Sponsor: The present study…was financially supported by industry funds. The cost of consumables for the study was covered by an educational grant from Yakult UK Limited.

Dairy Foods and Dairy Proteins in the Management of Type 2 Diabetes: A   Systematic Review of the Clinical Evidence.   Gonca Pasin and Kevin B Comerford.    Adv Nutr 2015; 6:245-259. doi:10.3945/an.114.007690.

  • Conclusion: Given cultured dairy products’ long history of safe use, and whey protein’s overall efficacy in clinical studies so far, these dairy products appear to have great potential to assist with the management of T2DM in millions of people worldwide, in an inexpensive and easily implementable manner.
  • Sponsor: California Dairy Research Foundation. G Pasin is the executive director of the California Dairy Research Foundation. KB Comerford is a paid consultant for the California Dairy Research Foundation.

One Egg per Day Improves Inflammation when Compared to an Oatmeal-Based Breakfast without Increasing Other Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Diabetic PatientsMartha Nydia Ballesteros , Fabrizio Valenzuela, Alma E. Robles, Elizabeth Artalejo, David Aguilar, Catherine J. Andersen, Herlindo Valdez  and Maria Luz Fernandez.   Nutrients 20157(5), 3449-3463; doi:10.3390/nu7053449

  • Conclusions:  When compared to an oatmeal breakfast, one egg per day did not result in changes in plasma glucose, our primary end point…[and other markers] indicating that eggs can be consumed without any detrimental changes in lipoprotein or glucose metabolism in this population. The most interesting finding, however, was that eggs—possibly due to their content of highly bioavailable lutein and zeaxanthin—reduced inflammation in diabetic subjects when compared to oatmeal intake.
  • Sponsor: Egg Nutrition Center

The Acute Electrocortical and Blood Pressure Effects of ChocolateM. Montopoli, L. C. Stevens, C. Smith, G. Montopoli, S. Passino, S, Brown, L. Camou, K. Carson, S. Maaske, K. Knights, W. Gibson, J. Wu.  NeuroRegulation 2015;2(1):3-28.  doi: 10.15540/nr.2.1.3.

  • Conclusions: This is the first known study to investigate acute EEG effects of consuming chocolate and suggests a potential attention-enhancing effect… there is clearly the possibility of an application of this combination of L-theanine and cacao in the treatment of hypertension.
  • Sponsor: “Chocolate products for this study were provided by a generous grant in supplies from The Hershey Company…Grateful appreciation is expressed to Dr. Debra Miller and to the staff at The Hershey Company for their guidance and support throughout this project and for their careful review of this manuscript prior to submission.”

Comment: I learned about this study from FoodNavigator, which deserves highest praise for this headline: “Step aside energy drinks: Chocolate has a stimulating effect on human brains, says Hershey-backed study.”  Bravo!

Efficacy and safety of LDL-lowering therapy among men and women: meta-analysis of individual data from 174 000 participants in 27 randomised trials.   Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration.  Lancet 2015:385:1397-1405.

  • Conclusion: “In men and women at an equivalent risk of cardiovascular disease, statin therapy is of similar effectiveness for the prevention of major vascular events.”
  • Conflicts reported: The CTT Collaboration reports funding by various British and Australian research councils and foundations, “and not by the pharmaceutical industry.” But, it says, most of trials covered by its analysis were supported by the drug industry, and numerous members of the CTT report fees, grants, consultancies, or honoraria from various companies making cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Note:  drug companies have a vested interest in promoting drug, rather than dietary, approaches to LDL-lowering.

Comment: Conflicts of interest do not necessarily mean that the results of the study were manipulated or wrong.  They do mean that the methods and results require more than the usual level of scrutiny.  Sponsored studies almost invariably produce results consistent with the sponsor’s economic or marketing interests.

It’s likely that some industry-sponsored studies produce conclusions contrary to the sponsor’s interest.  If you know of any, please send.

Jun 1 2015

Big Food owns pet food companies?

A twitter follower, @davelove1 asks:

@marionnestle what do you think about big food companies buying pet food brands?

His question referred to an article in the Washington Post titled the McDonaldization of pet foods.

The New York Times also covered the buying of pet food brands by Big Food companies, in this case, the purchase by Smucker’s of Big Heart Pet Brands, “the company once known as Del Monte.”

That rang a bell.

In my book with Malden Nesheim about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right, we used Del Monte as an example of the buying and selling of pet food brands.


That was 2009.  Now we need to add new boxes for Big Heart and for Smuckers.

Del Monte isn’t the only Big Food company to own pet food brands:

  • Nestlé (no relation) owns Purina PetCare, with a long list of brands.
  • Mars (yes, the chocolate company) has a Petcare division
  • Procter & Gamble used to own Iams but sold it to Mars in 2014 for nearly $3 billion

The one other big brand is Hills.  It is owned by Colgate Palmolive.

Of course Big Food companies want to own pet food brands; they are hugely profitable.

  • The ingredients are cheap byproducts of human food production that would otherwise go to waste.
  • They can be sold at shockingly high prices, especially when marketed with health claims.

Our book gives generic recipes for making your own complete and balanced pet foods.  Enjoy!

May 29 2015

Weekend reading: Food Ethics for Everyone

Paul Thompson.  From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone.  Oxford University Press, 2015.

I was pleased to be asked to blurb this one:

From Field to Fork makes it clear that every food choice has ethical implications and that sorting out these implications from the science and politics of food is anything but simple.   The ethical issues discussed in this book are fascinatingly complex and deserve the serious debates they are sure to stimulate.  If ever a book provided food for thought, it’s this one.

May 28 2015

What’s up with the Trade Promotion Authority act?

What’s going on with the Trade Promotion Authority act (TPA) has lots of people worried.   The bill, known as “fast track,” allows President Obama to make trade agreements that Congress can approve or reject, but cannot change.

The Senate passed the TPA.  It now goes to the House.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a congratulatory statement:

Today the Senate helped move America closer to securing responsible agreements that open markets for America’s farmers, ranchers and agribusiness and create jobs and improve wages across the country…Our farmers and ranchers face exorbitant tariffs and others barriers in important foreign markets, and if we do not act to maintain and gain market share in these places, our competitors will.

On the other hand, 2009 labor, environmental, family farm, consumer, faith, Internet freedom and other organizations oppose the TPA.  They say “Fast Track is rigged to give special rights to corporations at the expense of workers and consumers.”

TPP rally Maryland

In an article in the American Journal of Public Health last year, tobacco researchers explained the problem:

International trade agreements relocate decisions about tobacco control policy to venues where there is little opportunity for public scrutiny, participation, and debate…“Fast-track authority,” in which Congress cedes ongoing oversight authority to the President, further distances the public from the debate.

As I explained in previous posts on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), trade agreements:

  • Are conducted in secrecy
  • View safety regulations and matters such as country-of-origin labeling (see yesterday’s post) as trade barriers
  • Allow multinational corporations to sue governments for passing laws that might affect corporate profits

I’ll be trying to keep up with what’s going on with trade agreements.  Stay tuned.

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