Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 18 2016

New report on GMOs: safe but “more research needed” (sigh)

The National Academies of Science has just released its long-awaited report “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects.”

I was a reviewer on this report months ago and as far as I can tell it hasn’t changed much from when I sent in my comments.  Here’s what I said:

In light of public polarization of opinion of GE foods, this report tries to do something quite difficult—to come to evidence-based opinions about the risks and benefits of these foods now and in the future.  The report makes it clear that the committee listened carefully to a wide variety of opinions about risks and benefits and tried to make sense of the varying viewpoints based on available evidence.  This was not easy, given the inadequacy of much of the evidence.

I give the report high marks for its neutral tone and cautious interpretations.  The report clearly reveals how little is known about the effects of GE foods, how much GE is about crops fed to animals and how little is about food for people (except indirectly), and how minimally the promises of food biotechnology have been realized, except as they benefit large agricultural producers.

In trying to be fair, the committee will please nobody.  Proponents will be distressed that the benefits are not more strongly celebrated.  Critics will be upset that the report treats many of their concerns pejoratively (“activism”).  Both sides will find plenty in the report to buttress their views.  The overall conclusion, “more research needed,” makes sense but is not helpful in bringing the two sides together.

Some examples:

The Environmental Working Group, for example, likes:

  • The implied call for mandatory GMO labeling: “Mandatory labeling provides the opportunity for consumers to make their own personal risk-benefit decisions.”
  • The recommendations to fix the GMO regulatory system, including putting in some limits on “GMO crops and the chemicals used with them.”
  • The confirmation that “GMO crops have not, to date, increased actual yields and should not be exclusively relied upon to meet long-term food security needs.”

But Food & Water Watch issued a statement and a position paper claiming that the Academies and committee members have ties to the biotechnology industry and agricultural corporations.  The group says that Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical Company each donated between $1 million and $5 million to the Academies in 2014, citing a treasurer’s report, and that the report is conflicted from the get go.

Today’s New York Times has a good summary of diverse reactions to the report, and points out:

Perhaps because of the sensitivity and complexity of the issue, many of the document’s conclusions are hedged by caveats.

“We received impassioned requests to give the public a simple, general, authoritative answer about G.E. crops,” Fred Gould, a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University and chairman of the committee that compiled the report, wrote in the preface. “Given the complexity of G.E. issues, we did not see that as appropriate.”

May 17 2016

Congressional (mis)action on child nutrition

First the good news

The USDA is applying its school-food rules  to child and adult care programs.  It has just released its final rule for these programs.  These go into effect in October 2017.

Previously, the USDA released standards for the Women, Infants and Children program and for the National School Lunch Program.

Now all three food assistance programs are more or less aligned with the Dietary Guidelines.

The child and adult feeding programs will specify more fruits and vegetables, less sugar and fat, but have reduce the standards for whole grain-rich products and sodium.  Presumably, this will make the rules more acceptable to people who don’t like them, of which there are many (see below).

And now the bad news

The House has released its child nutrition reauthorization bill, with the Orwellian title: “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act.”  Like all such titles, this one means the opposite of what it says.

The House bill increases reimbursements for school breakfasts (good), but then lowers the nutrition standards for school meals and makes it harder for schools to qualify for universal free meals.  Here’s the committee’s bill summary.  And here is what the House Education and Workforce Committee says in its fact sheet.

The Hagstrom Report quotes Margo Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest saying that the House bill will:

  • Freeze sodium reduction for at least three years.
  • Require yet another scientific review of sodium.
  • Weaken the whole grain standards.
  • Let junk food back into schools
  • Allow schools to replace fresh produce with dried (without a sugar limit), canned (without a sodium or sugar limit), and frozen fruits and vegetables, thereby allowing schools to replace fresh apples and carrots with sugary fruit snacks, potato chips, jam, or trail mix containing candy.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says this bill will increase food insecurity among children.

Fortunately, not everyone in the House loves this bill.  A letter signed by 111 House members details objections.

The House will be working on this bill tomorrow.  What will the Senate do?

School food advocates: it’s time to get busy.  Here’s the list of House members.  Write to yours today!

May 16 2016

Bill Marler on what is and is not working in the food safety system

The latest Salmonella outbreak comes courtesy of Pacific Coast Fruit Company, which produces Taylor Farms Organic Power Greens Kale Medley.

OrganicKaleMedley-1web

Alas, Salmonella do not care whether or not vegetables are USDA Certified Organic—even kale.

Coral Beach discusses the details of the investigation into this outbreak at Food Safety News this morning.

And food safety lawyer Bill Marler has some pointed questions about this outbreak.

  •  Why no announcement of the Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak?
  •  Why no recall of the product?
  •  Given that the product was distributed nationwide, are we seeing a spike in Salmonella Enteritis cases in states other than Minnesota?
  • Why was the announcement removed from Pacific Coast Fruit Website?

He also has plenty to say about what another recent outbreak (this one due to frozen vegetables contaminated with Listeria) tells us about what is and what is not working in our current food safety system.

His essay makes the point that foodborne illness outbreaks due to contaminated meat are becoming increasingly rare.  Most current outbreaks are due to contaminated vegetables.

How come?  For meat, the system is working.

  • Regulation: prevention controls on meat and poultry went into effect in the mid-1990s.
  • The CDC’s ability to track outbreaks is good and getting better, thanks to genetic fingerprinting.
  • Government agencies are doing more testing.
  • The US Attorney’s office has shown interest in “finding companies and their CEOs criminally responsible for manufacturing tainted foods.  Lawsuits and jail time have a unique ability to make companies pay attention.”
  • Recalls are “both disruptive and expensive.”
  • Publicity about recalls discourages the public from buying similar products.

In sum, “recall costs, slumping sales, along with civil and criminal liability, are powerful market incentives.   The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) should help once companies start following its regulations.

He ought to know.  When Congress was foot-dragging on passing FSMA, Marler sent every member of Congress a tee shirt with this image:

He better be careful.  If he’s right about market forces cleaning up food safety problems, he may get his wish.

But we still have a long way to go on vegetable safety, apparently.

May 13 2016

Weekend reading: Miraculous Abundance [Permaculture]

Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer.  Miraculous Abundance: One quarter acre, two French farmers, and enough food to feed the world.  Foreword by Eliot Coleman.  Chelsea Green, 2016.

This book, more about philosophy than a how-to, describes how two inexperienced beginners succeeded in creating a gorgeous, productive, self-sustaining farm on 1000 square meters of land in Normandy—La Ferme du Bec Hellouin.

They did this by using the techniques of permaculture.  This they define as “a box of smart tools that allows the creation of a lifestyle that respects the earth and its inhabitants—a practical method inspired by nature.”  Later, they explain that it is based on an ethic: “Take care of the earth. Take care of the people.  Equitably share resources.”  As I said, philosophy, not how-to.

You have to read the book to figure out what all this means in practice.  It seems to come down to what I thought of as French Intensive methods.  These use raised beds, rich soil, composting, and thoughtful planting of coordinated crops that support each other’s growth and nutritional needs.  Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya—nine seeds—approach works the same way.   The authors drew on the work of John Jeavons, Eliot Coleman, and many other small-scale sustainable farmers from all over the world to develop their version of these methods.

If the color photographs are any indication, the results are magnificent.   The place is so highly productive that it easily supports the two of them.  The mandala garden alone made we want to get on the next plane just to see how it works in controlling weeds.

The moral: you could do this at home.

May 12 2016

Chipotle’s food safety issues: the saga continues

Food Safety News continues to be incredulous at Chipotle’s apparent denial of responsibility for the safety of food served in its outlets.

For sure, what has happened at Chipotle restaurants is unusual—illnesses caused by multiple toxic microbes at multiple locations:

  • Seattle — E. coli O157:H7, July 2015, five sick people, source unknown;
  • Simi Valley, Calif. — Norovirus, August 2015, 234 people, source was sick employee;
  • Minnesota — Salmonella Newport, August and September 2015, 64 sick people, source was tomatoes but it remains unclear  at what point in the field-to-fork chain the pathogen was introduced;
  • Nine states — E. coli O26, began October 2015 and declared over Feb. 1, 55 sick people, source unknown, states involved are California, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington; and
  • Three states — E. coli O26, began December 2015 declared over Feb. 1, five sick people, source unknown, states involved are Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska; and closing out in
  • Boston — Norovirus in December, 151 sickened.

Chipotle did the obvious right thing.  It brought on board the most experienced and highly regarded food safety experts: Mansour Samadpour (he has a food safety consulting company), James Marsden (to head up its food safety initiatives), Dave Theno (formerly of Jack in the Box) and David Acheson (former FDA food safety official).

Perhaps before they had time to weigh in, Chipotle’s counsel wrote a letter to the CDC complaining about the way the agency was conducting its investigation.

The CDC recently responded in no uncertain terms as Food Safety News discussed.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says:

My thought:  “In 23 years being involved with every major food illness outbreak in the US, I have never seen a company take on the CDC or public health in this manner.  Frankly, it is bizarre given that Chipotle was involved in multiple Salmonella, Norovirus and E. coli cases in 2015.  As the CDC states in its responsive letter, it has to protect the public health and that is what it did.”

His view of the score: CDC 1, Chipotle Lawyer 0.

Chipotle’s food safety consultants have their work cut out for them.  Let’s hope they figure out the problem and find ways to solve it—soon.

May 11 2016

Healthy? Natural? It’s up to the FDA.

The terms “healthy” and “natural” help to sell food products.  They are about marketing, not health.

This makes life difficult for the FDA, which has the unenviable job of defining what the terms mean on food labels.

In a victory for the maker of KIND bars, the FDA has just said that the bars can be advertised as healthy—and that the agency will be revisiting its long-standing definition of the term.  This is what that definition says now:

You may use the term “healthy” or related terms as an implied nutrient content claim on the label or in labeling of a food that is useful in creating a diet that is consistent with dietary recommendations if the food meets the conditions for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and other nutrients…In addition, the food must comply with definitions and declaration requirements for any specific NCCs [Nutrient Content Claims].

The chronology :

As reported by Food-Navigator-USA (in a remarkably thorough account of these events),

Dr. Susan Mayne, Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, said: We do not object to the specific statement that you would like to place on your bar wrappers, on the condition that there will be no other nutrition-related statement, such as express or implied nutrient content claims, on the same panel of the label…We agree with you that our regulations concerning nutrient content claims are due for a reevaluation in light of evolving nutrition research.”

What this sounds like is that FDA will be soliciting comments on the meaning of “healthy.”   It also sounds like the FDA agrees that fat is not an appropriate criterion.  But will the FDA set a limit on sugars?  KIND bars are sweetened.

This looks like the FDA will request comments as the start of its interminable rulemaking process.

In the meantime, here’s the Wall Street Journal’s video explanation of the absurdity of the current rules.

Natural

The FDA is further along in that process for “Natural.  The comment period closed and Politico Pro Morning Agriculture reports that more than 5000 came in.  These have not yet been posted, but Morning Ag has some.  It says opinions vary.  Widely.

  • FDA should prohibit using the term.
  • Acceptable post-harvest processing and production methods [including GMOs]
  • No chemicals, no additives, and no kitchen chemistry
  • Some forms of processing can be used – and indeed may be necessary.
  • ‘Natural’ means that this product contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients.

I’ve commented many times in the past on the ongoing debates about “natural.”

I repeat: When it comes to food labels, “healthy” and “natural” are marketing terms.  Their purpose is to sell food products.

Caveat emptor.

May 10 2016

Congress, FOIA, and Checkoff programs

Congress in its infinite wisdom is now doing Big Ag a big favor.  It wants to exempt checkoff programs from having to deal with pesky Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The House Appropriations Committee just approved its version of the 2017 Agriculture Appropriations bill along with committee report language getting checkoffs off the hook.

Checkoff programs, you will recall are commodity research and promotion programs run by boards and overseen by USDA.   The Milk Board, for example, does the milk mustache campaign.

Checkoffs mainly do generic marketing.  They are not supposed to lobby.  The USDA is supposed to manage the boards—but not with federal money.

So are checkoffs government programs or not?

The checkoffs like to say they are government when convenient, but not government when inconvenient.  This is one of those times.

The report language says because checkoffs are “not agencies of the federal government,” they should not be subject to FOIA laws.

I learned about this latest example of congressional protection of industry from a tweet on May 2 from Associated Press reporter Candice Choi.

Food commodity trade groups, she shows, wrote a letter to Congress to exempt checkoff programs from being subject to FOIA requests.

Congress happily incorporated that language right into the Appropriations Act.

In their article about this latest act of hypocrisy, Candice Choi and Mary Clare Jalonick write:

On April 11, a group of 14 trade associations sent a letter to Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., the subcommittee’s top Democrat, asking them to urge USDA to recognize that the promotional programs are not subject to public records requests.  The rationale was that the programs are funded by producers, according to a copy of a letter obtained by the AP.

Irony alert: A Supreme Court decision in 2005 upheld the checkoffs’ collection of fees from producers as being protected as “government speech.”

Hypocrisy alert: Trade associations wrote the letter, not the checkoff boards.  This is because the boards are not allowed to lobby, but their closely related trade associations can.

Choi and Jalonick also point out that:

The checkoff programs were established by the government at the industry’s urging as a way to collect mandatory fees from producers for promotional efforts. That has resulted in considerable marketing muscle for agricultural products. Last year, the egg board had revenue of more than $22 million; the pork board’s revenue topped $98 million in 2014.

The Fern quotes professor Parke Wilde of Tufts University, a long-standing expert on checkoff programs.  These, he says,

have always been subject to freedom of information laws. It stands to reason: Farmers and the public deserve to know what’s really going on with these well-funded USDA-sponsored programs….

Wilde obtained documents

about the 2006 decision by the Pork Board to pay $60 million to the National Pork Producers Council for the rights to the advertising slogan of pork as “the other white meat.” Wilde wrote in 2013, “It looks to me like the sale price was drastically inflated as a way of funneling money from the semi-public checkoff program to the private-sector trade association.”

Just last year, a FOIA request from The Guardian, revealed that the egg checkoff, working with Unilever, agreed to use its influence to have Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo removed from Whole Foods.

Lobbying or not?  You decide.

The National Farmers Union says it

strongly opposes the blurred lines between the commodity trade associations and the checkoff boards. Our policy states that mandatory producer assessments should not go to organizations that engage in lobbying, and no contracts should be awarded to organizations that carry out political or lobbying activities.

FOIA is a central pillar of transparency in our democracy. It provides for an open government where citizens can request records from federal agencies – with some exemptions for national security, law enforcement and personal privacy…Take a look at the letter NFU sent today, and let your members of Congress know that this language is not in the best interest of family farmers, ranchers or consumers.

Thanks to The Hagstrom Report for this list of references

Capital Press — Commodity groups seek Freedom of Information exemption for checkoff boards

National Public Radio — Under Attack, Commodity Promotion Programs Try To Hide Their Emails

U.S. Food Policy —Checkoff program supporters seek to shield checkoff boards from freedom-of-information scrutiny

The Guardian — Largest U.S. food producers ask Congress to shield lobbying activities

Fortune — Where’s the Beef? You Won’t be Able to Find Out if Agricultural Groups Get Their Way

May 9 2016

Coca-Cola items: Warren Buffett’s gaffe. Share a Coke and a Song.

Warren Buffett, the billionnaire who owns 9.3% of Coca-Cola stock, understandably defends its products.  When challenged by shareholders in his company, Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett said:

He also said he drank 700 calories worth of Coca-Cola each day (translation: 44 teaspoons of sugars).  As Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest put it, this much sugar is not in the interest of anyone’s health.

Maybe the Wizard of Omaha can maintain good health while consuming more than three times the added sugars recommended by the nation’s leading health officials, but it’s a sure-fire prescription for increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and tooth decay for the rest of his fellow citizens…the American Heart Association whose scientific panels have reviewed the evidence as well call for an even more conservative daily limit of added sugars: six teaspoons for women and nine for men.

Business analysts were just as dismayed.   said in the Financial Times that Buffett made five mistakes in laughing off the CocaCola question (my paraphrases):

  • Shareholders asked a serious question that deserved a serious answer.
  • Not everyone knows how many calories are in sodas.
  • Poor people are at greater risk from the hazards of sugary drinks.
  • Politicians know that sugary drinks are a problem.
  • Coca-Cola knows sugary drinks are a problem.

In the meantime, the Berkeley Media Studies Group has produced its take on Coke’s new “Share a Coke and a Song” campaign:

When health advocates and the business community think Coca-Cola is in trouble, it is.

Can this campaign survive satire?

This company’s responses are always interesting to follow.  Buffett is a big investor.  But it is increasingly having to respond to health concerns.

I will be watching for the next chapter in this saga.

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