Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 27 2014

Olivier de Schutter finishes tenure as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Olivier de Schutter must be finishing up his six-year term as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

His final report to the U. N. Human Rights Council

Objectives such as supplying diverse, culturally-acceptable foods to communities, supporting smallholders, sustaining soil and water resources, and raising food security within particularly vulnerable areas, must not be crowded out by the one-dimensional quest to produce more food,

In a speech to the annual summit of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Reuters reports: 

Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed, he said.

De Schutter, who has held his post of special rapporteur on the right to food since 2008 and earlier headed the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

In 2005, a U.N. convention on tobacco control aimed at reducing deaths and health problems caused by the product went into force after long negotiations under the umbrella of the WHO.

In a report to the rights council in 2012, de Schutter said a similar accord on food should include taxing unhealthy products, regulating food high in saturated fats, salt and sugar, and “cracking down on junk food advertising.”

That report also called for an overhaul on the system of farm subsidies “that make certain ingredients cheaper than others”, and for support for local production “so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods.”

De Schutter  reports that public procurement can and should be used to ‘buy justice’ in food systems (also see press release):

“Public procurement represents a rare opportunity to support more nutritious diets and more sustainable food systems in one fell swoop,” he said, as he released his final publication as UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

Recalling that OECD countries spend an average of 12% of GDP on public procurement, and developing countries only slightly less, he identified five principles for using public procurement to support the realization of the right to food:

  • Source preferentially from small-scale food producers and help them to access tenders
  • Guarantee living wages and fair prices along the food supply chain
  • Set specific requirements for adequate food diets
  • Source locally whenever possible and impose sustainability requirements on suppliers; and
  • Increase participation and accountability in the food system

De Schutter has done honorable work as Special Rapporteur and his role in this position will be missed.

May 23 2014

GMO labels cost families $800/year: Guess who paid for the study?

Yesterday, Food Navigator reported that Cornell economists calculated that GMO labels would cost the average family of four a whopping $800 per year.

This seemed so improbable that I immediately wondered:  Who paid for it?

I clicked on the link to the study: Bingo!

The work on this report was supported financially by the Council for Biotechnology Information.

You won’t find the list of companies and groups that support the Council on its website, but Source Watch fills the gap.

I am increasingly alarmed by the increasing extent of industry research sponsorship—it’s become a huge issue in  studies of nutrition, diet, and health.

The influence of funding source on research outcomes is so predictable—many studies have now shown that industry-funded studies almost invariably produce results that favor the sponsor—that I’m batting nearly 100% on conflict-of-interest  checks, of which this GMO study is a particularly blatant example.

It’s not that industry pays investigators to find the desired answers to questions.  It’s more complicated than that.  It has to do with the way investigators ask and try to answer the research questions.  The industry favored biases get built into the study’s assumptions and controls, often (I think) unconsciously.

This study, for example, is based on an elaborate set of assumptions leading to the $800 per family estimate.  Other assumptions might give different results.   The authors do not discuss the limitations of their estimates, nor are they required to in this type of report.

But I’m willing to hazard a guess that independently funded studies would come to considerably lower estimates.

Moral: if a study produces surprising results that favor an industry position, look hard to see who sponsored it.

Addition, May 24:

A reader sent in further information about the Council for Biotechnology Information:

Council for Biotechnology Information

1201 Maryland Avenue, SW., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20024 USA

Phone: 202-962-9200 web site: http://gmoanswers.com

(CBI: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Council_for_Biotechnology_Information.

http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Council_for_Biotechnology_Information.

Experts: http://gmoanswers.com/experts. Founding members and supporting partners:

http://gmoanswers.com/about. There are also offices in Saskatoon (SK, Canada)

(http://whybiotech.ca)  and Mexico City (AgroBio Mexico: http://agrobiomexico.org.mx.)

May 22 2014

A roundup on pet food items

I haven’t said anything about pet food in a while, but plenty is happening with it since my pet food books came out—Pet Food Politics (2008) and Feed Your Pet Right (2010).

A few items I’ve collected over the past month or so.

  • FDA regulations: The FDA finally issued its proposed rule for processing standards for all facilities engaged in manufacturing, processing, packing or holding animal feed and pet food.  These include  Good Manufacturing Processes (GMPs) and risk-based preventive controls (formerly known as HACCP), among other provisions.
  • Safety tips: Food Safety News lists ten ways to make pet food safer—pay attention and follow food safety procedures diligently, for one thing.
  • Double standard: Bill Marler complains that the FDA is constantly announcing recalls of Salmonella-contaminated pet foods, even though few of them result in cases of Salmonella in pets or humans, whereas foods for humans take forever to get recalled even when they cause illness.
  • Pet food recalls: The FDA certainly lists plenty of pet food recalls, and even has a web page for them.
  • FDA oversight: The FDA is on the job and testing.  Bravo issued recalls because of potential Listeria contamination.  It did so because the FDA says an independent lab detected the bacteria in a sample.
  • Marketing wars: Pet Food Industry, the excellent publication for manufacturers, has a juicy story about the marketing claims war between Nestlé (no relation) Purina PetCare and Blue Buffalo.  Each has sued the other.  Blue Buffalo has already been called on its advertising claims, perhaps in response to a complaint from  Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
  • The ongoing mystery: Pet jerky treats, mostly imported from China, linked to at least 3 human illnesses and more than 1,000 dog deaths and 4,800 dog illnesses, mostly from gastrointestinal problems, liver and kidney disease, and neurological and skin conditions.  The FDA says it still can’t figure out the cause, despite 7 years of trying. symptoms in their pets,” said FDA.

If we can’t get pet food right, there’s not much hope for human food either.

May 21 2014

Really, sugars are sugars. Some sugar is good. Less is better.

We need a break from school food issues.

I love this graphic, designed by Noelle Campbell.  It’s from an article by Rebecca Adams in the Huffington Post (I’m quoted).

sugar

 

May 20 2014

Update on Congress vs. school nutrition standards

The Associated Press reported that First Lady Michelle Obama rallied supporters of the USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals in an off-the-record telephone call “with advocacy groups to discuss ongoing efforts around school nutrition and the significant advancements we have made to make it easier for families to raise healthy kids.”

Screenshot 2014-05-19 21.58.14

Today the House Committee on Appropriations is doing its markup on the agricultural appropriations bill.  This is likely to overturn nutrition standards established by scientific experts in order to:

  • Reverse USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals.
  • Reverse the exclusion of white potatoes from the WIC package.

As Politico puts it,

In the case of WIC and white potatoes, the provision follows on strong lobbying by the industry which is hoping to win similar language Thursday when the full Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to consider its own version of the same agriculture bill.

…For the industry, concerned that younger women have moved away from potatoes, gaining access to WIC is an important marketing tool.

Just as strongly, critics worry that the end result will be to open the door to other special interests and wreck a long-standing commitment by Congress to let independent scientists decide what foods are most needed.

As I see it, the food industry couldn’t get its way through the usual rulemaking processes, so it did an end run and got Congress to overturn the work of no less than three committees of the Institute of Medicine.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack explains what’s at stake:

The House bill would undermine the effort to provide kids with more nutritious food and would be a major step backwards for the health of American children, just at the time childhood obesity rates are finally starting to level off. School nutrition standards are developed by independent experts, over 90% of schools report that they are successfully implementing them, and studies show they are working to help kids be healthier. USDA has continued to show flexibility in implementing these new standards, and Congress should focus on partnering with USDA, states, schools, and parents to help our kids have access to more healthy food, not less.

In an e-mail, the Pew Charitable Trusts wrote:

We are disappointed that the House agriculture appropriations bill includes a provision that would weaken national nutrition standards for foods served in schools…it is unfortunate that the House would consider letting schools opt out of efforts to improve the health of children served through these program…Ninety percent of schools already report that they are meeting USDA’s updated nutrition standards for school lunches. Turning back now would be a costly mistake.”

The School Nutrition Association disagrees.  In its version of reality, “since these standards took effect, more than one million fewer students choose school lunch each day, reducing revenue for school meal programs already struggling to manage the increased cost of preparing meals under the new standards.”

To this, Claire Benjamin of Food Policy Action, asks:

Why are Members fighting to roll back school nutrition standards? Our nation is facing a health and obesity crisis, and rather than think about the future of our children the members pushing for these rollbacks are only thinking about future campaign contributions,” said Claire Benjamin, managing director of Food Policy Action (FPA). “Schools have already made real progress implementing the reforms, and it is extremely disappointing that some members of Congress are advocating for business as usual.”

Other responses:

Write your Congressional representatives and ask them to leave nutrition standards to scientists, not food companies with vested interests in selling their products to government food assistance programs.

Additions, May 20:

Addition, May 21:

Addition, May 24:

  • Major General says school nutrition standards are a matter of national security
May 19 2014

Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: A lovely read

Dan Barber.  The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.  Penguin Press, 2014.

New Picture (1)

 

Here’s a welcome addition to any library.  Dan Barber, justifiably renowned chef of Blue Hill in New York City and at Stone Barns and its farm in Westchester, writes as well as he cooks—and that’s very well indeed.

The book contains his musings on who and what it takes to produce wonderful food that is also seasonal, locally sourced, and sustainably raised.  He groups the musings on people, places, and cooking into four sections: Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed.

He explains the meaning of the Third Plate title:

  • The first plate is passé: a 7-ounce corn-fed steak with a small side of vegetables.
  • The second plate is where we are now: grass-fed steak, heirloom carrots grown in organic soil.
  • The third plate is the future: the positions of meat and vegetables reversed.

As Barber puts it,

I was looking toward a new cuisine, one that goes beyond raising awareness about the provenance of ingredients and—like all great cuisines—begins to reflect what the landscape can provide.

To do that, he talked to farmers.

The farmers in this book farm one level down.  They don’t think in terms of cultivating one thing…Instead, they grow nature by orchestrating a whole system of farming.  And they produce a lot of things—delicious food, to be sure, but also things we can’t easily measure or see…I confess I kept getting pulled into visiting the farms in this book because I was in pursuit of how an ingredient was grown or raised…I went in search of answers to practical questions.  Each time I tried to parse the specifics of how something was grown, I was instead pointed in the opposite direction: to the interactions and relationships among all the parts of the farm and then, with more time, to the interactions and relationships embedded in the culture and history of the place.

No wonder his food tastes so good!

 

May 16 2014

One more on saving nutrition standards, this time WIC

This plea comes from the American Public Health Association (APHA):

APHA is partnering with the National WIC Association and other public health organizations to gather signatures on a letter urging Congress to reject any congressional intervention through the appropriations process to determine the composition of the WIC food packages.

The appropriate way to ensure that the WIC food package remains science-based is for USDA to engage the Institute of Medicine to conduct another review of the latest nutrition science, including consumption data.

…The potato industry remains unhappy about the potato’s exclusion from the WIC food packages, particularly in light of the release of the final food package rule. We fully expect members of both the House and Senate to propose amendments to the agriculture appropriations bills in their respective chambers mandating potatoes into the WIC food packages.

This would set a bad precedent that jeopardizes the scientific integrity of the WIC food packages.

Sign our sign-on letter to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

Please share the link with  colleagues and friends!

May 15 2014

Action Alert #2: stop congressional micromanagement of school nutrition standards

Congressional interference with school nutrition standards is looming large on the horizon.

Margo Wootan of CSPI is collecting signatures on a petition to stop this.  She writes:

Some members of Congress are playing politics with our children’s health. We expect they will act on Tuesday May 20 to gut nutrition standards through the appropriations process.

They might say they just want to provide schools with a little more “flexibility,” but their changes would roll back standards on salt, whole grains, fruits/vegetables, and snacks.

These are the same people who legislated that pizza is a vegetable (because it contains a little tomato sauce)!

…Thankfully, ninety percent of schools now meet the updated nutrition standards for school lunch, helping millions of students get more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. 

In summary:

  • Congress is trying to micromanage  school nutrition standards to win political points.
  • Schools need support and technical assistance, not a free pass to serve junk to kids.
  • And kids need nutrition standards based on science, not politics.SIg

SIgn the petition.  Better yet, write you own letter.

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