Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 23 2016

Food-Navigator-USA’s Special Edition on Organics

This is one of Food Navigator-USA’s special editions in which this industry-focused newsletter collects several of its posts on particular topics—in this case, organics.

But first, take a look at the USDA’s summary of trends in organic food sales:

Special Edition: Where next for organics?

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales increased from $3.6 billion in 1997 to over $39 billion in 2014. But can the meteoric growth continue? And will organic ultimately replace the more nebulous ‘all-natural’ as consumers increasingly look for claims that are underpinned by consistent standards?

May 20 2016

New food label! Congratulations Let’s Move! & FDA

I kept hearing rumors this week that Michelle Obama would announce the revised Nutrition Facts panel at today’s summit meeting of the Partnership for a Healthier America, the public-private partnership organization that supports Let’s Move!

And here is the graphic from the White House press release:

Congratulations on the long-awaited changes:

  • Calories big and bold
  • Added sugars

  • Serving sizes updated
  • “Dual column” labels for “per serving” and “per package”
  • Daily Value footnote: “The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet.  2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.”
  • Nutrients: Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium.  Voluntary: Vitamins A and C.

Expect to see this on food packages in two years (small food producers get an additional year to comply).

Here are the relevant FDA documents:

Here are the early comments (I will be adding more as they arrive):

The new food label is an extraordinary accomplishment, especially in the light of a political climate in which the food industry and its friends in Congress fight public health nutrition measures tooth and nail.

For background, see some of my posts on food labels since 2008:

Addition, May 26: Politico reports that 6 food trade groups commissioned a study to demonstrate that the cost of implementing the new food labels would be much higher than estimated by the FDA.  Although the paper does not disclose its funding (or if it does, I missed it), Politico says the funders included the Corn Refiners Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Sugar Association, the American Bakers Association, and the International Dairy Foods Association.  As with most industry-funded studies, they got what they paid for.

May 19 2016

SNAP politics: strange bedfellows

Wouldn’t it be useful if stores that accept SNAP benefits stocked some other real—as opposed to packaged—foods in addition to the apples, oranges, and bananas most of them now seem to carry (witness Walgreens)?

Congress thought so when it passed the 2014 farm bill.  This intended

to expand or preserve the availability of staple foods in underserved areas with moderate- and low income populations by maintaining or increasing the number of retail outlets that offer an assortment of perishable food and staple food items, as determined by the Secretary, in those areas.

In response, USDA proposed new regulations to improve what SNAP retailers had in stock.

The 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to develop regulations to ensure that stores that accept SNAP offer a broader variety of healthy food choices. The stocking provisions in the proposed rule would require SNAP-authorized retail establishments to offer a larger inventory and variety of healthy food options so that recipients have access to more healthy food choices. SNAP retailers would be required to offer seven varieties of qualifying foods in four staple food groups for sale on a continuous basis, along with perishable foods in at least three of the four staple food groups. The staple foods groups are dairy products; breads and cereals; meats, poultry and fish; and fruits and vegetables. In addition, the proposal calls for retailers to stock at least six units within each variety, leading to a total of at least 168 required food items per store.

Guess what?  Some retailers don’t like this idea.

What to do when you don’t like food regulations?  Go straight to Congress.

Now the House agriculture committee is complaining to USDA about the rule.  It says that USDA’s estimate of the cost per store ($140) is wrong.  Retailers say it will cost them $5000 per month to implement.

Who’s right?  Hence: politics.

The Congressional Black Caucus also wants the USDA to back off on this rule.  It says communities need these retailers (the quality of the foods they sell is not an issue, apparently).  Here is its letter.

Civil Eats has a good summary of the issues.

It troubles me greatly that SNAP divides advocates for the poor and advocates for health.  Don’t all of us want the recipients of federal food assistance to have access to healthful food choices?

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.

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