Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 19 2009

Food lobbying and its consequences

My NYU Department developed programs in Food Studies based on the premise that food is so central to the human condition that studying it is a great way to get into much larger social questions.   I’ve just found a terrific example in the April 9 New York Review of Books in which Michael Tomasky reviews So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Goverment, by Robert G. Kaiser. I immediately ordered a copy.

According to the review, the book chronicles events in the history of a Washington, DC lobbying firm, Schlossberg – Cassidy, run by former staff members of  Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by George McGovern (Dem-SD).  The firm parlayed its thorough knowledge of food assistance programs into a consulting practice devoted to helping corporations deal with pesky regulations and policies that affect agriculture, food, nutrition, and health.  To give just one example: the firm’s first academic client was Jean Mayer, the nutritionist president of Tufts University.  He recruited the firm to get Congress to appropriate $27 million for a national nutrition center at Tufts.  The result is the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

But this first earmark set a precedent that led to today’s deeply corrupt system of rampant congressional earmarks,  election campaign contributions, dependence on polls and focus groups, and climate of political partisanship.

A book about food lobbying and its larger political and social consequences!  I can’t wait to read it.

Mar 18 2009

Nestlé’s (no relation) social responsibility

I love corporate social responsibility reports .  I collect them.  Someone from Nestlé was kind enough to send me its shiny new reportNutritional Needs and Quality Diets: Creating Shared Value, 2008.  Nestlé is a very big food company.  For starters, it employs 283,000 people in 84 countries.  It sold $96.5 billion in products last year for a not-too-shabby profit of $16 billion (dollar figures are converted from Swiss francs and rounded off).   Bottled water accounted for $8 billion in sales (down 1.6% from the previous year), pet food for $11 billion, and ice cream for $18 billion.  I looked for – but could not find – the sales figures for Nestlé’s infant formula, the source of much controversy about this company.

As for social responsibility, the company says its education programs have reached 9 million people.  And by changing the recipes of its foods, it has eliminated 75,000 tons of trans fat from its products, along with 15,000 tons of salt and 638,000 tons of sugars.  Nestlé is also the largest fortifier of foods with vitamins and minerals.

Will these kinds of approaches help people eat healthier diets?  As David Ludwig and I discussed in a JAMA article last October, we are skeptical.  But read and decide for yourself!

March 19 update: and thanks to Jaybird for sending today’s example of Nestlé’s corporate responsibility in India.

March 21 update: thanks to Margo Wootan for forwarding the corporate responsibility report from Disney.

Mar 17 2009

Danish groups oppose European food ranking system

Several Danish consumer groups have banded together to oppose the food industry-backed GDA system for ranking the nutritional quality of processed foods.  The GDA (the Guidance Daily Amount) system is already in use on some products and food industry groups want it required for all European Union food labels.  Of course food companies want it.  It doesn’t use the U.K.’s red/yellow/green traffic light system that encourages people to avoid the red-labeled products.

The “Stop GDA” campaign argues that the GDA system encourages purchases of processed foods at the expense of the real foods.  It has produced a clever pamphlet to back up this argument.  Its criticisms apply just as well to all scoring systems for food products, except the traffic lights.

Mar 16 2009

COOL takes effect today, supposedly

The long awaited and much postponed Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) finally takes effect today, despite massive efforts by the beef industry to make it go away.  It is interesting to see what meat producer groups object to:  too expensive, too difficult, it’s really just another trade barrier, and – my favorite – consumers don’t care where their meat comes from.  As of today, COOL is law.  Will anyone pay attention?  Or will the law be as widely ignored by meat sellers as it is for fish sellers?  But don’t you care where your food is produced?  I do.

Mar 16 2009

Tweets @marionnestle

Technophobe that I am, I firmly resist calls to Twitter.    Surely, you don’t really care where I am or what I eat.   But thanks to a twitter-pushing friend, you can now get these posts via Twitter @marionnestle.  Enjoy!

Mar 15 2009

FDA approves Salmonella! (or so says The Onion)

Thanks to Elinor, Eric, and Lisa for sending this news item from the Onion.  As The Onion points out, the easiest way to solve the pesky Salmonella problem is to make it legal.  I love the illustrations and will be plagiarizing that cereal box for powerpoint presentations.

Mar 15 2009

Latest San Francisco Chronicle column: Q and A on fats (mostly)

For this one, I answered a bunch of questions and responded to a letter to the editor from Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.  He took me to task for exaggerating the inadequacies of our our food safety system.  He’s right.  I exaggerated.  But he should know better than anyone how badly the system works.  He was in charge of the pet food recalls in 2007 and is now in charge of the current peanut butter recalls.

Mar 14 2009

Obama on food safety!

President Obama had quite a lot to say about food safety this morning and I’m happy to say that it sounds like he gets it: the present system is outdated (it was developed a century ago), too spread out, under-resourced, and hazardous to health.  He’s going to appoint a committee to make recommendations and promises that all will be fixed “under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg.”  I hope she knows what she’s gotten herself into.

In the meantime, here’s his radio address and lawyer Bill Marler’s take on it.  And thanks Bill for posting the entire text of the speech.

And while I’m at it, how about the USDA’s new plan to test the meat at hamburger packing plants four times a month?  Is this an improvement or a clear effort to make sure nobody ever finds anything wrong?  Here’s Brian Hartman’s discussion of that question at ABC News.

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