Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 7 2009

Oprah, KFC, free advertising, oh my!

This week, Eating Liberally’s kat wants to know what I think about Oprah’s free pass to KFC for adding grilled chicken to its fast food menu.  Here’s what I told her.  The moral: watch out for health auras!

May 6 2009

American agriculture at a glance

The New York Times has an informative series of maps of the locations of the more than 10,000 organic farms in the U.S.  And notice the increase in sales!

That number of organic farms may seem like a lot but it pales in comparison to the total 2.2 million farms.  Most farms are East of the Mississippi and in the far West.  The maps also show where most of the orchards, vegetable farms, and dairies tend to be.  A big chunk of the country must have a hard time getting locally grown fruit and vegetables, let alone organics.  Doesn’t this look like a growth opportunity?

May 5 2009

Food miles: do they matter?

Thanks to Dick Jackson, chair of environmental sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health, for sending me the latest paper arguing that food miles – the distances foods travel before they get to you – make no difference to climate change.  Eating less meat, say the authors, is what counts.

Never mind the assumptions on which such estimates are based.  I have no idea whether they make sense.  But before jumping to interpret this paper as an argument against the value of local food, Jackson suggests that we think about the other, perhaps less tangible, benefits of local food production.  He is a transportation expert so he particularly emphasizes reductions in air pollution, noise, congestion, paving, heat, and the removal of trees.  On the personal side, the benefits include more physical activity, “social capital” (the conversations and other transactions between consumers and farmers), income that stays in the community, and – not least – food that is fresher and tastes better.

I’ve always thought that the real benefits of local food production were in building and preserving communities.  I like having farms within easy access of where I live and I like knowing the people who produce my food.  If local food doesn’t make climate change worse and maybe even helps a bit, that’s just icing on the cake.  Or am I missing something here?

May 4 2009

Update on swine flu. Oops (sorry): H1N1

The Guardian’s Mike Davis says Mexican swine flu is “a genetic chimera probably conceived in the faecal mire of an industrial pigsty.”  No wonder the pork industry is so upset about the bad publicity caused by swine flu.  Their solution to this problem?  Call it something else.  This worked and the official name of the disease is now Influenza A (H1N1).    No direct evidence, it seems, links pork CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) to this particular strain of H1N1 to human influenza.  Of course there is no direct evidence.  Nobody has been looking for it.

But now Canada has found some pigs sick with H1N1 at a farm in Alberta.  Oops again.  The World Health Organization (WHO) thinks the pigs caught the disease from a farm worker who had traveled to Mexico.  WHO reports nearly 900 cases worldwide.  As for the U.S., the New York Times has a nifty map of where the cases have been found.

Scientists have been worrying about transmission of swine flu to people for some time.  In 2003, Science magazine noted that the classic swine flu virus, H1N1, was mutating rapidly, suggesting that neither pigs nor people could remain immune to it.  And nobody was doing any surveillance for swine flu.  The Institute of Medicine, also worried, published major reports on the threat, prevention, and treatment of pandemic flu.

These days, the CDC is monitoring the situation and reports the U.S. case count is up to 226 (as of May 3).  The CDC also reports international cases and describes specific cases in California and Texas.  And, it notes, the virus is becoming increasingly resistant to antiviral drugs.  But not to worry.  It doesn’t look H1N1 will turn out to be a big worldwide pandemic like the deadly one in 1918.  At least not this time.

May 2 2009

Weekend entertainment: play Global Grocer!

That busy organization, Food and Water Watch, has produced a virtual shopping cart that lets you see where food comes from.  Click on frozen cauliflower and learn that 75% of it is imported, mainly from Mexico. The details come from the group’s report, The Poisoned Fruit of American Trade Policy.

While you are on the site, you can play another game: find the factory farms in your state.  And take a look at its other materials.  The site is complicated but one easy way to navigate it is to click on the numbers under the main banner on the home page.  This leads you to pages that list reports and other useful materials. This group is well worth knowing about if you are looking for facts about these issues.

May 1 2009

Farm Foundation seeks policy ideas. Win prizes!

The Farm Foundation, an non-profit organization sponsored by groups such as the National PorkProducers Council, the National Corn Growers Association,  and the United Egg Producers, has issued a report, The 30-Year Challenge.  This outlines the problems faced by industrial agriculture in feeding the world’s rapidly growing population.   Based on the report, the Foundation announces a 30-year challenge competition to encourage submission of policy ideas for meeting the world’s growing need for food, feed, fiber, and fuel.  The announcement of the competition is a bit short on details but does say that prizes total $20,000 and the deadline for submission of policy ideas is June 1.

Here’s a chance to let the Farm Foundation know what you think about agricultural policies and why it’s time to start working on sustainable solutions to food production.  And maybe even win a prize!

Addendum: Mary Thompson of the Farm Foundation sends along the details (you have to scroll down to the second page).  She adds this point of correction:

We take issue, however, with your description of Farm Foundation as an organization sponsored by producer groups. Farm Foundation has a 76-year history of objectivity.  We do not lobby or advocate.  The majority of our operational funds are from our endowment, which was created by our founders in 1933…We do an annual fund drive, seeking contributions from individuals, other NGOs, and companies who wish to support the Foundation’s work in providing comprehensive and objective information on timely issues impacting agriculture, food systems and rural communities…We recruit and accept third-party funding for specific projects only with the understanding that Farm Foundation leads and directs the project.  Third-party funders do not control the direction or products produced in the project.”


Apr 30 2009

FDA to ponder food ranking symbols

Confronted with the proliferation of symbols on food labels ostensibly designed to alert customers to “better choices” of packaged foods (see my previous posts on this topic), the FDA held a hearing.  It has now followed up with a memo on what it plans to do about them.  The agency posed many sensible questions about the criteria, use, and interpretation of such symbols at the hearing, but heard “little evidence.”   The FDA wants more research before deciding what to do.

Fine, but in the meantime how about a moratorium on the use of all such symbols?  Just asking.

Apr 29 2009

Is Stevia really “natural?”

The April 26 New York Times Magazine carried a seductive ad on page 15 for PepsiCo’s “Trop50 orange juice goodness with 50% less calories and sugar…And no artificial sweeteners”  PepsiCo performs this miracle by diluting the juice by half with water (really, you could do this at home).  But in case the result isn’t sweet enough for you, Trop50 adds the sweetener, Stevia.

PepsiCo can get away with claiming that its juice drink has no artificial sweeteners.  Because Stevia is isolated from leaves of the Stevia plant, the FDA lets companies claim it is “natural.”

We can debate whether a chemical sweetener isolated from Stevia leaves is really “natural” but here’s another problem: Stevia doesn’t taste like sugar.  Companies have to fuss with it to cover up its off taste.  And, they must do so “without detracting from the perceived benefits of its natural status.”  Flavor companies are working like mad to find substances that block Stevia’s bitter taste, mask its off flavors, and extend its sweetness, while staying within the scope of what the FDA allows as “natural.”

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a Stevia PR representative eager for me to see the company’s website.  “Naturally delicious” anyone?

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