Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 3 2010

Is aspartame “nasty”?

Oh those British libel laws.   According to FoodNavigator.com, a judge in Britain has just ruled that Asda, a grocery company in the UK, may not legally describe aspartame, the artificial sweetener, as “nasty.”

This decision is a reversal of a previous High Court ruling that “nasty” has only a vague meeting and does not constitute “malicious falsehood.”  The Court of Appeals reversed that ruling.

A spokeswoman for the maker of aspartame, Ajinomoto, said:Asda can no longer deny that describing aspartame as a ‘nasty’ denigrates a safe and beneficial food ingredient.” Ajinomoto will now proceed with its malicious falsehood case… We will continue to pursue our case and defend the reputation of aspartame.”

This parsing of the meaning of “nasty” would be deliciously academic if we didn’t have our own veggie libel laws to contend with.

And as FoodNavigator puts it:

The case could have wider implications for firms employing emotive rhetoric about additives in marketing materials, notably Pret A Manger, which last year urged shoppers to “avoid hairy chemicals”, which were defined as “obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives … the nasties we avoid at all costs”.

Jun 2 2010

Salt is under siege

In April, the Institute of Medicine published a study concluding that salt poses so serious a health hazard that the FDA should start regulating it as a food additive.

Last week, Mitchell Moss produced a lengthy piece in the New York Times, “The hard sell on salt,” detailing the food industry’s resistance to salt reduction:

The industry is working overtly and behind the scenes to fend off these attacks, using a shifting set of tactics that have defeated similar efforts for 30 years, records and interviews show. Industry insiders call the strategy “delay and divert” and say companies have a powerful incentive to fight back: they crave salt as a low-cost way to create tastes and textures. Doing without it risks losing customers, and replacing it with more expensive ingredients risks losing profits.

Now we have Judith Shulevitz’s piece in The New Republic, Is salt the new crack?”  She concludes:

We need to stop ingesting all these substances in ludicrous amounts…We need to be taught not just what’s in processed food, but how historically anomalous its manufacture and our consumption of it are. We need to understand the mechanisms that addict us to it. We need to relearn how to prepare real meals, and we need to start rethinking the social dynamics of that chore (it can’t just be up to wives and mothers anymore). It’s pretty hard to imagine the government conducting that education campaign, but, 20 years ago, it may have been just as hard to imagine the “truth campaign” that exposed the tobacco industry’s marketing techniques and the transformation of social norms that made it déclassé to smoke.

As I keep saying (see previous posts), the salt issue is one of personal choice.  If I want to eat less salt, I cannot eat processed foods or restaurant foods because that’s where 80% of the salt in American diets comes from.  As Moss explains, PepsiCo cannot make Cheetos without salt.  I can just say no to Cheetos, but eating out is a challenge.

No, salt is not the new crack, but I’m glad that changing food social norms is becoming part of the national conversation.

Jun 1 2010

Thinking about food safety

Food safety is in the news again.

Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich) is calling on the Senate to get busy and pass the food safety bill that it has been sitting on for the last ten months: “I urge my Senate colleagues to acknowledge this important threat and make legislation addressing it a priority. Until the Senate acts, American families will continue to be at risk.”

If this bill ever passes it will require food companies to develop food safety plans, authorize the FDA to order recalls, and give the FDA better access to company records.

But will it do any good?

Here is one view from Dennis Stearns, counsel in the Seattle law firm, Marler & Clark, which represents victims of foodborne illnesses.  In a piece in Food Safety News, “What the oil spill can teach us about food safety,” he notes the endlessly repetitive responses–all talk, no action–to food safety and other crises involving corporate irresponsibility.

He quotes USDA Secretary Vilsack saying, “You can’t have two [food safety] systems and be able to reassure people you’ve got the job covered…This [referring to the peanut recalls of last year] is a grand opportunity for us to take a step back and rethink our approach.'”

Stearns’ piece concludes with this comment on Vilsack’s remarks:

Sadly, this was not the first time that someone had pointed out the need for systemic revision to food safety regulation and inspection in the United States. And neither was it the first time that expressions of outrage over people dying from foodborne illness were followed by no real changes at all. And all I can say about that is: I’m shocked! No, really, I’m shocked!

In contrast, Jim Prevor,who writes as the Perishable Pundit, writes in the online New Atlantis: A Journal of Science and Technology that fixing the FDA will do little to address food safety problems.  Instead, he recommends:

  • Fix the liability system so retailers as well as producers are liable and make it legal negligence, not strict liability.
  • Root out bribery and corruption in food safety certification.
  • Invest in state testing laboratories.
  • Invest in food safety research.
  • Revitalize the Agricultural Extension Service.
  • Educate consumers.

I’m not sure about the legal liability issues, but most of the rest are really good ideas and would help a lot.  Of course consumers should follow food safety procedures but how about getting safe food to them in the first place?

None of this will happen without policy changes, which is why the food safety legislation matters so much.  It’s a national scandal that the Senate is still sitting on that bill.

May 31 2010

CSPI’s report card on food marketing policies (or the lack thereof)

I’m late in getting to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s report on food companies’ policies on marketing to children.  The report is in the form of a report card.  Most companies get very bad grades.  Mars gets the best (a B+) mainly because it has a policy.  Most don’t.

The report says nothing about whether the policies are working.  Based on past experience, I’d guess they are not.  But don’t they look great on paper?

Here’s the Chicago Tribune’s take on this.

May 29 2010

USDA’s latest collection of relevant reports

The USDA does terrific research on many useful topics.  Here is a sample of some just in.

STATE FACT SHEETS:  data on population, per-capita income, earnings per job, poverty rates, employment, unemployment, farm characteristics, farm financial characteristics, top agricultural and export commodities.

WIC PROGRAM: research, publications, and data related to WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). WIC served 9.1 million participants per month at a cost of $6.5 billion in 2009.

FEED GRAINS DATABASE: statistics on domestic corn, grain sorghum, barley, and oats; foreign grains plus rye, millet, and mixed grains. You can also get historical information through custom queries.

LIVESTOCK, DAIRY, AND POULTRY OUTLOOK:  current and forecast production, price, and trade statistics.

AGRICULTURAL OUTLOOK STATISTICAL INDICATORS: commodity and food prices, general economic indicators, government program expenditures, farm income estimates, and trade and export statistics.

ASPARAGUS STATISTICS: acreage, yield, production, price, crop value, and per capita use; also world area, production, and trade.

FOODBORNE ILLNESS COST CALCULATOR:   the cost of illness from specific foodborne pathogens, depending on the  annual number of cases, distribution of cases by severity,  use or costs of medical care, amount or value of time lost from work,  costs of premature death, and disutility costs for nonfatal cases.

ORGANIC FARMERS: explains why use of organic practices in U.S. lags behind other countries, differences and similarities between organic and conventional farmers, reduced consumer demand resulting from the weaker U.S. economy,  and potential competition from the “locally grown” label.

LOCAL FOOD SYSTEMS: defines local food,  market size and reach,  characteristics of local consumers and producers, and  economic and health impacts.  Addresses whether localization reduces energy use or greenhouse gas emissions (inconclusive).

BIOFUELS: Reaches 88 million gallons in 2010 as a result of one plant becoming commercially operational in 2010, using fat to produce diesel. Challenges include reducing high costs and overcoming the constraints of ethanol’s current 10-percent blending limit with gasoline.

Thanks to USDA for producing data that policy wonks like me just love to cite.

May 28 2010

Dismal reports on dietary supplements

Dietary supplements are in trouble these days.  For one thing, it’s really hard to demonstrate that they do any good.  For another, these products are poorly regulated.  Some recent examples:

  • Gingko biloba supplements don’t improve cognitive function in the elderly.
  • St. Johns Wort supplements don’t improve irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Most supplements do not improve mortality, except maybe glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate which are associated with a slight unexplained improvement in this particular review.
  • Most supplements are contaminated with toxic heavy metals says a GAO report with one of this agency’s typically inimitable titles: Herbal Dietary Supplements: Examples of Deceptive or Questionable Marketing Practices and Potentially Questionable Advice.

The New York Times account of the GAO report quotes Steve Mister, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the supplement industry trade association, unsurprised by this finding.  Heavy metals, he said, are routinely found in soil and plants: “I don’t think this should be of concern to consumers.”

Oh great.  Glad he thinks so.  I’d be happier if we had a bit more regulation of these products.

May 27 2010

The Bisphenol A saga heats up

A coalition of public health and environmental groups, collectively known as the National Workgroup for Safe Markets, has produced a report on the amounts of Bisphenol A (BPA) in canned foods: No Silver Lining: An Investigation into Bisphenol A in Canned Foods.

What did it find?  BPA in 92% of the foods sampled.  Most canned foods are lined with BPA plastic, and it leaches into the foods.

I’ve discussed concerns about the health effects of BPA in previous posts.  Here is an update on attempts to get rid of it.

To put all this in context, take a look at Jerome Groopman’s New Yorker article, The Plastic Panic: How Worried Should We Be About Everyday Chemicals? He isn’t exactly sure, but points out how difficult it is to test the health effects of any one of many chemicals in our environment–flame retardants and plastics among them–and how far regulation lags in dealing with this problem.  He concludes:

How do we go forward? Flame retardants surely serve a purpose, just as BPA and phthalates have made for better and stronger plastics. Still, while the evidence of these chemicals’ health consequences may be far from conclusive, safer alternatives need to be sought. More important, policymakers must create a better system for making decisions about when to ban these types of substances, and must invest in the research that will inform those decisions. There’s no guarantee that we’ll always be right, but protecting those at the greatest risk shouldn’t be deferred.

Given the evidence brought forth to date on BPA, I’d call this an understatement.

May 26 2010

Peanut allergies on the increase

A survey report in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology says that peanut allergies have tripled in the last decade.  Why?  The authors don’t really know although they speculate that children aren’t exposed to as much dirt as they used to be.

Are we really that much cleaner than we were 10 years ago?  I doubt it.  But I would very much like to know why this is happening.

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