Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 28 2011

USDA approves controversial GM alfalfa

In an action long expected, the USDA approved commercial production of genetically modified alfalfa.

The announcement makes it clear that USDA did not do this lightly.  The agency was well aware of the concerns of organic farmers that GM alfalfa could—and will—contaminate their fields.

Secretary Vilsack said:

After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa…All of the alfalfa production stakeholders involved in this issue have stressed their willingness to work together to find solutions.

…USDA brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss feasible strategies for coexistence between genetically engineered (GE), organic, and other non-GE stakeholders.

…In response to the request for support from its stakeholders, USDA is taking a number of steps, including:

  • Reestablishing two important USDA advisory committees – Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee.
  • Conducting research into areas such as ensuring the genetic integrity, production and preservation of alfalfa seeds entrusted to the germplasm system;
  • Refining and extending current models of gene flow in alfalfa;
  • Requesting proposals through the Small Business Innovation Research program to improve handling of forage seeds and detection of transgenes in alfalfa seeds and hay; and,
  • Providing voluntary, third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives.

USDA seems to think it has brokered “peaceful coexistence” (see previous post).  Skeptics, take note.

The USDA is providing more information about this decision online .  It also has issued a Q and A.  Here’s the Federal Register notice.

Jan 27 2011

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines, coming Jan 31

Here’s what I’m going to be doing on Monday morning:

INVITATION TO KEY STAKEHOLDERS TO JOIN IN THE NATIONAL RELEASE OF THE 2010 DIETARY GUIDELINES FOR AMERICANS

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services Will Release the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans at a Joint Press Conference Monday, January 31, 2011

On Monday, January 31, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will hold a joint press a conference at The George Washington University Jack Morton Auditorium to release the new 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will discuss the Guidelines and provide key insights into the new recommendations. Joining the Secretaries will be Dr. Robert Post, Deputy Director of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and Rear Admiral Penelope Slade-Sawyer, HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Immediately following the presentations, the speakers will entertain questions from the press, stakeholders, students and others in attendance.

 Monday, January 31, 2011, 10 a.m. – 11 a.m. EST

The George Washington University

Jack Morton Auditorium

Media and Public Affairs Building

805 21st Street, NW

Washington, DC 20052

Stakeholders are invited to attend this event in person. Seating is limited and RSVP is required by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, January 26, by registering here.

Stakeholders may also view the event via webcast at www.usda.gov/live

Copies of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be available at www.DietaryGuidelines.gov immediately following the press conference.

Can’t wait!

Jan 26 2011

FDA withdraws menu labeling guidance. Will work on rules instead.

The FDA announces that it is immediately withdrawing its guidance to the food industry issued in August about how companies should do menu labeling. It will start formal rulemaking instead.  Try some FDA-speak:

As stated in the draft guidance, certain provisions of section 4205 of the Affordable Care Act became requirements immediately upon enactment of the law. FDA also stated that it anticipated issuing the final guidance and enforcement policy in December 2010.FDA received many comments on the draft guidance and on a public docket which FDA opened to solicit comment.

Based, in part, on these comments, FDA now intends to complete the notice and comment rulemaking process for section 4205 before initiating enforcement activities and will not be publishing a final guidance on menu labeling at this time. FDA is required to issue proposed regulations to carry out provisions of section 4205 no later than March 23, 2011. FDA intends to meet this statutory deadline.

FDA believes that the expeditious completion of the rulemaking process for section 4205 will minimize uncertainty and confusion among all interested parties. This approach to implementing section 4205 will most rapidly lead to full and consistent availability of the newly required nutrition information for consumers.

I’m not sure how to translate this.  I think it means that companies currently posting calories should continue to do so.

The FDA still needs time to work out some of the sticky details—calorie ranges like the ones used by Chipotle, for example.  It intends to meet the legislated deadline for issuing rules a year from now.  States and local communities currently requiring calorie labeling should continue to do so but should off on enforcement until then. 

Let’s not hurry these things.

Unsurprisingly, the restaurant industry “supports this approach.”  As The Packer put it, “Don’t sweat menu labeling just yet. Thise just in from the FDA…”

Patience is a virtue.  This willl happen.   Eventually.

Jan 25 2011

“Singing Kumbaya,” GMA/FMI displays preemptive label design

I listened in on the conference call at which the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute announced their new Nutrition Keys design for front-of-package labels.

My favorite comment: We are all “singing kumbaya” here.  Nutrition Keys, they said, was the result of a” monumental, historic effort” in which food companies “stepped up to the plate in a big way,” “with 100% support.”

Why did they go to all this trouble?  Because “A healthy consumer makes for a happy consumer.”

Kumbaya, indeed.

The real reason, as I explained yesterday, is to preempt the FDA’s front-of-package food labeling initiatives which might make food companies reveal more about the “negatives” in processed foods.

Here’s what GMA and FMI say the new label will look like:

Four of these things are required: Calories, Saturated fat, Sodium, and Total (not added) sugars.  Packages can also display up to two “nutrients to encourage” picked from this collection:  protein; fiber; vitamins A, C, and D; and potassium, iron, and calcium.

Let’s give these food trade associations credit for listing sugars instead of the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation for trans fat.  Trans fats are already gone from most processed foods.  Everyone cares about sugars.  But these are total sugars, not added sugars, which is what really matters.

And protein?  Since when does protein need to be encouraged in American diets?  We already eat twice the protein we need.  The rationale?  Vegetarians.   I repeat.  Since when don’t vegetarians get enough protein?  Never mind, protein makes the products look better.

Nutrition Keys merely repeats what’s on the Nutrition Facts labels, only worse.  It makes the percent Daily Values practically invisible.  Which is better?  High or low milligrams or grams.  You have to know this, and Nutrition Keys doesn’t help with that problem.

Nutrition Keys, says the industry, is about “more clarity in labeling.”  Really?  Here’s what it will look like on a food package.

I’ve been collecting reactions.

Although GMA and FMI insist they they are doing this in response to the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, the White House issued this statement:

The White House, including the First Lady, recognizes these companies for the leadership they have shown in advancing this initiative. We regard their commitment to dedicate space, for the first time, to an industry-wide front-of-pack label as a significant first step and look forward to future improvement. The FDA plans to monitor this initiative closely and will work with experts in the field to evaluate whether the new label is meeting the needs of American consumers and pursue improvements as needed. We will continue to work on seeking solutions for the problem of childhood obesity in America.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro was more forthcoming:

The industry’s unveiling today of its front-of-package labeling system is troubling and confirms that this effort should not circumvent or influence FDA’s effort to develop strong guidelines for FOP labels.

Given that negative and positive nutrients will not be differentiated on the package, there is significant risk that these labels will be ignored.  An adequate labeling system must clearly alert consumers about potentially unhealthy foods, and should not mislead them into believing that some foods are healthy when they clearly are not.

Reporters asked tough questions on the conference call about preemption of FDA efforts to do front-of-package labeling in a rational way (see my post from yesterday).  Perhaps space limitations made full accounts impossible:

Jan 24 2011

Forget FDA. Grocery trade groups to do their own “better-for-you” logos

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) are announcing their “Nutrition Keys” plan for front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labels.  Their member companies have agreed to display calories and percent of saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium, per serving, on the front of product packages.

So far, so good.

But they also will be displaying up to eight “positives,” nutrients that are supposed to be good for you.  They say they will be using some kind of design similar to what some companies are using now, only with “positives” added.

Note: this illustration comes from Mars (the company, not the planet).  It is not what GMA and FMI will necessarily use.

Let me repeat what I wrote last October when GMA and FMI first said they intended to do this:

Forget the consumer-friendly rhetoric.

There is only one explanation for this move: heading off the FDA’s Front-of-Package (FOP) labeling initiatives.

In October, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released the first of its FDA-sponsored reports on FOP labels.  Based on research on consumer understanding of food labels and other considerations, the IOM committee strongly recommended that FOP symbols only list calories, sodium, trans fat, and saturated fat.

This led William Neuman of the New York Times to summarize the IOM approach as: “Tell us how your products are bad for us.”

GMA and FMI would much rather label their products with all the things that are good about them, like added vitamins, omega-3s, and fiber.  If they have to do negatives, they prefer “no trans fat” or “no cholesterol.”

What they especially do not want is for the FDA to impose “traffic-light” symbols.  These U.K. symbols, you may recall from previous posts, discourage consumers from buying anything labeled in red, and were so strongly opposed by the food industry that they caused the undoing of the British Food Standards Agency.

GMA and FMI, no doubt, are hoping the same thing will happen to the FDA.

At the moment, the FDA is waiting for the IOM’s second report.  This one, due in a few months, will advise the FDA about what to do about FOP labels—again based on research.  Couldn’t GMA and FMI wait?

From what I’ve been hearing, GMA and FMI could not care less about the IOM or FDA.  This is what they had to do to get member companies to agree.  They say the new labels will go on about 70% of branded products by next year.  They also say they will spend $50 million on public education.

How this will play out in practice remains to be seen.  You can bet that plenty of highly processed foods will qualify for “positives,” just like they did with the industry-initiated Smart Choices logo, may it rest in peace.

As I said in October: This move is all the evidence the FDA needs for mandatory FOP labels.   GMA and FMI have just demonstrated that the food industry will not willingly label its processed foods in ways that help the public make healthier food choices.

Let’s hope the GMA/FMI scheme flunks the laugh test and arouses the interest of city and state attorneys general—just as the Smart Choices program did.

The official announcement is coming this afternoon.  Stay tuned.

Addition: Scott Obenshaw, Director of Communications for GMA files the following clarification:

1.)     In addition to the information regarding calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content, the Nutrition Keys icon on some products will display information about two “nutrients to encourage.”  The two nutrients to encourage that may appear on some products as part of the Nutrition Keys icon must come from the following list: potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and also protein.  These “nutrients to encourage” can only be placed on a package if the product has more than 10% of the daily value per serving of the nutrient and meets the FDA requirements for a “good source” nutrient content claim.

2.)     Transfat is not part of the label – only calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content.

Let’s give GMA and FMI lots of credit for replacing the IOM’s recommendation for trans fat with sugars.  Trans fats are heading out of the food supply and consumers want to know about sugars.  So that’s an improvement.  And two positives might not overwhelm the so-called negatives.  But I’m eager to see what the design really looks like and will report as soon as it is released.

Jan 23 2011

My NPR comments on Walmart

I’ve been asked to provide a link to my NPR comments on the Walmart announcementHere it is.

I was also interested to read what Dan Flynn, the editor of FoodSafetyNews, just said about it.

Enjoy!

Jan 21 2011

Eating Liberally: What about those smarmy Monsanto ads?

Every now and then, Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman, aka kat, writes an “Ask Marion,” this one titled, “Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Is Monsanto’s Warm & Fuzzy Farmer Campaign Just A Snow Job?”

2011-01-21-Farmer.jpg

KT: Now that the Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, too (happy birthday, Citizens United!), Monsanto is apparently out to put a friendly, slightly weatherbeaten, gently grizzled face on industrial agriculture (see above photo, taken at a DC bus stop just outside USDA headquarters.)

This guy looks an awful lot like Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, which seems only fitting since Agribiz may be helping to create a 21st century Dust Bowl.

After decades of boasting about how fossil-fuel intensive industrial agriculture has made it possible for far fewer farmers to produce way more food, Monsanto is now championing the power of farming to create jobs and preserve land. Does this attempt by a biotech behemoth to wrap itself in populist plaid flannel give you the warm and fuzzies, or just burn you up?

Dr. Nestle: This is not a new strategy for Monsanto. Half of my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (University of California Press, 2010), is devoted to the politics of food biotechnology. I illustrated it with a Monsanto advertisement (Figure 17, page 182). The caption may amuse you:

In 2001, the biotechnology industry’s public relations campaign featured the equivalent of the Marlboro Man. Rather than cigarettes, however, this advertisement promotes the industry’s view of the ecological advantages of transgenic crops (reduced pesticide use, soil conservation), and consequent benefits to society (farm preservation). In 2002, a series of elegant photographs promoted the benefits of genetically modified corn, soybeans, cotton, and papaya.

Last year, Monsanto placed ads that took its “we’re for farmers” stance to another level:

9 billion people to feed. A changing climate. NOW WHAT?
Producing more. Conserving more. Improving farmers’ lives.
That’s sustainable agriculture.
And that’s what Monsanto is all about.

That’s sustainable agriculture? I’ll bet you didn’t know that. Now take a look at the Monsanto website–really, you can’t make this stuff up:

If there were one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers.

Billions of people depend upon what farmers do. And so will billions more. In the next few decades, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the past 10,000 years – combined.

It is our purpose to work alongside farmers to do exactly that.

To produce more food.

To produce more with less, conserving resources like soil and water.

And to improve lives.

We do this by selling seeds, traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

Face it. We have two agricultural systems in this country, both claiming to be good for farmers and both claiming to be sustainable. One focuses on local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable in the sense of replenishing what gets taken out of the soil. The other is Monsanto, for which sustainable means selling seeds (and not letting farmers save them), patented traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

This is about who gets to control the food supply and who gets to choose. Too bad the Monsanto ads don’t explain that.

Jan 20 2011

What are we to think about Walmart’s healthy food initiatives?

In a press conference attended by Michelle Obama, Walmart today said it will do five things:

  • Work with processed food suppliers to reduce sodium, sugars, and trans fat in hundreds of foods by 2015
  • Develop its own front-of-package seal to identify healthier products
  • Make healthier processed foods more affordable
  • Put a new, different kind of Walmart store in low-income “food deserts”
  • Increase charitable support for nutrition programs

I’ve been on the phone all day with interviewers, most of them totally focused on the first two.  Walmart has established its own nutrition criteria for judging its own products.  These seem generous and not particularly challenging, and this is just what Pepsi, Kraft, and other companies have been doing.  These criteria are only slightly better.

The idea that Walmart is going to do its own front-of-package label to identify those products is particularly annoying.  They are doing this just when the Institute of Medicine and FDA are trying to establish research-based criteria for front-of-package labels.  So here is one more company trying to preempt FDA regulations.

When I asked Walmart representatives about this, they told me that the FDA moves slowly and the public needs this information now.  Sorry.  I don’t buy that.

The next two initiatives are much more interesting and have much greater potential to do some good.  Walmart says it will price better-for-you processed foods lower than the regular versions and will develop its own supply chain as a means to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  This sounds good, but what about the downside?  Will this hurt small farmers?   Walmart didn’t provide many details and we will have to see how this one plays out.

And then there is the one about putting smaller Walmart stores into inner cities in order to solve the problem of “food deserts.”  This also sounds good—and it’s about time groceries moved into inner cities—but is this just a ploy to get Walmart stores into places where they haven’t been wanted?  Will the new stores drive mom-and-pop stores out of business?  Here too, Walmart is short on details.

None of the reporters seems to be connecting these initiatives with Walmart’s dismal history of low wages and poor working conditions.  Will these change for the better?

Walmart is not a social service agency.  It is a business and a hugely successful one.  It outsells the largest grocery chains in America by a factor of two.   Today’s New York Times says that 16% of U.S. sales of Kraft products are at Walmart stores.  PepsiCo admits to 10%.   These are huge numbers.

Walmart can get whatever it wants from suppliers—and even get Mrs. Obama to endorse its actions.  That’s power.

Whether these initiatives will do anything for health remains to be seen.  They will certainly put pressure on other suppliers and stores to tweak their products. I don’t think that’s good enough.

I’ll say it again: a better-for-you processed food is not necessarily a good choice.

That’s why I think the most important of these initiatives is the one to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  That could make a real difference.

Page 178 of 342« First...176177178179180...Last »