Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 15 2010

Eating Liberally: What’s up with Walmart?

Every now and then I answer questions from Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman (kat).  Today’s is about Walmart’s sustainability initiatives.

Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Is Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Strategy For Real?

Submitted by KAT on Fri, 10/15/2010 – 12:20pm.

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s Kerry Trueman corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

KT: Why do you think Wal-Mart has decided to throw its colossal weight behind sustainable agriculture, both domestically and globally, in such a seemingly significant way? Is it a strategic pr move, a better-for-the-bottom-line calculus, or a bit of both? Is it too good to be true?

Dr. Nestle: I, of course, am a skeptic. Of course Wal-Mart wants to get into the business of sustainably and locally grown food. Wal-Mart is the largest grocery chain in the world, the 800-pound gorilla in the industry. It can demand whatever it wants from its suppliers, and at the lowest possible cost.

With these new initiatives, Wal-Mart suppliers will have to figure out ways to produce foods sustainably–without increasing the cost to Wal-Mart. So this move costs Wal-Mart nothing. It gains plenty. This move should recruit supporters of sustainable and locally grown food and induce them to overlook the company’s retrogressive labor practices.

Will these initiatives help farmers? Maybe, but only if Wal-Mart pays them decently for what they produce. As for Wal-Mart employees? Ditto. But I want to wait and see how it all plays out before making a final judgment.

This is also posted on Huffington Post.

And the New York Times has a story on it.

Oct 13 2010

IOM Front-of-Package Label Committee releases Phase 1 report

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its first Front-of-Package (FOP) labeling report this morning. Phase I is a tough, detailed examination of about 20 of the existing FOP schemes along with some recommendations about what such schemes ought to do.

FOP labels are those little spots, check marks, and tokens that are all over food packages these days and that are supposed to indicate that the product is especially healthy for you.  They may seem utterly trivial, but they are of desperate importance to food companies.  FOP labels sell food products.  Food marketers love them and need them.  The FDA worries that having so many of them confuses the public, and that the schemes are based on criteria that serve industry purposes more than to promote public health.

As the IOM press release explains:

A multitude of nutrition rating, or guidance, systems have been developed by food manufacturers, government agencies, nutrition groups, and others in recent years with the intent of helping consumers quickly compare products’ nutritional attributes and make healthier choices. Ratings are typically communicated to shoppers through symbols placed prominently on food packaging, usually on the front, or on retail shelf tags. Unlike the Nutrition Facts panel, these rating systems and symbols are unregulated, and different systems focus on different nutrients. The variation may confuse consumers, and questions have been raised about the systems’ underlying nutritional criteria.

The committee did a terrific analysis of current FOP schemes.  My favorite parts are its

  • Clear, concise histories of nutrition and FOP labeling (students: take note!)
  • Detailed evaluation of the strengths (few) and weaknesses (many) of the existing schemes
  • Demonstration of the inconsistent results of applying the schemes to specific foods

The report gives examples of the inconsistent results of three scoring schemes: Guiding Stars, NRFI [Nutrient-Rich Foods Index], and Nu-Val

  • Instant oatmeal received 3 Guiding Stars, and scores of 87 by NRFI and 39 by NuVal.
  • Non-instant oatmeal received 2 Guiding Stars, and scores of 22 by NRFI and 57 by NuVal
  • Toasted oat cereal received 2 Guiding Stars, and scores of 84 by NRFI and 37 by NuVal
  • Fat free milk, 1% fat milk, and fat free plain yogurt received 3 Guiding Stars, but fat free milk was scored 56 by NRFI and 91 by NuVal; 1% fat milk was scored 30 by NRFI and 81 by NuVal, and fat free plain yogurt was scored 43 by NRFI and 96 by NuVal.

The committee’ key recommendation: FOP labels should deal with just four nutrients: calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.

These nutrients, says the committee, “are routinely overconsumed and associated most strongly with diet-related health problems affecting many Americans, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.”

Comment: Trans fat seems unnecessary here.  It is already out of most packaged foods.   Or maybe the committee thinks that leaving it off will give food companies permission to put hydrogenated oils back in?

The committee chose not to add sugars to this list:

The committee concurred that both added and naturally occurring sugars contribute to the caloric content of foods and beverages and overconsumption of high-calorie products can lead to obesity.  Highlighting calories per serving in nutrition rating systems would address this concern.

Comment: I think consumers want to know about added sugars in food products.  I certainly do.

Phase II comes next

It will examine designs and look at consumer understanding of the labels, and will discuss “the pros and cons of having a single, standardized front-label food guidance system that is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Presumably, Phase II will deal with questions that are not addressed in the Phase I report:

  • Will this scheme supersede all of the other labeling systems currently on food packages?
  • Will it be voluntary or mandatory?  For all food products, or just selected ones?
  • If the scheme is voluntary, why would food companies choose to use it since it mostly highlights the negatives—the nutrients to be avoided?
  • How will it affect the nutrient-content claims currently on food packages?  (Examples: “Contains 8 vitamins!”  “100% vitamin C!” “High fiber!”)
  • How will it affect shelf-labeling schemes such as the Nu-Val system used at Price Chopper supermarkets and the ANDI system used by Whole Foods?

FOP labels are about marketing, not health

This scheme, like the many others developed by food companies singly or together, is designed to help the public decide whether one highly processed, packaged food product is nutritionally better than another.

As I have discussed many times on this site, this approach raises a philosophical question: Is a slightly “better for you” food product necessarily a good choice?

I hope the committee will ponder this and some of my other questions as it enters Phase II.

Addendum: I gather from what I’ve heard about the press conference this morning that some of my questions were answered.  The FOP proposal will not affect nutrient content claims on the front of packages.  Companies will still be able to proclaim the nutritional benefits of their products in words and banners.  They just won’t be able to use them in whatever symbol gets chosen.  So what difference will this report make?  Not much, alas, except to get rid of the silly symbols in use right now.

Update, October 14:  William Neuman’s account of this event in the New York Times starts with this: “Tell us how your products are bad for us.”

Oct 12 2010

It’s National School Lunch Week!

The USDA has issued a lengthy press release on its current efforts to improve school meals.  One part of this is the HealthierUS School Challenge, which awards grants to schools to create healthier school food environments.

I just received another press release from the USDA (not yet posted online), this one announcing that Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass are kicking off the 2nd annual Washington D.C. “Farm to School Week.”

Merrigan and Kass will visit Savoy Elementary School to highlight Obama administration efforts to improve school meals by incorporating locally-grown foods. Merrigan and Kass will also tour the Savoy school garden and emphasize healthy eating, locally grown ingredients, and farm to school programs.  Here’s the schedule:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

1 p.m. EDT

WHAT: Agriculture Deputy Secretary Merrigan and White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass will kick-off the 2nd annual D.C. Farm to School Week.
WHERE: Savoy Elementary School

2400 Shannon Place SE

Washington, D.C.  20020

These are good things to do.  Now, how about some policy changes?


Oct 11 2010

It’s National School Lunch Week: here’s how to feed kids better

The Center for Ecoliteracy has produced the second edition of its useful guide to redoing school meals programs, “Rethinking School Lunch.”

This is a step-by-step blueprint for how to work with schools to produce healthier school meals.  It covers:

  • The rationale for getting involved in projects like this
  • Integration of school meals into wellness policies
  • Methods for setting up the projects
  • Practical matters such as procurement, facilities, finances, and waste management
  • Staff training
  • Marketing and communications
  • Additional resources

I get asked all the time for help in changing school meal programs.  This guide is a good starting place.

Oct 10 2010

The NY Times magazine food issue: Community!

The New York Times Magazine’s annual food issue has arrived, with a surprising and most welcome focus on the community aspects of today’s wonderful food movement.   The cover says it all: “Eating together: How the food revolution–from farm to table–is really a story about seeding and savoring communities.”  Yes!

Food editor Christine Muhlke sets the tone with “Growing together: How the food movement jumped the plate.”

Click anyplace on the cover and you go right to Michael Pollan’s piece on the communal table.    I love the American Gothic photographs of food producers at Oakland’s Eat Real Festival.  I don’t know any of them, but wish I did.

Community!  That’s what the food movement is about.

As for next year, I’m hoping the Times will take up the politics of how we get there.

Oct 9 2010

Reprint from Civil Eats: Andy Fisher on Food Stamps vs. sodas

The most thoughtful comments I’ve seen on the proposal to block food stamp recipients from buying sodas come from Andy Fisher’s post on Civil Eats.

Mr. Fisher is currently a Kellogg Food and Society Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.  He is the Co-Founder/Executive Director of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC).

I have added the red-highlighted emphases:

Banning Soda for Food Stamps’ Recipients Raises Tough Questions

October 8th, 2010  By Andy Fisher

On Thursday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he had asked the US Department of Agriculture to allow the city to exempt soda from the permitted list of items its 1.7 million food stamp recipients can purchase with their benefits. This ban would last for two years, enough time to assess its effects and determine whether the ban should be continued on a permanent basis. New York City food stamp recipients spend an estimated $75 million to $135 million of their $2.7 billion in food stamps annually on soda, according to AP.

Anti-hunger and public health advocates at odds over proposal

Public health advocates contend the obesity epidemic is costing the US hundreds of billions of dollars per year in increased health care costs, and sugar sweetened drinks are a major factor.   They correctly note that low income persons tend to have higher rates of diet related diseases than the general public: poor New Yorkers have twice the rate of adult-onset diabetes than compared to the wealthiest. Mayor Bloomberg noted, “Sugar-sweetened drinks are not worth the cost to our health, and government shouldn’t be promoting or subsidizing them.”

On the other hand, anti-hunger advocates argue that food stamp recipients should have the same freedom of choice at the supermarket checkout counter as any middle class person. Exercising that freedom is a matter of personal dignity that the poor all too often are not afforded. Restricting soda is the first step in a slippery slope toward further demeaning regulations on what food stamp recipients can buy.  They correctly point out that poor people often can’t afford produce, as nutritious foods tend to be more expensive per calorie than less healthy food.

The anti-hunger community is correct that historically, as a nation, we have treated the poor paternalistically. American social, educational and health policy is littered with countless examples of this failed approach. Regulating what food stamp recipients can and can’t buy with their benefits puts forth the message that they are not capable of making good decisions, and the government needs to set forth boundaries to protect them from their own poor choices. To the contrary, some studies have shown that food stamp recipients actually buy more nutritious food per dollar than non-food stamp recipients.

Anti-hunger advocates are also right that poor people typically can’t afford nutritious foods. Highly processed foods, such as ramen, fill up a belly more cheaply than broccoli and whole wheat pasta.  In our food system, high calorie foods with low nutritional value are cheaper than nutrient dense foods. For example, a 12 pack of 12 ounce cans of Coke (144 oz) at Kroger’s costs $2.79 on sale, while a half gallon (64 ounces) of Minute Maid orange juice (also a Coca Cola Inc. product) is $2.49. The bad choice is the cheap choice.

On the other hand, public health groups are dead-on accurate that it is irresponsible public policy to be subsidizing with tax dollars the purchase of unhealthy products that will burden society with increased health care costs in the future.  As a nation, we’re subsidizing soda companies $4 billion annually through the food stamp program. In return, decades later, the public will be stiffed with the hospital bill for billions of dollars more for extra health care costs from these poor dietary choices.

Thorny issue raises questions

Why are anti-hunger advocates in the absurdly precarious position of protecting the right of poor people to drink soda? Do I have a right as an American to poison myself with “soft” drinks that can dissolve the rust off a car? Does it matter whether I use my own money or tax dollars?  Should freedom of choice apply to products of marginal utility if not harmful products?

Why does it cost Coca-Cola more to produce a half-gallon of orange juice than a half gallon of Coke? How do we reverse this situation, such that healthful products are more affordable and unhealthy products are more costly?

Are food stamps an income support program- or as the program’s new name indicates, a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program? If it is a “supplemental nutrition” program, then shouldn’t USDA define which products are nutritious based on Institute of Medicine standards, and limit purchases to these products? USDA does this with the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program, which is widely touted for saving billions in health care costs.

If food stamps are an income support program, and anti-hunger advocates want to maximize poor people’s freedom of choice, then why shouldn’t food stamps be distributed as cash rather than as a debit card good for food purchases? Doesn’t receiving cash maximize a person’s dignity as it bestows trust upon that person that he or she will make the right choice with their money?  Would food stamps not then become a welfare program, and be subject to the negative public perception of welfare?

The real story behind food stamps is that it is neither a nutrition program nor an income support program. It is a massive subsidy for the food retailers, grocery manufacturers, and industrial growers. That is why commodity groups, the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute all line up behind the food stamp program every five years when the Farm Bill is being debated. They know the extra buying power food stamps provides to low income Americans will end up in their pockets.

In their noble effort to reduce human suffering and to improve the livelihood of the 41 million Americans on food stamps, anti-hunger advocates are caught in an ever-tightening bind. They frame food stamps as a nutrition program, because a nutrition program has more public support and more powerful allies in Congress than a welfare or income support program. Yet, burgeoning rates of chronic diseases and the growing presence of the public health community as a player in federal food and farm policy, translates into increased accountability for the nutritional impact of the food stamp program.

What boat are both camps missing?

There is one very important point neither the anti-hunger nor the public health advocates are making. Our tax dollars, especially the $80-90 billion spent annually on federal food programs, are a powerful force in shaping the food system. Food stamps, like school meals and WIC, should be the cornerstone of a food system that is grounded in principles of environmental sustainability, social justice, and health. Directed toward the small farm economy, community-oriented retailers, brokers, and processors, even a modest percentage of these funds could ignite a transformation of our food system.

Consider this. While nationally food stamp recipients are spending $4 BILLION per year on soda, in 2009, only $4 MILLION of food stamps were redeemed at farmers markets. This difference is shaped by the fact that USDA has not equipped farmers markets with free debit card terminals (which are needed to accept food stamp benefits), and prohibited federal nutrition education programs to promote farmers markets. Does this mean the Department of Agriculture values soft drinks one thousand times more than farmers markets?

Mayor Bloomberg has proposed only half the solution. USDA should grant him the waiver he requests if and only if New York City agrees to redirect the $75-$135 million that would have otherwise been spent on soda to programs that encourage food stamp recipients to purchase locally grown foods at farmers markets, community supported agriculture farms, and other community-oriented venues.

Oct 8 2010

Food company responses to obesity

Jeffrey Koplan (Emory) and Kelly Brownell (Yale) have a commentary in JAMA (October 6) titled “Response of the food and beverage industry to the obesity threat.”   They describe how the food and beverage industries:

  • Associate their products with health
  • Frame the issues to emphasize balance or physical activity
  • Pick and choose the science
  • Reformulate products to make them appear healthier
  • Defend themselves and attack critics

Sound familiar?  For details, see  Michele Simon’s excellent book, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back (Nation Books, 2006).

Addition, October 10: Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group reminds me about its 2007 Framing Brief, “Reading between the lines: understanding food industry responses to concerns about nutrition.”  This group’s publications are always terrific resources for educating and taking action on food issues.


Oct 7 2010

New York City says no to using Food Stamps for sodas

New York City is serious about trying to reduce rates of obesity and the expensive and debilitating conditions for which obesity raises risks.  Its latest move?  It is asking the USDA for a Food Stamp waiver for two years during which recipients would not be allowed to use their benefit cards to buy sodas.

I hardly know where to begin on this one.  I learned about this from the front page of this morning’s New York Times and from reading the accompanying op-ed by city Health Commissioner Tom Farley and New York State Health Commissioner Richard Daines.

This is an old, old idea that has been consistently rejected by USDA and by public health advocates for the poor.  It is based on the commonly held notion—never conclusively demonstrated by independent data—that recipients of Food Stamps (now called SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)–make worse food choices than everyone else.

New York City, according to the Times account, has 1.7 million people who receive SNAP benefits.  The rationale for banning soda purchases?

City statistics released last month showed that nearly 40 percent of public-school children in kindergarten through eighth grade were overweight or obese, and that obesity rates were substantially higher in poor neighborhoods. City studies show that consumption of sugared beverages is consistently higher in those neighborhoods….Anticipating such criticism, Dr. Farley and Dr. Daines said that the food-stamp program already prohibited the use of benefits to buy cigarettes, beer, wine, liquor or prepared foods.

The op-ed points out:

Every year, tens of millions of federal dollars are spent on sweetened beverages in New York City through the food stamp program — far more than is spent on obesity prevention. This amounts to an enormous subsidy to the sweetened beverage industry.

I asked for data on soda purchases by New York City SNAP recipients, and was sent the city’s waiver request to USDA:

An estimated $75 to $135 million dollars of SNAP funds were spent on sweetened beverages in New York City (NYC) alone in 2009 [Based on Nielsen beverage market data for 2009, the prevalence of SNAP participants in NYC, and prior studies of SNAP purchasing behavior].   This use of federal funds to purchase a group of products that are leading contributors to the diabetes and obesity epidemics (and whose extensive consumption contradicts the USDA’s own recommended dietary guidelines) far outstrips current federal funding for prevention of these health problems.

I am, as readers of this blog well know, no fan of sodas.   If people want to do something about controlling body weight, the best place to begin is by cutting out sodas.  Soft drinks contain sugars and, therefore, calories, but nothing else.  As the Center for Science in the Public Interest has long maintained, sodas are liquid candy.   And I am on record as favoring soda taxes (see previous posts) as a strategy to discourage use, especially among young people.

But if I were in charge of Food Stamps, I would much prefer incentives: make the benefit worth twice as much when spent for fresh (or single-ingredient frozen) fruits and vegetables.

How far will the city get with this request?  I can’t wait to find out.  If you want to watch lobbying in action, keep an eye on this one, as I certainly will.

As for this proposal?

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