Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 5 2011

Future of Food: the food movement goes mainstream

I’m just back from yesterday’s Future of Food conference in Washington DC.  The event, designed by WashingtonPostLive to “advance the conversation” about sustainable food, featured a glittering array of speakers from many aspects of the food movement. (You can watch the conference on video here, and the Washington Post will have a special section on it next Wednesday, May 11.)

The keynote speaker was none other than the Prince of Wales, fresh from his son’s wedding, who gave a serious and inspriring talk that touched on a great range of pressing issues related to agriculture, health, and the state of the world.

Anyone who has been involved in food issues for any length of time had heard these opinions before and most of the speakers were talking to an audience of a few hundred of the converted.

Nevertheless, I think there’s a story here, and not just because I was on one of the panels.

The story is that the event happened.  The food movement has gone mainstream.

The conference—sponsored by the Washington Post no less—brought in heavy hitters.  These included the Prince of Wales, of course, but also the President of Georgetown University, where the event was held, Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, and officials of the FDA and White House.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack came, gave thoughtful remarks, and responded with equally thoughtful answers to not-always-friendly comments from the audience.  This was the first time I’d seem him in person and I was impressed by how carefully he has thought through the issues he has to deal with.   Even when I viewed the issues differently,  it seemed clear that his were the result of much intelligent thought and weighing of alternatives.

Montana Senator Jon Tester, of the Tester amendment to the food safety bill, gave closing remarks.

The speakers, young and old, famous and not, made it clear that concerns about the relationship of agriculture to the health of people and the planet were major and were getting focused attention at very high levels.

The food movement can no longer be considered fringe.  It’s mainstream.  Speakers provided much evidence for that from their own points of view.

They said, it’s now time to take the movement to the next step, and that means doing what it takes to become even more powerful.

For example, see if you can find the remarks of Robert Ross, President of the California Endowment and listen to the opening remarks of his speech about the analogy with tobacco and the need to counter the power of food corporations.

My slightly facetious suggestion: if Congress is for sale, let’s buy our own.

Perhaps you have other ideas for expanding the movement and making it more powerful?  Do tell.

 

 

May 3 2011

What’s going on with human height?

Robert Fogel, winner of a Nobel Prize in economics, has a new book coming out arguing, according to an account in the New York Times,  that gains in human height constitute “the most significant development in humanity’s long history.”

Fogel and his co-authors attribute the gain in height to gains in technology:

This “technophysio evolution,” powered by advances in food production and public health, has so outpaced traditional evolution, the authors argue, that people today stand apart not just from every other species, but from all previous generations of  Homo sapiens as well.

Here’s the evidence:

 

But I’m confused by this.  I thought people were taller before the agricultural revolution of 12,000 years ago or so, and that the recent gains were due to better nutrition and sanitation measures—not to gains in technology.

I’m particularly confused because of the recent study demonstrating reductions in height among women in 54 low-income countries.  This study concludes:

Socioeconomic inequalities in height remain persistent. Height has stagnated or declined over the last decades in low- to middle-income countries, particularly in Africa, suggesting worsening nutritional and environmental circumstances during childhood.

In other words, if you want to do something about height disparities, you have to fix income disparities and provide adequate food and clean drinking water.

 

 

 

May 1 2011

San Francisco Chronicle: Food Stamps and Sodas

My monthly (first-Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle continues the conversation about use of food stamps to buy sodas.

Food stamps should not be valid for soda purchases

Q: When I see people in grocery stores using food stamp benefits to buy sodas, I get upset. Why does the government allow this?

A: My quick answer is lobbying, but discomfort about whether welfare benefits should permit the poor to eat as badly as those who are better off dates back to the English Poor Laws of the 16th century.

New York City’s proposed pilot project banning the use of food stamps for buying sugary sodas is only the latest event in this long and complicated history.

Welfare policies have always been designed to give the poor just enough to keep them off the streets, but not enough to induce dependency. The tension between these goals has resulted in scanty benefits – and endless debates.

Today, the debit cards provided by SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) can be used for all foods with these exceptions: alcoholic beverages, pet foods, nutrient supplements and on-site prepared foods.

New York’s proposal to add sodas to the “can’t buy” list is based on evidence linking sugary sodas to obesity, their lack of nutritional value, and estimates that SNAP recipients spend $75 million to $135 million in city benefits each year.

The proposed ban does not stop SNAP recipients from buying sodas. They just won’t be able to use SNAP benefits for them.

Soda companies strongly oppose this idea, of course, but so do many advocates for the poor. Advocates argue that the restrictions are insensitive and condescending in assuming that the poor are uniquely unable to make sensible dietary decisions.

The real problem, they correctly point out, is that low-income Americans – with or without SNAP benefits – cannot afford to buy healthy foods or do not have access to them.

As a result of such arguments, I have long been uncomfortable with the idea of the soda ban. But in recent months, I have come to support it. Here’s why:

Evidence is strong that sugary drinks predispose to obesity, and obesity rates are higher among low-income households. In New York City, for example, obesity and Type 2 diabetes are twice as prevalent among the poorest households compared with the wealthiest. Preliminary evidence suggests that sugars in liquid form may especially predispose to obesity.

Overall, soda companies have worked hard to create an environment in which drinking sugary beverages all day is normal. They lobby to introduce and retain vending machines in schools. As sales in the United States have declined, they increasingly market their products to people in developing countries.

They put millions of dollars to work fighting soda taxes and, no doubt, the proposed SNAP ban.

I’m impressed by the comparison of the SNAP approach, which allows benefits to be used for most foods, to that of the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program. The USDA runs both programs. WIC, the most demonstrably nutritionally successful of all food assistance programs, allows benefits to be used only for a restricted number of nutrient-rich foods.

In 2010, SNAP benefits went to more than 40 million people at a total cost of more than $68 billion. We need to focus on finding ways to make healthful foods more affordable and accessible to low-income families – doubling the value of SNAP benefits when used for fruits and vegetables, for example, or promoting incentives to move grocery stores, and community gardens into inner-city areas.

Still, soft drink companies have had a free ride for decades.

I hope the USDA will approve New York’s proposed ban.

 

Apr 30 2011

Soda industry vs. NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban

Today’s New York Times carries a piece by Robert Pear on soda industry opposition to NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the use of food stamp (SNAP) benefits to buy sugary drinks.

My first-Sunday monthly column for the San Francisco Chronicle is on precisely the same topic.  I will post it tomorrow.

In the meantime, here’s what the Times says about how the soda industry is organizing opposition:

While the American Beverage Association has led the opposition, the fight demonstrates how various parts of the food industry have united to thwart the mayor’s proposal. Beverage industry lobbyists have worked with the Snack Food Association, the National Confectioners Association, which represents candy companies, the Food Marketing Institute, which represents 26,000 retail food stores, as well as antihunger groups like the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America.

But here’s how the strategies play out in practice:

Eighteen members of the Congressional Black Caucus recently urged the Obama administration to reject New York’s proposal. The plan is unfair to food stamp recipients because it treats them differently from other customers, they said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

While Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are among the largest contributors to the nonpartisan Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a research and education institute, caucus members say their positions are not influenced by such contributions.

See my Food Matters column tomorrow for how I view all this.

Apr 29 2011

Sugar politics in action: Sugar sues HFCS

Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports: the Western Sugar Cooperative has just filed suit against the Corn Refiners and corn processors to stop them for falsely advertising HFCS as “corn sugar.”

Oh please.  Western Sugar is trying to claim that HFCS is not sugar, when it most definitely is.  To sugar associations, which represent cane and beet producers, sugar means sucrose (the white stuff on the table).

When the Sugar Association threatened to sue me for saying that soft drinks had sugar and nothing else (when they also contained HFCS), I patiently explained the biochemistry.  If you would like to read what they said, I’ve posted the threatening letter and my response at the bottom of this link. Here’s the biochemistry:

  • Sucrose: a double sugar of 50% glucose and 50% fructose linked together
  • HFCS: a syrup of about 45% glucose and 55% fructose, separated

The 5% differences are biologically insignificant and the body can’t tell them apart.

I never heard from the Sugar Association again, but I try to to remember to say sugars, plural.

Whether the FDA should allow the defendants to change the name of HFCS to Corn Sugar is a matter of some debate (see previous posts and comments on them).  The FDA will make its decision in due course.

In the meantime, this lawsuit is about marketing competition among sources of sugars (plural).  It has nothing to do with health.

Apr 28 2011

At last FTC releases principles of food marketing to kids

The FTC released its long-awaited principles for food marketing to children today.  These are proposed principles, scheduled to apply to marketing to children age 2 to 17, to go into effect by 2016.  The principles are now open for comment.

Principle A: Foods marketed to children must make a meaningful contribution to healthful diets, and contain at least one of these food groups:
• fruit
• vegetable
• whole grain
• fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk products
• fish
• extra lean meat or poultry
• eggs
• nuts and seeds
• beans
Principle B is that the foods should minimize intake of nutrients that could have a negative impact on health or weight.  The key standards are:
• Saturated Fat: 1 g or less per serving and 15% or less of calories
• Trans Fat: 0 g per serving
• Added Sugars: No more than 13 g of added sugars per serving
• Sodium: No more than 210 mg per serving
I thought the original proposals were far too generous.  But the only difference between these proposals and those proposed a year or so ago is a slight increase in sodium from 200 mg to 210 per serving.  I can only assume that this  difference is just enough to include a lot of junk foods that would otherwise be excluded by these principles.

 

Recall the history:  In 2009, Congress specified that an interagency group was to set up standards for identifying foods that should not be marketed to children and to publish them by July 15, 2010.   That group came up with a set of recommendations similar to these but more complicated.

The July 15 date came and went, as I explained in a previous post.  Why?  Rumors were that food industry opposition got in the way.  As reporter Melanie Warner pointed out, weak as they may appear, the proposed standards would exclude a great many highly profitable food products.  William Neuman provided a detailed account of why the FTC wasn’t budging on this in the New York Times.  And the Colbert Report had some fun with the FTC’s delay.The food industry has consistently opposed giving the FTC more authority over marketing of foods and supplements.

 

What are we to make of this? In the light of this history, the FTC must be congratulated for its courage in overcoming food industry opposition.  The principles are supposed to apply to all forms of media, print and electronic.  If so, the food industry will have a much harder time marketing foods to kids.  That’s great news.

But here’s what I’m still concerned about:
  • The principles are voluntary. Nobody has to follow them.
  • Who is going to hold food companies accountable for following the guidelines?
  • Why do food companies get until 2016 to implement them?  Five years?
Can’t we do any better?  Of course, given my druthers, food companies would not be allowed to market directly to children at all.


Update, April 29: According to Advertising Age, the food and advertising industries are unhappy with the FTC proposals:
If companies were to comply with these proposals, the restrictions are sufficiently onerous that they would basically block a substantial amount of advertising.
Apr 26 2011

Should food labels say salt or sodium?

According to today’s Food Chemical News (which, unfortunately, requires a subscription to read), the FDA is arguing to make the international standard for food labels say sodium, not salt.

The U.S. delegation to the Codex Committee on Food Labeling will push for requiring the term “sodium” rather than “salt” on nutrition labels.

The European Union and its allies prefer “salt,” arguing that it is better understood by consumers.  But:

The United States is strongly opposed to removing “sodium” from the list of nutrients requiring disclosure. “We hope to achieve compromise and not remove sodium from the list,” said Schneeman. Asked about resolution of the dispute, she replied, “We still have our feelers out [to potential supporters]. Sodium is the nutrient, not salt.”

Maybe, but salt is what people eat.

I think “salt” makes more sense.  You?


Apr 25 2011

Do farm pesticides reduce kids’ IQs?

The Environmental Working Group announces the publication of three studies finding a correlation between diminished IQ and blood levels of pesticides.

The studies were done separately by groups of researchers from the Mt Sinai School of Medicine, University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health, and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.  All were published in Environmental Health Perspectives and are available at that site (although sometimes with a delay and you have to look hard for the pdf of the whole article).

All three studies examined levels of organopesticides in the blood of pregnant women.  All looked at one or more measures of IQ taken when the children were 1 to 9 years old.

The Berkeley study, Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphate Pesticides and IQ in 7-Year Old Children, examined Latino farmworkers and their children.  Researchers found a difference of 7 IQ points between children with the highest and lowest levels of organopesticides.

The Mt. Sinai study, Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphates, Paraoxonase 1, and Cognitive Development in Childhood, was done with a prenatal population in New York City.

The Columbia study, 7-Year Neurodevelopmental Scores and Prenatal Exposure to Chlorpyrifos, a Common Agricultural Pesticide, also was done on an inner-city population.

It has been difficult to demonstrate demonstrable harm from agricultural pesticide use except among farmworkers exposed to very high doses.  These studies mean that lower doses experienced by people who merely eat agricultural products also can cause harm.

The study will undoubtedly be criticized for not adequately controlling for socioeconomic variables that influence IQ—they were all done with low-income populations—and, more importantly, for not explaining precisely how pesticides might influence childhood learning and achievement.  And some will surely argue that a 7-point IQ difference is well within experimental error.

But at the very least, pesticides are a marker for poorer cognitive outcome.  The fact that three independent groups of investigators arrived at similar conclusions means that the results need to be seriously considered.

Organic vegetables anyone?

And just for the record, here’s the Environmental Working Group’s list of the foods with highest and lowest levels of pesticides:

Highest Levels Lowest Levels
Celery
Peaches
Strawberries
Apples
Blueberries
Nectarines
Bell Peppers
Spinach
Cherries
Kale/Collard Greens
Potatoes
Grapes (imported)
Onions
Avocado
Sweet Corn
Pineapple
Mangos
Sweet Peas
Asparagus
Kiwi
Cabbage
Eggplant
Cantaloupe
Watermelon
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