Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 29 2010

Never enough about S.510. Today’s the day!

Update 3:30 p.m.  Final Senate vote postponed until 9:00 a.m. tomorrow!

Today, the Senate is supposed to deal—at last—with S.510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.  Here’s what I’m told is likely to happen (it gives me a headache just to think about it):

  • 4:00 pm EST: Senate resumes discussion of S.510.
  • 6:30 pm: Senate proceeds to cloture vote on the substitute amendment to S.510.
  • Cloture is invoked.
  • Post-cloture and upon the use or yielding back of the time allotted in the agreement (1 hour for motions re: 1099 and 4 hours for Coburn motions), the Senate will proceed to vote on the motions in the following order: (1) Johanns (1099 forms–the repeal on a tax burden on small businesses), (2) Baucus (1099 forms), (3) Coburn (earmarks), (4) Coburn (substitute)
  • Once those are disposed of, Senate votes on passage of the bill, as amended.
  • Observers expect all of this to last well into the night.
  • Note: Because all of the amendments are offered as motions to suspend the rules, they require a 2/3rds vote. Final passage requires 51. Cloture requires 60.

And in case your mind is still not made up about how this should go, take a look at today’s commentaries:

Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have an op-ed in the New York Times: A Stale Food Fight:

In the last week, agricultural trade groups, from the Produce Marketing Association to the United Egg Producers, have come out against the bill, ostensibly on the grounds that the small farms now partially exempted would pose a food safety threat. (Note that these small farms will continue to be regulated under state and local laws.) It is hard to escape the conclusion that these industry groups never much liked the new rules in the first place. They just didn’t dare come out against them publicly, not when 80 percent of Americans support strengthening the F.D.A.’s authority to regulate food.

And FoodSafetyNews, ever on the job, has three pieces on the bill today (I’m referred to in a couple of them):

With a little luck, the Senate will pass the bill tonight, large and small farms will comply with its provisions, and our food supply will be safer as a result.  One can always dream.

Additions: a few more editorial comments, all in favor of passing S.510.

The Sacramento Bee editorial (11-25)

The Minneapolis Star Tribune (11-27)

The Bemidji (MN) Pioneer (11-28)

The Baltimore Sun (11-28 and the 29th in some editions)

New York Times editorial (11-16)

USA Today (11-23)

Las Vegas Sun (11-23)

Lexington (KY) Herald Leader (11-23)

Nov 26 2010

Sustainable food films for the holidays

Focus Features has been asking people in the food community for five recommendations of films they particularly like.   Here are my picks:

Folks From the Food Movement on Sustainable Cinema: Marion Nestle

By administrator November 19, 2010

Marion Nestle


Marion Nestle: I would not pick Thanksgiving as the optimal time to watch films about food production systems but I’ve chosen films—documentaries and not—that tell stories worth watching for their entertainment value as well as for their more serious messages.

Super Size Me

1. |Super Size Me

I have to begin with this one because it’s my screen debut! I appear in it for ten seconds as a talking head defining calories, among other things. This is Morgan Spurlock’s account of a month-long experiment eating nothing else but food from McDonald’s. Spurlock’s depiction of his 25-pound weight gain is not only a commentary on the role of fast food in America’s obesity epidemic, but also a fast-moving and riveting examination of the corporate side of our country’s love affair with burgers and fries.

King Corn

2. |King Corn

It’s hard to imagine that a story about how two guys grow corn on one acre in Iowa could be so utterly delightful, but Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis have a sense of humor along with plenty of imaginative smarts. This is the best place to see how industrial farming really works. Spoiler alert: I love the scenes in which they start with corn and cook up a batch of high fructose corn syrup, take two minutes to plant their acre, and discover that their acre is eligible for corn subsidies. This film may be a documentary about corn production and harvesting, but it is a pleasure to sit through again and again.

Food, Inc.

3. |Food, Inc.

This is the most commercially successful of the recent documentaries exposing the evils of the industrial food system, and for good reason. Starting with the splendid opening credits, it is wonderfully directed (by Robbie Kenner) and narrated by food movement superstars, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Even for people who know something about industrial food production, the film breaks new ground. For me, the most moving episode was the 4:00 a.m. immigration raid on hapless Mexican workers at a Smithfield packing plant. The film tells stories ranging from the infuriating (seed patenting) to the heartbreaking (the lethal effects of toxic E. coli on a small child). Best, it is a rousing call to action. Join the food movement!

Tampopo

4. |Tampopo

Who knew that the Japanese made spaghetti Westerns? As it happens, they do or at least used to. A lone cowboy rides into town and teaches a young woman how to cook noodles so delicious that customers line up to eat them. The message? It takes hard work to develop real cooking skills but the results are worth it. The hero may ride off into the sunset, but this film carries its lessons lightly and is marvelous cross-cultural fun.

La Grande Bouffe and Ratatouille

5. |La Grande Bouffe and Ratatouille

I can’t decide between these two films for my number five. La Grande Bouffe (The Great Binge, in my translation) is a French film of the 1970s that doesn’t seem to show up in food film festivals. It deserves a revival, not least for its splendid cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, and Ugo Tognazzi, among others. As I recall, the guys spend a weekend gorging on food and sex, giving entirely new meaning to the pleasure of food in general, and to fruit tarts in particular.

Ratatouille is, of course, about a cartoon mouse who yearns to become a chef, and does so with great panache. The film is surprisingly faithful to the day-to-day reality (OK, exaggerated) of professional kitchens, and the extraordinary amount of teamwork involved in producing superb restaurant food. It may not make anyone want to become a chef, but it gives plenty of insight into what it takes to do so.

Nov 24 2010

Facts and rumors: the current status of S. 510

Following the ongoing saga of S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, is like taking a graduate course in political science.   And sociology graduate students everywhere should be writing dissertations on how a bill designed to help protect the public from food hazards like Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7  became a flashpoint for debates about the role of government in personal choice.

Let’s start with the rumors.   I’m hearing from sources inside the Beltway that the Senate and House have agreed to pass S. 510 in part because they can use it to get something else they want: repeal of an annoying provision in the health care reform act passed last spring that requires 1099 tax reports for business purchases.

The Senate is said to be dealing with S. 510 late in the afternoon or early evening of Monday, November 29.  It is supposed to work like this:

  • There will be a cloture motion, which will pass with 60 votes.
  • The Senate will agree that all amendments to S. 510 will require 67 votes.
  • Senator Coburn will offer amendments, but they will not get 67 votes.
  • The Senate will add language repealing the 1099 tax provision.
  • The Senate will pass the bill (this needs 51 votes)
  • The House will agree to accept the Senate bill as written with no changes.
  • The bill will get sent to President Obama to sign before Congress adjourns.
  • The President will sign the bill.

Maybe, but this does not sound like a done deal to me.  For one thing, opposition to S. 510 seems to be getting noisier.  Remember the adage “politics makes strange bedfellows?”  Take a look at the groups who now oppose the bill, united in their opposition to giving the FDA or government any additional authority:

  • The health food industry
  • The dietary supplement industry
  • The meat industry: American Meat Institute, Cattlemen’s Association, etc.
  • The Tea Party
  • The raw milk community and its legal arm, the Farmer to Consumer Legal Defense Fund
  • Some, but by no means all, small farmers and advocates for them

Missing from this list is Big Agriculture, an absence explained by the fact that the bill does not apply to feed commodities or to seeds.

As for the Tester amendment exempting small farms from certain provisions of the bill: It is opposed by 20 organizations of vegetable growers, and is also is likely to be opposed by companies like Monsanto which do not want the FDA making safety decisions based on size or anything else except risk.

Caroline Scott-Thomas writes in FoodNavigator-USA that all food producers, large and small, should be producing food safely, not least because bacteria do not care how big a farm might be: 

Think about it: If a large-scale cheese maker refused to recall potentially tainted products for financial reasons, as the Estrella Family Creamery is doing, would it inspire dewy-eyed sympathy? I doubt it.

I agree, and also with the comments of Bob Whitaker, the Produce Marketing Association’s Chief Science Officer, who points out that plenty of growers are already using preventive controls like the ones requires by S.510:

There are a lot of very small growers who are already doing this.  I think there is plenty of evidence where growers have already made this a priority and they have been able to do so in a pretty innovative manner. There is a cost to this…But it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly expensive. A lot of this is common sense.  People need to dive in and understand that this is food and you have to take responsibility for the safety of our food, to the extent that you can… Consumers have to be confident that our products are safe.

I’ve seen this too.  Lots of small food producers do everything they can to reduce microbial risks.  They don’t need a government agency to tell them what to do.

Others, however, won’t take safety steps unless forced to.  That’s why we need this bill to pass.

In the meantime, the debate continues. USA Today, long concerned about food safety, favors the bill. Senator Coburn, however, does not.

Happy Thanksgiving holiday, everyone.

And special thanks to Carol Tucker Foreman of Consumer Federation of America for cluing me in on the latest developments.

Addition: Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a food safety advocacy group formed originally by parents of children harmed by eating fast-food hamburgers, strongly favors S. 51o.  Under its auspices, 80 victims of foodborne illness have written a letter to the Senate in the hope that this will help solidify support for passing this bill.

Many of us have traveled to Washington D.C. numerous times to meet with lawmakers, sharing our personal stories as to why stronger food safety laws are necessary; others of us have written opinion pieces, letters, and blog entries urging action on this important legislation. S. 510 would be the first major overhaul of the FDA’s food-safety authorities in decades. It is time to pass this legislation.

Nov 23 2010

Kellogg settles class-action health-claims suit

Kellogg has had a bad year on the truth-in-advertising front.

First, It took the brunt of the furor over the late and unlamented Smart Choices fiasco, when the program’s first logo turned up on Froot Loops of all things and was attacked by the Connecticut attorney general.

Next, the IMMUNITY banner on Cocoa Krispies drew fire from the San Francisco city attorney’s office.

Both boxes are now collectors’ items.

Now, FoodNavigator-USA reports that Kellogg has taken another expensive beating, this time on its health claim for Mini-Wheats.

In 2009, Frosted Mini-Wheat boxes sported this health claim:  “Clinically shown to improve children’s attentiveness by nearly 20%.”

Of course this cereal can do that, especially when kids eating it are compared to kids who don’t eat any breakfast at all—which is what this study did.

But that’s not what the adorable television advertisements imply, as shown in exhibits A and B in the summary of the class-action decision.

Last April, Kellogg settled a dispute with the FTC over this claim.  The FTC did not argue that the claim was inherently absurd because of the lack of an appropriate control group for the study.  Instead, it took the study at face value and charged Kellogg with exaggerating the results because hardly any children—only 11%—improved attentiveness by 20% or more.

Kellogg has just settled a class-action suit over this claim that will cost the company $2.75 million in order to pay customers between $5 and $15 each in compensation.  The company also will give $5.5 million to charities.

Because of city and state attorneys and the FTC, the most egregious health claims are slowly disappearing from cereal boxes.     But lawsuits do not constitute policy.  What goes on the front of food packages is FDA territory.

FDA: Get to work!

Nov 22 2010

Fruit and vegetable update

This must be the season for reports on eating fruit and vegetables (see November 11 post).  Now, the National Fruit & Vegetable Alliance (NFVA), a public-private partnership to promote greater intake of these foods, has issued a Report Card. Here’s the Executive Summary and the Full Report Card.

No surprise, but average fruit and vegetable consumption is still way below recommended levels.

  • Only 6% of individuals reach the target for vegetables
  • Only 8% achieve the target for fruit
  • Although food away from home accounts for a third of calorie intake, it accounts for only 11% of fruit and vegetable intake

Here are some of the Report Card grades:

  • An “A” goes to the WIC Fruit and Vegetable Vouchers program, which recently broadened the program to allow fruits and vegetables that previously were excluded.
  • A “C” goes to school food and restaurant menus, which are making only slight progress.
  • An”F” goes to the healthy food advertising category, since ads for healthier foods are decreasing.

USA Today has a story on this report, which also identifies the most popular of these foods.  In case you were wondering, the top four fruits are Apples,  Bananas,  Strawberries, and Grapes.  The top four vegetables, according to this survey, are Broccoli, Corn, Green beans, and Carrots (I’m not sure I believe this list).

And finally, New York City reports that its Food Stamp users received more than $200,000 in fresh produce coupons for farmers markets in 2010.  That, at least, sounds like genuine progress.

Nov 20 2010

Another reason to pass S. 510

Today’s New York Times has a story about the travails of the Estrella Family Creamery, makers of artisanal cheeses found repeatedly by the FDA to be contaminated with Listeria.

The FDA asked for a recall.  Estrella refused.

Whether Estrella should be considered heroic for fighting Big Government, as the article suggests, or instead is allowing dangerous products to go into the marketplace depends on point of view.

Mine is that every producer—large and small—who makes food should be producing it safely under a HACCP plan or its equivalent.  If the product carries special risks, as cheeses sometimes do, the producer ought to be testing to make sure it is safe.

I have visited plenty of artisanal makers of raw and Pasteurized cheeses who produce them safely.  These makers worry constantly about how to make sure that their cheeses are—and stay—safe.

If you have a strong immune system and are not pregnant, Listeria is unlikely to make you sick.  If not, however, watch out: Listeria can be fatal, especially to unborn infants.

In a column I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle last March, I responded to a question about Listeria from a reader who lost a baby after eating a Listeria-contaminated Pasteurized cheese (the contamination must have occurred later). See correction below.

Listeria has the terrifying property of flourishing at refrigerator temperatures.  In this particular case, neither Pasteurization nor refrigeration were enough to save her baby.

As I said in my column:

Without federal requirements, you are on your own to keep yourself and your unborn infant safe from food pathogens, especially Listeria…. Listeria preferentially affects pregnant women. If you are pregnant and want to stay pregnant, you must avoid Listeria.  This will not be easy.  Listeria is widely dispersed in foods. Infections from it may be rare, but they are deadly. Listeria kills a shocking 25 percent of those it infects and is particularly lethal to fetuses….With so much at stake, and so many other food choices available, why take chances?

That is why allowing Listeria-contaminated cheeses into the food supply is not a good idea.  It is also why the FDA is so concerned that Listeria-contaminated foods do not get into the food supply.

This cheesemaker’s refusal to recall Listeria-contaminated products is another reason why so many of us who care deeply about food safety want the Senate to get busy and pass S.510.

Correction: the writer of that letter has written to explain that the source of her Listeria infection was never determined.  She had eaten a Pasteurized Stilton cheese, a goat cheese, and a rare steak among other suspected foods but none was proven to be the source.  For the record, the CDC says to prevent Listeria, pregnant women should avoid eating:

  • Hot dogs, luncheon meats, or deli meats (unless reheated to steaming hot).
  • Soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, and Mexican-style cheeses such as “queso blanco fresco.”
  • Refrigerated pâté or meat spreads.
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood unless cooked to steaming hot.  This includes salmon, trout, whitefish, cod, tuna, and mackerel which are most often labeled as “nova-style,” “lox,” “kippered,” “smoked,” or “jerky.”
  • Raw (unpasteurized) milk or foods that contain unpasteurized milk.
Nov 19 2010

Senate stalls action on S. 510

The Senate debated S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, yesterday.  I was not able to watch the debate  and was disappointed to find not one word about it in today’s New York Times. I guess it doesn’t count as news when Senators stall legislation that would give the FDA the authority it needs to ensure safe food.

Fortunately, Helena Bottemiller of FoodSafetyNews is on the job. She reports:

  • The Senate is unlikely to do anything with the bill until after Thanksgiving recess, November 29th at the earliest.
  • Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is trying to block the bill by forcing a vote on an amendment to ban all earmark spending through 2013.
  • Although the bill ostensibly has wide bipartisan support in the Senate and the House, big agricultural groups are unhappy about the recent Tester amendment mandating exemptions for small farms. Twenty produce groups signed a letter to Senate leadership arguing against the exemptions.
  • The Senate may resume debate on the bill today.
  • All bets are off on what will happen next.

The House passed its version of the bill in July 2009.  The increasingly dysfunctional Senate has been sitting on it ever since.

Why?  The reason seems ludicrous but it’s what everyone is telling me: the Republicans do not want the Democratic administration to get credit for passing the food safety bill.

Senators: Grow up!  Lives are at stake here.

Citizens: Act up!  Tell your senators to get this bill passed.

Today’s additions: Here’s Bill Marler’s update on the competing amendments.  Apparently Coburn thinks we don’t need a food safety bill because Marler’s lawsuits will keep industry in linePhil Brasher explains all the steps that will need to be taken for this bill to get passed by the Senate and become law.

Nov 18 2010

Soft drinks as a solution to childhood malnutrition? I don’t think so.

Here is another one you can’t make up.  An article in Pediatrics, entitled “Malnutrition and the role of the soft drink industry in improving child health in sub-Saharan Africa,” advocates for fortifying soft drinks with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

Oddly, it does this after explaining how consumption of soft drinks actually”perpetuates problems of undernutrition in children, pregnant women, and other vulnerable populations in the developing world.”   Why?  Because in “sub-Saharan Africa, for example, distribution of soft drinks and other beverages produced by soft drink companies is extensive, and consumption is high given the extensive poverty in this part of the world.”

The authors justifiably complain about how little attention has been paid to the ways in which soft drink companies perpetuate malnutrition.

But instead of suggesting public health measures to counter the well documented effects of soft drinks on rising rates of obesity or on tooth decay rates among children in developing countries, the authors want soft drink companies to add vitamins and minerals to the drinks.

The Bill Gates foundation recently partnered with Coca-Cola in Uganda to increase production and distribution of mango and passion fruit juice as a way to stimulate production of local mango and passion fruit juice and meet Coca-Cola’s demand for
increased fruit to stimulate sales; however, such a partnership should also ideally involve micronutrient fortification, because Coca-Cola estimates that this partnership will extend sales in coming years. The World Economic Forum recommends fortification of food and beverages by private companies as an approach to reduce malnutrition, to
boost a productive workforce, and to stimulate the global economy.

Translation: Coca-Cola’s economy.

Fortunately, colleagues in Brazil have written a letter in response: “Can the soft drink industry prevent child malnutrition?  No way.”

What the impoverished populations of Africa, Asia and Latin America need, are the means with which to lead a decent life. These include secure local food systems and supplies, access to safe water and adequate sanitation, decently resourced primary health care services, ability to produce and prepare meals from immediate and local resources, universal primary education, and empowered mothers and other caretakers. Substantial reduction of child undernutrition can be achieved in a relatively short period of time with improved income distribution, population and community self-determination, and public investments in public goods such as education, health, social security, water supplies and sanitation.

What they do not need is more Coca-Cola.

Or, for that matter, Pepsi Cola, which tried the same ploy earlier this year (see previous post).

Sales of Coke and Pepsi are declining in the United States.  What better way to protect sales than to foist these products on the poor populations of emerging economies.

We need to be exporting health, self-determination, and democracy, not sugary drinks.

For shame!

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