Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 6 2009

GM crops: up, up, and away

The USDA has just released the latest figures on planting of genetically modified soybeans, corn, and cotton in the United States.  GM varieties comprise 60-70% of all corn and cotton, and 90% of soybeans.  On this basis, if a food containing corn or soybeans is not labeled Certified Organic or GM-free, you should assume it is GM.

(posted from Scagway, en route to fairbanks)

Jul 3 2009

The latest statistics on obesity

I am always indebted to Joel Moskowitz of the University of California School of Public Health’s Center for Family and Community Health for his almost daily forwarding of research on obesity.  His recent postings include data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  The CDC has just released preliminary results of the 2008 National Health Interview Survey.  These include, among other measures, data charts and tables on obesity (rates still rising steadily since 1997), physical activity (no measurable change), and diabetes (rising in parallel with obesity).

Interpretation: if physical activity rates have not changed, then the reason obesity rates are going up is because people are eating more calories.

Plenty of evidence backs up this idea.  All you need to do to see why people are eating more is to take a look at Time magazine’s discussion of the implications of calorie labeling: “Would you like 1,000 calories with that?”

Jul 2 2009

Feeding the world: an economic analysis

The Deutsche Bank and University of Wisconsin researchers have collaborated on a major investigation of what has to be done about agriculture to feed the world.  The report, which has lots of economic charts and diagrams, takes a tough look at resources and the environmental and climate-change consequences of agricultural practices.  It concludes that agriculture needs lots of money invested in fertilizers, irrigation, mechanization, farmer education, and land reclamation, and that both organic as biotechnological approaches will be needed to maximize production.  The facts and figures are worth perusing.  But what to do with them is always a matter of interpretation.  It will be interesting to see who uses the report and how, or whether it, like  most such reports, ends up in a dusty drawer.

Jul 1 2009

Horizon organics alert: here comes “natural”

Horizon, the commercial organic milk producer, is introducing  its first new non-organic products for children.   These will be labeled “natural,” not organic.   Horizon’s press people say the products “don’t contain growth hormones and will be easier on the pocketbook…These are our first natural offerings in the marketplace, and Horizon always tries to provide great-tasting products for moms and for families.”  Really?

“Natural” is an odd term.  It has no regulatory meaning.   Meats that are “natural” are supposed to be minimally processed and if their labels say they were produced without antibiotics or hormones the statements have to be truthful and not misleading.  As I discussed in What to Eat, meat retailers can’t tell the difference between “natural” and organic and neither can a lot of consumers.  Retailers are happy to charge the same high prices for the “natural” products and consumers think they are buying organics.  This is not a good situation.

So why would a company ostensibly devoted to the principles and practice of organics suddenly decide to start marketing “natural” products?  For the answer, I defer to Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute who sent this message today:

The rumors have now been confirmed.  Dean Foods’ WhiteWave division has now announced that they will bring out “natural” (conventional) dairy products under the Horizon label.  This at a time when organic dairy farmers around the country are in financial crisis due to a glut of milk.

They are in essence creating a new product category, “natural dairy products,” that will directly compete with certified organic farmers and the marketers they partner with.

This move comes on the heels of the recent decision by Dean/WhiteWave to switch almost the entire product offerings of their Silk soymilk and soyfoods line to “natural” (conventional) soybeans.  They made the switch to conventional soybeans, in Silk products, without lowering the price.  Sheer profiteering.

The likelihood is that they will create this new category and enjoy higher profits than they currently realize having to pay those pesky organic dairy farmers a livable wage.

The news story below, from the Natural Foods Merchandise quotes Dean Foods/WhiteWave officials saying these products will be “easier on the pocketbook.”  Yes, they will be designed to undercut certified organic on price.

Horizon is the largest, in terms of dollar volume, organic brand in the marketplace.  Silk holds the leading market share in soyfoods and was once, prior to Dean Foods’ acquisition, a 100% organic company and brand.

SHAME!

Stay tuned.  Dean Foods has just declared war on the organic industry.  Although the first shot has been fired it will not be the last.

The organic farmers, consumers and ethical business people who built this industry did so in effort to create an alternative food system with a different set of values.  We will all work hard to defend what so many good people spent so many years to create.

Mark A. Kastel

Senior Farm Policy Analyst

The Cornucopia Institute

Jun 30 2009

E. coli found in cookie dough

The story thus far:

From January to June 2009, at least 69 people from 29 states have gotten sick with E. coli O157:H7.  Many of them confessed to eating Nestlé’s raw cookie dough.

On June 19, the FDA warned the public not to eat Nestlé’s raw cookie dough.  Nestlé issued a “voluntary’ recall.

Everyone is baffled about how E. coli O157:H7 could have gotten into cookie dough.  They wonder if cookie dough really is the cause.

The voluntary recall isn’t working (most don’t).  Obama Foodorama has no trouble finding plenty of recalled cookie dough on Washington DC shelves.

The Wall Street Journal reports that since 2006, Nestlé has consistently refused to allow FDA investigators to look at their safety records.  The company doesn’t have to.  All those pesky regulatory requirements are voluntary (that word again).

But now, in a spirit of someone more enforced cooperation, Nestlé lets the FDA in.  Bingo.  On June 29, the FDA says it finds E. coli O157:H7 in one batch of cookie dough.    But conversations with FDA officials leave many questions unanswered.

Nestlé is understandably concerned.   The company says it “deeply regrets” what happened and is fully cooperating with the FDA.

OK.  So if we didn’t know it before, we know it now: “voluntary” is a euphemism for not having to do anything.  Doesn’t this suggest the need for some real regulations?

Jun 29 2009

Gosh. Consumers don’t trust the food supply

I didn’t know that IBM was in the survey business but apparently it has just asked people what they think about the safety of the food supply.  Fewer than 20% of the 1,000 people who responded said (what a surpise) that they trusted food companies to make safe and healthful foods.

More than 60% said they were worried about food safety and – this one really does surprise me – 83% could name a food that was recalled in the past two years, mostly peanut butter.

IBM’s conclusion?  “These findings underscore how the rise in recalls and contamination has significantly eroded consumer confidence in food and product safety, as well as with the companies that manufacture and distribute these products.”   No kidding.

Now if Congress would only pay attention and do the right thing.

Jun 27 2009

At last: some clear thinking about cookie dough

OK, so Bill Marler is a class action lawyer* who makes his living from suing companies that produce unsafe food. I’ll grant that he has a vested interest but I admire the way he never loses sight of the harm done to innocent adults and children.  Cookie dough has a warning label on the package and everyone knows you are not supposed to eat raw cookie dough.  If you eat it, it’s your fault if you get sick, right?  See what he has to say about that one.

In Marler’s view, the warning label on commercial raw cookie dough should read something like this:

THE FDA INSPECTION MEANS NOTHING. THIS PRODUCT MAY CONTAIN A PATHOGENIC BACTERIA THAT CAN SEVERELY SICKEN OR KILL YOU AND/OR YOUR CHILD. HANDLE THIS PRODUCT WITH EXTREME CARE.

And, he asks, “Where is the multi-million dollar ad campaign to convince us of the dangers of uncooked cookie dough, like we do for tobacco?”

I would add a few further questions: What are we going to have to do to get a real food safety system in this country?  By real food safety system, I mean one that requires production of all foods – from farm to table – under science-based food safety plans (HACCP with pathogen reduction), overseen by a single federal agency that unites and rationalizes the current functions of USDA and FDA.

Everyone knows how to produce food safely or a lot more safely than is being done now.  If companies don’t bother, it’s because they don’t have to. You don’t like this?  Complain to Congress!

*Correction: See Mr. Marler’s comment below.  He says he mostly represents individuals.   I do apologize for the error.

Jun 25 2009

Burger King’s latest ad: a hoax?

Given the number of people who have forwarded this to me, the ad agency that dreamed up this idea must be happy.  But it it for real?  I can’t find it on the Burger King website, so maybe it comes from The Onion?  Anyone know the source?

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