Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 6 2011

Are fish from Japan radioactive?

I’m frequently asked what food has to do with politics.

Food, as my colleagues in Food Studies like to say, is an entry point into the most important social, economic, and political problems facing the world now and in the past.

Today’s New York Times story on testing seafood for radioactivity is a case in point.  Food may seem remote from energy policy and nuclear power plants, but it is tightly linked to these issues.  The Japanese have had to dump radioactive water from their tsunami-damaged power plants into the ocean.

The ocean is large and the radioactivity will be diluted, but fish and shellfish have the potential to concentrate it.  That is why high-end restaurants are now testing fish for radioactivity.

Government agencies and experts say that the amount of radioactivity is too low to cause harm:

Patricia A. Hansen, a senior scientist at the F.D.A., acknowledged that the radiation detection methods used to screen food imports were not sensitive enough to detect a single contaminated fish in a large shipment. But she said that small amounts of contamination did not represent a public health hazard….But the important context is, is that one fish at the intervention level a public health concern? No, it is not.”

How credible are such statements?

Nicholas Fisher, a professor of marine sciences at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said that, according to some radiation safety guidelines, people could safely eat 35 pounds of fish each year containing the level of cesium 137 detected in the Japanese fish.

“You’re not going to die from eating it right away,” he said, “but we’re getting to levels where I would think twice about eating it.”

Low-dose radiation accumulates, and the less to which we are exposed, the better.

Food is plenty related to politics, no?

Apr 5 2011

FDA makes recalls transparent

The FDA has just revised its method for listing recalls online.  As explained by Food Production Daily, the FDA was required to do this by the food safety bill passed in January.

The new site is nifty.  It displays recalls in a neat, searchable, trackable table.

The most fun is in the details.  You can click on the links and see the original recall notice and photos of the product labels.

Here, for example, is the most recent entry to give you an idea of how this works.  Click on the Details.  Enjoy!

Date Brand Name Product Description Reason/ Problem Company Details/ Photo
04/01/2011 Cottage Grove Farmhouse Bakery Bread Undeclared egg Cottage Grove Farmhouse Bakery Select to View Firm Press Release Select to View Image of Product Label
Apr 3 2011

Food is cheaper because costs are “externalized”

My monthly Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Food is cheap at market, but costs a lot elsewhere

Q: I pay a lot for food, and more each day, but then people like you say our food is cheap because its real costs are “externalized.” Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?

A: Food prices are indeed going up, and I can hardly keep track of the possible causes: natural disasters, crop failures, commodity speculation, corn used for biofuels, lack of research in agriculture, the declining value of the U.S. dollar and just plain greed.

But we Americans still pay relatively less for food than anywhere else because so many of the costs of industrialized food production are “externalized.” We pay for them, but not at the grocery store.

Human costs

I was reminded of externalized food costs when reading about the remarkable efforts of a Salinas teacher to educate children of itinerant farmworkers. The kids are trying to learn under disrupted, impoverished, crowded living conditions. If their parents were paid and housed better, we would pay more for food.

Last summer I visited fish canneries at the far end of the Alaskan peninsula. The fish packers were women from the Philippines, working round the clock for months to send money home to their children and families.

The canneries used to hire Alaskan high school students at wages high enough to put them through college. But to keep prices competitive, the companies reduced wages and imported labor. That money disappeared from the community.

The CEO of a large U.S. meat company told me that if he raised wages by $3, he could hire locals and not have to deal with immigrant labor. But then he would have to raise the price of his meat by 3 cents per pound (I’m not kidding). That amount, he claimed, would price him out of competitiveness.

Environmental costs

Twenty billion dollars of our tax money goes to subsidies for industrial food production every year. Additional tax money is required to clean up the mess created by that system – polluted drinking water, infertile soil, ocean dead zones and overall misery in the surrounding areas.

While driving to give a talk at a college in rural Minnesota last year, I passed within a mile or so of an industrial pig farm. The overpowering smell – an externalized cost – was still on my clothes hours later.

Safety costs

Food safety is one casualty of a food system devoted to low cost. Companies save money by cutting corners on oversight and overlooking safety violations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says food pathogens cause 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year.

Some experts say unsafe food costs Americans $152 billion annually – $1,850 for each case in health care and lost wages. Severe illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 can generate more than $1 million in health care costs alone, and ruin lives forever.

To these amounts must be added the costs to food producers of product recalls, continued loss of sales, lawsuits and ruined reputations. Sales of spinach, for example, are only now returning to levels reported before the huge E. coli outbreak in 2006.

Here again, the cost of prevention is minimal for large companies producing large volumes of food. Officials of one vegetable-packing company told me that the impressively comprehensive food safety system they instituted in the wake of recalls raised the cost of their products by only one penny a case (I’m not kidding about this, either).

Despite ample evidence from surveys that consumers are willing to pay more to guarantee safe food, large food producers perceive those few pennies as competitive barriers.

Health care costs

Let’s count obesity as another externalized result of a cheap food system. The cheapest foods are high in calories and low in nutritional value – “junk” foods. When food is cheap, people eat more of it.

Abundant cheap food leads companies to aggressively market their products to be eaten any time, any place and in very large amounts – all of which promote biologically irresistible overeating.

Current estimates of the costs of obesity and its consequent illnesses in health care and lost productivity approach $147 billion annually, almost the same as the cost of unsafe food.

Accurate or not, such numbers provide ample evidence for the need to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy.

To pick just one example: Dietary guidelines say to eat more fruits and vegetables, and cut down on sodas. But the indexed cost of fruits and vegetables has increased by about 40 percent since the early 1980s, whereas that of sodas has decreased by about 20 percent.

The high externalized cost of our present food system is a good reason to reconsider current policies when the Farm Bill comes up for renewal in 2012. Now is the time to start working toward food system policies that will better promote health, safety and human welfare.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” “Safe Food,” “What to Eat” and “Pet Food Politics,” and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail her at food@sfchronicle.com, and read her previous columns at www.sfgate.com/food.

This article appeared on page H – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Apr 2 2011

FDA finally does proposed rules for calorie labeling

Federal agencies love releasing potentially controversial proposals on Friday afternoons when reporters and everyone else is heading for the weekend. So that’s when the FDA released its week-late proposed rules for calorie labeling in restaurants.   There are two sets of proposed rules, one for restaurants, and one for vending machines.

Most of the proposed rules are pretty much as expected. They will apply to restaurants and fast-food places, bakeries, groceries, convenience stores, and coffee shops that are part of chains with more than 20 locations nationwide.  They also will apply to vending machines from companies with more than 20.

But here’s an eyebrow-raiser. The rules will not apply to movie theaters, airplanes, bowling alleys, and other establishments whose primary purpose is not to sell food. Uh oh. Food is sold everywhere these days as anyone who has been to a drug store lately can attest.

An exemption for movie theaters seems like a bizarre oversight. If ever there was a place where calorie labeling might be useful, try movie theater supersized sodas, popcorn, and candy.

In FDA-speak, an outlet is defined as primarily in the food business if it says it is, or if more than half its floor space is used to sell food. I can’t wait to see those drug stores getting out their tape measures.

Fortunately, these are proposed rules and you are more than welcome to comment on whether you think these exempted places should be required to opt in (I vote yes).  The FDA press release in the link above gives information about how to comment.  Note that there are two codes, one for restaurants and one for vending machines.

A couple of other points caught my eye:

Ranges: “Calories for variable menu items, such as combination meals, would be displayed in ranges. An example of a combination meal could be a choice of sandwich, side dish and beverage.”

Like how? Chipotle, for example, is happy to post calories in absurdly large ranges (200 to 800, for example). Do such places get to keep doing this?

Preemption of state and local laws: these rules will take precedent except that “State and local governments can establish nutrition labeling requirements for establishments not covered by the new law or regulations.”

Does this mean like movie theaters?

Alcohol: the rules do not apply to alcohol beverages because FDA does not regulate alcohol.  Treasury does (go figure).

Take every opportunity to comment!  The comment period opens April 6.

Here are some press accounts of the proposed rules:

Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post (I’m quoted)

William Neuman in the New York Times deals with the preemption issue.

But local governments would be free to create laws for establishments that were left outside the federal rules.  New York City’s labeling law already requires movie theater chains to post calorie information. It also requires calorie labeling for alcoholic beverages listed on menus at restaurant chains.

Apr 1 2011

April Fool’s Day Alert!

The I assume ironically named Center for Consumer Freedom, ever on my case, posted a notice about my work on April 1, 2009

I found about about it only recently.  Someone who had read it on a Franchise Business Opportunities website wrote to ask if I would go into business with him. 

Enjoy!

Marion Nestle to Become Biggest New York McDonald’s Franchisee

Food and lifestyle critic Marion Nestle announced* this morning that she plans to invest in twelve Manhattan McDonald’s restaurants upon her retirement next month from New York University. The move will make the nutrition activist New York’s largest Golden Arches franchisee.

“It was a natural fit for me,” Nestle told The New York Times.* “After years of harping on the fast-food guys, I realized something shocking: People like affordable, tasty food. I’m certainly not going to get rich in my golden years by selling organic carrots and quinoa.” Former Times reporter Marion Burros returned from her own retirement to conduct the Marion-on-Marion interview.

A new special edition of Nestle’s book What to Eat is planned for the fall,* complete with a special cover designed by Hallmarks musical greeting-card department. Every time you open the book, Nestle’s own voice will be heard singing “Ba-da-bap-BAH-BAH! Im lovin it!”

Nestle added in a special Q&A for Mother Jones* that in her new role as a restaurateur, she would have to re-think practically everything she had written about food-industry marketing. “Momma’s got to make a living,” Nestle said. “I’ve promised the Socialist Scholars Conference that I’d co-sponsor next year’s event in Havana. So if I have to walk down Broadway dressed as Mayor McCheese to get butts in the seats, I’ll do it.”

*April Fool!

Mar 31 2011

What’s up with food dyes and hyperactivity?

 I’ve been waiting to see what the FDA panel did before commenting on this week’s hearings on food dyes and hyperactivity in young children. 

According to reports from CNN and from the New York Times, the panel decided—to do nothing. 

Research, says the FDA panel, is insufficient to conclude that food dyes cause hyperactivity.  Despite much concern about this issue in Great Britain, the FDA will not put a warning label on foods that contain the dyes. 

This is déjà vu all over again.  When I first became interested in nutrition in the mid-1970s, food dyes were a big issue.   

Hyperactivity in kids was a new thing.  Ben Feingold, a physician in California, said that a diet devoid of food colors would help calm kids down. 

The Feingold Association still encourages that diet.

But scientfic tests of the Feingold hypothesis produced mixed effects.  In 1980, Science magazine published two reports of such tests. 

The first”by James M. Swanson and Marcel Kinsbourne (Science 1980;207:1485-87) gave pills containing a mix of food additives to 40 children, 20 diagnosed as hyperactive and 20 not.  The children diagnosed with hyperactivity reacted to the food additive challenge but the other children did not.

This study, however, was criticized for using pills, mixing additives, and evaluating the kids’ behavior by methods that were controversial.

A second study (Weiss, et al. Science 1980;207:1487-89) made a valiant effort to correct for those problems.  It created two drinks that looked and tasted the same, one with a blend of seven food colors and one without.    The study was carefully designed to be triple-blind.  The drinks were formulated to look the same and neither the kids, parents, or observers knew what the kids were drinking.  The drinks were tested at different times on 22 kids.

The result?  Twenty of the 22 kids showed no reaction to the dyes.  One showed occasional reactions. 

But one child reacted to the dyes every time.

The interpretation?  A small percentage of kids may react to food dyes.

That was pretty much the end of that except for petitions by Center for Science in the Public Interest to get rid of food dyes.

There things rested until 2007 when a study in England revived the issue.

Food dyes have only one purpose: to sell junk foods.  Candy, Cheetos, and sodas that are brightly colored are perceived as tasting better than the grey alternatives.  The food industry needs food dyes badly.

But nobody else does.  Parents of hyperactive kids can easily do their own experiment and see if removing food colors helps calm their kids down. 

Food dyes have no health benefits that I can think of.  Kids don’t need to be eating those foods anyway.  Kids will not be harmed by avoiding food dyes.

It would be nice to have more conclusive research.  In the meantime, read food labels!

Mar 29 2011

Easiest way to cut calories: smaller packages!

In an effort to avoid having to raise prices and lose competitive advantage, the makers of processed foods are putting less food—and more air—in the packages.  The New York Times calls this “stealthy downsizing.”

In every economic downturn in the last few decades, companies have reduced the size of some products, disguising price increases and avoiding comparisons on same-size packages, before and after an increase. Each time, the marketing campaigns are coy; this time, the smaller versions are “greener” (packages good for the environment) or more “portable” (little carry bags for the takeout lifestyle) or “healthier” (fewer calories)….Most companies reduce products quietly, hoping consumers are not reading labels too closely.

I’d call it “healthy downsizing!”   A great way to cut calories!

Mar 28 2011

Liberals: Walmart wants YOU!

Walmart is not satisfied with being the biggest food retailer in the world.  It wants more.  It has saturated national suburban areas, says the New York Times, and is now lobbying hard to get into New York City—that bastion of liberal thinking: 

Wal-Mart is pursuing that goal with the intensity, sophistication and checkbook of a full-fledged political campaign, hiring star political consultants, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s former campaign manager, producing expensive television and print advertisements and conducting polls.

And it is doing it with the kind of in-your-face aggressiveness that would make a New Yorker proud.

A glossy brochure it mailed to thousands of city residents appeals to their sense of autonomy, declaring: “You don’t ask the special interests or the political insiders for permission to watch TV. So why should they decide where you’re allowed to shop?”

A spokesperson for Walmart explained that after exhausting all other customer segments:

Now we only have one segment left…People who self-identify themselves as liberals.

In New York, an indisputably Democratic city, Wal-Mart faces a big challenge, both from lawmakers…and from unions, who accuse the retailer of endangering small businesses and mistreating its workers.

Wal-Mart has responded with an all-out push meant to overwhelm and outmaneuver its far less deep-pocketed opposition. It has put out a flurry of television, radio and newspaper advertisements, including one radio spot that accuses opponents of not caring “about how many jobs Wal-Mart would create or how badly people need them.”

 Advertising Age is also following the Walmart saga closely.  On March 6, it wrote about Walmart’s enormous influence over the retail industry.  This could be a force in favor of better industry self-regulation (if such a thing is possible):

Walmart, however, clearly has been out in front of the rest of the industry on many issues. And unlike a government, it isn’t bound by constitutional due process that bogs regulations sometimes for years. No Tea Party representatives are trying to withhold funds for its greenhouse-gas reduction plans. And with billions of dollars at business at stake for its biggest customers, Walmart wields a bigger stick than any fines a government can impose.

And on March 20, Advertising Age wrote about Walmart’s complicated problems with class issues related to its pricing strategies. 

The chain so far is having trouble winning back shopping trips and dollars it lost the past two years from middle- and lower-income core consumers, and it also appears to be turning off the group it made inroads with through its last strategic revamp, Project Impact. That initiative cleared promotional merchandise out of aisles and reduced assortments to make stores more visually appealing and easier to shop in for upscale shoppers. But as Walmart scaled back on Impact by adding products back to its shelves and aisles and returned to everyday low pricing, those shoppers have become less satisfied.

Walmart may be family owned, but the family is exceedingly wealthy and runs an absurdly large enterprise—$405 billion in 2010, of which $140 billion was in food.  Anything Walmart does has an out-of-proportion impact on customers, its 2 million “associates” workforce, and competing businesses, large and small.

Everything Walmart does deserves scrutiny, and its efforts to move into New York City are no exception.

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