Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 29 2011

USDA’s new food safety campaign: it’s all about YOU

Yesterday, USDA announced its new Food Safe Families campaign to get you to pay attention to food safety procedures in your kitchen.  These, as always, are:

  1. Clean: Clean kitchen surfaces, utensils, and hands with soap and water while preparing food.
  2. Separate: Separate raw meats from other foods by using different cutting boards.
  3. Cook: Cook foods to the right temperature by using a food thermometer.
  4. Chill: Chill raw and prepared foods promptly.

The media campaign, which reportedly cost $2 million, comes with a graphic that can’t be all that expensive:

So what is the $2 million for?  According to Food Chemical News (June 28):

The campaign, which will feature public service announcements in English and Spanish, centers on “humorous over-the-top depictions of the four key safe food handling behaviors”….The campaign will include ads on television, radio, print and websites, along with an integrated social media program.

As it happens, a reader sent me the preliminary “concept” version of this campaign (thank you kind reader).   Trust me, this campaign is worth a look, and Food Safety News has some of the videos.

Here’s my favorite concept:

Yes, this is a baby pig in a sauna.  Humorous maybe, but how will it convince anyone to clean up the kitchen?

Two other points:

  • None of the concepts seem to have anything to do with food.
  • All of them are about your responsibility for food safety.

But the big national outbreaks we’ve been experiencing lately are from foods that are already contaminated by the time they get to you.  Following food safety procedures makes good sense, but that’s not where the problem lies.  They would not help you much with contaminated raw sprouts, for example, unless you cook them (not a bad idea these days).

To stop food safety problems at their source, we need a functional food safety system.  This means rules that require all producers to follow food safety procedures and a government with the authority and resources to make sure they do.

Will we ever get a food safety system like this?  And how bad will things have to get before we do?

 

Jun 28 2011

Health claims on alcoholic beverages, exposed!

The California-based Marin Institute, “the alcohol industry watchdog,” has issued an enlightening new report: Questionable Health Claims by Alcohol Companies: From Protein Vodka to Weight-Loss Beer.

According to the Institute’s press release, “Major alcohol companies are exploiting ineffective or non-existent regulatory oversight with deceptive marketing and potentially dangerous products.

Some examples described in the report:

  • Devotion Vodka (“Infused with Casein”)
  • Fragoli strawberry liqueur (promoted with antioxidants)
  • Absolut, Skyy, and Finlandia vodkas (“infused with natural flavors”)
  • Michelob Ultra, and MGD 64 beer (promoted as fitness and weight-loss aids)

Or how about vodka advertised as “no sugar, gluten free, low calorie?”  The Marin Institute points out that terms like these are “promoted as logical compliments to a healthy, fitness-oriented lifestyle, without a hint of irony.”

Irony?  Check the illustrations!

As the report concludes, such marketing messages when applied to alcoholic beverages are “legally tenuous, morally unsound, and potentially dangerous.”

But don’t blame the FDA for this one.  Alcoholic beverages are regulated by the Treasury Department because they are a lucrative source of revenue.  Health claims sell products.

Treasury benefits more when companies sell more.  This sounds to me like a clear conflict of interest.  You?

 

 

Jun 27 2011

Perdue’s chickens: “USDA Process-Verified”?

When New York Times reporter Stuart Elliott called to ask about the USDA’s process verification for Perdue chickens, I had to confess that I had never heard of it.

 

I had no idea that USDA sponsored a program to certify poultry producers’ claims like Perdue’s:

  • All Vegetarian Diet
  • No Animal By-Products
  • Humanely Raised 1/
  • Raised Cage Free
  • Tenderness Guaranteed 2/(I discuss the footnotes below)

The USDA does indeed have a process verification program.

This  is not, as you might expect, an inspection program to make sure that food producers are doing what they claim.  No, USDA’s Process Verification is a marketing program that allows producers to make claims and create certification logos.

As I discussed in the egg chapters in What to Eat, process verification is very much in the eye of the beholder.  Most egg—and broiler—process verification programs certify that the chickens are fed and sheltered.  How, is quite another matter.

Perdue’s claims are marketing hype because broilers are pretty much always fed grain, are not routinely fed animal by-products, and  are not raised in cages.  The claims say nothing about antibiotics so you have to assume these chickens are treated with antibiotics to promote growth and prevent infection under crowded conditions.* see correction below

And now the footnotes:

*1/ Humanely Raised Program claim is in accordance with Perdue’s Best Practices, which include:

  • Education, training, and planning
  • Hatchery Operations
  • Proper Nutrition and Feeding
  • Appropriate Comfort and Shelter
  • Health Care
  • Normal Patterns of Behavior
  • On-Farm Best Practices
  • Catching and Transportation
  • Processing

*Based on the principles outlined in Official Listing of Approved USDA Process Verified Programs Company Claims Verified Program Scope Verification Information in the National Chicken Council’s Animal Welfare Guidelines to ensure the proper care, management, and handling of broiler chickens.

2/ Tenderness is Guaranteed through the implementation and verification of Perdue’s “Tenderness Best Practices”.

The guidelines require careful reading.  “Humanely raised” by Perdue’s criteria might not be what you mean by the term.

This campaign is not about safety, health, or humane treatment.  It is about marketing.

As I explained to Stuart Elliott, it’s hard not to be sarcastic about this sort of thing.  And to wonder why the USDA needs to do this.

*Correction July 5, 2011:  An official of Perdue points out that many chicken producers feed animal by-products to the birds but his company decided not to do that some time ago because it could not verify what went into the by-products.  He also points out that the company cannot claim that the birds are raised without antibiotics because they have to use a particular kind of antibiotic—not one used in humans—to deal with coccidiosis.   Perdue, he explains, is a family-owned company trying hard to do this right (family-owned companies are not subject to Wall Street pressures to grow profits every 90 days).  I haven’t visited a Perdue farm so I have no first-hand experience, but I’m inclined to take what he told me at face value.

 

Jun 26 2011

Eat French fries, gain weight?

A reader, Thibault H writes:

So Harvard University came out with a study that news reporters are saying tells us that those who tend to eat more potatoes gain x amount of weight over 10 years…What do you make of this?…could it be possible that potatoes themselves are not the culprit and rather those who tend to eat more potatoes have a fattier diet or perhaps more sedentary lifestyle.

It could indeed.  The study, which came out in the New England Journal of Medicine last week, looked at the weight gained by more than 100,000 people who had filled out diet questionnaires in 1986 or later.  It correlates what people said they ate with weight gained over periods of 4 years:

The results show that people who said they habitually ate potato chips, potatoes, or fries—as well as the the other foods in the top part of the diagram—were more likely to gain weight.

People who reported frequent eating of the foods in the lower part of the diagram were likely to have lost weight.

What fun!  The study assigns pounds of weight gained or lost to specific foods.

The study also did a more detailed analysis.  This showed that French fries were linked to the greatest weight gain: 3.35 pounds over a 4-year period.  If you habitually eat French fries, you may have a hard time controlling your weight.

No surprise.  I recently ordered a side of fries in an excellent restaurant and was floored by the size of the order Eat a small handful: no problem.  But this order surely hit 800 calories.  Fortunately, there were four of us to share it.

Here’s how I explained the study to Katherine Hobsen of the Wall Street Journal (June 23):

Marion Nestle, New York University professor of nutrition and public health, expressed surprise that potato products were linked with more weight gain than desserts like cake, cookies and doughnuts, which contribute the most calories to the American diet, other research shows. She says she suspects people who eat potato chips and fries also tend to eat too much in general, making these foods markers for a diet leading to weight gain.

The new Dietery Guidelines “policy document” has a particularly entertaining chart of the leading sources of calories in U.S. diets.  Here are the top six, in order:

  • “Grain-based” desserts (translation: cakes, pies, cookies, cupcakes, etc)
  • Breads
  • Chicken and chicken mixed dishes (translation: fingers)
  • Sodas, energy, and sports drinks
  • Pizza
  • Alcoholic beverages

Potato chips are #11 and fries are #17.

This new study provides evidence supporting what everyone surely ought to know by now: eat your veggies!

P.S.  Here’s Andy Bellatti’s take on this study.  His point: it’s not the carbs, it’s calories.

 

 

 

Jun 23 2011

IOM advice for preventing childhood obesity focuses on personal responsibility

The Institute of Medicine released a report today on how to prevent obesity in children from birth to age 5: Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Policies.

The report is remarkable for its focus on policies for parents and child care providers, and its almost complete lack of attention to policies for improving the food environment in which parents and caregivers operate.

The report’s key recommendations for children from birth to age 5:

  • Promote breastfeeding
  • Monitor growth
  • Increase physical activity
  • Provide healthy foods in age-appropriate portions
  • Ensure access to affordable healthy foods; educate caregivers and parents
  • Limit screen time (all media) to less than 2 hours a day

That’s all? Nothing about keeping sodas and junk foods out of the house?  Only this about food marketing to kids?

The Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration should continue their work to establish and monitor the implementation of uniform voluntary national nutrition and marketing standards for food and beverage products marketed to children.

As the IOM well knows from its 2005 report on Food Marketing to Children and Youth, parents and caregivers cannot do this on their own.  They need help, and that means policies to improve the food environment.  The report does say a little about farmers’ markets and green carts as a means to improve access, but that’s it.

It’s time for a follow-up to the 2005 report.  This doesn’t do it, alas.

 

 

 

 

http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2011/Early-Childhood-Obesity-Prevention-Policies.aspx

Jun 22 2011

What FDA is up against with imported foods

In an action highly unusual for the FDA, the agency has released a new “special report” on what it is up against as it tries to get a handle on the safety of imported foods.

Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality points out that imported foods account for:

  • Between 10% and 15% of all food consumed by all U.S. households
  • Nearly two-thirds of all fruits and vegetables
  • 80% of seafood

And imported foods have increased by at least 10% during each of the last seven years and are expected to increase by 15% per year for the next several years.

The New York Times notes that in 2008 the FDA would have needed “1,900 years to check every foreign food plant at its rate of inspections at the time.”

That’s not all.  According to FDA:

Manufacturers and producers…face intense pressure to lower costs and improve productivity, fueling a cycle in which the quest for efficiency leads to increased production abroad and higher volumes of imported products to regulate.

Goods entering the U.S. will come from new and different markets, flowing through long, multistep processes to convert globally-sourced materials into finished goods.

The shift in global product flows will make it difficult to identify the “source” of a product and to ensure that all players along the supply chain meet their safety and quality responsibilities.

And it is not just legal activity that poses challenges for the FDA. Increasingly, the agency must contend with ever more sophisticated threats of fraud, product adulteration, and even terrorism.

The FDA illustrated its report with terrific graphics.  My favorite is the supply chain for canned tuna:


What will the FDA do about this problem?  It says it will:

1) Assemble global coalitions of regulators dedicated to building and strengthening the product safety net around the world.

2) With these coalitions, develop a global data information system and network.

3) Expand capabilities in intelligence gathering and use.

4) Allocate agency resources based on risk, leveraging the combined efforts of government, industry, and public- and private-sector third parties.

The FDA released its report on practically the same day that the Health and Human Services Inspector General’s office released a report highly critical of the FDA’s ability to monitor the safety of imported foods.

Because FDA’s food recall guidance is nonbinding on the industry, FDA cannot compel firms to follow it and therefore FDA cannot ensure the safety of the Nation’s food supply.

FDA did not always follow its own procedures to ensure that the recall process operated efficiently and effectively.

This kind of criticism is not new.  Just last month, the GAO issued a critical report on the FDA’s problems regulating the safety of imported seafood.  The FDA’s difficulty with recalls is that until Congress passed the food safety act last year, FDA did not have the authority to order recalls.  It had to “pretty please” ask companies to recall unsafe foods.  Now it has the authority, but Congress did not grant new resources to carry out that authority.

The New York TImes explains the reason for the FDA’s lack of oversight:

Audits of the F.D.A.’s oversight of the nation’s food system routinely find the agency’s efforts wanting, in part, the agency says, because its budget for such activities has long been inadequate. And although the new food safety law gave the agency extra supervisory powers, it is not clear how much it will be able to do, given that House Republicans have proposed cutting its budget for protective measures.

The FDA official in charge of food safety, Michael Taylor, has been discussing the vexing resource question in recent speeches.  He points out that the FDA:

Has a a huge workload. And even though public health officials are working hard, the agency will likely not meet all of its deadlines. On top of the backlog, FDA has no idea what its budget will be for fiscal year 2012.

An agriculture appropriations bill that cleared the House last week would cut food safety programs $87 million below fiscal year 2011.

The current budget situation does paint a challenging picture…a patchwork of continuing resolutions to keep the government funded — as we saw in 2011 — makes it nearly impossible to plan ahead.

When Congress gives us our budget over half way through the fiscal year it’s very difficult to use that money in as orderly a way as possible. You can’t use that money to hire the experts you need because the hiring process is such that you won’t get them hired until the end of the fiscal year

When it comes to food safety, we only have one food supply, and it is global.  That was the whole point of my book Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Minea case study of how melamine in China got into American, Canadian, and South African pet foods.  If it could happen to pet food, it could happen to ours.

To monitor the safety of imported foods, the FDA neeeds to be stronger, not weaker.

Jun 20 2011

More fun with cause marketing

My post last week about KFC, Pepsi, and cause marketing elicited a lively dicussion along with some further examples.

Ken Leebow of “Feed Your Head” sent this one along with a comment: “Don’t pollute the Earth, but your body: Go for it!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cara Wilking of the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) sent this one: Give blood, eat a Whopper.  Cara, by the way, has done her own piece on why organizations that care about health should avoid partnerships with soft drink companies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Lisa Young sent a note about Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of continuing professional education credits for dietitians, for a course about bone health.  On that same site, if you pledge to LivePositively.com, Coke’s Sprite Zero will donate $1 to the American Cancer Society.

For those of you who insist that these kinds of partnerships raise money for Good Causes, please consider whether soft drinks are good for bone health or whether artificial sweeteners are good for cancer prevention.  The answers may not be in, but the questions are worth asking.

Cause marketing, I submit, is much more about the marketing than it is about the cause.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/smack/chi-110604-smack-graphic,0,5581063.graphicCar
Jun 17 2011

Baseball fans: a food plate just for you!

In case you missed it, here’s another contribution to food guides, this one from the Smack! sports section of the Chicago Tribune (June 5):

No comment needed.

Enjoy the weekend!

[Thanks to Yankees fans Sandy and John for sending]

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