Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 17 2010

FoodPolitics is on vacation

Dear readers: I am leaving town and will not have Internet access until the end of the year. May your holidays be warm and delicious—and politically active, of course.

Dec 17 2010

Food corporations buy silence from “partners”

Does corporate social responsibility pay off for corporations?  Indeed it does.  Corporate money buys silence, if nothing else.

William Neuman of the New York Times provides a perfect example of how corporate sponsorship gets precisely what it is intended to do.

In this particular case:

  • The corporations are soda companies, Coke and Pepsi.
  • The social responsibility is donations of millions of dollars to a good cause.
  • The cause is Save the Children, a group devoted to child health and development projects internationally and domestically.
  • The intention?   Get Save the Children to stop advocating in favor of soda taxes.

Not long ago, Save the Children was a strong advocate for soda taxes.  Now it is not.  How come?  The group’s website explains:

about a minute ago we said, Corporate donors support us but do not pressure us. Our focus is children not soda tax policy. Back to saving more children now.

The Times, however, suggests a different explanation:

executives at Save the Children were seeking a major grant from Coca-Cola to help finance the health and education programs that the charity conducts here and abroad, including its work on childhood obesity.The talks with Coke are still going on. But the soda tax work has been stopped….In interviews this month, Carolyn Miles, chief operating officer of Save the Children, said there was no connection between the group’s about-face on soda taxes and the discussions with Coke. A $5 million grant from PepsiCo also had no influence on the decision, she said. Both companies fiercely oppose soda taxes.

A mere coincidence?  I don’t think so.  This is a clear win for soda companies, just as was Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the educational activities of the American Academy of Family Physicians. You can bet those activities do not involve telling parents not to give sodas to their kids.

Is this a win for Save the Children?  The Times reports that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funds some of the group’s anti-obesity initiatives, is disappointed.  Evidently, its $3.5 million donation wasn’t enough to convince the group to continue its anti-soda activities.

In the meantime, soda taxes continue to stay on the radar as a weight control strategy.  A new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that soda taxes could lead to a small but potentially significant weight loss.

According to FoodNavigator’s report about the study,the authors say that applying such taxes throughout the United States could generate a billion dollars or more.  It quotes lead researcher Eric Finkelstein: “Although small, given the rising trend in obesity rates, especially among youth, any strategy that shows even modest weight loss should be considered.”

This kind of study is a challenge to soda companies.  Watch Coke and Pepsi continue donations to charitable and health groups and watch those groups say not one word about the contribution of sodas to obesity.  Cigarettes, anyone?

Dec 16 2010

CDC halves foodborne illness count. But why now?

Food politics in action: The CDC announced yesterday that its scientists had recalculated the extent of foodborne illnesses in the United States and cut the estimates by nearly half.

The old mantra (1999):

  • 76 million cases of illness
  • 325,000 hospitalizations
  • 5,000 deaths

The new mantra (2010):

  • 48 million illnesses
  • 128,000 hospitalizations
  • 3,000 deaths

But no, the new figures do not mean that the food supply is safer.  The reduction, says the CDC, is no cause for celebration.  Instead, it only means that tracking methods have improved.     As the editorial accompanying the CDC reports puts it,

Bottom line: with the exception of Vibrio spp., things don’t seem to be getting worse; however, after the initial decline since the USDA regulatory changes in 1995, one does not see evidence of sustained improvement.

The Politics

OK.  Very interesting.  The old estimates weren’t as good as the new estimates.  But why announce what appears to be a huge reduction in foodborne illness now, especially if it really isn’t a reduction?

Is the CDC unaware that a highly contentious food safety bill still lingers in Congress, with only days to go until the congressional term ends?

I sat in on the press conference call yesterday and heard CDC’s weak attempts to minimize the drop in numbers and maximize the fact that foodborne illnesses are still way too high (“one in six Americans”).

I’m not the only one concerned about the timing.  The headline and first sentence in Food Chemical News:

Lower CDC foodborne illness numbers could undercut food safety bill. Just as Congress seems to be on the edge of passing the biggest food safety bill in decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released today two new studies that reduce the previous estimates of people suffering from foodborne illness in the United States.

CDC officials must be worried.  I hear rumors that CDC press people are complaining to reporters who lead off their stories with the reduced numbers, as most did.

William Neuman in the New York Times, for example, correctly reported:

The federal government on Wednesday significantly cut its estimate of how many Americans get sick every year from tainted food.  But that does not mean that food poisoning is declining or that farms and factories are producing safer food. Instead, officials said, the government’s researchers are just getting better at calculating how much foodborne illness is out there.

And here is USA Today’s Beth Weise, also correctly:

Food isn’t making us as sick as we thought — almost 40% less, in fact. It’s not that the numbers of foodborne illnesses have suddenly decreased, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says its methods for counting have become more precise.

Weise noted: “The new figures are long awaited in the food industry, which believed the previous numbers to be too high.”

Right.  That’s why the timing isn’t so good.

Why is the CDC doing this now?  Maybe this is just a matter of journal publication dates but it would be painfully ironic if CDC’s “better” numbers undercut enactment of the food safety bill.

The Science

That said, the CDC has done a splendid job of making the rationale for these estimates accessible on its main web page for this topic.  The page links to the two scientific papers, one on estimates of illnesses caused by  major pathogens, and the second on unspecified (unidentified) agents.

CDC also presents a detailed table comparing the 1999 and 2010 estimates.

But the 2010 estimates, like the 1999 estimates, are still guesses—just better ones based on methods that were not available in 1999.

Much remains uncertain about the extent of foodborne illness, because they are so difficult to  track:

  • Many pathogenic organisms cause foodborne illness; some are characterized, some not.
  • Gastrointestinal illness is not always due to food poisoning.
  • Most people with foodborne illnesses do not report them to doctors.
  • Doctors rarely take stool samples.
  • Laboratories test stool samples for only the most frequent pathogens.
  • Laboratory tests for pathogens are not always reliable.

Indeed, the CDC estimates that 80% of foodborne illnesses are due to unspecified causes, as are 56% of foodborne hospitalizations and deaths.

The CDC’s conclusion: the burden of foodborne illness is high and keeping pathogens out of the food system is still a good idea.

That, of course, is precisely why it is so important that Congress enact the food safety bill.   Its measures require preventive controls that should apply to pathogens, known and unknown.

Let’s hope Congress understands that foodborne illness is still a serious problem, does not misinterpret the CDC’s new numbers, and passes the legislation as its gift to the new year.

Dec 15 2010

FTC goes after kids’ vitamin claims (yogurt, too!)

In its continuing effort to crack down on companies making deceptive claims that omega-3 promotes healthy brain and eye development in children, the FTC has just announced deceptive advertising charges against NBTY, a marketer of children’s vitamins.

In February, the FTC  issued warning letters to 11 companies that make products like this one (“pediatrician recommended,” yet).

The FTC said the companies had better get busy and make sure they are not violating the law by “making baseless claims about how the supplements benefit children’s brain and vision function and development.”

The FTC cautioned the companies to make sure they had:

“scientific evidence to support claims that their products boost, improve, enhance, or support brain and vision function and development in children…[and]claims relating to intelligence, cognitive function, learning ability, focus, mood, memory, attention, concentration, visual acuity, and eye health.”

Now, the FTC has reached a settlement with the companies for $2.1 million in refunds, not only because of the unsupported health claims but also because the products did not contain the advertised amount of omega-3’s (see legal complaint):

the multivitamins featured characters such as the Disney Princesses, Winnie the Pooh, Finding Nemo, and Spider-Man.  Product packaging and print ads promoting the vitamins had bold graphics highlighting that the products contained DHA, but in reality, the products allegedly had only a trace amount of DHA.

While the vitamins’ packaging touted the purported health benefits of 100 milligrams of DHA, a daily serving of the Disney and Marvel multivitamins for children ages four years and older contained only one thousandth of that amount (0.1 mg or 100 mcg), according to the FTC’s complaint.

The settlement:

  • Bars NBTY, NatureSmart, and Rexall Sundown from misrepresenting the amount of any ingredient contained in any product.
  • Bars them from misrepresenting that any ingredient, including DHA, promotes brain or eye health or provides any other health benefit, unless the claim is true and backed by competent and reliable scientific evidence.
  • Specifies that any violations could subject the NBTY, NatureSmart, and Rexall Sundown to civil penalties.
I wonder if the FTC is taking a look at the DHA “brain development” claims for Nestlé’s Juice Juice?  Just a thought.
This just in: The FTC announces a settlement with Dannon Yogurt to stop making unsubstantiated, exaggerated health claims for activia.  Dannon may no longer claim that:
  • Any yogurt, dairy drink, or probiotic food or drink reduces the likelihood of getting a cold or the flu (unless FDA says it’s OK)
  • Activia yogurt will relieve temporary irregularity or help with slow intestinal transit time, unless the ad conveys that three servings of Activia yogurt must be eaten each day.
  • Any other yogurt, dairy drink, or probiotic food or drink will relieve temporary irregularity or help with slow intestinal transit time unless the company has two well-designed human clinical studies that substantiate the claim.
  • The health benefits, performance, or efficacy of any yogurt, dairy drink, or probiotic food or drink, unless the claims are backed by competent and reliable scientific evidence.

The FTC wants science to back up health claims.  What a concept!

Dec 14 2010

President signs healthy, hunger-free kids act, at last!

Yesterday, President Obama signed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (how do they name these things?)

White House, Pete Souza

The fact sheet on the bill lists what it will do with the additional $4.5 billion in funding (over 10 years), among other actions:

  • Gives USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, the “a la carte” lunch lines, and school stores.
  • Provides additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for federally-subsidized lunches [this is the six cents per meal increase].
  • Helps communities establish local farm to school networks, create school gardens, and ensures that more local foods are used in the school setting.
  • Expands access to drinking water in schools, particularly during meal times.
  • Sets basic standards for school wellness policies including goals for nutrition promotion and education and physical activity.
  • Increases the number of eligible children enrolled in school meal programs by approximately 115,000 students…Helps certify an average additional 4,500 students per year to receive school meals.
  • Allows more universal meal access for eligible students in high poverty communities.

The sticking point is the funding.  It is to be “borrowed” from an authorized increase in funding for SNAP (food stamps).   As I discussed yesterday, enrollment in SNAP is rising rapidly, and so are its costs so the loss of this increase will hurt.

In his signing speech, President Obama explained:

It’s also important to note that while this bill is fully paid for, it won’t add a dime to the deficit, some of the funding comes from rolling back a temporary increase in food stamp benefits –- or SNAP as it’s now called -– starting in the fall of 2013.  I know a number of members of Congress have expressed concerns about this offset being included in the bill, and I’m committed to working with them to restore these funds in the future.

He also said:

Not only am I very proud of the bill, but had I not been able to get this passed, I would be sleeping on the couch.

Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign inspired this bill and her leadership had much to do with its enactment.  Cheers for this, at last!

Dec 13 2010

FDA says 29 million pounds of antibiotics used in food animals last year

I was interested to read FoodSafetyNews this morning and learn about the FDA’s new count of the number and pounds of antibiotics used to promote the growth of farm animals used as food.

Because this is the first time the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has produced such a count, it is not possible to say whether the numbers are going up or down.  But the agency is now requiring meat producers to report on antibiotic use so we now have a baseline for measuring progress.

The FDA has been concerned about the use and misuse of animal antibiotics for some time now, so much so that in June it issued guidance on The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals.

In the Federal Register notice announcing the guidance, the FDA explains:

Misuse and overuse of antimicrobial drugs creates selective evolutionary pressure that enables antimicrobial resistant bacteria to increase in numbers more rapidly than antimicrobial susceptible bacteria and thus increases the opportunity for
individuals to become infected by resistant bacteria. Because antimicrobial drug use contributes to the emergence of drug resistant organisms, these important drugs must be used judiciously in both animal and human medicine to slow the development of resistance. Using these drugs judiciously means that unnecessary or inappropriate use should be avoided….

In regard to the use of antimicrobial drugs in animals, concerns have been raised by the public and components of the scientific and public health communities that a significant contributing factor to antimicrobial resistance is the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in foodproducing animals for production or growth-enhancing purposes.

The overuse of antibiotics in farm animal production was a key focus of the 2009 report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Our conclusion: the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is an enormous risk to public health and should be stopped.

The FDA report may be short and issued without comment, but it is a sign that the FDA is taking steps to address this serious public health problem.

Dec 11 2010

Food stamp use and cost up sharply since 2008

The USDA has just posted shocking increases in the use and cost of food stamps (now called the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP just within the last two years.  The USDA data & statistics web pages provide data for SNAP participation and costs from 1969-2010.

Here’s what’s happened in the last three years:

  • 2008: 28.2 million participants received an average benefit of $102 per month for a total cost of $37.6 billion.
  • 2009: 33.5 million participants received an average benefit of $125 per month for a total cost of $53.6 billion.
  • 2010: 40.3 million participants received an average benefit of $134 per month for a total cost of $68.2 billion.

Caroline Scott-Thomas of points out that in 2009 eligible people were signing up for SNAP benefits at an average rate of 20,000 a day.  This year, the rate increased to 22,000 a day.

What, she asked, did I think of all this?

Nutrition professor Dr. Marion Nestle told “Pretty obviously, this is a sign that the economy is still in bad shape, especially at the lower income ends. Wall Street may still be giving bonuses, but more and more Americans don’t have places to live or food to eat”….Nestle added that funding for this level of food stamp use could prove unsustainable in the current economy. “Some funding has already been cannibalized to fund the Child Nutrition Reauthorization,” she said. “The more expensive it gets, the more the program will be a target for lawmakers looking for moveable cash.”

With an estimated one-eighth of the population on food stamps each month, and no improvement to the economy in sight, it seems like there is plenty to worry about.

Dec 10 2010

Food is political? Indeed it is.

Every now and then, I enjoy answering questions posed by Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman.  Here’s one for today.

Let’s Ask Marion: How Did Junk Food and Obesity Become a Red State/Blue State Debate?

(With a click of her mouse, Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):

kat: The “agri-culture war” that’s long been simmering is coming to a boil now, as recently noted in The Washington Post, The Daily Dish, and elsewhere in the blogosphere.

The Palin/Beck/Limbaugh axis of egos is vigorously defending junk food, lamenting the passage of the food safety bill, and decrying all efforts to address our obesity epidemic, even as David Frum, a rare voice of reason (sometimes) on the right, tells CNN that obesity poses a greater threat to our national security than, say, openly gay soldiers.

You yourself are under fire yet again (sigh) from those uber-astroturfers at the Center For Consumer Freedom for having the audacity to question whether our cherished principle of free speech entitles Big Food to emblazon the labels of its edible food-like substances with Big Lies (i.e. dubious, unproven health claims).

Why do you think that the issues of junk food and obesity have become so incredibly politicized?

Dr. Nestle: Politicized? Of course they are politicized. Junk food and obesity are key indicators of political divisions in our society. For starters, junk food is cheap and obesity is more common among low-income populations. So right away we are into divisive issues of income inequality and class and, therefore, who pays for what and which sectors of society get government handouts.

The minute we start talking about small farms, organic production, local food, and sustainable agriculture, we are really talking about changing our food system to accommodate a broader range of players and to become more democratic. Just think of who wins and who loses if $20 billion in annual agricultural subsidies go to small, organic vegetable producers who are part of their communities rather than to large agricultural producers who do not live anywhere near their corn and soybeans.

The issue at stake is who gets to decide how food is grown and what people eat. For as long as I can remember, big agriculture and big food were in control, in close partnership with congressional agricultural committees and the USDA. Today, the food movement–democracy in action, if you will–is challenging their authority and power. No wonder defenders of the status quo don’t like the challenge. It is only to be expected that they are fighting back.

I see the intensity of the debate (and, alas, the personal attacks) as a clear sign that the movement is making headway. The system is clearly changing. It has to change if we are to address obesity, climate change, and the other unsustainable aspects of our present ways of doing food business.

Anyone who is working to reduce income inequity and to make healthier food available to every American has to expect to encounter the methods corporations always use to fight critics: personal attacks, claims of junk science, invocation of personal responsibility, cooptation, and plenty of behind-the-scenes lobbying.

Telling truth to power has never been popular. But I’m convinced it’s worth doing.

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