Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 20 2011

The latest oxymoron: Oxfam helps Coca-Cola reduce poverty

I keep arguing that partnerships and alliances with food corporations put agriculture, food, nutrition, and public health advocacy groups in deep conflict of interest.

The latest example is Oxfam America’s partnership with Coca-Cola and bottler SAB Miller to evaluate the effectiveness of these corporations in reducing poverty (again, you can’t make these things up):

Despite the challenges involved, The Coca-Cola Company and SABMiller have each made ambitious and laudable commitments to labor rights, human rights, water, gender, and sustainability. However, there is little accountability to such commitments without the informed engagement of affected groups. By looking across all relevant issues (no cherry-picking) with an organization like Oxfam America and reporting out to stakeholders, these companies have opened themselves to heightened public scrutiny and hopefully increased accountability.

Hopefully, indeed.

The Oxfam Poverty Footprint Report describes the work Coca-Cola and SAB Miller are doing in Zambia and El Salvador to empower and promote sustainability.  It highlights Coca-Cola’s sustainability initiatives.

It does include some telling recommendations for follow-up.  For example:

  • Engage sugar farmers and producers to improve safety and health of sugarcane harvesters.
  • Investigate why independent truck drivers in Zambia work more than eight hours per day and discuss with drivers potential mechanisms to ensure safe driving.
  • Ensure The Coca-Cola Company’s global Advertising and Marketing to Children Policies are being effectively and consistently implemented at a regional level.

You have to read between the lines to see what this report really says.

And what about health, obesity, or the shocking increase in childhood tooth decay that is occurring in Latin America these days as a result of the influx of sugary drinks?  Not a word.

Why is Oxfam America helping Coca-Cola to market its products in Latin America and Africa?  I can only guess that Coca-Cola’s grant to Oxfam must have been substantial.

And thanks to Kelly Moltzen for sending the links.

 

Apr 19 2011

The politics of contaminated meat

By this time, you must have heard about the study in Clinical Infectious Diseases sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts.  The study found nearly half of supermarket meat and poultry samples to be contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus. Half of the contaminated samples were resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Staph causes awful infections.  When I was a child, my mother had a Staph infection that kept her out of commission for what seemed like months in that pre-antibiotic era.  Antibiotics can keep Staph under control, but not if the Staph are antibiotic-resistant.   Staph resistant to multiple drugs are a clear-and-present danger.  No wonder this study got so much attention.

The study provides strong support for the idea that we ought to be reducing use of antibiotics as growth promoters in farm animals, an idea strongly supported by the CDC.

Even though 80% of U.S. antibiotic use is for farm animals, the meat industry strong opposes any proposal to change its practices.

The National Cattleman’s Beef Association responds by attacking the science:

Calling into question the safety of U.S. beef without conclusive scientific evidence is careless and misleads consumers. Pew Charitable Trusts, an agenda-driven organization on this issue, funded this study, which concludes that its extremely small sample size was ‘insufficient to accurately estimate prevalence rates’ and that ‘public health relevance of this finding is unclear.’ The study’s authors clearly call into question the validity of their own study. The bottom-line is U.S. beef is safe and is part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.

The American Meat Institute reassures the public that meat is safe.  After all, you are going to cook your meat, aren’t you?  In any case, the responsibility rests with you.

While the study claims that the many of the bacteria found were antibiotic resistant, it does note that they are not heat resistant.  These bacteria are destroyed through normal cooking procedures, which may account for the small percentage of foodborne illnesses linked to these bacteria.

As with any raw agricultural product, it is important to follow federal safe handling recommendations included on every meat and poultry package that urge consumers to wash hands and surfaces when handling raw meat and poultry and to separate raw from cooked foods to ensure that food is safe when served.

These sound like the arguments that the meat industry has made for years for Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7.

I see this study as another reason why we need better food safety regulation, and the sooner the better.

Postscript: Bill Marler reports that he had 100 samples of chicken tested from Seattle markets:

IEH Labs found S. aurea [sic], or staph, in 42 percent of the samples overall and Campylobacter in 65 percent. The supermarket chicken was contaminated with other pathogens as well: 19 percent of the samples tested positive for Salmonella, one tested positive for Listeria, and 10 percent showed the presence of the methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA). In an unusual finding, one of the chicken samples tested positive for E. coli 0126, Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) bacteria more likely to be a contaminant of beef than poultry. Organic Chicken proved to be slightly less contaminated than nonorganic with 7 of the 13 (54%) testing positive for harmful bacteria.

As I said….

Apr 18 2011

Obesity as collateral damage: changing food industry behavior

I am a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Public Health Policy, which publishes research and commentary on matters that affect international public health.  Dr. Anthony Robbins, one of its editors, and I are calling on authors to submit articles that consider ways to change behavior—not, as is all too common, of individuals but of the food industry.

The journal has published many papers on obesity policies aimed at improving the diet and exercise behavior of individuals.  These may be necessary, but they are not sufficient.  It is now time to deal with the behavior of the food industry.  Food industry profits are

generated by capturing increasingly larger shares of the market and by selling the population more food – and calories –than it needs. In this marketing environment, obesity is collateral damage.

The food industry’s ultimately anti-social behavior – whether conscious or inadvertent – is spreading globally. In higher income countries, it is ubiquitous, whereas in places where people have less disposable income, it is but the camel’s nose under the tent.

Thus, effective strategies to reduce obesity may vary depending on penetration by the industry – and less developed nations may still have more opportunities to avoid obesity, by getting ahead of the curve.

How are countries to do this?

Efforts to control obesity will have to enlist the public to focus on behavior, with a shift from a sole focus on citizens to a new one on the behavior of food corporations…We cannot eliminate the food industry to reverse the obesity epidemic, but we can constrain its anti-social behavior…We encourage authors to reach beyond the kind studies of policies on eating and activity that we receive so frequently.

We have come to believe that research studies concentrating on personal behavior and responsibility as causes of the obesity epidemic do little but offer cover to an industry seeking to downplay its own responsibility.

Instead, we urge authors to submit articles that consider how to understand and change the behavior of the food industry.

As a starting point for thinking about how to approach this topic, we ask: does the industry need to overfeed the population to remain profitable?

Have ideas?  Write them up and submit them to JPHP.  There is no deadline.  The journal will consider submissions whenever they arrive, but sooner is better than later.

Apr 16 2011

Some thoughts on not using food stamps for sodas

This morning I received an e-mail query from Jan Poppendieck, author of three truly outstanding books that I often use in classes:

Q.  I am collecting opinions on the proposal to ban use of SNAP (food stamp) funds for buying sodas.  What do you think of that idea?

A.  I started out deeply uncomfortable with the idea of the soda ban but I now support it.   The discomfort came from my general discomfort with telling people what I think they should be eating. I never comment on what individuals eat (and I hope you won’t comment on what I eat). My work deals with nutrition for populations, not necessarily individuals. So banning sodas at first seemed to me to be too personal an approach.

But I changed my mind for several reasons:

  • The increasingly strong evidence that sugary drinks predispose to obesity
  • The disproportionately higher rates of obesity among the poor
  • The suggestive evidence that sugars in liquid form are especially predisposing to obesity
  • The comparison of the SNAP approach (the benefits can be used for most any food) with that of WIC (the benefits only work for a restricted number of foods)
  • The focus of soda companies on marketing to children and youth in low-income areas
  • The lack of grocery stores in low-income areas
  • The intense marketing of sodas to children and youth in developing countries
  • The increasingly successful efforts of soda companies to co-opt health professional groups with partnerships, alliances, and grants
  • The astonishing amount of money and effort used by beverage companies and associations to fight soda taxes and, no doubt, this idea as well

Soft drink companies have gotten a free ride for years.  They moved into schools and created an environment that makes it socially acceptable for children to drink sodas all day long.  If sodas are now under scrutiny for their role in obesity, it is because soda companies are reaping what they have sown.

 

 

Apr 15 2011

Why partnerships with food companies don’t work

Michael Siegel, MD, MPH, a Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health (whom I do not know), has been mailing me copies of his recent blog posts on partnerships between food corporations and health organizations, particularly the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) (see my previous posts), and the American Dietetic Association (ADA) (see my previous posts on this one too).

Dr. Siegel’s current post discusses two reasons why these partnerships do more for the food companies than they do for the organizations:

1. Coca-Cola and other Big Food companies are using these partnerships to enhance their corporate image, and therefore, their bottom line: sales of unhealthy products that are contributing towards the nation’s obesity epidemic.

In its 2010 annual report, Coca-Cola writes: “…researchers, health advocates and dietary guidelines are encouraging consumers to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including those sweetened with HFCS or other nutritive sweeteners. Increasing public concern about these issues…may reduce demand for our beverages, which could affect our profitability.”

…Pepsico, in its 2010 annual report, also makes clear the connection between the company’s public image and its bottom line: “Damage to our reputation or loss of consumer confidence in our products for any of these or other reasons could result in decreased demand for our products and could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations, as well as require additional resources to rebuild our reputation.”

2. The American Dietetic Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Academy of Family Physicians are supporting companies that oppose virtually every state-specific public health policy related to improvement of school nutrition, reduction of junk food and soda consumption, and environmental health and safety.

…Through its contributions to the Grocers Manufacturers Association (GMA), Coca-Cola is opposing any and all taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (soft drinks), opposing the removal of BPA from bottles containing liquids consumed by infants, opposing legislation to simply require the disclosure of product ingredients, opposing taxes on candy, opposing bottle bills, opposing all restrictions on BPA-containing packaging, opposing standards for food processing, and opposing school nutrition standards.

…That the AAP, AAFP, and ADA have fallen for Coca-Cola’s tricks is one possibility. The other, which I find more likely, is that they have been bought off. In other words, that the receipt of large amounts of money has caused them to look the other way. It’s amazing what a little financial support will do. And of course, this is precisely the reason why companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsico include the sponsorship of public health organizations in their marketing plans.

I’m just back from the American Society of Nutrition meetings in Washington, DC, where the daily newsletter put out by the society included full-page advertisements from Coca-Cola, the beef industry, and the Corn Refiners Association (see yesterday’s post).  And then there is the astonishing example of Coca-Cola’s $10 million gift to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to head off a potential city soda tax.

It is completely understandable why food and beverage companies would want to buy silence from health professionals.  It is much less understandable why health organizations would risk their credibility to accept such funding.  Professor Siegel’s analyses of these issues are worth close attention.

Apr 14 2011

Lobbying in action: HFCS

It’s fun to watch lobbying in action, especially when it is so overt.  I’ve just been sent a copy of this “Dear Colleague” letter organized by the Corn Refiners’ Association.  The letter comes from two members of Congress.  It asks other members of Congress to write the FDA to change the name of High Fructose Corn Syrup to Corn Sugar.

From the Corn Refiners:

Dear [Member of Congress],

As your Member’s district has a strong interest in corn or corn sweetener, I am sending you this Dear Colleague letter for your consideration. Representatives Tom Latham and Daniel Lipinksi are circulating the letter, pasted below, for your boss’ consideration. The Corn Refiners Association, with support from the National Corn Growers Association has petitioned the FDA to allow use of the name ‘corn sugar’ as an alternative to High Fructose Corn Syrup on ingredient labels. This letter outlines our support for this petition.

From Representatives Tom Latham (Rep–Iowa) and Daniel Lipinski (Dem–Illinois):

Dear [FDA] Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg,

We write to express our support for a petition to use “corn sugar” as an alternate name for high fructose corn syrup on ingredient labels that would help consumers avoid confusion about the foods they buy. We endorse prompt review and approval of petition FDA-2010-P-0491, which was submitted by the Corn Refiners Association.

The petition requests the term “corn sugar” be permitted as an optional name for high fructose corn syrup on ingredient labels to avoid customer misconceptions. Evidence suggests that current terminology encourages misunderstanding in the marketplace regarding the nutritional profile and composition of corn sweeteners, and the alternate name would help dispel some of the confusion. According to a recent nationwide MSR Group survey, around 70 percent of Americans surveyed could not correctly identify high fructose corn syrup when presented with the American Dietetic Association’s definition. The same research found that “corn sugar” is a better alternative because it gives consumers a more accurate understanding of the product’s fructose content, calories and sweetness.

The product used in most foods—including yogurts, baked goods, condiments, and salad dressings—actually has the lowest fructose content of any sweetener on the market. Despite this fact, MSR Group’s research showed that most Americans believe high fructose corn syrup to be higher in fructose than table sugar; misinformation perpetuated by the substance’s name.

High fructose corn syrup is made from corn grown here in the United States by a critical industry that provides Americans thousands of good jobs. Equally important, it enables American consumers greater choice and affordability at the grocery store. Unfortunately, significant misperceptions about this ingredient have circulated in the media, in large part due to its name.

The American Medical Association has indicated that sugar and high fructose corn syrup have similar compositions, while the American Dietetic Association has determined that these two sweeteners are nutritionally equivalent and indistinguishable to the human body. These facts are sometimes lost in the confusion surrounding the ingredient’s name, and we believe that allowing use of the alternate term, “corn sugar,” would allow consumers to make accurate decisions about added sugars in their diets.

We support expeditious review and approval of this petition.

If enough members of Congress write such letters, the FDA is likely to pay attention, no?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 13 2011

Let’s Ask Marion: Does Factory Farming Have a Future?

This is one of a series of occasional Q and A’s from Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman.

Submitted by KAT on Wed, 04/13/2011 – 9:12am.

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat, aka Kerry Trueman, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

KAT: We talk a lot about the factory farms that provide most of our meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, but most Americans have no idea what really goes on inside a CAFO, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.

You, however, saw a number of these fetid facilities firsthand when you served on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production a couple of years ago. And industrial livestock production’s role in degrading our environment, undermining our health, abusing animals and exploiting workers in the name of efficiency has been well-documented, most recently in Dan Imhoff’s massive, and massively disturbing, coffee table book CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories.

Given all the problems inherent in industrial livestock production, do you see a future for factory farming?

Dr. Nestle: I do not think factory farming is going away. Most people like meat and want to eat it, and do so the minute they get enough money to buy it.

I think a more realistic question is this: Can factory farming be done better? The interesting thing about the Pew Commission’s investigations was that we were taken to factory farms where people were trying to do things right, or at least better. Even so, it was mind-boggling to see an egg facility that gave whole new meaning to the term “free range.” And these eggs were organic, yet. The hens were not caged, but there were thousands of them all over each other. This place did a fabulous job of composting waste and the place did not smell bad. But it did not in any way resemble anyone’s fantasy of chickens scratching around in the dirt.

Factory farming raises issues about its effects on the animals, the environment, the local communities, and food safety. As someone invested in public health and food safety, I care about all of those. The effects on the animals are obvious, and those will never go away no matter how well everything else is done.

But the everything else could be done much, much better. The first big issue is animal waste. It stinks. It’s potentially dangerous. Most communities have laws that forbid this level of waste accumulation, but the laws are not enforced, often because the communities are poor and disenfranchised.

The second is antibiotics, particularly the use of antibiotic drugs as growth promoters. This selects for antibiotic-resistant bacteria and is, to say the least, not a good idea.

The factory farming system could be greatly improved by forcing the farms to manage waste and restricting use of antibiotics. This will not solve the fundamental problems, but it will help.

I’m hoping that more environmentally friendly meat production will expand, and factory farming will contract. That would be better for public health in the short and long run.

NOTE: If you’re in the NYC area, please join Eating Liberally and Kitchen Table Talks this Thursday, April 14th at NYU’s Fales Library, 6:30 p.m. to hear Dr. Nestle, Dan Imhoff, and Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss address the question “What’s the Matter with Mass-Produced Meat?” The discussion will be moderated by Paula Crossfield of Civil Eats. Event details here.

Apr 11 2011

How to get involved: school food

I am starting to put together a resource list for anyone who would like to advocate for better school food.

I began by asking Margo Wootan, of Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) how she answers questions about how to help schools improve their food.  Her advice is to visit your local school (CSPI has a ToolKit for this):

  • Meet with principal, teachers, parents, food service directors and staff
  • Talk about how to encourage stronger wellness policies for nutrition and physical activity
  • Focus on healthier meals and removal of less healthful items from vending machines

It’s also useful to work on national policies to make it easier for schools to serve healthier meals (CSPI has guidelines and resources for this).

I also know about a few groups that are working on school food issues.  Some have published guides to getting started or other useful materials.  These range in scope from local to national, and from hands on to policy.:

Do you know of other resources to help beginners get started on school food advocacy?  Please send.  My plan is to post a revised version as a Q and A.  Thanks!

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