Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 16 2010

Great Britain backs down on healthy school food

The new conservative government in Great Britain is doing all it can to promote unhealthy eating.

First, it backed down on traffic-light food labels.

Then, it took the food label regulatory functions away from its too-interventionist Food Standards Agency.

Now, it is reneging on regulations requiring schools to serve healthier foods:

Education Minister Nick Gibb has told MPs all new academies will not have to stick to tough rules limiting the fat, salt and sugar content in dinners…when asked if academies would have to comply with nutritional standards for school meals…Some existing academies are required to comply with these standards through their funding agreements.  However, new academies will not be required to comply with nutritional standards for school meals. They will be free to promote healthy eating and good nutrition as they see fit.

Oh.  Voluntary guidelines.  We know all about those.

As a disappointed Jamie Oliver puts it, as he watches his work undone: “This will take us back to the days of junk food vending machines in schools, and Turkey Twizzlers on the menu.”

Aug 14 2010

Two more analyses of S. 510 to ponder

Yesterday, I posted comments from the Consumers Federation of America about the latest version of S.510. With luck, the Senate will vote to pass this bill in September and will reconcile its version with the House bill passed a year ago.  Here are two comments based on Senator Harkins’ staff analyses:

1.  The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) says that the latest version of the bill includes these improvements (my emphasis):

  • The amendment sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pertaining to farms that engage in value-added processing or that co-mingle product from several farms.  It will provide the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the authority to either exempt farms engaged in low or no risk processing or co-mingling activities from new regulatory requirements or to modify particular regulatory requirements for such farming operations. Included within the purview of the amendment are exemptions or flexibilities with respect to requirements within S. 510 for food safety preventative control plans and FDA on-farm inspections.
  • The amendments sponsored by Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) to reduce unnecessary paperwork and excess regulation.  The Bennet language pertains to both the preventative control plan and the produce standards sections of the bill.  FDA is instructed to provide flexibility for small processors including on-farm processing, to minimize the burden of compliance with regulations, and to minimize the number of different standards that apply to separate foods.  FDA will also be prohibited from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire consultants to write food safety plans or to identify, implement, certify or audit those plans. With respect to produce standards, FDA will also be given the discretion to develop rules for categories of foods or for mixtures of foods rather than necessarily needing to have a separate rule for each specific commodity or to regulate specific crops if the real food safety issue involved mixtures only.
  • The amendment sponsored by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to provide for a USDA-delivered competitive grants program for food safety training for farmers, small processors and wholesalers.  The training projects will prioritize small and mid-scale farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and small food processors and wholesalers. The program will be administered by USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture.  As is the case for all of the provisions in S. 510, funding for the bill and for this competitive grants program will happen through the annual agriculture appropriations bill process.
  • The effort championed by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against “animal encroachment” of farms is also in the manager’s package.  It will require FDA to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and wildlife habitat on farms.
  • An amendment proposed by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to amend the traceability and recordkeeping section of the bill that will exempt food that is direct marketed from farmers to consumers or to grocery stores and exempt food that has labeling that preserves the identity of the farm that produced the food. The amendment also prevents FDA from requiring any farm from needing to keep records beyond the first point of sale when the product leaves the farm, except in the case of farms that co-mingle product from multiple farms, in which case they must also keep records one step back as well as one step forward.

2.  Bill Marler provides additional information:

Here is Chairman Harkin’s mark-up and section by section summary – this is the version of the bill voted out of the HELP Committee in mid-November and here is the most recently approved version as of last night.

Senator Feinstein has not released a copy of her BPA amendment — however, she is now saying it will only be baby bottles, sippy cups, baby food, and infant formula.

Here’s the Senator Tester amendments as they were introduced in April (I’m sure the version they’re working with now looks quite different after months of negotiations, but the principle is likely the same).

Marler also points out that only foods that are already regulated by FDA will be subject to S. 510, as its Section 403 maintains the existing firewall between FDA and USDA-regulated foods and agricultural products.

Keep reading.  This is critically important legislation to help the FDA ensure food safety.

Aug 13 2010

S. 510 inches toward passage

It looks like S. 510, the Senate’s version of the food safety bill passed by the House a year ago, may actually have a chance of passing. According to summaries by Bill Marler and by Food Safety News, there is now bipartisan agreement on the bill’s key provisions:

Hazard analysis and preventive controls: Requires facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food to have in place risk-based preventive control plans to address identified hazards and prevent adulteration, and gives FDA access to these plans and relevant documentation. These requirements do not apply to restaurants or most farms.

Imports: Requires importers to verify the safety of foreign suppliers and imported food.  Allows FDA to require certification for high-risk foods, and to deny entry to a food that lacks certification or that is from a foreign facility that has refused U.S. inspectors.  Creates a voluntary qualified importer program in which importers with a certification of safety for their foreign supplier can pay a user-free for expedited entry into the U.S.

Inspection: Gives FDA additional resources to hire new inspectors and requires FDA to inspect food facilities more frequently.

Mandatory Recall Authority: Gives FDA the authority to order a mandatory recall of a food product if the food will cause serious adverse health consequences or death and a company has failed to voluntarily recall the product upon FDA’s request.

Regulatory Balance: Achieves new requirements without being excessively burdensome.  The legislation provides training for facilities to come into compliance with new safety requirements and includes special accommodations for small businesses and farms.  It does not interfere with current organic farming practices and does not change the current definition of farm under the 2002 Bioterrorism Act.  Any farm that is not currently required to register with FDA will not be required to do so under this legislation.

Surveillance: Enhances surveillance systems to detect foodborne illnesses.

Traceback: Requires FDA to establish a pilot project to test and evaluate new methods for rapidly tracking foods in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak.

Increased FDA Resources: Increases funding for FDA’s food safety activities through increased appropriations and targeted fees for food facility reinspection, food recalls, and the voluntary qualified importer program.

Carole Tucker Foreman of Consumers Federation of America (CFA), sends its statement on the bill.  CFA, like many others, is disappointed in some of the bill’s provisions but supports it because the FDA so desperately needs more authority and resources:

Consumer Federation of America commends the Senate HELP Committee for reaching a bipartisan agreement that should remove any further barriers to bringing S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, to the floor of the Senate in early September.   At a time when bipartisanship is in short supply, this is a notable achievement.

We are extremely disappointed that the Senate, in order to reduce the estimated cost of the legislation, reduced the frequency of FDA inspections of food processing facilities. Regular and frequent inspection is a basic part of prevention.

Inspectors are cops on the beat—checking to be sure that corporate process controls are operating as intended.  Even the most sophisticated and well intentioned company can make a mistake and history shows some plants are careless and not concerned with protecting their customers.

CFA advocated increasing the number of inspections that were required in the bill reported by the Committee last year.  Instead, the Senate has reduced the frequency to once every five years for high risk plants and once every seven years for other facilities.

Despite our dismay with this glaring weakness, CFA supports passage of  S. 510 and will encourage our members to communicate with their Senators urging its passage.  We believe that establishing an affirmative legal mandate for FDA to prevent foodborne illness will help save lives.

The current version of the Senate bill is available for scrutiny.  If passed, it still needs to go to the House for reconciliation of the two versions.  So it is still interim and worth reading carefully.  Read it and decide for yourself what it says and is likely to mean.

Aug 12 2010

Fix the farm bill so it promotes public health

The Farmers Legal Action Group has a new report out analyzing the 2008 Farm Bill and explaining what needs to happen to bring our agricultural policies in line with public health policies.  The report has a title that warms my heart, “Planting the Seeds for Public Health.” Its subtitle: “How the farm bill can help farmers to produce and distribute healthy foods.”

Its main findings:

  • Fruit and vegetable farmers lack a safety net to protect them from natural disasters in a manner comparable to programs that are available for farmers producing major commodity crops, such as corn, soybeans and wheat;
  • Crop insurance, disaster assistance, and loan and conservation programs are not designed to address the unique characteristics of fruit and vegetable production and marketing; and
  • Nutrition program expenditures are not adequately directed to ensure children, including those from low-income households, receive healthy food.

And one key observation: many of the recommended changes could be made by the USDA without the need for additional direction from Congress.  Translation: No need to wait until 2012 when the Farm Bill comes up again.

USDA could do a lot of this NOW!

Aug 11 2010

More about imaginative food marketing

The Pop-Tarts store in Times Square (see yesterday’s post) is only the loudest example of innovative food marketing to come out recently.  I’ve been collecting more subtle examples:

Using social media (and getting customers to pay for it): For 99 cents to I-tunes, you can buy an app that gives nutritional information for products at Jack-in-the-Box or at McDonald’s.   As Mark Douglas of Culinate explains: “They want $0.99 to tell you what you probably already know… Watch Out!”

Co-opting health professionals: Michele Simon (author of Appetite for Profit) writes on AlterNet about how PepsiCo hires distinguished health professionals and experts to give a company that sells snack foods and soft drinks an aura of health and wellness.

Co-opting professional organizations: Lisa Young (the Portion Teller) points me to a Webinar on August 25 run by the industry-sponsored School Nutrition Foundation and the Milk Processor Education Program on what is surely an urgent issue for sellers of chocolate (sugar-added) milk: “Keep flavored milk from dropping out of school!”

Deflecting attention from diet: Lisa sends another Webinar notice for September 14, this one for “skills & tools to enhance change in physical activity behavior.”  Its sponsor?

The Coca-Cola Company’s Beverage Institute For Health & Wellness is a Continuing Professional Education (CPE) Accredited Provider with the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) – provider number BF001.

Plain, old-fashioned lobbying: Food Safety News has a nifty report on food company lobbying expenditures (huge), mainly on the food safety bill but also on many other bills that might affect labeling or sales of food products.

I reviewed these methods in my book, Food Politics. A revised edition came out in 2007.  Not much change, alas.

Addition: Attracting school kids: Michele Simon sends this Pepsi partnership with Hy-Vee stores in Iowa.  Parents buy five Pepsi products; Pepsi buys backpacks for their kids.

Aug 10 2010

The latest in food marketing: Pop-Tarts in Times Square

You have to see New York City’s latest tourist attraction: a Pop-Tarts World Store in Times Square.  OK, M&Ms has a fabulous light display.  OK, Hershey’s has an enormous store filled with chocolate tchotchkes.  But Pop-Tarts?   I think it’s weird to turn Times Square into a food court (with tee shirts) but hey, I’m not in the junk food business.

Kellogg must think it’s worth the exorbitant cost of store frontage in the middle of New York City.  According to the account in the New York Times, a Kellogg spokesman said:

Our long-term hope is to strengthen the bonding between the brand and the consumer, and that has great benefits for the brand.

Others explain that “Just a presence in Times Square can help a company…It [is] a way to project an image of growth and maturity.”

I had no idea that bonds between brands and consumers needed strengthening.  It never occurred to me that Times Square projects an image of maturity.

OK, it’s cute that Kellogg named Pop-Tarts after Pop Art, but Pop-Tarts as a tourist destination?

Check it out and let me know!

Update, August 12: Here is Mark Bittman’s review.

Update, August 16: And here is CNN’s take on it (I’m interviewed, briefly).

Aug 9 2010

Supplements in trouble—again!

You have to pity the poor supplement industry.  It is taking a real beating these days.

First, the Government Accountability Office told a Senate committee that the dietary supplement industry routinely uses “questionable and deceptive” marketing practices and gives potentially dangerous advice.

USA Today agreed.  In an editorial, it noted that:

Industry spokesmen have gotten away for years with minimizing all this as just the work of a handful of bad apples. Lobbyists say responsible makers and distributors should not be burdened with more government oversight. But the problem is big enough that another GAO study last year found nearly 1,000 reports in a 10-month period of specific health problems linked to supplements, including nine deaths, 64 life-threatening illnesses and 234 hospitalizations. Nobody knows how many other incidents never got reported.

In defense, an industry spokesman blamed the FDA:

As FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein acknowledged last week, DSHEA strikes the right balance, but FDA needs to do more to maintain that equilibrium. FDA must use the tools it was given under the law to address the issues that hurt the credibility of responsible companies and undermine consumer confidence.

And now, the September issue of Consumer Reports list the “Dirty Dozen” supplements that research links to nasty problems such as cancer, coma, heart problems, kidney damage, liver damage, or death: aconite, bitter orange, chaparral, colloidal silver, coltsfoot, comfrey, country mallow, germanium, greater celandine, kava, lobelia, and yohimbe.  The FDA has been warning about the ones shown in red for years.  But these and the others are still on the market.

Among other suggestions, Consumer Reports advises:

Beware of these categories. Supplements for weight loss, sexual enhancement, and bodybuilding have been problematic, the FDA said, because some contain steroids and prescription drugs.

Don’t assume more is better. It’s possible to overdose even on beneficial vitamins and minerals. Avoid any product that claims to contain “megadoses.”

Report problems. Let your doctor know if you experience any symptoms after you start taking a supplement…do it yourself at www.fda.gov/medwatch or by calling 800-332-1088.

Research in the right places. Be skeptical about claims made for supplements in ads, on TV and by sales staff. If a claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Consumer Reports provides online links for assessing supplements at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org.

Yes, I know half the U.S. adult population takes supplements and nearly everyone who takes them claims to feel better as a result.  The science, however, consistently produces reasons for skepticism, if not caution.

I discuss this discrepancy in Food Politics. Take a look and decide for yourself!

Aug 8 2010

Why public health matters

I received a couple of requests to define “public health” last week from readers Anthro and MA.  As MA puts it,

Maybe…we need a definition of “public health.”  I view my health as a private matter, my food choices as a private matter, and an expression of my freedom.  To me, public health is not an individual concern, it’s a corporate (group) concern – government, schools, companies, farms, etc.  Public health includes things like properly working sewer systems, sanitation, water quality, and air quality.   Marion – can we get a definition of ‘public health’ from you, as Anthro suggested?

My definition of public health isn’t much different from mainstream definitions.  But to me, public health is a critically important expression of democracy, and the antithesis of  a “corporate” concern.  Public health approaches promote good health for everyone, not just those who can afford it or are educated enough to make appropriate choices.

A standard definition such as the one given in Wikipedia, says that public health is about promoting health and preventing disease through societal choices and efforts.   Public health deals with health at the population level, rather than at the level of individual personal responsibility, and it emphasizes prevention rather than treatment.

In my experience teaching public health nutrition, the concept of public health is sometimes hard for people to grasp, especially since populations are made up of individuals. I like to explain it this way: public health makes it easier for individuals to make healthful food choices for themselves and their families. Or to put it another way, public health makes better food choices the default.

The classic example of a public health intervention is water chlorination.  As individuals, we could all boil our own drinking water to kill harmful organisms but this requires us to have stoves, pots, and fuel, and to know how to boil water.  For many people, having to do this would be an intolerable burden and responsibility.  Instead, some societies choose to take public health measures to ensure that drinking water is safe at the tap for everyone.

Other food examples: milk Pasteurization, banning of trans fats, food labeling.

The particular example that elicited the question has to do with food safety.   We, as a society, could insist that food producers take measures to ensure that their products are free of harmful microorganisms (public health), or we could teach individuals how to manage food safety in the home or restaurants and cook foods properly (personal responsibility).

Preventing obesity is another example: We could, as a society, take measures to make it easier for people to eat more healthfully and be more active (public health) or leave it up to individuals to do this for themselves (personal responsibility). Many of the arguments about suggested public health measures to prevent obesity are about how best to balance society’s needs with individual rights.  But as I see it, the proposals aim to tweak societal choices that have already been made: which crops receive farm subsidies, for example.

An exceptionally clear example is how to avoid toxic levels of methylmercury in fish.   We can teach pregnant women to recognize which fish are high in methylmercury and hope this works well enough so they will avoid buying such fish (personal responsibility) or we could–as a society–require coal-burning power plants to scrub their emissions so mercury doesn’t get into ocean or lake waters in the first place (public health).

Obviously, both public health and individual approaches are necessary, but the overall objective of public health is to make it much, much easier for individuals to make better health choices without having to think about them.

Because public health applies to everyone, it is essentially democratic.   And that’s one of the reasons why I think it matters so much.

Page 179 of 327« First...177178179180181...Last »