Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 6 2009

Pew Charitable Trusts vs. Animal Drugs

If you take the Washington, DC Metro this month, be sure to look for the posters at the Capitol South and Union Station stops (the ones closest to the Senate and House staff offices).  The ads are part of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, aimed at reducing the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.  Take a look at who is “hogging our antibiotics” and encourage your representatives to do so too.

Jun 5 2009

Pediatricians say: let kids move!

I usually don’t say much about the physical activity side of the obesity equation, mainly because overeating calories is so much greater a contributor to weight gain.  But don’t get me wrong.  I favor “move more” as much as “eat less,” especially for kids.

I’m dismayed by how kids these days are basically under house arrest.  So, apparently, is the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has just produced a thought-provoking report about how to create a kid-friendlier “built environment” (public health-speak for sidewalks, playgrounds, and the other ways cities are constructed to discourage physical activity).

My favorite statistic from the report: In 1969, about 41% of kids walked to school on their own.  Today it is 13% on average and just 5% in some areas.

Try this for comparison: When I was 8 years old and living in Manhattan, I walked 6 blocks to school in the morning, came home for lunch, walked back to school after lunch, and then walked home, got my bicycle, and headed off to the park – unsupervised – and lived to tell about it.  I took subways – by myself – to piano lessons.  After school, I was sent out to play and expected to stay out until dinner time.

Well, society has changed and it is hard to imagine letting children so young do that today.  The question is what to do about it.  Pediatricians urge us to ask that question.  And about time, too.

Jun 4 2009

The latest functional foods!

Functional foods, you may recall, are those to which nutrients are added beyond those already in the foods.  The latest example from Unilever: calcium-enriched ice cream!  The philosophy: “better-for-you” foods will improve health.  Maybe, but is functional ice cream a good choice?

Functional foods differ from fortified foods, in which nutrients lost during processing are replaced.  The addition of iron to white flour, for example, replaces the iron lost during the milling of whole wheat.  Its replacement helps prevent iron-deficiency anemia.

So I suppose you can consider Kellogg’s new fiber-enriched cereals to be a form of fortification.  The PR people tell me  that adding fiber “is another example of our continued commitment to improving the nutrition credentials of our products to meet consumers’ needs and preferences.”  Their press release explains that Kellogg is doing this as a public service to improve kids’ nutrition: it is starting with Froot Loops.

What kind of fiber and how much?  Kellogg is a bit vague on these points, but says the fiber will be a combination of whole grain corn and oat flours and fibers.  Metamucil anyone?  And why don’t they just make whole grain cereals in the first place?

That’s why I keep thinking that functional foods are about marketing, not health.

Jun 3 2009

Bisphenol A (BPA) saga gets more complicated

Keeping up with BPA is a headache.  BPA, you may recall from previous posts, is an endocrine disrupter increasingly associated with developmental disorders in experimental animals and with heart disease and diabetes in humans.  Is it OK to feed infants out of plastic bottles or not?

A new study out of Harvard says that BPA leaches out of plastic bottles even when what is in them is cold.  This, according to the investigators, means that even more BPA will get out when bottles are heated, as is typical of infant formulas.

But European and British Food Standards Agencies say they see no reason to review their previous decision that BPA is safe at current usage levels.

In contrast, the FDA has just announced that it intends to take another look at its previous judgment that BPA is safe.  This action is viewed as evidence that the new FDA Commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, means it when she says the agency’s decisions will henceforth be based on science, not politics.

As for the politics: the chemical industry says Chicago’s ban on plastic baby bottles and sippy cups is scientifically absurd.  And another industry group firmly denies that it was involved in a disinformation campaign using pregnant women to promote the safety of BPA.

Expect more of the same while waiting for the results of the FDA’s ongoing research review.  And in the meantime, why not switch to glass bottles for infant feeding (or breast feed for that matter)?

Jun 2 2009

What’s up with Nutro pet foods?

I wish I could answer all the questions that come in under Feedback but the one from Sophie about the recent recall of Nutro pet foods is on my mind, not least because it is so mysterious.

Some history: As I discuss in Pet Food Politics, Nutro brands were caught up in the melamine recalls in 2007.  The company initially recalled several lines of dog and cat foods.  When owners reported animals sick from eating brands that had not been recalled, Nutro recalled others.  In the wake of that mess, the company was sold to Mars Petcare (yes, the maker of M&Ms) later that year.

The present fuss: Since then, more than 800 pet owners have complained to a website, ConsumerAffairs.com, that their pets got sick or died after eating Nutro products.  Consumer Affairs’ Lisa Wade McCormick followed up by contacting the FDA and filing a Freedom of Information Action (FOIA) to see what the agency had on consumer complaints about Nutro.  Someone at the FDA told her they were denying her FOIA request because Nutro was under investigation.  But then the FDA said it was not investigating Nutro.  But then, people who contacted Consumer Affairs said the FDA had talked to them about their sick pets. So was the FDA investigating Nutro or not?

While Consumer Affairs was trying to figure this out, Nutro announced its “voluntary” recall of dry cat foods, found to contain “incorrect levels of zinc and potassium…resulting from a production error by a US-based premix supplier.” Translation: The FDA does not have recall authority; all recalls are “voluntary.”   Zinc and potassium are essential minerals.  Vitamins and minerals in pet foods – or breakfast cereals for that matter – are added as  pre-manufactured mixes.

The Nutro press release says the company has had not gotten any consumer complaints about the recalled products but that cat owners should watch out for loss of appetite, refusal of food, weight loss, vomiting, or diarrhea.  These are precisely the symptoms that have been reported to Consumer Affairs over the last couple of years and that might be expected from zinc poisoning.

So how much zinc was in the pet food? The company press release did not give the amount of zinc found in its products.  Neither did the FDA.  The FDA announcement merely said that the premixes contained too much zinc and too little potassium.  Lisa McCormick, however, reports that levels of zinc in Nutro dog (not cat) foods were once found to contain 260 parts per million (ppm).  The AAFCO standard for zinc in cat foods is 75 ppm dry weight.  For dog food it is 150 ppm.

Would a level of 260 ppm be dangerous?  Nobody really knows.  According to the most recent National Research Council report, not enough information is available to establish a safe upper limit, but 260 ppm seems like it ought to be within tolerable limits.  But maybe it’s not?  For humans, the recommended intake level is about 10 mg/day with an upper limit of 40 mg/day.

So what is going on here?  In this, as in anything having to do with pets, I defer to Christie Keith, who writes about pets for petconnection.com and for the San Francisco Chronicle. In her recent column on the Nutro business, she lays out the issues as only she can do:

Call me crazy.  Call me a dreamer.  Call me a radical progressive liberal socialist.  Or instead, call the real FDA a failure as a watchdog on the American food supply – both human and animal – that it was created to protect…this was and is a story about the safety of Nutro foods…But I think there’s a much bigger story here.  The FDA works for us.  We pay its bills.  And it’s supposed to ensure the safety of the American food and drug supply for both people and animals…[The result is that] Nutro is left to mop up after a PR mess made all over the Internet, pet owners have no idea what to believe or what pet food to buy, and the FDA has nothing more to say.  We lose.  Our pets lose.  Even the pet food companies lose.  And that’s the story.

Let’s hope that the facts emerge soon.  In the meantime, a few conclusions seem clear.

For pet owners: Don’t buy recalled Nutro products for your pets (the list is in the press releases from Nutro and the FDA).  Insist that Nutro and every other pet food company give you information about what’s in the foods, how they know the amounts are correct, and what their test results show.

For pet food companies: Know your suppliers and test every every ingredient.  If you want your customers to trust your products, release the test results on your websites. 

For the FDA: Take pet foods seriously. I keep insisting that we only have one food supply, and it’s the same for animals, pets, and people.  If the melamine recalls taught us anything, it is that if something is wrong with pet foods, people foods will be in trouble too (recall: melamine in Chinese infant formulas).  And how about being more transparent about what you are doing?  That too might help instill trust.

For the government: How about funding some research on the dietary needs of dogs and cats.  The more we know about their nutrient needs, the more we will know about our own.

For everyone: Insist that the companies that make foods for people and pets tell you what is in their products, where the ingredients come from, whether they are testing, and what the results of those tests might be.

This is why pet food politics matter (and why I went to the trouble of writing a book about the melamine recalls).

May 30 2009

NYC celebrity sighting: The Obamas at Blue Hill!

One of the things about living in New York City is that you run into celebrities all the time and pay no attention.  As it happens, my partner and I were meeting Sidney Mintz and his wife tonight at my neighborhood restaurant, Blue Hill. We wondered why the street was blocked off, a huge crowd gathered at one end, and secret servicemen all over the place.

The Obamas!  At the next table!  Six feet away!  I can’t tell you what they ate because Dan Barber cooked for them.  But I saw the President pay the bill.

Turns out this was their promised night out, and the Republicans are already complaining that it cost the taxpayers too much.  From the applause in the restaurant when they were leaving, the picture-taking mob in front of the restaurant, and the crowds lining 6th Avenue, this is one expense nobody minds.   They looked they were having fun.  We did too.

And here they are dressed for Blue Hill and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

June 1 update: Obama Foodorama has some more details, as does the New York Times. And then there’s Frank Bruni’s complaint about the choice of restaurant.  Well, you had to be there.

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May 30 2009

My latest San Francisco Chronicle column: Gluten Intolerance

My once-every-three-weeks column for the San Francisco Chronicle is set up as a Q and A.  I don’t get many questions through the column, but the few that do come in are often quite challenging.  This one is from a school chef wondering how to deal with kids who might be gluten intolerant – and whether gluten intolerance is becoming more common.  Interesting questions!  Here’s what I had to say about them.  If you have questions about food and nutrition that you’d like me to answer, send them to food@sfchronicle.com (put Marion Nestle in the subject line).

May 29 2009

Washington State U. vs. Michael Pollan (and Bill Marler)

For days now, my e-mail inbox has been flooded with messages about the flap at Washington State University over Michael Pollan’s Ominivore’s Dilemma. The messages come from Bill Marler, the Seattle-based “food poisoning attorney” and blogger whose firm specializes in class action lawsuits on behalf of victims of foodborne illness.

This is a good story.  The university bought copies of Omnivore’s Dilemma to distribute to the freshman class (a common community-building exercise at universities these days).  Then, it decided not to give them out.  Could corporate pressure from Washington State agribusiness have had anything to with this decision? No, said the university; they just couldn’t afford to bring Pollan to the campus.

Marler called their bluff.  If it’s really about money, he said, he’d pony up.   The result: the event is back on.

But I’m curious.  Does it really cost $40,000 to get Pollan to travel from Berkeley to WSU?  Pollan says no.  I just hope Marler gets to keep the change and use it to help sick kids.

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