Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 25 2011

UK health agency: limit red and processed meats to 3 ounces a day

The UK Department of Health issued a warning today to eat less red and processed meat.

  • Red meat means beef, lamb and pork as well as minced meat and offal from these animals.
  • Processed meat means ham, bacon, luncheon meat, corned beef, salami, pâté, sausages and burgers.

The warning is based on a new report from the independent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN).  Its report evaluated the effects of iron on health. Because red meat is a primary source of dietary iron, the committee looked at evidence on the links between red meat and processed meats and bowel cancer.

The report concludes that the link “probably” exists and that:

Adults with relatively high intakes of red and processed meat (around 90 g/day or more) should consider reducing their intakes. A reduction to the UK population average for adult consumers (70 g/day cooked weight) would have little impact on the proportion of the adult population with low iron intakes.

How much is 90 grams?  It is only three ounces of cooked meat.

The UK Health Department advises:

  • People who eat a lot of red or processed meat – around 90g or more of cooked weight per day – are at greater risk of getting bowel cancer;
  • Cutting down to the UK average of 70g a day can help reduce the risk; and
  • This can be achieved by eating smaller portions or by eating red and processed meat less often.

The Department points out that cooked meat weighs about 70% of its uncooked weight (it has less water). So 3 ounces of cooked meat is equivalent to about 4 ounces of uncooked meat.

Expect to hear lots of reactions like “red meat can still be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy balanced diet.”

And where are the US Dietary Guidelines on the subject of red and processed meats?  Buried in euphemisms, alas:

  • Choose lean meats
  • Choose seafood instead of some meat
  • Reduce calories from solid fats

No wonder Americans are confused about diet and health.

Feb 24 2011

Closure (?) on Salmonella Saintpaul

The New England Journal of Medicine has just published a CDC report bringing the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak of 2008 to an apologetic close (for a quick rundown on the history of this incident, see my previous posts).

The investigation of this outbreak first implicated tomatoes, with devastating effects on the tomato industry.  As the paper concludes:

Although an epidemiologic association with raw tomatoes was identified early in this investigation, subsequent epidemiologic and microbiologic evidence implicated jalapeño and serrano peppers. This outbreak highlights the importance of preventing raw-produce contamination.

Yes it does.   Jalapeño and serrano peppers turn up in salsas and guacamoles.  These are mixtures of many ingredients that are often eaten with chips or prepared foods.  People have a hard time remembering whether they ate peppers or not, particularly when the peppers are chopped fine.  As the investigators explained:

This outbreak investigation highlights the recurring challenges of epidemiologic identification of ingredients in foods that are commonly consumed, rapid identification and investigation of local clusters, the need to continue exploring hypotheses during an ongoing outbreak, and produce tracing in the supply chain.

Traceback issues such as commingling, repacking, varying degrees of product documentation throughout the supply chain, difficulty in linking incoming with outgoing shipments to the next level in the distribution chain, and the complexity of the distribution chain continue to hinder product-tracing efforts….

In addition, an understanding of the mechanisms and ecologies that can lead to contamination of produce on farms and the institution of additional control measures from the source throughout the supply chain are critical for preventing similar outbreaks in the future.

In other words, we badly need farm-to-table safety controls for all foods, no exceptions.

But, as the accompanying editorial by Michael Osterholm explains,

The new law has a major shortcoming: dollars. There was no appropriation approved by the Congress for the act or authorization in the bill for the FDA to assess fees on the companies that it inspects. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that implementing this legislation would require $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2015….

Recent reports in the media calling this act “historic legislation” must be tempered by the reality that without the necessary resources, requiring the FDA to carry out the law’s required activities will be like trying to get blood out of a rock.

Blood out of a rock?  The House just passed a bill that would CUT the FDA’s food safety budget by $241 million.

Of course the FDA doesn’t need the funds.  After all, only 21% of the 1,500 people known to have gotten sick with Salmonella Saintpaul had to be hospitalized, and only 2 died.  And Salmonella Saintpaul is in foods that real Americans don’t eat anyway, like peppers with funny foreign names and alfalfa sprouts.

I used to say that Congress would never move on food safety until a close relative of a senior Senator became seriously ill with food poisoning.   Now I have to include a senior House member.

Feb 22 2011

Why the White House is soft on Walmart: afterthoughts

Not everyone liked Sam Kass’s speech as much as I did (see previous post) and I’ve been asked to expand on the idea that we need to pressure the White House to do more.  Here’s how I see the situation.

We live in an era when corporations run government.  You don’t believe this?  Take a look at the appalling events in Wisconsin.  Consider the implications of last year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, allowing corporations virtually unlimited funding of congressional election campaigns.

Election campaign funding is the root source of corruption in American government.   If corporations were not allowed to fund election campaigns, we might be able to elect legislators who are more interested in public health than corporate health.

The First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign aims to reduce childhood obesity.  This, in itself, is fundamentally anti-corporate.  Why?  Because fixing obesity means eating less and eating better, and both are very, very bad for business.  And they are especially bad for the corporations that make highly profitable junk foods—snacks, sodas, and the like—and for retailers who display these products on supermarket shelves.

From the perspective of the White House, the food business is not going away.  If the Obama administration is not going to be perceived as anti-business, it has to work with corporations.  But what can food corporations really do to help kids eat more healthfully?

I worried about this question when I returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos a few years ago.  There, I met high-level executives of food corporations and realized that I needed a clear, unambiguous agenda for them.  But because I think people would be healthier if they ate mostly unprocessed foods, and I’m not much impressed by small nutritional tweakings of junk foods, I had a hard time thinking of positive things they could do.

The only agenda items I could think of were negatives: stop marketing junk food, stop marketing to kids,  stop marketing junk food as health food, stop attacking critics, etc.  Negatives won’t sell.

I think Mrs. Obama’s choice of childhood obesity as her First Lady’s Cause was a courageous decision.   In the current corporate context, the accomplishments listed by Mr. Kass add up to something meaningful.  The First Lady is doing what she can.  And let’s face it: nobody else in that position ever has.  Never have issues of food and nutrition been made so legitimate.  For that alone, she deserves thanks.

If the Obamas think they have to work with business, they have to work with Walmart—it’s the 800-pound food gorilla.  In theory, if Walmart tweaks food products, reduces the price of healthier food options, sources lower cost fruits and vegetables, and moves stores into inner cities, the net result will be healthier choices for Walmart customers.  In practice, we have to wait and see.

The White House must think these potential gains are worth the cost of the nose-holding they have to do about Walmart’s labor and business practices.  Nose-holding is the price of getting things done at that level.

I am in the privileged position of not having to make those kinds of compromises (thank you, NYU).

It is not an accident that Mr. Kass’s riff began with “parents told us.”  The First Lady cannot budge without substantial popular support and pressure.  If we think she is in a position to do any good at all for the movement to reverse childhood obesity and improve the food system, we have to let her know what we’d like her to try to do—loudly and repeatedly.

So maybe the First Lady’s—and Sam Kass’s—next speech will begin: “Everyone who cares about how our food is produced and consumed told us….”

Maybe I’m overly optimistic (it’s my nature), but I still see Mrs. Obama’s efforts as an opportunity.  We ought to be using it to push for what we think is right.

Feb 21 2011

Sam Kass’s speech to the International Association of Culinary Professionals

Sam Kass, White House chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives gave the keynote address to members of the The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) at its New York City Regional Conference on Friday.

The IACP is much more than an organization of cooks.  Every member I talked to is engaged in some incredible farming, gardening, school, or other kids’ project, each more exciting than the next.

Kass spoke to an audience of people who care deeply about food, cooking, health, and kids, and eager to hear what he had to say.  Me too.

The core of his speech was a review of the accomplishments of the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, which has just completed its first year.   These, in sum, are considerable:

Over this past year, we’ve seen the first signs of a fundamental shift in how we live and eat.

We’ve seen changes at every level of our society—from classrooms to boardrooms to the halls of Congress.

We have begun to see this change because people from all over the country, parents and teachers, doctors and small business owners, have started demanding change.

…Parents asked for more fresh, nutritious food in communities.  So we’re working to bring more grocery stores into underserved areas.

Parents wanted healthier, more affordable options on those grocery store shelves.  So we collaborated with food companies and retailers to provide healthier products….

Parents asked for more information about the food you buy for your kids.  And today, we’re seeing better, clearer labels on beverage cans….

Parents asked for better food in your kids’ schools—the kind of balanced meals they are trying to make at home.  So we’re working to put salad bars in 6,000 schools across the country.  Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, historic legislation that will provide healthier school meals to millions of American children.

Parents asked for healthier communities that can sustain healthy families.  And through Let’s Move Cities and Towns, 500 mayors have committed to tackling obesity in their communities….

Parents asked for practical, affordable, real-life advice to keep kids healthy.  So we launched a public service campaign and a website—letsmove.gov—with helpful tips on exercise and nutrition….

If we can do all this in the first year, just imagine what we’ll achieve next year and the year after that….

These kinds of changes will not come easily….There will certainly be many roadblocks and setbacks.  But we need to keep working to break through and work in a collaborative way.

Here’s the speech in its entirety. It may sound speech-written and not overwhelming, but consider the context:  This is the first time food, nutrition, and health have gotten anywhere near this kind of attention at that level of government (at least, food writer Laura Shapiro tells me, since the time of Eleanor Roosevelt).

For the First Lady to take on these issues is truly extraordinary.  Mrs. Obama has no legislated power whatsoever.   She only has the power of leadership and persuasion.

That the kind of changes she is trying to make will not come easily is a breathtaking understatement.  The roadblocks are formidable.   Mr. Kass made it abundantly clear that the White House is trying to do what it can, and then some.

His speech was moving and inspiring.  It’s up to us to cheer them on in every way we can, and also to keep the pressure on to do even more.

Feb 19 2011

American Heart Association says “I ♥ beef”!

The Beef Board, the USDA-managed checkoff program for marketing beef, proudly announces its new partnership with the American Heart Association (AHA).  The Beef Board gets its money from a compulsory tax on cattle ranchers computed every time they sell an animal.  Evidently, the money is well spent.

The AHA will put its HeartCheck symbol on three cuts of lean beef:

  • Boneless Top Sirloin Petite Roast (select grade)
  • Top Sirloin Filet (select grade)
  • Top Sirloin Kabob (select grade)

A member of the Beef Board says: “”We are extremely thrilled to receive the American Heart Association certification because, for consumers, it represents the independent voice of a trusted health organization.”

I’ll bet they are.

Today’s quiz: How much money is the Beef Board paying the AHA to use its CheckMark logo?

I hope it’s a lot more than what the AHA gets (or used to get) for putting its check mark on sugary cereals.  This was $4,500 per product when I updated Food Politics in 2007.  After all, sugary cereals don’t have any saturated fat or cholesterol so they must be heart healthy, no?

Ah partnerships and alliances.  You have to love them.  How will the Beef Board use the HeartCheck?  With an I ♥ Beef  campaign, of course.  Fat content unspecified.

Feb 18 2011

Michael Taylor goes international

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, gave a talk in London yesterday at a meeting of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GSFI).

GSFI, for the policy wonks among you, is a project of the Paris-based Consumer Goods Forum (formerly CIES), which brings together CEO-level food industry executives to discuss topics of mutual interest—a World Economic Forum for food companies, as it were.

I’ve given several talks at these meetings over the years, presumably because the organizers like to stir up some controversy once in a while.

Mr. Taylor’s speech, which you can read here in its entirety, does not seem particularly controversial—unless you think that making business responsible for ensuring food safety is controversial:

For those of you who live and work in the European Union countries, imported food is a fact of daily life.

And many emerging economies recognize that food exports can help drive their economic growth.

It is for these reasons – high public expectations and expanding trade in food – that the effort to improve food safety and to build prevention in from farm to table is a global movement…and is good business.

It is a global movement that, very importantly, recognizes that the primary responsibility for prevention rests with business – with those who produce, process, import, and market food.

Consumers certainly have a role to play as food handlers and preparers.

And, of course, government plays a vital role in providing scientific leadership, setting standards for effective prevention of food safety problems, and ensuring through inspection and other means that those standards are understood and met.

But everything we do to improve food safety rests on the foundation of the food industry fulfilling its duty to do everything it reasonably can to make food safe.

FoodSafetyNews has more details on what the meeting was about.   Taylor’s speech is a sign that the FDA is on the job.

Feb 17 2011

The Lancet on the UK’s anti-food policy

It’s a slow food news week (relatively) so I’m getting caught up on things I meant to post but didn’t.  I think this editorial from last November’s Lancet is worth a look, even now.
McPolicy: bringing you the Big Mac society

If you were a UK Health Secretary faced with soaring rates of obesity, alcohol misuse, and diet-related diseases, what would you do? Were you to take an evidence-based approach, you might consider minimum pricing per unit of alcohol and restrictions on its availability. You might look at toughening the regulation of how the least healthy foods are marketed to children.

You could even demand that manufacturers reformulate their least healthy products to meet minimum nutritional standards. Or you could, if your name was Andrew Lansley, dismiss all of the above and instead invite representatives of McDonald’s, PepsiCo, and the drinks giant Diageo among others, to submit their policy suggestions on how best to deal with the UK’s public-health crises for a forthcoming governmental white paper.

After the initial surprise, it can still take a while for the bizarre reality to sink in—that the companies who have profited the most from the epidemics of obesity and alcohol misuse should now be responsible for setting the agenda on public health simply beggars belief.

…The creeping influence of corporate power on public policy is not news to anyone in the UK, but the breathtaking speed and scale by which the UK coalition Government is embracing the agenda of business at the expense of the health of the electorate is an unwelcome novelty. By putting the interests of big business at the heart of public-health policy, Lansley is ensuring that the UK’s big society will not be shedding the pounds any time soon.

The Lancet is a British medical journal with unusual and highly commendable editorial interests in international public health.  I’m happy to see it take on questions about the role of corporations in obesity.  The British Food Standards Agency was doing a good job of trying to institute policy approaches to obesity prevention, but these are not popular with corporations.  Recall: eating less is very bad for business.

And this kind of resistance to policy approaches is not just a British or European problem.  Our corporations also prefer what they do to be voluntary. So this is a cautionary tale.

Feb 16 2011

More doom and gloom about world food prices

Everyone seems to be worried about world food prices these days, apparently for good reason.

According to the World Bank, rising prices have pushed 44 million more people into poverty. Its Food Price Watch report for February does not contain much good news.

The USDA is projecting equally bad news for the prices of agricultural commodities.  These are expected to reach record levels through 2020.

Time Magazine says biofuels are a big factor in rising food prices.

And the United Nations is warning that climate change is the ultimate driver of this problem as well as other causes of world instability.

The good news is that all of this leaves plenty of things for food advocates to work on.  Get busy!

Page 179 of 345« First...177178179180181...Last »