Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 24 2011

Forget FDA. Grocery trade groups to do their own “better-for-you” logos

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) are announcing their “Nutrition Keys” plan for front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labels.  Their member companies have agreed to display calories and percent of saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium, per serving, on the front of product packages.

So far, so good.

But they also will be displaying up to eight “positives,” nutrients that are supposed to be good for you.  They say they will be using some kind of design similar to what some companies are using now, only with “positives” added.

Note: this illustration comes from Mars (the company, not the planet).  It is not what GMA and FMI will necessarily use.

Let me repeat what I wrote last October when GMA and FMI first said they intended to do this:

Forget the consumer-friendly rhetoric.

There is only one explanation for this move: heading off the FDA’s Front-of-Package (FOP) labeling initiatives.

In October, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released the first of its FDA-sponsored reports on FOP labels.  Based on research on consumer understanding of food labels and other considerations, the IOM committee strongly recommended that FOP symbols only list calories, sodium, trans fat, and saturated fat.

This led William Neuman of the New York Times to summarize the IOM approach as: “Tell us how your products are bad for us.”

GMA and FMI would much rather label their products with all the things that are good about them, like added vitamins, omega-3s, and fiber.  If they have to do negatives, they prefer “no trans fat” or “no cholesterol.”

What they especially do not want is for the FDA to impose “traffic-light” symbols.  These U.K. symbols, you may recall from previous posts, discourage consumers from buying anything labeled in red, and were so strongly opposed by the food industry that they caused the undoing of the British Food Standards Agency.

GMA and FMI, no doubt, are hoping the same thing will happen to the FDA.

At the moment, the FDA is waiting for the IOM’s second report.  This one, due in a few months, will advise the FDA about what to do about FOP labels—again based on research.  Couldn’t GMA and FMI wait?

From what I’ve been hearing, GMA and FMI could not care less about the IOM or FDA.  This is what they had to do to get member companies to agree.  They say the new labels will go on about 70% of branded products by next year.  They also say they will spend $50 million on public education.

How this will play out in practice remains to be seen.  You can bet that plenty of highly processed foods will qualify for “positives,” just like they did with the industry-initiated Smart Choices logo, may it rest in peace.

As I said in October: This move is all the evidence the FDA needs for mandatory FOP labels.   GMA and FMI have just demonstrated that the food industry will not willingly label its processed foods in ways that help the public make healthier food choices.

Let’s hope the GMA/FMI scheme flunks the laugh test and arouses the interest of city and state attorneys general—just as the Smart Choices program did.

The official announcement is coming this afternoon.  Stay tuned.

Addition: Scott Obenshaw, Director of Communications for GMA files the following clarification:

1.)     In addition to the information regarding calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content, the Nutrition Keys icon on some products will display information about two “nutrients to encourage.”  The two nutrients to encourage that may appear on some products as part of the Nutrition Keys icon must come from the following list: potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and also protein.  These “nutrients to encourage” can only be placed on a package if the product has more than 10% of the daily value per serving of the nutrient and meets the FDA requirements for a “good source” nutrient content claim.

2.)     Transfat is not part of the label – only calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content.

Let’s give GMA and FMI lots of credit for replacing the IOM’s recommendation for trans fat with sugars.  Trans fats are heading out of the food supply and consumers want to know about sugars.  So that’s an improvement.  And two positives might not overwhelm the so-called negatives.  But I’m eager to see what the design really looks like and will report as soon as it is released.

Jan 23 2011

My NPR comments on Walmart

I’ve been asked to provide a link to my NPR comments on the Walmart announcementHere it is.

I was also interested to read what Dan Flynn, the editor of FoodSafetyNews, just said about it.

Enjoy!

Jan 21 2011

Eating Liberally: What about those smarmy Monsanto ads?

Every now and then, Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman, aka kat, writes an “Ask Marion,” this one titled, “Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Is Monsanto’s Warm & Fuzzy Farmer Campaign Just A Snow Job?”

2011-01-21-Farmer.jpg

KT: Now that the Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, too (happy birthday, Citizens United!), Monsanto is apparently out to put a friendly, slightly weatherbeaten, gently grizzled face on industrial agriculture (see above photo, taken at a DC bus stop just outside USDA headquarters.)

This guy looks an awful lot like Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, which seems only fitting since Agribiz may be helping to create a 21st century Dust Bowl.

After decades of boasting about how fossil-fuel intensive industrial agriculture has made it possible for far fewer farmers to produce way more food, Monsanto is now championing the power of farming to create jobs and preserve land. Does this attempt by a biotech behemoth to wrap itself in populist plaid flannel give you the warm and fuzzies, or just burn you up?

Dr. Nestle: This is not a new strategy for Monsanto. Half of my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (University of California Press, 2010), is devoted to the politics of food biotechnology. I illustrated it with a Monsanto advertisement (Figure 17, page 182). The caption may amuse you:

In 2001, the biotechnology industry’s public relations campaign featured the equivalent of the Marlboro Man. Rather than cigarettes, however, this advertisement promotes the industry’s view of the ecological advantages of transgenic crops (reduced pesticide use, soil conservation), and consequent benefits to society (farm preservation). In 2002, a series of elegant photographs promoted the benefits of genetically modified corn, soybeans, cotton, and papaya.

Last year, Monsanto placed ads that took its “we’re for farmers” stance to another level:

9 billion people to feed. A changing climate. NOW WHAT?
Producing more. Conserving more. Improving farmers’ lives.
That’s sustainable agriculture.
And that’s what Monsanto is all about.

That’s sustainable agriculture? I’ll bet you didn’t know that. Now take a look at the Monsanto website–really, you can’t make this stuff up:

If there were one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers.

Billions of people depend upon what farmers do. And so will billions more. In the next few decades, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the past 10,000 years – combined.

It is our purpose to work alongside farmers to do exactly that.

To produce more food.

To produce more with less, conserving resources like soil and water.

And to improve lives.

We do this by selling seeds, traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

Face it. We have two agricultural systems in this country, both claiming to be good for farmers and both claiming to be sustainable. One focuses on local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable in the sense of replenishing what gets taken out of the soil. The other is Monsanto, for which sustainable means selling seeds (and not letting farmers save them), patented traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

This is about who gets to control the food supply and who gets to choose. Too bad the Monsanto ads don’t explain that.

Jan 20 2011

What are we to think about Walmart’s healthy food initiatives?

In a press conference attended by Michelle Obama, Walmart today said it will do five things:

  • Work with processed food suppliers to reduce sodium, sugars, and trans fat in hundreds of foods by 2015
  • Develop its own front-of-package seal to identify healthier products
  • Make healthier processed foods more affordable
  • Put a new, different kind of Walmart store in low-income “food deserts”
  • Increase charitable support for nutrition programs

I’ve been on the phone all day with interviewers, most of them totally focused on the first two.  Walmart has established its own nutrition criteria for judging its own products.  These seem generous and not particularly challenging, and this is just what Pepsi, Kraft, and other companies have been doing.  These criteria are only slightly better.

The idea that Walmart is going to do its own front-of-package label to identify those products is particularly annoying.  They are doing this just when the Institute of Medicine and FDA are trying to establish research-based criteria for front-of-package labels.  So here is one more company trying to preempt FDA regulations.

When I asked Walmart representatives about this, they told me that the FDA moves slowly and the public needs this information now.  Sorry.  I don’t buy that.

The next two initiatives are much more interesting and have much greater potential to do some good.  Walmart says it will price better-for-you processed foods lower than the regular versions and will develop its own supply chain as a means to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  This sounds good, but what about the downside?  Will this hurt small farmers?   Walmart didn’t provide many details and we will have to see how this one plays out.

And then there is the one about putting smaller Walmart stores into inner cities in order to solve the problem of “food deserts.”  This also sounds good—and it’s about time groceries moved into inner cities—but is this just a ploy to get Walmart stores into places where they haven’t been wanted?  Will the new stores drive mom-and-pop stores out of business?  Here too, Walmart is short on details.

None of the reporters seems to be connecting these initiatives with Walmart’s dismal history of low wages and poor working conditions.  Will these change for the better?

Walmart is not a social service agency.  It is a business and a hugely successful one.  It outsells the largest grocery chains in America by a factor of two.   Today’s New York Times says that 16% of U.S. sales of Kraft products are at Walmart stores.  PepsiCo admits to 10%.   These are huge numbers.

Walmart can get whatever it wants from suppliers—and even get Mrs. Obama to endorse its actions.  That’s power.

Whether these initiatives will do anything for health remains to be seen.  They will certainly put pressure on other suppliers and stores to tweak their products. I don’t think that’s good enough.

I’ll say it again: a better-for-you processed food is not necessarily a good choice.

That’s why I think the most important of these initiatives is the one to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  That could make a real difference.

Jan 19 2011

Surprise! Most “better-for-you” kids’ foods aren’t

The Oakland-based Prevention Institute has just released its new research report: Claiming Health: Front-of-Package Labeling of Children’s Food.  The report summarizes the Institute’s investigation of whether kids’ foods with “better-for-you” front-of-package labels meet dietary recommendations and nutrition standards.

Bottom line: they don’t.

Researchers bought 58 kids’ food products made by companies who have promised to meet certain nutritional criteria.  All had front-of-package labels that indicate healthier options.

The researchers measured the contents of these foods against a fairly standard—and quite generous—set of nutrient criteria.

The criteria allow products to have up to 25% of the calories from added sugars, up to 480 mg of sodium, and as little as 1.25 grams of fiber per serving.

Even so, the data show that:

  • 84% of the study products could not meet one or more of the nutrient criteria
  • 57% of the study products were high in sugar
  • 53% of the study products were low in fiber
  • 93% of cereals were high in sugar and 60% were low in fiber
  • 36% of prepared foods and meals were high in sodium, 24% were high in saturated fat, and 28% were low in fiber
  • 90% of snack foods were high in sugar, and 90% were low in fiber

Nutrient criteria make it easy to game the system, and front-of-package labels do exactly that.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) will soon release its second report on front-of-package labels, this one recommending what the FDA should do about them.  Let’s hope the IOM committee pays close attention to this report.

Claiming Health makes it clear that without rigorous nutrient standards, plenty of not-so-good-for-you foods will be labeled as better for children.

As I keep saying, alas, front-of-package labels, like health claims, are about marketing, not health.

Jan 18 2011

GAO takes on health claims. Yes!

Let’s hear it for the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency that has still managed to remain independent of the more corrupt aspects of Washington food politics.  In its most recent investigation, the GAO took a tough look at the inability of the FDA to hold health claims on food packages to reasonable scientific standards.

The new GAO report, Food Labeling: FDA Needs to Reassess Its Approach to Protecting Consumers from False or Misleading Claims, appeared on January 14.

The report reviews the history of health claims on food labels.  By law, these must be supported by “significant scientific agreement,” but court decisions in 2002 led the FDA to allow “qualified health claims.”  These claims have less—and, sometimes, no—scientific support.

Parke Wilde, who writes the U.S. Food Policy Blog, brilliantly parses the categories of health claims now allowed by the FDA:

  • Health claims — aka REAL health claims — which must have evidence that meets a standard called “significant scientific agreement”
  • Qualified health claims — aka WISHFUL health claims — which can meet a weaker standard of evidence, so long as the company admits the weaker evidence on the label.
  • Structure / function claims — aka STEALTHY health claims — which purport not to be health claims (for example, a high-fiber product that “keeps your bowels moving” without explicitly claiming to “treat constipation”; or a high-calcium product that “builds strong bones” without explicitly claiming to “prevent osteoporosis”)

The GAO reviews evidence that consumers can’t tell the difference between one kind of health claim and another (I could have told them that).

Food companies take advantage of this confusion and increasingly use the stealth structure/function claims, which the FDA pretty much ignores.

The FDA has to ignore them.  It doesn’t have much choice.  The FDA has no authority to require companies to submit evidence of scientific substantiation.  The FDA is permitted to ask for the information, but it has no legal authority to force companies to provide it.

GAO says this situation does not sufficiently protect the public from unscrupulous marketers.  It says the FDA should:

  • Ask Congress to grant it the authority to access companies’ evidence for the scientific support of potentially false or misleading structure/function claims on foods.
  • Provide guidance to industry on the evidence it needs to support such claims.
  • Provide direction to FDA inspectors to help identify claims for further review.

FDA: Do this, please, and right away.  Congress: Pay attention and act.

Imagine: health claims on food packages that actually have some science behind them.  What a concept!


Jan 16 2011

Furor about new breastfeeding study

A recent commentary in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) is causing a furor among breastfeeding advocates in Great Britain.

Titled Six months of exclusive breast feeding: how good is the evidence?, its authors argue that four months is probably just as good and less likely to cause harm.

The current British recommendation is for six months of exclusive breastfeeding—meaning no added solid foods.  This is based on a systematic analysis of research first published as a Cochrane review in 2002 and updated in 2006.  It compared the health of infants breastfed for six months to those breastfed for three-to-four months, and concluded that the science demonstrated significant advantages to the longer breastfeeding period.

That analysis was the basis of breastfeeding recommendations by United Nations agencies, such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF.  In Great Britain, UNICEF UK has issued its own statement defending the six-months recommendation.

Adding to the furor, the British Guardian titled its article about the new commentary, “Six months of breastmilk alone is too long and could harm babies, scientists now say.”  A second account in the Guardian provided a more cautious interpretation of the science.

I can understand why breastfeeding advocates are so upset about the BMJ paper.  They are worried about promotion of infant formulas as substitutes for breast milk, especially in developing countries.  Infant formulas can be adequate, if not perfect, substitutes for breast milk under conditions where they can be properly diluted and refrigerated.  When those conditions are impossible, as is the case in many low-income areas, formulas can become contaminated with harmful bacteria.  Use of infant formulas has a long history of association with infant illness and death (I wrote about this in Food Politics).

Formula companies did and continue to promote their products as convenient—and preferable—substitutes for breast feeding.

As it turns out, several of the authors of the BMJ commentary consult for formula companies.

Those authors vehemently deny that their ties to formula companies influence their opinions.  That may or may not be so, but such ties strongly correlate with research results and opinions favorable to the corporate ally.

In the United States, pediatricians strongly advocate breastfeeding, but flexibly.  In 1997, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)  policy statement said.

Exclusive breastfeeding is sufficient to support optimal growth and development for approximately the first 6 months of life and provides continuing protection against diarrhea and respiratory tract infection….Complementary foods rich in iron should be introduced gradually beginning around 6 months of age.

But the AAP noted,

Unique needs or feeding behaviors of individual infants may indicate a need for introduction of complementary foods as early as 4 months of age, whereas other infants may not be ready to accept other foods until approximately 8 months of age.

As any parent of more than one child can tell you, babies differ.  Some are happy with exclusive breastfeeding.  Others want solid foods the instant they learn how to swallow.

The new commentary isn’t wrong, exactly, although it says nothing new.

It just isn’t helpful.  And that’s reason enough to be upset about it.

Jan 14 2011

If I had a food safety magic wand…

 Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer in Seattle, is asking for responses to the question, “if you had a magic wand, how would you fix the food safety system?” 

I’ve been mulling over his question in light of the recent enactment of the food safety bill, as yet unfunded.  Magic wand in hand, here’s what I’d do:

Create a single food safety agency: the new law is designed to fix the FDA.  It does nothing to fix the USDA’s food safety functions.  These remain divided between the two agencies, with USDA responsible for the safety of meat and poultry, and FDA responsible for everything else.  This division pretends that animal wastes have nothing to do with the safety of fruits and vegetables which, alas, they do. 

Require safety control systems for all foods.  Everyone who produces food should do it safely using proven methods for identifying where hazards can occur, taking steps to prevent those hazards, monitoring to make sure the steps were taken, and—when appropriate— testing to make sure the system is working. 

Apply safety controls from farm to table.  The new law does this for FDA-regulated foods.  But USDA safety regulations begin at the slaughterhouse after animals have already been contaminated in feedlots or in transport.  Everyone involved in food production, even farmers large and small, should be actively engaged in food safety efforts.

Fund food safety through congressional health committees.  For irrational reasons of history, the FDA gets its funding through agricultural committees, not health—even though FDA is an agency of the Public Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services.   As a consequence, the FDA is at the mercy of appropriations committees whose mandate is to protect agricultural interests.  This anomaly explains why 80% of food safety funding goes to USDA, and only20% to FDA.  The new chair of the House agricultural appropriations committee has made it clear that he does not believe FDA needs any more funding.   Health appropriations committees might view FDA’s role in food safety in a more favorable light.

Fund food safety adequately.  To protect the domestic food supply—and to ensure the safety of imported foods—more money is needed to pay for inspection, testing, and research. 

Give the food agency cabinet-level status.  Everyone eats.  Food safety affects everyone.  Food has critically important economic and food security dimensions, domestically and internationally.   

Require election campaigns to be publicly funded, with no loopholes. This is the only way we will be able to remove corruption from our political system and elect officials who care more about public health than corporate health.

Require Wall Street to rate corporations on long-term sustainability.  Wall Street pressures on corporations to report growth every quarter are at the root of corner-cutting on food safety.  Food corporations should be valued for excellent food safety records and for maintaining high ethical standards in every aspect of their business.

Even a magic wand may not be enough to do this.  It will take more than a magic wand to do this, I fear.  Hey, I can dream.

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