Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 5 2010

Melamine in Chinese milk – again!

I thought we were finished with melamine by now, but no such luck.   Recall that we first encountered Chinese melamine (ordinarily a benign component of plastic dinnerware and countertops) as a toxic adulterant of pet food in 2007.  Melamine, it turned out, had been used for decades to boost the apparent – not actual – protein content of foods and ingredients.  It is high in nitrogen and the test for protein in foods measures nitrogen, not protein itself.

In the wake of the pet food scandal, China cracked down on food safety violations.  That did not stop use of melamine and within just a few months, it turned up in infant formula and caused a reported 300,000 Chinese babies to develop kidney problems.  Chinese authorities again dealt harshly with perpetrators, executing some and giving others long prison sentences (to catch up with this story, see previous posts).

And now here we go again, and with one of the same companies implicated in the 2008 infant formula problem – Shanghai Panda Dairy Company.  Chinese authorities are again cracking down but, as the New York Times reports, the problem seems intractable.

Why?  Maybe Chinese adulterators are getting a double message.  Here are a couple of items I picked up off Chinese news sources on the Internet (Google the names to find the sites):

  • Li Changjiang, the director of the inspection agency that failed to deal with the melamine problem, was forced to resign from the agency. He has overcome his disgrace, more or less.  He was just appointed deputy head of a major anti-pornography group.
  • Zhao Lianhai organized the parents of victims of the infant formula adulteration to try to get compensation.  He was put under house arrest in November and formally arrested in December.

Melamine is an enormous embarrassment to the Chinese and they will get a grip on it eventually, but let’s hope sooner rather than later.  In the meantime, best to avoid food products made in China that are supposed to contain protein from milk or soybeans.

Update January 6: today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Chinese authorities have known about the melamine in milk:

Tuesday, the newspaper 21st Century Business Herald reported industry participants were aware of melamine use by Shanghai Panda as early as April 2009. The paper, which didn’t identify its sources, said that in November China’s minister of health, Chen Zhu, referred to melamine tainting by the company during an internal meeting of Communist Party officials. Those comments, the newspaper reported, prompted Wenzhou-based Zhejiang Panda Dairy Products Co. in early December to announce on its Web site that, while its name was similar to Shagnhai Panda, the two companies aren’t related.

Jan 4 2010

Thinking about nanotechnology

I am trying to understand what to think about food nanotechnology and whether it is good, bad, or indifferent.  Nanotechnology refers to the use of very small particles for doing any number of things to food.  I’ve been collecting items about it:

But what about their safety?  Could nanoparticles cross cell-membranes and end up being harmful?  The technology to produce the particles does not cost much.  This means anyone can make and use them, including food manufacturers who don’t want to bother with safety testing.  So: is nanotechnology the new asbestos?

If you know something about this, please weigh in.  Thanks and happy new year!

Update, January 8: A the U.K. House of Lords Science and Technology committee warns that the lack of transparency in research on nanotechnology is likely to induce a consumer backlash similar to that on genetically modified foods.  Indeed.

Jan 1 2010

What’s up with food and nutrition in 2010?

My San Francisco Chronicle column, now appearing in print on the first Sunday of the month, is also online.

Its title:  “Hot food issues ready to boil over this year.”

Q: What do you think will happen with food and nutrition in 2010?

A: I wish I could read the leaves while I drink tea, but the best I can do is tell you which issues I’m going to be watching closely this year.

Hunter Public Relations recently asked 1,000 Americans which food-related issues they thought were most important in 2009. The top three? Food safety, hunger and food prices. For the decade, the winner was childhood obesity.

I have my own top 10 list of hot-button issues for 2010, and here they are:

  • Hunger: More than 35 million Americans get benefits to which they are entitled under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly, food stamps). The economy may be improving, but not quickly enough for millions who have lost jobs, health care and housing. Will Congress do anything this year to strengthen the safety net for the poor? It needs to.
  • Childhood obesity: Rates of childhood obesity may have stabilized, but we all want to figure out how to prevent kids from gaining so much weight that they develop adult chronic diseases. I expect to see more efforts to improve school food and make neighborhoods more conducive to walking to school, riding bikes and playing outside.
  • Food safety regulation: Congress is sitting on a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration some real authority for food safety. The bill does not do what is most needed – establish a single food-safety agency – but is a reasonable step in the right direction. Let’s hope Congress gets to it soon.
  • Food advertising and labels: The long-dormant FDA and Federal Trade Commission are getting busy at last. In the wake of the Smart Choices fiasco, the FDA is working to make package labels less misleading and easier to understand. The agencies have proposed nutrition standards for products marketed to children. These voluntary standards fall far short of my preference – an outright ban on marketing junk foods to kids – but puts food companies on notice that their products are under scrutiny. The FDA is also working on designs for front-of-package labels. I’m hoping it chooses a “traffic-light” system that marks foods with a green (any time), yellow (sometimes) or red (hardly ever) dot. Expect plenty of opposition from the makers of red-dotted products.
  • Meat: The meat industry has been under fire for raising food animals under inhumane conditions, using unnecessary hormones and antibiotics, mistreating immigrant labor, and polluting soil and water. Now it is also under fire for contributing to climate change. Recent films like “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh” and books such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” are encouraging people to become vegetarians or to eat less meat to promote the health of people and the planet. I’ll bet the meat industry pushes back hard on this one.
  • Sustainable agriculture: The back-to-the land movement has loads of people buying local food, choosing foods produced under more sustainable conditions and growing their own food. The number of small farms in America increased last year for the first time in a century. Seed companies cannot keep up with the demand. It will be fun to follow what happens with this trend.
  • Genetically modified (GM) foods: My book, “Safe Food,” comes out in a new edition this year, so I am paying especially close attention to debates about GM foods. The FDA’s 1994 decision to prohibit labeling of GM foods continues to haunt the food biotechnology industry. By now, nearly all American soybeans and sugar beets (95 percent) are GM, as is most corn (60 percent). But when the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved GM sugar beets in 2005, it neglected to perform the required environmental impact assessment. On that basis, environmental groups want to ban further planting of GM sugar beets. The dispute is now in the courts.
  • Chemical contaminants: The FDA has yet to release its report on the safety of bisphenol A, the plastic chemical that acts as an endocrine disrupter. Shouldn’t it be banned? The bottling industry says no. Watch for fierce arguments over this one.
  • Salt: Nutrition standards allow 480 mg sodium (the equivalent of more than 1 gram of salt) per serving. A half cup of canned soup provides that much. A whole cup gives you 4 grams and the whole can gives you 8 grams – much more than anyone needs. Nearly 80 percent of salt in American diets comes from processed and restaurant foods. Companies are under pressure to cut down on salt. Will they? Only if they have to.
  • Dietary advice: The new edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which the government publishes every five years, is due this year. What will it say? I can’t wait to find out.

Those are the issues I am tracking these days. My one crystal-ball prediction? We will be hearing a lot more about them this year.

Happy new year!

Dec 30 2009

The latest recall: mechanically tenderized beef

I am, as always, indebted to Bill Marler for his ongoing commentary – often with slide shows – on recalls of foods contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and other nasty bugs.  He offers ongoing comments about the Christmas eve recall of 248,000 pounds of needle-tenderized steaks.

He points out that the recall now affects people in several states and that the meat was intended for several chain restaurants.   The contaminated meat, produced in Oklahoma, has sickened at least 19 people in 16 states.

Mechanically tenderized “non-intact” beef?  Uh oh.  The great thing about intact steak is that harmful contaminants are on the outside surface; the bacteria get killed by the high heat of searing the outside surface.  You don’t have to worry about the safety of intact steak because its insides are relatively sterile.  But if the steak is pre-treated to tenderize it, watch out!  Tenderizing can drive harmful bacteria right into the interior where they won’t get killed unless the steak is thoroughly cooked.

To explain the problem, Marler posts a slide show from Dave Boxrud.  Here is one of Boxrud’s illustrations:

Photo from David Boxrud's slide show on the Marler Blog site

Marler provides links to documents showing that the USDA has received plenty of recent warnings about the dangers of undercooked non-intact beef.  This is no surprise.  In my 2003 book, Safe Food (coming out in a new edition in 2010), I discuss the USDA’s “testing gap” with respect to nonintact beef.  In 1999, the USDA said that it wanted to extend its testing requirements for ground beef to mechanically tenderized beef that might be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

In Safe Food, I explain how the beef industry reacted with “shock, disbelief, and anger” to the USDA’s safety proposal.  One industry representative accused the USDA of taking “another step in this administration’s obfuscation of the impeachment activities.” Those activities, of course, referred to the scandal then involving President Clinton and the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Then, the meat industry’s position was that pathogens were inherent in raw meat, cooking kills them, and testing would put the industry out of business. Ten years later, the industry position hasn’t budged. The Washington Post (December 30) quotes beef industry representatives arguing that mechanical tenderizing poses no particular health problems.

According to Food Chemical News (September 28), Congressional representative Rosa DeLauro (Dem-CT), who chairs the House appropriations agriculture subcommittee, has called on USDA to take immediate action to require labeling of meat that has been mechanically tenderized.

And USA Today (December 30) has produced another long investigative report on the safety of school meals, this one citing plenty of examples of companies that successfully produce or serve safe meat and of countries that do food safety better than we do.  In the meantime, the food safety bill is still stuck in Congress.  Let’s hope that it gets moving early in 2010.

Addendum: The New York Times (online December 30) also is interested in beef produced for the school lunch program.  Its reporters investigated safety problems with beef trimmings that had been injected with ammonia to kill bacteria.    Two things about the beef trimmings are especially interesting.  One person is quoted in the article referring to them as “pink slime.”  And they used to be used for pet foods until meat packers figured out that selling them to USDA for school lunches was more profitable.

As for the ammonia treatment: surely this is not the same stuff used to clean bathrooms?  Apparently so.  But using it is tricky.  You have to inject enough ammonia to kill bacteria but if you do the meat smells like an ammonia-treated bathroom.  If you don’t want the meat to smell, you can’t use as much.  But if you don’t use as much, you get Salmonella. This, alas, is another example of regulations not working.

Congress: pass the food safety bill and then start working on a single food safety agency!

Update January 7: The CDC has posted information on its investigation of this outbreak on its website.

Dec 29 2009

Pet food settlement rumors: not true!

A reader, Valerie Watkins, comments on my previous post about the long delay in settling the lawsuits over the pets harmed by the melamine scandals of 2007.  She writes:

The internet has several articles indicating the law firm that is handling the money helped themselves to the cash and there is no money remaining. Several reports indicate there are NO objections by anyone, it is just the law firms response to not allowing the claims to be paid out. After 3 years of waiting, I believe it. Pet owner’s will wait for nothing, the money appears to have been spent on those trusted with paying out the claims.

Oh dear.  The Internet is a wonderful invention but has one serious flaw: its content is unedited.  People can say whatever they like no matter how far from the truth.  I have learned not to trust anything I read on the Internet unless I know that its source is reliable.

My immediate reaction to Valerie’s comment: Could this possibly be true?

No, it most definitely cannot.

Take a look at the court documents.  Two appeals are still pending in the Third Circuit court. Until those appeals are settled, the money is in escrow and nobody – not even the lawyers – can touch it.  The documents clearly state that the lawyers are not to be paid until all appeals are resolved and the judgment is in effect.

The administrator of the settlement explains:

No payments may be made on eligible claims until all appeals are resolved. THE APPEALS HAVE BEEN FULLY BRIEFED AND WE NOW AWAIT THE DECISION OF THE APPELLATE COURT. It is uncertain how long these appeals will take to resolve, and the timing of resolving the appeals is not within the control of the parties or their counsel. It is not uncommon for appeals to take several months or even years to resolve.

For anyone with a pet harmed by eating tainted pet food, the long delay is painful.  It would be a help to have the settlement resolved.   But the delay is not caused by the lawyers who are representing aggrieved pet owners.  It is also in the lawyers’ best interest to settle the suit as quickly as possible.

When it comes to the Internet, don’t believe everything you read.  And check sources!  In case of the pet food class action suit, the documents are on the Internet and available to everyone who takes the trouble to see what they really say.


Dec 27 2009

FDA warns Nestlé: Juicy Juice misbranded!

I’ve been fretting about the immunity and brain claims on Nestlé’s Juicy Juice for quite some time now, but completely missed the FDA’s December 4 warning letter about them.  Thanks to Hemi Weingarten at Fooducate for keeping track of such things.

JuicyJuice

If you give these products a moment’s thought, you can quickly figure out that feeding DHA- or antioxidant-fortified juice drinks to kids is unlikely to have much effect on how smart they are or whether they can resist colds or swine flu.  But never underestimate the power of food marketers.   Adding a little DHA or a few antioxidants to juices sells products.  Health claims, as I keep pointing out, are about marketing, not health.

In warning the company to cease and desist, however, The FDA did not take on the health issues.  Instead, it invoked labeling regulations:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reviewed the labeling for several Nestlé Juicy Juice products…Based on our review, we have concluded that these products are misbranded…. because [their] labeling includes unauthorized nutrient content claims. Except for statements that describe the percentage of a vitamin or mineral in relation to a Reference Daily Intake (RDI), a nutrient content claim cannot be made for a food intended for use by infants and children less than 2 years of age….On October 30, 2009. we also reviewed your website….The labeling found on your website makes an additional unauthorized nutrient content claim, which further misbrands the product. The website claims that Juicy Juice Brain Development Fruit Juice Beverage is “naturally lower in sugar”…[but] no nutrient content claims can be made for a food intended specifically for use by infants and children less than 2 years of age unless specifically permitted by FDA regulations.

Additionally, we have reviewed the labeling of your Nestle Juicy Juice All Natural 100% Juice Orange Tangerine and Nestle Juicy Juice All Natural 100% Juice Grape products. These products are misbranded…because their labels are misleading. The label of the Orange Tangerine product is designed to imply that the product is 100% orange/tangerine juice, and the label of the Grape product is designed to imply that product is 100% grape juice…neither orange/tangerine juice nor grape juice is the predominant juice in the products….

Nestlé (alas, no relation) is the largest food company in the world with $102 billion in sales last year.  It should know better.

Just for the record, the misbranded products are still displayed on the Juicy Juice website.

The FDA also warned Nestlé that its Boost Kids Essentials products are misbranded. Why?  Because their labeling does not follow the rules for medical foods, those aimed at alleviating specific conditions – in this case “failure to thrive.”   Oops.  The Boost Kids Essentials website is now under revision.

Dec 24 2009

Maira Kalman on the food revolution

Maira Kalman, the artist famous (to me) for her wonderful illustrations for Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and the “Newyorkistan” New Yorker cover is now doing a monthly op-ed column of photographs and commentary – called “And the Pursuit of Happiness” – for the New York Times blog site.  Her November piece, “Back to the Land,” is about the food revolution and its importance for American democracy.  It’s a gift to everyone interested in food politics or anything else about food.

Happy holidays!

1109Maira29

Dec 22 2009

Eating Liberally: Are pets responsible for climate change?

It’s been quite a while since Eating Liberally’s kat had a question for me, but this one certainly got my attention.  My book about pet food with Malden Nesheim, Feed Your Pet Right, has just progressed past its second set of page-proof corrections and is slowly making its way to publication on May 11.  Here’s her question:

Let’s Ask Marion: Is Fido The New Hummer?

Submitted by KAT on Tue, 12/22/2009 – 8:13am.

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

Kat: Dog lovers are howling over a new book called Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living. The book claims that “the carbon pawprint of a pet dog is more than double that of a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle,” according to a report from the Agence France Presse.

The book’s authors, Robert and Brenda Vale, sustainable living experts at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, estimate that a medium-sized dog’s annual diet–about 360 pounds of meat and 200 pounds of grains–requires roughly double the resources it would take to drive an SUV 6,200 miles a year.

You’ve become an expert on the pet food industry in recent years with Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, and your upcoming book, Feed Your Pet Right. So, what’s your take on the Vales’ claims? Is Fido really the new Hummer?

Dr. Nestle: Since Mal Nesheim is my co-conspirator on Feed Your Pet Right, this response is from both of us. Hence, “we.”

We ordered this book through Amazon in the U.K. but it is taking its own sweet time getting here. So all we really know about what these authors say is what we read in the October 24 New Scientist, which not only reviewed the book (in an article titled, “How green is your pet”) but also ran an editorial that begins, “If you really want to make a sacrifice to sustainability, consider ditching your pet – its ecological footprint will shock you.”

Oh, please. We don’t think so for two reasons, one quantitative, one qualitative. First, the quantitative:

The New Scientist review says:

To measure the ecological paw, claw and fin-prints of the family pet, the Vales analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food. They calculated, for example, that a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals.

We don’t really have all the facts at hand. We have not seen the book, we don’t know what assumptions the authors made, and we can’t be certain that the review quotes the book accurately. Still, we are puzzled by these figures.

By our estimates, an average dog does indeed need about 300 grams of dry dog food a day; this much provides close to 1,000 calories. Fresh meat supplies about 2 calories per gram, so 450 grams would yield about 900 calories. Cereals have less water so they are more caloric; they provide nearly 4 calories per gram. The 260 grams of cereals would provide nearly 1,000 calories. If New Scientist got it right, the authors of the book are overestimating the amount of food needed by dogs by a factor of two.

On the qualitative side: Most dogs don’t eat the same meat humans do. They eat meat by-products—the parts of food animals that we wouldn’t dream of eating. These are organs, intestines, scraps, cuttings, and other disgusting-to-humans animal parts.

We think pet food performs a huge public service. If pets didn’t eat all that stuff, we would have to find a means of getting rid of it: landfills, burning, fertilizer, or converting it to fuel, all of which have serious environmental consequences. If dogs and cats ate the same food we do, we estimate that just on the basis of calories, the 172 million dogs and cats in American would consume as much food as 42 million people.

But they don’t. They eat the by-products of human food production. If we want to do something to help reverse climate change, we should be worrying much more about the amount of meat that we ourselves are eating–and the amount of cereals we are growing to feed food animals–than blaming house pets for a problem that we created.

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