Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 9 2009

FDA’s new pet health & safety widget!

After years of complaints about how hard it is to get information about pet food recalls, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has  taken a big step to solve the problem.  It just posted a new widget for pet health and safety.  Technophobic dinosaur that I am, I can’t figure out how to load it.  I went to the link above, copied the code, and pasted it, but I can’t get the cute web gadget to display.  All that shows on my screen is a link to the site.

The FDA hosted a webinar on Tuesday about how to use it.  Alas, I was off giving lectures and couldn’t tune in on it, but the FDA posted the conversation on the website.

Gina Spadafori at Pet Connection was on the call, has much better technical skills than I do, and managed the upload.  She talks about how the FDA has “gone all widgety” and has some cautiously optimistic things to say about it.

This web gadget ought to make it easy for FDA to give the pet community straight information about foods recalled and not.  And anyone who wants to track this sort of thing can look it up on the site or, maybe, download it.  Good idea!  Cheers to the FDA!  And let’s hope the FDA uses is early and often.

Dec 8 2009

The latest food safety measure: vaccinate cows?

What is to be done about E. coli O157:H7?  In the last two years, the USDA reports an astonishing 52 recalls of meat contaminated with these toxic bacteria compared to only 20 in the three years before that.

Apparently, the cattle and beef packing industries are unwilling or unable to produce safe meat, even though they could be doing much, much more to reduce bacterial infections: follow a decent HACCP plan and test-and-hold, for example.

The alternatives?  Late-stage techno fixes.  First, we had irradiation. Now we have vaccination!    Or so said the New York Times last week in a front-page story on two new anti-E. coli vaccines, one actually in use and one still under study.

The vaccines have been in development for a long time but were held up because they aren’t as effective as one would like, to say the least.  They are said to reduce the number of animals carrying toxic E. coli by 65% to 75%.  That should help, but will it solve the problem?

Doesn’t this argue for more efforts on prevention?  Or am I missing something here too?

Dec 7 2009

Saving the earth: Coca-Cola?

I greatly admire the work of Jared Diamond.  His book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, is as clear an explanation as you will ever get of how the inequitable distribution of favorable geography, climate, and natural resources affects the development and maintenance of human societies.

But here he is, incredibly, in the Sunday New York Times writing a fan letter to corporate social responsibility for protecting those favorable environments.  He writes:

There is a widespread view, particularly among environmentalists and liberals, that big businesses are environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits. I know — because I used to share that view.  But today I have more nuanced feelings…I’ve discovered that while some businesses are indeed as destructive as many suspect, others are among the world’s strongest positive forces for environmental sustainability.

And which corporations does he include as “strongest positive forces?”  Chevron, Walmart, and Coca-Cola.   I’ll leave discussion of Chevron and Walmart to others, but Coca-Cola?

Coca-Cola, Diamond says, is protecting the world’s water supplies.  The company needs clean water in the 200 countries in which it operates.  This, says Diamond:

compels it to be deeply concerned with problems of water scarcity, energy, climate change and agriculture. One company goal is to make its plants water-neutral, returning to the environment water in quantities equal to the amount used in beverages and their production. Another goal is to work on the conservation of seven of the world’s river basins, including the Rio Grande, Yangtze, Mekong and Danube — all of them sites of major environmental concerns besides supplying water for Coca-Cola. These long-term goals are in addition to Coca-Cola’s short-term cost-saving environmental practices, like recycling plastic bottles, replacing petroleum-based plastic in bottles with organic material, reducing energy consumption and increasing sales volume while decreasing water use.

Please note the future tense.  These are things Coke says it plans to do.  As for what the company is doing now, Diamond does not say.  His piece does not mention Coke’s negotiating with officials in developing countries to buy water at rates significantly below those charged to local communities, a topic under much discussion when I was in India last year.  It does not mention campaigns in India to hold Coke accountable for its abuse of local water rights or any of the similar campaigns in other countries.

Diamond’s piece does not talk about the efforts Coke puts into selling bottled water at the expense of local water supplies.  As described by Elizabeth Royte in her book, Bottlemania, companies like Coke exhibit every one of of the characteristics formerly deplored by Diamond in attempting to secure plentiful and reliable sources of cheap local water: in his words, “environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits.”

Diamond says he sits along side and has gotten to know and appreciate the motives of many corporate executives.  Me too.  Personally, many of them mean well and wish that they could do more to be socially responsible.  But they work for businesses that are required, by law, to make short-term profit their reason for existence.  This means that corporate social responsibility is necessarily limited to actions that bring visible – and immediate – returns on investment.

We need some critical thinking here.  If Diamond gave any thought at all to what Coca-Cola produces – bottled water and sodas – he would surely have to agree that less of both would be good for our own health and that of the planet.

Dec 5 2009

Food agencies at work (or not): FTC

The Federal Trade Commission is the third agency dealing with food policies, this time advertising.  As I’m fond of saying, the FTC is not exactly a consumer protection agency.  Its main purpose is to make sure that businesses stay competitive.  In 1978, under the leadership of Michael Pertschuk, the FTC made a valiant attempt to regulate food marketing to children.  That disaster, which I have discussed in previous posts, kept the FTC from doing anything about marketing to kids – until recently.

On December 15, it is holding a forum on food marketing to children in Washington, DC.  Here’s the agenda and information about registration.  They will also do a webcast linked to that site.

Guess what?  A forum like this isn’t necessary, says the industry-sponsored Children’s Food and Beverage Initiative. We are doing just fine, it says, and we don’t need regulation.

But that’s not all the FTC is doing. It had so much fun trying to get information from food companies about their marketing-to-kids practices that it is trying the same thing with quick service and fast food restaurants.  The FTC says it is seeking “Information from those companies concerning, among other things, their marketing activities and expenditures targeted to children and adolescents and nutritional information about the companies’ food and beverage products marketed to children and adolescents.”  This sounds easy, if a bit confusing, but my guess is that the FTC will have to pull teeth to get it.

In the meantime, a few comments have already been filed in response to the notice.   The ones from industry are predictable: too expensive! Too difficult! My guess is that they have this information readily available but are embarrassed to reveal it. Why? It undoubtedly will show that the companies spend the most money on the junkiest (and most profitable) products.

Michael Pertschuk, by the way, is still going strong.  In June, he wrote an article on the FTC for The Nation. His article has much to say about the way the FTC is operating these days and is well worth a look.  As he explains, the FTC was

created in 1914 during the Progressive Era, [and] was endowed with a potent authority for promoting competition and consumer protection that it has never fully used. This includes investigative authority over virtually all businesses, backed by subpoena power and the capacity to demand reports of data that corporations would rather withhold from public view…For the first time in decades, the Senate and House authorizing and oversight committees and the judiciary committees are pressing the agency to act more aggressively on the consumer-protection and competition fronts and are prepared, as needed, to strengthen its enforcement powers….But Congress needs to take action to unleash the FTC’s full potential. First, it remains a small agency with broad and complex responsibilities and cumbersome procedural burdens, especially in rule-making. Here, the FTC’s champions in Congress can make certain that Congress supplies more resources and streamlines the FTC’s authority. The agency also has a chronic problem of setting priorities: wherever it turns, there are corporate malefactors, large and small, deserving of prosecution.

But read the whole thing and see whether you think his optimism is justified.  Better yet, go to the workshop on the 15th!

Dec 4 2009

Food agencies at work (or not): FDA

Front-of-Package Labels: The FDA is hard at work trying to do something about public understanding of food labels.  What with the fuss about the Smart Choices program (now withdrawn), FDA wants to get the front-of-package labeling under control.  It is considering various formats for giving a quick overview of the nutritional quality of food products.  FDA is asking for public comment on the various formats (see Federal Register notice).

The FDA chose five versions (plus variations) for comment:

  1. A mini Nutrition Facts version called Nutrition Tips
  2. A UK traffic lights version
  3. A version like Hannaford’s Guiding Stars
  4. A version like the discontinued Smart Choices
  5. One that just highlights calories/servings

I rather like this one, a variation of #1 (colorful, easy to understand, not too cluttered, and makes calories clear).

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The Nutrition Facts Panel: The FDA also is taking another look at the Nutrition Facts panel on the back of food packages.  It is seeking public comment on  a plan for consumer research to test understanding of elements on the Nutrition Facts panel.  Here’s the Federal Register notice with all the information about what’s going on and where to file comments.

What’s interesting about this is that the FDA has great social science researchers on staff.  They’ve been kept under wraps the last eight years and apparently are being let loose again.  Even so, they don’t get to just go out and do studies like we academics do (with human subjects approval, of course).  Oh no.  First, they have to announce that they plan to do the studies (which they did some time ago) and get comments on the idea.  Then they do the research plan and have to ask for further comments on the research design.  That’s what this notice is about.  Once they deal with these comments, they can finally get to work.    It’s a miracle if they do anything at all.  Keep them busy: send comments!

Agency Transparency: The Association of Health Care Journalists (ACHJ) and ten other journalism organizations have filed a complaint.  The FDA, they say, is still requiring journalists to obtain permission from an agency official in order to conduct interviews with staff members.  This is a leftover from the Bush administration.  Time to get rid of it.

Blogging: It is especially time to open up to reporters because Michael Taylor, who is now senior advisor to the FDA commissioner, is now blogging on the Atlantic Food Channel (which also reprints my posts).  If he can blog, FDA staff can talk to reporters.

Addendum: Beverages pretending to be dietary supplements: The FDA has just issued guidance to the beverage industry to stop putting herbal supplements into beverages and calling them dietary supplements so they can get around food rules on health claims.  If a beverage is consumed as a food, it should be labeled as a food.  Guidance, of course, is non-binding but I see this as a warning that the FDA is going to be enforcing its own rules.  Good show!

Dec 3 2009

Food agencies at work (or not): USDA

USDA is the agency supposedly responsible for the safety of meat and poultry.  Unlike FDA, which is responsible for the safety of just about all other foods, USDA gets to impose HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) on meat and poultry.  It just doesn’t bother to enforce its own rules.  Hence recent events:

Consumer Reports, which for decades has been testing supermarket chickens for microbial contaminants, has just  tested chickens again. Sigh. Two-thirds were contaminated with Salmonella or Campylobacter. You will be relieved to know that this is an improvement. It was 80% the last time Consumer Reports did the testing.

In an effort to get USDA and the poultry industry moving on this problem, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Dem-CA) has introduced a bill to prohibit the sale of meat that has not been certified free of pathogens. Based on what’s been happening with meat safety, I’m betting it won’t get far.

So let’s talk about meat safety.  For this, we should all be reading USA Today, which seems to be one of the last newspapers in America still funding investigative reporting.  Its latest blockbuster is an account of the 826,000-pound recall by Beef Packers, Inc. (a subsidiary of Cargill) a few months ago. The meat made at least 28 people ill as a result of infections with a strain of Salmonella Newport highly resistant to antibiotics.

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse.  Beef Packers is a major supplier of meat to the USDA’s school lunch program. But oops.  The recall covered meat sent to retailers.  It did not cover meat sent to schools. According to the intrepid reporters at USA Today, USDA bought 450,000 pounds of ground beef produced by Beef Packers during the dates covered by the recall.

USDA should have known better.  Beef Packers had a history of positive Salmonella tests but the USDA did not disclose that information. An official told USA Today that doing so

would discourage companies from contracting to supply product for the National School Lunch Program and hamper our ability to provide the safe and nutritious foods to American school children.

You can’t make these things up.  USA Today provides the documents on its site to prove it.

I missed the earlier article in the USA Today series about school lunches in general and Del Rey Tortillas in particular, a company implicated in 20 cases of school food poisonings since 2003. Check out the article’s quick facts-and-figures about school lunches, the nifty interactive timeline for the Del Rey episodes, and the raft of documents in this case.

Good work, reporters. If you want to know why we need newspapers, here’s a good reason.

As for USDA: the new administration at the agency shows many signs of wanting to do the right thing about food safety but they have to deal with entrenched staff and inspectors who have been cozy with industry far too long.  USDA: deal with it!

Coming soon: updates on FDA and FTC.

Dec 2 2009

An improving economy? Ask people on Food Stamps!

I keep reading that the economy is getting better but I think anyone who says this must be talking about fat cats on Wall Street.   As for everyone else, take a look at the shocking piece about the Food Stamp program that the New York Times ran on its front page on Sunday.

More than 36 million Americans qualify for and get Food Stamps, an increase of 30% or so in just the last two years.  The Food Stamp program, says the Times, helps feed nearly 13% of American adults and 25% of children.

The Food Stamp program, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is one of several food assistance programs run by the USDA.  SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who meets income eligibility requirements can get benefits.  Even so, only two-thirds of people eligible for the program apply for and get the benefits.  What recipients get is a credit card to use at grocery stores.  The cards were worth an average of $101 per month in 2008 for individuals, and $227 for households.

SNAP participants can use the money to buy foods, seeds, and food plants.  They cannot use the cards for alcohol, tobacco, pet food, supplements, paper goods, or hot prepared foods.

So what’s going on?  Nearly 15% of American households, up a couple of percentage points this year, are considered “food insecure,” meaning that they cannot count on a reliable, legally obtained source of food from one day to the next.  Surprise!  The uptick in SNAP participation exactly parallels the uptick in jobs lost.

What do you have to do to qualify for Food Stamps?  For a family of four, your household must make less than $2,389 per month gross, or $1,838 net and meet certain other requirements.  An individual can’t make more than about $1,000 a month.   These days, 36 million Americans make less than that or otherwise qualify for food assistance, and their numbers are rising rapidly.

This doesn’t look like an improving economy to me.  Or am I missing something?

Dec 1 2009

San Francisco attorney vs. Kellogg’s immunity claim

My latest column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the immunity health claim on boxes of Kellogg Cocoa Krispies (see previous posts).  I’ve been writing the column for the last year at irregular intervals of about once every three weeks.  Beginning in January 2010, it has its own slot and will appear on the first Sunday of the month.  Here’s this one:

Q: It’s great that San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera put a stop to the absurd “immunity” claim on Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies, but how do companies get away with this?

A: I confess; I’m a health-claims junkie. I snatched up the immunity-claiming box of Cocoa Krispies the minute I saw it in a supermarket last August. I consider it a treasure: “Now helps support your child’s IMMUNITY.”

How does Cocoa Krispies perform this miracle? The cereal contains 25 percent of the daily value of antioxidant vitamins A, B, C and E per serving instead of the old 10 percent. Vitamins, Kellogg points out, play an important role in immunity.

Of course they do. All nutrients are involved in immune function. But is it remotely possible that Cocoa Krispies might protect your child against colds or swine flu? I wish.

Antioxidants present an unparalleled marketing opportunity. Kellogg does not have to prove that its cereals are protective. Immunity claims fall into a Food and Drug Administration regulatory gray area. “Supports immunity” is a “structure-function” claim, so called because it promises to support a structure or function of the human body. However you might interpret such claims, they do not really promise to prevent, treat or cure disease.

Congress expressly authorized structure-function claims when it deregulated dietary supplements in 1994. But that law did not apply to foods. Food companies wanted to use these claims, too. At first the FDA balked. When faced with further legislation and court overturns, the FDA gave up. Now it merely says that structure-function claims on supplements must be truthful and not misleading. The FDA says nothing about structure-function claims on food products. It mostly looks away when they appear.

“Misleading” is inevitably in the eye of the beholder. Herrera turns out to be a skeptic.

“The Immunity claims,” he said, “may falsely suggest to parents that cereals like Cocoa Krispies are more healthy for their children than other breakfast foods … [and] mislead parents into believing that serving this sugary cereal will actually boost their child’s immunity.” Kellogg, he said, must produce the evidence or have the claim subject to “immediate termination or modification.”

Faced with this threat and with ridicule in the press, Kellogg wisely decided to phase out the immunity-labeled Cocoa Krispies packages. Consider them collectors’ items.

Much is at stake. Ready-to-eat cereals produce more than $8 billion a year in sales. Kellogg spent about $32 million in 2008 to promote Rice Krispies cereals, and $4 million of that amount went to advertise Cocoa Krispies alone.

Shoppers care about health. If cereals can be advertised with special health benefits, more boxes will fly off the shelves. Food companies consider health claims essential for marketing their products.

This explains why so many companies are adding omega-3 fats, probiotics and antioxidants to so many foods. These ingredients make foods “functional,” meaning that the foods contain something beyond their usual nutritional value. Although little evidence shows that functional foods make healthy people healthier, companies can use functional ingredients to make health claims, no matter how far-fetched. These days, functional foods are about the only processed foods with increasing sales.

Kellogg has plenty of company with functional ingredients and health claims. See, for example, the claims on Nestlé (no relation) Juicy Juice products targeted to toddlers. One product adds antioxidants to “help support immunity.” The other adds omega-3s to “aid brain development.”

Think about it: Will feeding your toddler a sugary juice product really make her smarter? Face it. You are not supposed to think about it. You are supposed to buy – and feel good about doing so.

Absent the FDA, Herrera stepped into the breach. He does not care whether the claims are on Kellogg cereals or Juicy Juice cartons. If companies make such claims, he insists that they produce the evidence for them.

This will not be easy to do. It is one thing to find evidence that specific nutrients are involved in immune function. It is quite another to show that people who eat sweetened cereals or juices containing such nutrients are healthier than those who do not.

That is why the European Food Standards Agency denied hundreds of company petitions for health claims. The agency cannot find much evidence for the health benefits of foods with added functional ingredients. Its decisions have put European food marketers into crisis. How are they supposed to sell products without health claims?

As I keep saying, health claims are about marketing, not health. If it were up to me, I would remove all health claims from food packages. Foods are not drugs. Health claims cannot help but mislead.

So let’s congratulate Herrera for filling a regulatory gap. His colleagues – and the press – are doing their job on this one. FDA: Get to work!

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