Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 22 2009

Food marketing: cartoons, scholarship, and action

First, the cartoons: this week’s question from Eating Liberally’s kat has to do with whether it makes sense to put cartoon characters on eggs or, for that matter, fruits and vegetables.  I vote no, of course, and the illustrations alone explain why.

Next, the scholarship: The latest volume of Annual Reviews of Public Health contains excellent reviews of studies of the influence of the food marketing environment on child and adult health.

Sara Bleich et al explain why obesity has become so common in the developed world.

Kelly Brownell’s group reviews the effects of food marketing on childhood obesity.

David Katz discusses school-based obesity interventions.

Mary Story et al describe policy approaches to creating healthy food environments.

And the American Association of Wine Economists (a group new to me, but interesting) forwards its Working Paper #33:

Janet Currie et al on the effect of fast food restaurants on obesity.

Finally, the action: Perhaps in response to all this, language inserted into the congressional spending bill asks the Federal Trade Commission to set up an interagency committee to set nutritional standards for products allowed to be marketed to children age 17 or under.  According to Advertising Age, the food industry thinks this is not a good idea.

Mar 22 2009

New York Times: the food revolution!

It’s been a big week for food politics in my local newspaper.  First, the Obama’s new garden (see earlier post) and now Andy Martin’s recap of the events leading to the current push for a healthier and more sustainable food system.  This starts on the front page of the Business section (note photo) and continues on to a full page on the inside.  And in the Week in Review, Mark Bittman writes about the organic revolution.  Full disclosure: I’m quoted in both.

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Mar 21 2009

Is food the new tobacco?

The Rudd Center at Yale is devoted to establishing a firm research basis for obesity interventions.  Its latest contribution is a paper in the Milbank Quarterly from its director, Kelly Brownell, and co-author Kenneth Warner, an equally distinguished anti-smoking researcher from the University of Michigan.  Its provocative title: The perils of ignoring history: Big Tobacco played dirty and millions died.  How similar is Big Food?

The paper is getting much attention.  A spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, a group well known for its close ties to food companies, emphasizes that food is not tobacco.  Of course it’s not.  But food companies often behave like tobacco companies, and not always in the public interest.  The Milbank paper provides plenty of documentation to back up the similarity.  Worth a look, no?

April 3 update: Evidently, FoodNavigator.com thinks so.  It is asking readers to file 100 word comments on issues raised by the paper by April 8.   And here are the comments.

Mar 20 2009

The Obama’s garden: happy news!

By this time everyone in the world must know that the Obama’s are planting a vegetable garden at the White House.  Today’s New York Times not only covered it, but on the front page yet.  Planting a garden is front-page news? Indeed it is.  What strikes me most about the reports is how excited everyone at the White House is about it.  The staff can’t wait to start planting and picking.

In the meantime, Slow Food and friends are in Atlanta talking to the CDC about the importance of agriculture to food, nutrition, and health, especially as it bears on school food.  This also could be a great sign.

And if you care what else the Obama’s are doing about food, check out Obama Foodorama, where bloggers cover what gets cooked, what gets eaten, and what’s important about food in deep, daily detail.

March 21 update: Another photo of the Obama garden project appears on the front page of today’s New York Times along with a lauditory editorial (this really is big news), and Eating Liberally’s kat has a comment on farming on 5th Avenue.

Mar 20 2009

What’s up with the organic e-mail scare?

My e-mail inbox is flooded with copies of the wild message about how proposed food safety legislation will kill organic farming.  Ordinarily, I ignore such rumors, but I’ve had two requests to comment on this one.   From Cynthia: “Can you please point me in the right direction on this rumor that the new bill will eliminate organic gardening.”  From TSR:  “Just got an e-mail about the FoodSafety Modernization Act of 2009: HR 875 — and I’m kind of terrified. I have been checking out many different sources online — this does indeed seem to be something to be very scared about and very real.”

I have no idea what this is about but it makes no sense to me.  My suspicion (based on no evidence, really) is that the message comes from opponents of animal traceability who think that having to track animals will be difficult for small farmers. The food safety bills up before Congress are designed to either redesign the system or fix the FDA (see previous posts). As far as I am concerned, all food producers should be following HACCP safety plans and safety rules should apply to all of them. So I don’t see the connection.

Or am I missing something here?  If anyone has any idea about what this is about, please enlighten.

Update: the Eating Liberally folks forward this summary of myths and facts about one of the food safety bills.

Update March 24: here’s a reasonable analysis of the benefits of the legislation.

Mar 19 2009

Food lobbying and its consequences

My NYU Department developed programs in Food Studies based on the premise that food is so central to the human condition that studying it is a great way to get into much larger social questions.   I’ve just found a terrific example in the April 9 New York Review of Books in which Michael Tomasky reviews So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Goverment, by Robert G. Kaiser. I immediately ordered a copy.

According to the review, the book chronicles events in the history of a Washington, DC lobbying firm, Schlossberg – Cassidy, run by former staff members of  Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by George McGovern (Dem-SD).  The firm parlayed its thorough knowledge of food assistance programs into a consulting practice devoted to helping corporations deal with pesky regulations and policies that affect agriculture, food, nutrition, and health.  To give just one example: the firm’s first academic client was Jean Mayer, the nutritionist president of Tufts University.  He recruited the firm to get Congress to appropriate $27 million for a national nutrition center at Tufts.  The result is the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

But this first earmark set a precedent that led to today’s deeply corrupt system of rampant congressional earmarks,  election campaign contributions, dependence on polls and focus groups, and climate of political partisanship.

A book about food lobbying and its larger political and social consequences!  I can’t wait to read it.

Mar 18 2009

Nestlé’s (no relation) social responsibility

I love corporate social responsibility reports .  I collect them.  Someone from Nestlé was kind enough to send me its shiny new reportNutritional Needs and Quality Diets: Creating Shared Value, 2008.  Nestlé is a very big food company.  For starters, it employs 283,000 people in 84 countries.  It sold $96.5 billion in products last year for a not-too-shabby profit of $16 billion (dollar figures are converted from Swiss francs and rounded off).   Bottled water accounted for $8 billion in sales (down 1.6% from the previous year), pet food for $11 billion, and ice cream for $18 billion.  I looked for – but could not find – the sales figures for Nestlé’s infant formula, the source of much controversy about this company.

As for social responsibility, the company says its education programs have reached 9 million people.  And by changing the recipes of its foods, it has eliminated 75,000 tons of trans fat from its products, along with 15,000 tons of salt and 638,000 tons of sugars.  Nestlé is also the largest fortifier of foods with vitamins and minerals.

Will these kinds of approaches help people eat healthier diets?  As David Ludwig and I discussed in a JAMA article last October, we are skeptical.  But read and decide for yourself!

March 19 update: and thanks to Jaybird for sending today’s example of Nestlé’s corporate responsibility in India.

March 21 update: thanks to Margo Wootan for forwarding the corporate responsibility report from Disney.

Mar 17 2009

Danish groups oppose European food ranking system

Several Danish consumer groups have banded together to oppose the food industry-backed GDA system for ranking the nutritional quality of processed foods.  The GDA (the Guidance Daily Amount) system is already in use on some products and food industry groups want it required for all European Union food labels.  Of course food companies want it.  It doesn’t use the U.K.’s red/yellow/green traffic light system that encourages people to avoid the red-labeled products.

The “Stop GDA” campaign argues that the GDA system encourages purchases of processed foods at the expense of the real foods.  It has produced a clever pamphlet to back up this argument.  Its criticisms apply just as well to all scoring systems for food products, except the traffic lights.

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