Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 21 2009

How will the sugar policy crisis shake out?

My Sunday (September 20) column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the sugar “crisis” I discussed here a few weeks ago:

Q: I saw you on “The Colbert Report” (Aug. 19) talking about sugar policy. Explain, please. I don’t understand why sugar policy is a topic for Comedy Central.

A: Neither did I until I saw Stephen Colbert douse himself with 5 pounds of sugar over the impending “crisis.” We have a sugar crisis? According to processed food manufacturers, we are about to run out of sugar. Horrors!

Earlier in August, Kraft and other food processors asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to raise the quota on sugar imports. Sugar availability, they complained, is the lowest in years and it’s the USDA’s fault.

The USDA firmly controls amounts of sugar (sucrose) produced by American cane and beet growers through quotas. It even more firmly controls sugar imported from other sugar-growing countries through quotas and tariffs. And as corn is increasingly diverted to biofuels, less high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is around to make up the shortfall.

Should we worry?

The shortage is no crisis. At worst, it is temporary and will end as soon as the 2009 harvest is in. But processed food makers are right about one thing: Sugar is the most absurdly protected agricultural commodity in America.

For decades, no matter what it cost on the world market, quotas and tariffs ensured that Americans paid two or three times as much for sugar. High sugar prices cost American consumers about $3 billion a year. But because this works out “only” to about $10 per year per capita, nobody much cared.

If you think of $10 as trivial, you won’t give sugar protectionism another thought. But if you look at this system as an unnecessary transfer of $3 billion a year from 350 million Americans to a few thousand sugar growers and processors, you can understand why sugar policy is ripe for satire.

Here’s how the system works:

Quotas allow U.S. producers to grow only specified amounts of sugar cane and sugar beets each year, for which the USDA guarantees a higher-than-market price. Beets get 55 percent of the quota; cane gets 45 percent. The quotas are fixed. If you want to grow sugar beets in your backyard and sell the sugar to USDA at the favorable support price, too bad for you. You only get a quota if you already have a quota.

As for tariffs, the 2008 Farm Bill requires 85 percent of total sugar in the United States to be produced domestically, and allows only 15 percent to be imported. That 15 percent is distributed through quotas awarded to about 20 countries.

Above and beyond the quotas, imported sugar is subject to high tariffs. Mexico is an exception. Under NAFTA, Mexico gets to sell us as much sugar as it wants at the favored price. However, few countries in Africa hold quotas. What if you are an African cane-growing country and want the high quota price for your sugar? Not a chance.

Imports are never supposed to top 15 percent, so the USDA can’t increase the percentage. But we participate in the World Trade Organization, which obligates us to take world market sugar. Oops. These policies don’t match. Processed food makers must think the contradictions will allow the USDA to let in more sugar. Maybe, but the legalities are not yet decided.

Mind you, sugar producers and processors love this system. They argue that it keeps jobs in rural America and eliminates dependence on foreign sugar imports. To make sure nobody scrutinizes the system too carefully, they formed cooperatives to avoid antitrust laws.

Sugar producers are among the most generous and equal-opportunity contributors to congressional election campaigns, giving to both Democrats and Republicans. For decades, administrations of both parties have tried to end sugar supports. No such luck.

A shift’s brewing

Policies may change, because the gap between the prices for domestic and world market sugar – and for high fructose corn syrup – has narrowed recently. Sugar is now at war with HFCS. As HFCS is increasingly known as a key junk food ingredient, manufacturers are rushing to replace it with sucrose, which they can tout as “natural and unprocessed.”

Other sugar issues are also ripe for comedy. Most sugar beets are now genetically modified, leading many companies to avoid using beet sugar. In the South, sugar cane production pollutes the Everglades, which is costing billions of dollars to clean up. Investigative reporters are riveted by the feudalistic labor practices of sugar plantations.

And then there’s Cuba. Until the Castro revolution, that’s where we got most of our imported sugar. When relations improve, will Cuba get a sugar quota?

If sugar is responsible for any true crisis, it is because of its role as an ingredient in processed foods. Cheap sugar reduces the cost of candy and soft drinks. Cheap junk foods are highly profitable. Otherwise, our sugar policies make no sense in today’s global marketplace.

But we would be healthier eating less sugar, anyway. So here’s my solution to the non-crisis: Eat less sugar!

Sep 19 2009

Request for financial disclosure

Someone whom I do not know, Zhiqi Yin, sent this message to this site in two places today:

I saw this on Twitter. “I am so sick of food Nazis like Marion Nestle who makes lots of money criticizing others. Marion, disclose who is paying you and $ you make.”  Kindly tell your audience when can we expect to see your financial disclosure telling us how much you make from writing books critical of the food industry, money you receive from speaking and other engagements, and grant and consulting money and your sources? Thank you.

Despite its unfriendly tone, the question is an important one in an era when opinion is so easily bought and sold, and evidence so increasingly demonstrates the influence of corporate funding on the outcome of tobacco, drug, and food research.

The purpose of food company influence is of course to increase sales and profits. In contrast, the goals of public health are to improve dietary intake and other health behaviors so that people will live longer and more active and productive lives.  Those of us devoted to public health, however, often find that our goals conflict with those of sales and profit.

As I explained in my book, Food Politics, I am in an unusual position for an academic researcher and I take the resp0nsibility that comes with this position quite seriously.  I am a tenured professor at New York University, a job that requires teaching, research, and public service (of which this blog is part).  For doing these things, I receive a full, hard-money salary that allows me to remain independent of corporate influence and gives me the freedom to write and speak as I think.   I do not need grants to do my research and writing.  I accept honoraria from some speaking engagements (these take substantial preparation and travel time), compensation for some writing assignments (ditto), and occasional royalties from sales of my books (which take years to research and write).  To fulfill my professorial obligations, I do not need to consult for pay or accept honoraria from food companies or other for-profit enterprises.

I wish that my books were best sellers.  I wish everyone would read them and think hard about what they say.   And I wish that more nutrition academics and professionals could be independent of corporate influence.

I am able to take full responsibility for what I think, say, and write.  I am paid to say what I think, not what someone else wants me to think or because what I write or say will help sell food products.   This is indeed a privilege and I am grateful for it.

Sep 18 2009

USDA says: Eat Local! HHS says: Prevent!

Really, we have to rethink USDA.  It has just awarded $4.8 million grants to community groups to promote local agriculture as part of a $65 millioncampaign to Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.  Local food!

And HHS, not to be outdone, is awarding $650 million in grants for community initiatives to improve diets and get people more active.  Prevention!

OK, these are tiny fractions of the Departments’ budgets but I read them as symbolic steps in a new and terrific direction.  More of the same, please.

Sep 17 2009

Soda taxes: the new frontier

If I read the tea leaves correctly, soda taxes are on their way.  Kelly Brownell and Tom Friedan broached the idea earlier this year.  York state tried and failed to implement them.

Since then, as we learn more about the role of sugary drinks as a factor in obesity, public health support for the idea is growing.  Last week, Jim Knickman, President of NYSHealth wrote an op-ed in the New York Post in favor of the taxes.    Now the New England Journal of Medicine – as prestigious a journal as they come – is publishing another article from  Brownell, Frieden, et al on the public health and economic benefits of taxing sugary soft drinks.

And the evidence accumulates daily.  Children and adults who habitually drink sodas are more likely to be obese and have worse diets than those who do not.  The latest study from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and a policy research group at UCLA makes just this point.

The study found that 41 percent of children (ages 2 – 11), 62 percent of adolescents (ages 12 – 17) and 24 percent of adults drink at least one soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage every day. Regardless of income or ethnicity, adults who drink one or more sodas or other sugar-sweetened beverages every day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.

The result of all this is what the New York Times is calling in its print headline, “tempest in a soda bottle.”  I’d call it a Category 5 hurricane.

As I love to point out, it did not used to be OK for kids to drink sodas all day long.  Now it is.  Taxes might encourage some changes in these recent practices.  It will be interesting to watch this idea progress.

Later in the day: as for pushback, here is a link to the ad from the “Americans Against Food Taxes.”  Why am I thinking this is an astroturf client of the Center for Consumer Freedom?  Just a wild guess.

Sep 16 2009

You don’t like Smart Choices? Act now!

I’ve just been contacted by Mike Smith of Change.org.  This group is organizing a letter-writing campaign about the Smart Choices program.  You don’t know what this is about?  See previous posts.  Here’s what he says:

At Change.org we are also outraged by the Smart Choices program and are concerned that members of the American Dietetic Association and nutrition experts are allied with Smart Choices, happy to mislead the public about what constitutes a healthy / smart choice. We’ve already had 3,000 people email the Smart Choices panel demanding they stop shilling for Kellogg’s and better support consumers in this action campaign…We’ve had big successes in the recent weeks — we got the Department of Labor to release its list of slave made goods to consumers, had Chipotle agree to better rights for their tomato farmers, and persuaded Live Nation to cancel concerts by an anti-gay musician. Having you on board will hopefully tip the balance and encourage the Smart Choices board to make crucial changes that won’t allow Froot Loops to be presented as a Smart Choice.

How about adding your voice to the protest against the Smart Choices program, or what has now become known as the “Better than a Doughnut” program?  It’s easy to do.   Just click on this link.   Thanks Mike.

Update September 18:  Here’s another good reason to be concerned about this program.  It was paid for by industry to the tune of $1.47 million, according to Forbes.

Sep 15 2009

Correction: Food safety information in TWO places!

I spoke too soon (see previous post).  For government food safety information, try www.foodsafety.gov.   Bill Marler, the lawyer whose Seattle firm represents victims of food poisonings, has just launched www.foodsafetynews.com.  These will be covering much of the same information, but from distinctly different perspectives, I’m willing to bet.  It will be instructive – and fun – to compare!  Cheers to both for putting all that information in one place.

Sep 14 2009

USDA to define “natural”

I can hardly believe it but the USDA is about to define what “natural” means for meat and poultry products (on the link, look for Docket No. FSIS-2006-0040A).

At the moment, the USDA has two definitions of “natural.”  Its Food Safety and Inspection Service says meat and poultry can be labeled “natural” if they are only minimally processed and don’t have any artificial flavorings, colorings, preservatives, or other additives.   But the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has its own ideas.  It says “naturally raised” means the meat must come from animals raised with no hormone growth promoters, no antibiotics, and no animal by-products.  Hmm.  How about all of the above?

Let’s hear applause for the new USDA administration for taking this on.  OK FDA: now it’s your turn!

Sep 11 2009

Food safety information: all in one place!

If you are trying to keep up with food safety information – and trust me, this is not for the faint-hearted – it has just gotten a little bit easier.  The government has launched a new site at http://www.foodsafety.gov/index.html.  If we can’t have a single food agency, we can at least have a single food safety site.  It’s got a widget to track outbreaks, links to regulatory information, and plenty of advice for consumers.  Now, if Congress would just pass some decent food safety laws….

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