Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 18 2009

USDA’s food assistance programs: 2008 report

The USDA has just published three new reports about food assistance.  The first is the 2008 annual report on these programs. The USDA spent nearly $61 billion of taxpayers’ money on food and nutrition assistance programs for low-income individuals and families last year, 11% more than in 2007.  Overall, 2008 was the eighth year in a row that the total amount spent on these programs set an all-time record.

WIC (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children) is among the most important of these programs.  Even though it is not an entitlement and serves only about half of the women and children who are eligible for benefits, its enrollments are astonishing.  About half of all of the infants in the U.S. are enrolled in it as are about one quarter of all children 1 to 4 years old.

Rates of obesity are higher among children enrolled in WIC than they are in comparable populations.  Does this mean that WIC promotes obesity in low-income children?  The evidence suggests not, but Mexican-American participants have especially high rates of obesity.

I’m still trying to get my head around what it means that half of U.S. infants are born into families so poor that they are eligible for WIC benefits.  Even so, these are just the infants whose families get into the program.  What about all the ones who are eligible but can’t get in because all the places are filled?  Most children born in America are poor?  Isn’t something wrong with this picture?  And what can be done about it?

Apr 17 2009

One food safety system: a vision

The New York Times, in an editorial “Food safety, one pistachio at a time,” says “it is time to think seriously about establishing one federal agency to coordinate and enforce food-safety regulations.”  And Michael Taylor and Stephanie David of the George Washington University Department of Health Policy provide a major position paper arguing that food safety must be a joint effort among federal, state, and local health agencies to address risks across “the farm-to-table spectrum of food production, processing, distribution, retailing, and home preparation.”  Let’s hope Congress is listening as it ponders the various bills introduced to fix the FDA or fix the entire food safety system.

Apr 16 2009

Europe demands scientific support for health claims. Why can’t we?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has just rejected a proposal from Merck to allow it to use a health claim stating that omega-3 supplements promote  eye and brain health in infants.  Merck wants moms to take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy and give such supplements to their infants.  EFSA reviewed nearly 90 studies on this topic and concluded that the study results were not “informative.”    In other words, they showed no benefit.  Imagine.  The EFSA demands scientific substantiation of health claims.  I wish we could do that.

Here’s another example from the pomegranate folks.  They do brilliant advertising, but this time the British are complaining that these marketers went too far when they posted billboards stating that pomegranate (“antioxidant powerhouse”) juice will help you cheat death.  The British advertising standards agency balked.  Here too, pesky science gets in the way.  Studies not only fail to support a benefit of antioxidants but sometimes show harm.

Our Congress, however, forces FDA to permit health claims, no matter how absurd.  Try the FDA-allowed “qualified” health claim for omega-3’s: “supportive but not conclusive evidence  shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” [my emphasis].  The FDA allows omega-3’s to be added to infant formulas, but here’s what it says about them:  “The scientific evidence is mixed…There are no currently available published reports from clinical studies that address whether any long-term beneficial effects exist.”

The EFSA interprets all this as unworthy of a health claim.

What can the FDA do?  If it says there isn’t enough evidence, it gets sued and loses.  The courts tend to rule that food companies can say whatever they like about health benefits on the grounds of free speech and the First Amendment.

In January, the FDA published “guidance” for industry about how it plans to evaluate the scientific basis of health claims.     Guidance is just that.  It is non-binding.

Hello new administration.  How about taking a fresh look at the health claims situation and paying close attention to what regulators in Europe are doing.  How about considering just saying no to health claims.

Apr 15 2009

World food crisis: implications for U.S. agriculture

The intrepid economists at USDA* have published an analysis of what the current rise in food prices means for U.S. agriculture.  Their report provides a broad overview of the causes and effects of higher food prices.  The bottom line: the long-term effects are still uncertain but they will surely be worse for farmers in developing countries than for our own farmers.

But shouldn’t the USDA also be concerned about what’ will happen to Third World farmers?  If we are part of a global food system, don’t we have some global responsibility?

*The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) has produced an interactive report summarizing the kinds of research it does.  See if you agree with me that the ERS does invaluable work and performs a great public service.

Apr 14 2009

Choosing foods: salads, French fries, and supplements

In early April, the New York Times briefly reported the results of an eating behavior experiment.  Investigators asked college students to choose foods from menus that differed in only one feature; one menu offered a salad and the other did not.   The point?  To find out whether the presence of a salad on the menu influenced what else the students ate.   It did.   The students choose French fries more often from the menu with the salad.  The authors’ interpretation: the “health aura” of salads gives people permission to indulge.  Their paper will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Health aura explains a lot about current food marketing trends.  You may have noticed that vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3’s are added to everything these days.  Coupled with the downturn in the economy, health aura does wonders for sales of dietary supplements.  Despite underwhelming evidence for their effectiveness, supplements fly off the shelves.  They cost a lot less than health care (and, perhaps, do less harm).

Apr 13 2009

Busy weekend: the Obama’s First Puppy and Fixing the FDA

In case you were wondering about my thoughts on what the Obamas should be feeding their new First Puppy, I did an interview with Obama Foodorama on that very topic: “The Obamas get a new puppy and policy issues get unleashed.”

And for my latest column in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Full plate for Obama’s new FDA administrator,” I deal with the question of what the new FDA Commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, needs to do to fix the agency’s problems. She will need all the support we can give her.

Apr 11 2009

CDC says foodborne illnesses not budging

Well, at least foodborne illnesses aren’t getting worse says the CDC.  Surveillance data for ten states indicate little change in numbers of cases of most foodborne bacterial infections (Salmonella infections may be going up, but just by a little).   This is good or bad depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.  Optimists, like the meat industry, say whoopee! The system is working.  Pessimists, like those at the CDC and FDA who are quoted in the New York Times, say  the lack of improvement means that we must do something to improve the food safety system.  I vote with the pessimists on this one.

Apr 10 2009

Is free-range pork more contaminated than industrial pork?

My e-mail inbox is flooded with copies of an op-ed from today’s New York Times arguing that pigs running around outside have “higher rates” of Salmonella, toxoplasma, and, most alarming, trichina than pigs raised in factory farms. The writer,  James McWilliams, is a prize-winning historian at Texas State San Marcos whose forthcoming book is about the dangers of the locavore movement to the future of food.

I put “higher rates” in quotation marks because that is not what the study measured.  The study on which McWilliams based his op-ed is published in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. The investigators actually measured “seropositivity” (antibodies) in the pigs’ blood.  But the presence of antibodies does not necessarily mean that the animals – or their meat – are infected.  It means that the free-range pigs were exposed to the organisms at some point and developed immunity to them.  The industrial pigs were not exposed and did not develop immunity to these microorganisms.  But you would never know that from reading the op-ed.   How come?

Guess who paid for the study?  The National Pork Board, of course.

The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins has much to say about all this.  My point, as always, is that sponsored studies are invariably designed in ways that produce results favorable to the sponsor.    In this case, the sponsor represents industrial pork producers.

April 14 update:  the editors of the New York Times have added a note to the electronic version of Professor McWilliams’ op-ed pointing out the National Pork Board sponsorship of the study on which he based his piece.  And McWilliams rebuts arguments against his piece on the Atlantic Food Channel, while conceding that he may have gotten the science wrong.

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