Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 26 2010

Food safety: what about Pasteurized milk?

Taking about raw milk stirs up a can of worms, with plenty of ideology governing opinions on all sides.  My posting of Bill Marler’s list of recent raw milk outbreaks a couple of days ago elicited much heat and one appropriate question: How do raw milk outbreaks compare to outbreaks from Pasteurized milk.

People must be asking Marler the same question, because he has just answered it.   Outbreaks from pasteurized milk products do occur, but they are rare, especially because far more people drink Pasteurized than raw milk.    Here is his summary table.  He puts the supporting documentation on the real raw milk facts website.

And here is the CDC’s Q and A on raw milk.

My view: yes, people should have the right to drink raw milk if they want to, but they need to know—and take responsibility for—the risks.  And everyone who produces raw milk should use a HACCP (preventive control) plan and stick to it in letter and in spirit.

Addition: I’ve just been sent links to three Los Angeles Times stories about a raid (with drawn guns, yet) on a Venice grocery store selling raw milk.  A long piece explains what this is about and includes a video of the raid.  A third story talks about the debates about raw milk, also with a video.

Jul 25 2010

Eric Schlosser on Senate food-dragging on food safety

Eric Schlosser has an excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times, Unsafe at any meal.”

You would think, he points out, that a bill that passed the House nearly a year ago,

with such broad support, on a public health issue of such fundamental importance, would easily reach the floor of the Senate for a vote. But it has been languishing, stuck in some legislative limbo. Food processors reluctant to oppose the bill openly will be delighted if it dies a quiet death.

How come?

because, right now, very few cases of food poisoning are ever actually linked to what the person ate, and companies that sell contaminated products routinely avoid liability. The economic cost is instead imposed on society. …Without tough food safety rules, a perverse economic incentive guides the marketplace. Adulterated food is cheaper to produce than safe food. Since consumers cannot tell the difference between the two, companies that try to do the right thing are forced to compete with companies that couldn’t care less.

As for the concerns of small farmers:

For months, however, the Internet has been rife with wild rumors and accusations: that the bill is really a subterfuge cleverly designed to eliminate small farms and strengthen the grip of industrial agriculture; that it would outlaw organic production; that it would hand over the nation’s food supply to Monsanto.   Those arguments may be sincere. But the bill very clearly instructs the Food and Drug Administration to focus its enforcement efforts on plants that pose the greatest risk of causing large-scale outbreaks.

What’s holding up this bill?  Nothing but politics of the worst kind.  Lives are at stake here and everyone who cares about our food system should be urging the Senate to get moving.  Thanks Eric for writing this piece.  I hope it helps.

Jul 24 2010

Recent food safety problems caused by raw milk

It’s a hot weekend and I’m feeling lazy, so I will do a bit of borrowing and reproduce Bill Marler’s summary of year-to-date illnesses caused by raw milk products (click on the chart to make it bigger and easier to read).

On his website devoted to the topic, www.realrawmilkfacts.com, Marler presents a litigator’s view of the issues related to raw milk, with plenty of documents to back of his position.

My view: everyone who produces food should produce safe food.  If I were producing raw milk, I’d be testing it like mad to make sure it didn’t harbor dangerous pathogens, but that’s just me.

Jul 23 2010

Latest food safety challenge: chocolate yogurt

I never cease to be amazed by the problems that food technologists worry about. 

A German chocolate company—and the state of Schleswig-Holstein—are funding $2 million worth of research to find a method to safely add chocolate pieces to yogurt.

Why is the safety of chocolate in yogurt a problem?  Yogurt is wet and dissolves the sugar crystals in chocolate, making it messy.  Worse, chocolate is not sterile and yogurt is an ideal bacterial growth medium.

Sterilizing chocolate, it seems, is not easy:

The constituents of the cocoa are very sensitive. Excessively high temperatures and incorrect cleaning, roasting, grinding or conching impair the quality of the finished chocolate pieces. All that has to be taken into account when you are developing new sterilisation techniques.

Researchers, get busy!  Please, please solve this problem right away.

And in the meantime, for those of you desperate for chocolate in your yogurt, how about tossing in a handful of M&Ms?



Jul 22 2010

Kellogg’s drops health claims from cereal boxes (sort of)

Kellogg announced yesterday that won’t put health claims on at least some of its cereal boxes.  According to reports, “Kellogg’s FiberPlus Antioxidants Cereals do not make health claims, but rather state the amount of fiber and antioxidants on the front of pack [my emphasis].”

FibrePlus Antioxidant brand is formulated to deliver 35 to 40 percent of a consumer’s daily fiber (depending on variety) along with antioxidant vitamins C and E.

Take a look at the packages.

According to FDA regulations, describing the level of antioxidant nutrients present in a food is a nutrient content claim, not a health claim.  Even so, such claims are only allowed if the nutrients have an established Reference Daily Intake.  Antioxidant vitamins C and E do have RDIs, so this must mean that what Kellogg is doing is OK.

OK, so labeling the package with antioxidants, fiber, and whole grains does not constitite a health claim.  Kellogg is not pretending that these things actually DO anything special for health.

It doesn’t have to.  By this time, everyone knows that these nutrients are the ones you are supposed to be eating.  Does an implied health claim differ from an  overt health claim?  You  have to decide this for yourself.

Do not expect the FDA to help.  As I discussed a couple of days ago, these kinds of things cannot be an FDA priority—unless Congress decides they should be.

Jul 21 2010

Be green and healthy: eat less meat?

How can food producers become more sustainable? Use less meat in their products.

Rita Jane Gabbett writes today on Meatingplace.com, a meat industry site, about a talk given by Cheryl Baldwin of Green Seal at a recent meeting of the Institute for Food Technologists.

She told Meatingplace that meat producers should better understand “the production methods used to feed and raise animals, making sure they are treated humanely and looking for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of processing methods.” She also said that “grass-fed animals created a lower carbon footprint than those that were grain fed.”

One can only imagine the reaction of meat producers to her comments.

Meatingplace noted:

Earlier this year, however, a study by the University of New South Wales published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology indicated beef produced in feedlots had a slightly smaller carbon footprint than meat raised exclusively on pastures. (See Feedlot beef could be “greener” than grass-fed: study on Meatingplace, Feb. 8, 2010.)

More recently, Washington State University scientists concluded that improvements in U.S. beef industry productivity have reduced the environmental impact of beef production over the past decade. (See Better beef industry practices have reduced carbon footprint on Meatingplace July 15, 2010.

This follows soon after the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report’s advice to:

Shift food intake patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. In addition, increase the intake of seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products and consume only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, and eggs.

To the meat industry, advice about health and sustainability must come as a serious challenge. Keep an eye on the “eat less meat” theme. My guess is that we will be hearing a lot more about it.

Jul 20 2010

UK Food Standards Agency stripped of responsibilities

Britain has, as threatened, split up its Food Standards Agency (roughly equivalent to our FDA).  The split only applied to FSA in England.  Its role in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales remains the same for the moment.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the precipitating cause of the new government’s distress about the FSA was—incredible as it seems—the agency’s support of traffic-light front-of-package labeling. 

In its new configuration, FSA keeps its food safety functions.  Its nutrition and labeling functions go to the Department of Health.  Its country-of-origin and other non-labeling policies go to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Surprise!  The UK Food and Drink Federation thinks this is a terrific move.

As the voice of the UK food and drink manufacturing sector, we believe it is important to maintain an independent food safety regulator and fully support today’s decision by the Government to retain the Food Standards Agency…We also support the decision to move responsibility for nutrition, and other food policy issues, back into Government departments…This should lead to clearer and more consistent policy making, while avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort across Whitehall.

FSA may be keeping its food safety responsibilities, but Food Safety News reports that the agency hasn’t been doing such a great job with them.  FSA’s most recent  Annual Report says that it did not achieve its target for reduction of Campylobacter infections.  It also failed to reach targets for reductions in salt and saturated fat.

Under the new division of responsibility, salt and fat are no longer FSA’s problem.  The Health Department will be dealing with them—or not.

Given the industry-friendly bent of the new new health minister, expect considerable backing off from previous FSA policies. 

England is not setting a good example for our FDA, alas.

As for what FDA can and cannot do, see Michael Taylor’s post on the Atlantic Food Channel.  In discussing why the FDA isn’t taking a more vigorous enforcement stance against unsubstantiated health claims on food products, Taylor says:

We have no pre-market review authority over such claims, and, under prevailing legal doctrines concerning “commercial free speech,” the evidentiary requirements placed on FDA to prove that such claims are misleading are significant and costly to meet. Moreover, meeting them requires tapping the same team of nutritionists, labeling experts, and lawyers who are working on our other nutrition initiatives.

If they go after health claims, he says, it’s a losing proposition:

We’re also conscious of the cleverness of marketing folks, who, once we prove today’s claim is misleading, can readily come up with another one tomorrow. Going after them one-by-one with the legal and resource restraints we work under is a little like playing Whac-a-Mole, with one hand tied behind your back.

What he doesn’t point out nearly strongly enough, in my opinion, is that doing something about health claims rests with Congress.  Congress passes laws.  The FDA’s job is to enforce them.  Congress needs to give the FDA the tools it needs to protect the public and promote public health. 

And that, of course, brings us back to the food safety bill that has been sitting in the Senate for the last 11 months.  If Congress can’t even get that passed, it’s hard to be optimistic about its doing anything reasonable about misleading health claims.

Jul 19 2010

Does science support food health claims?

I think not nearly well enough, but you would never know it from listening to food manufacturers. 

Let’s start with Europe.  Health claims are a big deal there these days, as the agency dealing with them, EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), copes with thousands of petitions.

In June,  EFSA representatives complained that the “scientific” evidence submitted by food companies to support their petitions included—get this—“excerpts from the Old Testament, Wikipedia, a Tea Association press release, a Royal Air Force report and the American Heritage Dictionary.”

The NDA panel, which is responsible for assessing the mountain of health claims applications submitted under the Regulation, said that along with the expected references to clinical studies published in peer-reviewed academic journals, it had also been presented with references from Wikipedia, press releases, dictionaries, the Bible and even an RAF report.

Trying to make sense of translations of references from other languages into English had presented additional difficulties, while ‘clarifications’ provided by some applicants in response to requests for further information had been confusing or inadequate, further delaying the process.

The quality of this evidence, says EFSA, is ‘far from optimal.”  Indeed.

From the food industry point of view, however, scientific substantiation of health claims presents pesky barriers.  Moving on to the United States, a food industry commentator asks:

We’re talking about the biggest food companies in the world being told the claims that help sell some of their foods are deceptive and misleading….And them agreeing to change or withdraw the claims…Er sorry… but why go along with it if you stand by the science?…Is the science there or not? Do these products (a probiotic drink and an antioxidant-boosted cereal) work or not?…Does the problem lie with the nutrition science itself (not enough clinically backed, human intervention trial-demonstrated, positive associations), or the way the science is being interpreted by regulators and companies that wish to express some of that science in their marketing materials?

Good questions.  As I read the literature, the more carefully done studies of functional ingredients tend to show the least benefit. 

As I keep saying, functional foods are about marketing, not health.

Page 179 of 325« First...177178179180181...Last »