Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 22 2010

The source of E. coli 0145?

Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who represents victims of food poisonings, consistently urges federal food safety agencies to reveal what they know so consumers can protect themselves from unsafe food.

He is especially annoyed that the FDA has not revealed the name of the farm in Yuma, Arizona, linked to the bagged romaine lettuce that has sickened more than 30 people in several states so far with the unusual form of E. coli, 0145.

Marler knows how to get information (although not always accurate results, apparently – see update below).  He first offered $5,000–and later offered $10,000–as a reward to anyone who revealed the name of the farm before the FDA did (the money goes to charity).  He got two takers. Both identified a particular firm in California as the source.

Update, May 22:  I received a message today from Leslie Krasny, partner in the law firm of  Keller and Heckman, LLP, San Francisco, which represents the farm named by those sources.  She advises me that there is no evidence linking her client’s romaine lettuce to the outbreak and that her client is not even under investigation by the FDA.  She asks that I delete reference to her client, which I have done.  Mr. Marler also has done so.

May 20 2010

What is a small farm? Can it survive?

Many of us have been heartened to learn that the number of small farms in the U.S. is increasing for the first time in a century.  The latest Census of Agriculture reports more small farms in 2007 than in 2002.

But the USDA, which tracks such things in reports such as the recent Small Farms in the United States: Persistence Under Pressure, offers a less optimistic message.

According to the authors of that report, defining a small farm is not so easy to do.   As they explain:

USDA defines a small farm as an operation with gross cash farm income under $250,000. Within that group are commercial and noncommercial farms. The number of small commercial farms – with sales of $10,000 to $250,000 – actually fell between 2002 and 2007….

In fact, all of the growth occurred among farms under $1,000 in sales…Most of these operations are better described as rural residences; the households on these farms – and on many other small farms – rely heavily on off-farm income.

Although most (91%) of U.S. farms are small, farms earning $250,000 and above account for 85 percent of the market value of agricultural production.

I’m surprised by these figures and wonder whether the USDA data capture the young farmers I keep hearing about who are producing for farmers’ markets and CSAs.  The ones I meet tell me they are making a living.  If so, I hope that means they are doing better than $1000 per year.  If not, we need the USDA to work with them to make sure they do.  Small farms grow food, not feed.  We need more of them.

May 19 2010

Here’s a thought: bring back Home Ec

Harvard pediatrician David Ludwig and Tufts professor Alice Lichtenstein team up in a JAMA commentary with a novel idea.  How about re-introducing home economics into the school curriculum!

Girls and boys should be taught the basic principles they will need to feed themselves and their families within the current food environment: a version of hunting and gathering for the 21st century. Through a combination of pragmatic instruction, field trips, and demonstrations, this curriculum would aim to transform meal preparation from an intimidating chore into a manageable and rewarding pursuit.

…Obesity presently costs society almost $150 billion annually in increased health care expenditures. The personal and economic toll of this epidemic will only increase as this generation of adolescents develops weight-related complications such as type 2 diabetes earlier in life than ever before. From this perspective, providing a mandatory food preparation curriculum to students throughout the country may be among the best investments society could make.

May 17 2010

White House says 1.5 trillion calories to be cut from food supply?

I’m in California but fortunately was up early enough to participate in an unexpected White House conference call.  This was a preview of the press conference held this afternoon to announce food company pledges to reduce the calories in their products by 1.5 trillion by 2015.  As the press release explains, the 16 food company members of the  Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF)

are pledging to take actions aimed at reducing 1.5 trillion product calories by the end of 2015. As an interim step to this goal, HWCF will seek to reduce calories by 1 trillion in 2012.

The energy gap?  That’s the 1.5 trillion excess calories that Americans consume each year on average.  This number assumes that the American population consumes an excess of 100 calories a day (the kids’ gap is less).  This number comes from some unexplained manipulation of 100 calories x 365 days per year x 300 million Americans.

How will food companies do this?

Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation manufacturing companies will pursue their calorie reduction goals by growing and introducing lower-calorie options; changing product recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products; or reducing portion sizes of existing single-serve products. These changes will help Americans reduce their calorie intake, improve their overall nutrition and close the energy gap.

How will we know they will actually do this?

To assess the impact of the pledge, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) will support a rigorous, independent evaluation of how the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation’s efforts to reduce calories in the marketplace affect calories consumed by children and adolescents. RWJF will publicly report its findings.

What are we to make of all this?  Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt?*  History suggests the latter possibility.  Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products without doing anything, and every promise helps stave off regulation.

On the other hand, the RWJF evaluation sounds plenty serious, and top-notch people are involved in it.  If the companies fail to do as promised, this will be evident and evidence for the need for regulation.

As I explained to Jane Black of the Washington Post, the White House efforts to tackle childhood obesity have been consistent and relentless.  What the White House is doing is holding food companies to the fire for making kids fat. That’s awkward for the companies.  They don’t see it as good for business.  Hence the agreement to change.

What the White House has not been able to get are similar pledges about marketing to kids, but that – and front-of-package labeling – are clearly the next targets.

So let’s give Michelle Obama a big hand for taking this on.  I will be watching for the evaluation with great interest although I hate the idea that we have to wait until 2015 to see the results.

*Added comment: see Michele Simon’s considerably less optimistic post on this.  As she puts it, “who needs policy when you’ve got promises?”

Update May 18: FoodSafetyNews covered the event.  The Atlantic’s political editor is skeptical and notes the absence of a

Calorie Measuring Authority, and the science of counting calories is not as exact as one might think. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which helped to put together today’s event, spent $1 million in the first quarter of 2010 on lobbying, much of it for the maintenance of corn subsidies.

May 15 2010

Lobbying and farm subsidies

It’s hard for mere mortals to track the extent of food lobbying and its effects on, for example, farm subsidies.

Thanks to the Yale Rudd Center for setting up a lobbying data base where you can track who spends money on what.  It is searchable by year, issue, and sponsor.

And thanks to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for setting up a data base for tracking farm subsidies.  This, as I mentioned in an earlier post, linked subsidies to specific farms in specific locations.  Uh oh.  EWG can’t do that any more.  According to EWG:

Our 2007 database used previously unavailable records to uncover nearly 500,000 individuals who had never been identified as farm subsidy recipients. Many had been shielded by their involvement in byzantine mazes of co-ops and corporate entity shell games. For example, the database revealed that Florida real estate developer Maurice Wilder, reportedly worth $500 million, was pulling in almost $1 million a year in farm subsidies for corn farms he owns in several states.

Unfortunately for our 2010 update, the data that provided such a revelatory account of just who receives the billions paid out in the maze of federal farm subsidy programs is no longer available to us.

Why not?

That’s because Congress changed the wording of the 1614 provision in the 2008 farm bill from USDA “shall” release such data to USDA “may” release such data. USDA has since decided not to release the information. According to USDA officials, the database can cost as much as $6.7 million to produce, and Congress did not appropriate money to compile the database.

This, says EWG, makes the Obama administration less forthcoming than the Bush administration.  Amazing, the effects of one word change on EWG’s – and our – ability to see why farm subsidies are so corrupt.

May 14 2010

Food (un)safety update: E. coli 0145 in Arizona lettuce and more

It’s deja vu all over again with the recent recall of bagged romaine lettuce contaminated with a toxic form of E. coli.  The lettuce came from a central wash-and-bag facility that sent products out to food service companies in several states making about 30 people sick so far.

The one new development is the strain of E. coli: 0145, not O157:H7.  Despite decades of worry that other STECs (Shiga Toxin-producing strains of E. coli) cause serious human illness, state health departments don’t routinely test for 0145.  Clearly, they need to.

The FDA and CDC are both working on this case.

FoodSafetyNews.com has a complete report on the situation to date.  It examines the possible source of 0145 in a three-part series:

Meanwhile, the USDA issued compliance guidelines for reducing Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry.  That’s nice, but what about STECs?

And the GAO has just issued a new report, FDA Could Strengthen Oversight of Imported Food by Improving Enforcement and Seeking Additional Authorities (don’t you love those titles?).  The report focuses on weaknesses in FDA’s oversight of food imports.

FoodQualityNews.com has a short but tough summary:

There are about 189,000 registered foreign sites where food is made for sale in the United States, according to the report. Of those, the FDA inspected just 153 in 2008…Meanwhile, the amount of food imported into the United States is increasing, and now accounts for 15 percent of the total food supply, including 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood.

What more evidence do we need for the urgency of passing food safety legislation?  Reminder: the Senate has been sitting on a food safety bill since the House passed it last August.  Apparently, this Congress this food safety can wait.  Tell that to the people who got sick from eating bagged romaine lettuce.

May 13 2010

White House Task Force on Obesity reports in

This report, Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within A Generation, is a terrific summary of where we stand today on childhood obesity (“the challenge we face”) and what to do about it. The report wants to reduce rates of child obesity to where they were before all this started:

That means returning to a childhood obesity rate of just 5% by 2030. Achieving this goal will require “bending the curve” fairly quickly, so that by 2015, there will be a 2.5% reduction in each of the current rates of overweight and obese children, and by 2020, a 5% reduction.

This seems so modest that it might actually be achievable.

Like most such plans, this one has way too many recommendations, in this case, 70 (the summary table starts on page 89).  These are divided up in categories.  For example:

Recommendations for early childhood

  • Educate and help women conceive at a healthy weight and have a healthy weight gain during pregnancy
  • Encourage and support breastfeeding
  • Prioritize research into chemicals in the environment that may cause or worsen obesity
  • Educate and support parents in efforts to reduce kids’ TV and media time
  • Improve nutrition and physical activity practices in child nutrition programs.

For empowering parents and caregivers:

  • Government should work with local communities to promote the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the 2010 food pyramid.
  • USDA and FDA should work with the food and beverage industry to develop standard nutrition labels for packages.
  • Restaurants and vending machines should display calorie counts of all items offered.
  • The food and beverage industry should extend its voluntary self-regulation to restrict all forms of marketing to children. If this does not happen, federal regulation should be considered
  • Media and entertainment companies should limit licensing of popular characters to healthy food and beverage products
  • Insurance plans should cover services needed to help prevent, assess, and care for child obesity.

For healthier food in schools

  • Update federal standards for school meals and improve the nutritional quality of USDA foods provided to schools.
  • Increase funding for school meals.
  • Encourage schools to upgrade cafeteria equipment to support healthier foods. Example: Swap deep fryers for salad bars.
  • Connect school meal programs to local growers and encourage farm-to-school programs.
  • Improve nutritional education in schools and make it more available.
  • Increase the use of school gardens to educate about healthy eating.
  • Promote healthy behaviors in juvenile correction facilities.

For improving access to healthy foods

  • Launch a multi-agency “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” to make healthy foods more available in underserved urban and rural communities.
  • Encourage local governments to attract grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods
  • Encourage facilities that serve children (e.g., hospitals, recreation centers, and parks) to promote healthy foods and beverages.
  • Provide economic incentives to increase production of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Evaluate the effect of targeted subsidies on purchases of healthy foods through nutrition assistance programs.
  • Study the effects of state and local sales taxes on calorie-dense foods.

For increasing kids’ physical activity

  • School programs should stress physical activity as much as healthy nutrition.
  • State and local school programs should increase the quality and frequency of age-appropriate physical education taught by certified PE teachers.
  • Promote recess for elementary school students and activity breaks for older students.
  • Federal, state, and local agencies should partner with communities and businesses to extend the school day in order to offer physical activity programs.
  • The EPA should assist communities building new schools to place them on sites that encourage walking or biking to school.
  • Increase the number of safe playgrounds and parks, particularly in low-income communities.
  • Encourage entertainment and technology companies to continue developing new ways to engage kids in physical activity.

Good ideas, but there are some things I’m not so crazy about here.  The plan seems awfully voluntary and let’s be pals and all work together. Voluntary, as evidence demonstrates, does not work for the food industry.  Much leadership will be needed to make this plan work.  But these recommendations should give advocates plenty of inspiration to continue working on these issues.

The Washington Post has a particularly good summary of the key recommendations, and singles out the ones aimed at marketing to kids.

Jane Black of the Washington Post is cautiously optimistic.  Me too.

May 12 2010

IOM wants just as rigorous science for food claims as for drugs

Buried in an Institute of Medicine report released today on, of all things, “biomarkers and surrogate endpoints in chronic disease” are some truly astonishing recommendations:

Rec. 3: The FDA should use the same degree of scientific rigor for evaluation of biomarkers across regulatory areas, whether they’re proposed for use in the arenas of drugs, medical devices, biologics, or foods and dietary supplements.

Rec. 4: The FDA should take into account a nutrient’s or food’s source as well as any modifying effects of the food or supplement that serves as the delivery vehicle and the dietary patterns associated with consumption of the nutrient or food when reviewing health-related label claims and the safety of food and supplements.

Translation: The FDA should require the same level of scientific substantiation for health claims as for pharmaceutical drugs, and not assume that a supplement has the same health effect as a food or diet.

As the press release states:

The FDA should apply the same rigor to evaluating the science behind claims of foods’ and nutritional supplements’ health benefits as it devotes to assessing medication and medical technology approvals…There are no scientific grounds for using different standards of evidence when evaluating the health benefits of food ingredients and drugs given that both can have significant impacts on people’s well-being.

The committee set out to recommend scientific criteria for evaluating the types of scientific data that companies use to convince the FDA to allow health and safety claims.  Food claims got tossed into the mix. 

The impact of these recommendations could be considerable.  The IOM is saying that health claims need to have rigorous science to back them up, not least because the kinds of claims now used to market foods do not come close to meeting those criteria.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal has to say about this report (it quotes me).

How right they are, as witnessed by the health claims on chocolate-flavored, sugar-sweetened Enfagrow.

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