Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 20 2010

Auditors find flaws in USDA’s oversight of organic standards

The USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report last week criticizing the agency’s oversight of the National Organic Program (NOP). The OIG said the USDA had followed some of the recommendations in its previous report (in 2005), but by no means all.

This report is a sharp critique of the last administration’s ambiguous enforcement of organic standards.  This new administration recruited Kathleen Merrigan to get the program back in shape and the agency says it is totally committed to doing so.

But the administrator of the program responded to the OIG audit with this comment: “The integrity of the organic label depends largely upon effective enforcement and oversight of the many accredited certifying agents responsible for reviewing organic operations.”

Largely?  I would say entirely.

USDA is an uncomfortable home for organics because its main goal is to support industrial agriculture.  For years, the NOP home page carried a statement that organic foods were not better than industrial foods.  I am happy to see that the statement is no longer there, but I’m guessing some old attitudes still remain.

USDA delegates organic oversight to certified inspection agencies.  These vary in diligence.  I constantly hear suspicions of fraud in the organic enterprise.  USDA needs to do everything it can to put those suspicions to rest.

Otherwise, why pay more for organic foods?

Mar 19 2010

The “let’s open a winery” video

Dear new foodists (I do love the term – see previous post): For some light entertainment over the weekend, try this short cartoon. A sommelier has a conversation with his wife on an otherwise empty New York subway.  Thanks to Rob Kaufelt of Murray’s Cheese for sending.

Mar 18 2010

What are food companies doing about childhood obesity?

Food companies interested in doing something meaningful to prevent childhood obesity are in a bind.  Preventing obesity usually means staying active; eating real, not processed, foods; and reserving soft drinks and juice drinks for special occasions.  None of this is good for the processed food business.  At best, food and beverage companies can make their products a bit less junky and back off from marketing to children.  In return, they can use the small changes they make for marketing purposes.

Perhaps as a result of Michelle Obama’s campaign (see yesterday’s post), companies are falling all over themselves – and with much fanfare – to tweak their products.

GROCERY MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION (GMA):  By all reports, GMA members applauded Mrs. Obama’s remarks.  GMA says its member companies are already doing what she asked.

Parke Wilde, a professor at the Tufts School of Nutrition (and food policy blogger), gave a talk at that meeting in a session dismissingly titled,  “The New Foodism.”  His comment:

I enjoyed hearing Michelle Obama’s talk, which was well written and delivered and fairly forceful in places. In my afternoon panel, I said grocery manufacturers would find some threatening themes in books and documentaries promoting local and organic and sustainable food, but that there is also much of substance and value. Then, Susan Borra [Edelman Public Relations] and Sally Squires [Powell Tate Public Relations] in the next session said that grocery manufacturers are frequent subjects of unfair criticism and have nothing to apologize for.

Take that, you new foodists!

MARS must think it knows more than the FDA about how to label food packages.  It is developing its own version of front-of-package labels. It volunteered to put calories on the front of its candies; its multi-pack candies ay 210 calories per serving on the front.  That number, however, remains on the back of the small candy store packs.  Mars’ new labeling plans use the complex scheme used in Europe.  I’m guessing this is a bold attempt to head off what it thinks the FDA might do – traffic lights.

KRAFT announces that it is voluntarily reducing the sodium in its foods by 10% by 2012.  Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese (SpongeBob package) has 580 mg sodium per serving and there are two servings in one of those small boxes: 1160 in total.  A 10% reduction will bring it down to 1050 mg within two years.  The upper recommended limit for an adult is 2300 mg/day.

PEPSICO announced “a voluntary policy to stop sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012.”  In a press statement, the Yale Rudd Center quotes Kelly Brownell saying that “tobacco companies were notorious for counteracting declining sales in the U.S. with exploitation of markets elsewhere, particularly in developing countries:”

it will be important to monitor whether the mere presence of beverage companies in schools increases demand for sugared beverages through branding, even if full-sugar beverages themselves are unavailable…This appears to be a good faith effort from a progressive company and I hope other beverage companies follow their lead…this announcement definitely represents progress [Note: see clarification at end of post].

According to PepsiCo, this new policy brings its international actions in line with what it is already doing in the U.S.  The policy itself is voluntary, uses words like “encourage,” assures schools that the company is not telling them what to do, and won’t be fully implemented until 2010.  It keeps vending machines in schools and still allows for plenty of branded sugary drinks: Gatorade, juice drinks, and sweetened milk for example.

Could any of this have anything to do with Kelly Brownell’s forceful endorsement of soda taxes?

LOBBYING: The Center for Responsive Politics says food companies spent big money on lobbying last year, and notes an enormous increase in the amount spent by the American Beverage Association (soda taxes, anyone?).  For example:

American Beverage Assn $18,850,000
Coca-Cola Co $9,390,000
PepsiCo Inc $9,159,500
Coca-Cola Enterprises $3,020,000
National Restaurant Assn $2,917,000
Mars Inc $1,655,000

How to view all this?  I see the company promises as useful first steps.  But how about the basic philosophical question we “new foodists” love to ask: “is a better-for-you junk food a good choice?”

OK.  We have the Public Relations.  Now let’s see what these companies really will do.

Addendum: I received a note clarifying Kelly Brownell’s role in the PepsiCo press release from Rebecca Gertsmark Oren,Communications Director,The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity,Yale University:

The Rudd Center did not work with PepsiCo on their initiative to stop sales of full-sugar beverages in schools worldwide, nor did we jointly issue a press release. A statement released by Kelly Brownell in response to PepsiCo’s announcement was simply intended to commend what appears to be a step in the right direction. As Kelly’s statement also mentioned, there is still plenty of work to be done. It’s also worth noting that the Rudd Center does not take funding from industry.

Mar 17 2010

Michelle Obama to Grocery Manufacturers: Let’s Move!

The First Lady spoke to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) yesterday about her campaign to prevent childhood obesity.  According to one witness, Marian Burros, she scolded them – politely and with humor – but told them in no uncertain terms “to stop fattening our children.”

The GMA is a tough audience for messages about childhood obesity.  It represents the makers of processed foods and beverages who have much to lose from efforts to get kids to eat less of their products.

The speech itself is a masterpiece of tact, but Mrs. Obama clearly gets the issues loud and clear.  Here are some excerpts:

  • we need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.
  • this needs to be a serious industry-wide commitment to providing the healthier foods parents are looking for at prices they can afford.
  • what it doesn’t mean is taking out one problematic ingredient, only to replace it with another. While decreasing fat is certainly a good thing, replacing it with sugar and salt isn’t.
  • it doesn’t mean compensating for high amounts of problematic ingredients with small amounts of beneficial ones — for example, adding a little bit of Vitamin C to a product with lots of sugar, or a gram of fiber to a product with tons of fat doesn’t suddenly make those products good for our kids.
  • This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy.
  • Parents are working hard to provide a healthy diet and to teach healthy habits — and we’d like to know that our efforts won’t be undermined every time our children turn on the TV or see a flashy display in a store.
  • what does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at their kids?
  • what are these ads teaching kids about food and nutrition? That it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day — breakfast, lunch, and dinner? That dessert is an everyday food? That it’s okay to eat unhealthy foods because they’re endorsed by the cartoon characters our children love and the celebrities our teenagers look up to?
  • if there is anyone here who can sell food to our kids, it’s you. You know what gets their attention. You know what makes that lasting impression. You know what gets them to drive their parents crazy in the grocery store.

Well done, Mrs. O.

Apparently, GMA members applauded her speech.  Let’s hope they act on it.

(Actually, they claim they are already fixing these problems.  More on that tomorrow).

As a mom, I know it is my responsibility — and no one else’s — to raise my kids.  But what does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at their kids?  And what are these ads teaching kids about food and nutrition?  That it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day — breakfast, lunch, and dinner?  That dessert is an everyday food? That it’s okay to eat unhealthy foods because they’re endorsed by the cartoon characters our children love and the celebrities our teenagers look up to?

Mar 16 2010

Cargill thinks beta-glucan is the new oat bran

In 2008, in response to a petition by Cargill, the FDA authorized a health claim for beta-glucan extracted from barley.  Beta-glucan is a form of soluble fiber similar to that from oats, psyllium, and other grains or from the cell walls of yeast.  It can help lower blood cholesterol levels and, therefore, the risk of coronary heart disease.

Cargill must think that beta-glucan will create another oat bran craze such as the one that occurred in the late 1980s.  Or at least that’s the impression given by the latest news from the U.K.: “Cargill says EFSA health claim will transform beverage fibre fortunes.”

The deal with beta-glucan is that it can be added to drinks (presumably sugary).  If so, the drinks can carry the claim:

3 grams per day of barley beta-glucan, as part of a diet low in saturated fat, and a healthy lifestyle, can help manage normal blood cholesterol (my emphasis).

Beta-glucan is a “functional” ingredient, meaning that it is something added to a food ostensibly to boost its health value.  But the entire point of functional ingredients is to be able to make health claims for them.  Health claims sell food products when nobody bothers to read the fine print.

Mar 15 2010

Nestlé’s 2009 report: Creating Shared Value

I’ve just gotten an announcement of Nestlé’s (no relation) latest corporate social responsibility activities.  It has released the 2009 version of its annual report: “Creating Shared Value.” By this, the company means that its activities that benefit society as well as its shareholders in three areas: water, nutrition, and rural development.

According to the report, Nestlé has achieved:

  • A 59% reduction of water withdrawal per ton of product since 2000.
  • More than 160,000 individual farmers and suppliers trained through capacity-building programs.
  • Significant improvements in greenhouse gas emissions, water use and creation of waste and by-products.
  • More than 7,200 products renovated for health considerations; over 3,300 now have reduced sugar, sodium, fats or artificial colors.

But wait.  Isn’t this the company that sold $102 billion worth of bottled water as well as chocolate candy, and ice cream last year?

Is Creating Shared Value a win-win?  Or is it an oxymoron?

Mar 14 2010

Join the home farming movement: Partner with Triscuits!

I like Triscuits (Nabisco/Kraft) and am especially fond of the “Hint of Salt” variety.  These only have three ingredients: whole grain soft white winter wheat, soybean oil, salt.  And the sodium is indeed relatively low – about 5 mg per cracker.

But I am always suspicious of corporate partnerships and alliances with advocacy groups.  So I am deeply disappointed not to find “Hint of Salt” Triscuits included in the Triscuit’s new “Home Farming” partnership:

JOIN THE MOVEMENT: From rural areas to urban communities, home farms are sprouting up all over the country. And it’s only just begun. Triscuit has created this site with help from Urban Farming, a non-profit organization, to help build a home farming community where both beginners and more seasoned gardeners can dialogue and gather information towards their common mission: to reap food that is deliciously fresh, penny-wise, healthier for themselves and the planet. It’s about home farming, and the everyday joy that grows out of it. So join us and let’s get farming!

OK.  So you can’t make this stuff up.

Apparently, only the saltier Original Triscuits qualify (whole wheat, soybean and/or palm oil, and three times as much salt) for home farming.  These “Original” boxes come embedded with basil seeds to get you started.  How come there aren’t any basil seeds in “Hint of Salt?”

MarketingDaily explains how this partnership with Urban Farming is promoting the creation of community farms, not to mention salty snacks.

Thanks to Michele Simon who posted on this.  Thanks also to Ellen Fried who wonders: “But how do home farmers grow Triscuits?”

Mar 13 2010

The fate of vitamins in vegetables, stored and cooked

Nothing about nutrition is simple.

I was intrigued by the Observatory column in the New York Times last week.  USDA researchers showed that supermarket spinach stored under continuous fluorescent light retained more vitamins than spinach stored in the dark for at least 9 days.  Their hypothesis: the light promotes continued photosynthesis and protects against degradation.

I was curious to know whether they measured vitamin C.  I checked the article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (February 2010, DOI: 10.1021/jf903596v).  Indeed they did.  This seems odd because this vitamin is well known to be degraded by light.  That is why orange juice is usually stored in opaque containers.  One explanation might be that orange juice is stored a lot longer than 9 days.

Cooking also destroys vitamin C.  While I was looking for that article I came across this one, which describes experiments looking at the effects of common cooking practices (boiling, microwaving, and steaming) on beneficial antioxidants and phytochemicals in Brussels sprouts.

Steaming increased phytochemicals in fresh and frozen sprouts.  Boiling did too, but only in the fresh vegetables.  Cooking reduced phytochemical content in frozen samples.  Microwaving was the best cooking method for retaining color and vitamin activity.  As expected, all cooking methods destroyed vitamin C.

So what to make of this?  Eat a mixture of cooked and uncooked vegetables and the vitamins will take care of themselves.  If you do cook, steaming is great and microwaving is better for preserving vitamin activity.  For vitamin C, raw wins every time.

Happy weekend!

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