Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 29 2013

My last San Francisco Chronicle column: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Looking back at year of progress for food system

After 5 1/2 years and 70 columns written exclusively for The Chronicle, this is my last. As I move on, I do so with much hope for a healthier and more equitable food system.

My optimism comes from taking the long view of progress in agriculture, food, nutrition and public health. When I look back on what’s happened since, say, 1980, I see enormous improvement in the foods available in supermarkets and in schools, the availability of organic and locally grown food, and public interest in everything about food, from taste to politics.

At this time of year, it’s customary to highlight the 10 most notable achievements of the past 12 months. But let me point out one conspicuous absence from this list – the creation of a stronger and more compassionate safety net for the poor and unemployed. Working toward this goal needs to be high on the food advocacy agenda for 2014.

With that gap in mind, here’s where I’ve seen noteworthy progress:

School nutrition standardsThe new rules are the result of the most significant achievement of Michelle Obama‘s Let’s Move! campaign – the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010. This act required schools to provide not only healthier meals, but also snacks. Early reports find most schools to be doing a good job of putting the new rules into effect. Yes, the rules do not go nearly far enough (they are too generous in sugar, for example), but they are a step in the right direction and lay the groundwork for even better standards.

Food safety rulesThe Food and Drug Administration finally started issuing regulations for the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. Once final, these rules will go a long way toward requiring food producers to take measures to ensure safety, and giving the FDA the authority to make sure they do. Yes, its details still need tweaking, but FSMA is a milestone on the road to a safer food supply. The next steps will be to bring the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s authority in line with the FDA’s, and to develop a single food safety agency that combines the functions of both.

FDA’s guidance on antibiotic resistanceThe FDA has called on drug companies to voluntarily agree to stop using medically important antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals and to require a veterinarian’s prescription when using these drugs to treat, prevent or control animal disease. Yes, this is voluntary and drug companies have three years to comply. But the FDA has taken the first step toward banning antibiotics for anything but therapeutic purposes, an impressive achievement given current political realities.

Let’s Move!’s food marketing initiativeMarketing is the elephant in the room of childhood obesity. It overwhelmingly influences kids to prefer, demand and consume junk foods and sodas. Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign has no authority to regulate marketing to kids. By keeping a focus on this issue, she gives advocates plenty of room to hold food companies publicly accountable for their marketing practices.

Soda and junk food taxes in MexicoDespite intense and well-organized opposition by its soda, sugar and small-business industries, the Mexican government passed a 1-peso-per-liter tax on soft drinks and an 8 percent tax on junk foods.

These measures were meant to counter the country’s 70 percent of overweight people and, no coincidence, record-breaking soda consumption. The initiative succeeded as a result of strong advocacy support and also because the revenues were committed to social purposes, among them providing clean drinking water in schools. Other countries are likely to be inspired to enact similar measures.

GMO labeling initiativesConnecticut passed a GMO labeling law in 2013, but election initiatives in California and Washington failed. Even though the food and biotechnology industries poured tens of millions of dollars into defeating labeling measures, the margins of defeat were small. My crystal ball says that some such measures will eventually pass. The food biotechnology industry must think so too; some of its groups are calling for voluntary GMO labeling.

Fast-food workers’ wage demandsPeople who work full time should be able to support their families and not have to be on public assistance. If you work 40 hours at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, you will earn less than $300, and that’s before taxes.

USDA‘s agricultural coexistence initiativesBy agricultural coexistence, the USDA means peaceful relations between quite different farming systems – industrial and GMO versus organic and sustainable. Peaceful coexistence would be a lot easier if GMO pollen didn’t drift onto organic crops, if Congress supported sustainable agriculture in proportion to its size, and if the ag-biotech industry didn’t dismiss cooperation out of hand.

The New York City mayoral candidates forum and coalition buildingAbout 85 food and nutrition advocacy groups put their differences aside to jointly question mayoral candidates on their views about food problems facing city residents. Seven candidates showed up to answer questions, a clear sign that coalitions are strong enough to demand attention.

A personal perspectiveThe past year brought many new food studies programs into universities. When we created food studies programs at New York University in 1996, only one other such program existed. Today, universities throughout the country are training young people to advocate for food systems healthier for the planet and for people, rich and poor.

University of California Press released the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics,” and Rodale Books issued “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

The message of both books – the first in text and the second in cartoons – is the same: Vote with your fork for a more delicious and sustainable food system. Even better, vote with your vote! Engage in food politics to make our food system more conducive to health and social justice.

The food movement is making much progress, but much more remains to be done. I’ve had a great run at The Chronicle, for which I deeply thank readers and editors. I will continue to write about food matters on my blog, at www.foodpolitics.com. Please join me there.

Marion Nestle is also the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics” and “What to Eat.” She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail:food@sfchronicle.com

Dec 27 2013

More on “profligate” use of antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals

The New England Journal of Medicine has an editorial on why we need to stop using antibiotics to promote the growth of farm animals and make sure they are only used for therapeutic purposes.

Otherwise, bacteria will become resistant to them and the antibiotics won’t work in us.

This figure from the article illustrates the problem:

As writers in the Journal wrote a year ago, we know what to do about the problem: Ban antibiotic use for everything other than disease treatment.

The FDA is taking baby steps in this direction.  How about a new year’s resolution to speed up the process?

Dec 26 2013

A post-Xmas roundup of items on GMOs

The holidays are a quiet time for food politics so I thought I catch up on some pending items, starting with GMOs.

No, tired as you may be of them, GMO issues are not going to disappear in 2014.

My prediction: labeling will come, maybe sooner rather than later, although it’s hard to say in what form.

Dec 23 2013

Alas, the bad news on dietary supplements continues

Over the weekend, the New York Times carried a front-page story about liver damage caused by an herbal supplement advertised as a “fat burner.”

It pointed out that as a result of a 1994 act of Congress, such products are virtually unregulated.  No federal agency pays much attention to their contents or claims, and Congress only lets the FDA take action against them after they are found to be harmful.

Fortunately, vitamin and mineral supplements rarely cause harm.  But the question of whether they do any good continues to trouble researchers.   As NutraIngredients_USA summarizes the latest rounds of research,

Stop wasting money on supplements, say physicians. Stop trying to position supplements as cures for disease, say industry groups.  An editorial panel of medical doctors (MDs) says the case is now closed for multivitamins: they don’t help well-nourished adults. But leading trade associations have defended the safety and efficacy of the products, calling the editorial, ‘close-minded, ‘one-sided’ and ‘overblown.’

The article refers to studies published in a recent issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.  These showed that multivitamin supplements did nothing to prevent heart attacks or cancer, or improve cognitive function.

This led to an editorial entitled:

Its conclusion: Most multivitamin supplements do no good; some may do harm.  If you are healthy, you don’t need them.

Not that this will stop anyone from taking them….

 

 

Dec 20 2013

Monsanto’s PR campaign “begins with a farmer”

A week or so ago I mentioned Monsanto’s concerns about its public image problem and its new PR campaign.

In Washington, DC last week, I saw what seem to be its first components in a hard copy of Politico (the online version doesn’t seem to carry the same ads).

The December 11 issue carried two Monsanto ads, this one full page:

Manhattan-20131216-00105

And this one half page:

Manhattan-20131216-00107

What farmers?  Those that use Monsanto products, of course.

This is not the first time Monsanto has used ads promoting the virtues of farmers.  Here’s one from a Monsanto campaign in 2001 that I used as an illustration in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.

Picture1

Will ads like these help improve Monsanto’s public image?  You tell me.

Enjoy the weekend!

Dec 19 2013

Chile’s new food labeling rules: Why can’t we do this?

A reporter in South America called yesterday to ask me about the new rules for food labels and marketing to children just issued by the Chilean ministry of health.

The rules establish nutrition standards for foods.  Products that exceed the standards will have to say high in sugar, salt, or fat in brightly colored labels (red, green, blue) on the front of the packages.

New Picture

The standards themselves are much stricter than anything ever proposed in the United States, even than those of the ill-fated Interagency Working Group (IWG).

New Picture

Sodas, for example, can only contain 15 grams of sugars per 8 ounces (they typically contain 27 grams).

I’m told that other rules deal with advertising to children (no toys, nothing specifically enticing such as cartoons).

How could this happen?

I’m not up on Chilean politics.  All I know is that these rules were proposed under the current president whose wife was behind the Elige Viver Sano program, one quite similar to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move!

If you know something about the politics of this initiative, please write a comment.  I’d like to know more about this.  Thanks!

Update: Thanks to Dr. Corinna Hawkes Dr Corinna Hawkes, Head of Policy and Public Affairs for the World Cancer Research Fund International sends the following information:

 

 

 

Dec 18 2013

American Meat Institute defines Fine, Lightly Textured Beef (a.k.a. “pink slime”)

Yesterday, the American Meat Institute sent out an advisory to the news media with a helpful glossary of terms to “use and avoid in coverage of lean finely textured beef” (LFTB).

Lean finely textured beef (LFTB)?  Recall the pejorative: “pink slime?”

Academic that I am, I love precise meanings.

The AMI says these terms are proper to use:

Lean Finely Textured Beef: This product is produced by Beef Products,  Inc.  More detail is available at www.beefisbeef.com.

Finely Textured Beef: This product is produced by Cargill.  More detail is available at www.groundbeefanswers.com.

Beef: Both LFTB and FTB are defined as beef by USDA.

Product: Just as a steak or roast are considered a product of a company, LFTB and FTB are products of BPI and Cargill respectively.

But AMI says, you should never use this term:

Pink Slime: While this term has been commonly used to describe LFTB, there is nothing slimy about it.  The negative connotation of the phrase “pink slime” shows bias and is inappropriate to describe a wholesome, safe, nutritious and USDA inspected beef product.

You also are not supposed to use the terms Filler, Binder, Extender, or Additive.

Aren’t you happy to have this clarified?

Dec 17 2013

The FDA issues guidance on animal antibiotics–voluntary, alas, but still a major big deal

I was in Washington DC last week when the FDA announced  that it was taking significant steps to address antibiotic resistance, a problem caused by overuse in raising animals for food.

The FDA called on makers of animal antibiotics to:

  • Voluntarily stop labeling medical important antibiotics as usable for promoting animal growth or feed efficiency (in essence, banning antibiotics from these uses).
  • Voluntarily notify the FDA of their intent to sign on to these strategies within the next three months.
  • Voluntarily put the new guidance into effect within 3 years.
  • Agree to a proposed rule to require a veterinarian’s prescription to use antibiotics that are presently sold over the counter (the proposal is open for public comment for 90 days at www.regulations.gov.   Docket FDA-2010-N-0155).

Voluntary is, of course, a red flag and the Washington Post quoted critics saying that the new guidance falls far short of what really is needed—a flat-out ban on use of antibiotics as growth promoters.

  • Consumers Union is concerned about the long delay caused by the 3-year window.
  • CSPI is worried about all the loopholes.
  • NRDC thinks the FDA is pretending to do more than it’s really doing and “kicks the can significantly down the road.”
  • Mother Jones points out that the meat industry can still “claim it’s using antibiotics ‘preventively,’ continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continue to generate resistant bacteria.”
  • Civil Eats reminds us that the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (on which I served) recommended a ban on nontherapeutic use of all antibiotics.

Yes, the loopholes are real, but I view the FDA’s guidance as a major big deal.  The agency is explicitly taking on the antibiotic problem.  It is sending a clear signal to industrial farm animal  producers that sooner or later they will have to:

  • Stop using antibiotics as growth promoters.
  • Stop using antibiotics indiscriminately, even for disease treatment.

I think the FDA is dead serious about the antibiotic problem.  If the FDA seems to be doing this in some convoluted fashion, I’m guessing it’s because it has to.  The FDA must not have been able to find any other politically viable way to get at the antibiotics problem.

I see this as a first step on the road to banning antibiotics for any use in animals other than the occasional treatment of specific illnesses.

As the New York Times puts it,

This is the agency’s first serious attempt in decades to curb what experts have long regarded as the systematic overuse of antibiotics in healthy farm animals, with the drugs typically added directly into their feed and water. The waning effectiveness of antibiotics — wonder drugs of the 20th century — has become a looming threat to public health. At least two million Americans fall sick every year and about 23,000 die from antibiotic-resistant infections.

Still not convinced antibiotics are worth banning for promoting growth?

The best explanation is the Washington Post’s handy guide to the antibiotic-perplexed.  Here, for example, is its timeline of development of microbial resistance to antibiotics.  The bottom line: the more widespread the use of antibiotics, the greater the onset and prevalence of resistance.  And it takes practically no time for bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotic drugs.

nchembio.2007.24-F1

Resources from FDA

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