Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 20 2009

Food politics: European version

I’m always suprised when people ask me what I mean by “food politics.”    What, they say, does politics have to do with food?   Here’s a good example: European farm subsidies.  These were originally supposed to promote farm production, but today the European Union drops $75 billion, at least a third of it for other purposes.  As an investigative report in the New York Times explains, the biggest subsidies – just as in the U.S. – go to the wealthiest recipients.   A typical small farmer in Romania gets $550.  But the Queen of England and the Prince of Monaco get $700,000 or more, each, and Cargill, that needy company, got $14 million.  And then there are subsidies like this one: €127,000 for Ligabue, a Venetian caterer, for sugar and dairy packets considered as exports because they are consumed on cruise ships?   Why do I think politics enters into this somehow?

Jul 17 2009

Regulation of bottled water: oops

There is so much wrong with bottled water that it’s hard to know where to begin (read Elizabeth Royte’s Bottlemania, for starters).  But let’s start with the fact that bottled water is the most brilliantly marketed product ever invented.  The companies get it practically free out of a tap and charge you a dollar or more – sometimes a lot more – for a quart or less).  The plastic bottles pollute the environment.  Worst of all, drinking bottled water makes people less apt to be vigilant about protecting public water supplies.

And it isn’t even regulated very well, or so says a report from the Government Accountability Office.  The title says it all: “Bottled water: FDA safety and consumer protections are often less stringent than comparable EPA protections for tap water.”  The report was released in time for congressional hearings on the topic.   Reporters had a lot of fun with the self-interested statements of industry people who testified.

None of this gets into the additional question of bisphenol A and other endocrine disrupters in plastic bottles that are sometimes used for water.  The Canadians are now saying that bisphenol A is safe at amounts commonly used, and so is a California expert committee.  The American Chemistry Council is pleased with these decisions.

Where does that leave us?  Defend tap water!  As for endocrine disrupters, stay tuned but why use bisphenol A when other alternatives are so readily available.

July 24 update: The International Bottled Water Association is suing a maker of steel water bottles for false advertising.  The bottle maker’s ads apparently suggested that plastic water bottles leak synthetic estrogens.   Bisphenol A must be causing serious problems for the bottled water industry, along with all those pesky enviromental concerns.

Jul 15 2009

Let’s stop using antibiotics in animal agriculture

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (of which I was a member) recommended as its #1 priority the elimination of antibiotics for promoting growth and other unnecesary purposes in farm animals.  I discussed this report in a previous post.

There is much fuss about this issue this week because the House is holding hearings on the Preservation for Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.  If passed, this will phase out the use of seven classes of antibiotics important to human health that are currently allowed to be used as growth promoters in animal agriculture.  The FDA testified in favor of the act.  So did members of the Pew Commission: Robert Martin, Fedele Baucio, and Bill and Nicolette Niman.

So who could possibly be opposed to such a good idea?  How about the American Veterinary Medical Association, for starters, apparently more worried about its members’ self interest than about sensible use of antibiotics.

Maybe we’ll get lucky and the Congress will do the right thing on this one.

Update July 16: Ralph Logisci, who helped staff the Pew Commission, posted a blog on the movement to ban non-therapeutic antibiotics on Civil Eats.  It goes into considerable depth on the issues and is well worth reading. And the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has just produced a report on eliminating the use of non-thereapuetic antibiotics in, of all things, ethanol production.  Who knew?  Turns out they use antibiotics to control fermentation.  Oops.  Not a good idea.  IATP says plenty of alternatives are available and the ethanol industry should adopt them.

July 20 update: in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the meat industry’s July 9 statement in opposition to the bill attempting to ban antibiotic use.

Jul 14 2009

Food deserts: systematic analyses

Food deserts must be the hot new topic.  USDA researchers have produced a major analysis of “food deserts,” the term used to describe low-income areas with poor access to food.   According to the USDA, only about 4% of the U.S. population lives more than a mile from a supermarket but there isn’t enough research to say whether access is inadequate in areas of limited access.  Oh?  Maybe if the researchers had talked to people in that situation?

The report is full of statistics on poverty in the United States (check out the map of areas in the U.S. where 40% of the population lives on incomes below 200% of the poverty line).  A good part of the report focuses on use of food for community development.   A lot of the country could use some.  The USDA might consider adding some qualitative, interview-based research to its portfolio.

And the National Academies has a report out on the effects of food deserts on public health (scroll down to read it online for free).  The bottom line?  More research needed.

Well, yes, but why do I think this situation needs fixing much more than it needs further research?  How about asking people who live in food deserts what it might mean to them to have a supermarket within walking distance.  Or am I missing some key point here?

[Posted from Fairbanks]

August 6 update: thanks to the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy for producing a report on programs that have more or less successfully introduced healthier foods into small stores in the middle of food deserts.  The report gives guidelines on how to do this.

Jul 13 2009

Whole Foods asks for GMO-Free verification

Whole Foods is asking its private label suppliers to prove that they are GM-free through a new verification system.   This seems like a really good idea.  Whole Foods knows that its customers do not want GM foods.  But as long as GM foods are not labeled, consumers have no choice.  All of this means that the FDA’s decision to forbid GM labeling was neither in the public interest (consumers have the right to know) nor in the interest of industry (companies want consumers to trust them).  The new certification system will give consumers a choice.

Jul 11 2009

The Cookie Dough mystery deepens

I’m in Alaska this week and out of Internet contact most of the time so it’s been hard to follow the cookie dough story.  It seems that the strain of E. coli found in the cookie dough does not match the strains in the people who have gotten ill from (presumably) eating it.  The FDA can’t figure out how E. coli got into the cookie dough.

When I can get to a computer, I like to check the FDA page on this outbreak, and also the one from the CDC.  But it looks like they are only updating the pages about once a week.  So the quickest way to keep current on this is through Bill Marler’s blog.

[Posted from Anchorage]

Jul 10 2009

Worldwide food security (insecurity would be more like it)

The USDA has issued dismal new estimates of food security in70 developing countries.  Food insecurity means different things depending on where you are.  In the United States, food insecurity means the lack of a reliable source of adequate food.  In developing countries it means consuming less than an average of 2,100 calories a day.  The number of people in developing countries who are food insecure rose by 11% from 2007 to 2008 and is expected to rise even further in 2009.  This is the result of the economic downturn which, unsurprisingly, has worse effects on the poor than the rich.   This trend is not a good one.  Food insecurity is not only bad for health; it also leads to political instability.  That is why everyone has a stake in making sure that everyone has enough to eat.  The USDA report needs to lead to action.

[Posted from Anchorage]

Jul 7 2009

Michael Taylor appointed to FDA: A good choice!

On Monday this week, Michael Taylor began his new job as special assistant to the FDA Commissioner for food safety.  He will be in charge of implementing whatever food safety laws Congress finally decides to pass.

I know that what I am about to say will surprise, if not shock, many of you, but I think he’s an excellent choice for this job. Yes, I know he worked for Monsanto, not only once (indirectly) but twice (directly). And yes, he’s the first person whose name is mentioned when anyone talks about the “revolving door” between the food industry and government. And yes, he signed off on the FDA’s consumer-unfriendly policies on labeling genetically modified foods.

But before you decide that I must have drunk the Kool Aid on this one, hear me out.  He really is a good choice for this job.  Why?  Because he managed to get USDA to institute HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) for meat and poultry against the full opposition of the meat industry — a truly heroic accomplishment.  His position on food safety has been strong and consistent for years.  He favors a single food agency, HACCP for all foods, and accountability and enforcement.  We need this for FDA-regulated foods (we also need enforcement for USDA-regulated foods, but he won’t be able to touch that unless Congress says so).  So he’s the person most likely to be able to get decent regulations in place and get them enforced.

I say this in full knowledge of his history.  In the 1990s, Mr. Taylor held positions in both FDA and USDA and his career in these agencies is complicated.  As I explained in my 2003 book, Safe Food  (see the endnotes for full documentation), Mr. Taylor began his career as a lawyer with the FDA. When he left the FDA, he went to work for King & Spalding, a law firm that represented Monsanto, the company that developed genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH), corn, and soybeans.

He revolved back to the FDA in 1991 as deputy commissioner for policy, and he held that position during the time the agency approved Monsanto’s BGH. At the time of the review, he had been with FDA for more than two years. This made him exempt from newly passed conflict-of-interest guidelines that applied only to the first year of federal employment.  He also was a coauthor of the FDA’s 1992 policy statement on genetically engineered plant foods, and he signed the Federal Register notice stating that milk from cows treated with BGH did not have to be labeled as such.

For whatever it is worth, a 1999 lawsuit and GAO report revealed considerable disagreement about these decisions within FDA. These also revealed that Mr. Taylor had recused himself from matters related to Monsanto’s BGH and had “never sought to influence the thrust or content” of the agency’s policies on Monsanto’s products.  I can’t tell whether there were ethical breaches here or not, but there is little question that his work at FDA gave the appearance of conflict of interest, if nothing more.

But wait! Watch what happened when he moved to USDA in 1994 as head of its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Just six weeks after taking the job, Mr. Taylor gave his first public speech to an annual convention of the American Meat Institute. There, he announced that USDA would now be driven by public health goals as much or more than by productivity concerns. The USDA would soon require science-based HACCP systems in every meat and poultry plant, would be testing raw ground beef, and would require contaminated meat to be destroyed or reprocessed. And because E. coli O157.H7 is infectious at very low doses, the USDA would consider any level of contamination of ground beef with these bacteria to be unsafe, adulterated, and subject to enforcement action.  Whew.  This took real courage.

The amazing thing is that he actually made this work.  Now, HACCP rules apply more to USDA-regulated products than to FDA-regulated products. This new appointment gives Mr. Taylor the chance to bring FDA’s policies in line with USDA’s and even more, to make sure they are monitored and enforced.

In Safe Food, I summarize Mr. Taylor’s position on food safety regulation from 2002. Then, he argued for, among other things:

  • A single agency accountable for providing consistent and coordinated oversight of food safety, from farm to table.
  • Institution of Pathogen Reduction: HACCP, with performance standards verified by pathogen testing, at every step of food production.
  • Recall authority, access to records, and penalties for lapses in safety procedures.
  • Standards for imported foods equivalent to those for domestic foods.
  • Food safety to take precedence over commercial considerations in trade disputes.

Yes, he revolved back to Monsanto after leaving FDA but he didn’t stay long. He left Monsanto for Resources for the Future, a think tank on policy issues.   In 2007, he went to academia and joined the food policy think tank (see his bio) at George Washington University.  There, he produced the excellent food safety report I mentioned in a previous post, which repeats these points. This is about as good a position on food safety as can be expected of any federal official.

I wish him all the luck in the world in getting the safety of FDA-regulated foods under control. For those of you who are still dubious, how about giving him a chance to show what he can do?  But do keep the pressure on – hold his feet to the fire – so he knows he has plenty of support for doing the right thing.

[Posted from Skagway, Alaska, en route to Fairbanks]

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