Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 9 2010

Food politics in the media: recent examples

I’ve collected a few video bits and other such things.  Can’t wait to share them:

Enjoy!  Happy Mother’s Day!

May 7 2010

Presidential panel says: choose organics!

Thanks to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times (“New alarm bells about chemicals and cancer“) for telling readers about a report on chemicals and cancer just released by the President’s Cancer Panel.

I had never heard of this panel – appointed during the Bush Administration, no less – and went right to its 2008-2009 annual report.

The Panel says that the “risk of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated,” that “nearly 80,000 chemicals [are] on the market in the United States, many of which are…un- or understudied and largely unregulated,” and that “the public remains unaware…that children are far more vulnerable to environmental toxins and radiation than adults.”

evidence suggests that some environmental agents may initiate or promote cancer by disrupting normal immune and endocrine system functions. The burgeoning number and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compel us to act to protect public health, even though we may lack irrefutable proof of harm.

I’m guessing this report will cause a furor.  Why?  “Lack irrefutable proof” means that the science isn’t there.  In this situation, the Panel advises precaution.  Check out these examples selected from the recommendations:

  • Parents and child care providers should choose foods, house and garden products, play spaces, toys, medicines, and medical tests that will minimize children’s exposure to toxics.  Ideally, both mothers and fathers should avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
  • It is preferable to use filtered tap water instead of commercially bottled water.
  • Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing…food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers [translation: organics] and washing conventionally grown produce to remove residues.
  • Exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat [translation: don’t eat feedlot meat].

Expect to hear an uproar from the industries that might be affected by this report.  The American Cancer Society (ACS) doesn’t like it either, since the report implies that the ACS hasn’t been doing enough to educate the public about this issue.  The ACS said:

Elements of this report are entirely consistent with the recently published “American Cancer Society Perspective on Environmental Factors and Cancer”…Unfortunately, the perspective of the report is unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer, and by its dismissal of cancer prevention efforts aimed at the major known causes of cancer (tobacco, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, sunlight) as “focussed narrowly”…it would be unfortunate if the effect of this report were to trivialize the importance of other modifiable risk factors that, at present, offer the greatest opportunity in preventing cancer.

ACS says the Panel does not back up its recommendations with enough research [but see May 14th note below].  Maybe, but why isn’t ACS pushing for more and better research on these chemicals?   However small the risks – and we hardly know anything about them – these chemicals are unlikely to be good for human health.   Doesn’t precaution make sense?  I think so.

Addition, May 7: Here’s Denise Grady’s take on the report from the New York Times: “Cancer society criticizes federal panel as overstating risks.”

Addition, May 14: I received a note from Michael Thun,  retired Vice President for Edemiology & Survey Research of the American Cancer Society requesting a clarification of my statement.  He says:

I hope that you can correct your report to say that ACS actually is pushing for more and better research, and has never discouraged people who choose to eat organic food from doing this. The only thing we object to is unsupported claims that the effect of current level of pollution on cancer has been “grossly underestimated”.

In 1996, I chaired an ACS committee writing dietary guidelines for cancer prevention and worked with Dr. Thun on our report.  I’d take his word for this.

National Home Office | American Cancer Society, Inc.

 







May 6 2010

Where do farm subsidies go? Now we know!

Yesterday, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released the latest update of its highly entertaining farm subsidy database. The links cover $245 billion in federal farm subsidies distributed from 1995 -2009.  The site lets you search for subsidies by state, county, congressional district, and specific farm, and by commodity.  There is also a national summary.

As the EWG puts it:

taxpayer-funded federal farm subsidies lavished on the wealthiest farms have resisted even modest efforts for reform. Introduced after the Great Depression and once the savior of struggling small family farms, these subsidy programs have been co-opted by the largest agriculture interests and now work to ensure profits for plantation-scale growers of corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat.

I went straight to New York State.  Alas, my home state only ranks #30 in payments and our farmers only got $156 million in 2009.  Some of them got as little as $1,000 or $2,000 (numbers in Illinois, Kansas, and Iowa go into the millions).  Even so, corn and dairy farmers in Rep. (now Sen.) Gillibrand’s district did better than the New York average last year.

For a quick lesson in the complexity of farm supports, take a look at the chart of corn subsidies in New York State from 1995 to 2009.  No wonder farm supports are so hard to understand.

Let’s hope this site inspires people to start gearing up for dealing with the next Farm Bill, coming up in a year or so.  The EWG’s farm subsidy primer is a great place to begin.  Happy searching!

May 5 2010

Oops. Weeds are developing resistance to Roundup

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article disclosing the rise and spread across the United States of “superweeds” that have developed resistant to the herbicide Roundup.  The article comes with a nifty interactive timeline map charting the spread of Roundup resistance into at least 10 species of weeds in 22 states.  Uh oh.

Roundup is Monsanto’s clever way to encourage use of genetically modified (GM) crops.  The company bioengineers the crops to resist Roundup.  Farmers can dump Roundup on the soil or plants.  In theory, only the GM crops will survive and farmers won’t have to use a lot of more toxic herbicides.  In practice, this won’t work if weeds develop Roundup resistance and flourish too.   Then farmers have to go back to conventional herbicides to kill the Roundup-resistant weeds.

In 1996, Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote “The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops” (based on a report they wrote in 1993).  In it, they predicted that widespread planting of GM crops would produce selection pressures for Roundup-resistant weeds.  These would be difficult and expensive to control.

At the time, and until very recently, Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, dismissed this idea as “hypothetical.”

I know this because in the mid-1990s, I traveled to Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis to talk to company scientists and officials about the need for transparent labeling of GM foods.  Officials told me that Roundup had been used on plants for 70 years with only minimal signs of resistance, and it was absurd to think that resistance would become a problem.  I pointed out that Roundup resistance is a “point” mutation, one that requires minimal changes in the genetic makeup of a weed.

As I explained later in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (the new edition arrives June 1):

From a biochemical standpoint, resistance to Roundup is not difficult to achieve.  Its active chemical, glyphosate, inhibits the action of an enzyme that makes three amino acids needed to construct plant proteins.  Plants cannot make the protein when the enzyme is blocked.  Bacteria, however, are well known to produce a mutant varient of this enzyme that is completely unaffected by glyphosate; they do so through “point” mutations (mutations that alter just one amino acid) or mutations that that cause the enzyme to be produced in such large amounts that glyphosate becomes ineffective.  Such mutations could occur in plants as well as in bacteria.  The transfer of Roundup resistance to weeks through pollination also is probable, and has already occurred.  The idea of widespread resistance to Roundup is not improbable, and it alarms the industry as well as environmentalists.  [Pages 183-184]

The Times article makes it sound like Roundup resistance is the end of the world.  It’s bad news for GM crops, but sure seems like another good reason why we need more acres planted in sustainable, organic agriculture.

May 4 2010

The latest survey: consumers want healthy foods!

Ordinarily, I don’t pay much attention to consumer surveys because the results are so dependent on the way the questions are asked and who gets polled.  But this one, conducted by StrategicOne and sent to me by Edelman Public Relations, is relatively uncomplicated.

It asks three questions (top responses, order of priority):

Which ONE of the following best describes the way in which you primarily think about food in your life? Health 23%, connection 18%, fuel 15%, love 12%,  pride 11%.

How important is it to you that each of the following food sources have specific initiatives focused on health, wellness and nutrition for people consuming their products? Supermarkets 91%, food producers 90%, packaged food companies 83%, casual dining restaurants 81%, fast food 68%.

How important is it to you that a food company have each of the following types of initiatives? Healthy foods that taste great 94%, health foods 92%, nutrition information 92%, community social responsibility 89%, front-of-package nutrition information 88%, fewer ingredients 75%.

People may not agree about they way they think about food, but it sounds like the respondents to this survey want the foods offered in supermarkets and restaurants to just take care of the health issues for them.  Good idea.

May 3 2010

Bylines: San Francisco Chronicle (Sugars) and Newsweek (Calories)

Two articles I’ve written are in journals this week: a short one in Newsweek (!) and my monthly Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

New York’s Calorie Counts: A Good National Model (Newsweek, April 30 online and May 10 in print)

The new health-care law contains an overlooked boost for nutritionists like me: by next year, all national chains with more than 20 locations must offer “clear and conspicuous” calorie information. It’s the most important obesity-related public policy since the USDA’s food pyramid. But reception to the new mandate has been muted so far, largely because the benefits of New York City’s similar 2008 law seem minor: one study found just 15 fewer calories were consumed per meal; another reported it was 30; and a third found that people ate more.

The problem with these studies is that they focus on Starbucks customers and fast-food goers in low-income neighborhoods—patrons who often care about convenience and value above all. They also fail to capture the long-term benefits of calorie counting, namely education and social pressure. Labels will offer case-by-case lessons in exactly what 1,000 calories looks like, and they may even spur restaurants to ease up on sugar and fat. (Denny’s, McDonald’s, and Cosi, among others, have debuted lighter fare in New York City.) Of course, much depends on the definition of “clear and conspicuous.” Still, the country’s nutritional literacy is about to improve—making my job a lot easier.

Sugary school meals hit lobbyists’ sweet spot (San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, May 2)

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this monthly column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Q: I’m stunned by the amount of sugar my daughter is served routinely in school: candied cereals, flavored milk, Pop Tarts, breakfast cookies, fruit juice – 15 teaspoons of sugar, just in breakfast. Why no standards for regulating sugar in school meals, especially when obesity and diabetes are such concerns?

A: Politics, of course. The U.S. Department of Agriculture spends $12 billion a year on school meals. Kids buy foods from snack carts and vending machines. Food companies fight fiercely to protect their shares in that bounty.

If you watched “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” you witnessed the struggle to get sugary foods out of schools. Fifteen teaspoons – 60 grams and 240 calories – is a lot for breakfast, but kids get even more sugar from snacks, treats from teachers and birthday cupcakes.

Sugars were never a problem when we supported school lunch programs decently. That changed when schools ran out of money, sought vending contracts with soft drink companies and encouraged kids to buy sodas and snacks. Schools evaded restrictions on snack sales during lunch periods. Nobody paid much attention to what kids ate in schools – until kids began getting fatter.

Why no standards? Nobody wants to take on the sugar lobbyists.

In 1977, a Senate committee recommended an upper limit of 10 percent of calories from added sugars. This was so controversial that from 1980 to 2000, the Dietary Guidelines gave no percentages when they said “eat less sugar.” The 1992 food pyramid said “Use sugars only in moderation.” It defined moderation in teaspoons – for example, 12 a day in a diet of 2,200 calories, which comes to less than 10 percent of calories. By then, health officials in at least 30 countries had adopted the 10 percent sugar guideline.

A committee of the Institute of Medicine undermined that consensus. Because science provides only circumstantial evidence for the effects of sugars on obesity and other health problems, the committee suggested a safe maximum of 25 percent of calories. Sugar trade associations happily interpreted this percentage as a recommendation.

In 2003, the World Health Organization issued a research report restating the 10 percent guideline. Using the IOM report as evidence, sugar trade associations enlisted senators from sugar-growing states to lobby U.S. government officials to withdraw funding from WHO. They also lobbied governments of sugar-growing countries to oppose the 10 percent guideline. WHO dropped the 10 percent sugar guideline.

Dietary guidelines are the basis of federal nutrition policy. The 2005 guidelines advised limits on sugars without stating a percentage. In a footnote, the guidelines said that sugars could be part of a day’s “discretionary calories,” defined as 2 to 8 teaspoons a day. This is less than 10 percent of calories, but the guidelines do not say so explicitly.

Neither does the USDA’s 2005 pyramid, which personalizes diet plans based on age, activity level and gender. I, for example, am allowed 195 discretionary calories for added fats and sugars. If I use them all for sugars, I get to eat 12 teaspoons – about 10 percent of my daily calories. This is less than the amount your daughter ate for breakfast or the sugars in a 20-ounce soda. Hence: lobbying.

Will we get an explicit sugar policy when Congress gets around to reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act? The draft bill says nothing about sugars but does require school foods to adhere to “science-based” nutrition standards based on the dietary guidelines. If so, this means a maximum of 10 percent of calories from added sugars.

The IOM has just released a “School Meals” report. This says that with careful planning, 10 percent should provide enough sugar discretionary calories to permit sweetened low-fat milk, yogurt and breakfast cereals. The IOM warns that without these sweetened foods, student participation rates and nutrient intakes might decline.

Sorry, but I don’t buy the “kids won’t eat it” argument. I’ve seen plenty of schools where kids eat unsweetened foods. Somehow, they survive. Kids will eat healthier foods when meals are prepared by adults who care what kids eat, as Oliver has demonstrated.

As for legislation, California led the way with the 2007 school food nutrition standards bill, which regulated soda sales and the amount of sugar in snacks. Companies responded by reducing the sugars in their products. Passing the Child Nutrition Act will help, but its big drawback is funding. The draft bill increases school reimbursements by only about 6 cents per meal, not enough to meet costs in many school districts and much less than the $1 increase that many believe necessary.

But with luck, 2010 will bring us national legislation and improved editions of the dietary guidelines and pyramid. Let’s hope these make it easier for schools to help kids cut down on sugars.

Note: Nestle and Malden Nesheim will speak about their new book, “Feed Your Pet Right,” at 3 p.m. May 22 at Omnivore Books in San Francisco and at 3 p.m. May 23 at Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes Station.  Addition: Holistic Hound, Berkeley, Tuesday, May 18, 6:30 p.m.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” “Safe Food” and “What to Eat,” and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail her at food@sfchronicle.com and read her previous columns at sfgate.com/food.  This article appeared on page K – 8.

May 2 2010

Need a reason to eat at IHOP? Try “cheesecake stackers”

I’m indebted to the Associated Press for telling me about IHOP’s latest challenge to the KFC Double Down: a pancake sandwich with cheesecake filling.  Yum.

For some reason, IHOP does not provide calorie information for this creation.  One can only imagine.  Happy weekend!

Apr 30 2010

Food politics: our government at work (and play)

I’ve been collecting items sent to me this week about government actions at the local, state, and national level.  Here’s the weekend round up.

Santa Clara County, California, Board of Supervisors bans toys in kids meals: On April 27, the San Jose Mercury News announced that this county, clearly at the vanguard of actions to help prevent childhood obesity, passed a groundbreaking law banning toys in kids’ meals that do not meet minimal nutrition standards (the very ones I talked about in a previous post).  Companies can still give out toys in meals, as long as the meals meet those standards.  What an excellent idea.  Let’s hope this idea catches on in other communities.

Here’s the press release, a a fact sheet on childhood obesity, and remarks by the president of the board of supervisors, along with recommendations from the local public health agency.  Thanks to Michele Simon for the documents.

Connecticut state legislature plays computer games: This photo, attributed to the Associated Press, arrived from Michelle Futrell.  I worried that it might be Photoshopped.  Whether it is or not, it is flying around the Internet, in versions that clearly identify each of hard-at-play legislators.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) teaches kids about marketing: The FTC regulates advertising, including food advertising, and it must be getting increasingly concerned about the effects of marketing on kids.  To counter some of these effects, it has created a website, Admongo.gov, an interactive site to teach kids about advertising.  After playing these games, the FTC wants kids to be able to answer these questions:

  • Who is responsible for the ad?
  • What is the ad actually saying?
  • What does the ad want me to do?

The New York Times concludes: “Perhaps the effort comes not a moment too soon. Adweek devotes this week’s issue to “Kids” and “How the industry is striving to conquer this coveted market.” Thanks to Lisa Young for sending the links.

The FDA asks for comments on front-of-package (FOP) labeling: Patricia Kuntze, a consumer affairs advisor at the FDA sends the April 28 press release and the April 29 Federal Register notice announcing the FDA’s call for public comment on this topic.  The agency particularly wants data on:

  • The extent to which consumers notice, use, and understand FOP nutrition symbols or shelf tags
  • Results of research examining the effectiveness of various FOP approaches
  • Graphic design, marketing, and advertising that will help consumers understand nutrition information
  • The extent to which FOP labeling influences food manufacturers’ decisions about the contents of their products

The goal, says the FDA, is to make “calorie and nutrition information available to consumers in ways that will help them choose foods for more healthful diets – an effort that has taken on special importance, given the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases in the U.S. and of increasingly busy lifestyles that demand quick, nutritious food.”

Here is a speech on the topic by FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.  For information about how to submit comments, click here. To submit comments, refer to docket FDA-2010-N-0210 and click here. You have until July 28 to do it.

Public comment, of course, includes the food industry and a FoodNavigator call for industry comment cites my recent commentary in JAMA with David Ludwig.  I’m glad food industry people are reading it and I hope the FDA does too.

The White House equivocates on organics: What’s going on with the White House garden?  Is it organic or not?   Michael Pollan forwards this item from the Associated Press:

Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass, an old friend of President Barack Obama’s who oversees the garden, says labeling the crops “organic” isn’t the point, even though the White House only uses natural, not synthetic, fertilizers and pesticides.

“To come out and say (organic) is the one and only way, which is how this would be interpreted, doesn’t make any sense,” Kass said Monday as he walked among the garden’s newly planted broccoli, rhubarb, carrots and spinach. “This is not about getting into all that. This is about kids.”

Uh oh.  Has “Organic” become the new O-word?  Surely, the White House is not secretly pouring herbicides and pesticides over its garden vegetables.  If not, are we hearing a small indication of big agribusiness pushback?

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