Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 20 2009

USDA’s food and nutrition undersecretary nominees

Food Chemical News (April 20) reports two new nominees for key food and nutrition positions at USDA: Kevin Concannon as Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, and Rajiv Shah as Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics.  Both require Senate confirmation.

Concannon announced his retirement last April after five years as director of the Iowa Department of Human Services.  The department issued a statement of his accomplishments during his five years at that job.   Shah, an MD, is director of agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  He advised Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000.

The blogosphere reaction is decidedly mixed, with some for the appointments, some opposed to them, and some neutral.

I don’t know anything about either of the candidates and am eager to hear from people who do.

Apr 20 2009

Does GM (genetic modification) increase crop yields?

The answer to this question depends on whom you ask.  If you ask the Union of Concerned Scientists, the answer is no. Just out is this group’s report, Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops. Its conclusion: traditional genetic crosses outperform genetically modified crops by a wide margin.  Monsanto, as you might guess, has a rather different take on this issue, one that now faces a serious challenge.

Apr 18 2009

USDA’s food assistance programs: 2008 report

The USDA has just published three new reports about food assistance.  The first is the 2008 annual report on these programs. The USDA spent nearly $61 billion of taxpayers’ money on food and nutrition assistance programs for low-income individuals and families last year, 11% more than in 2007.  Overall, 2008 was the eighth year in a row that the total amount spent on these programs set an all-time record.

WIC (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children) is among the most important of these programs.  Even though it is not an entitlement and serves only about half of the women and children who are eligible for benefits, its enrollments are astonishing.  About half of all of the infants in the U.S. are enrolled in it as are about one quarter of all children 1 to 4 years old.

Rates of obesity are higher among children enrolled in WIC than they are in comparable populations.  Does this mean that WIC promotes obesity in low-income children?  The evidence suggests not, but Mexican-American participants have especially high rates of obesity.

I’m still trying to get my head around what it means that half of U.S. infants are born into families so poor that they are eligible for WIC benefits.  Even so, these are just the infants whose families get into the program.  What about all the ones who are eligible but can’t get in because all the places are filled?  Most children born in America are poor?  Isn’t something wrong with this picture?  And what can be done about it?

Apr 17 2009

One food safety system: a vision

The New York Times, in an editorial “Food safety, one pistachio at a time,” says “it is time to think seriously about establishing one federal agency to coordinate and enforce food-safety regulations.”  And Michael Taylor and Stephanie David of the George Washington University Department of Health Policy provide a major position paper arguing that food safety must be a joint effort among federal, state, and local health agencies to address risks across “the farm-to-table spectrum of food production, processing, distribution, retailing, and home preparation.”  Let’s hope Congress is listening as it ponders the various bills introduced to fix the FDA or fix the entire food safety system.

Apr 16 2009

Europe demands scientific support for health claims. Why can’t we?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has just rejected a proposal from Merck to allow it to use a health claim stating that omega-3 supplements promote  eye and brain health in infants.  Merck wants moms to take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy and give such supplements to their infants.  EFSA reviewed nearly 90 studies on this topic and concluded that the study results were not “informative.”    In other words, they showed no benefit.  Imagine.  The EFSA demands scientific substantiation of health claims.  I wish we could do that.

Here’s another example from the pomegranate folks.  They do brilliant advertising, but this time the British are complaining that these marketers went too far when they posted billboards stating that pomegranate (“antioxidant powerhouse”) juice will help you cheat death.  The British advertising standards agency balked.  Here too, pesky science gets in the way.  Studies not only fail to support a benefit of antioxidants but sometimes show harm.

Our Congress, however, forces FDA to permit health claims, no matter how absurd.  Try the FDA-allowed “qualified” health claim for omega-3’s: “supportive but not conclusive evidence  shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” [my emphasis].  The FDA allows omega-3’s to be added to infant formulas, but here’s what it says about them:  “The scientific evidence is mixed…There are no currently available published reports from clinical studies that address whether any long-term beneficial effects exist.”

The EFSA interprets all this as unworthy of a health claim.

What can the FDA do?  If it says there isn’t enough evidence, it gets sued and loses.  The courts tend to rule that food companies can say whatever they like about health benefits on the grounds of free speech and the First Amendment.

In January, the FDA published “guidance” for industry about how it plans to evaluate the scientific basis of health claims.     Guidance is just that.  It is non-binding.

Hello new administration.  How about taking a fresh look at the health claims situation and paying close attention to what regulators in Europe are doing.  How about considering just saying no to health claims.

Apr 15 2009

World food crisis: implications for U.S. agriculture

The intrepid economists at USDA* have published an analysis of what the current rise in food prices means for U.S. agriculture.  Their report provides a broad overview of the causes and effects of higher food prices.  The bottom line: the long-term effects are still uncertain but they will surely be worse for farmers in developing countries than for our own farmers.

But shouldn’t the USDA also be concerned about what’ will happen to Third World farmers?  If we are part of a global food system, don’t we have some global responsibility?

*The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) has produced an interactive report summarizing the kinds of research it does.  See if you agree with me that the ERS does invaluable work and performs a great public service.

Apr 14 2009

Choosing foods: salads, French fries, and supplements

In early April, the New York Times briefly reported the results of an eating behavior experiment.  Investigators asked college students to choose foods from menus that differed in only one feature; one menu offered a salad and the other did not.   The point?  To find out whether the presence of a salad on the menu influenced what else the students ate.   It did.   The students choose French fries more often from the menu with the salad.  The authors’ interpretation: the “health aura” of salads gives people permission to indulge.  Their paper will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Health aura explains a lot about current food marketing trends.  You may have noticed that vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3’s are added to everything these days.  Coupled with the downturn in the economy, health aura does wonders for sales of dietary supplements.  Despite underwhelming evidence for their effectiveness, supplements fly off the shelves.  They cost a lot less than health care (and, perhaps, do less harm).

Apr 13 2009

Busy weekend: the Obama’s First Puppy and Fixing the FDA

In case you were wondering about my thoughts on what the Obamas should be feeding their new First Puppy, I did an interview with Obama Foodorama on that very topic: “The Obamas get a new puppy and policy issues get unleashed.”

And for my latest column in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Full plate for Obama’s new FDA administrator,” I deal with the question of what the new FDA Commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, needs to do to fix the agency’s problems. She will need all the support we can give her.

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