Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 24 2009

Pesticides in Chilean farmed salmon?

Among the many publications that flood my snail mailbox is the trade magazine, Pacific Fishing. I’m not sure why it gets sent to me but I do look at it since it covers a world I know little about.   The May issue has several articles about banned pesticides in Chilean farmed salmon.  I had completely missed this story, even though the New York Times discussed the problem on February 5.  That was the day the Pew Environmental Group revealed the results of its FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the FDA.  The otherwise undisclosed documents say farmed fish from Chile contains residues of pesticides banned by the FDA since 2007.

But Chile is not alone in using banned pesticides.  British Columbia salmon farmers use SLICE, a pesticide that kills sea lice.  Because such pesticides are toxic, it is not surprising that they also seem to be killing local prawns and other invertebrates along the Canadian West Coast.

A Pacific Fishing reporter, Don McManman, went to great pains to find out what the FDA was doing about all this.  His interview makes entertaining reading.  The FDA’s final answer?  Looking into it, apparently.

I’m wondering why the Pew Group had to file a FOIA request to get information that the FDA should be releasing to the public.  The lack of disclosure makes it appear that the FDA cares more about protecting the salmon farming industry than consumers, especially now that the public has the right to choose.  Seafood has Country-of-Origin labeling (COOL).  With COOL , you can see whether farmed salmon comes from Chile or British Columbia and decide for yourself whether you want to eat fish raised on pellets containing banned pesticides.

Want to check out the documents?  Go to the Pacific Fishing website, then Resources. Scroll down and look for “Insecticides–It’s What’s for Dinner,” “Chile Salmon Report,” and “Chilean Contamination History.”

Apr 23 2009

Do endocrine disrupters cause asthma and obesity?

According to press reports, investigators from a Mt. Sinai School of Medicine project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Growing Up Healthy in East Harlem,” find higher levels of endocrine disrupters, mostly phthlates and bisphenol A, among obese girls (age six to eight) in East Harlem, as compared to girls who are not obese.   The actual research does not appear to be published yet – I can’t find it on the Epidemiology website – but the EPA’s site provides the latest report on the project.

Endocrine disrupters are widely used in food and beverage packaging materials, as well as things such as cosmetics, shampoos, lubricants, and paint. As I explained in earlier posts, federal agencies have been taking a hard look at such substances, particularly bisphenol A.  Their interim conclusion: such chemicals pose no harm at current levels of intake.

While waiting for more research or regulatory action, a group called As You Sow has asked food companies what they are doing about bisphenol A.  Its report, Seeking Safer Packaging, concludes that the companies it surveyed generally aren’t doing nearly enough.  A few companies – notably Hain Celestial, Heinz, and Nestle (no relation) do have plans to phase out these chemicals eventually.

Why isn’t there more research on endocrine disrupter chemicals?  Without it, we have only two choices: precaution or do nothing and see what happens.  In this instance, it looks like the evidence favors precaution.  Glass bottles, everybody!

Apr 22 2009

The People’s Garden at USDA? Happy Earth Day!

It’s Earth Day and the USDA says it is going to turn the grounds of its Washington DC buildings into The People’s Garden –  a sustainable landscape that will “promote healthy food, people, and communities” across the country.

Yes!

And here’s where to see what it will look like.

I can’t wait!

Apr 22 2009

Food industry self-monitoring

If it’s one thing the food industry does really well, it’s surely to pat itself on the back.  Something called The Ethisphere Institute (motto: “Good.  Smart.  Business. Profit.”) has produced a list of the world’s most ethical companies, among them Kellogg’s, Danone, PepsiCo, and Unilever.  How did Ethisphere do this?  It analyzed data from the companies.  I’m guessing it didn’t include marketing to children or misleading health claims as ethical criteria.

And food company representatives have gotten together to establish guidelines for funding food and nutrition research so as to prevent conflicts of interest.  The guidelines make sense – keep everything transparent and stay out of the way of research and publication – but do not address what I see as the most serious consequence of food industry sponsorship: setting up research studies to  inevitably yield results that favor the sponsor’s products.

This, I can assure you, is remarkably easy to do and happens all the time (see, for example, my post on Açaí).

Yes, food and nutrition research is difficult to do and interpret.  That is why independent funding is essential.  At least that’s how I see it.  You?

Apr 21 2009

The latest “Let’s Ask Marion”

This time, Eating Liberally’s kat wants to know how come there isn’t a bigger public outcry about all the food safety scandals.  If you’ve been reading these posts, you probably can guess how I’ve answered her question, but here’s what I told her.

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?

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