Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 16 2010

Food safety roundup

I’ve been collecting items on food safety for the last week or two. Here’s a roundup for a quiet Friday in July:

Antibiotics in animal agriculture

     USA Today does great editorial point/counterpoints and here is one from July 12 on use of antibiotics as growth promoters or as  prophylactics in farm animals and poultry.  This selects for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.   If we get infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, too bad for us. 

     The paper’s editors think that use of antibiotics for these purposes is irresponsible:  Our view on food safety: To protect humans, curb antibiotic use in animals.

     Dr. Howard Hill, a veterinarian who directs the National Pork Producers Council, defends these uses of antibiotics: Don’t bar animal antibiotics.

The source of the 2006 E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in California spinach

     USDA and UC Davis investigators are still trying to figure out how the toxic E. coli O157:H7 got onto the spinach. Investigators did not find the bacteria on the spinach field itself, but they did find it in water, cattle, and cattle feces at a cattle crossing over a stream one mile away. Leading hypotheses: runoff from that stream or wild boar.

     Subsequent studies showed low levels of E. coli 0157:H7 in wild animals and birds.  A new study confirms that just under 4% of wild boar harbor the bacteria. 

     The investigators say the spinach outbreak of 2006 was the result of a combination of circumstances: “Everybody is starting to realize that maybe unusually heavy rainfall prior to planting could be an issue in terms of where water is routed.”

     Dairy farming is moving into California’s Central Valley in a big way.  Runoff from those farms will not be sterile and growing vegetables along water routes may be risky.  Compost, anyone?

The chemical behind Kellogg’s cereal recall

     Kellogg recalled 28 million packets of breakfast cereals last month because people reported funny smells and getting sick from something in the packaging.  At first, Kellogg would not say what the chemical contaminant might be.  

     Then it said the chemical is methylnaphthalene. Mothballs! (Are they still making mothballs?  Their smell is unforgettable)

     Tom Philpott’s comments on Grist.com point out what’s really at stake: “And of course, the real scandal is what Kellogg’s is marketing to kids: a tarted-up slurry consisting mainly of sugar, corn products, partially hydrogenated oil, and food colorings. But that’s a whole different story.”

Salsa and guacamole are sources of foodborne illness

     The CDC reports that salsa and guacamole are becoming more frequent sources of contaminants leading to illness.  CDC started collecting information on sources of outbreaks in 1973.  Its first outbreak due to salsa or guacamole occurred in 1984.  Since then, there have been 136 such outbreaks.  Restaurants and delis were responsible for 84%.  Between 1984 and 1997, salsa and guacamole outbreaks accounted for 1.5% of total foodborne outbreaks.  But the percentage rose to 3.9% from 1998 to 2008.

     Moral: make your own!

China deals with melamine in milk powder

     China is taking creative steps to prevent melamine from getting into milk powder and infant formula.  To discourage fraudulent producers from boosting up the apparent level of protein in milk with melamine, it simply reduced the amount of protein required.

The latest on food irradiation

     FoodSafetyNews.com presented a two-part series on food irradiation (part 1 and part 2), both of them quite favorable to the technology. As I discuss in my book, Safe Food, I don’t have any safety ojections to food irradiation, but I consider it a late-stage techno-fix for a problem that should never have occurred in the first place.

     I conclude with my favorite quote from former USDA official Carol Tucker Foreman: “sterilized poop is still poop.”

Enjoy a safe weekend!

Jul 15 2010

Nestlé does nutrition education in China

Nestlé (the corporation, not me) is moving its Healthy Kids Program to China, and intends to put the program into every country in which it operates by the end of 2011.

The program “aims to improve the nutrition, health and wellness of children aged 6-12 years old by promoting nutrition education, balanced diet, greater physical activity and a healthy lifestyle.”

Nestlé believes that education is the single most powerful tool for ensuring that children understand the value of nutrition and physical activity to their health through the course of their lives. As a Council member of the Chinese Nutrition Society, Nestlé is indeed honoured to work together with the authorities and several other organizations to promote nutrition awareness and health education for the Chinese children.

Want to make some guesses about what this program will say about nutrition?  Note yesterday’s post.  Probiotics in juice drink straws, anyone?

One clue comes from that barge loaded with food products that Nestle is sending up the Amazon into the Brazilian outback: The vessel will carry 300 different goods including chocolate, yogurt, ice cream and juices.”

Jul 14 2010

FTC forces Nestlé to settle questionable probiotic marketing claim

While I’m on the subject of the FTC (see yesterday’s post), let’s congratulate the agency for going after the Nestlé (no relation) corporation for marketing a product aimed at kids with misleading, deceptive, and—according to the FDA—illegal health claims.  The FTC settlement announcement says that

from fall 2008 to fall 2009, Nestlé HealthCare Nutrition, Inc. made deceptive claims in television, magazine, and print ads that BOOST Kid Essentials prevents upper respiratory tract infections in children, protects against colds and flu by strengthening the immune system, and reduces absences from daycare or school due to illness.

Nestlé must have introduced this product in 2008 because bloggers (of the sponsored kind) were promoting its benefits in September that year.  One said:

BOOST Kid Essentials is a nutritionally complete drink intended for children ages 1 to 13.  The probiotics in BOOST Kid Essentials are embedded in a straw that comes with the drink, which was prominently featured in ads for the product.  Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria that are found naturally in many foods, and they are known for aiding digestion and fighting harmful bacteria.

This blogger’s enthusiasm for the product—“parenting solved”—quotes two studies, one done with adults using the straw and another with kids in day care whose infant formula was supplemented with one of the bacteria used in the adult study.  Both studies look preliminary to me, as they must have to the FTC.

In February 2009, in what reads like a company advertisement, another (sponsored) blogger wrote:

BOOST Kid Essentials Drink is the only nutritionally complete drink that provides kids ages 1 through 13 with immune-strengthening probiotics plus complete, balanced nutrition. Just one daily serving of the probiotic found in the BOOST Kid Essentials Drink straw has been clinically shown to help strengthen the immune system. BOOST Kid Essentials Drink is perfect for children who are below growth percentiles, having trouble gaining weight, resisting eating enough nutritious foods, or needing extra nutrition to help maintain an active lifestyle.

But in December 2009, the FDA  issued a letter to the company warning it that it was marketing this product as a drug:

this product is misbranded under…the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act… because the label is false or misleading in that the product is labeled and marketed as a medical food but does not meet the statutory definition of a medical food in the Orphan Drug Act…Furthermore, this product is promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug under section 201(g)(1)(B) of the Act…The therapeutic claims on your website establish that this product is a drug because it is intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.

The warning letter didn’t get into the business of whether probiotics really do any good (the European Food Safety Authority certainly doesn’t think so) or whether “healthy” bacteria stay live and active in a straw stuck in the packaging of a kids’ drink.  The company must not have wanted to get into all that, so it settled.  The probiotic straw no longer comes with the package.

Nestlé is the largest food company in the world with earnings that exceed $100 billion annually.  It should have known better.

Update, July 15: Since the FTC imposed no penalties on Nestlé,  analysts expect class action lawsuits to follow in due course.  And here’s the account in the New York Times (I’m quoted).

Jul 13 2010

Whatever happened to the FTC’s nutrition standards for food marketing?

I keep hearing rumors that food industry opposition is what is holding up release of the FTC’s position paper on nutrition standards for marketing foods to kids.

I titled my previous post on this report “Standards for marketing foods to kids: tentative, proposed, weak,” because I thought they left far too much wiggle room for companies to market products that I would not exactly call health foods.

Now, Melanie Warner points out that even so, the proposed standards will exclude a great many highly profitable food products.  Hence: food company opposition.

Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood quotes an executive of the food industry’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative: “There are very few products, period, that meet these standards, whether they’re primarily consumed by adults or children.”

The food industry has consistently opposed giving the FTC more authority over marketing of foods and supplements.  Here is another reason why this agency needs it.

Update, July 24: The missing FTC report is front-page news!  William Neuman is on the front page of the New York Times with a detailed account of the Federal Trade Commission’s lack of action on food company advertising practices.  The FTC standards were expected last week but nobody seems to know when, if ever, they will be released.

Update, July 30: Here is Colbert’s take on the delaying of FTC standards.

Jul 12 2010

UK government to eliminate pesky Food Standards Agency

As City University Professor Tim Lang explained (see yesterday’s post), which government is in power makes a big difference.

The new UK government is not wasting a minute before caving in to food industry demands.

First the government promised the food industry no new regulations.  Now it is eliminating the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which is more or less the equivalent of our FDA.  How come?

Would you believe front-of-package food labels?

According to the account in The Guardian (UK), this is happening because the FSA “fought a running battle with industry over the introduction of colour-coded ‘traffic light’ warnings for groceries, TV dinners and snacks.”

Rest in Peace

The FSA has led calls for the Europe-wide introduction of a traffic light system that required food companies to label the front of their products with red, amber or green symbols to denote the amounts of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar contained per serving.   The agency…said this was the best way to allow Europe’s increasingly obese shoppers to make informed decisions about the food they bought.

The British Medical Association, British Dietetic Association and British Heart Foundation are among health groups that supported the scheme…But traffic light labelling was buried by the European parliament last month, when MEPs backed a rival system favoured by multinationals such as Nestlé, Kraft and Danone.

The industry advocated “guideline daily amounts”, a system that listed percentages of recommended daily allowances included in each serving.

The food industry spent an estimated £830m on lobbying to stop the traffic lights scheme, which enjoyed a level of popularity with consumers because it was relatively easy to understand.

Note: That’s $1.247 billion to defeat traffic lights.  Why?  Because consumers know they aren’t supposed to buy products labeled with red dots.  The food industry much prefers the incomprehensible Guideline Daily Amounts like the ones that Kellogg and General Mills were quick to put on their cereal boxes.

Getting rid of traffic lights was not enough.  The food industry is so angry with FSA over the traffic light proposal that it lobbied the new government to axe the agency.

Mission accomplished (or maybe not).

Addition: Even responsible food industry commentators think this is a bad idea:

As regards the proposed splitting up of the FSA – we only have to look to the number of food safety scares in the US to see the consequences of its fragmented food safety approach.

So instead of putting the food watchdog to sleep, shouldn’t the UK government instead give it more teeth?

Update, July 14: Tim Lang and Geof Rayner did an editorial on this for the BMJ:

Mr Lansley’s thoughts imply that a combination of corporate and individual responsibility will do the trick. This is risky thinking. The Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives programme he inherits did not underplay the personal responsibility that individuals have for their weight, and it recognised that without system-wide action there would be little hope in turning around what already seemed to be the worst public health crisis since HIV….Ironically, by showing his hand early, Mr Lansley has done public health proponents a service. Tackling obesity requires bold efforts to shift how we live, but fiscal constraint should not be an excuse for ideological reassertion.

Jul 11 2010

British government promises no regulation in exchange for food industry funding

In a classic example of government sending the fox off to guard the chickens, Andrew Lansley, Britain’s new health minister has just handed the country’s food industry a gift it cannot refuse.  If the industry agrees to pay for the British government’s principal anti-obesity campaign, the government promises that it will impose no new regulations on the industry.

According to The Guardian (UK):

[Lansley] told a conference of public health experts that he wanted a new partnership with food and drink firms. In exchange for a “non-regulatory approach”, the private sector would put up cash to fund the Change4Life campaign to improve diets and boost levels of physical activity among young people…He said business people ‘understand the social responsibility of people having a better lifestyle and they don’t regard that as remotely inconsistent with their long-term commercial interest.”

I posted about the Change4Life program on January 24, 2009.  Even then, it was clear that the program was deeply influenced by food industry interests:

British government launched an anti-obesity campaign: The UK government’s Change4Life campaign is designed to promote healthier lifestyles.  This is causing much discussion, not least because of its food-industry sponsorship (uh oh).  Food companies are said to view the campaign as good for business (uh oh, indeed). The government wants everyone to help with the campaign by putting up posters and such, and its website is cheery.  Buried in all of this is some good advice, but most of it is phrased as eat better, not eat less or avoid.  That, of course, is why the food industry is willing to fund a campaign which, if successful, could hardly be in the food industry’s best interest.

I asked Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, London, what this was all about (he wrote an editorial for the British Medical Journal, which I will post when it appears).

The speech by Andrew Lansley was pretty depressing. Not only did it forecast handing over funding of the sole national social marketing effort on obesity to companies, but it also heralds a return to the bad old days when the UK Government buried its head in the sand about food and public health issues. It’s taken 30 years to get first the Thatcher-Major Conservative Government (in the 1980s & 90s) and then the Blair-Brown Labour Government (in the 2000s) to see that government does have a role.

Indeed, without government setting the framework, there can be a race to the bottom: an avalanche of competing messages all appealing to individual behaviour change, when no individual can control the determinants of their health. That’s why so many people are troubled by Mr Lansley’s speech. It winds back that learning process over the last two decades, reducing health to individual choices and to market relationships.

Ironically, that might be its Achilles heel. As a strategy, corporate responsibility puts awesome responsibility on the companies to sort out public health, which they neither want to do (they sell products, not health!) nor are able to do, even if they wanted to. Not even the mightiest food companies control all the variables for health.

In that sense, Mr Lansley’s speech was dangerously policy illiterate. Advances in health come when the ground rules are changed; thereafter, let markets operate, fine. But to reduce public health to market dynamics flies in the face of history. But let’s see. Maybe this was sabre rattling. But maybe not.

Michele Simon, who alerted me to this story in the first place, asks: “What is the trade exactly?”  This is a complete “win-win for industry.  They get to run the campaign and not be regulated.”

Moral: Expect no public health messages about eating less, or further restrictions on health claims from this campaign.

Jul 10 2010

“Silent raids” demonstrate need for a better immigration policy

Today’s New York Times reports:

The Obama administration has replaced immigration raids at factories and farms with a quieter enforcement strategy: sending federal agents to scour companies’ records for illegal immigrant workers. ..the “silent raids,” as employers call the audits, usually result in the workers being fired, but in many cases they are not deported.

What does this have to do with food politics?

Employers say the Obama administration is leaving them short of labor for some low-wage work, conducting silent raids but offering no new legal immigrant laborers in occupations, like farm work, that Americans continue to shun despite the recession. Federal labor officials estimate that more than 60 percent of farm workers in the United States are illegal immigrants.

In my visit to Alaskan seafood processing plants this summer, I saw cannery workers imported from the Philippines or Eastern Europe to work 16 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, for the minimum wage or close to it.

Residents of one remote cannery town said they all worked in canneries as teenagers for good wages.  But when the large cannery moved into town, it reduced wages, increased hours, halved the amount paid to fishermen, and imported the Philippine workers.  The canneries, they said, made it clear that they did not want locals working in the plants.

The result: near-poverty life for community residents and near-slavery conditions for the imported workers.

Our immigration system needs a fix to allow workers to come and go without fear of random arrests, firings, or deportations.  Farm working conditions need a fix.  Reexamining the minimum wage might be a good starting point.

Your thoughts?

Jul 9 2010

Dietary Guidelines hearings: Lobbying in Action

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee held a hearing yesterday on its recent report (see my posts of June 28 on the politics of this report, and June 29 on its science).  I could not attend the hearing but am collecting second-hand reports from people who attended or testified.

Philip Brasher, who blogs at GreenFields.com, summarizes lobbyists at work:

  • National Pork Producers: “Lean meat is a vital source of high-quality protein and certainly should not be framed as a food to limit in the American diet….Urging Americans to shift to a more plant-based diet and consume only moderate amounts of lean meat implies they should decrease consumption of this vital, complete protein.”
  • Egg producers: “The average American could increase egg consumption and still be within the egg-a-day limit.”
  • The Sugar Association: Advice to reduce sugar is “impractical, unrealistic and not grounded in the body of evidence.”
  • The Salt Institute:  “Encouraging consumption of low-salt foods will encourage Americans to eat excessively to make up for the lack of taste….The guidelines have become far more a reflection of ideology than sound science.”

The Organic Trade Association testified that the scientific review, which found no significant nutritional differences between organic and conventionally produced foods, is:

Neither grounded in current science nor relevant to the mandate of the Dietary Guidelines….[it is] in direct conflict with the advice put forth by the recent President’s Cancer Panel report regarding ways to reduce environmental cancer risk….It is inconceivable and alarming that the very document that is the underpinning of our nation’s policies regarding food and nutrition would include a statement that directly contradicts these recommendations….As released, the guidelines confuse the consumer, contradict the President’s own Cancer Panel, and do not enhance dietary recommendations.

To repeat: The committee report is simply advisory.  So is the lobbying.  The sponsoring federal agencies, USDA and DHHS, now must deal with both as well as with written comments on the report’s statements and recommendations.

The agencies write the final guidelines. Will they include advice to cut down on added sugars and fatty meats?  Will they say anything positive about organic foods?

Maybe, if enough people weigh in with such opinions.  Comments are due by July 15.  Here’s how.

Addition, July 10: Amber Healy’s terrific account in Food Chemical News (July 12) summarizes the hearings as “largely boiling down to a single question: Is meat good or bad?” For example:

  • People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), the Soyfoods Association of North America and Christina Pirello, the host of a cooking show on PBS: the guidelines should more clearly spell out the benefits of reducing meat consumption and take a stronger position on the need to reduce intake of processed meats.
  • Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation: the recommended reduction in intake of lean meat and protein from animal sources could “perpetuate the kind of nutrient deficiencies” that the guidelines try to avoid and even lead to lower fertility rates.
  • Betsy Booren of the American Meat Institute: If people try to consume the same amount of protein from plant-based foods, people could end up consuming more calories than if they had simply eaten some lean meat or poultry.

And, the National Dairy Council and the International Dairy Foods Association approved of the recommendation for three daily servings of low-fat or fat-free milk or dairy foods, but asked that the final guidelines acknowledge that flavored low-fat milk [i.e. chocolate] can encourage consumption among children.

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