Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 14 2009

Labeling GM foods: if the U.K. can do it, we can too!

You will recall that the FDA’s 1994 stance on labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods was that labeling foods as GM or non-GM would be misleading  because the foods are no different.  Despite overwhelming evidence that the public wants to know whether foods are GM or not, GM foods do not have to be labeled.  Worse, those that are labeled non-GM have to include a disclaimer that this makes no difference (I explain how all this happened in Safe Food).

At present, there is no way to know whether GM foods that have been approved by FDA (such as potatoes, tomatoes, squash, papayas) are actually in the produce section of supermarkets.  When I was writing What to Eat, I paid to have some papayas tested.  Most were not GM.  But you have no way of knowing that.

The GM industry (translation: Monsanto) has opposed labeling from the very beginning, no doubt because of fears that people will reject GM foods.  The makers of processed foods object to labeling because practically everything they make contains GM ingredients: about 90% of the soybeans and 50% of the corn grown in America is GM.  Ingredients made from these foods – corn and soy oils, proteins, and sweeteners – are widely used in processed foods.

The Europeans are faced with the same problem but insist on labeling GM.  Guess what?  No problem.  Hershey’s Reese’s NutRageous candy bars in the U.K. disclose the GM ingredients in exactly the way our products disclose allergens: “Contains: Peanuts, Genetically Modified Sugar, Soya and Corn.”

Here’s the label (borrowed from Mike Grenville at flickr.com/photos):

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Hershey is an American company.  If labeling in the U.K. is this simple, we ought to be able to do this here, no?  Here’s a chance for the FDA to fix an old mistake and give consumers a real choice.

Aug 13 2009

Increasing concentration in agriculture: a problem?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which does research in response to questions from members of Congress (in this case, Charles Grassley, Rep-Iowa),  has just released a report on agricultural concentration and food prices.  Concentration, for this purpose, has a specific meaning: the share of sales held by the four largest companies.

Grassley wanted to know: is increasing concentration in the food sector responsible for the recent rise in food prices.  The GAO says no, but check out its findings about what’s happening in the food industry.  Examples:

  • Less than 2% of farms accounted for 50% of farm sales in 2007 (See Table on page 10).
  • The top four concentration in grocery chains more than doubled from 1982 to 2005, from 16% to 36% (page 12).
  • The concentration in meat also has nearly doubled.  Beef concentration went from 41% to 79%, pork went from 36% to 63%, and poultry went from 27% to 57% (page 18).

Only two sectors have become less concentrated: Wet corn milling (translation: high fructose corn syrup) from 74% to 69%, and breakfast cereals (86% to 78%).  No wonder the Big Four Breakfast Cereals (General Mills, Kellogg, Post, Quaker) are so desperately pushing their wares these days.

And do take a look at the figure on page 19, which illustrates the steady decline since 1980 of the proportion of the food dollar that goes to the farmer (from 30% to less than 20%), and the steady increase in the proportion going to food marketing (from 70% to more than 80%).

The USDA must be really worried about all this.  Thanks to Maya for telling me that USDA has teamed up with the Justice Department to take a look at legal ramifications of increasing agricultural concentration.  Why?  America does best with “a fair and competitive marketplace that benefits agriculture, rural economies and American consumers,” says the USDA Secretary.

The Justice Department has its own interests in this matter: the anti-trust implications of food sector concentration.

I’m guessing that Senator Grassley wanted GAO to demonstrate that agricultural concentration does not affect prices and, therefore, is good for consumers.  Instead, the GAO report focuses attention on just how concentrated agriculture had become.  Let’s keep a close eye on this one.

Aug 12 2009

What the FDA is doing while waiting for Congress to get busy

The FDA must be in a bit of a quandary as it waits to see what Congress orders it to do about food safety (see previous post).  But it is not sitting around doing nothing.  Instead, it seems to be unblocking regulations that have been in the works for a long time.

On July 9, the FDA announced a final rule for prevention of Salmonella Enteriditis contamination of shell eggs during production, storage, and transportation.  This might seem unremarkable except for two points: (1) it requires science-based food safety procedures – with pathogen testing – from farm to table (an all-time first), and (2) it was first proposed in 2004 and has been stuck ever since (that’s politics for you).

On July 31, the FDA proposed safety guidance for melons, tomatoes, and leafy greens that would apply to everyone involved in the supply chains for these foods – growers, packers, processors, transporters, retailers, and others.  Guidance, alas, is just that: voluntary.  But this puts the producers of such foods on alert that the guidance could swiftly turn into rules  if Congress gets busy and does what it ought to be doing about food safety.  The guidance is open for comment but it is designed to be implemented within two years.  This is quick in FDA regulatory time.

And now the FDA announces that it is speeding up its system for issuing warning notices to companies in violation of safety regulations.  This is a good step, although it falls far short of recall authority.  For that, Congress must act.

Applaud the FDA and keep fingers crossed that no new outbreaks occur while Congress takes its own sweet time to act.

Aug 11 2009

National Organic Program to be audited!

On August 4, the Washington Post ran a story about requests from the organic community to clean up inconsistencies and omissions in the National Organic Program (NOP) and bring its practices in line with more stringent international organic standards.  The House and Senate approved an expenditure of $500,000 to conduct an independent audit of the program and its certifying agencies.

The USDA has now announced the audit.  Why is this needed?  As the new USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan puts it, this step is part of department efforts “to strengthen the integrity of the NOP and to build the organic community’s trust in the program.”

Distrust, as we learned when the British Food Standards Agency released its report on the nutritional equivalence of organic and conventionally grown crops, is rampant (see previous post).  The public deeply distrusts the integrity of the organic standards, the honesty of the inspection process, and the claims made for the benefits of organic foods.

When I reviewed the organic program in preparation for writing What to Eat, I was impressed by how everyone connected with organics thought the system worked well and was honest.  That’s not what I’m hearing these days.

This audit is badly needed.  Let’s hope the Commerce Department auditors hold the NOP to the highest possible standards.

Aug 10 2009

Do the food safety bills apply to pet foods?

A comment by Sophie on my post about the food safety bills needs an immediate response to set the record straight.  She says:

It’s my understanding that this [bill] excludes pet food manufacturers….our pets were the canaries in the coal mine in the 2007 pet food recalls; they helped bring huge awareness to the food safety issue especially when baby formula was tainted with the same melamine problem that pet food was…but yet our pets get left out of the food safety bill?  Something isn’t right here…

On this point, not to worry.  H.R. 2749 most definitely does include pet foods.  Here, for example, is Section 101 (C)(i):

The term ‘retail food establishment’ means an establishment that, as its primary function, sells food products (including those food products that it manufactures, processes, packs, or holds) directly to consumers (including by Internet or mail order).
‘(ii) Such term includes–
‘(I) grocery stores;
‘(II) convenience stores;
‘(III) vending machine locations; and
‘(IV) stores that sell bagged feed, pet food, and feed ingredients or additives over-the-counter directly to consumers and final purchasers for their own personal animals [my emphasis].

All sections of the bill, including recall authority, apply to  pet foods and animal feed, as well as to human foods.  As another example, see Section 420 (c):

Order to Cease Distribution- If the Secretary has reason to believe that the use or consumption of, or exposure to, an article of food may cause serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals, the Secretary shall have the authority to issue an order requiring any person who distributes such article to immediately cease distribution of such article [my emphasis again].

In this sense, the bill recognizes that we have only one (global) food supply and that this one (global) food supply feeds people, pets, and farm animals alike.

Aug 7 2009

Organic nutrients: the debates continue

The Food Standards agency has issued a statement in response to the outpouring of outrage over its study demonstrating that the nutritional value of organic foods is, on average, equivalent to that of conventional foods.  In defense of the study results, the CEO of the agency says:

Irresponsible interpretation of the review by some has resulted in misleading claims being made concerning higher levels of some nutrients found in organic food.  The review…focused on nutrients where statistically significant differences were seen. Arbitrary quotes or selective use of the data from the other papers which were of less robust scientific quality should be treated with caution. The important message from this report is not that people should avoid organic food but that they should eat a healthy balanced diet and, in terms of nutrition, it doesn’t matter if this is made up of organic or conventionally produced food.

I have long argued that functional foods (in which nutrients are added over and above those that are already present in the foods) are not about improving health; they are about improving marketing.  Evaluating foods on the basis of their content of one or another nutrient is what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism.”  Nutritionism is about marketing, not health.

I am a great supporter of organic foods because their production reduces the use of unnecessary chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, and favors more sustainable production practices.  Yes, some organic foods will be higher in some nutrients than some conventional foods.  But so what?  Customers who can afford to buy organic foods are unlikely to be nutrient deficient.  What’s at stake in the furor over this issue is market share.  What should be at stake is the need to produce food – all food – more sustainably.

Aug 6 2009

The food safety bills in Congress

I don’t track legislation very carefully because bills change so much between the time they are proposed and actually pass.  But I keep getting asked about the bills that seem to have the best chance this year,  H.R. 2749 (which has just been passed by the House) and its equivalent in the Senate, S. 510 (still in the works).  The bills are quite similar.  Both aim to fix the FDA.   Neither aims to fix the system, so forget about combining the food safety functions of USDA and FDA into one agency.  The bills bring the FDA’s rules closer to those of USDA, as they propose science-based food safety standards (much like HACCP) from farm to table.  Best, they give the FDA recall authority as well as a few other goodies.

The bills themselves are miserable to read and it is hard to believe that anyone in government does.  That is why the Congressional Research Service (CRS) does summaries that even legislators can understand.  CRS researchers have now produced blessedly short and hopefully accurate summaries of the House bill as well as the Senate bill.

As my contribution to the cause of clarity, I have done a quick edit of the CRS summaries, with comments in Italics.  The links above are to the original bills so you can plow your way through them to see if this does them justice.   Enjoy!

THE HOUSE BILL, H.R. 2749, requires each food facility to:

(1) Conduct a hazard analysis, (2) Implement preventive controls, and (3) Implement a food safety plan. [This sounds like HACCP, although they aren’t calling it that. I vote yes]

Requires FDA to:

(1) Issue science-based performance standards to minimize the hazards from foodborne contaminants [this means HACCP or its equivalent, and about time too],

(2) Establish science-based standards for raw agricultural commodities [this means some version of farm-t0-table HACCP, long awaited],

(3) Inspect facilities at a frequency determined pursuant to a risk-based schedule [this is an admission that the FDA can’t handle the work load; it will focus on products most likely to be contaminated]

(4) Establish a food tracing system [this will help identify where foods come from]

(5) Assess fees relating to food facility reinspection and food recall [make companies pay for all this, I hope in a way that avoids conflicts of interest],

(6) Establish a program for accreditation of laboratories that perform analytical testing of food for import or export [can’t believe we don’t already have this, but that’s why we need this legislation].

Authorizes FDA to:

(1) Order an immediate cessation of distribution, or a recall, of food [recall authority at last!]

(2) Establish an importer verification program [accountability for importers, at last!]

(3) Quarantine food in any geographic area within the United States [they can’t do this now?].

Defines the term “color additive” to include carbon monoxide that may affect the color of fresh meat, poultry products, or seafood [this will have to meet food additive regulations].

Requires country of origin labeling on food, and annual registration of importers [Yes!].

Provides for unique identifiers for food facilities and food importers [so FDA actually knows who they are].

Deems a food to be adulterated if an inspection is delayed or refused [Yes!].

Requires FDA to establish a corps of inspectors dedicated to inspections of foreign food facilities [Amazing that we don’t already have this].

Reorganizes the FDA field laboratories and district offices [Could this possibly be a euphemism for closing some?].

Gives the FDA Commissioner subpoena authority [Yes!].

Establishes whistleblower protections [OK].

THE SENATE BILL, S. 510, is pretty much the same except that it addresses food bioterrorism [fortunately, a rare event so far]. In addition to most of what is in the House bill, it requires HHS and USDA to prepare the National Agriculture and Food Defense Strategy [If this is done right, it ought to promote the safety of domestic foods and imports].

It also requires FDA to:

(1) Identify preventive programs and practices to promote the safety and security of food [worries about food bioterrorism again];

(2) Promulgate regulations on sanitary food transportation practices [good idea];

(3) Develop a policy to manage the risk of food allergy and anaphylaxis in schools and early childhood education programs [I’m not sure how this got in here]

Requires FDA and CDC to enhance foodborne illness surveillance systems [Good idea].

Requires EPA to assist state, local, and tribal governments in preparing for, assessing, decontaminating, and recovering from an agriculture or food emergency [in the military sense of food security].

There is much, much more in these bills.  Bill Marler, who has actually read the bills, has produced his own summary, which includes definitions and more.  If you are wondering what implementation of these bills might cost, the Congressional Budget Office has done an analysis: a mere $2 billion.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take all this until we see what Congress actually does when it gets back to work.  Stay tuned.

Aug 5 2009

What We Eat in America: Latest Info

I’ve long argued that finding out what people eat is the most intellectually challenging aspect of nutrition research.  To put it bluntly, everybody lies. OK.  We don’t lie.  We just can’t remember or estimate portion sizes accurately.  For years, government agencies have gone to great trouble and done the best they can to get some reasonable idea of what Americans actually eat.  They report the results as “What We Eat in America.”  The data may not be perfect (they almost certainly underestimate actual intake), but they are the best we have and always of great interest.

I always like to know what is going on with calories.  The USDA’s most recent data are from 2005-2006.  These show that women on average consume 1785 calories a day, men 2638, and together 2157.  These figures are based on intake reported for 24 hours and almost certainly underestimate real calorie intake by one-third or more.  Compare these figures to calorie production, which is now 4000 per capita per day! (See Table 1).   The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in between and all we can do is make good guesses.

USDA files its dietary intake reports under Products & Services.   Its latest looks at intake of four nutrients: calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, and magnesium.  In comparison to dietary reference intakes (DRIs), Americans eat pretty well.  The low magnesium intake makes me wonder if the  DRI for that nutrient is too high, but I tend to be skeptical about such things.

Everything about these reports requires much careful interpretation, since every element of obtaining dietary intake information is fraught with error.   Better methods would help a lot.  If only we could figure out how to do this better.  A challenge, indeed.

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