Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 11 2011

How to get involved: school food

I am starting to put together a resource list for anyone who would like to advocate for better school food.

I began by asking Margo Wootan, of Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) how she answers questions about how to help schools improve their food.  Her advice is to visit your local school (CSPI has a ToolKit for this):

  • Meet with principal, teachers, parents, food service directors and staff
  • Talk about how to encourage stronger wellness policies for nutrition and physical activity
  • Focus on healthier meals and removal of less healthful items from vending machines

It’s also useful to work on national policies to make it easier for schools to serve healthier meals (CSPI has guidelines and resources for this).

I also know about a few groups that are working on school food issues.  Some have published guides to getting started or other useful materials.  These range in scope from local to national, and from hands on to policy.:

Do you know of other resources to help beginners get started on school food advocacy?  Please send.  My plan is to post a revised version as a Q and A.  Thanks!

Apr 10 2011

Dietary Guidelines, 1861 (they haven’t changed much….)

I’m at a meeting in Washington DC of the American Society of Nutrition. At the exhibits, David Schnackenberg, who runs a website on the history of military nutrition, gave me these dietary guidelines from 1861. They are from a monograph by Dr. John Ordonaux, “Hints on the Preservation of Health in the Armies: for the Use of Volunteer Officers and Soldiers.”

  • Soldiers should be fed a mixed diet of animal and vegetable substances.
  • A variety of foods are needed to avoid monotony and increase assimilation.
  • A healthy diet must conform to the physiological requirements of the season with less animal fats in the summer dietary, and more starch, vegetables, and fruits.
  • Fresh fruits are always preferable to dry or preserved ones.
  • Farinaceous vegetables are more nourishing than roots or grasses.
  • The best soldiers in the world are fed on dark colored bread.
  • French army dietaries provide nutritious soups made with meat or vegetables.
  • The woody fibre of the vegetable provides bulk as well as nourishment.
  • Each company should have at least one educated cook.
  • Beans, unless thoroughly cooked, are only fit for horses. When half-cooked, they will provoke indigestion and diarrhea.
  • Ardent spirits are not necessary for health and the soldier is better off without them.
  • Soldiers must be well fed to bear the fatigues of marching, to encounter unaffected the changes of climate, and to develop a high muscular tone.

As I keep saying, basic nutrition advice has, in fact, not changed much over the years.  The big change in the last 150 years is the invention of junk foods. Dr. Ordonaux did not have snacks and sodas to contend with, nor today’s extensive obesity among army recruits.

Apr 8 2011

How to get involved: the Farm Bill

When giving talks here and there, I am invariably asked how listeners can get involved in social and political action on food issues.

From the standpoint of personal responsibility, it’s easy: Vote with your fork!  Buy and eat according to your principles to the extent that you can.

But participating in democratic processes is also part of personal responsibility, and here is where things get more complicated.  Over the next week or so, I am going to post suggestions about how to get involved in a variety of food issues, starting with work on the 2012 Farm Bill, the legislation that governs everything having to do with agricultural policy in the United States—subsidies, water rights, organics, food assistance programs, and anything else you can think of.

I only am familiar with a few organizations gearing up to work on this bill:

If you know of others, please tell me about them in a comment.

Also: please mention groups advocating for better school food, limits on food marketing to children, and other food policy issues—groups that beginners might want to join.

Thanks!

Apr 7 2011

Cassava for biofuels?

It’s bad enough that corn is grown for ethanol, but cassava?  Many populations depend on cassava for food.

According to today’s New York Times, cassava is the new “go to” crop to burn for fuel.  Doing this, of course, prices cassava beyond what people can afford:

It can be tricky predicting how new demand from the biofuel sector will affect the supply and price of food. Sometimes, as with corn or cassava, direct competition between purchasers drives up the prices of biofuel ingredients. In other instances, shortages and price inflation occur because farmers who formerly grew crops like vegetables for consumption plant different crops that can be used for fuel.

The Times graph of the increase in use of food for biofuel is sobering:

New York Times, April 7, 2011

The rise in food prices has stopped temporarily, but prices are still an astonishing 37% higher than a year ago, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization

None of this makes sense to me.  We need a sensible food policy and a sensible energy policy.

Apr 6 2011

Are fish from Japan radioactive?

I’m frequently asked what food has to do with politics.

Food, as my colleagues in Food Studies like to say, is an entry point into the most important social, economic, and political problems facing the world now and in the past.

Today’s New York Times story on testing seafood for radioactivity is a case in point.  Food may seem remote from energy policy and nuclear power plants, but it is tightly linked to these issues.  The Japanese have had to dump radioactive water from their tsunami-damaged power plants into the ocean.

The ocean is large and the radioactivity will be diluted, but fish and shellfish have the potential to concentrate it.  That is why high-end restaurants are now testing fish for radioactivity.

Government agencies and experts say that the amount of radioactivity is too low to cause harm:

Patricia A. Hansen, a senior scientist at the F.D.A., acknowledged that the radiation detection methods used to screen food imports were not sensitive enough to detect a single contaminated fish in a large shipment. But she said that small amounts of contamination did not represent a public health hazard….But the important context is, is that one fish at the intervention level a public health concern? No, it is not.”

How credible are such statements?

Nicholas Fisher, a professor of marine sciences at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said that, according to some radiation safety guidelines, people could safely eat 35 pounds of fish each year containing the level of cesium 137 detected in the Japanese fish.

“You’re not going to die from eating it right away,” he said, “but we’re getting to levels where I would think twice about eating it.”

Low-dose radiation accumulates, and the less to which we are exposed, the better.

Food is plenty related to politics, no?

Apr 5 2011

FDA makes recalls transparent

The FDA has just revised its method for listing recalls online.  As explained by Food Production Daily, the FDA was required to do this by the food safety bill passed in January.

The new site is nifty.  It displays recalls in a neat, searchable, trackable table.

The most fun is in the details.  You can click on the links and see the original recall notice and photos of the product labels.

Here, for example, is the most recent entry to give you an idea of how this works.  Click on the Details.  Enjoy!

Date Brand Name Product Description Reason/ Problem Company Details/ Photo
04/01/2011 Cottage Grove Farmhouse Bakery Bread Undeclared egg Cottage Grove Farmhouse Bakery Select to View Firm Press Release Select to View Image of Product Label
Apr 3 2011

Food is cheaper because costs are “externalized”

My monthly Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Food is cheap at market, but costs a lot elsewhere

Q: I pay a lot for food, and more each day, but then people like you say our food is cheap because its real costs are “externalized.” Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?

A: Food prices are indeed going up, and I can hardly keep track of the possible causes: natural disasters, crop failures, commodity speculation, corn used for biofuels, lack of research in agriculture, the declining value of the U.S. dollar and just plain greed.

But we Americans still pay relatively less for food than anywhere else because so many of the costs of industrialized food production are “externalized.” We pay for them, but not at the grocery store.

Human costs

I was reminded of externalized food costs when reading about the remarkable efforts of a Salinas teacher to educate children of itinerant farmworkers. The kids are trying to learn under disrupted, impoverished, crowded living conditions. If their parents were paid and housed better, we would pay more for food.

Last summer I visited fish canneries at the far end of the Alaskan peninsula. The fish packers were women from the Philippines, working round the clock for months to send money home to their children and families.

The canneries used to hire Alaskan high school students at wages high enough to put them through college. But to keep prices competitive, the companies reduced wages and imported labor. That money disappeared from the community.

The CEO of a large U.S. meat company told me that if he raised wages by $3, he could hire locals and not have to deal with immigrant labor. But then he would have to raise the price of his meat by 3 cents per pound (I’m not kidding). That amount, he claimed, would price him out of competitiveness.

Environmental costs

Twenty billion dollars of our tax money goes to subsidies for industrial food production every year. Additional tax money is required to clean up the mess created by that system – polluted drinking water, infertile soil, ocean dead zones and overall misery in the surrounding areas.

While driving to give a talk at a college in rural Minnesota last year, I passed within a mile or so of an industrial pig farm. The overpowering smell – an externalized cost – was still on my clothes hours later.

Safety costs

Food safety is one casualty of a food system devoted to low cost. Companies save money by cutting corners on oversight and overlooking safety violations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says food pathogens cause 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year.

Some experts say unsafe food costs Americans $152 billion annually – $1,850 for each case in health care and lost wages. Severe illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 can generate more than $1 million in health care costs alone, and ruin lives forever.

To these amounts must be added the costs to food producers of product recalls, continued loss of sales, lawsuits and ruined reputations. Sales of spinach, for example, are only now returning to levels reported before the huge E. coli outbreak in 2006.

Here again, the cost of prevention is minimal for large companies producing large volumes of food. Officials of one vegetable-packing company told me that the impressively comprehensive food safety system they instituted in the wake of recalls raised the cost of their products by only one penny a case (I’m not kidding about this, either).

Despite ample evidence from surveys that consumers are willing to pay more to guarantee safe food, large food producers perceive those few pennies as competitive barriers.

Health care costs

Let’s count obesity as another externalized result of a cheap food system. The cheapest foods are high in calories and low in nutritional value – “junk” foods. When food is cheap, people eat more of it.

Abundant cheap food leads companies to aggressively market their products to be eaten any time, any place and in very large amounts – all of which promote biologically irresistible overeating.

Current estimates of the costs of obesity and its consequent illnesses in health care and lost productivity approach $147 billion annually, almost the same as the cost of unsafe food.

Accurate or not, such numbers provide ample evidence for the need to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy.

To pick just one example: Dietary guidelines say to eat more fruits and vegetables, and cut down on sodas. But the indexed cost of fruits and vegetables has increased by about 40 percent since the early 1980s, whereas that of sodas has decreased by about 20 percent.

The high externalized cost of our present food system is a good reason to reconsider current policies when the Farm Bill comes up for renewal in 2012. Now is the time to start working toward food system policies that will better promote health, safety and human welfare.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” “Safe Food,” “What to Eat” and “Pet Food Politics,” 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 www.sfgate.com/food.

This article appeared on page H – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Apr 2 2011

FDA finally does proposed rules for calorie labeling

Federal agencies love releasing potentially controversial proposals on Friday afternoons when reporters and everyone else is heading for the weekend. So that’s when the FDA released its week-late proposed rules for calorie labeling in restaurants.   There are two sets of proposed rules, one for restaurants, and one for vending machines.

Most of the proposed rules are pretty much as expected. They will apply to restaurants and fast-food places, bakeries, groceries, convenience stores, and coffee shops that are part of chains with more than 20 locations nationwide.  They also will apply to vending machines from companies with more than 20.

But here’s an eyebrow-raiser. The rules will not apply to movie theaters, airplanes, bowling alleys, and other establishments whose primary purpose is not to sell food. Uh oh. Food is sold everywhere these days as anyone who has been to a drug store lately can attest.

An exemption for movie theaters seems like a bizarre oversight. If ever there was a place where calorie labeling might be useful, try movie theater supersized sodas, popcorn, and candy.

In FDA-speak, an outlet is defined as primarily in the food business if it says it is, or if more than half its floor space is used to sell food. I can’t wait to see those drug stores getting out their tape measures.

Fortunately, these are proposed rules and you are more than welcome to comment on whether you think these exempted places should be required to opt in (I vote yes).  The FDA press release in the link above gives information about how to comment.  Note that there are two codes, one for restaurants and one for vending machines.

A couple of other points caught my eye:

Ranges: “Calories for variable menu items, such as combination meals, would be displayed in ranges. An example of a combination meal could be a choice of sandwich, side dish and beverage.”

Like how? Chipotle, for example, is happy to post calories in absurdly large ranges (200 to 800, for example). Do such places get to keep doing this?

Preemption of state and local laws: these rules will take precedent except that “State and local governments can establish nutrition labeling requirements for establishments not covered by the new law or regulations.”

Does this mean like movie theaters?

Alcohol: the rules do not apply to alcohol beverages because FDA does not regulate alcohol.  Treasury does (go figure).

Take every opportunity to comment!  The comment period opens April 6.

Here are some press accounts of the proposed rules:

Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post (I’m quoted)

William Neuman in the New York Times deals with the preemption issue.

But local governments would be free to create laws for establishments that were left outside the federal rules.  New York City’s labeling law already requires movie theater chains to post calorie information. It also requires calorie labeling for alcoholic beverages listed on menus at restaurant chains.

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