Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 12 2014

The New York Times does Food for Tomorrow

I attended the first day of the New York Times’ Food for Tomorrow conference at Stone Barns, worth the trip to hear Mark Bittman’s inspiring keynote.  My summary: feeding the growing world’s population is not about increasing food production; it’s about ending poverty.

Fortunately, the Times is making videos of the sessions available online.

But never mind all that.  Check out Bittman’s  speech.

 

 

 

 

 

Nov 11 2014

Does the USDA deliberately make it difficult for retailers to accept SNAP benefits?

A colleague and reader who recently took over a small food business wanted to continue to make it possible for people enrolled in SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. Food Stamps—to buy his products.

The business had already followed the steps needed to become an authorized SNAP retailer and had been accepting Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT cards) for a couple of years.

His new ownership required him to start over.  He filed the application with the USDA last April.  As he explained last week:

About six months later now, after repeated follow-up and efforts to move it along and resubmitted paperwork and things not mailed back, we’re finally learning that our accounts were approved for use in August. Probably the 8th person we spoke to since starting was able to tell this to us nonchalantly today. Everyone prior has had *virtually* no idea what’s going on or good answers for us other than “start over” or “I’ll have someone call you.”

Six months to set up EBT, surely among the largest transaction types in the country (in terms of the funding body and the process). The USDA & FNS must be woefully understaffed….

So our EBT accounts were finally approved and activated. What’s fascinating then is the number of companies that reach out to tell us (paraphrasing) that “due to recent changes in the Farm Bill, retailers are no longer able to get free processing equipment from the USDA so call us today to get low-cost equipment and a low-cost monthly flat-fee for your EBT processing needs.”

Obviously our bi-cameral, newly monocular Congress will only care about fraud with respect to EBT. So any responses to bureaucratic inefficiency will not likely result in reform, only reduction.

Alas, he is right about that.  Although Congress, in passing the Agricultural Act of 2014 (a.k.a. the Farm Bill), did not make the deep cuts in SNAP that many Republicans wanted, it did make some mean-spirited changes.

For example:

Section 4002: The Secretary shall require participating retail food stores to pay 100% of the costs of acquiring, and arrange for the implementation of, electronic benefit point-of-sale equipment and supplies, including related services (exceptions: farmers’ markets, nonprofit food coops, etc).  So yes, my reader’s small business has to pay for this.

Here’a another example:

Section 4018: Prohibiting Government-Sponsored Recruitment Activities.  No funds authorized shall be used by the Secretary for:

  • Recruitment activities designed to persuade an individual to apply for SNAP benefits
  • TV, radio, or billboard ads designed to promote benefits and enrollment
  • Agreements with foreign governments designed to promote benefits and enrollment
  • Compensating persons who conduct outreach activities relating to SNAP participation or who recruit others to do so.

It’s possible that the long delay in USDA approval of his EBT accounts could be due to staff incompetence, but it’s clear that Congress does not want anything done to promote SNAP or make it work well for anyone involved in the system.

Let’s hope the USDA is better about approving the eligibility of recipients.

As of August 2014, 46.5 million Americans received SNAP benefits at an average of $124 per month.   The USDA needs to do a better job of serving them and the retailers they buy from.

Nov 10 2014

What ever happened to menu labels?

It’s been 4 years since President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act authorizing menu labels to go national.

In 2011, the FDA proposed rules for public comment.  It proposed final rules in 2013:

But the FDA has never released the final rules.

How come?

The rumors I’m hearing say they are being held up by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

I first wrote about the delay in April 2013.

I complained about the delay again four months ago, when rumors suggested that it was due to pressures from owners of pizza chains and movie theaters.

I quoted Politico Pro Agriculture on the White House-induced delay:

It was three months ago today that the White House first received FDA’s final rules for calorie labels on menus and vending machines, and by the Office of Management and budget’s own rules, that means time is up. Interagency review at OMB is supposed to take no more than 90 days before the final release of a measure, though that timeframe is often extended with little explanation on more controversial initiatives. While OMB is always mum on its schedule for rule reviews and releases, the end of the standard review period is sometimes a hint that something will be coming, if not today — the day before a long weekend — then soon. In the meantime, brush up on the issue here: http://politico.pro/1mKNcFr and here: http://politico.pro/1lzZLDe.

Come on White House OMB: the election is over.  Let the FDA release the rules, please.

This is about public education, which is supposed to be bipartisan.

Nov 7 2014

Weekend reading: health food regulation

Jill Hobbs, Stavroula Malla, Eric Sogah, and May Yeung.  Regulating Health Foods: Policy Challenges and Consumer Conundrums.  EE Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014.

I did a blurb for this one:

Regulating Health Foods systematically organizes the widely disparate definitions, regulations, and policies used internationally to govern functional foods, supplements and nutraceuticals, and does so from the standpoint of the industry and its regulators.  Food scientists, regulators, and industry professionals will especially appreciate its detailed international perspective.

This is a book for policy wonks and students who want to find out how various countries regulate food labels, or who would llike to know such things as how Codex Alimentarius guidelines apply to health claims.  The authors, who work at Canadian Universities, have pulled together vast amounts of detailed information about label regulations by country, with commentary.  Here is an example:

Japan currently provides an interesting mix between a purely generic system and a purely product-specific one.  Although the system is decidedly more product-specific.  Standardized FOSHU [Food for Specific Health Uses] lowers the costs to individual firms seeking claims on ingredients with well-established ingredient-health effect relationships.  At the same time, there are potentially significant returns to investment for firms wishing to market a new product with health benefits.

Nov 5 2014

Yesterday’s elections: plenty of good news for the food movement

This was a big election for the food movement:

  • Soda taxes in Berkeley and San Francisco
  • GMO initiatives in Colorado, Oregon, and Maui
  • The reelection of particularly fierce opponents of food stamps
  • Minimum wage laws

Soda taxes

Hats off to Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico ProAg who stayed up half the night to file her story at 3:00 a.m.  As usual, she cuts right to the chase.  Here’s her comment on the Berkeley win:

Voters approved Measure D, a penny-per-ounce tax, by a three-to-one margin after a bitter campaign battle, with the beverage industry spending more than $2.1 million to oppose the initiative. The pro-tax campaign was bolstered by more than $650,000 from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The vote for the tax in Berkeley was a whopping 75%–a clear, unambiguous win.

The vote in San Francisco passed the tax by a majority—54.5%—but a 2/3 vote was required because the measure specified where the funds would to.

And here’s some commentary

Dana Woldow, who has covered these elections closely on the website Beyond Chron, has this to say about the Berkeley win.

Xavier Morales, executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, told me that entities across the state have just been waiting to hear what happens in Berkeley and SF to advance their own local plans for a tax, and that there are ongoing discussions at the state level regarding the feasibility of a soda tax bill to help reduce diabetes, heart disease and stroke. “Other cities in the Pacific Northwest have also been watching both San Francisco and Berkeley with great interest,” he said.

Sara Soka, campaign manager for Berkeley vs Big Soda (the Yes on D campaign)says:

What happens in Berkeley doesn’t stay in Berkeley…Berkeley’s public school system was one of the first to voluntarily desegregate in 1968. It’s led in public school food policy, smoke-free areas in restaurants and bars, curb cuts for wheelchairs.  All these positive changes are now mainstream.

Michael Jacobson, director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, a long-time supporter of soda taxes, says:

Berkeley voters have shown it can be done.  A community’s health can trump Big Soda’s insatiable appetite for profit…This is a historic victory for public health and a historic defeat for the increasingly disreputable soda industry. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the American Beverage Association can no longer count on spending their way to victory.

San Francisco’s Choose Health SF

This isn’t about one soda tax. This is about a national movement that was kicked off tonight, and we are proud to have raised the conversation about the health impacts of soda and sugary beverages, and exposed the beverage industry’s deceptive tactics.

GMO labeling and no-plant initiatives

At a cost estimated at more than $60 million, the GMO industry and its food industry friends managed to defeat labeling measures in Oregon and Colorado.

In Maui, voters passed an initiative to block cultivation of GMO materials on Maui, Molokai and Lanai until cleared by environmental and safety studies.

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation released this statement quoting Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization:

The effort was a misleading, fear-based campaign to put a “scarlet letter” on genetically modified foods. “We commend the citizens of Colorado for protecting the environmental benefits, food abundance and lower prices that have been delivered by seeds and crops improved through biotechnology.”

Reelection campaigns

These have to do with representatives whose positions on food stamps are especially awful.   The position of one, Florida Republican Steve Southerland, was so dreadful that he was singled out by Food Policy Action for targeting.

During discussions of the farm bill, Southerland led attempts to cut food stamps and force beneficiaries to work.  Food Policy Action’s Tom Colicchio and Ken Cook issued a statement:

This is a big win for food advocates and Florida families. Congressman Southerland has repeatedly made policy choices that are harmful to families and small farmers. Today, we proved that voters care about food issues, and they will hold their elected officials accountable on Election Day.

 New York City Coalition Against Hunger notes these election results:

  • Steve Southerland (Florida 2), arguably the greatest Congressional opponent of SNAP/Food Stamps, lost his re-election bid.
  • PA Governor Tom Corbett who – soon after becoming Governor – wanted to slash Food Stamps benefits – lost big.
  • In contrast, Thad Cochran, who is perhaps the GOP’s strongest supporter of SNAP/Food Stamps, won re-election to the Senate by a wide margin in Mississippi.

It quotes executive director Joel Berg: “Cutting SNAP and other safety net programs is bad policy, bad morals, and, as last night’s results show, bad politics.”

Minimum Wage Laws
Voters in four red states (SD, AR, AK, NE) passed raises in the minimum wage by wide margins, even though they defeated Democratic candidates.

My comments on all of this

  • To the question, will soda taxes reduce consumption, I would answer: the soda industry thinks so to the tune of $11 million in San Francisco and Berkeley.
  • To the question, will GMO labeling hurt the GMO and food industries, I would answer: the industries think so to the tune of about $100 million so far.
  • These expenditures—and the bullying that go with them—are sufficient to explain the voter turnout.

If you haven’t seen Nightline’s exposé of the soda industry’s tactics, now might be a good time to take a look.

And celebrate!

 

 

Nov 4 2014

Souvenirs from the Dietitians’ annual meeting

The annual meeting of the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association, always provides an incredible exhibit of products from food companies—the latest in dietetic junk food and food company nutritional spin.

Knowing how much I enjoy these things, and that I am working on a book about food advocates and the soft drink industry (Oxford University Press, September 2015), several of my colleagues brought back souvenirs.

Functional foods (with “healthy” ingredients above and beyond what occurs naturally)

  • For Keurig brewing machines, a container of Fibersol Cran-Raspberry flavored instant tea mix, with soluble fiber added (is tea really a significant source of soluble fiber?).
  • MealEnders.com’s chocolate mint signaling lozenges, “an antidote to overeating.”  If you feel that you are overeating, suck on one: “take control, curb appetite, get results” (if only).
  • A 6-ounce can of Kao Nutrition’s black coffee with 270 mg polyphenol (coffee chlorogenic acid), naturally present because the coffee was not brewed at high temperature (well, coffee is a plant extract, after all).

Swag

  • A pen with a pull-out section that gives the potassium content of commonly consumed foods (these come in other versions too, apparently).

Soda company propaganda

  • A brochure from PepsiCo’s Nutrition Team, HydrateNow.  Gatorade, it points out, is 93% water (and the other 7%, pray tell?.
  • A pamphlet from PepsiCo on Calorie Balance: “many things influence your everyday nutrition.  For maintaining a healthy weight, the most important factors are how many calories you eat and the total calories you use up”  (but if those calories happen to be empty?).
  • A PepsiCo brochure on Diet Beverages for People with Diabetes (but it still is advertising Pepsi).
  • A list of PepsiCo drinks that meet the USDA’s nutrition standards for schools (a long list, alas).
  • A scientific paper, “What is causing the worldwide rise in body weight,” sponsored by Coca-Cola (Coke’s answer: lack of physical activity, of course.)
  • A poster from the American College of Cardiology, “Striking an energy balance,” sponsored in part by Coca-Cola.   It says: “Drink water or no- or low-calorie beverages” (it does not say you should Drink less soda”).
  • A pamphlet on National School Beverage Guidelines sponsored by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dr Pepper Snapple, and the American Beverage Association:  “The beverage industry committed to bold change and then made it happen.  Working with our school partners, we transformed the beverages available to students” (yes, but it doesn’t explain that public pressure forced them to do this).
  • A Coca-Cola pamphlet, Balancing Act.  This gives five easy ways to burn 100 calories: playing soccer 13 minutes, briskly walking 15 minutes, climbing stairs 10 minutes, jumping rope 9 minutes, gardening 19 minutes (based on a 150 lb person).  Funny, it doesn’t mention that one 12-ounce Coke is 140 calories.
  • A FamilyDoctor.org pamphlet, Healthy Eating for Kids, from the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Dietetic Association, distributed with a grant from Coca-Cola.  It lists healthy eating habits—family meals, be active, limit screen time, stay positive, etc (but—surprise—does not suggest that your kid might be healthier not drinking sugar-sweetened beverages).

Treasures, all.  I really love this stuff.  Thanks.

Nov 3 2014

Farewell to the “Mayor of Food,” Boston’s Thomas Menino

Corby Kummer’s moving tribute in the Atlantic to the former Mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino explains that Minino deserved the title “Mayor of Food” because he

loved food almost as much as he loved Bostonians. He loved eating it, talking about it, and arguing about it…Menino cared about food for exactly the reasons today’s food-movement activists do, and long before it was fashionable to embrace what food can and should mean: access to fresh produce for everyone of every income level; gardens as ways to unite and repair communities; and, most importantly, fresh food as a route to better health. The mayor told everyone, including his biographer, longtimeAtlantic senior editor Jack Beatty, that he wanted to be remembered as “the public-health mayor.”

In November, 2013 I attended the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Boston, at which Mayor Menino gave a speech.

I was amazed to hear him say that the single biggest political battle of his five terms as mayor was getting sodas out of the public schools.

He was proud that Boston students are now drinking less soda.

Mayors willing to fight for public health are rare.  He was indeed the public health mayor and is badly missed.

Oct 31 2014

Happy Halloween, maybe

The Union of Concerned Sciences has produced this infographic in celebration of Halloween.

Screenshot 2014-10-28 14.57.09

It’s not Halloween parents should be worrying about.  It’s every day!

The UCS graphic is based on data from 2010-2011.  The 2011-2012 data are just in and show some improvement.  Teenage boys merely consume an average of 152 grams of sugars a day, down a bit from a year ago.

Men, overall, consume 135 grams on average, and women consume 106 grams.  The average is 120 grams.

This works out to about 20% of total calories, at least twice the amount recommended.

Boo!

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