Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 15 2014

Weekend reading: Globalization and Food Sovereignty

Peter Andrée, Jeffrey Ayres, Michael J. Bosia, and Marie-Josée Massicotte.  Globalization and Food Sovereignty: Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food.  University of Toronto Press, 2014.

New Picture (1)

This is a book in a series on political economy and public policy, edited by political science professors in Canada and the United States with deep interests in food movements.  The chapters, by various authors, define food sovereignty as “a central issue that cuts across social, political, economic, cultural, and ecological domains.”  They deal with such matters as fair trade, local food, food security, and other food movements in places such as Cuba, Australia, France, and Brazil.

The editors say:

This volume posits that–given the incrasing attention to the politics of food as local, national, and global–it is important to incorporate these new areanas of political action much more widely into curriculums and scholarship and focus especially the framework and methodologies of political science on the profoundly political issues raised by the food sovereignty response…we seek to develop the study of food politics as a more engaged arena within the social sciences….

I say, yes!

 

 

Aug 14 2014

It’s salt war time again: new research, arguments over public health recommendations, and issues of conflicts of interest

Here are the burning questions about sodium (which is 40% of salt) intake:

(a) Does too much dietary sodium cause high blood pressure?   Answer: an unambiguous yes (although not necessarily in everyone).

(b) Are public health recommendations to reduce salt intake warranted?  I think so, but others disagree.

(c) If so, to what level?  Although virtually all committees reviewing the evidence on salt and hypertension view public health recommendations as warranted, and advise an upper limit of about 2 grams of sodium (5 grams of salt, a bit more than a teaspoon (see table from the Wall Street Journal), these too are under debate.

These recommendations are strongly opposed by The Salt Institute, the trade association for the salt industry, its industry supporters, and some groups of investigators.

Now the New England Journal of Medicine weighs in with three new studies, an editorial, and a cartoon video.  The papers:

Start with the video,  narrated by the editor, Dr. Jeffrey Drazen (click on video link on the right side).  It gives an excellent summary of the three papers.  Despite their methodological differences, all confirm (a).  They disagree on (c) and, therefore, (b).

Are public health recommendations warranted?

But note Dr. Drazen’s suggestion: “throw away the salt shaker.”

He is in favor of reducing salt intake.  But the salt shaker is not where most dietary salt comes from.  At least 75% of salt in American diets comes from restaurant and processed foods.   As Dr. Yoni Freedhoff explains:

If you’d like to reduce the sodium in your diet, rather than keep a running tally of how much you’re actually consuming, why not try instead to determine what percentage of your diet comes from restaurants and boxes? Sure, there’s data to suggest you might simply find other ways to add salt to your diet. But visit restaurants and consume processed foods less frequently, and I’d be willing to wager that you’ll be far more likely to see health benefits than were you to simply fill your grocery cart with low-sodium versions of highly processed foods.

Individuals cannot cut down on salt on their own.  That’s one reason why public health policies are needed—to get restaurants and processed food manufacturers to reduce salt content.

Two of the papers say that the only people who need to cut down on salt are those with hypertension and older people (one of the studies says that means people over age 55).

You can’t expect 70 or 80 million people to reduce salt intake on their own.  Hence: public health recommendations.

Conflict of interest alert

Some of the investigators report receiving grants or fees from companies that make anti-hypertensive drugs but the editorial accompanying the papers is of special concern.   Written by Dr. Suzanne Oparil, it says about one of the studies:

These provocative findings beg for a randomized, controlled outcome trial to compare reduced sodium intake with usual diet. In the absence of such a trial, the results argue against reduction of dietary sodium as an isolated public health recommendation.

These conclusions sent me right to her conflict-of-interest disclosure statement.  Although Dr. Oparil reports receiving grants or fees from companies making anti-hypertensive drugs—-and, even more remarkable, from The Salt Institute—she states that she has no conflicts of interest.

I think she does.

Implications

Her editorial is especially unfortunate because it influences the way reporters write about the studies.

The Associated Press account, for example, begins:

A large international study questions the conventional wisdom that most people should cut back on salt, suggesting that the amount most folks consume is OK for heart health — and too little may be as bad as too much. The findings came under immediate attack by other scientists.

As well they should.  Blood pressure rises with age and huge swaths of the population would be healthier eating less salt.   The AP reporter quoted me saying so:

“People don’t eat salt, they eat food,” she said. “Lots of people have high blood pressure and lots of people are getting older,” making salt a growing concern, she said. “That’s the context in which this is taking place.”

The three studies are complicated to interpret because of differences in methods and discrepancies in outcomes.  They agree that if you already have hypertension or are “elderly,” or eat a lot of salt, you should cut down.

This seems like a good idea for just about anyone.   People don’t eat salt; they eat foods containing salt, and foods high in salt tend to be high in other things best consumed in small amounts.

The studies also talk about the protective effects of potassium, best obtained from vegetables.

Eat a lot of vegetables and not too much junk food, and you don’t have to worry about any of this.

Aug 13 2014

Sales of packaged, processed foods are declining: Three reasons why

Everybody agrees that the packaged food industry isn’t selling as much as it used to.  Here are three explanations for this trend.

1.  The packaging: The Wall Street Journal says it’s all about the old-style packaging that makes foods seem unnatural.  Clear packaging works better for sales.

2.  More sophisticated consumers: The Hartman Group research and consulting firm has a new report analyzing this trend: “Recipe for Growth in Packaged Foods:”

The biggest long-term challenge facing the U.S. food industry is that taste preferences are changing. This is most apparent among highly urbane and educated consumers, where the arbitrary boundaries of “too sweet” and “too fatty” are altering in ways inimical to the core food science paradigm of the U.S. food and beverage industry.

The U.S. food industry routinely serves crude flavor profiles associated with the unsophisticated farm cuisine of Middle America: heavy on salt, dairy and animal fat and, in the past half century, sugar…For years, there was growing demand for these flavors in all sorts of foods, primarily because U.S. preferences were not changing.

Now they are. The increasing multiculturalism of the U.S. population plus the globally well-traveled, savvy upper-middle class have created a large population of consumers intentionally seeking complex flavor profiles imported from much more sophisticated food cultures.

3.  Not enough corporate social responsibility: Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign achieved two coups in the last week or so.  First General Mills and now Kellogg have signed on to its Climate Declaration which commits them to reducing greenhouse gases produced in their processing chains.  Oxfam organized more than 200,000 signatures on a petition—and produced a report, Standing on the Sidelines—to induce these companies to pay more attention to their effects on climate change.

Food advocacy is making headway.  Keep at it!

Aug 12 2014

Oops. USDA is NOT requiring poultry packers to test for Salmonella and Campylobacter

Christopher Waldrop, who directs the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America writes to correct something  I said in a post last week about USDA’s poultry rule.  He says:

USDA will actually NOT be requiring plants to test for Salmonella or Campylobacter. Their press release makes it sound like they will, but if you read the final rule, USDA actually allows the plant to decide for itself what to test. It could be pathogens like Salmonella or Campy, OR it could be indicator organisms like generic E. coli. USDA does require testing at 2 points along the line – pre-chill and post-chill and will require a minimum testing frequency, but plants are not obligated to test for the pathogens that make people sick.

He explained this problem to Food Safety News and in a press release.

He points out that what the USDA really said is on page 229 of its statement of policy in the section on Indicator Organisms and Baseline:

Comment: Several consumer advocacy organizations argued that instead of allowing establishments to choose which organism to test for, FSIS should require that establishments test for Salmonella and Campylobacter. The comments said that these are the two pathogens of greatest public health concern in the products affected by the proposed rule and together account for nearly half of all poultry-related outbreaks in the United States…Response: As discussed above, the purpose of the proposed new testing requirements is to ensure that establishments are effectively monitoring process control on an ongoing basis. FSIS has determined that this can be achieved by sampling pre-and post-chill for enteric pathogens, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, or for an appropriate indicator organism…The cost to analyze samples for Salmonella and Campylobacter is much greater than that to analyze for indicator organisms…FSIS has concluded that such costs would not be justifiable when measurements of indicator organisms are as effective for monitoring process control as measurements of pathogens.

Here’s what USDA says in its press release:

  • Poultry companies will have to meet new requirements to control Salmonella and Campylobacter.
  • FSIS will now require that all poultry companies take measures to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination.
  • All poultry facilities will be required to perform their own microbiological testing at two points in their production process to show that they are controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter.

I can see why I misunderstood this as announcing a requirement for testing at two points for Salmonella and Campylobacter.

But the USDA is leaving it to the production plants to demonstrate that cheaper testing for an indicator organism like nonpathogenic forms of E. coli will adequately demonstrate that chickens are free of pathogenic Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Fingers crossed that it works.

Aug 11 2014

Dan Glickman heads board of Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research

Former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman has just been named chairman of the board of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR).

Research on agriculture has long been the underfunded stepchild of the federal research enterprise.  The 2014 budget gave USDA under $3 billion in total to fund all of its in-house research units and their granting operations: Agricultural Research Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Economic Research Service, and Agricultural Statistics Service.

This may seem like a lot, but NIH gets $30 billion a year.

The 2014 farm bill contained a provision aimed at raising money for agricultural research.  It provided $200 million (peanuts in federal dollars) to establish FFAR, which will operate as a non-profit corporation to obtain matching funds from private industry.

The members of the board were announced a couple of weeks ago.

It should be no surprise that many of the board members represent industry.  Industry nominated 7 of the members.  The other 8 were selected from a list provided by the National Academy of Sciences.

Now the board has to raise at least $200 million from industry, presumably with no strings attached.

Here’s the foundation’s dilemma: if industry funding has no strings—earmarks for certain research projects, for example—why would industry want to contribute?  But if the contributions do come with strings, they create conflicts of interest.

This will be fun to watch.  Stay tuned.

Aug 8 2014

For your Food Studies library: Eating Asian America

Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan IV, Anita Mannur, editors.  Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader.   New York University Press, 2014.

This book was a most welcome gift from the author of one of its chapters, Nina Ichikawa (thanks, Nina).  Her chapter is about how Asian farmers and retailers became food system pioneers.

Others reflect on the Asian-American food experience from the perspective of, to give just a sample, Cambodian donut shops and taco trucks in Los Angeles, Chinese restaurant workers in New York, the incarcerated Japanese mess hall experience during the Second World War, the Filipino culinary diaspora, and the Asian Queer kitchen.

The chapters cover a century of Asian food work in America, necessarily getting into deep issues of culture and politics.

The book ought to stimulate plenty of conversation and argument—perfect for a course in food and culture.

Enjoy the weekend!

Aug 6 2014

Country-of-Origin-Labeling (COOL) for meat: Yes!

You might think that knowing where meat comes from would be useful to know, but big chunks of the meat industry think otherwise.  They have been fighting Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) for more than a decade, and the fight isn’t over yet.

In the latest skirmish, the US Court of Appeals for DC has decided that the USDA can implement its 2013 rules requiring country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat and poultry products, something it has been trying to do for a long time.

COOL laws mandate that meat products be labeled to tell where the food animals were born, raised and slaughtered, like “”born in Mexico, raised and slaughtered in the United States” or “born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.”

The judges said COOL does not violate the First Amendment—the principal argument used by meat industry groups to challenge the labeling law.

The American Meat Institute (AMI) says the ruling is disappointing.

Let’s leave aside the question of the meat industry’s invocation of First Amendment challenges to achieve what it can’t get any other way.  Fortunately, this ploy did not work this time.

But the easiest way to understand what this absurd business is about is to take the events chronologically.

This history, to say the least, is “convoluted.”

I went back to see what I had written about COOL in my 2006 book, What to Eat.

In 2002, Congress passed a law requiring Country of Origin Labeling (the apt acronym is COOL) that was to take effect in 2004.  Later, under pressure from food industries, Congress postponed the deadline until 2005 for fish, but until 2006 and, later, 2008 for other foods…In America, food industry opposition to COOL is just about universal.   The industry complains that tracking the origin of foods is difficult, but also would prefer that you not know how far food has traveled before it gets to you.   The Grocery Manufacturers of America, an especially vigilant trade advocacy group, called the 2002 bill “a nasty, snarly beast of a bill,” but even stronger opposition came from the meat industry.   Its lobbyists argued that COOL would be “extraordinarily costly with no discernible benefit,” but their real objection was that meat producers would have to track where animals and products come from—another sensible idea that they have long resisted…the industry wants COOL to be voluntary–so they can voluntarily decline to put COOL labels on their products.

In 2009, Canada and Mexico challenged COOL at the World Trade Organization (WTO), arguing that COOL was a trade barrier in disguise that would hurt the meat industry on both sides of the border.  The WTO issued a ruling in 2011 so ambiguous that both Canada and the U.S. said it favored their positions.

Canada and Mexico asked the WTO for another review.  The WTO has apparently rendered its decision but has not announced it publicly.  Politico Pro speculates that “the ruling does not bode well for USDA.”

Why COOL is a good thing is evident from  a case in Canada.   Officials of an Ontario greenhouse face criminal fraud charges for allegedly selling fresh vegetables from Mexico to Canadian retailers and representing them as Canadian produce.

I like knowing where my food comes from, don’t you?  And these days, meat especially.

 

Aug 5 2014

Book: Culinary Imagination

Sandra M. Gilbert.  The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity.  WW Norton, 2014

New Picture

I blurbed this one:

It is hard to imagine how Sandra Gilbert could have produced so broad an overview of contemporary food writing and thought, not only literary analysis but also history, memoir, and bibliography.  Anyone wanting an introduction to the meaning of food culture should start here.  After reading this “foodoir,” you may not want to live her life but you will certainly want to read everything that she did.

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