Jun 13 2013

The endless debates about salt: Don’t worry. Eat (real) food

Since 1980, U.S. dietary guidelines have advised eating less sodium (salt is 40% sodium, 60% chloride).  Although sodium is an essential nutrient, most Americans consume way more than they need or is good for them—around 3,400 milligrams a day.

The 2010 guidelines advised healthy people to consume no more than 2,300 mg per day (~6 grams, or 1.5 teaspoons).  They advised even less, 1,500 mg, for people with or at high risk for high blood pressure.  Since blood pressure increases with age in countries with high salt intake, this applies or will apply to just about everyone.  

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine said it was imperative to find effective strategies to lower salt intake.  This means dealing with processed and restaurant foods, because that’s where most of the salt comes from, as can be seen from this list of major food sources

Because consumers have no choice about the amount of salt in processed and restaurant foods, education cannot be enough to achieve salt reduction.  Scientists in Australia have just proved this point.

As I explained to a reporter,

Why anyone would think that nutrition education alone would change behavior is beyond me. By this time everyone should know that to change behavior requires not only education, but a food environment—social, political, economic—that supports and promotes the behavior change.

Most dietary sodium comes from processed foods, restaurant foods, and other pre-prepared foods.  All the label can do is say ‘don’t eat me’ It can’t help with what people can eat.

The easiest and most effective way to help people reduce sodium intake is to require food producers and food preparers to use less of it. Good luck with that. I’m not optimistic, particularly given the conflicting and confusing science. 

Ah yes.  The conflicting science.  The IOM now says that there’s no evidence one way or the other that reducing sodium below 2,300 mg per day, or even to 1,500 per day, does much good, and that low sodium intakes could be harmful (but this too is controversial).

Yes, they could, but as Mark Bittman blogs,    

It may be true that there are no benefits in an ultra-low-salt diet, but almost no one is eating an ultra-low-salt diet. It’s not quite like worrying about whether we get “enough” sugar, but it’s nearly as ridiculous.

And now, as Food Navigator explains, the IOM committee is complaining that its report has been badly misinterpreted.  All they said was:

As to whether we should cut back to 1,500 mg or to 2,300 mg sodium a day, meanwhile, the jury is out, says the IOM, not because consuming 1500 mg/day is dangerous, but because there is just not enough data on the benefits of consuming such low levels to support a firm conclusion.

IOM committee members were so bothered by misleading press accounts that they wrote an op-ed to JAMA to clarify:

Rather than focusing on disagreements about specific targets that currently affect less than 10% of the US population (ie, sodium intake of <2300 mg/d vs <1500 mg/d),  the IOM, AHA, WHO, and DGA are congruent in suggesting that excess sodium intake should be reduced, and this is likely to have significant public health effects. Accomplishing such a reduction will require efforts to decrease sodium in the food environment….

The bottom line, Bittman says (and I enthusiastically agree), is that

Salt intake — like weight, and body mass index — is a convenient baseline for public policy people to talk about. If you focus on eating less salt — and, indeed, less sugar — you will inevitably eat less processed food, fast food, junk food (it’s all the same thing.) If you eat less processed food (etc.) you eat more real food. If you eat more real food, not only are you healthier, but you probably don’t have to pay attention to how much salt you’re eating. Wowie zowie. 

Jun 12 2013

NYC is back in court over 16-ounce soda cap

I attended the brief appeals hearing yesterday at which lawyers for the New York City Department of Health (DOH) and the American Beverage Association (ABA) presented final arguments for and against the DOH 16-ounce soda cap initiative (for recap, see previous post).

The judges challenged the DOH lawyer on jurisdiction, judicial precedents, scientific basis, efficacy, rationality, and triviality.  One said “Do you need a PhD in public health to know that sugary drinks aren’t good for you?”

Another kept referring to the initiative as a ban: “It would mean sodas cannot be sold…”

The big issues raised by ABA:

  • Does DOH have jurisdiction?
  • Is the cap rational?
  • Does the soda cap adequately balance public health, personal liberty, and economic factors (i.e., beverage companies’ “rights” to sell as much sugar water as they can get away with)?

DOH argues that it does have jurisdiction and that there is plenty of precedent.

DOH also argues that the proposed 16-ounce cap is well supported by research and makes good sense.

I find DOH Commissioner Tom Farley entirely rational—and persuasive—when he talks about these issues.

Reporters from the Associated Press and the New York Times must have been there too.  Both noted that the judges were much tougher on the DOH attorney than on the one from the ABA.   The DOH attorney seemed to have trouble responding to questions about precedents.  Did she not read the DOH’s impressive “plenty of precedent” piece?  

Obesity—and its type 2 diabetes consequences—are problems requiring action.  I’d like to see the soda cap tried.

But despite Commissioner Farley’s optimistic statements to reporters, this hearing didn’t make the possibility sound hopeful.

And here’s CDC’s reminder of what this is all about:

CDC The New (Ab)normal

Jun 10 2013

Books not to miss: The food politics of restaurant workers

I’m going to be doing some catching up on reading over the summer, starting with this one.

Saru Jayaraman.  Behind the Kitchen Door.  ILR Press/Cornell, 2013.

This shocking, hugely important book takes a compassionate yet tough-minded look at the working conditions of restaurant workers—the poorly paid ($2.13 an hour), largely invisible people who wash dishes, clear tables, and mop the floors of the places from high end to low where many of us eat our meals.  Their work is not covered by federal labor laws.

Jayaraman, who co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and directs the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, begins the book with a plea for advocacy:

When people ask what are the most important changes that we could make to our food system right away, I reply:  Enforce the nation’s labor laws and increase the minimum wage.

Think of that the next time you go out and eat.  And what you can do to support these goals.

Jun 5 2013

Coke as a broker of peace and conflict

Coca-Cola as a peace broker

I don’t know what to make of Coca-Cola’s recent marketing strategies, as reported in the Washington  Post.   The ad,

“Small World Machines” starts with a relatively straightforward premise: India and Pakistan do not get along so well. It ends with the promise of peace: “Togetherness, humanity, this is what we all want, more and more exchange,” a woman, either Indian or Pakistani, narrates as the music swells. Sounds great. How do we get there? By buying Coke, of course.

The idea is to have two vending machines, one in Lahore and one in New Delhi, each with views of the other.  To buy a Coke, buyers have to cooperate.  Here are photos showing how it works.  And here’s how Coke explains it, with video and slides. 

As the Post explains, this may not be as far-fetched as it seems.

Sharing tasks and short-term, low-risk social interactions are classic conflict resolution tactics, including as a part of the civilian-to-civilian interactions sometimes termed “track two diplomacy.”  Indo-Pakistani tensions could use all the help they can get.

But the Post concludes with an update: 

Deputy foreign editor Karin Brulliard, a former Pakistan bureau chief, alerts me that, per the Wall Street Journal, Pepsi dominates the soda market there. Maybe that’s what’s been holding back peace?

This is not the first time that Coke markets its products as the key to world peace.  Those of you who are old enough might recall the “I’d like to teach the world to sing” video from 1990.

Coca-Cola as a conflict promoter

Who at Coke got the clever idea of producing personalized bottles with 150 popular names—in Israel, of all places?

Oops.  Forgot the 1.5 million Arabs who live there.

Alas, the campaign has caused a huge controversy in the Mideast.

Recall: All this is about selling Coke internationally.  Americans aren’t buying it so much anymore, so overseas it goes.

Jun 2 2013

Got marketing? Organics face quandary

My monthly, first Sunday, food matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I read that the new farm bill is going to establish a checkoff program for organics. What’s that? Is this good for organics?

A: As with everything in food politics, the answer depends on who you are. If you are a big producer of organic foods, it’s good news. If you are small, it may cost you more than it’s worth. And if all you want is to buy organic foods at a price you can afford, it could go either way.

Let’s start with the farm bill, which still has many hurdles to jump before it gets passed. The bill ties agricultural policy to food stamps (which take up 80 percent of the budget), favors large industrial farms over small, and only occasionally tosses in a token program to promote public health or environmental protection.

One such token is the organic checkoff. Both the Senate and House have amended the farm bill to permit organic producers and handlers to form a marketing and promotion program, commonly known as a checkoff.

Fee required

The way this works is that if the amendments survive, the bill passes and organic growers agree on the program – all iffy at the moment – the Department of Agriculture will require every producer and handler of certified organic foods to pay a fee per unit sale (the checkoff). The fees go into a common fund to be used for research and marketing of organic foods in general.

The USDA currently administers 19 checkoff programs. The best known are beef (“it’s what’s for dinner”), milk (“got milk?”) and eggs (“the incredible edible”). Others cover foods such as blueberries, Hass avocados, mangos, peanuts, popcorn and watermelon.

In these cases, the industry or its representatives voted for the programs. They are administered by the USDA but the industry pays for them.

Checkoff funds are allowed to be used for advertising, consumer education, foreign market development and research. They cannot be used for lobbying, although the distinction between promoting a product to consumers and extolling its virtues to lawmakers can be subtle.

The Organic Trade Association, which represents hundreds of organic producers but is dominated by the big ones, has lobbied for this program since 2010. The association is concerned that consumers cannot currently tell the difference between “natural,” a term that is unregulated, and “certified organic,” which is highly regulated, requires inspection and is more expensive to produce.

Mostly, the association wants to increase market share. Sales of organic foods in the United States have been growing by about 10 percent annually and reached $35 billion last year, but this amount is minuscule in comparison to total food sales. The growth potential of organic foods is enormous.

The congressional go-ahead is a triumph for the association, which convinced a majority of the Senate and House that the public wants the farm bill to support organics.

Opposing viewpoint

That many producers of conventional foods and their friends in Congress do not like organics is an understatement. They resent that consumers are willing to pay premium prices for organics. They consider organics to be a slap in the face – a personal assault on conventional agricultural practices.

They cite many reasons why the organic checkoff should not be allowed. For one thing, it is distinctly different from all other commodity checkoff programs – “organic” is a production process, not a food.

Because farmers are allowed to pay fees into only one checkoff program, the growers of organic blueberries would have to choose between the one for organics and the one for blueberries.

Questioning the cost

Critics of the entire concept of checkoff programs say all they do is increase food prices by passing the costs of promotion on to consumers.

Small organic producers and handlers are also leery. They object to having to pay fees for something that is not guaranteed to do them any good. Evidence for the benefits of checkoff programs is mixed. Some farmers benefit, while others do not.

And because checkoff funds are not allowed to be used for advertising that implies disparagement of other foods or production processes, small organic producers fear that marketing will focus exclusively on whether or not a product is certified and will be used to promote any organic product, including junk food. The rules will not allow promotion to focus on the benefits of organics to health or the environment.

Checkoffs are about marketing. They are not about health, sustainability, human welfare or any other value cherished by today’s food movement. Much as I favor organic over conventional production methods, I’m hoping organic producers will think carefully before approving a checkoff.

May 31 2013

Annals of public relations: the food industry vs. obesity

Yesterday was a blitz day for food industry public relations.

PR #1.  Coca-Cola placed a full-page ad in the New York Times: “Beating obesity will take all of us.”

Coke’s promises [with my comments]:

  • Offer low- or no-calorie drinks in every market [but focus advertising on the sugary ones].
  • Provide transparent nutrition information, listing calories on the front of all packages [but per serving, not total for the big ones]
  • Help get people moving [divert attention from the caloric effects of sodas]
  • Market responsibly, including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world [I will believe it when I see it]

“Obesity won’t be solved overnight,” Coke says, but we know that when people come together around shared solutions, good things happen.” 

Like drinking less Coke? 

PR #2.  The food industry’s Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation issued a press release to say that its member companies have more than met their stated goal of reducing 1.5 trillion calories in the marketplace in the United States.   Indra Nooyi, HWCF Chair, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, said:

Our industry has an important role to play in helping people lead healthy lives and our actions are having a positive impact…We see continued opportunities to give consumers the choices they’re looking for and to work collaboratively with the public and non-profit sectors on initiatives that enable continued progress.

Really?  Where are the data?  On what basis does the group make this claim?  The press release says that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is doing a study but the results won’t be released until the fall.

Hence: Public relations.  As I noted in a previous post on this promise in 2010.

What are we to make of all this?  Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt?*  History suggests the latter possibility.  Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products without doing anything, and every promise helps stave off regulation.

Oops.  Forgot.  

Addition:  I forgot to post the accompanying report from the Hudson Institute about how low-calorie beverages are driving all the sales growth for soda companies, at least in the US.

May 30 2013

Chinese buy Smithfield: What about food safety, the environment, community health, animal welfare, worker rights?

I first heard about the impending of Smithfield (the gigantic ham-and-pork company) to the Chinese company, Shuanghui International Holdings, from MeatPoultry.com:

The acquisition positions Smithfield to expand its offerings in China through Shuanghui’s distribution network. Shuanghui will acquire all of Smithfield’s outstanding shares for $34 per share in cash, which is a 31 percent premium…Smithfield’s stock price rose nearly 28 percent to $33.20…Smithfield’s common stock will no longer be publicly traded, and the company will become a wholly owned independent subsidiary of Shuanghui.

MeatPoultry.com also reported a statement from the CEO of Shuanghui: 

We are excited about this…Together, [Shuanghui and Smithfield Foods] can be a global leader in animal protein…We are No. 1 in China; Smithfield is No. 1 in the US…Chinese consumers like American pork. US farmers want foreign markets for their pork. This will be a win-win for both countries.

Not exactly, says a e-mailed news release from the Waterkeeper Alliance:

This deal with the Shuanghui – a company with a very recent history of producing tainted food – raises the specter that Americans will lose more control of their food supply, be exposed to tainted food and be left with even more devastated farming communities and drinking water supplies as a result of increased industrialized meat production.

The New York Times put this sale on the front page and Stephanie Strom has an even longer piece on it in the business section.   The Washington Post also had plenty to say.

Smithfield, you may recall, is a company famous for factory farms, pollution, and truly appalling labor practices documented, in among many other places, the movie, Food, Inc.

In 2009, I commented on a previous attempt by Smithfield to sell out to a Chinese company.

Let’s not be too xenophobic about China. China already owns vast amounts of American real estate, holds vast amounts of American debt, and produces vast amounts of the food we eat–globalization in all its glory. We can no longer survive without China so we better figure out quickly how to make this marriage work.

We also better figure out how to make our food production system more sustainable and less harmful to farm animals, the environment, farm workers, and consumers. I was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released its report last April. Our report fully documented how CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are not nice to animals; pollute air, soil, and water; turn communities into garbage dumps; and promote transmission of nasty—and often antibiotic resistant–microbial diseases to farm workers, community residents, and everyone else.

One major finding of the Pew Commission was that laws protecting communities and the environment currently exist; they just aren’t enforced.  Too bad for anyone living near an industrial pig farm.

This deal stinks?

Additions, May 31: Reuters discusses the ractopamine issue, said to be key to understanding this deal.  The Chinese do not allow use of ractopamine as a growth promoter, but the U.S. does.  Once Smithfield started phasing out its use, the deal became possible.

Ractopamine is a beta-agonist. Initially developed to treat asthma in humans, ractopamine was found to be extremely effective at changing the metabolism of an animal, so that the animal would quickly and cost-effectively add sought-after muscle. The FDA approved the use of beta-agonists in pigs in 1999, for cattle in 2003 and for turkeys in 2008.

Helena Bottemiller writing on NBC News, also discusses this issue.

In March, Smithfield Inc., converted its Tar Heel, N.C. plant – the world’s largest pork processing facility – to slaughter only hogs that were raised without the use of ractopamine….the company’s product line will be 50 percent ractopamine-free as of June 1…Earlier this year, China and Russia demanded that all American meat exports be certified ractopamine-free. The U.S. government initially refused these certification demands, so Russia shut down its market to U.S. beef and pork in February. 

Addition, June 1: The New York Times writes that the Committee on Foreign Investment is about to undertake a national security review of the deal.  The big questions: Are Smithfield’s sales to the military secure?  Does it use special farming technology that could be transferred to China?  Will Shuanghui have the power to disrupt the U.S. food chain for pork?

Another addition, June 1: Apparently, Shuanghui has a history of findings of maggots, excessive bacteria and illegal additives.

Addition, June 4: Guess who owns half of Shuanghui, the company that wants to buy Smithfield: Goldman Sachs, among others.

Addition, June 5: The Wall Street Journal has this helpful graphic comparing the pork supply chains in China and the U.S. along with an excellent summary of the issues involved.

image

May 29 2013

Keeping track of the farm bill: 194 amendments so far, just in the Senate

Congress is in recess this week so nothing new is happening on the farm bill.

I’m indebted to Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the Hagstrom Report and follows farm bill issues closely, for publishing a list of amendments filed to date on the Senate draft of the bill.  Would you believe 194?

Of these, the Senate has managed to deal with a few.

The Senate passed:

  • Cantwell amendment to allow Indian tribes to participate in certain soil and water conservation programs. (#919)
  • Sessions amendment to clarify eligibility criteria for agricultural irrigation assistance. (#945, as modified) by unanimous consent.
  • Franken amendment to provide access to grocery delivery for homebound seniors and individuals with disabilities eligible for supplemental nutrition assistance benefits. (#992) by unanimous consent.
  • Vitter amendment to end food stamp eligibility for convicted violent rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. (#1056) by unanimous consent. 
It rejected:
  • Shaheen amendment to reform the federal sugar program, and for other purposes. (#925)
  • Gillibrand amendment to strike a reduction in the supplemental nutrition assistance program, with an offset that limits crop insurance reimbursements to providers. (#931)
  • Roberts amendment to improve and extend certain nutrition programs. (#948)
  • Inhofe amendment to repeal the nutrition entitlement programs and establish a nutrition assistance block grant program. (#960)
  • Sanders amendment to permit states to require that any food, beverage, or other edible product offered for sale have a label on indicating that the food, beverage, or other edible product contains a genetically engineered ingredient. (#965) by a vote of 71 to 27.

Attempts to eliminate cuts to SNAP failed (sigh) but so did an attempt to leave food stamps up to states (cheers).  This means SNAP will have at least a $4 billion cut over 10 years—the best that can be hoped for at this point.

The Senate rejected  GM labeling.

Reform the sugar program?  Don’t be silly.  At some point, I’ll have more to say about that one.

As for the next 190 or so….  And as for what the House will do….

It would be great drama if it weren’t so sad and so much weren’t at stake. 

Page 20 of 128« First...10...1819202122...304050...Last »