by Marion Nestle

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Oct 10 2013

Annals of Government shutdown: What’s up with Salmonella Heidelberg?

I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s happening with the latest horrible food poisoning outbreak: this time of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg.  Food Safety News and attorney Bill Marler have been following the events closely.

They reported that USDA—not CDC (which was on furlough)—issued the Public Health Alert.

But the outbreak is so serious that CDC recalled staff from furlough.  Now the CDC is back on the job.  It reports that as of October 7:

  • 278 persons in 17 states are infected with 7 outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg.
  • 42% of them are hospitalized (this is unusually high), and no deaths have been reported.
  • 77% of cases are in California.
  • The source is Foster Farms chicken

What does Foster Farms have to say about this?

First, it blames the government:

Consumers should know that as recently as Oct. 8, USDA-FSIS publicly assured the safety of our chicken:  “Foster Farms chicken is safe to eat but, as with all raw chicken, consumers must use proper preparation, handling and cooking practices.” There is no recall in effect and FSIS continues to inspect our poultry on a daily basis, certifying it as Grade A wholesome.”

Then, Foster Farms argues that toxic, antibiotic-resistant salmonella are normal on poultry:

Raw poultry is not a ready-to-eat product. All raw poultry is subject to naturally occurring bacteria… According to the CDC, “It is not unusual for raw poultry from any producer to have Salmonella bacteria. CDC and USDA-FSIS recommend consumers follow food safety tips to prevent Salmonella infection from raw poultry produced by Foster Farms or any other brand.”

Bill Marler asks how come Foster Farms is not issuing a recall?

Good question.  Take a look at CDC’s most recent Epi curve.  Usually, these show a standard distribution pattern over time with cases rising to a peak and then declining.  This one shows no sign of decline.

Persons infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Typhimurium, by date of illness onset as of October 7, 2013

OK, so what, as Bill Marler asks, will it take to close Foster Farms or force it to recall its tainted products?

For starters, how about getting the government opened again.  And insisting that FDA issue the final food safety rules and start enforcing them.

Update, October 11:  On October 7, USDA sent three letters of intended enforcement to Foster Farms:  Letter #1Letter #2, and Letter #3.  Now, according to a report from Bill Marler, the USDA has decided not to close Foster Farms or force a recall.

And here are two useful articles from Politico:

Oct 9 2013

Jocelyn Zuckerman’s interview about Eat, Drink, Vote

Marion Nestle Speaks Out on the Big Business of School Food

By Jocelyn Zuckerman  (published originally by On Earthrepublished by Civil Eats, and now here).

A year ago, when I was working as an editor at the magazine Whole Living, I oversaw a special issue on food featuring “Visionaries”—people making a real difference in the way this country thinks about eating. There was “The Motivated Mayor” (Michael Bloomberg); “The Integrator” (Harlem chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson); and, among several others, there was “The Badass.”

That would be Marion Nestle. The author of a handful of books that examine the intersection of food and politics, Nestle is a public-health nutritionist and a professor at New York University. She is also one of the most outspoken advocates for a national food system that prioritizes health and the environment over corporate profits. (Michael Pollan ranks Nestle the second-most powerful foodie in America, after First Lady Michelle Obama.)

Recently she published her new book, Eat, Drink, Vote, an admirably approachable look at wide-ranging issues such as farm subsidies, obesity, genetically modified foods, and trans fats.

On the eve of its release, Nestle and I sat down over lunch to discuss, among other things, lunch. Ours was fine—Caesar salad for her, Niçoise for me—but the lunches that dominated the conversation weren’t the ones on our plates. Rather, we talked about the meals that our nation’s kids will be loading onto their trays in the new school year.

It’s an issue that Nestle cares deeply about, and for good reason. For starters, school lunches (and breakfasts) tend to represent the lion’s share of the nutrition that a low-income child will get in a day. (For the truly impoverished, they may be the only meals children get.) The food served sets an example to a “large, captive, impressionable audience,” as Nestle puts it in the book, making cafeterias key battlegrounds in the fight against obesity and poor nutrition.

And it’s certainly a fight. Throughout Eat, which features some 250 food-related cartoons by illustrators around the country, Nestle calls out the entrenched powers—namely, our Congressional representatives and the deep-pocketed food and beverage lobbies to whom they seem ever more beholden—working at cross-purposes to the folks fighting for a food policy focused on promoting our own well-being and that of our environment.

Just look at what happened in 2011, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tried to rate tomato paste based on its true nutritional value. School pizza makers went running to their friends in Congress, who promptly blocked the USDA’s decision. So an eighth of a cup of tomato paste is still credited with as much nutritional value as a half a cup of vegetables. Nestle chose a cartoon that wittily depicts the you-must-be-kidding-me moment (by Pulitzer Prize-winner Mike Peters) for the cover of her book.

There’s no question that school meals are big business. In 2011, the USDA school breakfast program served nearly 12 million children, at a cost of nearly $3 billion, Nestle writes in Eat, while the lunch program served nearly 32 million children, at a cost of $11 billion. The companies involved in providing all that food have a serious interest in holding on to their share of that money, preferably while investing as few resources as possible.

“Any change in the standards means that the products that have been created specifically for school lunches [that pizza, for example] have to meet new standards,” Nestle pointed out over lunch. “And that pisses everybody off”—everybody who’s already making money off school meals, that is.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that those meals have, in fact, gotten better. In December 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The legislation marked the first time in a generation that school lunch regulations had been updated. (One telling example of just how much our dietary landscape has changed over the decades: the previous laws featured minimum calorie levels but no maximums.) The new act gave USDA the power to establish nutrition standards for all of the food sold and served in schools.

In addition to lunches and breakfasts, this includes the so-called “competitive foods” available from vending machines and carts. There are now limits on the levels of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and calories, and the standards require that snacks be rich in whole grains and provide nutritional value. Drinks can contain no more than 40 calories per 8 fluid ounces, or 60 calories per 12 fluid ounces—numbers that rule out all regular sodas and Gatorades.

 

Healthier for kids also means healthier for the environment. (Another cartoon in the book, by Joel Pett, aptly illustrates the direct link between “soft-drink pushers” and damage to the natural landscape.) There’s a direct impact on the supply chain when school lunches are heavier on organically grown produce instead of (corn-fed) chicken coated in cornmeal and deep-fried in corn oil, for example.

Given the numbers involved, healthier school lunch standards should ultimately mean a shift in what is being grown and raised in this country. Fewer sodas in vending machines means less demand for high-fructose corn syrup and less acreage devoted to monocultures of corn. Fruit and vegetable salads replacing chicken fingers means less demand for antibiotic-laden factory-farm birds. In a logical world, greater demand for healthy crops to produce federal school lunch meals would translate into more support for them in the next Farm Bill.

There’s more to making school lunches better than just changing the rules, though, Nestle explained. The food has to taste good, too, and the kids have to actually eat it. “I have been in some of the best school lunch programs in the country,” she said, “and the kids weren’t eating.” They may avoid the meals for social reasons, she explained. “It may have a bad reputation. They may not like the way the cafeteria looks. They may not have time to eat.” (She blames the no-time-to-eat problem in part on an educational culture that’s fixated on testing and suggested that programs teaching kids about growing and cooking food can help overcome some of the other barriers.)

I asked Nestle about who’s getting it right, and she replied that the now-somewhat-famous program at the Calhoun School, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, represents “the Platonic ideal” of what a school lunch operation can be. It doesn’t come as a huge shock that children eat well at an educational institution that charges in the neighborhood of $40,000 a year per student, but the man behind the program, French Culinary Institute-trained “Chef Bobo,” doesn’t just cook for rich kids.

He is a frequent speaker at conferences around the country on school lunches and healthy eating, and he regularly brings in cooks from other schools to intern in his kitchen, which features produce and chickens sourced from local vendors and includes a vegan option every day (see one of his recipes to the left). Several of Bobo’s sous chefs have gone on to start similar lunch programs at other schools, including at a public charter school in the Bronx.

Nationwide, Nestle said, there are more farm-to-table programs linking students with local farmers than ever before. Schools in cities and in the countryside are sowing their own kitchen gardens, and the three-year-old Food Corps supports a network of volunteers who work in poor communities to teach kids about healthy food, build school gardens, and help bring better food into public-school cafeterias.

Sure, school lunches still need work—someday that tomato paste will be called out for what it really is—but the fact is, we’ve come a very long way. “Look back ten years!” Nestle said in regard to the overall shift in this country’s dietary landscape. “Healthy food has gone mainstream.” Despite the entrenched interests, she said,changes are happening, in large part because Americans better understand the importance of what they put in their mouths. With Eat, Drink, Vote, the badass lunch lady furthers the cause.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Jocelyn Zuckerman is the former articles editor at OnEarth, the former executive editor of Whole Living and deputy editor of Gourmet, where she won a James Beard Award for feature writing in 2002. She is also an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Parade, and Plenty.

 

Oct 8 2013

Midweek reading: “Disease-Proof”

Katz D, Colino S.  Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well.  Hudson Street Press, 2013.

Here’s the blurb I did for this one:

Disease-Proof is not only about knowing what to do to stay healthy; it’s also about developing the skills to apply that knowledge.  Katz and Colino make the skills look easy.   I especially appreciate how they encourage readers to take responsibility for the health of others as well as themselves, and work toward creating a healthy society for all.

Oct 6 2013

Soda tax controversy goes international

My monthly first Sunday Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I hear that the Mexican government wants to increase taxes on sodas as a way to fight diabetes. The soda industry persuaded voters to defeat soda taxes in Richmond and El Monte last year. Won’t it do the same in Mexico?

A: It might. I’m just back from a lecture trip to Mexico City where I heard plenty about the proposed soda tax and the industry’s response to it.

Last month, the Mexican government proposed an additional soda tax of one peso (about 8 cents) per liter. The idea is to raise $1.5 million per year while discouraging soda consumption, thereby helping to reduce the country’s high prevalence of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Mexicans drink lots of soda. By some estimates, average per capita consumption is 50 gallons a year, the highest in the world. It’s no coincidence that more than 70 percent of Mexicans are overweight or obese, and around 15 percent have Type 2 diabetes, a prevalence that terrifies health officials. This type of diabetes, if undiagnosed and untreated, can lead to blindness or foot amputations.

‘Nutrition transition’

Mexico is a classic example of a country in “nutrition transition.” As the economy improves, people increasingly buy high-calorie ready-made foods, put on weight, and raise their risk for diabetes. Meanwhile, the poorer segments of the population continue to experience high levels of stunting, iron-deficiency anemia and vitamin A deficiency.

This makes obesity a relatively new problem in Mexico, one widely understood to result from the introduction of processed foods – especially sodas – into the Mexican food market.

I could easily see how deeply sodas are embedded in Mexico’s food culture. Sodas were advertised and available everywhere. And they come in enormous three-liter bottles that cost less than the price of bottled water – only 17 pesos ($1.35) each. Clean water is not always available, making sodas the easy choice.

Sodas are cheap because Mexico grows its own sugarcane and sells it at market prices. We, however, artificially support the higher price of U.S. sugar through tariffs and quotas. That’s why our sodas are made with high fructose corn syrup. We subsidize corn production so corn syprup costs less than sugar.

Some people think cane sugar tastes better than high fructose corn syrup, although controlled taste tests don’t always back this up. It’s ironic that U.S. supermarkets now carry, at highly inflated prices, Mexican Coca-Cola sweetened with cane sugar.

Industry efforts to defeat the Mexican soda tax have been ferocious, just as they were in Richmond and El Monte last year. Producers argue that if the tax really does decrease consumption, it will cause hundreds of thousands of jobs to be lost.

I saw a newspaper advertisement from the Mexican Beverage Association that not only attacked the science relating soft drinks to obesity, but extolled the health benefits of sodas: “Sugar is nutritious; it’s a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are essential for life. Sugar is indispensable for the brain. Soft drinks hydrate and bring energy.”

An ad from the sugarcane industry also threatened job losses – “The tax will generate unemployment and discourage productivity and investment” – and noted that workers and the poor will bear most of its burden.

The big questions

As with any such initiative, the big questions are whether the tax is likely to reduce soda consumption, obesity and diabetes, and whether the revenue will be used for widely beneficial public health purposes. Mexico’s Congress will have to address these questions when it votes on the tax in the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, a coalition of consumer and health groups, in part funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, has been putting posters in subway stations that illustrate the amounts of sugar in soft drinks. The groups are actively advocating for the soda tax and for using its funds to provide free potable water in schools – something that does not now exist. But TV stations have refused to carry their ads for fear of losing soda advertisers.

Like their U.S. colleagues, Mexican public health authorities are searching for effective ways to reverse obesity trends. Sugary drinks are an easy target. Taxing them might happen despite industry opposition – especially if the funds are earmarked for clean water.

Editor’s notesMarion Nestle will discuss her new book, “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics,” with Narsai David at the Commonwealth Club on Oct. 15 at 6 p.m., and at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Oct. 19 at 11 a.m.

She is also receiving the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for her writing about how science and public policy influence what we eat. The award ceremonies are Oct. 21 at the Hearst Tower in New York.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Eat, Drink, Vote,” “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com

Oct 3 2013

Center for Consumer Freedom, Mexican style

The President of Mexico has proposed a tax on soft drinks.  The soft-drink industry is not pleased.

As with Richmond, California’s tax initiative and New York City’s soda cap, the industry is pulling out all stops to oppose the tax.

It’s even gotten the Beverage Association’s attack dog, the Center for Consumer Freedom, into the action.

la foto

Photo: Mireia Vilar

Translation:

  • Should obesity be fought with taxes?
  • Yes or no? 
  • To tax the fatties (Google’s charming translation)

CCF is putting signs on school buses, apparently.

On the off chance that you are not familiar with CCF, SourceWatch is a good place to begin.

It runs media campaigns which oppose the efforts of scientists, doctors, health advocates, animal advocates, environmentalists and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, calling them “the Nanny Culture…Its advisory board is comprised mainly of representatives from the restaurant, meat and alcoholic beverage industries.

I’ve also written about this group.  Enough said.

Sep 30 2013

McDonald’s going healthy? Really?

At the White House Convening on food marketing to children a couple of weeks ago, representatives of food companies repeatedly stated that advocates are not giving them nearly enough credit for how hard it is for them to make and market healthier products.  They have shareholders to please.  They need positive reinforcement.

Pressures on advocates to applaud food companies’ efforts may explain the furor last week over McDonald’s latest promises to go healthy.  In a deal brokered with the Clinton Foundation’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation, McDonald’s announced its new initiatives in full-page newspaper advertisements (read the text here):

IMG-20130929-00084

Among other promises, McDonald’s said it would:

Promote and market only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising.

I did not participate in any of the press events so I can’t vouch for what was said.  But it must have left the impression that McDonald’s was dropping sodas as the default drink in Happy Meals (if parents wanted a soda for their kids, they would have to order one).

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), for example, issued a press release: “Removing Soda from kids’ meals among McDonald’s improvements.”

Ronald McDonald’s slow march toward healthier meals made a major advance today, but a long road lies ahead for the company. Getting soda out of Happy Meals is historic progress that should immediately be adopted by Burger King, Wendy’s, and other chains. Soda and other sugar drinks are leading promoters of obesity and diabetes and one day it will seem crazy that restaurants ever made this junk the default beverage for kids.

USA Today quoted CSPI’s Margo Wootan:

The prospect of being able to easily order a value meal at McDonald’s that’s comprised of a burger, a small salad and bottle of water is a huge step forward, says Margo Wootan, director of nutritional policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “It takes a meal from being a nutritional disaster (burger, fries and soft drink), to something that will fit a healthy diet.

But then folks started looking at the fine print of McDonald’s actual agreement with the Clinton Alliance.

Uh oh.

CSPI issued another press release the next day: “McDonald’s, Alliance for Healthier Generation, misled public and media re: soda and Happy Meals.”

McDonald’s and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation misled the media, CSPI, and families when they stated that the company would not feature, promote, or market soda in connection with Happy Meals. In briefings to health groups and in their press release and full-page newspaper ads, McDonald’s and the Alliance claimed that the company would “promote and market only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising.” But small print in McDonald’s formal agreement with the Alliance states that “McDonald’s may list soft drinks as [sic] offering on [sic] Happy Meal section of menu boards.”

In any case, as McDonald’s explains in its press release, don’t hold your breath for any of its promises to happen soon:

All pieces of this commitment will be implemented in 30-50 percent of the 20 major markets within three years and 100 percent of the 20 markets by 2020.

In other words, McDonald’s intends to carry out these promises in a third to half of most of its major national and international markets by 2016—three years from now.  It will fulfill the promises in these particular 20 markets by 2020—seven years from now.

Food companies, alas, do not make it easy to applaud them.

Promises are one thing.  Now, if they would actually do something to make and market healthier products….

Addition 1:  Let’s Move! director and chef Sam Kass has this comment on McDonald’s promises:

We are encouraged by the progress announced today…. Making it easier for families to choose a healthy beverage in kids’ meals, and providing a salad option in the value menu are positive steps. A great deal of work remains to be done if we are going to ensure our children have the nourishment they need to live healthy lives and reach their full potential.

Addition 2: Here’s an explanation of how the discrepancy was found, from its finder, Casey Hinds of Kentucky Healthy Kids.  Casey sent the link to Michele Simon who forwarded it to Margo Wootan (and I read about the exchange on Twitter).

Update, October 11: McDonald’s clarifies its commitment; it will not advertise sodas with Happy Meals.

Sep 25 2013

Tonight at 8:00 p.m. EST: MythBusters

Anna Lappé has a new entry in her Food MythBuster film series, this one on marketing to kids.

You can watch the trailer at the website, and also sign up for the  launch event to participate in the live Q&A session online.

New Picture (4)

Sep 21 2013

Mexico suffers from a sugar deficiency?

Mexico has an overweight-plus-obesity rate of 70%, and 15% of the population has type-2 diabetes. You might think that a key public health message might be “eat less sugar.”

But check this ad on a city bus:

IMG-20130919-00075

Translation:

  • Cane sugar
  • It’s natural
  • A little happiness each day
  • Only 15 calories per tablespoon 

In other (implied) words, “eat more sugar! It’s good for you!”

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