Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 17 2013

The FDA issues guidance on animal antibiotics–voluntary, alas, but still a major big deal

I was in Washington DC last week when the FDA announced  that it was taking significant steps to address antibiotic resistance, a problem caused by overuse in raising animals for food.

The FDA called on makers of animal antibiotics to:

  • Voluntarily stop labeling medical important antibiotics as usable for promoting animal growth or feed efficiency (in essence, banning antibiotics from these uses).
  • Voluntarily notify the FDA of their intent to sign on to these strategies within the next three months.
  • Voluntarily put the new guidance into effect within 3 years.
  • Agree to a proposed rule to require a veterinarian’s prescription to use antibiotics that are presently sold over the counter (the proposal is open for public comment for 90 days at www.regulations.gov.   Docket FDA-2010-N-0155).

Voluntary is, of course, a red flag and the Washington Post quoted critics saying that the new guidance falls far short of what really is needed—a flat-out ban on use of antibiotics as growth promoters.

  • Consumers Union is concerned about the long delay caused by the 3-year window.
  • CSPI is worried about all the loopholes.
  • NRDC thinks the FDA is pretending to do more than it’s really doing and “kicks the can significantly down the road.”
  • Mother Jones points out that the meat industry can still “claim it’s using antibiotics ‘preventively,’ continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continue to generate resistant bacteria.”
  • Civil Eats reminds us that the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (on which I served) recommended a ban on nontherapeutic use of all antibiotics.

Yes, the loopholes are real, but I view the FDA’s guidance as a major big deal.  The agency is explicitly taking on the antibiotic problem.  It is sending a clear signal to industrial farm animal  producers that sooner or later they will have to:

  • Stop using antibiotics as growth promoters.
  • Stop using antibiotics indiscriminately, even for disease treatment.

I think the FDA is dead serious about the antibiotic problem.  If the FDA seems to be doing this in some convoluted fashion, I’m guessing it’s because it has to.  The FDA must not have been able to find any other politically viable way to get at the antibiotics problem.

I see this as a first step on the road to banning antibiotics for any use in animals other than the occasional treatment of specific illnesses.

As the New York Times puts it,

This is the agency’s first serious attempt in decades to curb what experts have long regarded as the systematic overuse of antibiotics in healthy farm animals, with the drugs typically added directly into their feed and water. The waning effectiveness of antibiotics — wonder drugs of the 20th century — has become a looming threat to public health. At least two million Americans fall sick every year and about 23,000 die from antibiotic-resistant infections.

Still not convinced antibiotics are worth banning for promoting growth?

The best explanation is the Washington Post’s handy guide to the antibiotic-perplexed.  Here, for example, is its timeline of development of microbial resistance to antibiotics.  The bottom line: the more widespread the use of antibiotics, the greater the onset and prevalence of resistance.  And it takes practically no time for bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotic drugs.

nchembio.2007.24-F1

Resources from FDA

Dec 16 2013

The White House does Xmas

Along with thousands of others, I got to attend one of the glittery White House holiday parties last week.  The President, just back from South Africa, made a brief appearance.

My favorite: Bill Yosses’ pastry-and-candy White House mounted on a fireplace of cookie tiles, some in classic Dutch style but with Washington DC scenes replacing windmills.

IMG_0601

And the cookies!  They were in endless supply, crisp and delicious.   They mystery: how they get produced in this quantity.  Even by New York City standards, the White House kitchen is small.

Washington-20131211-00102

In a year notable for government inaction on crucial legislation, the party was a welcome respite.  As today’s New York Times puts it, 

the lack of movement in the Senate is only half the story of a Congress that has reached record levels of inactivity. Lawmakers simply are not spending as much time in Washington for many reasons, including a distaste for the contentious atmosphere that a deeply divided government has created and the demands of a fund-raising schedule…There was no agreement on a farm bill that would provide agricultural subsidies as well as food stamps for poor families.

Happy holidays.

Dec 13 2013

Weekend reading: A Big Fat Crisis

Deborah A. Cohen.  A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces Behind the Obesity Epidemic—And How We Can End It.  Nation Books, 2013.

Cover: A Big Fat Crisis

Here’s my blurb:

Deborah Cohen gives us a physician’s  view of how to deal with today’s Big Fat Crisis.  In today’s “eat more” food environment, Individuals can’t avoid overweight on their own.   This extraordinarily well researched book presents a convincing argument for the need to change the food environment to make it easier for every citizen to eat more healthfully.

And from the review on the website of the Rand Corporation, where Deborah Cohen works:

The conventional wisdom is that overeating is the expression of individual weakness and a lack of self-control. But that would mean that people in this country had more willpower thirty years ago, when the rate of obesity was half of what it is today. Our capacity for self-control has not shrunk; instead, the changing conditions of our modern world have pushed our limits to such an extent that more and more of us are simply no longer up to the challenge.

Dec 12 2013

Food & Water Watch: Grocery Goliaths

Food and Water Watch has some excellent new resources on supermarket shopping:

Food & Water Watch found that the top companies controlled an average of 63.3 percent of the sales of 100 types of groceries (known as categories in industry jargon). In a third (32) of the grocery categories, four or fewer companies controlled at least 75 percent of the sales.

I will never think of “choice” the same way again.

Dec 11 2013

Food Policy Action releases handy Congress “scorecard” on food issues

Washington is such a mess that you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and this one is really useful.

Food Policy Action to the rescue.

Food Policy Action is a project of the Environmental Working Group.  Ken Cook of EWG is its chair.  Tom Colicchio is listed as the first board member.

The 2013 National Food Policy Scorecard ranks each member of the Senate and House on their votes on food issues.

The interactive map lets you click on a state and see how our congressional representatives are voting.  According to the scorecard, 87 members are Good Food Champions.  We need more!

I looked up New York.  Senator Charles Schumer gets a perfect 100%.  Yes!

But Senator Kirsten Gillibrand only gets 67%.

How come?  Click on her name and the site lists her votes on key legislation.  Oops.  She voted against GMO labeling and against a key farm bill amendment on crop insurance.  If you click on the button, you get to learn more about this vote and the legislation.

This kind of information is hard to come by.  Food Policy Action’s scorecard is easy to use and performs a terrific public service.

Thanks to everyone responsible for it.

Dec 10 2013

Yes, one more post on the meaning of “natural”

At a talk I gave for CQ Roll Call in Washington, DC last week, an audience member asked about the definition of “natural.”  I thought I had said everything there was to say about it (see post from August).  Wrong.

Another member of the audience sent me the definition of “natural” produced by, of all things, the  Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Three federal agencies deal with “natural.”

The FDA

In answer to the question, “What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?,” the FDA says:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

The USDA

The USDA discusses “natural” in the context of organic foods, in order to distinguish “natural” from organic:

Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.

The ATF

This agency is in charge of regulating alcoholic beverages, largely for tax-collection purposes.  Its “ATF Ruling 85-4″ does not actually define the term “natural,” but instead says when ATF takes no exception to its use.

(1) Any grape fruit, citrus or agricultural wine may be designated “natural” if it is made without added alcohol or brandy…No other type of wine may be designated as “natural.”

(2) A distilled spirit may be designated as “natural” if is solely the result of distillation, with or without mingling of the same class and type of spirits or simple filtration which does not alter the class or type of the product.

(3) A malt beverage may be designated “natural” if it is made without adjuncts (additives) other than those additives which do not remain in the finished product, either by precipitating out or by combining with other components of the product and the resulting compound precipitates or is filtered out.

I am not making this up.

CSPI thinks it’s time to phase out the use of “natural.”  OK by me.

Addition: Michele Simon, who blogs at Eat, Drink, Politics, writes (she’s not making this up either):

In fact, ATF is how housed within the Department of Justice.

Historically, ATF had all jurisdiction over alcohol (and was within Treasury), which is where that rule must have come from.

ATF still maintains jurisdiction over criminal activity, but now, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau oversees labeling. That’s housed within Treasury.

This explains the split in 2002 (click here).

Clear as mud? So maybe you can add a fourth agency to your list!

Dec 9 2013

Book mini-review: It’s Not About the Broccoli

As we head into the holiday season, I’m going to catch up on books that might make welcome gifts for the people in your life who think that food is about more than just eating.  Here’s one for food-worried parents:

Dina Rose.  It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating.  Perigree, 2014

I blurbed this one:

I am constantly hearing from parents that they have no idea what their kids are supposed to eat or whether their kids are eating ‘right.’ [It's Not About the Broccoli] provides just what parents need to feed kids properly, stop worrying, and start enjoying mealtimes with kids. Dina Rose looks at feeding kids from a sociologist’s perspective. When the feeding behavior goes well, kids will get all the nutrients they need. This book ought to reassure parents that following a few simple principles will get their kids fed just fine.

Dec 6 2013

Monsanto has a public image problem? A surprise?

Thanks to Politico for alerting us to Monsanto’s sudden discovery:  it has just recognized—can you believe this?—that it has a public image problem.

In recent months the company has shaken up its senior public relations staff, upped its relationship with one of the nation’s largest public relations firms and helped launch a website designed to combat the fallacies surrounding genetically modified organisms.

Monsanto revealed its public image worries in its annual filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission.  The SEC requires companies to list societal factors that create risk to its profitability. Monsanto’s first three:

1.  Threats to patent rights

Efforts to protect our intellectual property rights and to defend claims against us can increase our costs and will not always succeed; any failures could adversely affect sales and profitability or restrict our ability to do business.

Intellectual property rights are crucial to our business, particularly our Seeds and Genomics segment. We endeavor to obtain and protect our intellectual property rights in jurisdictions in which our products are produced or used and in jurisdictions into which our products are imported.

2. Too much regulation

We are subject to extensive regulation affecting our seed biotechnology and agricultural products and our research and manufacturing processes, which affects our sales and profitability.

Regulatory and legislative requirements affect the development, manufacture and distribution of our products, including the testing and planting of seeds containing our biotechnology traits and the import of crops grown from those seeds, and non-compliance can harm our sales and profitability.

3. Bad public relations

The degree of public acceptance or perceived public acceptance of our biotechnology products can affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, regulatory requirements and customer purchase decisions.

Some opponents of our technology actively raise public concern about the potential for adverse effects of our products on human or animal health, other plants and the environment. .. Public concern can affect the timing of, and whether we are able to obtain, government approvals.

Even after approvals are granted, public concern may lead to increased regulation or legislation or litigation…which could affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, and may adversely affect sales of our products to farmers, due to their concerns about available markets for the sale of crops or other products derived from biotechnology.

Maybe if the company was less aggressive about defending itself against risks #1 and #2, public relations would be less of an issue.

Do the close calls on labeling initiatives in California and  Washington worry Monsanto?  Of course they do.  They should.

I was on the FDA food advisory committee in 1994 and witnessed Monsanto’s aggressive opposition to labeling.

If public image is a problem for the company, it has nobody to blame but itself. 

The only surprise:  Why did public demands for labeling take so long?

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