This week’s Eating Liberally Q and A is about my talk at a conference run by Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia a couple of weeks ago. I had no idea that it was possible to cause so much consternation in such brief remarks (we were allotted four minutes), but it elicited a quite lengthy and angry rebuttal from Professor Sachs. He took strong issue with my view that Capitalist economics might not help African agricultural development because farmers cannot afford to buy patented seeds, fertilizer, and machinery. The lack of agricultural development seems to me to be a social rather than a technical problem and, therefore, one that requires social rather than technical solutions. This seems pretty obvious to me, but not everyone agrees, apparently.
Consumer Reports International counted the sugars and salt in kids’ products in 32 countries. The sugars don’t look good, but they look worse in the U.S. Kids’ cereals have lots of sugars–40% of the calories internationally but 55% in the U.S. Consumer Reports will describe the U.S. part of the survey in its November issue. In the meantime, it says kids’ cereals changed their names from “Sugar” to “Honey” in the 1980s, but the sugars and calories are much the same. Also in the meantime, Consumer Reports rates the cereals. Most are the equivalent of fat-free cookies. I wish it were easier to find a cereal that had a reasonable amount of fiber (the point of cereals, after all) and didn’t add sugars. I’d much rather add my own, especially in the form of those crunchy brown crystals.
The FDA says melamine in food at or below a level of 2.5 ppm (mg/kg) is unlikely to be harmful–except in infant formula. This seems reasonable; on a per kg body weight basis, this would be a very low dose. But what about when it is mixed with its by-product, cyanuric acid? Nobody has yet defined the lowest dose of melamine which, when mixed with cyanuric acid, does not form kidney-blocking crystals. Melamine should not be in the food supply at all, and especially not in infant formula, under any circumstances
For the past two Wednesdays, I’ve clipped full page Campbell’s Soup ads attacking Progresso soups for containing MSG (mono-sodium glutamate) and Datem (di-acetyl tartaric ester of monoglyceride) whereas the ads say Campbell’s Select Harvest soups only have “Real ingredients. Real taste.” In February this year, Campbell’s announced it was cutting down on the salt, a good thing given that a can typically contains two full grams of sodium if you eat the whole thing, and many of the company’s soups still do. The Select Harvest soups cut that down by half. But why the attack on Progresso (owned by Betty Crocker/Pillsbury/Diagio)? Brandweek says it’s about sales competition. Maybe Progresso soups taste better? Does anyone know the story on this?
Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, is going to post calories on the menu boards at all those places. The company must see the writing on the wall and is just getting a head start on what is sure to come. Part of the writing comes from California, which has just passed a statewide calorie labeling law. This particular law is hailed by some advocates as an major step forward and by others as a complete sell-out since it doesn’t really go into effect until 2011 (brochures will be required by July 2009). This, of course, gives state and national Restaurant Associations, which have fiercely opposed such initiatives, plenty of time to litigate.
And then there is the fraud problem? According to bloggers, class action suits have been filed accusing restaurant chains of lying about the number of calories. From what I see in New York City, the calories posted are so high that it’s hard to believe they could be any higher.
I had never heard of this before but Marshal Zeringue runs a blog and a website devoted to the Campaign for the American Reader and what he calls “The Page 99 Test.” The idea is that what’s on page 99 is a pretty good indicator of what the book is about and how it reads. Here’s his blog entry. And here’s how Pet Food Politics fares on the Page 99 test.
More cheery regulatory news. To the consternation of food companies, the European Food Safety Authority has turned down 8 of 9 petitions for approval of health claims on food labels, largely because of lack of evidence. For a while, at least, Europeans won’t be confronted with food packages promising them that they will lose weight if they eat dairy foods. FDA take notice!
While the U.S. economy is falling into the tank, it helps to think of cheerier topics. This very day, after years of delay, mandatory country-of-origin labeling (M-COOL) supposedly goes into effect. The “supposedly” is because M-COOL still faces so much opposition. If the experience with fish COOL is any indication, we will see lots of passive ignoring of the rules.
The legislation requires grocery stores to say where a motley collection of foods – beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, macadamia nuts, pecans, peanuts, and ginseng – were raised or grown. This is great but you can drive a truck through the loopholes. Excluded are food service, processed foods, Internet sales, and butcher shop sales. And then there’s the 6-month grace period. Here again is Consumer Reports’ guide to the exceptions.
If you don’t see COOL on products that are supposed to have such labels, ask why they aren’t there. Tell the store managers you want to know where your food comes from and remind them that they are required by law to tell you.