Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 11 2009

The Cookie Dough mystery deepens

I’m in Alaska this week and out of Internet contact most of the time so it’s been hard to follow the cookie dough story.  It seems that the strain of E. coli found in the cookie dough does not match the strains in the people who have gotten ill from (presumably) eating it.  The FDA can’t figure out how E. coli got into the cookie dough.

When I can get to a computer, I like to check the FDA page on this outbreak, and also the one from the CDC.  But it looks like they are only updating the pages about once a week.  So the quickest way to keep current on this is through Bill Marler’s blog.

[Posted from Anchorage]

Jul 10 2009

Worldwide food security (insecurity would be more like it)

The USDA has issued dismal new estimates of food security in70 developing countries.  Food insecurity means different things depending on where you are.  In the United States, food insecurity means the lack of a reliable source of adequate food.  In developing countries it means consuming less than an average of 2,100 calories a day.  The number of people in developing countries who are food insecure rose by 11% from 2007 to 2008 and is expected to rise even further in 2009.  This is the result of the economic downturn which, unsurprisingly, has worse effects on the poor than the rich.   This trend is not a good one.  Food insecurity is not only bad for health; it also leads to political instability.  That is why everyone has a stake in making sure that everyone has enough to eat.  The USDA report needs to lead to action.

[Posted from Anchorage]

Jul 7 2009

Michael Taylor appointed to FDA: A good choice!

On Monday this week, Michael Taylor began his new job as special assistant to the FDA Commissioner for food safety.  He will be in charge of implementing whatever food safety laws Congress finally decides to pass.

I know that what I am about to say will surprise, if not shock, many of you, but I think he’s an excellent choice for this job. Yes, I know he worked for Monsanto, not only once (indirectly) but twice (directly). And yes, he’s the first person whose name is mentioned when anyone talks about the “revolving door” between the food industry and government. And yes, he signed off on the FDA’s consumer-unfriendly policies on labeling genetically modified foods.

But before you decide that I must have drunk the Kool Aid on this one, hear me out.  He really is a good choice for this job.  Why?  Because he managed to get USDA to institute HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) for meat and poultry against the full opposition of the meat industry — a truly heroic accomplishment.  His position on food safety has been strong and consistent for years.  He favors a single food agency, HACCP for all foods, and accountability and enforcement.  We need this for FDA-regulated foods (we also need enforcement for USDA-regulated foods, but he won’t be able to touch that unless Congress says so).  So he’s the person most likely to be able to get decent regulations in place and get them enforced.

I say this in full knowledge of his history.  In the 1990s, Mr. Taylor held positions in both FDA and USDA and his career in these agencies is complicated.  As I explained in my 2003 book, Safe Food  (see the endnotes for full documentation), Mr. Taylor began his career as a lawyer with the FDA. When he left the FDA, he went to work for King & Spalding, a law firm that represented Monsanto, the company that developed genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH), corn, and soybeans.

He revolved back to the FDA in 1991 as deputy commissioner for policy, and he held that position during the time the agency approved Monsanto’s BGH. At the time of the review, he had been with FDA for more than two years. This made him exempt from newly passed conflict-of-interest guidelines that applied only to the first year of federal employment.  He also was a coauthor of the FDA’s 1992 policy statement on genetically engineered plant foods, and he signed the Federal Register notice stating that milk from cows treated with BGH did not have to be labeled as such.

For whatever it is worth, a 1999 lawsuit and GAO report revealed considerable disagreement about these decisions within FDA. These also revealed that Mr. Taylor had recused himself from matters related to Monsanto’s BGH and had “never sought to influence the thrust or content” of the agency’s policies on Monsanto’s products.  I can’t tell whether there were ethical breaches here or not, but there is little question that his work at FDA gave the appearance of conflict of interest, if nothing more.

But wait! Watch what happened when he moved to USDA in 1994 as head of its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Just six weeks after taking the job, Mr. Taylor gave his first public speech to an annual convention of the American Meat Institute. There, he announced that USDA would now be driven by public health goals as much or more than by productivity concerns. The USDA would soon require science-based HACCP systems in every meat and poultry plant, would be testing raw ground beef, and would require contaminated meat to be destroyed or reprocessed. And because E. coli O157.H7 is infectious at very low doses, the USDA would consider any level of contamination of ground beef with these bacteria to be unsafe, adulterated, and subject to enforcement action.  Whew.  This took real courage.

The amazing thing is that he actually made this work.  Now, HACCP rules apply more to USDA-regulated products than to FDA-regulated products. This new appointment gives Mr. Taylor the chance to bring FDA’s policies in line with USDA’s and even more, to make sure they are monitored and enforced.

In Safe Food, I summarize Mr. Taylor’s position on food safety regulation from 2002. Then, he argued for, among other things:

  • A single agency accountable for providing consistent and coordinated oversight of food safety, from farm to table.
  • Institution of Pathogen Reduction: HACCP, with performance standards verified by pathogen testing, at every step of food production.
  • Recall authority, access to records, and penalties for lapses in safety procedures.
  • Standards for imported foods equivalent to those for domestic foods.
  • Food safety to take precedence over commercial considerations in trade disputes.

Yes, he revolved back to Monsanto after leaving FDA but he didn’t stay long. He left Monsanto for Resources for the Future, a think tank on policy issues.   In 2007, he went to academia and joined the food policy think tank (see his bio) at George Washington University.  There, he produced the excellent food safety report I mentioned in a previous post, which repeats these points. This is about as good a position on food safety as can be expected of any federal official.

I wish him all the luck in the world in getting the safety of FDA-regulated foods under control. For those of you who are still dubious, how about giving him a chance to show what he can do?  But do keep the pressure on – hold his feet to the fire – so he knows he has plenty of support for doing the right thing.

[Posted from Skagway, Alaska, en route to Fairbanks]

Jul 6 2009

GM crops: up, up, and away

The USDA has just released the latest figures on planting of genetically modified soybeans, corn, and cotton in the United States.  GM varieties comprise 60-70% of all corn and cotton, and 90% of soybeans.  On this basis, if a food containing corn or soybeans is not labeled Certified Organic or GM-free, you should assume it is GM.

(posted from Scagway, en route to fairbanks)

Jul 3 2009

The latest statistics on obesity

I am always indebted to Joel Moskowitz of the University of California School of Public Health’s Center for Family and Community Health for his almost daily forwarding of research on obesity.  His recent postings include data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  The CDC has just released preliminary results of the 2008 National Health Interview Survey.  These include, among other measures, data charts and tables on obesity (rates still rising steadily since 1997), physical activity (no measurable change), and diabetes (rising in parallel with obesity).

Interpretation: if physical activity rates have not changed, then the reason obesity rates are going up is because people are eating more calories.

Plenty of evidence backs up this idea.  All you need to do to see why people are eating more is to take a look at Time magazine’s discussion of the implications of calorie labeling: “Would you like 1,000 calories with that?”

Jul 2 2009

Feeding the world: an economic analysis

The Deutsche Bank and University of Wisconsin researchers have collaborated on a major investigation of what has to be done about agriculture to feed the world.  The report, which has lots of economic charts and diagrams, takes a tough look at resources and the environmental and climate-change consequences of agricultural practices.  It concludes that agriculture needs lots of money invested in fertilizers, irrigation, mechanization, farmer education, and land reclamation, and that both organic as biotechnological approaches will be needed to maximize production.  The facts and figures are worth perusing.  But what to do with them is always a matter of interpretation.  It will be interesting to see who uses the report and how, or whether it, like  most such reports, ends up in a dusty drawer.

Jul 1 2009

Horizon organics alert: here comes “natural”

Horizon, the commercial organic milk producer, is introducing  its first new non-organic products for children.   These will be labeled “natural,” not organic.   Horizon’s press people say the products “don’t contain growth hormones and will be easier on the pocketbook…These are our first natural offerings in the marketplace, and Horizon always tries to provide great-tasting products for moms and for families.”  Really?

“Natural” is an odd term.  It has no regulatory meaning.   Meats that are “natural” are supposed to be minimally processed and if their labels say they were produced without antibiotics or hormones the statements have to be truthful and not misleading.  As I discussed in What to Eat, meat retailers can’t tell the difference between “natural” and organic and neither can a lot of consumers.  Retailers are happy to charge the same high prices for the “natural” products and consumers think they are buying organics.  This is not a good situation.

So why would a company ostensibly devoted to the principles and practice of organics suddenly decide to start marketing “natural” products?  For the answer, I defer to Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute who sent this message today:

The rumors have now been confirmed.  Dean Foods’ WhiteWave division has now announced that they will bring out “natural” (conventional) dairy products under the Horizon label.  This at a time when organic dairy farmers around the country are in financial crisis due to a glut of milk.

They are in essence creating a new product category, “natural dairy products,” that will directly compete with certified organic farmers and the marketers they partner with.

This move comes on the heels of the recent decision by Dean/WhiteWave to switch almost the entire product offerings of their Silk soymilk and soyfoods line to “natural” (conventional) soybeans.  They made the switch to conventional soybeans, in Silk products, without lowering the price.  Sheer profiteering.

The likelihood is that they will create this new category and enjoy higher profits than they currently realize having to pay those pesky organic dairy farmers a livable wage.

The news story below, from the Natural Foods Merchandise quotes Dean Foods/WhiteWave officials saying these products will be “easier on the pocketbook.”  Yes, they will be designed to undercut certified organic on price.

Horizon is the largest, in terms of dollar volume, organic brand in the marketplace.  Silk holds the leading market share in soyfoods and was once, prior to Dean Foods’ acquisition, a 100% organic company and brand.

SHAME!

Stay tuned.  Dean Foods has just declared war on the organic industry.  Although the first shot has been fired it will not be the last.

The organic farmers, consumers and ethical business people who built this industry did so in effort to create an alternative food system with a different set of values.  We will all work hard to defend what so many good people spent so many years to create.

Mark A. Kastel

Senior Farm Policy Analyst

The Cornucopia Institute

Jun 30 2009

E. coli found in cookie dough

The story thus far:

From January to June 2009, at least 69 people from 29 states have gotten sick with E. coli O157:H7.  Many of them confessed to eating Nestlé’s raw cookie dough.

On June 19, the FDA warned the public not to eat Nestlé’s raw cookie dough.  Nestlé issued a “voluntary’ recall.

Everyone is baffled about how E. coli O157:H7 could have gotten into cookie dough.  They wonder if cookie dough really is the cause.

The voluntary recall isn’t working (most don’t).  Obama Foodorama has no trouble finding plenty of recalled cookie dough on Washington DC shelves.

The Wall Street Journal reports that since 2006, Nestlé has consistently refused to allow FDA investigators to look at their safety records.  The company doesn’t have to.  All those pesky regulatory requirements are voluntary (that word again).

But now, in a spirit of someone more enforced cooperation, Nestlé lets the FDA in.  Bingo.  On June 29, the FDA says it finds E. coli O157:H7 in one batch of cookie dough.    But conversations with FDA officials leave many questions unanswered.

Nestlé is understandably concerned.   The company says it “deeply regrets” what happened and is fully cooperating with the FDA.

OK.  So if we didn’t know it before, we know it now: “voluntary” is a euphemism for not having to do anything.  Doesn’t this suggest the need for some real regulations?

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