Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 11 2010

Does fighting obesity also mean fighting corporations? So it seems

Corporations go to a lot of trouble to neutralize potential critics.   Recent examples: two co-optations (McDonald’s alliance with Weight Watchers and PepsiCo’s with the Yale School of Medicine) and one aggression (Disney’s forced expulsion of the Center for Commercial-Free Childhood from Harvard).

Co-optation is the winning over or neutralization of opponents by bringing them into the fold.  It works well.

Let’s start with the new partnership between Weight Watchers and McDonald’s.  OK.  This is happening in New Zealand, not here, but it is still a good example.  McDonald’s New Zealand makes three meals that meet criteria for 6 Weight Watchers’ points.    Will Weight Watchers New Zealand suggest that its members cut down on fast food?  Not likely.

Next, Yale.  Yale Medical School proudly announces that PepsiCo has agreed to fund a new fellowship.  This fellowship, which creates a new position in the MD-PhD program, is for doctoral work in nutrition science.

Dr. Robert Alpern, dean and the Ensign Professor at Yale School of Medicine, says of this gift:

PepsiCo’s commitment to improving health through proper nutrition is of great importance to the well-being of people in this country and throughout the world. We are delighted that they are expanding their research in this area and that they have chosen Yale as a partner for this endeavor.

You can’t satirize something like this, but why am I guessing that recipients of this fellowship are unlikely to study the effects of food marketing on obesity or the effects of fructose on metabolism or to advise their overweight patients to cut down on soft drinks? (Thanks to Michele Simon who commented on it on her newly restored blog, Sunday, March 7).

And then there is yesterday’s ugly story in the New York Times about Disney’s retaliation against the Center for Commercial-Free Childhood which had successfully gotten the company to back off on its advertising for Baby Einstein videos.  By all reports, Disney pressured the Harvard unit that housed the Center to evict the Center under truly shameful circumstances.

The moral: if you want to do something to prevent childhood and adult obesity, you are working against the economic interests of corporations that profit from kids eating too much food or watching too much television.  And you must take great care to hold on to your independence.

Mar 10 2010

What’s up with the hydrolyzed vegetable protein recall?

Thanks to Carol for this question: “I am wondering if you are planning to write anything about the current Salmonella Tennessee in hydrolyzed vegetable protein..and how it just might be in “everything.”

I wasn’t planning to make a big deal of the recall of hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) – and the more than 100 products containing this flavor ingredient in the United States and in Canada – because the FDA seems on the job and nobody is getting sick (as far as we know).

But this one now looks like another food safety scandal.

To begin with, HVP is one of those fifth flavor, umami substances.  As the FDA explains,

HVP is a flavor enhancer used in a wide variety of processed food products, such as soups, sauces, chilis, stews, hot dogs, gravies, seasoned snack foods, dips, and dressings. It is often blended with other spices to make seasonings that are used in or on foods.

Translation: it is indeed in everything.

This scandal begins with a whistle-blowing customer of Basic Food Flavors, the manufacturer of HVP.  The customer ‘s company apparently tests its purchased ingredients for pathogens (what a concept!).  It found Salmonella in the HVP.  Sometime early in February, it notified the FDA.

The FDA inspected the Basic Food Flavors plant on February 12 and found Salmonella.   It also found records indicating that HVP tested positive for Salmonella on January 21.  What did the company do about the test?  Not a thing.  It continued to ship out products.

As the FDA described its findings:

After receiving the first private laboratory analytical results (Certificate of Analysis dated 1/21/2010) indicating the presence of Salmonella in your facility, you continued to distribute paste and powder products until 2/15/2010. Furthermore, from 1/21/2010 to 2/20/2010, you continued to manufacture HVP paste and powder products under the same processing conditions that did not minimize microbial contamination.

The FDA further explains [my emphasis]:

The FDA then began discussions with Basic Food Flavors regarding the firm’s intentions to conduct a voluntary recall of the HVP the company had made, in both powder and paste form, manufactured on or after Sept. 17. On Feb. 26, 2010, Basic Food Flavors began notifying its customers that it was recalling all of the HVP product in powder and paste form made since Sept. 17.

The FDA announced the recall on March 4.

This means that from January 21 until at least February 20, the company continued to ship HVP potentially contaminated with Salmonella.

Then, over the next six days, the FDA had to beg Basic Food Flavors to issue a recall.  The company may have started notifying customers on February 26 but the FDA did not announce the recall until March 4, weeks after the first findings of Salmonella.

Do we need more evidence that the FDA needs the authority to order recalls?  And when is Congress going to get around to passing the food safety bill?  The last I heard, they were talking about May, maybe.  At best, this would be nine months after the House passed the bill last August.

Undoubtedly, this situation is frustrating for the FDA.  But it is downright dangerous to us.   It’s time to scream at Congress to act.

Addendum: The fallout from the recall is just beginning.  Windsor Farms of Lampasas, Texas and Oakland, Mississippi is recalling 1.7 million pounds of ready-to-eat beef taquito and chicken quesadilla products+ containing HVP.   Procter & Gamble is recalling Pringles Restaurant Cravers Cheeseburger potato crisps and Family Faves Taco Night potato crisps.  And here are some more:

Mar 9 2010

Sugar politics: not so sweet

I got a comment this morning from Eric who asks whether I had seen the article in yesterday’s New York Times about Florida’s bailout of Big Sugar in the Everglades.  I could hardly miss it.  The story starts on the front page and continues over two full inside pages.

Titled “Deal to save Everglades may help sugar firm,” the article explains how Florida politicians engineered a taxpayer-supported buyout of United States Sugar for nearly $2 billion in 2008, ostensibly to restore a waterway through the Everglades.  Now, it seems, the restoration projects have stopped for lack of money and U.S. Sugar gets to keep using the land.

U.S. Sugar is or was the largest sugar producer in Florida.  Founded by Charles Stewart Mott in 1931, it owned mills and a railroad as well as land.

Sugar policy, as I explained in a post last September, is special.  Alone among commodities, it is supported by an arcane system of quotas and tariffs designed to ensure that domestic sugar producers get prices for their crops that are higher than values on the world market.  The result?  Taxpayers pay more for sugar than they should.

I suppose I could argue that higher prices for sugar are a good thing.  High prices discourage consumption.   Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), sugar prices are not high enough to do that.

So chalk this one up to politics in action, replete with lobbyists, lawyers, and corporate heads with cozy ties to government officials.   As is all too often the case, the corporation came out ahead.  Whether the Everglades will ever benefit remains to be seen.

Mar 8 2010

Beverage Association’s PR spin on bad news for sodas in schools

Just in time for the Albany conference on soda taxes (see previous post), the Beverage Association has issued a report on the great progress it is making in reducing calories from sodas sold in schools.

In fact, the Beverage Association is doing a terrific job on reducing soft drink consumption.  Sales of sodas are down by impressive percentages, but so are sales of all drinks sold in school vending machines, as illustrated by this chart from today’s Wall Street Journal.

Source: Wall Street Journal, 3-8-10

This is good news.  The next steps to improve school food?  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Get the vending machines out of schools altogether, those for snacks as well as sodas.
  • Get rid of “competitive” foods, those sold in competition with school meals.
  • Put some restrictions on the frequency and quantity of foods brought in for birthdays and other celebrations.
  • Institute universal school meals.

If kids don’t buy drinks from vending machines, the schools don’t need them, right?

Update March 9.  Thanks to Coca-Cola for sending a copy of the press release and the final progress report summary.

Mar 7 2010

Tools for promoting soda taxes

I’ve been collecting information about soda taxes.  If you think they are worth a try, as I do, and want to help get the New York bill (the Duane Bill) passed, plenty of background information and tools are available.

Tomorrow, March 8, The New York Academy of Medicine, the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, and the New York State Public Health Association invite you to a symposium:

TAKING ACTION AGAINST OBESITY:
A Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Tax for New York State

Monday, March 8 2010 from 2:00 pm to 3:30 pm
Blue Room, 2nd Floor, Capitol Building, Albany, NY

Speakers include NYS Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Daines, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley, and Dr. Kelly Brownell from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy. The event is free.  RSVP to tsanders@malkinross.com

Here’s more than you ever wanted to know about why these taxes are likely to do some good and are worth passing:

Convinced?  Want to help?

And just for fun, here is testimony from an official of PepsiCola opposing the taxes and a rebuttal from some group (sorry, I don’t know which).

Finally, the Los Angeles Times (February 21) had a terrific graph of the recent sharp increase in lobbying expenditures (in the rebuttal).  Given the mess in Albany, it will be interesting to see how all this goes.  Act now!

Mar 5 2010

Recognize food brands? Even 3-year-olds do this

I’m not sure why this would be news to anyone who has taken a toddler to a grocery store, but researchers at the University of Michigan have now demonstrated that very young children recognize food brands, especially McDonald’s.  Didn’t Morgan Spurlock show this in Supersize Me! (also my screen debut)?  Whatever.  It’s good to have the research and the implications are clear: something must be done to put some curbs on food marketing to kids.

Mar 4 2010

Research alert: childhood obesity and how to fix it

It’s almost impossible to keep up with what’s being written about childhood obesity.  The papers and commentary pour in.  Much of this is well worth reading.  If you want to keep up on the latest thinking about the issue, here are some places to start:

1.  Health Affairs: Thanks to Matt Gruenberg for alerting me to the issue of Health Affairs devoted entirely to obesity topics.  Here’s the Table of  Contents.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation had a hand in this and discusses some of the papers on its website.

Even better, Health Affairs has produced a series of “issue briefs” to go with the journal articles.  These are available on the Health Affairs blog. They cover:

2.  FoodNavigator.com has a “special issue” on childhood obesity from the business standpoint:

Giving children the best nutritional start: With childhood obesity rates apparently sky rocketing around the world, celebrity chefs redesigning school meals, and international initiatives to influence what our children eat, now is an interesting time for child nutrition.

Kids’ food trends in the spotlight: Some major trends in children’s eating habits could change as the economy recovers – but foods marketed as natural and healthful are here to stay, according to a senior analyst at Mintel. 

How characters can help children eat healthily: From Disney to Tony the Tiger, consumer groups have been campaigning hard to break the links between childhood icons and unhealthy foods. But furry friends and super-heroes are now putting in more of an appearance on healthy products.

Kids’ TV food commercials down, but cross-promotions soar: Cross-promotions on food packaging targeted at children increased by 78 percent between 2006 and 2008, according to a study from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy.

3.  Michelle Obama’s campaign:USA Today reports on Mrs. Obama’s talk to the school nutrition association, the organization of people who work in school lunchrooms – those who Jamie Oliver refers to as “lunch ladies.”  Check out the coverage and see the video.

What is one to make of all this?  Childhood obesity is a huge public health issue and deserves the attention it is getting.  Let’s hope some of it works.

Mar 3 2010

Cheers to FDA: health claim warnings!

Here are some excerpts from today’s FDA press release, “FDA Calls on Food Companies to Correct Labeling Violations; FDA Commissioner Issues an Open Letter to the Industry.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has notified 17 food manufacturers that the labeling for 22 of their food products violates the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act…In an open letter to Industry dated March 3, 2010, Dr. Hamburg underscored the importance of providing nutrition information that consumers could rely on.

…The violations cited in the warning letters include unauthorized health claims, unauthorized nutrient content claims, and the unauthorized use of terms such as “healthy,” and others that have strict, regulatory definitions.  Companies that received warning letters have 15 business days to inform the FDA of the steps they will take to correct their labeling.

Take a look at what the FDA is saying, starting with a handy chart of the affected companies, their products, and the ways their claims violate FDA regulations.  Some of my favorite examples are on this chart (for example, Juicy Juice!).

The FDA also provides:

What’s behind all this?  Take a look at Center for Science in the Public Interest’s extraordinary report on violations of FDA regulations on food package labels, Food Labeling Chaos.  No way can the FDA – or anyone else – ignore this report.

Cheers to the FDA for taking this on!

Update March 4:  The New York Times was able to reach some of the affected companies. They all say the same thing (my translation): we are shocked, shocked.  We would never tell a lie.  We will do everything we can to cooperate (make sure the FDA backs down on this).

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