Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 3 2010

Price influences purchases of sodas and pizza

If you are wondering why the idea of soda taxes causes so much controversy, try this: research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine estimates that a $1.00 price increase on soda and pizza would reduce daily calorie consumption by nearly 200 per day and would help people lose weight.

Or, as USA Today puts it, an 18% increase in the price of soda would be associated with a weight loss of 5 pounds per year.

Apr 2 2010

The latest on organic production

For all the complaints about organics, production and sales are booming.  USDA economists in the Economic Research Service (ERS) keep track of such things and have just produced tables that display the growth in organic production from 1992 to 2008.  Organic crop and pasture lands still comprise less than 1% of the total in the U.S., but this will surely increase.

USDA/ERS compiles all of its information on organics in a briefing room that links to recommended readings and handy maps and images.

I think it’s interesting that the ERS sites do not link to the National Organic Program (NOP) itself.  This is, no doubt, because the NOP  is housed in a different part of USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service.  Whether any of that makes sense is something one hopes will be considered in the next Farm Bill.

And here’s a link to the European Union’s organic site.  The EU ran a competition to create a new organic logo, and this one is the winner.

Apr 1 2010

Retire Ronald (McDonald)!

Corporate Accountability International, the modern incarnation of Infact and the Nestlé (no relation) boycott,  has just launched the Retire Ronald campaign as part of its Value [the] Meal initiative.

The campaign is based on a new report, Clowning With Kids’ Health.   The report makes it clear that Ronald is ubiquitous anyplace where children might be – on the Internet, and in schools, kids’ libraries, and kids’ hospitals.

If you, like others, think it’s time to see Ronald retired and out of the marketing-to-kids business, join the campaign and sign Ronald’s retirement card.

Read the press release.  Visit the website, www.RetireRonald.org.

Here is how Corporate Accountability International explains its mission:

For more than 30 years Corporate Accountability International (formerly Infact) has run hard-hitting and highly effective campaigns to save lives, protect public health, and preserve the environment.  Value [the] Meal is a campaign led by Corporate Accountability International dedicated to reversing the global epidemic of diet-related disease by challenging McDonald’s and the fast food industry to curb the range of its practices that are contributing to the epidemic.of its practices that are contributing to the epidemic.

Mar 31 2010

Joel Salatin in New York this weekend

I’m a big fan of the movie, FRESH, so much so that I took it with me to Rome last fall, showed it at the Food and Agriculture Organization on the occasion of World Food Day, and left my copy with the American Embassy.  Its director, Ana Joanes, announces two lectures by one of its featured stars, farmer-citizen Joel Salatin:

1.  “Can you feed the world? –Answering elitism, production, and choice.”

Sunday, April 4, 5:00 PM – 6:30 PM

Teachers College / Columbia University (Broadway between 120th and 121st Streets)

By far and away the two most common questions asked of Joel Salatin are: How can we afford local artisanal heritage-based food? And: Is it realistic to think we can really feed the world with a non-industrial food system? Using his own Polyface Farm principles as a foundation, Joel builds this vision one piece at a time by blending theory and practice.

Tickets: $35.  This comes with a movie voucher to see FRESH at the Quad Cinema from April 9-15. Get tickets here.

2.   “The sheer ecstasy of being a lunatic farmer.”

Sunday, April 4, 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM

Teachers College / Columbia University (Broadway between 120th and 121st Streets)

In this mischievous lecture, Joel Salatin compares the industrial global food paradigm with the heritage local food paradigm. Using hilarious stories from his family’s Polyface Farm experience, Salatin examines the contrast on many different levels: fertility, carbon cycling, energy use, relationships, marketing, and spirit.

Tickets: $35 At this event you will receive a movie voucher to see FRESH at the Quad Cinema from April 9-15. Get tickets here.

He’s worth a listen.  Enjoy!

Mar 30 2010

Spoil alert: Jamie Oliver evaluated

TV is one thing but Jamie Oliver’s school intervention is over in real life and has already been evaluated in a study by researchers at West Virginia University.

They asked seven questions of 109 4th- and 5th-grade students, 35 teachers, 6 cooks, and the country food service director (Results):

1. Are the new menu items acceptable to the students?  Not much.  77% said they hated the food (but 66% said they tried new foods).

2. Do the new menus impact lunch participation? Yes, badly.  Participation decreased by 9%.

3. Does removal of flavored milk impact milk consumption?  Yes, milk consumption decreased by 25%.

4. How do teachers perceive the new menus?  Not too differently than they perceived the old ones, but they thought the new ones were more nutritious.

5. Do the new menus impact the workload for food service staff?  Yes, they didn’t like it that they had to work harder and longer, and they preferred their own food.

6. Do the new menus impact meal costs?  Yes, labor and ingredient costs were higher.

7. Do the new menus meet the federal and state nutrition guidelines?  Yes and no.  Fat and saturated fat were higher than USDA targets, sodium and fiber met guidelines, and vitamins and minerals exceeded targets.

So what to make of this?  Remember, this is reality TV, not a real school intervention.  Real ones start at the beginning of a semester, not in the middle, and are about food, not entertainment.   They also do not leave it up to the kids to decide what to eat.

I think it’s telling that the first question asked is whether kids like the food.  This assumes that liking food is independent of external influences like peer pressure and food marketing.

Since when do kids get to decide what’s best for them to eat?  Isn’t that an adult responsibility?

I’m more interested in knowing what happens in schools in that town after the TV crews are long gone.  If the programs are any indication, I think real changes will take place in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of participants and viewers.  Whether researchers can figure out how to capture those changes is another matter.

Addendum: Here’s the Associated Press story on the evaluation, which quotes me.

Mar 28 2010

Jamie Oliver’s food revolution. Yes!

I’m not much of a TV-watcher but from what I’ve been hearing about Jamie Oliver’s new series, I thought I had best take a look.

Don’t miss it.  Get your kids to watch it with you.

Oliver, in case you haven’t been paying attention, went to Huntington, West Virginia (ostensibly the obesity capital of the world), TV crew in hand, to reform the town’s school lunch program.

Take a deep breath.  Try not to get turned off by Oliver’s statement that “the food revolution starts here” (no Jamie, it doesn’t).  Try not to cringe when he calls the food service workers “girls” and “luv” (OK, it’s a cultural problem).  Remember: this is reality TV.

With that said, let’s give the guy plenty of credit for what he is trying to do: cook real food.  What a concept!

And let’s cut him some slack for what he is up against: USDA rules that make cooking too expensive for school budgets, entrenched negative attitudes, widespread cluelessness about dietary principles as well as what food is and how to cook it, and kids who think it is entirely normal to eat pizza for breakfast and chicken nuggets for lunch, neither with a knife and fork.

What impressed me most is that Oliver is going about addressing these barriers in exactly the right way.  From my observations of school food over the years, the key elements for getting decent food into schools are these:

  • A principal who cares about what kids eat
  • Teachers who care about what kids eat
  • Parents who care about what kids eat
  • Food service personnel who not only care what the kids eat, but also know the kids’ names.

For a school food program to work, all of these elements must be in place.  That’s why the school food revolution must be achieved one school at a time.

Watch Oliver go to work on these elements in this one school.

Teacher that I am, for me the most moving – and hopeful – sign was what happened in the classroom.  Oliver holds up tomatoes and asks the kids what they are.  No response.  Not one kid recognizes a potato or knows it as the source of French fries.

How does the teacher react?  As any great teacher, she recognizes a teachable moment and uses it.  When Oliver returns to that class, the kids recognize and can name vegetables, even an eggplant.

This program has much to teach us about the reality of school food and what it takes to fix it.  That is why I so appreciate the comments of  the New York Times reviewer. His review ended with this comment:

One thing noticeably absent from the first two episodes is a discussion of any role the American food industry and its lobbyists might play in the makeup of school lunches and in the formulation of the guidelines set for them by the Agriculture Department. If Mr. Oliver wants a real food revolution, it can’t happen just in Huntington.

Yes!

Addendum #1: Here’s Jamie Oliver’s TED talk.

Addendum #2: the case against Jamie Oliver, courtesy of reason.com (unreason?).

Mar 27 2010

Increasing meal size in the Last Supper?

As readers of this blog know by now, I very much admire and enjoy the work of Brian Wansink, the Cornell professor who studies environmental cues (like portion size) that trigger overeating.

In his latest publication, he teamed up with his brother, a professor of religion at Virginia Wesleyan, to analyze the sizes of the plates, foods, and meals illustrated in classic paintings of the Last Supper created from the year 1000 to 2000.

According to their analysis, portion sizes began expanding in about 1400.

Alas, their data points end in the 1700s.

Were they really not able to find modern depictions?

Art historians: get to work!

Professor Wansink talks about this study in the Atlantic Food Channel.  And for a more recent look at the increase in portion sizes, see the paper I wrote with Lisa Young in the American Journal of Public Health.

Mar 26 2010

San Francisco Chronicle: Listeria bacteria hysteria

My most recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle appeared later than usual (March 14) so I forgot to post it when it came out.  It deals with Listeria in pregnancy:

A guide to avoiding Listeria

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this monthly column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Q: I miscarried at 19 weeks of pregnancy. My doctor said my placenta was infected with Listeria, only her second case in 20 years of practice. I am your typical Bay Area food lover. I thought if I knew the sources of most of my food, I’d be safe. What is safe for pregnant women to eat in the post-Michael Pollan era?

A: Thanks for allowing your personal tragedy to alert others to this hazard. Losing a wanted pregnancy is a heartbreak. Losing one to a food-borne illness is especially tragic. Such illnesses should be preventable.

Food should be safe before it gets to you. That it sometimes is not is a consequence of our inadequate food safety system, which does not require food producers to test for harmful bacteria. The House of Representatives passed legislation that does so last summer, but the Senate is sitting on it. As an individual, you cannot easily protect yourself against invisible hazards in food. Congress must pass that legislation.

Without federal requirements, you are on your own to keep yourself and your unborn infant safe from food pathogens, especially Listeria. Much as I hate to add to what the French sociologist Claude Fischler calls “Listeria bacteria hysteria,” I must. Listeria preferentially affects pregnant women. If you are pregnant and want to stay pregnant, you must avoid Listeria.

This will not be easy. Listeria is widely dispersed in foods. Infections from it may be rare, but they are deadly. Listeria kills a shocking 25 percent of those it infects and is particularly lethal to fetuses.

Most people, including pregnant women, are immune to Listeria and do not feel ill when infected. But unlike most bacteria, Listeria penetrates the placenta, and fetuses have no immunity. The first sign of an infection can be a miscarriage or stillborn infant – too late for antibiotics.

How worried should pregnant women be about Listeria? Given our ineffective food safety system, I’d advise caution. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 2,500 cases a year and 500 deaths. These numbers are minuscule – unless your pregnancy is affected.

Cases occur mainly among the young, the old and others with poor immunity. But the cause of miscarriages is not typically investigated, and I’m guessing that fetal deaths from Listeria are badly underreported.

Animals and people often excrete Listeria from their digestive tracts, even when they show no signs of illness. The bacteria get into food from infected animal waste and unwashed hands.

As a result, unpasteurized milk products and contaminated raw vegetables are frequent food sources. Other sources depend on yet another of Listeria’s nasty features – Listeria grows, reproduces and flourishes at refrigerator temperatures that stop other bacteria cold.

This explains why the CDC strongly advises pregnant women not to eat potentially undercooked foods stored in refrigerators: hot dogs, lunch meats, deli meats, patés, meat spreads and smoked seafood (salmon, trout, lox, jerky); soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, those with blue veins, and especially Mexican “queso blanco fresco”; and raw milk or foods containing unpasteurized milk.

Even though some of these foods were cooked or pasteurized to begin with – blue cheese, for example – they can become contaminated after processing. Days or weeks of refrigeration give Listeria ample time to reproduce. Just about any food sitting around in a refrigerated package can be a source, with meat, fish and dairy foods especially suspect.

The CDC advises following safe food handling procedures to the letter at home. Avoid cross-contaminating raw and cooked foods, and use refrigerated perishables right away.

Listeria infections were virtually unknown 25 years ago, so view this hazard as collateral damage from the consolidation and centralization of our industrialized food supply.

Do not despair. There is some good news. Cooking kills Listeria. Pregnant women still have plenty of options for good things to eat that are safe.

Anything cooked hot is safe. So are hard cheeses, semisoft cheeses like mozzarella, pasteurized processed cheeses, and cream and cottage cheeses. These were cooked or are now too dry and salty for bacterial growth. Anything canned – patés, meat spreads, smoked fish, other fish – also is safe.

When it comes to food hazards during pregnancy, Listeria is unique. A sip of wine every now and then is not going to induce fetal alcohol syndrome, nor will your baby get mercury-induced brain damage from an occasional tuna sandwich. The risks from such hazards accumulate with amounts consumed over time.

But the risk from Listeria is acute. With so much at stake, and so many other food choices available, why take chances?

Just last month, the Food and Drug Administration reported recalls of queso fresco, blue cheese and bean sprouts because of possible Listeria risk. The FDA is doing its best, short of legislation. To keep Listeria out of the food supply, Congress needs to act. Write your representatives now.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics, “Safe Food” and “What to Eat,” and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail her at food@sfchronicle.com and read her previous columns at sfgate.com/food.

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