Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 1 2008

Calorie labeling is catching on: Yum! California!

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.

Sep 30 2008

Page 99 Test: Pet Food Politics

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.

Sep 30 2008

Europeans turn down health claims

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!

Sep 30 2008

Country-of-origin labels at long last (sort of)

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.


Sep 29 2008

Oh no! Melamine in chocolate!

In Hong Kong, Cadbury’s is recalling 11 China-made chocolate products found to contain melamine.   I hope everyone is testing everything made in China that might have milk or protein in it.  Soy anyone?

Update: According to the Wall Street Journal, Indonesia says it found melamine in M&M’s and Snickers bars.  Mars says that’s not possible.

Sep 29 2008

The latest Splenda rat study: oops

A recent study in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health suggests that rats display metabolic problems when fed the artificial sweetener, Splenda, at doses within the range commonly consumed by humans (here’s a summary).  The study was funded in part by the Sugar Association which, of course, is in competition with Splenda.  Needless to say, the maker of Splenda, McNeal Nutritionals, objects strongly to these results.  One objection is that this is a study done on rats.  But rat studies do have some validity and and are worth serious consideration.  Or as Erik Millstone and Tim Lang say in their new book, The Atlas of Food (to which I wrote the Foreword), “The food additives industry often treats the results of [animal] studies as valid when they show no adverse effects, but questions their relevance when they do suggest adverse effects.”

Sep 28 2008

Chinese infant formula scandal: timeline

I’ve just discovered the Associated Press timeline of the events in this scandal.  The timeline starts in December 2007 when the first reports of sick babies came in.  It took until June to figure out that melamine was the toxic contaminant, and another three months before anyone did anything about it.  I, of course, think that the 2007 pet food recalls should have alerted everyone to look for melamine.  Now they are.

Sep 27 2008

Melamine in coffee creamer? An update

It’s not easy to keep up with the widening scandal over melamine-tainted infant formula, although Wikipedia is a big help.  The New York Times has a full page on it today.  Yesterday, the FDA recalled a bunch of instant coffee and tea drinks because their creamers might be contaminated with melamine.  And UNICEF and the World Health Organization issued a joint statement warning mothers not to use Chinese infant formula.  Breastfeeding, they point out forcefully, is still the best way to feed infants.

All this reminds me of the unsanitary history of milk adulteration in the United States.  By the 1850s, health officials were complaining about the widespread practice of feeding nutritionally deficient swill to cows and watering down milk with magnesia, chalk, plaster of Paris and anything else to make it look creamy, never mind the effects on infants.  As a result of efforts by the New York Academy of Medicine, New York passed a state anti-adulteration law in 1862.   The 1906 Food and Drug Act laid the groundwork for eliminating most such problems, which is one of the reasons why I think national food safety regulation–with inspection and testing–is so badly needed.

What the Chinese are doing isn’t new.  It’s just that in today’s globalized food economy, bad actions do more damage, and worldwide at that.

Postscript: About the recalled White Rabbit candies.  Former Premier Zhou Enlai liked them so much that he gave them to President Nixon on his visit to China in 1972.

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