Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 14 2010

Food (un)safety update: E. coli 0145 in Arizona lettuce and more

It’s deja vu all over again with the recent recall of bagged romaine lettuce contaminated with a toxic form of E. coli.  The lettuce came from a central wash-and-bag facility that sent products out to food service companies in several states making about 30 people sick so far.

The one new development is the strain of E. coli: 0145, not O157:H7.  Despite decades of worry that other STECs (Shiga Toxin-producing strains of E. coli) cause serious human illness, state health departments don’t routinely test for 0145.  Clearly, they need to.

The FDA and CDC are both working on this case.

FoodSafetyNews.com has a complete report on the situation to date.  It examines the possible source of 0145 in a three-part series:

Meanwhile, the USDA issued compliance guidelines for reducing Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry.  That’s nice, but what about STECs?

And the GAO has just issued a new report, FDA Could Strengthen Oversight of Imported Food by Improving Enforcement and Seeking Additional Authorities (don’t you love those titles?).  The report focuses on weaknesses in FDA’s oversight of food imports.

FoodQualityNews.com has a short but tough summary:

There are about 189,000 registered foreign sites where food is made for sale in the United States, according to the report. Of those, the FDA inspected just 153 in 2008…Meanwhile, the amount of food imported into the United States is increasing, and now accounts for 15 percent of the total food supply, including 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood.

What more evidence do we need for the urgency of passing food safety legislation?  Reminder: the Senate has been sitting on a food safety bill since the House passed it last August.  Apparently, this Congress this food safety can wait.  Tell that to the people who got sick from eating bagged romaine lettuce.

May 13 2010

White House Task Force on Obesity reports in

This report, Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within A Generation, is a terrific summary of where we stand today on childhood obesity (“the challenge we face”) and what to do about it. The report wants to reduce rates of child obesity to where they were before all this started:

That means returning to a childhood obesity rate of just 5% by 2030. Achieving this goal will require “bending the curve” fairly quickly, so that by 2015, there will be a 2.5% reduction in each of the current rates of overweight and obese children, and by 2020, a 5% reduction.

This seems so modest that it might actually be achievable.

Like most such plans, this one has way too many recommendations, in this case, 70 (the summary table starts on page 89).  These are divided up in categories.  For example:

Recommendations for early childhood

  • Educate and help women conceive at a healthy weight and have a healthy weight gain during pregnancy
  • Encourage and support breastfeeding
  • Prioritize research into chemicals in the environment that may cause or worsen obesity
  • Educate and support parents in efforts to reduce kids’ TV and media time
  • Improve nutrition and physical activity practices in child nutrition programs.

For empowering parents and caregivers:

  • Government should work with local communities to promote the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the 2010 food pyramid.
  • USDA and FDA should work with the food and beverage industry to develop standard nutrition labels for packages.
  • Restaurants and vending machines should display calorie counts of all items offered.
  • The food and beverage industry should extend its voluntary self-regulation to restrict all forms of marketing to children. If this does not happen, federal regulation should be considered
  • Media and entertainment companies should limit licensing of popular characters to healthy food and beverage products
  • Insurance plans should cover services needed to help prevent, assess, and care for child obesity.

For healthier food in schools

  • Update federal standards for school meals and improve the nutritional quality of USDA foods provided to schools.
  • Increase funding for school meals.
  • Encourage schools to upgrade cafeteria equipment to support healthier foods. Example: Swap deep fryers for salad bars.
  • Connect school meal programs to local growers and encourage farm-to-school programs.
  • Improve nutritional education in schools and make it more available.
  • Increase the use of school gardens to educate about healthy eating.
  • Promote healthy behaviors in juvenile correction facilities.

For improving access to healthy foods

  • Launch a multi-agency “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” to make healthy foods more available in underserved urban and rural communities.
  • Encourage local governments to attract grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods
  • Encourage facilities that serve children (e.g., hospitals, recreation centers, and parks) to promote healthy foods and beverages.
  • Provide economic incentives to increase production of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Evaluate the effect of targeted subsidies on purchases of healthy foods through nutrition assistance programs.
  • Study the effects of state and local sales taxes on calorie-dense foods.

For increasing kids’ physical activity

  • School programs should stress physical activity as much as healthy nutrition.
  • State and local school programs should increase the quality and frequency of age-appropriate physical education taught by certified PE teachers.
  • Promote recess for elementary school students and activity breaks for older students.
  • Federal, state, and local agencies should partner with communities and businesses to extend the school day in order to offer physical activity programs.
  • The EPA should assist communities building new schools to place them on sites that encourage walking or biking to school.
  • Increase the number of safe playgrounds and parks, particularly in low-income communities.
  • Encourage entertainment and technology companies to continue developing new ways to engage kids in physical activity.

Good ideas, but there are some things I’m not so crazy about here.  The plan seems awfully voluntary and let’s be pals and all work together. Voluntary, as evidence demonstrates, does not work for the food industry.  Much leadership will be needed to make this plan work.  But these recommendations should give advocates plenty of inspiration to continue working on these issues.

The Washington Post has a particularly good summary of the key recommendations, and singles out the ones aimed at marketing to kids.

Jane Black of the Washington Post is cautiously optimistic.  Me too.

May 12 2010

IOM wants just as rigorous science for food claims as for drugs

Buried in an Institute of Medicine report released today on, of all things, “biomarkers and surrogate endpoints in chronic disease” are some truly astonishing recommendations:

Rec. 3: The FDA should use the same degree of scientific rigor for evaluation of biomarkers across regulatory areas, whether they’re proposed for use in the arenas of drugs, medical devices, biologics, or foods and dietary supplements.

Rec. 4: The FDA should take into account a nutrient’s or food’s source as well as any modifying effects of the food or supplement that serves as the delivery vehicle and the dietary patterns associated with consumption of the nutrient or food when reviewing health-related label claims and the safety of food and supplements.

Translation: The FDA should require the same level of scientific substantiation for health claims as for pharmaceutical drugs, and not assume that a supplement has the same health effect as a food or diet.

As the press release states:

The FDA should apply the same rigor to evaluating the science behind claims of foods’ and nutritional supplements’ health benefits as it devotes to assessing medication and medical technology approvals…There are no scientific grounds for using different standards of evidence when evaluating the health benefits of food ingredients and drugs given that both can have significant impacts on people’s well-being.

The committee set out to recommend scientific criteria for evaluating the types of scientific data that companies use to convince the FDA to allow health and safety claims.  Food claims got tossed into the mix. 

The impact of these recommendations could be considerable.  The IOM is saying that health claims need to have rigorous science to back them up, not least because the kinds of claims now used to market foods do not come close to meeting those criteria.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal has to say about this report (it quotes me).

How right they are, as witnessed by the health claims on chocolate-flavored, sugar-sweetened Enfagrow.

May 11 2010

Feed Your Pet Right: The “Book Tour”

Book tours are not what they used to be, even for people like me who ordinarily write for impoverished academic presses.  For this book, we do have a few things going on.  I summarize them here.  Times are local.  The public lectures are listed in more detail under Appearances.

WASHINGTON DC

May 12:  Diane Rehm Show, WAMU-FM, Washington, DC, 11:00 a.m.

May 12: The Animal House, WAMU-FM, Washington, DC, 3:00 p.m.

NEW YORK

May 13: Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, 11:40 a.m.

May 14  Good Morning America, ABC

SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA

May 15 CPS Salon 7:30 p.m.  Requires rsvp.  Go to cpslectures.com.  Click on “invite me.”

May 18 Holistic Hound, 1510 Walnut St. / Berkeley, CA, 6:30 p.m.

May 22  Omnivore Books, 3885a Cesar Chavez Street / San Francisco, CA, 3:00 p.m.

May 23  Point Reyes Books, 11315 State Route 1/ Point Reyes Station CA  3:00 p.m.

NEW YORK

May 25  Authors on Animals radio with Tracie Hotchner

May 27  NYU Fales Library/Bobst, 3rd floor, 70 Washington Square So, 4:00 p.m.

May 10 2010

Feed Your Pet Right: Out at last!

The book about pet food and the pet food industry that I wrote with Malden Nesheim – Feed Your Pet Right (Free Press/Simon & Schuster) – comes out tomorrow, May 11.  At last!

Why would two human nutritionists interested in food politics write a book about pet food?

  • Pets eat the same food we do, just different parts.
  • The five major companies that make pet food – Nestlé, Mars, Procter & Gamble (Iams), Colgate-Palmolive (Hill’s), and Del Monte – also make food for humans.
  • Pet food is a huge business that generates $18 billion in annual sales in the U.S. alone.
  • The marketing of pet foods is just like the marketing of human foods (health claims, production values).
  • The safety issues are identical.
  • And people do love their pets.

These are all reason enough to be interested in this segment of the food business, whether you do or do not own a cat or dog (which we do not, at the moment).

This book came about as an extension of what I wrote about in What to Eat.  I could see that pet foods took up a lot of supermarket real estate but I could not understand their labels.  But Mal, who taught animal nutrition for many years, knew exactly what they meant.  Hence: this book.

We signed on to write it in February 2007, three weeks before the melamine pet food recalls of 2007.  I intended my comments on the recalls to be an appendix to this book, but the writing got out of hand and ended up as Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine (University of California Press, 2008).

Feed Your Pet Right is out at last.  You can find out about it at Free Press/Simon and Schuster or Amazon or Borders or Barnes & Noble or IndieBound.

You can follow it on Facebook (Feed Your Pet Right), where we will deal with current issues about pet food, answer questions, and respond to comments.

Here’s what it covers:

1. Introduction

The origins of commercial pet foods

2. What pets ate

3. What pets need

4. Inventing commercial pet foods

5. Pet foods as an industry

What’s in those packages?

6. Pet foods: wet and dry

7. The ingredients

8. The rendered ingredients

9. Who sets pet food rules?

Commercial pet foods: the market

10. What’s on those labels?

11. The pet food marketplace: segments

12. Products at a premium

Special products for target markets

13. For young and old

14. For special health problems

15. For weight loss

The pet food extras

16. Snacks, treats, chews, and bottled waters

17. Dietary supplements

18. Do supplements work?

Alternatives to commercial pet feeding

19. Unconventional diets

20. The raw

21. The home cooked

Thinking about pet foods

22. Are commercial pet foods healthy for pets?

23. Do people eat pet food?

24. Do pet food companies influence veterinarians?

25. Is pet food research ethical?

26. Concluding thoughts

Acknowledgments

Appendix 1. The U.S. pet food industry: facts and figures

Appendix 2. Recent history of the pet food industry

Appendix 3. The history of pet food regulation

Appendix 4. Estimating pet food calories

Appendix 5. Food needs of Alaskan sled racing dogs

Appendix 6. Resources

List of Tables and Figures

Notes

Index

Enjoy!

Tomorrow: Where and when we will be speaking about the book.



1. Introduction

The origins of commercial pet foods

2. What pets ate

3. What pets need

4. Inventing commercial pet foods

5. Pet foods as an industry

What’s in those packages?

6. Pet foods: wet and dry

7. The ingredients

8. The rendered ingredients

9. Who sets pet food rules?

Commercial pet foods: the market

10. What’s on those labels?

11. The pet food marketplace: segments

12. Products at a premium

Special products for target markets

13. For young and old

14. For special health problems

15. For weight loss

The pet food extras

16. Snacks, treats, chews, and bottled waters

17. Dietary supplements

18. Do supplements work?

Alternatives to commercial pet feeding

19. Unconventional diets

20. The raw

21. The home cooked

Thinking about pet foods

22. Are commercial pet foods healthy for pets? 23. Do people eat pet food?

24. Do pet food companies influence veterinarians?

25. Is pet food research ethical?

26. Concluding thoughts

Appendix 1. The U.S. pet food industry: facts and figures

Appendix 2. Recent history of the pet food industry

Appendix 3. The history of pet food regulation

Appendix 4. Estimating pet food calories

Appendix 5. Food needs of Alaskan sled racing dogs

Appendix 6. Resources

List of Tables and Figures

Acknowledgments

May 9 2010

Food politics in the media: recent examples

I’ve collected a few video bits and other such things.  Can’t wait to share them:

Enjoy!  Happy Mother’s Day!

May 7 2010

Presidential panel says: choose organics!

Thanks to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times (“New alarm bells about chemicals and cancer“) for telling readers about a report on chemicals and cancer just released by the President’s Cancer Panel.

I had never heard of this panel – appointed during the Bush Administration, no less – and went right to its 2008-2009 annual report.

The Panel says that the “risk of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated,” that “nearly 80,000 chemicals [are] on the market in the United States, many of which are…un- or understudied and largely unregulated,” and that “the public remains unaware…that children are far more vulnerable to environmental toxins and radiation than adults.”

evidence suggests that some environmental agents may initiate or promote cancer by disrupting normal immune and endocrine system functions. The burgeoning number and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compel us to act to protect public health, even though we may lack irrefutable proof of harm.

I’m guessing this report will cause a furor.  Why?  “Lack irrefutable proof” means that the science isn’t there.  In this situation, the Panel advises precaution.  Check out these examples selected from the recommendations:

  • Parents and child care providers should choose foods, house and garden products, play spaces, toys, medicines, and medical tests that will minimize children’s exposure to toxics.  Ideally, both mothers and fathers should avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
  • It is preferable to use filtered tap water instead of commercially bottled water.
  • Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing…food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers [translation: organics] and washing conventionally grown produce to remove residues.
  • Exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat [translation: don’t eat feedlot meat].

Expect to hear an uproar from the industries that might be affected by this report.  The American Cancer Society (ACS) doesn’t like it either, since the report implies that the ACS hasn’t been doing enough to educate the public about this issue.  The ACS said:

Elements of this report are entirely consistent with the recently published “American Cancer Society Perspective on Environmental Factors and Cancer”…Unfortunately, the perspective of the report is unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer, and by its dismissal of cancer prevention efforts aimed at the major known causes of cancer (tobacco, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, sunlight) as “focussed narrowly”…it would be unfortunate if the effect of this report were to trivialize the importance of other modifiable risk factors that, at present, offer the greatest opportunity in preventing cancer.

ACS says the Panel does not back up its recommendations with enough research [but see May 14th note below].  Maybe, but why isn’t ACS pushing for more and better research on these chemicals?   However small the risks – and we hardly know anything about them – these chemicals are unlikely to be good for human health.   Doesn’t precaution make sense?  I think so.

Addition, May 7: Here’s Denise Grady’s take on the report from the New York Times: “Cancer society criticizes federal panel as overstating risks.”

Addition, May 14: I received a note from Michael Thun,  retired Vice President for Edemiology & Survey Research of the American Cancer Society requesting a clarification of my statement.  He says:

I hope that you can correct your report to say that ACS actually is pushing for more and better research, and has never discouraged people who choose to eat organic food from doing this. The only thing we object to is unsupported claims that the effect of current level of pollution on cancer has been “grossly underestimated”.

In 1996, I chaired an ACS committee writing dietary guidelines for cancer prevention and worked with Dr. Thun on our report.  I’d take his word for this.

National Home Office | American Cancer Society, Inc.

 







May 6 2010

Where do farm subsidies go? Now we know!

Yesterday, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released the latest update of its highly entertaining farm subsidy database. The links cover $245 billion in federal farm subsidies distributed from 1995 -2009.  The site lets you search for subsidies by state, county, congressional district, and specific farm, and by commodity.  There is also a national summary.

As the EWG puts it:

taxpayer-funded federal farm subsidies lavished on the wealthiest farms have resisted even modest efforts for reform. Introduced after the Great Depression and once the savior of struggling small family farms, these subsidy programs have been co-opted by the largest agriculture interests and now work to ensure profits for plantation-scale growers of corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat.

I went straight to New York State.  Alas, my home state only ranks #30 in payments and our farmers only got $156 million in 2009.  Some of them got as little as $1,000 or $2,000 (numbers in Illinois, Kansas, and Iowa go into the millions).  Even so, corn and dairy farmers in Rep. (now Sen.) Gillibrand’s district did better than the New York average last year.

For a quick lesson in the complexity of farm supports, take a look at the chart of corn subsidies in New York State from 1995 to 2009.  No wonder farm supports are so hard to understand.

Let’s hope this site inspires people to start gearing up for dealing with the next Farm Bill, coming up in a year or so.  The EWG’s farm subsidy primer is a great place to begin.  Happy searching!

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