Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 20 2009

FDA to clean up front-of-package mess

The FDA has a new “Dear Industry” letter announcing that it is going to set some rules for those “better-for-you” stickers on the front of junk food packages.  Why?   “FDA’s intent is to provide standardized, science-based criteria on which FOP [front of package] nutrition labeling must be based.”

What this is about, of course, is all those self-endorsement labels food companies like PepsiCo (Smart Spot),  Kraft (Sensible Solution), and many companies collectively (Smart Choices) have been putting on their products.

The companies set up their own nutrition criteria and then applied those criteria to their own products. Surprise!  A great many of their products qualified for the “better-for-you” labels.

I’m guessing Smart Choices was the final straw for the FDA. The idea that the Smart Choices check mark could go onto Froot Loops was so astonishing, and the subject of so much ridicule, that the FDA had to act.  If nutrition criteria are developed independently, most junk foods would not qualify.

The FDA also says it will be testing how well consumers understand different kinds of package labels.  It gives a bunch of examples.  Want to know how the FDA is thinking about this?  Check out its handy backgrounder, which if nothing else is an excellent introduction to the entire issue of front-of-package labels.

Have a preference about what to use?  Write the FDA at this address:

Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852. All comments should be identified with the title of the guidance document: Guidance for Industry: Letter Regarding Point of Purchase Food Labeling.

Addendum, October 22: Here are two additional documents to add to the collection.  First, a letter to representative Rosa DeLauro responding to her complaint about the Smart Choices program.  Second, is a a summary of the talking points used by Commissioner Margaret Hamburg in her press conference on the new FDA initiatives.   My conclusion:  the FDA is back on the job!

It’s about time the FDA got back on the job. This is in reaction to the self-endorsements food companies have been making on package labels. The way this works is that companies set up their own nutrition criteria and then apply those criteria to their own products. Guess what. Lots of their products qualify for better-for-you labels. Examples: PepsiCo (Smart Spot) and Kraft (Sensible Solution), and now lots of companies working together (Smart Choices). I think Smart Choices was the final straw for the FDA. The idea that its check could go onto Froot Loops made it clear that the bar had to be set higher. Yes, they are suggesting something voluntary, but if the nutrition criteria are honest enough, junk foods won’t qualify.

Oct 19 2009

Today’s scandal: industrial agriculture vs. Michael Pollan

In my previous post, I mentioned that a Cal Poly donor had written the university arguing that Michael Pollan should not be permitted to speak to students unopposed.  The donor, Mr. David Wood of Harris Ranch Beef Company, wrote Dr. Warren Baker, President of Cal Poly, threatening to withdraw his promised $500,000 contribution if the invitation to Mr. Pollan was not withdrawn.

I now have copies of the actual letters.  They are well worth reading by anyone concerned about the relationship of industrial agriculture to its impact on soil and water, climate change, rural sustainability, air quality, animal welfare, worker safety, antibiotic resistance, and human health, as well as by the influence of Big Agriculture on public policy.

Here is the letter from Mr. Wood to Dr. Baker. And here are Dr. Baker’s response to that letter and Mr. Wood’s response to Dr. Baker’s response.

My favorite quotation from Mr. Wood’s response is this:

For too long now, those intimately involved in production of agriculture have silently allowed others (academics and activists) to shape their future. Not any longer! The views of elitists’ [sic] like Michael Pollan can no longer go unchallenged. Agriculture cannot allow the Pollans of the world to shape societal expectations (and ultimately policy makers’ decisions) regarding the production practices that can or cannot be employed by those whose livelihood depends on the continued development and adoption of modern agriculture practices.

I will let this comment speak for itself.

Note: thanks to all the people, especially Matt, who offered help with downsizing the letter file.

Oct 17 2009

Pushback on alternative agriculture

After my George McGovern lecture at FAO (see the most recent previous post), the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Rome, Ertharin Cousin, thanked me for speaking and then told the audience that the opinions expressed in my talk were mine alone and did not represent those of the U.S. government.

The main point of my talk was that hunger, obesity, and food safety are social rather than personal problems and require social rather than personal solutions.  If such problems are individual, they can be solved with technical interventions such as functional foods, commercial weaning foods, irradiation, and genetically modified foods.  But if we view them as social problems, we need to find solutions that involve sustainability, social justice, and democracy.

For example, we know how to end hunger:

  • Breastfeeding
  • Clean water and safe food
  • Empowerment of women
  • Education
  • Community food security
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Political stability

These are social interventions.  Technical solutions do not enter into them except in emergencies.

I praised the Obamas for leadership in promoting sustainable food production, and ended my talk with this image.  I left it up while I was answering questions but the ambassador asked to have it turned off.

ObamasUnder ordinary circumstances, I would pass her actions off as standard practice and not take them personally.  But I am hearing more and more tales of pushback against such ideas.

According to an account in the Los Angeles Times, another university – this time Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo – has reneged on a Michael Pollan invitation under pressure from agricultural interests.

The L.A. Times quotes David Wood, chairman of Harris Ranch Beef Co., who has promised $150,000 toward a new meat processing plant on campus:

While I understand the need to expose students to alternative views, I find it unacceptable that the university would provide Michael Pollan an unchallenged forum to promote his stand against conventional agricultural practices.

Apparently, this university caved under pressure just as Washington State did in a similar incident earlier this year (see my post on that incident).   And I hear rumors about invitations that never got offered.  Freedom of speech must hold at agricultural universities unless the opinions offend donors.

Expect to see more of this as the food movement gets stronger and more effective.

Oct 16 2009

World Food Day

Today is World Food Day and I am in Rome giving the 6th Annual George McGovern World Food Day lecture at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  The lecture is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy.

World Food Day marks the founding of FAO on October 16, 1945.  I love the FAO motto: Fiat Panis (let there be bread).  Its job is to make sure the world gets fed adequately.

FAO has just released its 2009 edition of “The State of Food Insecurity in the World.”  It contains nothing but bad news: hunger is on the rise, the global economic crisis is making things worse, with people in developing countries hit hardest.

The George McGovern lecture is in honor of the former U.S. Senator (Dem-South Dakota) and presidential candidate who has had a distinguished history of anti-hunger efforts as director of the Food for Peace program, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, and U.N. global ambassador on hunger.

I am most familiar with his work as chair of the Senate Select Committee from 1968-1977.   This committee greatly expanded food assistance programs and then developed the first federal guidelines for chronic disease prevention: Dietary Goals for the U.S. In Food Politics, I describe the work of this committee and the way it improved the safety net and transformed nutrition education in the United States.

It is a great honor to be giving a lecture in his honor.

Oct 15 2009

Connecticut takes on Smart Choices!

Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney General, says he is about to conduct an investigation into the Smart Choices program because it is “overly simplistic, inaccurate and ultimately misleading.”   Recall that Froot Loops, a product with sugar as its first ingredient, qualifies as a better-for-you option.  Apparently, Mr. Blumenthal is talking to the Attorneys General of other states and several want to join his investigation.  While they are at it, maybe they should also take a look at the role of the American Society of Nutrition in developing and managing this program.

But count on the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) to defend Froot Loops as a Smart Choice.  Explains ACSH’s Jeff Stier:

Froot Loops and Lucky Charms have the ‘Smart Choices’ label. They have sugar in them, but they also contain half of a person’s daily requirement of some vitamins. If we’re able to give kids those nutrients, it should be okay to give them some sugar. If they sold these products without sugar, kids wouldn’t eat them, or they might end up adding even more on their own….Don’t companies have the right to say those foods are better than others? It’s not as if they are making specific health claims, rather these are just comparative claims.

This Richard Blumenthal is the same one who has been seeking to ban e-cigarettes…Connecticut may have more serious problems to focus on than banning e-cigarettes and worrying about companies trying to point consumers to healthier products. Froot Loops obviously isn’t the healthiest food out there, but it’s better than many others.

It’s that debatable philosophic argument again: Is a so-called “better-for-you” product necessarily a good choice?

[Note: I’m in Rome this week and am most grateful to the six people who sent me the Times article and the two who sent the ACSH post.  Thanks so much!]

Oct 14 2009

Larry King Live on unsafe meat

Bill Marler has posted a handy link to his Monday night appearance on Larry King Live on which he, and many others, were on to discuss meat safety.  As Marler puts it, the discussion got sidetracked – I would say derailed – from food safety to whether eating meat is good for you or not. Among others, Colin Campbell, the committed vegan scientist who wrote The China Study, was given plenty of air space to argue no it is not.

Despite Marler’s best efforts, and those of mothers and grandmothers of children sickened by eating meat contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, King refused to let anyone get a word in edgewise about the need to fix our food safety system.

Forgive me, but we know what needs to be done about food safety.  As I am ever intoning, we need a single agency devoted to food safety that combines the safety functions of FDA and USDA.  That agency needs to require and enforce a science-based safety system (of the HACCP type) for all foods, from farm-to-table.

Will we ever get it?  Only if people like Larry King catch on to the problem and help generate enough public outrage to get Congress to move on food safety.  King had the chance.  He blew it.

Oct 13 2009

School food makes news, endlessly

I can think of many reasons why school food is such a hot topic these days: kids eat a significant portion of their daily calories in schools, schools set an example for what is appropriate for kids to eat, and schools are a learning environment.  Here’s the latest on what’s happening on the school food scene:

1.  The New York City Education Department announces new rules for school vending machines, as part of its new school wellness policies.  According to the account in the New York Times, the vending machines have been empty since the Snapple contract ended in August (Really?  That’s not what I observed a couple of weeks ago).  The new standards will exclude the worst of the products but the lesser evils will still be competing for students’ food dollars, thereby continuing to undermine the solvency and integrity of the school meal programs.

2. The CDC reports (MMWR, October 5)  that junk food is rampant in schools, but the percentage of schools in which children are not permitted to buy junk food or sodas is increasing in at least 37 states.

3.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) takes the USDA to task for not alerting schools when foods in the school meals programs – meat or peanut butter, for example – have been recalled because they are contaminated with dangerous bacteria.  Usually, the GAO talks straight to government.  I don’t know what happened in this case but here is its first, rather incoherent, recommendation to USDA regarding the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS):

To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS and that the Secretary of HHS should direct FDA to jointly establish a time frame for completing a memorandum of understanding on how FNS and FDA will communicate during FDA investigations and recalls that may involve USDA commodities for the school meal programs, which should specifically address how FDA will include FNS in its prerecall deliberations.

The other recommendations make somewhat more sense.  They begin by repeating the first part up through “the Secretary of USDA should direct FNS to”:

  • develop guidelines, in consultations with the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA), to be used for determining whether or not to institute an administrative hold on suspect commodities for school meal programs.
  • work with states to explore ways for states to speed notification to schools.
  • improve the timeliness and completeness of direct communication between FNS and schools about holds and recalls, such as through the commodity alert system.
  • take the lead among USDA agencies to establish a time frame in which it will improve the USDA commodity hold and recall procedures to address the role of processors and determine distributors’ involvement with processed products, which may contain recalled ingredients, to facilitate providing more timely and complete information to schools.

This needs an editor, but you get the idea.

4.  The GAO has produced yet another report, this one devoted to getting states to comply with federal rules about meal counting and claims.  These are measures designed to make sure that ineligible kids don’t get fed.  I wish I knew how much money such measures cost.  They are a tragic waste.  We need universal school meals.  Period.

5.  And then there is Jamie Oliver, who has transformed the British school meals system and is now attempting to bring his school food revolution to the United States (see the food issue of the New York Times magazine).  One can only wish him luck.

Oct 12 2009

San Francisco Chronicle column

For my latest San Francisco Chronicle column, I borrowed a query from a reader of this blog demanding financial disclosure.  This gave me the opportunity to discuss how sources of funding – especially from food companies – raise questions about whom to trust when it comes to nutrition advice.  Thanks to all of you who commented on that original post.  Most interesting.

The column appears in the Food and Wine section.  Although the San Francisco Chronicle, like many newspapers, is ailing badly, this section has just been selected by the Association of Food Journalists to win its award for best section.  I’m proud to be part of it.

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