Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 6 2009

The high human cost of unsafe food

I think we need a whole lot more public outrage about unsafe food.  Maybe the recent front-page articles in the Washington Post and New York Times will do the trick.

Both tell tragic stories of women who developed hemolytic uremia syndrome in response to eating a food contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.  Both reveal the appalling physical and monetary cost of these illnesses.  Recall: we also do not have an effective and affordable health care system.

To me, the most chilling part of the Times investigation had to do with the lack of testing for dangerous pathogens.  No meat packing company wants to test.  Why not?  They know the animals coming into the plant are contaminated.  They know that tests would come up positive.  They know that if they find pathogens, they have to recall the meat.

It’s obvious why meat is contaminated.  The making of hamburger is enough to put anyone off, as the letters to today’s Times attest.  In my book, Safe Food, I discuss a study demonstrating that one pound of commercial hamburger could contain meat from more than 400 cattle.  The Times’ article takes such facts to a personal level.  The 22-year-old woman who ate the tainted hamburger is paralyzed from the waist down and likely never to walk again.

Read these articles and you will understand that meat companies will not do what is needed to produce safe food unless they are forced to.

And it’s not just hamburger that causes problems.  Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has a new report out on the ten foods that cause the most cases of foodborne illness in America.  Hamburger isn’t even on the list.  Instead, it’s leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts, and berries.  [Addendum October 9: for a critical analysis, see the Perishable Pundit’s comments on the study].

So how come Congress isn’t forcing all food producers to produce safe food?  Could it be because there isn’t enough public outrage to counteract industry pressures and make Congress act?

Put me out of business big box WebBill Marler, who represents both of the victims profiled in those articles, is begging Congress to put him out of business.

His message is clear: get busy and pass meaningful food safety legislation, right now, before it is too late.

I’m hoping these articles and the CSPI report will be seen by senatorial staff who will urge their bosses to support the House bill passed last spring.

Maybe we need hundreds of thousands of people to deluge Congress with appeals to act on food safety, now.

You would like to do this but don’t know how?  Easy.  Find your own representatives online on the House site and your Senator just as easily.  The e-mail addresses are right there waiting to be used.

Addendum: Here’s one rep who is on the job: Rosa de Lauro (Dem-CT).  Take a look at her statement about the Times article.  Where, she wonders, was the USDA while all this was going on?   Doing lots of good things, according to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack:

No priority is greater to me than food safety and I am firmly committed to taking the steps necessary to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness and protect the American people from preventable illnesses. We will continue to make improvements to reduce the presence of E. coli 0157:H7.

Suggestion: enforce HACCP!

Oct 5 2009

School food: it can be done!

Kim Severson’s piece about school food in last week’s New York Times food section discusses some of the barriers to producing decent and tasty school food: cooking skills!  There are plenty of others, as detailed in Dana Woldow’s terrific 3-minute video detailing the situation in San Francisco’s public schools – as seen by kids in that system.  As the kids put it, “We need better school food!”

NYC School Food 006

On the day the Times piece appeared, I was doing a tour of a couple of New York City school lunch programs.  One was to a small K-to-9th grade school in the low-income Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn.   This school may not have had much money, but it had everything else needed to make school food work: a devoted and smart principal, a committed staff, and a school food director who set high standards.  The food looked, smelled, and tasted good and the kids were eating it.

How did this school perform this miracle?  Easy.  Everyone cared that kids got fed and liked what they were eating.

NYC School Food 009

The next stop was Brooklyn Tech.  Same food; different experience.  If caring was present, it didn’t show.

For one thing, the junk-food vending machines were in the lunch room (not a good sign).  Worse, they were open for business (a flat out violation of federal rules).   Even worse, nobody seemed to be doing anything about it, at least as far as I could see.

NYC School Food 013

My conclusion: school food can be really good, even in poor neighborhoods, if everyone involved cares about it.  Can we teach schools to care?  Of course we can.

And officials can make it harder for schools not to care.  The New York City Education Department says schools have to cut way down on bake sales, with exceptions for parent groups, parent-teacher associations, and birthday celebrations.

This policy will undoubtedly elicit complaints, but I don’t have much sympathy for complainers.  School kids are bombarded with junk food from multiple sources all day long.  If they didn’t eat so much of it, they might eat real food and support the school lunch program to a greater degree.  That’s why those open vending machines are so troubling.  The messages they send are “it’s OK to eat junk food in school,” and “it’s OK to disobey federal rules any time we want to.”  Not a good idea.

Oct 2 2009

Coca-Cola reveals calories?

Well, sort of reveals.  Coca-Cola announces that it will put calories on the front of its packages (so you don’t have to search for and put on glasses to read the Nutrition Facts).  You can see what the label will look like in the story in USA Today.

calories01x-large

This sounds good but I view this action as another end run around FDA’s proposed regulations.  In March 2004, the FDA proposed to require the full number of calories to be placed on the front of food packages likely to be consumed by one person, like a 20-ounce soda for example (see figure).  A 20-ounce soda is 275 calories, not 100.

FDA

If Coca-Cola followed that FDA proposal, a label of a 2-liter bottle would have to say 800 Calories right on the front of the package.

This idea got stuck in Bush administration but there’s a good chance the new folks at FDA might take it up again.

Is Coca-Cola serious about helping people avoid obesity?  If so, maybe it could send out a press release distancing itself from those consumer-unfriendly ads run by the Center for Consumer Freedom (see previous post).

Here’s another question: Does Coca-Cola fund the CCF directly or indirectly through the American Beverage Assocation or some other industry trade group?  I will believe that they might really have an interest in consumer health when I know they have no connection whatsoever to CCF and its current ad campaigns.

Oct 1 2009

The soft drink industry strikes back

Today’s New York Times carries this full-page ad taking on the New York City Health Department’s campaign against sodas.

print_obesity_stupid

Although the ad says it’s paid for by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), it doesn’t take much to guess who paid that group for it.  What better way to fight back than to hide behind this particular public relations agency, which specializes in defending purveyors of unhealthful products.

What CCF is about – and which companies pay for its work – are well known (for starters, see previous post).

I’m guessing the Health Department’s campaign must be having an effect if soft drink companies are so worried that they are willing to fund a group that is so consumer unfriendly.

Addendum:  no wonder they are worried.  According to a new report on soda taxation from Center for Science in the Public Interest, President Obama has said the idea is worth considering.

Scan10214

And thanks to Fred Tripp for giving me yet another CCF ad, this one from the September 30 A.M. New York.   All of this must be making soda companies worried enough to sign on with CCF.  Not a good idea.

Update October 2: I’ve just been send a link to Rachel Maddow’s comments on Rick Berman, the head of CCF.  Look for “Meet Rick Berman.”  It gives an overview of CCF accounts.  I’m not sure when it aired.

Sep 30 2009

Distress in the supplement industry

Ah those British.  So ahead of us in so many ways.  A professor in Aberdeen had the nerve to suggest that supplements don’t make healthy people healthier.  The industry reacted accordingly. More interesting is the expectation that sales of vitamin and mineral supplements are expected to drop by 50% in the near future.  Imagine: the British don’t think they do much good.

But maybe Americans don’t either?  The September issue of Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ) is full of doom and gloom.  The FDA wants to regulate supplements.  Congress is rethinking the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) – the one that deregulated the industry.  Today’s New York Times discusses congressional hearings about problems with sports supplements that contain steroids but don’t say so.

So maybe DSHEA wasn’t such a great idea.  Sports supplements and those for weight loss are getting bad press for the harm they cause.   Coupled with the economic downturn, none of this is helping sales.  NBJ says last year’s 5% growth in supplement sales is the lowest since 1997 and predicts that next year will be worse.

Why?  As NBJ explains, it gets letters from doctors saying things like this: “I’ve become stronger in my conviction that taking supplements is nothing more than a giant crapshoot.”

This, I argue, is the entirely predictable result of deregulation.  The supplement industry worked relentlessly to get itself deregulated.  It even wrote the language of the bill that Congress eventually passed (I describe this history in detail in Food Politics).  This industry is now facing the consequences of its own actions.

How ironic that supplement makers will be begging the FDA for regulation if for no other reason than to gain some trust.

Sep 29 2009

Health claims for yogurt? Really?

I like yogurt.  But do probiotics – those “friendly” bacteria in yogurt and  increasingly added to other foods – do anything for you beyond making yogurt taste good?  I wrote about probiotics in What to Eat at some length.  Tara Parker-Pope has a quick summary of the state of the research in today’s New York Times.

The quick answer is mixed.  It includes a lot of  “maybe” or “probably,” always a sign that whatever probiotics might do isn’t going to be much.  The answer is probably yes for infant diarrhea and, maybe, irritable bowel syndrome, and maybe or no for just about everything else.

In the absence of FDA action to regulate misleading health claims, lawyers have jumped into the breach.  They have just won a large class-action settlement – $35 million – against Dannon for claiming that Activia yogurt promotes immunity.   According to one news account, Dannon spent $100 million marketing the immunity-promoting effects of Activia ignoring the results of its own company-sponsored research which inconveniently showed few benefits.  (Did they not pay enough for the research?).

Dannon is working hard to get an approved health claim from the European Standards Agency which annoyingly wants to see some science behind health claims before approving them.  Dannon has now added a tomato extract to its yogurts with the idea that this substance, which appears to help deal with diarrhea, will strengthen its bid for a health claim.

Probiotics are another reason why the FDA needs to set better standards for health claims.  If it were up to me, food packages would have no claims on them: none at all.  Foods are not drugs.

cocoa Krispies

And here’s another reason why:

Will Cocoa Krispies  be the next target of those pesky lawyers?

FDA: get to work!

Sep 28 2009

The cost of obesity (and fixing it)

I don’t usually take estimates of the cost of bad diets and obesity too seriously because they are necessarily based on multiple assumptions, none of them verifiable.  But I do like to collect them.  Here are two papers from the American Journal of Health Promotion estimating such costs.  One estimates the health benefits and savings in medical costs from diets reduced in saturated fat, sodium, and calories (a savings of $60-120 billion), and the other estimates cost savings and productivity increases for reduction in calories and sodium ($109-256 billion).  Whatever the real savings are, they are likely to be enormous.  And that’s just money.  It’s harder to put a value on quality of life.  Maybe that’s all we need to know at this point.

Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy has invented a Revenue Calculator for Soft Drink Taxes for estimating the amounts of money states and cities could raise from taxes on soft drinks.  You type in the state or city, estimate the size of the tax, decide what kinds of drinks it’s for, and push the  button.  Bingo.  California could raise about $1.8 billion a year from a 1 cent tax.

And the Department of Health and Human Service has hooked up with the Advertising Council for a new kids’ activity campaign on the Internet, this one using Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things tied in to a movie coming out in October.  I wasn’t so happy about the last such campaign, which featured Shrek and is still up on the site.  Shrek also advertises junk foods.  Maybe this one will work better?

Sep 26 2009

The Not-So-Smart Choices story continues…

We now have a piece mentioning the Smart Choices program in The Economist as well as a letter from Dr. Eileen Kennedy, the member of the Smart Choices program committee to whom the quotation about Froot Loops, “Better than a doughnut,” is attributed.

The Economist discusses the booming business of functional foods: “Consumers are swallowing such products, and the marketing claims that come with them.” It mentions the fuss over Smart Choices, but the best part is the caption to the illustration that comes with it.

It's practically spinach

It's practically spinach

And, I’ve been sent a copy of an e-mail letter to alumni from Dr. Eileen Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, explaining her participation in the Smart Choices program:

Dear Friedman School Alumni,

There is an issue that has emerged as a result of a NY Times article that appeared in the business section on Sept 5, 2009. Since I believe I was grossly misquoted in the article and that the article does not accurately depict the Smart Choices program, I want to share with you some background on this program and my involvement.

In 2007, I was invited to join the Keystone Roundtable on Food and Nutrition. Keystone is a non-profit organization that brings individuals together around potentially controversial issues. The roundtable included health organizations, food companies, retailers, and academic researchers from a variety of U.S. universities. I was one of the academics who served pro bono on the roundtable. Initially, we met to discuss revisions to the FDA nutrition label. Ultimately, we decided to address the issue of Front of Pack Labels on food products. The final recommendations of the group were based on consensus science including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the FDA definition of healthy, WHO recommendations and the Institute of Medicine Scientific reports. The program that emerged from this meticulous process is called “The Smart Choices Program (SCP).” Food products that qualify as “better for you” get a check mark as well as disclosure of calories per serving and number of servings in a product.

I believe there are three major advantages to this program in addition to the rigorous scientific underpinnings.

First, the SCP is intended to improve food patterns at point of purchase – the super markets. To do this, food products are divided into 19 categories – based on research – that reflect how people buy food. All fruits and vegetables without additives automatically qualify.

Second – and a major plus – the program was tested prior to launch with consumers.

Finally, food companies who participate in the program have agreed to abandon their proprietary systems and adopt one system – the Smart Choices Program.

Thus, thousands of products using the SCP check mark will reach millions of consumers. It is a credit to the social responsibility of participating companies that because of the strict nutrition criteria, fewer of the individual food products will qualify for the Smart Choices Program.

As a non-industry board member, I have been targeted by negative emails, letters and even some phone calls. I regret that some of this hostility has been focused on the Friedman School and Tufts University and must note that I serve as an individual on the Smart Choices Program. Tufts University is not involved with it….

As nutritionists, we know that, in many ways, the science of nutrition is straight-forward. It is the translation of science into action that is often complex and can be contentious. Within our field, there are many opinions on how to improve the nutritional well-being of people worldwide. It is precisely at an academic institution like Tufts that we should have a respectful and open dialogue about these issues….For additional information, you may also want to go to www.smartchoicesprogram.com….

The letter gives me a chance to repeat a few points that I have made in previous posts (see Smart Choices, Scoring Systems) and on the general matter of corporate sponsorship of nutrition activities (tagged as Sponsorship).

First, this enterprise was paid for by participating companies to the tune of $50,000 each for a total of $1.67 million.  Social responsibility?  I don’t think so.  Companies usually get what they pay for.  Hence: Froot Loops.

Second, a comment on the research basis.  I have written extensively in Food Politics and in What to Eat about the influence of food companies on federal dietary guidelines and the compromises that result.  Even at its best, the process has to be impressionistic and cannot be either meticulous or rigorous.  The guidelines are meant to be generic advice for healthful eating.  They were never meant to be used – and cannot be used – as criteria for ranking processed foods as healthful.

The FDA standards for comparison to Daily Values on food labels are also worth a comment.  They were the basis of Hannaford supermarkets’ Guiding Stars program, which awards one, two, or three stars to foods that meet FDA-based criteria.  By those criteria, Froot Loops does not qualify for even one star.  If Smart Choices had relied on FDA criteria, such products would not be check marked.

Dr. Kennedy makes some excellent points in her letter and I particularly agree with one of them: nutritionists differ in opinion about how best to advise the public about diet and health.  Mine is that the Smart Choices program is a travesty and the sooner it disappears, the better.

September 29 update: The L.A. Times weighs in with a story (which quotes me).  It’s got another great comparison from a member of the Smart Choices committee:  “Cereal provides an array of nutrients and is a good breakfast…especially if the alternative is a sweet roll.”  My son, who saw the story, has this comment: “Hey! I think Froot Loops are a “Smart Choice.” After all, they have “froot,” don’t they? And maybe no nutritionist you know would recommend Froot Loops for breakfast, but what about for lunch or dinner?”

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