Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 13 2010

The new KFC Double Down: not an April fool joke?

Several informants – and students in my NYU Food Ethics class – told me about KFC’s latest sandwich or sent me to stories about it: two slabs of breaded chicken, two slices of bacon, two melted slices of cheese, and sauce.  I checked the KFC website.  Apparently, it’s for real.  There is even a TV Commercial.

And here’s the nutrition information.  Practically a diet product (except for the sodium).  You can’t make up stuff like this.

Sandwich Calories Fat (g) Sodium (mg)
KFC Original Recipe® Double Down 540 32 1380
KFC Grilled Double Down 460 23 1430

Apr 12 2010

Eating Liberally: A vote for Jamie Oliver

In part in response to the outpouring of hate mail about Jamie Oliver’s “food revolution,” Kerry Trueman has tossed in another question from Eating Liberally:

KT: The last two episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution have yet to air, but folks are already assessing whether Oliver’s attempt to launch a culinary coup in the community of Huntington, West Virginia was a success or a failure. Jamie’s ‘people’ consulted you at the start of this project. Did they heed your advice? If it had been your show, how would you have gone in and done it?

Dr. Nestle: I don’t watch much TV (technophobe that I am, I have yet to figure out how to turn it on without resorting to instructions), but I would not miss the Jamie Oliver show. I first heard about it from students in my NYU Food Ethics class. They made it clear that the show was well worth watching by anyone who cares about how America eats.

I was dubious. When I met with Jamie Oliver’s staff in London last summer—an information session, not a consult—I thought the project sounded kind of arrogant but knowing nothing about reality television, I was curious to see how it would go.

Splendidly, I would say. What I hadn’t realized is how much fun this guy is, and how gutsy. OK, he has annoying Briticisms. OK, a lot of this is about him.

But he wants everyone to learn to cook healthy food and have fun doing it. He wants school lunches to be better. He wants people to be healthier. Along the way, he is exposing deep flaws in the federal school meal programs and in the kinds of foods that many people eat without giving what they eat much thought. Sounds good to me.

I’m kind of stunned by the hostility the programs have evoked among people I would have expected to support these goals. My teaching assistant, Maya Joseph, a doctoral student at the New School, categorized the criticisms for me:

• the wounded ego messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not mention MY work!!)

• the ugly foreigner message (how dare Jamie tell AMERICANS what to eat!)

• the outraged sensitivity messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not take account of X,Y, and Z when he so rudely ballooned into this town).

Maya adds: “I would have thought that it would be obvious…that this is (a) a TV show! and (b) great publicity for our food system tragedies.”

Me too. Or, as food consultant Kate Adamick points out in the first of  her ongoing reviews on the Atlantic Food Channel, “the revolution will be televised.”

This is reality TV aimed at an important public health problem. Is it theater, or is something bigger going on?

From the number of people I know who are watching it and talking about it, I’m voting for bigger. I think it’s useful for people to know that kids at school think it’s normal to eat pizza for breakfast, French fries for lunch, and nothing with a knife and fork. And they have no idea what a tomato or a potato looks like. People need to know that schools and USDA regulations allow these things to happen. They need to know that better food costs more.

From my observations of school food over the years, getting decent food into schools requires:

•  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.

Jamie Oliver is trying to reach all of these people, and more.

I think the programs have much to teach about the reality of school food and what it will take to fix it. The New York Times reviewer, also dubious at first, ended his review 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! And these programs could help.

Finally, let me comment on the West Virginia University’s evaluation. This survey found that the kids didn’t like Oliver’s meals (but did try them). The staff didn’t like the increased work. Everything cost more.

Once again, this is 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.

As I said in one of my blog posts on these programs, I want to know what happens in schools and in the community after the TV crews are gone. If the programs are any indication, I think real changes will take place in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of at least some participants and viewers. Whether researchers can figure out how to capture those changes is another matter.

Watch them. And get your kids to watch with you.

Addition April 21: Jane Black of the Washington Post has done a thorough evaluation of the TV series accompanied by notes on her  personal interview with Jamie Oliver.   She thinks he did some good.  Me too.

Apr 10 2010

GAO on FDA and USDA: irradiation, food safety, and humane treatment of animals

It’s the weekend and I’m cleaning out my e-files.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency, has just released a bunch of reports complaining about the way the FDA and USDA do business:

Food Irradiation: FDA Could Improve Its Documentation and Communication of Key Decisions on Food Irradiation Petitions (GAO-10-309R, February 16, 2010, 23 pages).

labels on food products subject to FDA jurisdiction do not have to be reviewed and preapproved by FDA before marketing. Rather, the processor is responsible for properly labeling its products. In fact, FDA officials told us that they do not collect information on how irradiated foods are labeled and marketed. In contrast, USDA reviews and preapproves all labels before use on meat and poultry products and has denied label submissions that do not meet its requirements…FDA does not require the product’s ingredient list to disclose that a particular ingredient has been irradiated, while USDA generally does.

Food Safety: FDA Should Strengthen Its Oversight of Food Ingredients Determined to Be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) (GAO-10-246, February 3, 2010, 69 pages).

FDA only reviews those GRAS determinations that companies submit to the agency’s voluntary notification program…the agency has not systematically reconsidered GRAS substances since the 1980s… FDA has largely not responded to concerns about GRAS substances, such as salt and the trans fats in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, that individuals and consumer groups have raised through 11 citizen petitions submitted to the agency between 2004 and 2008…FDA’s approach to regulating nanotechnology allows engineered nanomaterials to enter the food supply as GRAS substances without FDA’s knowledge. In contrast to FDA’s approach, all food ingredients that incorporate engineered nanomaterials must be submitted to regulators in Canada and the European Union before they can be marketed.

Food safety note #1: This arrives in the middle of the latest set of FDA recalls, this time of nearly 100 products made with a flavor enhancer, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, contaminated with Salmonella.

Food safety note #2: the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University has estimated the cost of foodborne illness:  $152 billion annually, of which $39 billion is due to leafy greens and other vegetables.

Food and Drug Administration: Opportunities Exist to Better Address Management Challenges. (GAO-10-279, February 19, 2010, 54 pages).

Through reviewing reports…GAO determined that FDA’s management challenges include recruiting, retaining, and developing its workforce; modernizing its information systems; coordinating internally and externally; communicating with the public; and keeping up with scientific advances…While FDA has taken steps to align its activities and resources to strategic goals, these efforts in its centers and offices are not clear, making it difficult to connect the agency’s use of resources to the achievement of its goals.

If you feel gossipy (or want to interpret the raw data for yourself), you can read what FDA staff actually told GAO interviewers.

Humane Methods of Slaughter Act: Actions Are Needed to Strengthen Enforcement (GAO-10-203, February 19, 2010, 60 pages). [The actual survey responses are here.  And a shorter version given as testimony is here.]

The guidance does not clearly indicate when certain enforcement actions should be taken for an egregious act–one that is cruel to animals or a condition that is ignored and leads to the harming of animals. A noted humane handling expert has stated that FSIS inspectors need clear directives to improve consistency of HMSA enforcement. According to GAO’s survey, FSIS’s training may be insufficient.

This, one can only assume, is an understatement.

The GAO does important work, no?  Now if only government agencies would listen to it.

Apr 9 2010

Corporate social responsibility: real or oxymoron?

Food corporations are pushing corporate social responsibility (CSR) as hard as they can.  This seems like an oxymoron to me, but here’s what they say:

CSR #1: Nestlé (no relation) says it is creating shared value by “optimizing water use and productivity, Italy.”

In the Piacenza and Parma region of Italy, in recent years, water has become scarcer, especially during the summer. Nestlé Italia decided to engage more closely with its tomato suppliers, to secure its supply of tomatoes and significantly reduce the amount of fresh water used for irrigation.

The three-year project with Consorzio Interregionale Ortofrutticoli, a cooperative of tomato farmers, aims to maximise tomato production and optimise irrigation in 10 pilot farms with differing soil conditions, by using solar-powered CropSense Soil Moisture Monitoring technology. Data at root level is collected daily and used to provide the exact amount of water needed to optimise crop revenue and water use.

Data collection will continue into 2011, and additional farmers are already keen to join the project based on the initial results: yields have nearly doubled, the tomato quality (sugar content) increased by 15% and the water used to produce one tonne of tomatoes fell by 45%.

Watch Nestlé’s film: Optimising water use and productivity, Italy

Read more in Nestlé’s report, Creating Shared Value

Anti-CSR: For an antidote, try Corporate Accountability International’s campaign called “Think Outside the Bottle,” and watch the video of Annie Leonard’s Story of Bottled Water.

CSR #2: FoodNavigator has a new collection of commentaries on CSR:

Food industry well-respected for CSR efforts

The food industry is one of the most well-respected industries in terms of social responsibility, according to a new survey from research-based consultancy Penn Schoen Berland… Read

Top line responsibility messages from manufacturers

Corporate responsibility is now accepted as a major part of doing business, even when the economic climate is less than ideal. FoodNavigator.com rounds up the main messages of some of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies… Read

The ethical approach to research

Science is fundamental to the food industry, from supporting claims in the health and wellness sphere to tasting panels to evaluate a new product, but scientists can never forget the ethical implications of their experiments… Read

Unilever comes out top in corporate responsibility rating

A new ranking of major food and beverage companies by their corporate social responsibility is published today, with Unilever, Nestle and Danone occupying the top three spots… Read

Developing a sustainable food industry: The what, why and how

Developing a corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy offers huge scope for innovation and revenue-building – but there is no one-size-fits-all approach, according to a US supply chain management professor… Read

Apr 8 2010

Calorie labeling in the New England Journal

Yesterday, the New England Journal of Medicine published – online ahead of publication – my Perspective on “Health Care Reform in Action–Calorie Labeling Goes National.”

Never, in the more than 40 years since I published my first scientific paper (see note below), have I had an experience like this one.

Most of the time, academic publishing is a tortuous process, fraught with endless delays, rejections, nit-picking, and humiliation.

Not this time:

  • Friday, April 2: Perspective submitted
  • Monday, April 5: Perspective accepted, edited, set into page proofs, and queried
  • Tuesday, April 6: Queries dealt with and page proofs corrected
  • Wednesday, April 7: Figure added and Perspective published online and scheduled for print publication on May 27.

Whew!  Let’s hear it for electronic publishing.  I think I could get used to this.

Note: I know you are dying of curiosity about that first paper.  It appeared in 1968 when I was a budding (alas, never flowering) nucleic acid biochemist: Nestle M, Roberts WK.  Separation of ribonucleosides and ribonucleotides by a one-dimensional paper chromatographic system.  Analytical Biochemistry 1968;22:349-351.

Apr 7 2010

Eating Liberally: The Child Nutrition Act

I keep getting asked what I think about the Child Nutrition Act wending its way through Congress.  Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally posed this as a Q and A:

Let’s Ask Marion: Does The USDA Stand for Ultra Silly Dietary Agenda?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

KT: Monday’s New York Times had an editorial supporting the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, a bill that would give the US Agriculture Department “new powers to set nutritional standards for any food sold on school grounds, particularly junk foods that contribute to obesity.”

The current standards leave a lot to be desired, as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution has revealed. In the first episode, Jamie stood accused of shortchanging the kids on carbohydrates because he omitted the bread from a meal that already included rice.

Last Friday, in episode three, Jamie found himself charged with the violation of “insufficient vegetables,” despite the fact that his noodle-based entree featured seven different vegetables. The remedy? Add a bunch of french fries to the meal to meet the veggie quota.

How did the USDA’s school lunch standards ever get so nutritionally nutty? Would passage of the CNA support the wholesome, made-from-scratch meals that Jamie Oliver’s trying to bring back to our cafeterias?

Dr. Nestle: You are asking about the history of the USDA’s school lunch program? Nothing could be more complicated or arcane. Fortunately, two new books take this on: Susan Levine’s School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton, 2010), and Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (California, 2010).

I used Poppendieck’s book in my Food Ethics class at NYU this semester and reading it while watching Jamie Oliver’s programs was a lot of fun. Yes, Oliver is doing reality television but no, he’s not exaggerating. If you find this difficult to believe, read Poppendieck’s book or take a quick look at Kate Adamick’s review of Oliver’s Food Revolution on the Atlantic Food Channel.

As Levine and Poppendieck explain, and as I discussed in Food Politics (California, 2007), school lunches started out as a way to dispose of surplus agricultural commodities by feeding hungry kids. Over the years, it got caught up in a series of “wars”–first on poverty, hunger, and malnutrition and later on welfare and obesity.

The politics of school lunch, and of the CNA in particular, have always reflected the tension inherent in any welfare program, in this case feeding the poor vs. inducing dependency and overspending. In recent years, as obesity became much more of a public health problem than malnutrition, the politics came to reflect the tensions between commercial interests and those of nutrition reformers. Congress is always involved as it endlessly tinkers with the rules for “competitive foods”–the sodas and snacks sold in competition with federally supported school meals.

Competitive foods put schools in a dilemma and in conflict of interest. They make money from competitive foods to help support the school lunch program. But sodas and snacks undermine participation in school meals programs.

Poppendieck points out that the result is a mess that leaves financially strapped school districts with few choices. It’s not that the “lunch ladies” (you have to love Jamie Oliver’s term) don’t know how to make decent meals. It’s that they are up against inadequate funding and equipment, and impossible nutrition standards that can be met most easily by commercial products like Uncrustables that are designed to meet USDA standards. My favorite example contains 51 ingredients (my rule is “no more than five”).  See Note below.

Inadequate funding is a big consideration in the Child Nutrition Act. This act provides $4.5 billion over 10 years for school meals. Although this represents a 10-fold increase over previous (2004) funding, it works out to an additional measly six cents per meal–not nearly enough to solve school districts’ financial problems.

But–and this is a huge step forward–the act gives USDA the authority to set nutrition standards not only for foods sold in the cafeteria but also in vending machines and a la carte lines.

And the bill does a few other Very Good Things. It provides:

  • An estimated $1.2 billion over 10 years for meals at after-school programs, free meals to all students in schools with high poverty levels, and increased availability of meals during summer months.
  • An estimated $3.2 billion for establishing nutrition standards, strengthening local wellness policies, and increasing reimbursement rates.
  • Mandatory funding for schools to establish school gardens and buy foods from local sources.
  • Increased training for local food service personnel.
  • Automatic enrollment of foster children for free school meals.

As for the pesky nutrition standards: the bill expects the USDA to revise them according to the recent report of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), School Meals: Building Blocks for Health Children. This report recommended a conversion to food-based, rather than nutrient-based, standards along with increases in the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limits on calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

All of this makes the CNA well worth supporting. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it is a good first step to making big improvements eventually. In the meantime, plenty of schools are already doing great work and more are joining the food revolution one meal at a time. These deserve all the help we can give them.

*NOTE: the label of this particular Uncrustable was sent to me by Daniel of Ithaca, who works in an upstate New York school district:

BREAD; ENRICHED UNBLEACHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), WATER, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, YEAST, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL AND/OR SOYBEAN OIL, CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF: WHEAT GLUTEN, SALT, DOUGH CONDITIONERS (MAY CONTAIN ONE OR MORE OF: DIACETYL TARTARIC ACID ESTERS OF MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES [DATEM], MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, ETHOXYLATED MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, SODIUM STEAROYL LACTYLATE, CALCIUM PEROXIDE, ASCORBIC ACID, AZODICARBONAMIDE, L-CYSTEINE), YEAST NUTRIENTS (MAY CONTAIN ONE OR MORE OF: MONOCALCIUM PHOSPHATE, CALCIUM SULFATE, AMMONIUM SULFATE), CALCIUM PROPIONATE (MAINTAIN FRESHNESS), CORNSTARCH, ENZYMES (WITH WHEAT). PASTEURIZED PROCESS CHEESE SPREAD: CULTURED MILK AND SKIM MILK, WATER, WHEY (FROM MILK), SODIUM PHOSPHATE, SALT, CREAM (FROM MILK), CORN SYRUP, LACTIC ACID, SORBIC ACID (PRESERVATIVE), GUAR GUM, ARTIFICIAL COLOR, ENZYMES. BUTTER FLAVORED OIL: PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, SALT, SOY LECITHIN, NATURAL AND ARTIFICAL FLAVORS (WITH MILK), VITAMIN A PALMITATE, BETA CAROTENE ADDED FOR COLOR.

Apr 6 2010

Recent news about BPA

You almost have to be sorry for soft drink companies these day.  The latest blow?.  BPA has been found in soft drink cans in Canada (and, presumably, here?).

And the Danes have banned BPA from food packages targeted to children, no doubt, as  the Swiss have shown, bottle-fed infants get the greatest exposure.

In the meantime, everyone keeps saying that current exposures are below safety limits.  Maybe, but the FDA has just released five background documents that it is using as a basis for its current view (“some concern”) and future decision.

Apr 4 2010

Mrs. Obama’s anti-obesity campaign

Today is Easter Sunday and my monthly San Francisco Chronicle column appears today.  It deals with Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity.  Enjoy!

Kudos for first lady’s anti-obesity campaign

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: What do you think of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity? It doesn’t say much about junk food or food marketing. Isn’t this a cop-out?

A: Skeptic that I usually am, I have nothing but applause for Michelle Obama’s decision to adopt childhood obesity as the first lady’s official cause. Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy is the flowers that bloom throughout the nation’s capital. Obama must want hers to be the flowering of better health for our nation’s children.

Yes, Obama is sensitive to political realities. She calls her campaign “Let’s Move” rather than “Let’s Eat Less Junk Food.” But its goals are crystal clear. Her campaign aims to improve food in schools and eliminate “food desert” areas without access to healthier foods.

The White House organic garden is an integral part of this effort. It is no accident that Will Allen, the charismatic head of Growing Power, the group that runs urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago, spoke at the campaign news conference. Good food, he said, is about social justice. Every child should have access to good food.

This campaign reveals real leadership on a desperately important issue. Obama brings diverse groups to this table. She presses government agencies to take action. She exacts promises from Congress to make it easier for kids to eat low-cost meals in schools. She got her husband to create a task force to tackle ways to prevent childhood obesity.

In addition, she is asking professional and business groups to do more to help kids eat better. I’m particularly impressed by her speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the makers of processed foods and beverages.

With masterful tact, Obama nonetheless insisted that the association “entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.” We parents, she said, want assurance that food companies will stop “teaching kids that it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day.”

Yes, she avoids saying anything about soda taxes or other measures that might make it easier for kids and parents to make better food choices, but she is bringing childhood obesity to public attention in a fresh, new way.

Consider what her campaign is up against. Preventing obesity means eating less, often a lot less, of processed fast-food, snacks and sodas. This puts the makers of such foods in an impossible bind. Eating less is not good for business.

Short of going out of business, what can such companies do to help? They can reformulate their products to make them a little healthier. They can stop marketing their products directly to children. But this, too, is bad for business – unless it can be used for public relations.

Indeed, food and beverage companies are falling all over themselves – with much fanfare – to reformulate and to promise to restrict marketing that targets kids.

PepsiCo, the maker of soft drinks and Frito-Lay snacks, says it will stop pushing sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012. The new policy is voluntary, encourages rather than mandates, and assures school districts in the United States and abroad that the company will not tell them what to supply.

It keeps vending machines in schools and allows for continued sales of branded sugary drinks such as Gatorade, juice drinks, and sweetened milk.

Kraft Foods says it will reduce the sodium in its foods by 10 percent, also by 2012. This sounds good, but has a long way to go. Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese (the SpongeBob package) contains 580 mg sodium per serving and two servings per package. A 10 percent reduction takes 1,160 mg sodium down to 1,050 mg. Salt is 40 percent sodium, so this brings salt down to 2.6 grams – about half a day’s upper limit for adults.

Still, these are steps in the right direction. Are they meaningful? You decide.

In the meantime, the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group focused on the effect of money on public policy, says soda companies have increased by ten-fold the amount of money they spend on lobbying – no doubt to counter the threat of soda taxes.

What are we to make of these responses? They raise my favorite philosophical question: “Is a slightly better-for-you processed food necessarily a good choice?”

What would be better for preventing childhood obesity would be to make eating real foods the default. These, as defined by Oakland’s Prevention Institute, are relatively unprocessed foods that contain nothing artificial. And they are produced in ways that are good for farmworkers, farm animals and the environment, and are available and affordable to all.

Getting to that point requires policy as well as voluntary actions. Perhaps I’m reading too much into Obama’s campaign, but that’s how I interpret it. I’m supporting it. How about you?

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