Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 7 2010

Tools for promoting soda taxes

I’ve been collecting information about soda taxes.  If you think they are worth a try, as I do, and want to help get the New York bill (the Duane Bill) passed, plenty of background information and tools are available.

Tomorrow, March 8, The New York Academy of Medicine, the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, and the New York State Public Health Association invite you to a symposium:

TAKING ACTION AGAINST OBESITY:
A Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Tax for New York State

Monday, March 8 2010 from 2:00 pm to 3:30 pm
Blue Room, 2nd Floor, Capitol Building, Albany, NY

Speakers include NYS Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Daines, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley, and Dr. Kelly Brownell from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy. The event is free.  RSVP to tsanders@malkinross.com

Here’s more than you ever wanted to know about why these taxes are likely to do some good and are worth passing:

Convinced?  Want to help?

And just for fun, here is testimony from an official of PepsiCola opposing the taxes and a rebuttal from some group (sorry, I don’t know which).

Finally, the Los Angeles Times (February 21) had a terrific graph of the recent sharp increase in lobbying expenditures (in the rebuttal).  Given the mess in Albany, it will be interesting to see how all this goes.  Act now!

Mar 5 2010

Recognize food brands? Even 3-year-olds do this

I’m not sure why this would be news to anyone who has taken a toddler to a grocery store, but researchers at the University of Michigan have now demonstrated that very young children recognize food brands, especially McDonald’s.  Didn’t Morgan Spurlock show this in Supersize Me! (also my screen debut)?  Whatever.  It’s good to have the research and the implications are clear: something must be done to put some curbs on food marketing to kids.

Mar 4 2010

Research alert: childhood obesity and how to fix it

It’s almost impossible to keep up with what’s being written about childhood obesity.  The papers and commentary pour in.  Much of this is well worth reading.  If you want to keep up on the latest thinking about the issue, here are some places to start:

1.  Health Affairs: Thanks to Matt Gruenberg for alerting me to the issue of Health Affairs devoted entirely to obesity topics.  Here’s the Table of  Contents.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation had a hand in this and discusses some of the papers on its website.

Even better, Health Affairs has produced a series of “issue briefs” to go with the journal articles.  These are available on the Health Affairs blog. They cover:

2.  FoodNavigator.com has a “special issue” on childhood obesity from the business standpoint:

Giving children the best nutritional start: With childhood obesity rates apparently sky rocketing around the world, celebrity chefs redesigning school meals, and international initiatives to influence what our children eat, now is an interesting time for child nutrition.

Kids’ food trends in the spotlight: Some major trends in children’s eating habits could change as the economy recovers – but foods marketed as natural and healthful are here to stay, according to a senior analyst at Mintel. 

How characters can help children eat healthily: From Disney to Tony the Tiger, consumer groups have been campaigning hard to break the links between childhood icons and unhealthy foods. But furry friends and super-heroes are now putting in more of an appearance on healthy products.

Kids’ TV food commercials down, but cross-promotions soar: Cross-promotions on food packaging targeted at children increased by 78 percent between 2006 and 2008, according to a study from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy.

3.  Michelle Obama’s campaign:USA Today reports on Mrs. Obama’s talk to the school nutrition association, the organization of people who work in school lunchrooms – those who Jamie Oliver refers to as “lunch ladies.”  Check out the coverage and see the video.

What is one to make of all this?  Childhood obesity is a huge public health issue and deserves the attention it is getting.  Let’s hope some of it works.

Mar 3 2010

Cheers to FDA: health claim warnings!

Here are some excerpts from today’s FDA press release, “FDA Calls on Food Companies to Correct Labeling Violations; FDA Commissioner Issues an Open Letter to the Industry.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has notified 17 food manufacturers that the labeling for 22 of their food products violates the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act…In an open letter to Industry dated March 3, 2010, Dr. Hamburg underscored the importance of providing nutrition information that consumers could rely on.

…The violations cited in the warning letters include unauthorized health claims, unauthorized nutrient content claims, and the unauthorized use of terms such as “healthy,” and others that have strict, regulatory definitions.  Companies that received warning letters have 15 business days to inform the FDA of the steps they will take to correct their labeling.

Take a look at what the FDA is saying, starting with a handy chart of the affected companies, their products, and the ways their claims violate FDA regulations.  Some of my favorite examples are on this chart (for example, Juicy Juice!).

The FDA also provides:

What’s behind all this?  Take a look at Center for Science in the Public Interest’s extraordinary report on violations of FDA regulations on food package labels, Food Labeling Chaos.  No way can the FDA – or anyone else – ignore this report.

Cheers to the FDA for taking this on!

Update March 4:  The New York Times was able to reach some of the affected companies. They all say the same thing (my translation): we are shocked, shocked.  We would never tell a lie.  We will do everything we can to cooperate (make sure the FDA backs down on this).

Mar 2 2010

Kellogg seeks weight-loss health claim for cereals

While we are on the subject of European decisions on health claims, Kellogg has just petitioned the European Food Safety Authority to be allowed to put claims for weight loss on its breakfast cereals: “Ready-to-eat breakfast cereal can help to reduce body weight, can help to reduce body fat, can help to reduce waist circumference.”

Do you think they mean Froot Loops?

Kellogg is always way ahead of the curve on health claims.  What is especially creative about this one is that the company is filing the claim through “article 13.5,” which means that the “science still remains proprietary and does not require disclosure through this process.  A Kellogg official explained:

As we understand article 13.5, five years after approval of the health claim, the wording can then can be used by other cereal manufacturers but our scientific data does not have to be made public.

EFSA, I hope, will turn this one down flat.  I want to see the science before believing that breakfast cereals are diet products.  Sure they are, if you eat just one serving for breakfast, use one more to substitute for a meal, and then eat a small meal.  That would work.  But so would chocolate bars.

Feb 28 2010

European decisions on health claims: Vitamins, yes. Antioxidants, no.

Thanks to Anita Laser Reutersward in Sweden for forwarding the most recent decisions of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on  petitions for health claims.

Health claims are vitally important to food marketers.  Evidence: they have filed 44,000 petitions with EFSA to date.  EFSA consolidated these into 4,185 claims.  It is dealing with them in batches.

EFSA did not approve many of the 416 petitions in this latest batch :

Experts issued unfavourable opinions on most of the claims in the second series due to the poor quality of the information provided to EFSA including:

  • Lack of information to identify the substance on which the claim is based, e.g. “probiotics”
  • Lack of evidence that the claimed effect is indeed beneficial to the maintenance or improvement of the functions of the body (e.g. food with “antioxidant properties”)
  • Lack of human studies with reliable measures of the claimed health benefit

Its decisions about antioxidants are especially interesting in light of claims on products in American supermarkets.  Under EFSA rules, this Kellogg package would not be allowed.

In its decision, EFSA said:

“On the basis of the data presented, the Panel concludes that a cause and effect relationship has not been established between the consumption of the food(s)/food constituent(s) evaluated in this opinion and (1) a beneficial physiological effect related to antioxidant activity, antioxidant content, or antioxidant properties, and (2) the protection of body cells and molecules such as DNA, proteins and lipids from oxidative damage.”

My translation: EFSA panels took a good hard look at the science and could not find evidence for benefits at the physiological or molecular levels from taking antioxidant supplements or eating foods with antioxidants.

I can’t wait to see how food manufacturers respond.

March 1 update: here come the comments.  According to FoodNavigator.com, EFSA rejected health claims for:

vitamin D, probiotics, green tea, black tea, lutein, beta glucans, meso-zeaxanthin, alpha-lipoic acid, melatonin, peptides, xanthan gum, sugar-free gum, guar gum, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), fermented whey and linoleic acid.

These decisions “came as a massive blow to the European and international functional foods and nutraceuticals industries, especially the herbal antioxidant and probiotic sectors, which have yet to see a positive NDA opinion.”

Feb 27 2010

Manhattan’s sustainable food system?

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who is clearly serious about sustainable food issues, just issued a new report: FoodNYC: A Blueprint for a Sustainable Food System.

Here are some of its goals:

  • Promote urban agriculture
  • Connect upstate and Long Island farms with downstate consumers
  • Increase the sale and consumption of regionally grown foods
  • Increase the number of “alternative” food markets, indoors and outdoors.
  • Require a food curriculum in public schools
  • Support large-scale and small-scale composting
  • Increase access to drinking water fountains
  • Support the rights of farm workers
  • Create a Department of Food and Markets

If Manhattan can do this, other boroughs (and cities) can do this too!  Let’s do what we can to help Mr. Stringer make these work!

Feb 25 2010

The latest in food ingredients: bribery!

Who knew that the food ingredient business ran on bribes?  The New York Times (print edition) calls its report of the latest scandal, “Hidden Ingredient: The Sweetener.”  By “sweetener,” the Times is not refering to aspartame or even Splenda: it means bribes.

You are an ingredient supplier and want a big food company like Kraft, Frito-Lay, or Safeway to buy your products?  Easy.  Bribe their purchasing managers.

In my book, Food Politics, I discuss food industry sales tactics ranging from soft (advertising, lobbying) to hard (manipulating media, cozying up to federal officials, and suing critics).  These, as I point out, are legal.  Fixing prices, is not.  Neither is bribery.

This is not a pretty story.  Managers were bribed to purchase inferior ingredients such as moldy tomato sauce.  Companies relied on the suppliers for quality assurance.

The moral: companies need to do their own product testing and consumers need to demand that they do.

Thanks to William Neuman of the Times for his excellent investigative report, handicapped as it was by not being able to interview the jailed perpetrators.

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