Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 24 2009

Want to do a school garden? Here’s how!

Bon Apetit Management Company (“food services for a sustainable future”) offers an online guide to developing school gardens.  Called Student Gardens and Food Service, it is a step-by-step guide to planning a garden, growing food in it, using the food in the school’s food service program, and improving the soil through composting.  Should work for other prospective gardeners too!

Sep 23 2009

Update on not-so-Smart Choice labels

Three items on the Smart Choices front (make that four – see below):

1.  Let’s start with the great video by ABC News [if the link doesn’t work, go to the ABC News site and search for Food Label Fight].  It features an incredulous Mark Bittman pulling check-marked products off supermarket shelves, along with Richard Kahn defending the program.  Kahn, as I discussed in What to Eat, defended the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) implied endorsement of Post sugary cereals.  When Jane Brody wrote about this in the New York Times, the Association promised to remove its logo from the products and did so after a bit.

2.  The letter-writing campaign organized by Change.org has had the same effect: “Victory: Change.org Members Force Health Organizations to Back Away from Food Labeling Ploy.”

The new marketing program, called “Smart Choices,” is a front-of-the-package nutrition-labeling program designed in theory to help shoppers make smarter food choices.

But as the New York Times exposed last week, the selections are anything but healthy. One of the selections is Froot Loops, which was chosen, according to one board member, because “it’s better for you than donuts.” (No, we’re not kidding. We couldn’t make this up.)

Despite the program’s dubious standards, it maintained the appearance of legitimacy because researchers associated with three reputable organizations – American Diabetes Association, American Dietetic Association, and Tufts University – were on its board.

In response, thousands of Change.org members sent letters to the presidents of these three major research institutions urging them to remove their name from the program.

The result? All three organizations responded to the pressure this week by publicly distancing themselves from the food labeling scheme and officially asking Smart Choices to remove their name from its website and marketing materials – thereby publicly embarrassing and discrediting the program.

Fine, but this one isn’t over until the American Society of Nutrition (ASN) also extricates from its commitment to manage the program – a clear conflict of interest.

3.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) is asking for nominations to a committee to study front-of-package labeling (what follows is edited from the request letter):

The IOM is searching for experts in the scientific, technical, and medical professions to be considered for a study committee titled Examination of Front of Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols (Phase I). The sponsors are the CDC and FDA.   The Phase I committee will undertake a review of front-of-package nutrition rating systems and symbols…[and] will also plan for a Phase II.

Phase I will (a) identify front-of-package systems being used, (b) consider their purpose and overall merits, (c) identify the criteria underlying the systems and evaluate their scientific basis, (d) consider advantages and disadvantages, (e) plan Phase II which will consider the potential benefits of a single, standardized front-of-package food guidance system regulated by FDA (my emphasis).

Send the names of candidates to front-of-pack@nas.edu by October 5, 2009. You do not need to contact the individuals you nominate.

This is great news but I’m way too impatient.  This two-phase process will take years. Is the FDA really going to have to wait that long to take action on front-of-package labels such as Smart Choices?

FDA: How about issuing a moratorium on all front-of-package labels until the committees do their work?

4.  Update, September 24: On that very issue, Congresswoman Rosa de Lauro has asked the FDA to do an investigatation of the Smart Choices program.  Excellent idea!

Sep 22 2009

Interview with FoodSafetyNews.com

I did a Q and A with Helena Bottemiller of the new food safety website, FoodSafetyNews.com about the politics of food safety.  It’s online at the site.  Here’s the text of the interview (absent the blurb and photograph):

Q: There has been a lot of rhetoric coming from Administration-appointed officials on food policy this year–on encouraging fruits and veggies, on promoting local food, on strengthening food safety. Do you think these ideas will make a big impact on the current food system, or are the institutional and political barriers to change too great?

A: It’s not one or the other; it’s both. Yes, federal support will encourage small farmers and organic production and these sectors will grow as a result, and that’s a good thing. But they still account for, and will continue to account for, only a tiny fraction of food production. I expect growth in alternative agriculture with big percentage jumps, but the base will be small for a long time. I think the question is whether the growth in alternative systems will place pressure on industrial agriculture to improve its practices. I hope so.

Q: You’ve written before about the “revolving door” at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture–where regulators have close ties to the sector that they regulate from moving between roles in government and industry. I know you’ve been supportive of Michael Taylor, a top advisor to FDA Commissioner Hamburg, despite his former ties to industry, because of his policy positions. Are we seeing a better revolving door?
A: Of course it persists and always will, and is a huge problem for governmental integrity. The Michael Taylor situation is not so simple. In some circles, his appointment is a deal-breaker; anti-GMO groups will never forgive him for his role in FDA approval and non-labeling of GM foods. Whether FDA will revisit the labeling issue, I have no idea–I wish it would–but Taylor has a long and consistently solid record in the food safety area. He performed food safety miracles at USDA in the mid-1990s and that makes him a good choice for food safety initiatives that I hope are coming at FDA. I think he needs to be given a chance.
Q: Do you think the Senate will address food safety this fall, and are you supportive of the bills? What do you think about the push back from small and sustainable agriculture folks?
A: I hope the Senate acts, and soon. If it doesn’t, FDA’s hands are tied and we can expect massive outbreaks of foodborne illness to continue unabated. Even so, Congress is not doing what everyone agrees needs to be done: create a single food safety agency with responsibility, authority, and resources to require safe food production from farm to table. Food safety is just like health care. Everyone knows what is needed but Congress is too corrupt to act.
As for small farmers: I think everyone producing food–no exceptions–should be using science-based food safety procedures with testing. Congress needs to make it possible for small-scale producers to do this. While getting local testing facilities in place, Congress also ought to provide for local slaughter. Both would make a big difference.
Q: In your opinion, what are the top five ways we could create a safer food supply?
A: 1. Require HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) with test-and-hold pathogens for all producers from farm to table.
2. Create a single food safety agency to monitor and enforce regulations, with adequate resources to do so.
3. Ban the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture for non-therapeutic purposes.
4. Do a major national education campaign for hand washing (and require restaurants to provide hot water, soap and towels for that purpose).
5. Reform election campaign laws so elected representatives can focus on public health rather than corporate health.
Sep 21 2009

How will the sugar policy crisis shake out?

My Sunday (September 20) column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the sugar “crisis” I discussed here a few weeks ago:

Q: I saw you on “The Colbert Report” (Aug. 19) talking about sugar policy. Explain, please. I don’t understand why sugar policy is a topic for Comedy Central.

A: Neither did I until I saw Stephen Colbert douse himself with 5 pounds of sugar over the impending “crisis.” We have a sugar crisis? According to processed food manufacturers, we are about to run out of sugar. Horrors!

Earlier in August, Kraft and other food processors asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to raise the quota on sugar imports. Sugar availability, they complained, is the lowest in years and it’s the USDA’s fault.

The USDA firmly controls amounts of sugar (sucrose) produced by American cane and beet growers through quotas. It even more firmly controls sugar imported from other sugar-growing countries through quotas and tariffs. And as corn is increasingly diverted to biofuels, less high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is around to make up the shortfall.

Should we worry?

The shortage is no crisis. At worst, it is temporary and will end as soon as the 2009 harvest is in. But processed food makers are right about one thing: Sugar is the most absurdly protected agricultural commodity in America.

For decades, no matter what it cost on the world market, quotas and tariffs ensured that Americans paid two or three times as much for sugar. High sugar prices cost American consumers about $3 billion a year. But because this works out “only” to about $10 per year per capita, nobody much cared.

If you think of $10 as trivial, you won’t give sugar protectionism another thought. But if you look at this system as an unnecessary transfer of $3 billion a year from 350 million Americans to a few thousand sugar growers and processors, you can understand why sugar policy is ripe for satire.

Here’s how the system works:

Quotas allow U.S. producers to grow only specified amounts of sugar cane and sugar beets each year, for which the USDA guarantees a higher-than-market price. Beets get 55 percent of the quota; cane gets 45 percent. The quotas are fixed. If you want to grow sugar beets in your backyard and sell the sugar to USDA at the favorable support price, too bad for you. You only get a quota if you already have a quota.

As for tariffs, the 2008 Farm Bill requires 85 percent of total sugar in the United States to be produced domestically, and allows only 15 percent to be imported. That 15 percent is distributed through quotas awarded to about 20 countries.

Above and beyond the quotas, imported sugar is subject to high tariffs. Mexico is an exception. Under NAFTA, Mexico gets to sell us as much sugar as it wants at the favored price. However, few countries in Africa hold quotas. What if you are an African cane-growing country and want the high quota price for your sugar? Not a chance.

Imports are never supposed to top 15 percent, so the USDA can’t increase the percentage. But we participate in the World Trade Organization, which obligates us to take world market sugar. Oops. These policies don’t match. Processed food makers must think the contradictions will allow the USDA to let in more sugar. Maybe, but the legalities are not yet decided.

Mind you, sugar producers and processors love this system. They argue that it keeps jobs in rural America and eliminates dependence on foreign sugar imports. To make sure nobody scrutinizes the system too carefully, they formed cooperatives to avoid antitrust laws.

Sugar producers are among the most generous and equal-opportunity contributors to congressional election campaigns, giving to both Democrats and Republicans. For decades, administrations of both parties have tried to end sugar supports. No such luck.

A shift’s brewing

Policies may change, because the gap between the prices for domestic and world market sugar – and for high fructose corn syrup – has narrowed recently. Sugar is now at war with HFCS. As HFCS is increasingly known as a key junk food ingredient, manufacturers are rushing to replace it with sucrose, which they can tout as “natural and unprocessed.”

Other sugar issues are also ripe for comedy. Most sugar beets are now genetically modified, leading many companies to avoid using beet sugar. In the South, sugar cane production pollutes the Everglades, which is costing billions of dollars to clean up. Investigative reporters are riveted by the feudalistic labor practices of sugar plantations.

And then there’s Cuba. Until the Castro revolution, that’s where we got most of our imported sugar. When relations improve, will Cuba get a sugar quota?

If sugar is responsible for any true crisis, it is because of its role as an ingredient in processed foods. Cheap sugar reduces the cost of candy and soft drinks. Cheap junk foods are highly profitable. Otherwise, our sugar policies make no sense in today’s global marketplace.

But we would be healthier eating less sugar, anyway. So here’s my solution to the non-crisis: Eat less sugar!

Sep 19 2009

Request for financial disclosure

Someone whom I do not know, Zhiqi Yin, sent this message to this site in two places today:

I saw this on Twitter. “I am so sick of food Nazis like Marion Nestle who makes lots of money criticizing others. Marion, disclose who is paying you and $ you make.”  Kindly tell your audience when can we expect to see your financial disclosure telling us how much you make from writing books critical of the food industry, money you receive from speaking and other engagements, and grant and consulting money and your sources? Thank you.

Despite its unfriendly tone, the question is an important one in an era when opinion is so easily bought and sold, and evidence so increasingly demonstrates the influence of corporate funding on the outcome of tobacco, drug, and food research.

The purpose of food company influence is of course to increase sales and profits. In contrast, the goals of public health are to improve dietary intake and other health behaviors so that people will live longer and more active and productive lives.  Those of us devoted to public health, however, often find that our goals conflict with those of sales and profit.

As I explained in my book, Food Politics, I am in an unusual position for an academic researcher and I take the resp0nsibility that comes with this position quite seriously.  I am a tenured professor at New York University, a job that requires teaching, research, and public service (of which this blog is part).  For doing these things, I receive a full, hard-money salary that allows me to remain independent of corporate influence and gives me the freedom to write and speak as I think.   I do not need grants to do my research and writing.  I accept honoraria from some speaking engagements (these take substantial preparation and travel time), compensation for some writing assignments (ditto), and occasional royalties from sales of my books (which take years to research and write).  To fulfill my professorial obligations, I do not need to consult for pay or accept honoraria from food companies or other for-profit enterprises.

I wish that my books were best sellers.  I wish everyone would read them and think hard about what they say.   And I wish that more nutrition academics and professionals could be independent of corporate influence.

I am able to take full responsibility for what I think, say, and write.  I am paid to say what I think, not what someone else wants me to think or because what I write or say will help sell food products.   This is indeed a privilege and I am grateful for it.

Sep 18 2009

USDA says: Eat Local! HHS says: Prevent!

Really, we have to rethink USDA.  It has just awarded $4.8 million grants to community groups to promote local agriculture as part of a $65 millioncampaign to Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.  Local food!

And HHS, not to be outdone, is awarding $650 million in grants for community initiatives to improve diets and get people more active.  Prevention!

OK, these are tiny fractions of the Departments’ budgets but I read them as symbolic steps in a new and terrific direction.  More of the same, please.

Sep 17 2009

Soda taxes: the new frontier

If I read the tea leaves correctly, soda taxes are on their way.  Kelly Brownell and Tom Friedan broached the idea earlier this year.  York state tried and failed to implement them.

Since then, as we learn more about the role of sugary drinks as a factor in obesity, public health support for the idea is growing.  Last week, Jim Knickman, President of NYSHealth wrote an op-ed in the New York Post in favor of the taxes.    Now the New England Journal of Medicine – as prestigious a journal as they come – is publishing another article from  Brownell, Frieden, et al on the public health and economic benefits of taxing sugary soft drinks.

And the evidence accumulates daily.  Children and adults who habitually drink sodas are more likely to be obese and have worse diets than those who do not.  The latest study from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and a policy research group at UCLA makes just this point.

The study found that 41 percent of children (ages 2 – 11), 62 percent of adolescents (ages 12 – 17) and 24 percent of adults drink at least one soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage every day. Regardless of income or ethnicity, adults who drink one or more sodas or other sugar-sweetened beverages every day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.

The result of all this is what the New York Times is calling in its print headline, “tempest in a soda bottle.”  I’d call it a Category 5 hurricane.

As I love to point out, it did not used to be OK for kids to drink sodas all day long.  Now it is.  Taxes might encourage some changes in these recent practices.  It will be interesting to watch this idea progress.

Later in the day: as for pushback, here is a link to the ad from the “Americans Against Food Taxes.”  Why am I thinking this is an astroturf client of the Center for Consumer Freedom?  Just a wild guess.

Sep 16 2009

You don’t like Smart Choices? Act now!

I’ve just been contacted by Mike Smith of Change.org.  This group is organizing a letter-writing campaign about the Smart Choices program.  You don’t know what this is about?  See previous posts.  Here’s what he says:

At Change.org we are also outraged by the Smart Choices program and are concerned that members of the American Dietetic Association and nutrition experts are allied with Smart Choices, happy to mislead the public about what constitutes a healthy / smart choice. We’ve already had 3,000 people email the Smart Choices panel demanding they stop shilling for Kellogg’s and better support consumers in this action campaign…We’ve had big successes in the recent weeks — we got the Department of Labor to release its list of slave made goods to consumers, had Chipotle agree to better rights for their tomato farmers, and persuaded Live Nation to cancel concerts by an anti-gay musician. Having you on board will hopefully tip the balance and encourage the Smart Choices board to make crucial changes that won’t allow Froot Loops to be presented as a Smart Choice.

How about adding your voice to the protest against the Smart Choices program, or what has now become known as the “Better than a Doughnut” program?  It’s easy to do.   Just click on this link.   Thanks Mike.

Update September 18:  Here’s another good reason to be concerned about this program.  It was paid for by industry to the tune of $1.47 million, according to Forbes.

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