Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 3 2009

Can food products be traced? Not easily.

In 2005, the FDA required certain categories of manufacturers to keep records about the source, transporters, and recipients of their products.  Recently, the Inspector General of the FDA’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, conducted an exercise to see whether traceability was working.  Inspectors bought 4 samples of 10 different food products (e.g., bottled water, oatmeal, tomatoes) at retail stores and attempted to track their supply chains.  Oops.  It only could trace 5.  For another 31, it could make educated guesses.  But nearly 60% of food facilities handling these products could not complete the tracing and 25% did not know they were supposed to.

The FDA, says the Inspector General, needs statutory authority to require producers to know their supply chains and everybody involved needs some education about how to do this.  No wonder we are still getting daily recalls of products containing peanut better.  Statutory authority means Congress.  I wish Congress would get busy on this!

Apr 2 2009

Pistachio recalls: what they mean

The interesting part about this latest recall – now 2 million pounds and involving 74 products so far – is how the Salmonella contamination was discovered.  According to a lengthy account in USA Today, a small nut company in Illinois, Georgia’s Nut, routinely tests for Salmonella and found the bacteria in nuts purchased from Setton Pistachio of California.  Georgia’s Nut recalled products distributed in the Chicago area.  This company also produces a trail mix for Kraft Foods.  It notified Kraft Foods, which also promptly recalled its products.

I’m guessing that Georgia Nut must follow a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) plan.  HACCP is a science-based food safety procedure that requires analyzing where contamination might occur in production processes (hazard analysis), taking steps to prevent contamination at those critical control points, and using pathogen testing to make sure the steps were followed and the plan is working.

HACCP, as I keep complaining, is only required for meat and poultry production on the USDA regulatory side (where is it poorly enforced) and for sprouts, fresh juices, seafood, and eggs on the FDA side.  The producers of everything else are supposed to follow Good Manufacturing Processes, which are considerably less rigorous and, as we saw with the peanut butter recalls (more than 3,800 products from 200 companies) and their health consequences (nearly 700 sick, at least 9 deaths), clearly do not work.

How about HACCP for all foods?  Worth a try?

April 3 update: USA Today reports that Setton Pistachio has not yet issued its own recall (note: this is a good reason why the FDA needs the authority to order recalls), that its California plant passed recent inspections with relatively minor violations, but that its sister plant on Long Island is a mess.  USA Today also reports that Setton Pistachio has had positive tests for Salmonella for months.  What did the company do with the contaminated pistachios?  A mystery.

Apr 1 2009

Fruits and vegetables: eat less, pay more

Nutritionists are always telling everyone to eat more fruits and vegetables.  You might think this would be harder to do when the economy goes bad, and you would be right.  The United Fresh Research and Education Foundation, an arm of the produce industry, keeps track of such things.  Its latest report makes interesting, if depressing, reading.  People bought about 3% less produce in 2008 than they did in 2007, but paid about 2% more for that smaller amount.  No wonder people are complaining that they can’t afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.  Don’t we need to do something about this?

Mar 31 2009

And now you can’t eat pistachios either

The FDA is announcing the “voluntary” recall of certain pistachio products.  Certain, in this case, means a mere million pounds of products from Setton Pistachios of Terra Bella, CA.  These appear to be contaminated with multiple strains of Salmonella. As with the peanut butter recalls, pistachios are used in many different kinds of products.  The FDA learned about the problem from Kraft Foods, which found Salmonella in its Back to Nature Trail Mix. Nobody has gotten sick yet, but stay tuned.  The FDA has a brand new pistachio recall page on its website.  Now you can keep track of pistachio recalls along with the peanut butter recalls which continue to come in every day and now add up to nearly 4,000 products.

Will this ever end?  While waiting for Congress to approve the appointment of Dr. Margaret Hamburg as FDA Commissioner, her deputy, Joseph Scharstein, has just taken over as acting commissioner.  These new officials will have plenty of work to do to get this mess under control.

Mar 30 2009

Antioxidants as a marketing tool

Antioxidant nutrients are so important as marketing tools that they constitute their own brand, say British experts on such questions.  Apparently, up to 60% of consumers who see an antioxidant claim on a product label will buy it for that reason.  Despite lack of evidence that additional antioxidants make people healthier (and may actually do some harm), these claims are so popular that food companies introduced nearly 300 new antioxidant-labeled products into U.S. supermarkets last year.  I’ve been collecting choice examples: breakfast cereals, of course (they are always at the leading edge of nutritional marketing), but also jelly beans.  The marketing has become so competitive that unprocessed fruits and vegetables have to get into the act.  I’ve seen ads for blueberries, tomatoes, and artichokes advertising their high antioxidant content.  Of course they have antioxidants.   All fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, and theirs may actually do some good.

Mar 28 2009

Fixing the food safety system: new ideas

The Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announce the release of a new report on how to fix the food safety system.  The report, Keeping America’s Food Safe: A Blueprint for Fixing the Food Safety System at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), makes a bunch of suggestions for strengthening the FDA.  The FDA, it says, needs to concentrate resources on the highest risks, enforce existing rules (what a concept), establish a position with authority over all food safety programs in the agency, and work with Congress to establish a Food Safety Administration within HHS.

Wait a minute: I thought two agencies were involved in food safety regulation.  Yes, HHS regulates most foods through the FDA, but the USDA regulates meat and poultry.  These are not two separate food systems. Wastes from food animals (USDA-regulated) contaminate fruits and vegetables (FDA-regulated).

Don’t we need one system?  I think we do.

And buried in the mess of bills submitted to Congress and currently under consideration (handily summarized by Bill Marler), are several aimed at doing just that.  This is a great time to weigh in on them, especially since polls show that nearly 75% of Americans are more afraid of food than they are of terrorists.

Mar 27 2009

Influences on teenage obesity: fast food proximity

Kids who go to high schools located within 500 feet of a fast food outlet are fatter than kids whose schools are further away, according to a study in the March American Journal of Public Health. The Los Angeles Times took a look, mapped the fast food places near several local high schools, and found no lack of them.  Are kids generally fatter because they have easier access to fast food?  Or is that the only kind of food available?  Or are fast food outlets a marker for unhealthy neighborhoods?

Whatever. The Times quotes an NRA spokesman arguing that the study doesn’t mean a thing.  I can understand why the NRA might be worried.  What if cities stopped allowing fast food outlets near schools? That’s just what the Los Angeles city council tried to do last year. With some research evidence to back up the idea, this study might kick off a national trend.

And maybe, just maybe, kids might start eating healthier meals at school?

Mar 26 2009

What, exactly, is a healthful food?

When it comes to food, defining “healthy” is a major preoccupation of food companies these days.  Marketers are falling all over each other trying to label food products with numbers or symbols to convince you that their products are better-for-you choices.  These, as I keep saying (see posts under “Scoring systems”), are about marketing, not health.

Now, the Strategic Alliance, the component of the Oakland-based Prevention Institute devoted to “promoting healthy food and activity environments,” has produced a working definition of a healthful food.  Its report, Setting the Record Straight: Nutritionists Define Healthful Food, applies three principles:  Healthful food should be (1) wholesome, (2) produced in ways that are good for people, animals, and natural resources, and (3) available, accessible, and affordable.

This is a food system definition that makes scoring systems unnecessary.  “Wholesome,” says this document, means foods that are minimally processed, full of naturally occurring nutrients, produced without added hormones or antibiotics, and processed without artificial colors, flavors, or unnecessary preservatives.

I wonder how many of those highly processed products in supermarket center aisles can meet this definition?

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