Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 16 2009

Europe demands scientific support for health claims. Why can’t we?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has just rejected a proposal from Merck to allow it to use a health claim stating that omega-3 supplements promote  eye and brain health in infants.  Merck wants moms to take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy and give such supplements to their infants.  EFSA reviewed nearly 90 studies on this topic and concluded that the study results were not “informative.”    In other words, they showed no benefit.  Imagine.  The EFSA demands scientific substantiation of health claims.  I wish we could do that.

Here’s another example from the pomegranate folks.  They do brilliant advertising, but this time the British are complaining that these marketers went too far when they posted billboards stating that pomegranate (“antioxidant powerhouse”) juice will help you cheat death.  The British advertising standards agency balked.  Here too, pesky science gets in the way.  Studies not only fail to support a benefit of antioxidants but sometimes show harm.

Our Congress, however, forces FDA to permit health claims, no matter how absurd.  Try the FDA-allowed “qualified” health claim for omega-3’s: “supportive but not conclusive evidence  shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” [my emphasis].  The FDA allows omega-3’s to be added to infant formulas, but here’s what it says about them:  “The scientific evidence is mixed…There are no currently available published reports from clinical studies that address whether any long-term beneficial effects exist.”

The EFSA interprets all this as unworthy of a health claim.

What can the FDA do?  If it says there isn’t enough evidence, it gets sued and loses.  The courts tend to rule that food companies can say whatever they like about health benefits on the grounds of free speech and the First Amendment.

In January, the FDA published “guidance” for industry about how it plans to evaluate the scientific basis of health claims.     Guidance is just that.  It is non-binding.

Hello new administration.  How about taking a fresh look at the health claims situation and paying close attention to what regulators in Europe are doing.  How about considering just saying no to health claims.

Apr 15 2009

World food crisis: implications for U.S. agriculture

The intrepid economists at USDA* have published an analysis of what the current rise in food prices means for U.S. agriculture.  Their report provides a broad overview of the causes and effects of higher food prices.  The bottom line: the long-term effects are still uncertain but they will surely be worse for farmers in developing countries than for our own farmers.

But shouldn’t the USDA also be concerned about what’ will happen to Third World farmers?  If we are part of a global food system, don’t we have some global responsibility?

*The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) has produced an interactive report summarizing the kinds of research it does.  See if you agree with me that the ERS does invaluable work and performs a great public service.

Apr 14 2009

Choosing foods: salads, French fries, and supplements

In early April, the New York Times briefly reported the results of an eating behavior experiment.  Investigators asked college students to choose foods from menus that differed in only one feature; one menu offered a salad and the other did not.   The point?  To find out whether the presence of a salad on the menu influenced what else the students ate.   It did.   The students choose French fries more often from the menu with the salad.  The authors’ interpretation: the “health aura” of salads gives people permission to indulge.  Their paper will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Health aura explains a lot about current food marketing trends.  You may have noticed that vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3’s are added to everything these days.  Coupled with the downturn in the economy, health aura does wonders for sales of dietary supplements.  Despite underwhelming evidence for their effectiveness, supplements fly off the shelves.  They cost a lot less than health care (and, perhaps, do less harm).

Apr 13 2009

Busy weekend: the Obama’s First Puppy and Fixing the FDA

In case you were wondering about my thoughts on what the Obamas should be feeding their new First Puppy, I did an interview with Obama Foodorama on that very topic: “The Obamas get a new puppy and policy issues get unleashed.”

And for my latest column in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Full plate for Obama’s new FDA administrator,” I deal with the question of what the new FDA Commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, needs to do to fix the agency’s problems. She will need all the support we can give her.

Apr 11 2009

CDC says foodborne illnesses not budging

Well, at least foodborne illnesses aren’t getting worse says the CDC.  Surveillance data for ten states indicate little change in numbers of cases of most foodborne bacterial infections (Salmonella infections may be going up, but just by a little).   This is good or bad depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.  Optimists, like the meat industry, say whoopee! The system is working.  Pessimists, like those at the CDC and FDA who are quoted in the New York Times, say  the lack of improvement means that we must do something to improve the food safety system.  I vote with the pessimists on this one.

Apr 10 2009

Is free-range pork more contaminated than industrial pork?

My e-mail inbox is flooded with copies of an op-ed from today’s New York Times arguing that pigs running around outside have “higher rates” of Salmonella, toxoplasma, and, most alarming, trichina than pigs raised in factory farms. The writer,  James McWilliams, is a prize-winning historian at Texas State San Marcos whose forthcoming book is about the dangers of the locavore movement to the future of food.

I put “higher rates” in quotation marks because that is not what the study measured.  The study on which McWilliams based his op-ed is published in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. The investigators actually measured “seropositivity” (antibodies) in the pigs’ blood.  But the presence of antibodies does not necessarily mean that the animals – or their meat – are infected.  It means that the free-range pigs were exposed to the organisms at some point and developed immunity to them.  The industrial pigs were not exposed and did not develop immunity to these microorganisms.  But you would never know that from reading the op-ed.   How come?

Guess who paid for the study?  The National Pork Board, of course.

The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins has much to say about all this.  My point, as always, is that sponsored studies are invariably designed in ways that produce results favorable to the sponsor.    In this case, the sponsor represents industrial pork producers.

April 14 update:  the editors of the New York Times have added a note to the electronic version of Professor McWilliams’ op-ed pointing out the National Pork Board sponsorship of the study on which he based his piece.  And McWilliams rebuts arguments against his piece on the Atlantic Food Channel, while conceding that he may have gotten the science wrong.

Apr 10 2009

Consumers prefer traffic-light food labels

Lots of well meaning people are trying to develop systems for labeling foods by their degree of nutritional quality (I file posts on this topic under Scoring systems).  My preference is for traffic lights — green for eat anytime, yellow for once-in-a-while, and red for hardly ever).  So I was not surprised to see an announcement of a new study from Australia that tested consumers’ understanding of several kinds of food ranking systems.  According to the study itself, traffic lights beat out the other systems tested in helping consumers choose healthier foods.  I hear rumors that the Institute of Medicine is starting a study to evaluate consumers’ understanding of the various kinds of ranking labels on food products.  I suppose we will need to wait until that study is complete – a process that usually takes two or three years – before we hear its conclusion.  If we have to have one system, I’m voting for traffic lights.

Apr 9 2009

The argument for soda taxes

Kelly Brownell of the Yale Rudd Center and Tom Friedan of the New York City Health Department write that taxes on sodas make sense as a way to get people to consume less of them (New England Journal of Medicine, April 8).  Cutting down on sugary drinks is the first thing to do to control weight.  Brownell and Friedan lay out the arguments for and against soda taxes and conclude that this approach has significant potential for improving health. Take a look at the paper and see if you agree.

In the meantime, Corby Kummer at the Atlantic Food Channel writes about what’s happening in Washington on this very issue.  And David Katz responds to comments from the Beverage Association about the paper (hint: they didn’t like it).

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