Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 1 2010

What’s up with food and nutrition in 2010?

My San Francisco Chronicle column, now appearing in print on the first Sunday of the month, is also online.

Its title:  “Hot food issues ready to boil over this year.”

Q: What do you think will happen with food and nutrition in 2010?

A: I wish I could read the leaves while I drink tea, but the best I can do is tell you which issues I’m going to be watching closely this year.

Hunter Public Relations recently asked 1,000 Americans which food-related issues they thought were most important in 2009. The top three? Food safety, hunger and food prices. For the decade, the winner was childhood obesity.

I have my own top 10 list of hot-button issues for 2010, and here they are:

  • Hunger: More than 35 million Americans get benefits to which they are entitled under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly, food stamps). The economy may be improving, but not quickly enough for millions who have lost jobs, health care and housing. Will Congress do anything this year to strengthen the safety net for the poor? It needs to.
  • Childhood obesity: Rates of childhood obesity may have stabilized, but we all want to figure out how to prevent kids from gaining so much weight that they develop adult chronic diseases. I expect to see more efforts to improve school food and make neighborhoods more conducive to walking to school, riding bikes and playing outside.
  • Food safety regulation: Congress is sitting on a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration some real authority for food safety. The bill does not do what is most needed – establish a single food-safety agency – but is a reasonable step in the right direction. Let’s hope Congress gets to it soon.
  • Food advertising and labels: The long-dormant FDA and Federal Trade Commission are getting busy at last. In the wake of the Smart Choices fiasco, the FDA is working to make package labels less misleading and easier to understand. The agencies have proposed nutrition standards for products marketed to children. These voluntary standards fall far short of my preference – an outright ban on marketing junk foods to kids – but puts food companies on notice that their products are under scrutiny. The FDA is also working on designs for front-of-package labels. I’m hoping it chooses a “traffic-light” system that marks foods with a green (any time), yellow (sometimes) or red (hardly ever) dot. Expect plenty of opposition from the makers of red-dotted products.
  • Meat: The meat industry has been under fire for raising food animals under inhumane conditions, using unnecessary hormones and antibiotics, mistreating immigrant labor, and polluting soil and water. Now it is also under fire for contributing to climate change. Recent films like “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh” and books such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” are encouraging people to become vegetarians or to eat less meat to promote the health of people and the planet. I’ll bet the meat industry pushes back hard on this one.
  • Sustainable agriculture: The back-to-the land movement has loads of people buying local food, choosing foods produced under more sustainable conditions and growing their own food. The number of small farms in America increased last year for the first time in a century. Seed companies cannot keep up with the demand. It will be fun to follow what happens with this trend.
  • Genetically modified (GM) foods: My book, “Safe Food,” comes out in a new edition this year, so I am paying especially close attention to debates about GM foods. The FDA’s 1994 decision to prohibit labeling of GM foods continues to haunt the food biotechnology industry. By now, nearly all American soybeans and sugar beets (95 percent) are GM, as is most corn (60 percent). But when the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved GM sugar beets in 2005, it neglected to perform the required environmental impact assessment. On that basis, environmental groups want to ban further planting of GM sugar beets. The dispute is now in the courts.
  • Chemical contaminants: The FDA has yet to release its report on the safety of bisphenol A, the plastic chemical that acts as an endocrine disrupter. Shouldn’t it be banned? The bottling industry says no. Watch for fierce arguments over this one.
  • Salt: Nutrition standards allow 480 mg sodium (the equivalent of more than 1 gram of salt) per serving. A half cup of canned soup provides that much. A whole cup gives you 4 grams and the whole can gives you 8 grams – much more than anyone needs. Nearly 80 percent of salt in American diets comes from processed and restaurant foods. Companies are under pressure to cut down on salt. Will they? Only if they have to.
  • Dietary advice: The new edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which the government publishes every five years, is due this year. What will it say? I can’t wait to find out.

Those are the issues I am tracking these days. My one crystal-ball prediction? We will be hearing a lot more about them this year.

Happy new year!

Dec 30 2009

The latest recall: mechanically tenderized beef

I am, as always, indebted to Bill Marler for his ongoing commentary – often with slide shows – on recalls of foods contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and other nasty bugs.  He offers ongoing comments about the Christmas eve recall of 248,000 pounds of needle-tenderized steaks.

He points out that the recall now affects people in several states and that the meat was intended for several chain restaurants.   The contaminated meat, produced in Oklahoma, has sickened at least 19 people in 16 states.

Mechanically tenderized “non-intact” beef?  Uh oh.  The great thing about intact steak is that harmful contaminants are on the outside surface; the bacteria get killed by the high heat of searing the outside surface.  You don’t have to worry about the safety of intact steak because its insides are relatively sterile.  But if the steak is pre-treated to tenderize it, watch out!  Tenderizing can drive harmful bacteria right into the interior where they won’t get killed unless the steak is thoroughly cooked.

To explain the problem, Marler posts a slide show from Dave Boxrud.  Here is one of Boxrud’s illustrations:

Photo from David Boxrud's slide show on the Marler Blog site

Marler provides links to documents showing that the USDA has received plenty of recent warnings about the dangers of undercooked non-intact beef.  This is no surprise.  In my 2003 book, Safe Food (coming out in a new edition in 2010), I discuss the USDA’s “testing gap” with respect to nonintact beef.  In 1999, the USDA said that it wanted to extend its testing requirements for ground beef to mechanically tenderized beef that might be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

In Safe Food, I explain how the beef industry reacted with “shock, disbelief, and anger” to the USDA’s safety proposal.  One industry representative accused the USDA of taking “another step in this administration’s obfuscation of the impeachment activities.” Those activities, of course, referred to the scandal then involving President Clinton and the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Then, the meat industry’s position was that pathogens were inherent in raw meat, cooking kills them, and testing would put the industry out of business. Ten years later, the industry position hasn’t budged. The Washington Post (December 30) quotes beef industry representatives arguing that mechanical tenderizing poses no particular health problems.

According to Food Chemical News (September 28), Congressional representative Rosa DeLauro (Dem-CT), who chairs the House appropriations agriculture subcommittee, has called on USDA to take immediate action to require labeling of meat that has been mechanically tenderized.

And USA Today (December 30) has produced another long investigative report on the safety of school meals, this one citing plenty of examples of companies that successfully produce or serve safe meat and of countries that do food safety better than we do.  In the meantime, the food safety bill is still stuck in Congress.  Let’s hope that it gets moving early in 2010.

Addendum: The New York Times (online December 30) also is interested in beef produced for the school lunch program.  Its reporters investigated safety problems with beef trimmings that had been injected with ammonia to kill bacteria.    Two things about the beef trimmings are especially interesting.  One person is quoted in the article referring to them as “pink slime.”  And they used to be used for pet foods until meat packers figured out that selling them to USDA for school lunches was more profitable.

As for the ammonia treatment: surely this is not the same stuff used to clean bathrooms?  Apparently so.  But using it is tricky.  You have to inject enough ammonia to kill bacteria but if you do the meat smells like an ammonia-treated bathroom.  If you don’t want the meat to smell, you can’t use as much.  But if you don’t use as much, you get Salmonella. This, alas, is another example of regulations not working.

Congress: pass the food safety bill and then start working on a single food safety agency!

Update January 7: The CDC has posted information on its investigation of this outbreak on its website.

Dec 29 2009

Pet food settlement rumors: not true!

A reader, Valerie Watkins, comments on my previous post about the long delay in settling the lawsuits over the pets harmed by the melamine scandals of 2007.  She writes:

The internet has several articles indicating the law firm that is handling the money helped themselves to the cash and there is no money remaining. Several reports indicate there are NO objections by anyone, it is just the law firms response to not allowing the claims to be paid out. After 3 years of waiting, I believe it. Pet owner’s will wait for nothing, the money appears to have been spent on those trusted with paying out the claims.

Oh dear.  The Internet is a wonderful invention but has one serious flaw: its content is unedited.  People can say whatever they like no matter how far from the truth.  I have learned not to trust anything I read on the Internet unless I know that its source is reliable.

My immediate reaction to Valerie’s comment: Could this possibly be true?

No, it most definitely cannot.

Take a look at the court documents.  Two appeals are still pending in the Third Circuit court. Until those appeals are settled, the money is in escrow and nobody – not even the lawyers – can touch it.  The documents clearly state that the lawyers are not to be paid until all appeals are resolved and the judgment is in effect.

The administrator of the settlement explains:

No payments may be made on eligible claims until all appeals are resolved. THE APPEALS HAVE BEEN FULLY BRIEFED AND WE NOW AWAIT THE DECISION OF THE APPELLATE COURT. It is uncertain how long these appeals will take to resolve, and the timing of resolving the appeals is not within the control of the parties or their counsel. It is not uncommon for appeals to take several months or even years to resolve.

For anyone with a pet harmed by eating tainted pet food, the long delay is painful.  It would be a help to have the settlement resolved.   But the delay is not caused by the lawyers who are representing aggrieved pet owners.  It is also in the lawyers’ best interest to settle the suit as quickly as possible.

When it comes to the Internet, don’t believe everything you read.  And check sources!  In case of the pet food class action suit, the documents are on the Internet and available to everyone who takes the trouble to see what they really say.


Dec 27 2009

FDA warns Nestlé: Juicy Juice misbranded!

I’ve been fretting about the immunity and brain claims on Nestlé’s Juicy Juice for quite some time now, but completely missed the FDA’s December 4 warning letter about them.  Thanks to Hemi Weingarten at Fooducate for keeping track of such things.

JuicyJuice

If you give these products a moment’s thought, you can quickly figure out that feeding DHA- or antioxidant-fortified juice drinks to kids is unlikely to have much effect on how smart they are or whether they can resist colds or swine flu.  But never underestimate the power of food marketers.   Adding a little DHA or a few antioxidants to juices sells products.  Health claims, as I keep pointing out, are about marketing, not health.

In warning the company to cease and desist, however, The FDA did not take on the health issues.  Instead, it invoked labeling regulations:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reviewed the labeling for several Nestlé Juicy Juice products…Based on our review, we have concluded that these products are misbranded…. because [their] labeling includes unauthorized nutrient content claims. Except for statements that describe the percentage of a vitamin or mineral in relation to a Reference Daily Intake (RDI), a nutrient content claim cannot be made for a food intended for use by infants and children less than 2 years of age….On October 30, 2009. we also reviewed your website….The labeling found on your website makes an additional unauthorized nutrient content claim, which further misbrands the product. The website claims that Juicy Juice Brain Development Fruit Juice Beverage is “naturally lower in sugar”…[but] no nutrient content claims can be made for a food intended specifically for use by infants and children less than 2 years of age unless specifically permitted by FDA regulations.

Additionally, we have reviewed the labeling of your Nestle Juicy Juice All Natural 100% Juice Orange Tangerine and Nestle Juicy Juice All Natural 100% Juice Grape products. These products are misbranded…because their labels are misleading. The label of the Orange Tangerine product is designed to imply that the product is 100% orange/tangerine juice, and the label of the Grape product is designed to imply that product is 100% grape juice…neither orange/tangerine juice nor grape juice is the predominant juice in the products….

Nestlé (alas, no relation) is the largest food company in the world with $102 billion in sales last year.  It should know better.

Just for the record, the misbranded products are still displayed on the Juicy Juice website.

The FDA also warned Nestlé that its Boost Kids Essentials products are misbranded. Why?  Because their labeling does not follow the rules for medical foods, those aimed at alleviating specific conditions – in this case “failure to thrive.”   Oops.  The Boost Kids Essentials website is now under revision.

Dec 24 2009

Maira Kalman on the food revolution

Maira Kalman, the artist famous (to me) for her wonderful illustrations for Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and the “Newyorkistan” New Yorker cover is now doing a monthly op-ed column of photographs and commentary – called “And the Pursuit of Happiness” – for the New York Times blog site.  Her November piece, “Back to the Land,” is about the food revolution and its importance for American democracy.  It’s a gift to everyone interested in food politics or anything else about food.

Happy holidays!

1109Maira29

Dec 22 2009

Eating Liberally: Are pets responsible for climate change?

It’s been quite a while since Eating Liberally’s kat had a question for me, but this one certainly got my attention.  My book about pet food with Malden Nesheim, Feed Your Pet Right, has just progressed past its second set of page-proof corrections and is slowly making its way to publication on May 11.  Here’s her question:

Let’s Ask Marion: Is Fido The New Hummer?

Submitted by KAT on Tue, 12/22/2009 – 8:13am.

(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.

Kat: Dog lovers are howling over a new book called Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living. The book claims that “the carbon pawprint of a pet dog is more than double that of a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle,” according to a report from the Agence France Presse.

The book’s authors, Robert and Brenda Vale, sustainable living experts at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, estimate that a medium-sized dog’s annual diet–about 360 pounds of meat and 200 pounds of grains–requires roughly double the resources it would take to drive an SUV 6,200 miles a year.

You’ve become an expert on the pet food industry in recent years with Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, and your upcoming book, Feed Your Pet Right. So, what’s your take on the Vales’ claims? Is Fido really the new Hummer?

Dr. Nestle: Since Mal Nesheim is my co-conspirator on Feed Your Pet Right, this response is from both of us. Hence, “we.”

We ordered this book through Amazon in the U.K. but it is taking its own sweet time getting here. So all we really know about what these authors say is what we read in the October 24 New Scientist, which not only reviewed the book (in an article titled, “How green is your pet”) but also ran an editorial that begins, “If you really want to make a sacrifice to sustainability, consider ditching your pet – its ecological footprint will shock you.”

Oh, please. We don’t think so for two reasons, one quantitative, one qualitative. First, the quantitative:

The New Scientist review says:

To measure the ecological paw, claw and fin-prints of the family pet, the Vales analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food. They calculated, for example, that a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals.

We don’t really have all the facts at hand. We have not seen the book, we don’t know what assumptions the authors made, and we can’t be certain that the review quotes the book accurately. Still, we are puzzled by these figures.

By our estimates, an average dog does indeed need about 300 grams of dry dog food a day; this much provides close to 1,000 calories. Fresh meat supplies about 2 calories per gram, so 450 grams would yield about 900 calories. Cereals have less water so they are more caloric; they provide nearly 4 calories per gram. The 260 grams of cereals would provide nearly 1,000 calories. If New Scientist got it right, the authors of the book are overestimating the amount of food needed by dogs by a factor of two.

On the qualitative side: Most dogs don’t eat the same meat humans do. They eat meat by-products—the parts of food animals that we wouldn’t dream of eating. These are organs, intestines, scraps, cuttings, and other disgusting-to-humans animal parts.

We think pet food performs a huge public service. If pets didn’t eat all that stuff, we would have to find a means of getting rid of it: landfills, burning, fertilizer, or converting it to fuel, all of which have serious environmental consequences. If dogs and cats ate the same food we do, we estimate that just on the basis of calories, the 172 million dogs and cats in American would consume as much food as 42 million people.

But they don’t. They eat the by-products of human food production. If we want to do something to help reverse climate change, we should be worrying much more about the amount of meat that we ourselves are eating–and the amount of cereals we are growing to feed food animals–than blaming house pets for a problem that we created.

Dec 21 2009

Food labeling: yet another update

The FTC Forum last week got everyone going about food labels.  Here are the latest items to hit my inbox:

Traffic light front-of-package labels may do some good after all: As I explained in a previous post, British investigators did a study showing that the green-yellow-red traffic light dots on food packages do not necessarily help people make healthier choices.  Now, another British scientist argues that the study showed no such thing; at best, it showed that more research is needed to see how consumers interpret and act on those signals.

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approves some (weak) omega-3 claims: Under great pressure from food companies desperate to make claims for omega-3 fatty acids, EFSA is allowing three, if somewhat grudgingly:

  • DHA intake can contribute to normal brain development of the foetus, infant and young children
  • DHA intake can contribute to normal development of the eye of the foetus, infant and young children
  • DHA intake can contribute to the visual development of the infant

“Can,” I suppose, is a bit less conditional than “may,” but these are not strong claims.  And they say nothing at all about making kids smarter.  Under these rules, that  “brain development” claim on Nestlé’s omega-3-fortified Juicy Juice drink (the one I find so absurd), would be OK.  But anything more specific, the EFSA committee said, would have to be backed by further science.

FDA food labeling rules: if after all the fuss about serving sizes at the FTC Forum, you want to know what FDA really says about them,  you can find the details on the FDA food labeling website.  On that site, click on Label Formats/Graphics to find the current rules on serving sizes.  Good luck making sense of them.

That’s more than enough about food labels for the moment.  It’s the holidays and time to talk about something cheerier.  Stay tuned.


Dec 19 2009

Serving size standards: maybe not so bad after all?

I received a flurry of “you should have attended the meeting before you said anything” messages in response to my post yesterday about the FTC forum.  They said the table that I posted did not have footnotes attached and I also had missed a key point about RACC (reference amounts commonly consumed): they are likely to be larger than current FDA serving sizes, meaning that the amounts of sugars and salt will have to be reduced to qualify.

Guilty as charged.  RACC, as I mentioned yesterday, is a new term to me.  This is because – how could anyone have missed this – I was unaware of the FDA’s Federal Register notice of April 4, 2005: “Serving sizes of products that can reasonably be consumed at one eating occasion; Updating of reference amounts customarily consumed; Approaches for recommending smaller portion sizes.”

This notice was the result of concerns about the serving sizes that had been established when the FDA issued final food labeling regulations in 1993.  Then, the FDA established serving sizes for 129 product categories for adult foods and 11 categories for infant and toddler foods.  These were derived from information about amounts commonly consumed reported in food consumption surveys from the late 1970s and late 1980s.

Either people ate a lot less back then or they were lying, or both.  As my former doctoral student, now Dr. Lisa Young, discovered during her doctoral research, standard portion sizes – half a cup of ice cream or one 2 or 3-ounce slice of pizza, for example – are smaller (sometimes much smaller) than what people seem to be actually eating.

The FDA knew this.  In 2003, it appointed an Obesity Working Group to advise the agency about several issues, among them whether to update the RACCs.  The Group filed its report in 2004.  With respect to serving size, it recommended:

* In the short-term, that FDA encourage manufacturers immediately to take advantage of the flexibility in current regulations on serving sizes that allows food packages to be labeled as a single-serving if the entire content of the package can reasonably be consumed at a single-eating occasion.

* In the long-term, that FDA develop two separate ANPRMs [Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking].  The first would solicit comment on whether to require additional columns within the nutrition label to list the quantitative amounts and %DV of the entire package on those products and package sizes that can reasonably be consumed at one eating occasion or, alternatively, declare the whole package as a single serving. This ANPRM would also solicit information on products and package sizes that can reasonably be consumed at one eating occasion.  The second ANPRM would solicit comments on which, if any, RACCs of food categories appear to have changed the most over the past decade and therefore need to be updated.

On that basis, the FDA’s 2005 Federal Register notice asked for comments about whether:

  • Consumers might “think that an increase in serving size on food labels means more of the food should be eaten.”
  • Manufacturers might repackage products in larger sizes to avoid labeling a package as a single serving.
  • Manufacturers might reduce the size of single-serving packages to reduce the apparent content of undesirable nutrients.

That was nearly five years ago.  If anything further happened, I cannot find it in the Federal Register. Getting to these questions at last was apparently the point of the FTC forum.

I am told that panelists suggested raising the RACC serving size of kids’ cereals to 50 grams rather than the current 30 grams.  If so, this would require cereal companies to reduce the amount of sugars in their products.   Aha!  That could explain why, as I discussed in a previous post, General Mills chose to put its full-page ads in newspapers promising to drop the sugars to single digits.  General Mills must think changes in the RACC for cereals will require it to lower the sugars in order to be able to advertise to kids under the voluntary guidelines. Given how long the FDA’s processes take, it is understandable why General Mills failed to say when it would implement its promist.  I am also told that the salt cut-point is open for comment.

For those of us who were not at the Forum and prefer to see such things in writing, how about releasing the footnotes to that chart and giving us some examples of the proposed changes to the RACC?  Also, how about setting up a mechanism so interested people can file official comments on the proposals?  Both would help people offer more informed comments on how the FDA should handle the serving size issues.

Update, December 20: Thanks to Ellen Fried for providing a link to some food industry opinion on what all this is about and another an in-the-know source that says the proposed standards are to be published in the Federal Register and opened for further public comment in January.  The project is to be finished by July.  Ellen points out that this procedure seems administratively complicated for standards that are not regulations; they are voluntary. Do the FTC and FDA really have to go through all this to issue what is simply guidance?  Or is something else going on here that I’m not getting?

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