Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 20 2010

Wyoming’s idea of “food freedom:” liberty or safety hazard?

The Wyoming House of Representatives, in its infinite wisdom, has introduced House Bill 54, the Food Freedom Act, ostensibly to “allow for traditional community social events involving the sale and consumption of home made foods and to encourage the expansion and accessibility of farmers’ markets, roadside stands, ranch, farm and home based sales and producer to end consumer agricultural sales by:

  • Promoting the purchase and consumption of fresh and local agricultural products
  • Enhancing the agricultural economy
  • Encouraging agri-tourism opportunities in Wyoming
  • Providing Wyoming citizens with unimpeded access to healthy food from known sources
  • Encouraging the expansion and accessibility of farmers’ markets, roadside stands, ranch and farm based sales and direct producer to end consumer agricultural sales.”

Doesn’t this sound great?

It might, except that the Act exempts from licensing everyone who sells foods directly to consumers at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, or at home.

Bill Marler, the Seattle lawyer who represents victims of food poisonings, thinks the law should be retitled, “The Bill Marler Full Employment Act.”

Let’s hope the Wyoming legislature rethinks this bill.  My endlessly stated opinion: Everyone who produces food, even small food producers, should be required to produce food that is safe.

Feb 19 2010

General Mills’ creative marketing plan

For reasons that make no sense to me at all, corporations are not allowed to simply make a profit.  Their profits must constantly increase.  They must report growth in profits to Wall Street every 90 days.

For food companies, this is not so easy.  We already have twice as many calories available in the food supply as needed by our population –  nearly 4,000 calories per capita per day.  How to deal with this?  Find new buyers.

General Mills says its “recipe for profitable growth” will target three specific groups: Hispanics, aging baby boomers (those aged 55 and over), and millennials (baby boomers’ kids aged 16-33).  General Mills owns cereals and fruit roll-ups, among other such products.

According to MinnPost.com, General Mills is now the leading advertiser in U.S. Hispanic media.

But General Mills expects most of its growth to come from emerging markets like China.  Sales in China tripled from 2005 to 2009 and are expect to reach $900 million by 2015. Sales of General Mills’ Häagen-Dazs* ice cream are booming in China.

Isn’t it fun to be a target of General Mills’ growth strategies?  I assume all major food companies have their eyes on the same target.

*Factoid footnote: Nestlé owns Häagen-Dazs in the U.S. and Canada.  General Mills owns the brand everywhere else, including in China.

Feb 18 2010

Marketing to kids is essential for business

That was my take-home lesson from the article in the New York Times about advertising in magazines aimed at children.  Thanks to Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest for pointing out the most telling quotes.

From the editor of Sports Illustrated Kids:

We’ve really built our business around a strategy, when it comes to advertising partners, of allowing them to really make use of our ability to get this youth audience in all the ways that they’re out there, so we get them in school, we get them in print, we get them when they’re out of school and having fun through sports.

From the editor of Boys’ Life:

We believe this is part of the learning process: why shield them from any of the marketing experience that comes with making a purchase decision?

Kids don’t have a chance against those kinds of attitudes, do they?

Feb 17 2010

Should our national heart agency partner with Coke?

I went to the reception last week for Diet Coke’s red dress event,:

Diet Coke and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health have joined forces to raise awareness about women’s risk of heart disease — in support of NHLBI’s The Heart Truth campaign — with a multi-faceted program that will reach consumers across the nation.

To celebrate American Heart Month in February, Diet Coke’s Red Dress Program will take center stage at high-profile events, including sponsorship of The Heart Truth’s, Red Dress Collection fashion show at Fashion Week 2008. Diet Coke will also unveil new packaging and programs featuring The Heart Truth and Red Dress logos and messages on heart health.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest points out that Coca-Cola, whose products are not exactly heart healthy, is a strange partner for the NHLBI.  The agency should reconsider.  It wrote NHLBI to say so.

New York Times reporter Tara Parker-Pope asks: “Should Coke talk about heart health?”

I don’t know how long Diet Coke and NHLBI have been engaged in this partnership but it is surely more than five years.  From NHLBI’s point of view, the partnership publicizes the risk of heart disease to women.  For Coca-Cola, the benefits are obvious.

Are such partnerships a benign win-win?  History suggests otherwise.  In 1984, Kellogg cooked up a partnership with the National Cancer Institute to put health claims for fiber on the boxes of All-Bran cereals (I discuss this incident in Food Politics).  In doing so, Kellogg (and NCI) went around the FDA and undermined that agency’s control over health claims on food packages.  This let to the current mess over health claims, which the FDA is now trying to clean up.

Update March 3: The Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University has filed a petition to NHLBI to give up the partnership.

Feb 16 2010

European companies’ ongoing struggle for food and supplement health claims

As readers of this blog know, I am not a fan of health claims on food packages or supplements.  I think they are inherently misleading.   It’s hard for me to believe that eating any one food product or supplement will have a significant effect on disease risk.

It is one thing to say that a nutrient is required for good health.  It is quite another to say that products containing that nutrient are going to have the same effect.  We would all be better off eating foods rather than food products.

That’s why health claims are really about marketing, not health.

Food marketers work hard to get approval for health claims.  America is well ahead of Europe in allowing them.  European regulatory agencies are still trying to hold health claims to reasonable scientific standards.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been turning down requests for health claims right and left, but recently broke down and  approved one for iron, requested by the Association de la Transformation Laitière Française, a trade association of French dairy cooperatives.  Iron, of course, is an essential nutrient.

EFSA said the association could say: “Iron contributes to normal cognitive development of children.” But EFSA said the association could not say: “Iron is necessary for the cognitive development of children.”

I don’t think dairy products should say either, but that’s just me.

As for supplements:  In December, Food Chemical News reported that supplement firms in the European Union are considering filing a case with the World Trade Organization over EFSA’s refusal of so many of their proposed claims.   They consider the rejections a barrier to trade.  The firms are looking for a non-European Union country to make their case.

Never underestimate the self-interest of makers of food products and supplements in the struggles over health claims.

Feb 15 2010

Organic data: production, support programs, nutrients, safety, and corporate ownership

In light of the new USDA rules (see yesterday’s post), I’ve been collecting information about organics.

PRODUCTION: the USDA’s latest (2008) survey results come in 59 tables giving data on organic acres, productivity, and anything else you might want to know about the this piece of the agricultural sector – crops, vegetables, and animals.  Interesting facts: more than 14,500 organic farms produce food on 4.1 million acres, but all of this comprises less than 1% of farming in the U.S.

USDA ORGANIC PROGRAMS:  the USDA says the organic agricultural sector is growing because farmers view it as a “way to lower input costs, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, and capture high-value markets.”  The USDA summarizes data on organic production by commodity, and explains its support and research programs.

NUTRIENTS: Remember the study last summer arguing that organic foods are no more nutritious than non-organic?  Now a French study comes to the opposite conclusion.   The authors claim that organics are more nutritious than non-organics.  I see organics as more about production values than nutrition, so I expect these kinds of arguments to go on forever.

SAFETY: Are organics more likely to carry dangerous microorganisms because they are fertilized with manure?  Dutch researchers say not necessarily.  If the manure compost is turned occasionally, the bacteria will be killed.  My comment: all food should be produced safely and organic rules specify how compost is to be used.

CORPORATE OWNERSHIP: Thanks to Subvert for reminding me about Michigan State professor Phil Howard’s nifty charts of Who Owns What in the Organic Food Industry:

If you find it difficult to sort out issues of integrity and trust in the organic industry, this kind of information provides ample reason for your difficulty.  That is why the work of organic advocacy groups like the Cornucopia Institute is so important: they are trying to keep the industry honest.

Feb 14 2010

USDA closes organic dairy loophole

USDA’s 2002 organic rules said that dairy herds must have access to pasture.  They did not say the animals had to actually be fed on pasture.   This loophole is now supposed to be fixed.  USDA has just issued new rules.

Starting in June, organic dairy herds must be sent to pasture for the entire grazing season of at least 120 days and must get at least 30% of their food from pasture during that season.  Smaller organic dairy farmers are already doing this.  Now the big ones will have to come into line. And about time too.

Here’s how the New York Times explains this action.

Before this final rule, the Cornucopia Institute had a number of concerns (in 2008). The proposed rules were bundled together with provisions that had not been properly reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).  These problems have now been solved.

Mark Kastel of the Cornocopia Institute writes:

In its final version we are virtually 100% satisfied (still doing some technical review).  Even more importantly we are highly impressed by the professional approach taken by Kathleen Merrigan and the staff at the organic program as to how they plan to implement this.

He sends the Institute’s most recent press release celebrating the new rules.

Score this one as a win for organic advocates!

Feb 12 2010

Bagged salads: safe or not?

Consumers Union tested a couple of hundred samples of bagged salads, organic and not.   The results? Nearly 40% contained levels of coliform bacteria higher than safety standards.  Coliforms indicate fecal contamination.  This is disgusting to think about but does not make anyone sick.

So the Consumers Union results could be reassuring or not, depending on whether you are an optimist or pessimist.  Yes, the coliform levels were high, but none of the samples contained toxic forms of E. coli, such as O157:H7.

Still, the high frequency suggests that bagged salads need either much better washing or much better maintenance of the cold chain (so the bacteria don’t grow), or both.  If nothing else, the report is a good reason why it’s important to give bagged salads a thorough washing before you eat them or serve them to anyone.

Consumers Union makes a big point of the need to get food safety legislation moving.  The House passed its version of a bill at the end of last July.  The Senate hasn’t budged on its bill.   In the meantime, we still have major national outbreaks and recalls.

The most recent?  225 people in 44 states plus the District of Columbia ill from Salmonella because they ate salami coated with contaminated black pepper. We still don’t have a food safety system that works.  We need one fast.

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