Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 1 2009

Pushback against food advocates

My latest column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with an issue I discussed earlier on this blog: the ways in which agricultural and food interests are pushing back against advocates for a healthier and more sustainable food system.

Frank talk about food sometimes quashed

Marion Nestle, Sunday, November 1, 2009

Q: It must take courage to criticize the marketing practices of food companies. Doesn’t it get you into a lot of trouble?

A: Trouble? That depends on how you define it. Some pushback has to be expected as a normal consequence of advocating a food system that promotes better health for all and more sustainable agricultural production.

My latest experience with pushback occurred on World Food Day, Oct. 16. I had been invited by the U.S. Embassy in Rome to give the annual George McGovern lecture at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. After my talk, our new ambassador to U.N. agencies in Rome, Ertharin Cousin, thanked me but told the audience that the opinions they had just heard were mine alone and did not represent those of the U.S. government.

What did I say that required a disclaimer? The point of my talk was to argue that international food issues such as hunger, obesity and food safety must be viewed as problems of society rather than personal choice.

As social problems, they are unlikely to be solvable by technical interventions such as functional foods, commercial weaning foods, irradiation or genetically modified foods. Instead, international food problems require social interventions that address underlying human needs for sustainability, social justice and democracy.

World insecurity

FAO had just released its 2009 report on the state of world food insecurity. Its date revealed how the economic crisis has caused the number of hungry people in the world to increase sharply. Some argue that genetic modification of crops is the only way to increase food productivity and reverse this trend. Whether food biotechnology really can fix world hunger is debatable, but one thing is clear: It is unlikely to create sustainability, social justice or democracy.

We know how to solve world hunger problems: promote breastfeeding, provide clean water and safe food, empower women, educate children, develop community food security, promote agricultural sustainability and ensure political stability. These strategies are social, not technological.

I ended my talk with praise for the Obamas’ leadership in promoting sustainable food production and initiating a new era in American agriculture.

Un-American? Under ordinary circumstances I would have shrugged off the ambassador’s remarks, but these are not ordinary times. I interpret her remarks as evidence that the food movement must be making real progress.

As further evidence, consider what happened to journalist and Berkeley professor Michael Pollan. His “Omnivore’s Dilemma” is high on the reading lists of many universities, yet twice this fall agricultural interests have attempted to force universities to cancel campus speaking invitations.

Pressure over Pollan

Washington State University had already bought 4,000 copies of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” for incoming freshman when a member of its Board of Regents, a wheat grower, objected to the way the book portrays industrial agriculture. The university canceled the reading program and Pollan’s lecture, saying it would cost too much at a time of budget crisis.

Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer and WSU alumnus, called the university’s bluff by offering to pay the costs. Pollan’s book got distributed. He gave his talk. State agriculture did not collapse.

Much the same thing happened at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. A local beef rancher, outraged that Pollan had been invited to speak unopposed, threatened to withdraw a promised $500,000 contribution. The rancher’s exchange of letters with Cal Poly’s president is available at links.sfgate.com/ZIMH, and well worth reading by anyone concerned about how industrial agriculture influences public policy.

Pollan offered the university a free lecture or panel with other speakers, but not both. The university chose the panel.

Although the rancher’s argument might appear to be about the value of presenting balanced views to students, universities are supposed to distinguish between academic and commercial interests. As university professors, Pollan and I base our opinions on our education, training, research and professional experience – not on how they might affect an industry. Our job is to teach students to read and think critically so they can form their own opinions about what we and others tell them.

Exerting influence

If our professorial opinions cannot be offered without public disclaimers and insistence on equal time for opposing views, I have to assume that what we are saying must be perceived as influential. If it indeed is influential, I expect even more pushback as the current food movement extends its reach and becomes stronger and more effective.

Trouble? Bring it on.

Oct 31 2009

Italy’s new food label: “Mafia-free”

Thanks to Anulu Mass of the Global Post for telling me about the latest front-of-package foods labeling initiative, this one from Italy.  I’m just back from lecturing in Rome, Milan, and Vicenza, but didn’t get to Sicily which must be why I missed seeing Libera Terra labels on wine, olive oil, pasta, and tomato sauce.  Libera Terra labels guarantee that the foods were produced with no mob connections.  I’m so relieved.

Trick or treat?

Oct 30 2009

Industry abandons Smart Choices!

The Connecticut Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, announced yesterday that all eight food companies involved in the Smart Choices program have agreed to drop out pending his investigation and the FDA’s decision about front-of-package labeling.  Says Blumenthal:

Food manufacturers now realize that continued use of the logo would only mislead and compound consumer confusion. Other food labels richly deserve the same scrutiny — which we will give them with relish.

My investigation into Smart Choices, now supported by the FDA, continues to seek any scientific research or evidence behind a program that promotes mayonnaise, sugar-loaded cereal and ice cream as Smart Choices.

Many in the food and beverage industry have sugarcoated their labels — diverting and distracting consumers from nutrition truth, and pushing them toward obesity and disease. Self responsibility and good parenting are key to healthy lifestyles, but impossible when food manufacturers misguide them.

Our initiative should send a message to other food manufacturers that labeling must be completely truthful and accurate without hype or spin, especially when appealing to children. I am strongly encouraged by interest in our investigation by other attorneys general who can form a powerful coalition against misleading or deceptive food labeling.

Keep an eye out for what other city and state attorneys will be doing about food labels.   FDA: get busy!

Oct 29 2009

Family doctors resign from AAFP over Coke partnership

Yesterday, 20 family physicians in Contra Costa County, California, ripped up their membership cards in the American Academy of Family Physicians in protest over the AAFP’s partnership with Coca-Cola.

coke_1

The director of the Contra Costa Department of Health Services, Dr. William Walker, announced that he was resigning his 25-year membership in AAFP.  In his statement, Dr. Walker said:

…I am appalled and ashamed of this partnership between Coca-Cola and the American Academy of Family Physicians. How can any organization that claims to promote public health join forces with a company that promotes products that put our children at risk for obesity, heart disease and early death.

…The AAFP is supposed to be an organization that works to protect the health of children not put them at risk. Their decision to take soda money is all the more unconscionable because, unlike doctors in the 40s, they well know the negative health impact of soda. There is no shortage of documentation that soda is a major contributor to our nation’s obesity epidemic.

…Let me be clear about something: as disappointed as I am with the American Academy of Family Physicians for being duped into thinking that Coca Cola wants to help promote health, the real problem here is our children are being put at risk.

Companies like Coca Cola are polluting our communities with deceptive advertising promoting products that put our children’s health at risk.

…as a family practice doctor and the Health Officer for Contra Costa, I do have a prescription for every parent, teacher, community leader and student:

Look beyond the glitzy advertising that makes you think pouring liquid containing sugar into your body is healthy. Read the label. Look at the ingredients. I’m not suggesting that you boycott sugared drinks, but please make an informed decision about what you are consuming.

I’m calling on every city and neighborhood in our County to fight back against the industry that pushes these harmful products. I ask the American Academy of Family Physicians to end this unhealthy partnership and to join us in leading this important campaign to take back the health of our residents and end the obesity epidemic.

Strong words, indeed.  I hope that the AAFP – and other health and nutrition organizations that might consider food industry partnerships – pay close attention to these words.

* The event was covered in the Contra Costa Times. The Health Department’s website includes the press release and also a video and podcast.

Addendum:

Dr. Wendel Brunner, PhD, MD, Director of Public Health in the Contra Costa Department of Health Services has given me permission to post excerpts from his letter to a representative of the California Association of Family Physicians who had asked for more information about the protest:

“The epidemic of obesity is the greatest public health and clinical medicine issue of our time, and will lead to untold disease, shortened life spans, and medical cost. That epidemic took off rapidly in the 80’s. While genes and personal choices do have an impact on obesity, only profound environmental changes could lead to such a rapid development of the epidemic, and it will only be stopped by policy development and environmental and norm change. We need to create an environment that supports people in making good choices for themselves and their families.

One of the best choices families can make is to pretty much eliminate sweetened beverages. And the soda industry doesn’t want that to happen, so they are looking for credible groups who will say that drinking soda is OK for your health. But you know all that already, which makes this even more frustrating.

I am an old county doctor, but I still believe that physicians have a responsibility to advocate for their patients and fight to protect their health, and to first of all, do no harm. I am truly gratified to see that our younger physicians in Contra Costa have those same values too. The responsibility of a physician to their patient is a sacred trust; physicians should never sell out their patients’ health and well-being for a price, not even one “in the mid six figures”.

The AAFP needs to change their policy and thereby begin to redeem themselves. In the process, they would educate the country and do something valuable for the nations health, as well as for their own integrity. If they do not, they will continue an unfortunately long and sordid tradition of professionals and their organizations forgetting their purpose and their ethics and putting their narrow organizational financial interest above the interest of the public that they serve. Resigning membership seems to be the most effective way for physicians to provide a wake-up call to the AAFP, and at this point is the best thing a physician could do to benefit the organization.We anticipate that there will be more resignations as this story develops.

Everything cannot be blamed on the environment or peer pressures or economic factors; patients do have a personal responsibility to make good choices for their health and the health of their families. But physicians have the personal responsibility to make good choices too, and so do the professionals who work for them.

The AAFP and the individuals in it made a bad choice. They now have the responsibility to fix it.”

Oct 28 2009

San Francisco takes on Cocoa Krispies!

Now that the Smart Choices program is on hold, it’s time to take a look at what else is on food packages these days.  My current favorite example is the huge IMMUNITY banner across Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies.

ImmunityI don’t know how you interpret this but my mind boggles at the very idea that eating Cocoa Krispies might protect kids against swine flu.

Apparently, the minds of the San Francisco attorney general’s staff are equally boggled.  They just sent a warning letter to Kellog:

“Specifically, the Immunity Claims may falsely suggest to parents that cereals like Cocoa Krispies are more healthy for their children than other breakfast foods that are not high in sugar and not highly processed.  The Immunity Claims  may also mislead parents into believing that serving this sugary cereal will actually boost their child’s immunity, leaving parents less likely to take more productive steps to protect their children’s health.”

The city attorneys are asking Kellogg to provide copies of all of the consumer and scientific research the company used to establish this claim, or else.  If they don’t get these documents, they will “seek an immediate termination or modification of the advertising claim….”

Good idea.  I can’t wait to see how Kellogg’s – ever at the leading edge of advertising claims – will respond.

But wait!  Shouldn’t the FDA be taking this on?

Oct 27 2009

More veggies for kids and communities

For kids:

The Institute of Medicine has a new report out on setting standards for school meals.  As easily seen in the report summary, the committee offered three main recommendations:

* Increasing the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

* Setting a minimum and maximum level of calories

* Focusing more on reducing saturated fat and sodium

Its report comes with a handy table summarizing the differences between current breakfast standards and those recommended by the IOM committee.  These are refreshingly food-based and follow the three main principles noted above.

For communities:

New York City’s ever active health department did a study on the availability of fruits and vegetables in low-income areas and found just what you might expect – few, if any, supermarkets carrying fresh produce.  To address the gap, the city has instituted the FRESH program, “Food Retail Expansion to Support Health,” to get healthier foods into the inner city.

So much is going on these days that it is hard to keep up with it.  Enjoy!

Oct 26 2009

Which cereals do companies push hardest? The sugary ones!

Kelly Brownell and his colleagues at the Rudd Center at Yale have produced another well researched – and in this case, gorgeously presented – report on the ways cereal companies market their products.

Even a quick look at its summary gives an unambiguous result: most of the marketing dollars are aimed at pushing sugary cereals at kids.  Companies use TV and the Internet to push the least nutritious cereals.

None of this is particularly surprising but it’s great to have the data.  Information about marketing budgets for specific products is hard to get.  It is easy to understand why companies would rather nobody knew how much they spent to get kids to pester their parents to buy Froot Loops or Cocoa Puffs.

Most troubling is the dual marketing.  Advertising aimed at kids pushes sugar.  Advertising aimed at parents uses health claims and self-endorsements like the late (and not lamented) Smart Choices program I discussed in previous posts.

Companies may argue that sugary cereals are good because they encourage kids to drink milk, but the Rudd Center researchers also have shown that kids are happy to eat non-sweetened cereals  Furthermore, if they add their own sugar, they are putting in less than the cereal companies put in.

The bottom line: forget industry self-regulation.  It doesn’t work.

FDA: it’s time to take on health claims.

Oct 23 2009

Smart Choices suspended! May it rest in peace.

Big news!  According to an AP report today, the group that runs the Smart Choices program has announced that it will “postpone” active recruitment of new products and will not encourage use of the logo while the FDA is in the process of examining front-of-package labeling issues.

Who says the FDA does not have any power?  I think it does.  And let’s welcome it back on the job.

As for my nutrition colleagues in the American Society of Nutrition, the group that competed to manage the program and has been defending it ever since, here’s what they now say:

Dear ASN Member,

Today the Smart Choices Program announced the decision to voluntarily postpone active operations and not encourage wider use of the Smart Choices Program logo. This move follows an announcement by FDA Commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, M.D. on Oct. 20, 2009, which said that the agency intends to develop standardized criteria on which future front-of-package (FOP) nutrition or shelf labeling will be based. In a letter captioned, “Guidance for Industry” and posted on its website, the FDA stated: “We want to work with the food industry − retailers and manufacturers alike − as well as nutrition and design experts and the Institute of Medicine, to develop an optimal, common approach to nutrition-related FOP and shelf labeling that all Americans can trust and use to build better diets and improve their health.”

ASN commends the FDA on its announcement of intent to develop standardized criteria on which front-of-pack nutrition and shelf labeling could be based. In addition, ASN fully supports the decision of the Smart Choices Program Board of Directors to postpone their active operations as FDA works to address both front-of-pack and on shelf labeling.  “ASN will continue to provide nutrition science expertise within the dialogue on front-of-pack labeling in order to best serve the interests of the health of Americans,” said ASN President Jim Hill in a statement to media.

Sincerely,

ASN Executive Board

As I have explained in previous posts about Smart Choices, the ASN should never have gotten involved in this dubious enterprise in the first place.  The organization was lucky to get out of this so easily.  I hope it does not make the same mistake again.

The press had a field day with the Smart Choices logo on Froot Loops.  As Rebecca Ruiz at Forbes puts it, “the uproar over the program has conveyed a definitive message to industry: Don’t try to disguise a nutritional sin with a stamp of approval.”

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