Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 12 2009

Food and climate change: the NYC Summit

While all of that is going on in Copenhagen, the Manhattan Borough President, Scott Stringer, along with Just Food, organized a food and climate change summit today at my university, NYU.  More than one thousand New Yorkers signed up for thirty workshops at the amazing event.  Why amazing?  Because this summit is about advocacy for a more just and sustainable food system, and right now.

My thoughts: the diet that is best for health – more fruits, vegetables, and grains, and less meat, dairy, and junk food – is also the diet that is best for the planet.

Does advocacy for a food system that provides healthy food for everyone constitute a social movement?  Look around the room at the summit.  The answer is an unequivocal YES.  Can one New York City Borough show the way.  YES.

And this one, we will win.

Dec 11 2009

General Mills’ big news: less sugar!

My copy of Thursday’s New York Times business section has a full page ad from General Mills on page B3:

People are talking about sugar in kids’ cereals. General Mills is doing something about it. General Mills commits to reduce the sugar levels in advertised children’s cereals to single digit levels…Today our commitment to further lower sugar levels is among the most aggressive goals in the food industry.  It’s a commitment we’re making in 130 countries around the world.

So that sounds good, no?  But I wondered about two things: WHEN was this going to happen, and WHAT ELSE is in those cereals.

I went to the General Mills website and took a look at its gorgeous pages on “The Benefits of Cereal.” The site is beautifully illustrated with charts showing the changes in sugars per serving during the last couple of years.  Take Lucky Charms, for example.  In 2007, its sugar dropped from 12 to 11 grams per serving, and is now headed for “single digits.”  By when?  It doesn’t say.

General Mills’ press release boasts about all the whole grain its cereals contain:

General Mills’ 2005 whole grain initiative has been called one of the biggest health initiatives in the food industry. The company committed to ensuring that every Big G cereal would help deliver the benefits of whole grain. As a result, every Big G cereal now provides at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving, with many cereals providing 16 grams of whole grain or more.

Maybe, but what about the non-Big G kids cereals?  Lucky Charms, for example again, has only one gram of fiber per serving, making it a low-fiber choice.  It also has 190 mg sodium (half a gram of salt) per serving.sugar_21

As for the banner on calcium and vitamin D: the cereal contains 10% of the Daily Value per serving, which goes up to 25% if you put milk on the cereal.    As the cereal makers are always assuring me, the point of kids’ cereals (sweet, salty, low-fiber) is to get kids to drink milk.

All of this leads again to that philosophical question: does a reduction of one or two grams of sugars per serving make these cereals a GOOD choice for your kid?   Does a little less sugar turn Lucky Charms into a health food? Is a time-insensitive commitment to reduce sugars a real commitment?

Is this action worth a full-page ad in the New York Times?  General Mills must thing so. But why do I think this is more about marketing than about kids’ health?

You decide.

Dec 10 2009

More school lunch meat shockers

That pesky newspaper, USA Today, has done it again.  It’s latest exposé on food safety points out that USDA rules for meat are more stringent for fast food than they are for school lunches and that fast food companies do a much better job of producing safe meat.

The reporters say, for example, that the schools use “old-hen” meat, whereas fast food places do not.  But things are getting better.  The USDA used to buy 30% of all the old-hen meat available, but now only buys 10%.

The article elicited an immediate response from the USDA. An offical wrote USA Today that USDA’s standards for meat sent to schools have been “extremely successful in protecting against food-borne pathogens…inspections and tests of that meat exceed those required for meat sold to the general public.”  That, alas, is not what these articles suggest.

While Congress is dithering over the FDA’s rules for food safety, it ought to be looking at USDA’s also.  At the moment, USDA has better rules than FDA but doesn’t always bother to enforce them.

Congress: get busy!  Better yet, how about considering a complete overhaul and creating ONE food safety agency!

Dec 9 2009

FDA’s new pet health & safety widget!

After years of complaints about how hard it is to get information about pet food recalls, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has  taken a big step to solve the problem.  It just posted a new widget for pet health and safety.  Technophobic dinosaur that I am, I can’t figure out how to load it.  I went to the link above, copied the code, and pasted it, but I can’t get the cute web gadget to display.  All that shows on my screen is a link to the site.

The FDA hosted a webinar on Tuesday about how to use it.  Alas, I was off giving lectures and couldn’t tune in on it, but the FDA posted the conversation on the website.

Gina Spadafori at Pet Connection was on the call, has much better technical skills than I do, and managed the upload.  She talks about how the FDA has “gone all widgety” and has some cautiously optimistic things to say about it.

This web gadget ought to make it easy for FDA to give the pet community straight information about foods recalled and not.  And anyone who wants to track this sort of thing can look it up on the site or, maybe, download it.  Good idea!  Cheers to the FDA!  And let’s hope the FDA uses is early and often.

Dec 8 2009

The latest food safety measure: vaccinate cows?

What is to be done about E. coli O157:H7?  In the last two years, the USDA reports an astonishing 52 recalls of meat contaminated with these toxic bacteria compared to only 20 in the three years before that.

Apparently, the cattle and beef packing industries are unwilling or unable to produce safe meat, even though they could be doing much, much more to reduce bacterial infections: follow a decent HACCP plan and test-and-hold, for example.

The alternatives?  Late-stage techno fixes.  First, we had irradiation. Now we have vaccination!    Or so said the New York Times last week in a front-page story on two new anti-E. coli vaccines, one actually in use and one still under study.

The vaccines have been in development for a long time but were held up because they aren’t as effective as one would like, to say the least.  They are said to reduce the number of animals carrying toxic E. coli by 65% to 75%.  That should help, but will it solve the problem?

Doesn’t this argue for more efforts on prevention?  Or am I missing something here too?

Dec 7 2009

Saving the earth: Coca-Cola?

I greatly admire the work of Jared Diamond.  His book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, is as clear an explanation as you will ever get of how the inequitable distribution of favorable geography, climate, and natural resources affects the development and maintenance of human societies.

But here he is, incredibly, in the Sunday New York Times writing a fan letter to corporate social responsibility for protecting those favorable environments.  He writes:

There is a widespread view, particularly among environmentalists and liberals, that big businesses are environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits. I know — because I used to share that view.  But today I have more nuanced feelings…I’ve discovered that while some businesses are indeed as destructive as many suspect, others are among the world’s strongest positive forces for environmental sustainability.

And which corporations does he include as “strongest positive forces?”  Chevron, Walmart, and Coca-Cola.   I’ll leave discussion of Chevron and Walmart to others, but Coca-Cola?

Coca-Cola, Diamond says, is protecting the world’s water supplies.  The company needs clean water in the 200 countries in which it operates.  This, says Diamond:

compels it to be deeply concerned with problems of water scarcity, energy, climate change and agriculture. One company goal is to make its plants water-neutral, returning to the environment water in quantities equal to the amount used in beverages and their production. Another goal is to work on the conservation of seven of the world’s river basins, including the Rio Grande, Yangtze, Mekong and Danube — all of them sites of major environmental concerns besides supplying water for Coca-Cola. These long-term goals are in addition to Coca-Cola’s short-term cost-saving environmental practices, like recycling plastic bottles, replacing petroleum-based plastic in bottles with organic material, reducing energy consumption and increasing sales volume while decreasing water use.

Please note the future tense.  These are things Coke says it plans to do.  As for what the company is doing now, Diamond does not say.  His piece does not mention Coke’s negotiating with officials in developing countries to buy water at rates significantly below those charged to local communities, a topic under much discussion when I was in India last year.  It does not mention campaigns in India to hold Coke accountable for its abuse of local water rights or any of the similar campaigns in other countries.

Diamond’s piece does not talk about the efforts Coke puts into selling bottled water at the expense of local water supplies.  As described by Elizabeth Royte in her book, Bottlemania, companies like Coke exhibit every one of of the characteristics formerly deplored by Diamond in attempting to secure plentiful and reliable sources of cheap local water: in his words, “environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits.”

Diamond says he sits along side and has gotten to know and appreciate the motives of many corporate executives.  Me too.  Personally, many of them mean well and wish that they could do more to be socially responsible.  But they work for businesses that are required, by law, to make short-term profit their reason for existence.  This means that corporate social responsibility is necessarily limited to actions that bring visible – and immediate – returns on investment.

We need some critical thinking here.  If Diamond gave any thought at all to what Coca-Cola produces – bottled water and sodas – he would surely have to agree that less of both would be good for our own health and that of the planet.

Dec 5 2009

Food agencies at work (or not): FTC

The Federal Trade Commission is the third agency dealing with food policies, this time advertising.  As I’m fond of saying, the FTC is not exactly a consumer protection agency.  Its main purpose is to make sure that businesses stay competitive.  In 1978, under the leadership of Michael Pertschuk, the FTC made a valiant attempt to regulate food marketing to children.  That disaster, which I have discussed in previous posts, kept the FTC from doing anything about marketing to kids – until recently.

On December 15, it is holding a forum on food marketing to children in Washington, DC.  Here’s the agenda and information about registration.  They will also do a webcast linked to that site.

Guess what?  A forum like this isn’t necessary, says the industry-sponsored Children’s Food and Beverage Initiative. We are doing just fine, it says, and we don’t need regulation.

But that’s not all the FTC is doing. It had so much fun trying to get information from food companies about their marketing-to-kids practices that it is trying the same thing with quick service and fast food restaurants.  The FTC says it is seeking “Information from those companies concerning, among other things, their marketing activities and expenditures targeted to children and adolescents and nutritional information about the companies’ food and beverage products marketed to children and adolescents.”  This sounds easy, if a bit confusing, but my guess is that the FTC will have to pull teeth to get it.

In the meantime, a few comments have already been filed in response to the notice.   The ones from industry are predictable: too expensive! Too difficult! My guess is that they have this information readily available but are embarrassed to reveal it. Why? It undoubtedly will show that the companies spend the most money on the junkiest (and most profitable) products.

Michael Pertschuk, by the way, is still going strong.  In June, he wrote an article on the FTC for The Nation. His article has much to say about the way the FTC is operating these days and is well worth a look.  As he explains, the FTC was

created in 1914 during the Progressive Era, [and] was endowed with a potent authority for promoting competition and consumer protection that it has never fully used. This includes investigative authority over virtually all businesses, backed by subpoena power and the capacity to demand reports of data that corporations would rather withhold from public view…For the first time in decades, the Senate and House authorizing and oversight committees and the judiciary committees are pressing the agency to act more aggressively on the consumer-protection and competition fronts and are prepared, as needed, to strengthen its enforcement powers….But Congress needs to take action to unleash the FTC’s full potential. First, it remains a small agency with broad and complex responsibilities and cumbersome procedural burdens, especially in rule-making. Here, the FTC’s champions in Congress can make certain that Congress supplies more resources and streamlines the FTC’s authority. The agency also has a chronic problem of setting priorities: wherever it turns, there are corporate malefactors, large and small, deserving of prosecution.

But read the whole thing and see whether you think his optimism is justified.  Better yet, go to the workshop on the 15th!

Dec 4 2009

Food agencies at work (or not): FDA

Front-of-Package Labels: The FDA is hard at work trying to do something about public understanding of food labels.  What with the fuss about the Smart Choices program (now withdrawn), FDA wants to get the front-of-package labeling under control.  It is considering various formats for giving a quick overview of the nutritional quality of food products.  FDA is asking for public comment on the various formats (see Federal Register notice).

The FDA chose five versions (plus variations) for comment:

  1. A mini Nutrition Facts version called Nutrition Tips
  2. A UK traffic lights version
  3. A version like Hannaford’s Guiding Stars
  4. A version like the discontinued Smart Choices
  5. One that just highlights calories/servings

I rather like this one, a variation of #1 (colorful, easy to understand, not too cluttered, and makes calories clear).

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The Nutrition Facts Panel: The FDA also is taking another look at the Nutrition Facts panel on the back of food packages.  It is seeking public comment on  a plan for consumer research to test understanding of elements on the Nutrition Facts panel.  Here’s the Federal Register notice with all the information about what’s going on and where to file comments.

What’s interesting about this is that the FDA has great social science researchers on staff.  They’ve been kept under wraps the last eight years and apparently are being let loose again.  Even so, they don’t get to just go out and do studies like we academics do (with human subjects approval, of course).  Oh no.  First, they have to announce that they plan to do the studies (which they did some time ago) and get comments on the idea.  Then they do the research plan and have to ask for further comments on the research design.  That’s what this notice is about.  Once they deal with these comments, they can finally get to work.    It’s a miracle if they do anything at all.  Keep them busy: send comments!

Agency Transparency: The Association of Health Care Journalists (ACHJ) and ten other journalism organizations have filed a complaint.  The FDA, they say, is still requiring journalists to obtain permission from an agency official in order to conduct interviews with staff members.  This is a leftover from the Bush administration.  Time to get rid of it.

Blogging: It is especially time to open up to reporters because Michael Taylor, who is now senior advisor to the FDA commissioner, is now blogging on the Atlantic Food Channel (which also reprints my posts).  If he can blog, FDA staff can talk to reporters.

Addendum: Beverages pretending to be dietary supplements: The FDA has just issued guidance to the beverage industry to stop putting herbal supplements into beverages and calling them dietary supplements so they can get around food rules on health claims.  If a beverage is consumed as a food, it should be labeled as a food.  Guidance, of course, is non-binding but I see this as a warning that the FDA is going to be enforcing its own rules.  Good show!

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