Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 25 2010

The latest in food ingredients: bribery!

Who knew that the food ingredient business ran on bribes?  The New York Times (print edition) calls its report of the latest scandal, “Hidden Ingredient: The Sweetener.”  By “sweetener,” the Times is not refering to aspartame or even Splenda: it means bribes.

You are an ingredient supplier and want a big food company like Kraft, Frito-Lay, or Safeway to buy your products?  Easy.  Bribe their purchasing managers.

In my book, Food Politics, I discuss food industry sales tactics ranging from soft (advertising, lobbying) to hard (manipulating media, cozying up to federal officials, and suing critics).  These, as I point out, are legal.  Fixing prices, is not.  Neither is bribery.

This is not a pretty story.  Managers were bribed to purchase inferior ingredients such as moldy tomato sauce.  Companies relied on the suppliers for quality assurance.

The moral: companies need to do their own product testing and consumers need to demand that they do.

Thanks to William Neuman of the Times for his excellent investigative report, handicapped as it was by not being able to interview the jailed perpetrators.

Feb 24 2010

Let’s get rid of front-of-package labels!

I have an editorial with David Ludwig in today’s JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association. NOTE: scroll down to find it).  We titled it, “Front-of-package food labels: public health or propaganda?”

We think it’s time for the FDA to consider getting rid of all of them.  How’s that for an idea?

Here’s what Forbes thinks about it.

And FoodNavigator.com.

Update, February 25: the Los Angeles Times wrote about it.

Feb 23 2010

Jamie Oliver’s fix on American school food: watch the video

Jamie Oliver, the British celebrity chef who has taken on school food as a personal crusade against childhood obesity – and with some success in Great Britain – wants to do the same for us.  He is starting with a school in Huntington, West Virginia, a community that gives itself credit for being the unhealthiest in America.

Thanks to NYU student Jessica Watkins for forwarding this video of his plans. The reactions of people in the community to Jamie’s ideas are especially interesting.

This is the start of a TV series.  Is his campaign about theater or is this real public health?  I guess we’ll have to watch and decide.

Update March 7: Here’s Jamie Oliver’s famous TED video.

Feb 22 2010

Food systems affect public health: research!

I’m catching up on my reading and have just gotten to the special 2009 issue of the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition on food systems and public health.  If you – like most public health people – don’t usually think of agriculture as a major factor in health status, the papers in this journal will come as a revelation.  They demonstrate tight links between agriculture and public health issuees such as childhood obesity, food safety, and environmental health.    Best, they are downloadable at no cost, which means they can be easily shared with students.  I will use them in my food policy class next fall.

Feb 21 2010

Do 2-in-1 packs encourage people to eat less chocolate? Alas, no.

European candy makers have been responding to concerns about obesity by taking their ordinary chocolate bars and packaging them so the pack contains two pieces, instead of just one.  Do people eat just one?  According to Dutch researchers, they do not.

Candy eaters “still perceive the entire package as one unit instead of two, because they come in the same wrapper. This also makes them less storable.”

Suggestion: how about making smaller candy bars to begin with?

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?

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