Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 6 2009

Without honest inspections, we won’t have safe food

As we have learned all too often, dishonest food companies cut corners on food safety any time they can get away with it.  That is why inspections are absolutely necessary.  Right now, the inspection system is largely voluntary and all too easily corrupted.  In a series of articles in the New York Times, we now learn that some of the peanut butter caught up in the recent recalls was Certified Organic, and that the plants had passed inspection by USDA-licensed organic certifiers.

As for conventional foods: today’s front-page article expands on flaws in the food inspection system.  Inspectors, for example, are paid by the plants they are inspecting (oops).  Here’s my favorite quote, attributed to Mansour Samadpour, a food safety consultant: “The contributions of third-party audits to foods safety is the same as the contribution of diploma mills to education.”

When I was doing the research for my book, Safe Food, I visited a plant that manufactured meat products.  The plant manager told me that you could butcher a dog in front of the onsite USDA inspector and he would never see it.  I believed him: inspectors only see problems if they know what to look for.

All of this makes me think that inspections need to be done by independent agencies that are rewarded for finding problems, not ignoring them.  Mandatory HACCP (standard food safety procedures) with testing and inspection would help too.   And if the organic food industry wants the public to believe that organic foods are better, it must make sure that production methods meet organic standards in letter and spirit.  Otherwise, why bother to pay more for organic foods?

The USDA needs to close loopholes and insist on the integrity of the inspection system. The FDA needs to figure out a way to get its inspection needs under control.  These are issues for Congress to handle.  I keep wondering:  How bad do things have to get before Congress does something useful about food safety?

Mar 5 2009

Food Safety Legislation: Fix FDA vs. Fix the System?

Senator Dick Durbin (Dem-IL) has introduced The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act to give this beleaguered agency the tools and resources to do its job properly.  The proposed Act got immediate endorsements from food industry trade groups: grocery manufacturers, producers of fresh vegetables, and producers of frozen foods, for example.

How come food lobbying groups suddenly want a stronger FDA?  No doubt because the alternative is a single food safety agency that would impose real rules with real teeth, and would oversee the safety of food from farm to table.  Rosa DeLauro introduced just such a bill in the House.

And how’s this for today’s rumors (most definitely unconfirmed): Michael Osterholm is up for USDA undersecretary for food safety and Michael Taylor for head of the White House Office of Food Safety.  Caroline Smith DeWaal, a strong consumer advocate for foods safety is out of the running; she works for Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).  These are just rumors.  If they turn out too be true, I will have more to say about the potential nominees.

Mar 4 2009

Food, Inc.: The Movie

I talked my way into a press screening of Food, Inc. last night.  Good thing.  This film is the riveting documentary directed by Robert Kenner due for release soon but already generating lots of buzz, and for good reason.  It’s a terrific introduction to the way our food system works and to the effects of this system on the health of anyone who eats as well as of farm workers, farm animals, and the planet.  It stars Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, among others, but I was especially moved by Barbara Kowalcyk, the eloquent and forceful food safety advocate who lost a young son to E. coli O17:H7 some years ago.  I can’t wait for the film to come out so everyone can see it.  I will use it in classes, not least because it’s such an inspiring call to action.  Here’s the trailer.

Mar 3 2009

Equal-opportunity product placement: Splenda

The creativity of marketers never ceases to amaze.  Johnson & Johnson, maker of the artificial sweetener, Splenda, has a product-placement partnership with Harlem Heights, the BET reality show aimed at the black hip and fabulous. As the New York Times puts it, the partnership is about integration – this time of products into the daily business of cast members.  The Times quotes BET’s vice-president for integrated marketing:  “You need to…understand exactly where some of the natural, organic places for integrations are, so things don’t feel staged.”

At last, a new meaning to the idea of integration!

Mar 2 2009

Today’s chocolate problem: cow burps

Today’s snow storm has closed New York schools and cancelled my scheduled lecture on Staten Island.  This unexpected holiday gives me time to contemplate the latest challenge to marketers of chocolate candy: gas emissions from dairy cows.

Cadbury estimates that 60% of the carbon footprint created by its chocolate operations in the U.K. comes from dairy cows.  The average cow, it says, gives off 80 to 120 kilograms of methane annually, an amount equivalent to that produced by driving a car for a year.

The remedy?  Reduce cow burps.   How?  Cadbury is going to try feeding them more clover, more starch, and less fiber, and treating them better.

Will this work?  If it does, will you buy more Cadbury chocolate?

Mar 1 2009

Self-regulation of food marketing to children: an analysis

Parke Wilde, a professor at Tufts who writes a blog on food policy, has just sent me his analysis of food companies’ attempts to self-regulate the way they market junk foods to children.  As he puts it, self-regulation is at a “critical juncture.”  Translation: the voluntary system isn’t working very well.  Food companies, he suggests, must do a better job or expect others to do it for them.

Feb 27 2009

Calories count (duh?)

Researchers, bless them, have done the obvious at last and published it in the February 26 New England Journal of Medicine (and here’s how USA Today explains the study).  They put some intrepid volunteers on 1400-calorie diets varying in content of protein (15-25%), fat (20-40%), and carbohydrate (35-65%) and waited to see how much weight they would lose by the end of two years.  Ta-da!  The participants all lost a lot of weight in 6 months, but slowly gained it back.  By the end of 2 years, they lost about the same amount of weight regardless of the mix.  Conclusion: when it comes to weight loss, how much you eat matters more than what you eat.  Or, as I am fond of saying, if you want to lose weight, eat less!

Feb 26 2009

Food marketing news II: Baked Lays

Food marketing is on my mind these days.  It clearly is also on the mind of marketers at Pepsi.   What’s wrong with you women.  You aren’t buying enough Baked Lays? Pepsi’s research on your feelings about snacking and guilt reveals that you want foods that are healthier.  Pepsi’s answer to this problem?  New packaging, of course.   This ad is probably too small to read but here’s what it says: First woman: “These things are the best invention since the push-up bra.”  Second woman: “I wouldn’t go that far.”  I wouldn’t either, alas.

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