Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 2 2009

What’s up with Nutro pet foods?

I wish I could answer all the questions that come in under Feedback but the one from Sophie about the recent recall of Nutro pet foods is on my mind, not least because it is so mysterious.

Some history: As I discuss in Pet Food Politics, Nutro brands were caught up in the melamine recalls in 2007.  The company initially recalled several lines of dog and cat foods.  When owners reported animals sick from eating brands that had not been recalled, Nutro recalled others.  In the wake of that mess, the company was sold to Mars Petcare (yes, the maker of M&Ms) later that year.

The present fuss: Since then, more than 800 pet owners have complained to a website, ConsumerAffairs.com, that their pets got sick or died after eating Nutro products.  Consumer Affairs’ Lisa Wade McCormick followed up by contacting the FDA and filing a Freedom of Information Action (FOIA) to see what the agency had on consumer complaints about Nutro.  Someone at the FDA told her they were denying her FOIA request because Nutro was under investigation.  But then the FDA said it was not investigating Nutro.  But then, people who contacted Consumer Affairs said the FDA had talked to them about their sick pets. So was the FDA investigating Nutro or not?

While Consumer Affairs was trying to figure this out, Nutro announced its “voluntary” recall of dry cat foods, found to contain “incorrect levels of zinc and potassium…resulting from a production error by a US-based premix supplier.” Translation: The FDA does not have recall authority; all recalls are “voluntary.”   Zinc and potassium are essential minerals.  Vitamins and minerals in pet foods – or breakfast cereals for that matter – are added as  pre-manufactured mixes.

The Nutro press release says the company has had not gotten any consumer complaints about the recalled products but that cat owners should watch out for loss of appetite, refusal of food, weight loss, vomiting, or diarrhea.  These are precisely the symptoms that have been reported to Consumer Affairs over the last couple of years and that might be expected from zinc poisoning.

So how much zinc was in the pet food? The company press release did not give the amount of zinc found in its products.  Neither did the FDA.  The FDA announcement merely said that the premixes contained too much zinc and too little potassium.  Lisa McCormick, however, reports that levels of zinc in Nutro dog (not cat) foods were once found to contain 260 parts per million (ppm).  The AAFCO standard for zinc in cat foods is 75 ppm dry weight.  For dog food it is 150 ppm.

Would a level of 260 ppm be dangerous?  Nobody really knows.  According to the most recent National Research Council report, not enough information is available to establish a safe upper limit, but 260 ppm seems like it ought to be within tolerable limits.  But maybe it’s not?  For humans, the recommended intake level is about 10 mg/day with an upper limit of 40 mg/day.

So what is going on here?  In this, as in anything having to do with pets, I defer to Christie Keith, who writes about pets for petconnection.com and for the San Francisco Chronicle. In her recent column on the Nutro business, she lays out the issues as only she can do:

Call me crazy.  Call me a dreamer.  Call me a radical progressive liberal socialist.  Or instead, call the real FDA a failure as a watchdog on the American food supply – both human and animal – that it was created to protect…this was and is a story about the safety of Nutro foods…But I think there’s a much bigger story here.  The FDA works for us.  We pay its bills.  And it’s supposed to ensure the safety of the American food and drug supply for both people and animals…[The result is that] Nutro is left to mop up after a PR mess made all over the Internet, pet owners have no idea what to believe or what pet food to buy, and the FDA has nothing more to say.  We lose.  Our pets lose.  Even the pet food companies lose.  And that’s the story.

Let’s hope that the facts emerge soon.  In the meantime, a few conclusions seem clear.

For pet owners: Don’t buy recalled Nutro products for your pets (the list is in the press releases from Nutro and the FDA).  Insist that Nutro and every other pet food company give you information about what’s in the foods, how they know the amounts are correct, and what their test results show.

For pet food companies: Know your suppliers and test every every ingredient.  If you want your customers to trust your products, release the test results on your websites. 

For the FDA: Take pet foods seriously. I keep insisting that we only have one food supply, and it’s the same for animals, pets, and people.  If the melamine recalls taught us anything, it is that if something is wrong with pet foods, people foods will be in trouble too (recall: melamine in Chinese infant formulas).  And how about being more transparent about what you are doing?  That too might help instill trust.

For the government: How about funding some research on the dietary needs of dogs and cats.  The more we know about their nutrient needs, the more we will know about our own.

For everyone: Insist that the companies that make foods for people and pets tell you what is in their products, where the ingredients come from, whether they are testing, and what the results of those tests might be.

This is why pet food politics matter (and why I went to the trouble of writing a book about the melamine recalls).

May 30 2009

NYC celebrity sighting: The Obamas at Blue Hill!

One of the things about living in New York City is that you run into celebrities all the time and pay no attention.  As it happens, my partner and I were meeting Sidney Mintz and his wife tonight at my neighborhood restaurant, Blue Hill. We wondered why the street was blocked off, a huge crowd gathered at one end, and secret servicemen all over the place.

The Obamas!  At the next table!  Six feet away!  I can’t tell you what they ate because Dan Barber cooked for them.  But I saw the President pay the bill.

Turns out this was their promised night out, and the Republicans are already complaining that it cost the taxpayers too much.  From the applause in the restaurant when they were leaving, the picture-taking mob in front of the restaurant, and the crowds lining 6th Avenue, this is one expense nobody minds.   They looked they were having fun.  We did too.

And here they are dressed for Blue Hill and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

June 1 update: Obama Foodorama has some more details, as does the New York Times. And then there’s Frank Bruni’s complaint about the choice of restaurant.  Well, you had to be there.

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May 30 2009

My latest San Francisco Chronicle column: Gluten Intolerance

My once-every-three-weeks column for the San Francisco Chronicle is set up as a Q and A.  I don’t get many questions through the column, but the few that do come in are often quite challenging.  This one is from a school chef wondering how to deal with kids who might be gluten intolerant – and whether gluten intolerance is becoming more common.  Interesting questions!  Here’s what I had to say about them.  If you have questions about food and nutrition that you’d like me to answer, send them to food@sfchronicle.com (put Marion Nestle in the subject line).

May 29 2009

Washington State U. vs. Michael Pollan (and Bill Marler)

For days now, my e-mail inbox has been flooded with messages about the flap at Washington State University over Michael Pollan’s Ominivore’s Dilemma. The messages come from Bill Marler, the Seattle-based “food poisoning attorney” and blogger whose firm specializes in class action lawsuits on behalf of victims of foodborne illness.

This is a good story.  The university bought copies of Omnivore’s Dilemma to distribute to the freshman class (a common community-building exercise at universities these days).  Then, it decided not to give them out.  Could corporate pressure from Washington State agribusiness have had anything to with this decision? No, said the university; they just couldn’t afford to bring Pollan to the campus.

Marler called their bluff.  If it’s really about money, he said, he’d pony up.   The result: the event is back on.

But I’m curious.  Does it really cost $40,000 to get Pollan to travel from Berkeley to WSU?  Pollan says no.  I just hope Marler gets to keep the change and use it to help sick kids.

May 28 2009

The latest from Red Bull: Cocaine!

According to Time online, advertising for the sports drink Red Bull Cola made officials in Germany so suspicious that they did a little testing.  Ach du himmel!  Traces of cocaine.  No wonder guys like it so much.

Here is the ingredient list: Water, Sugar, Carbon Dioxide, Caramel Color, Natural Flavors from Plant Extracts (Galangal, Vanilla, Mustard Seed, Lime, Kola Nut, Cacao, Licorice, Cinnamon, Lemon, Ginger, Cocoa Leaf, Orange, Corn Mint, Pine, Cardamom, Mace, Clove), Lemon Juice Concentrate, Caffeine from Coffee Beans.  With these, you get 130 calories, virtually all from sugar, and some unstated amount of caffeine – along with some other no longer quite so secret ingredients, apparently.

Yum.

Update June 5: European regulatory authorities think this is a non-issue and plan no action.

May 27 2009

Outsourced agriculture: the new colonialism?

The Economist, that radical magazine, has produced an editorial and a long article about how rich countries in the Middle East and Asia are rapidly acquiring agricultural land – and the water rights that go with it – in impoverished developing countries in order to ensure food security for their own populations.  The buyers are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait,  South Korea, China, and the like.  The sellers?   Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, and Pakistan.

If this sounds uncomfortably like colonialism revisited, it is for good reason.  As The Economist so nicely puts it, while putting agricultural land to good use might help reduce Third World malnutrition, “these advantages cannot quell a nagging unease.” From whence comes the unease?  The deals raise questions about lack of transparency, government collusion, bargain prices, effects on local food markets, and who gets the benefits.

The Economist suggests the need for a dose of skepticism, not least because of the size of the purchases – an astonishing total of 15 to 20 million hectares so far (a hectare is about 2.5 acres).  Advises The Economist: “defer judgment and keep a watchful, hopeful but wary eye” on the process.

This sounds optimistic to me.  You?

May 26 2009

Latest court ruling: Pringles are potato chips (sort of)

Ah the British.  So ahead of us in so many ways.  A British court has ruled that Pringles have enough potato in them to qualify as crisps (translation: potato chips) and, therefore, are subject to a Value Added Tax of 15%.  Procter & Gamble, the maker of Pringles, argued against the tax.  Pringles, it says, are not crisps.  Why?  Because their shape and packaging are “not found in nature.”   Tough, said the court.  Pringles are 42% potato.  That’s enough to qualify them as crisps.  Under the law, crisps get taxed.

Pringles are 42% potato?  OK, but what else do they contain?  Here’s the ingredient list: DRIED POTATOES, VEGETABLE OIL, RICE FLOUR, WHEAT STARCH, MALTODEXTRIN, SALT AND DEXTROSE. CONTAINS WHEAT INGREDIENTS. (You will be relieved to note: No artificial ingredients.  No preservatives.)

Hey: potatoes are the first ingredient!  I say tax ’em.

Update May 25: Here’s what Advertising Age has to say about the Pringles-as-a-vegetable idea.  Pringles, it says, was able to supply the entire world with its product out of one factory in Tennessee, precisely because of its infinite shelf life and packaging.  Ordinary potato chips, alas, get rancid after a while.

May 23 2009

And now…orange juice!

I’ve been hearing about Alyssa Hamilton’s new book (pub date: May 26) for some time now.  It’s called “Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice.”  From what I can tell, it takes on the orange juice industry for processing the joy out of the juice.  Hamilton is currently with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.  She is Canadian and the Toronto Star has just interviewed her about the book.

I’m looking forward to reading it.  My son in California has an orange tree growing in his backyard.  The juice from its oranges is delicious even though it doesn’t taste nearly as sweet as commercial orange juice.   Orange juice producers want to offer a stable, consistent product.  It sounds like this book suggests that the taste-and-health costs of that consistency are pretty high.

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