Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 14 2009

Obama on food safety!

President Obama had quite a lot to say about food safety this morning and I’m happy to say that it sounds like he gets it: the present system is outdated (it was developed a century ago), too spread out, under-resourced, and hazardous to health.  He’s going to appoint a committee to make recommendations and promises that all will be fixed “under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg.”  I hope she knows what she’s gotten herself into.

In the meantime, here’s his radio address and lawyer Bill Marler’s take on it.  And thanks Bill for posting the entire text of the speech.

And while I’m at it, how about the USDA’s new plan to test the meat at hamburger packing plants four times a month?  Is this an improvement or a clear effort to make sure nobody ever finds anything wrong?  Here’s Brian Hartman’s discussion of that question at ABC News.

Mar 13 2009

A federal calorie labeling law? Uh oh.

Why do I get suspicious when I hear that the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and coalitions of its supporters are in favor of proposed legislation to require calorie labeling in fast food restaurants?  Jim Matheson (Dem-Utah) has just introduced a bill that the NRA and its supporters think is just fine.  Why?  It requires calorie information on menu boards or some other place in the store (hidden under the counter, perhaps?).  The New York City initiative puts the information on menu boards in the same size type as the price.

Mar 11 2009

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg!

Three cheers for Margaret Hamburg who, rumors say, is to be the new FDA Commissioner.  We worked in the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the same time in the late 1980s when I was a nutrition policy advisor and she was assistant to the director.  Since then, I have followed her career with great interest and admiration, especially when she headed up the New York City Health Department.  She’s a great choice.  This is a really tough job and she will need all the help we can give her.  So I’m starting with Go Peggy!

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Mar 11 2009

EWG’s guide to pesticides on produce

The Environmental Working Group has just issued its guide to coping with pesticides on fresh fruits and vegetables.  It’s handy shopping card identifies the Dirty Dozen (highest in pesticides) and the Clean Fifteen (lowest).  Organics, it says, are still the best choices!

And here’s how they did the study.

Mar 10 2009

How expensive are the peanut butter recalls?

Bill Marler, the lawyer whose specialty is helping clients obtain compensation for food poisonings, knows as much about food safety – or the lack thereof – as anyone I know.  He estimates the total cost of the peanut butter recalls as close to $1 billion.  This accounts for the costs of the recalls themselves ($75 million to Kellogg alone), as well as the costs of lost sales, advertising and public relations, and stock prices.  And that’s just to the companies.  Perhaps he will do another estimate for the 677 people (as of March 1) who are known to have become ill as a result.

In the meantime, the fact that Peanut Corporation of America filed for bankruptcy is unlikely to affect victims’ ability to collect damages.  Much of those costs will be covered by insurance.

I guess food companies think it’s cheaper to do things this way than to produce safe food in the first place.  That, of course, is why we need better federal oversight, and the sooner the better.

Guidance alert, just in: the FDA has issued after-the-fact advice to the industry about how to produce peanuts safely.

Update March 12: Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru, polled readers about the recalls.  All knew about them and most were not buying recalled products.  But 45% said they had stopped buying peanut butter, even though regular peanut butter was not involved in the recalls.

Mar 9 2009

Keeping Congress busy: Roquefort cheese!

If you have ever wondered why Congress cannot seem to get its act together, try Roquefort cheese.   Apparently, in the waning days of his administration, former President Bush, no doubt still angry at France for its stance on Iraq, imposed a 300% tax on Roquefort cheese.  Sacre bleu (OK, Roquefort)!  As Representative James Oberstar (Dem-MN) makes clear, this is no trivial matter.  If President Obama wants to improve U.S.-French relations, this is an easy way to begin.  You want affordable Roquefort?  Tell your Congressional representatives to reverse this tax!

As for contacting Congress, nothing could be easier.

Mar 8 2009

Foodie magazines: a quick summary

It’s Sunday, so let’s take a break and browse some food magazines.  These, from high-end Gourmet to mass-market Food and Family, are responding to the economic crisis by focusing on basic cooking skills.  In writing about this new trend, the New York Times business section has produced a terrific overview.  Have trouble telling the magazines apart?  Want to know how their advertising is doing?  And how about a little history?  It’s all here.  And who knew that Food and Family has the largest circulation of any food magazine (7 million)?  How come?  It’s owned by Kraft Foods, a company that knows what its audience likes.

As for eating well on a tight food budget, here’s Jane Brody’s advice, accompanied by a bunch of low-cost recipes.  Cook up a storm this weekend!

Mar 7 2009

Dietary supplements: GAO says FDA needs to do better

The Government Accountability Office, the agency that keeps a close eye on government integrity, says the FDA ought to be doing a much better job of regulating dietary supplements.  It grants that the FDA has taken “some” or “limited” action to go after potentially unsafe products,  of which, apparently, there are plenty.  The agency, it says, cannot do its job because it lacks resources and recall authority and gives supplements too low a priority.

This is old news, but the report provides an excellent summary of the history and current status of the dietary supplement industry and its regulation.  As is typical of GAO reports, the clarity of presentation is exceptional.  Here’s  what the New York Times reporter says about it.

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