Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 15 2008

Qualified health claims–eeks!

Applause for our representatives who have written the FDA to something better about qualified health claims (to read the actual claim, scroll down to the end of the text, just above the signature). These, in case you have forgotten, are claims that companies can put on food product labels as long as the claim is accompanied by a disclaimer. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but here’s the one for corn oil: “Very limited and preliminary scientific evidence suggests that eating about 1 tablespoon (16 grams) of corn oil daily may reduce the risk of heart disease due to the unsaturated fat content in corn oil. FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim (my emphasis). To achieve this possible benefit, corn oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.” Maybe the letter will induce the FDA to review this policy?

Mar 14 2008

Food safety as part of homeland security?

I’ve just been interviewed by HS (Homeland Security) Daily Wire about food safety in a globalized economy.  The interviewer started off asking about the implications of mature capitalism so we were at it right away.  I’m not sure what this group is, but the interview was fun to do.

Mar 14 2008

My first pet food interview!

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I’m working on a couple of books about pet food. The first, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, comes out in September from University of California Press (no info there yet, but soon, hopefully). After the Pet Expo in San Diego, I was interviewed by Pet Connection about this book and the next one, What Pets Eat, which I’m doing with Malden Nesheim for Harcourt, and which won’t be out for years.

Mar 13 2008

Consolidation in the meat industry: a good thing?

A reader of the last post on the big meat recall asks for the second time (sorry I didn’t get to it earlier): “I recently read an article by Tim Phillpot about the consolidation of the meat industry and how this gives them leverage to control how beef is raised and sold. Apparently JBS (Brazil) is planning on buying National Beef Packing here in the US. The comments say that most analysts think the deals are positive. What do you think are the ramifications of such a concentration of power and influence?”

Indeed. We’ve just seen one result of industry consolidation: a recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef. I’m not sure that everyone views this deal favorably. I’m hearing a lot about anti-trust laws. In its March 5 account, the Wall Street Journal noted that the deals “will almost certainly prompt regulatory scrutiny because of their size and potential effect on the marketplace.”

What’s this about? The U.S. dollar is weak so American companies are a bargain for foreign investors; beef producers are cutting back on production because of the high price of grain (in part because its grown for fuel); and the industry is worried that the government will enforce safety regulations. If you control a big percent of the market–and the newly merged company will control 33% all by itself–you call the shots. I’m hoping that federal regulators will pay as much attention to this huge beef company merger as as it did to the tiny (by comparison) takeover of Wild Oats by Whole Foods last year.

Mar 12 2008

San Francisco votes nutrition labeling

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is requiring chain restaurants to post nutrition information on menu boards–not just calories, as in New York, but also fat, carbohydrates, and sodium. Carbohydrates but not sugars? All that? It will be interesting to see how this works in six months when the rule goes into effect.

Mar 12 2008

Monsanto’s attack on no-BGH labels

Monsanto, the maker of recombinant bovine growth hormone (scientific name, recombinant bovine somatotropin or rBST; trade name, Posilac), is embarked on a national state-by-state campaign to get legislatures to rule that food products cannot be labeled that they are rBGH-free or rBST-free. In his weekend column, The Feed, Andrew Martin details how Monsanto has organized its very own “grass-roots” group, Afact, to campaign on the company’s behalf. As Martin puts it, “consumer demand for more natural products…has certainly interfered with Monsanto’s business plan for Posilac.” As I discuss in my book, Safe Food, Monsanto’s aggressive stance (in this and so many other issues that concern its products) has elicited much suspicion of its motives and of genetically modified foods in general. In 1994, Monsanto worked hard to convince the FDA that GM foods did not have to be labeled as such. Now, this company has only itself to blame for consumer resistance to its products.

Mar 12 2008

What’s the story on MSG?

Last week, Allison wrote: “I recently read the NYTimes article about MSG [monosodium glutamate] and although you were quoted, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.”

This is a tough one. My files on MSG go back to 1971 when the FDA said this flavor enhancer, the sodium salt of an amino acid that forms part of virtually all proteins, was safe for everyone “except for those who are individually sensitive to the substance.” By these, it meant people who reacted to foods containing MSG with headaches, tingling, flushing or other such neurological symptoms. Because Chinese food contained a lot of MSG, the symptoms came to be known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” In the late 1970s, scientists weighed in with reports of placebo-controlled trials that showed no reaction to MSG except for the first half hour after eating it. By 1980, scientists concluded that MSG only caused problems for a small percentage of individuals who had a genetic susceptibility. Placebo-controlled trials continue to find no difference in symptoms when people consume MSG or a placebo. That is why I told the reporter that there was no clinical evidence for problems and why “I thought the issue was settled though I know a lot of people will never believe that.” I wish what I had said next had been included because I went on to explain that such studies cannot account for the very real experience of people who experience symptoms, such as those whose letters appear in today’s Times.

How to make sense of this? MSG susceptibility falls into the category of many other food sensitivities and allergies, most of which are exceedingly difficult to diagnose. The science of food sensitivities, like much of nutrition science, is difficult to do, especially when serious symptoms are relatively rare in the population (it is too expensive to do studies on a large enough sample of individuals to get meaningful results).

If you are one of those people who experiences symptoms from MSG, there is only one thing to do: avoid it. And that brings us to the need to have more informative food labels. One again, we are in the realm of food politics.

Mar 11 2008

Beam food ads to outer space?

Um. I think this may be a joke but I am indebted to Ellen Fried for sending this item. The British intend to beam a commercial for Doritos (Frito Lay/PepsiCo) into outer space. The story ostensibly quotes Prince Charles: “Hopefully, like humans, they [aliens in space] will think our chips look absolutely delicious and want to try some. If the first word the aliens say when they land in their spaceship is Doritos, we will be delighted. The signal takes years to reach the star but if there are any aliens on the way here already maybe they will pick it up.”

Those of us who live in New York and are in shock over our Governor’s escapades can use some levity today. So let’s thank Prince Charles for that and his other good work on behalf of the environment.

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