Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 3 2008

Vote!!!

Lucien Joppen, who writes for Voedingsmiddelen Industrie, a Dutch food business magazine, asked this question: What does the U.S. election of either Obama or McCain mean for food and health policy? Here’s what I told him in English:

If it is McCain, it is business as usual or – impossible as it may be to imagine – worse. If Obama is elected, things could get better. The decision to vote for Obama may be a matter of the triumph of hope over experience, but everyone I know who cares deeply about social issues wants him to win, and by a huge margin. I do too.

The history of American politics teaches that once elected, candidates do not necessarily keep campaign promises so let’s not deal with the details. Both candidates have issued vague health care proposals and neither seems willing to take on insurance companies and demand what experts believe is absolutely necessary to fix the system: develop a single-payer health care program with universal coverage. If McCain is elected, we have no reason to expect improvement. If Obama wins, we can hope that he will use his mandate to push through a single-payer system.

As for food policy, the big question is who is appointed to lead the USDA. Historically, the USDA has promoted the interests of agribusiness. It still does, but the agency is now also responsible for everything connected to food policy: farm subsidies, land use, organic standards, international food trade, food assistance to low-income families, and dietary advice to the public. If McCain is elected, expect to see another USDA Secretary who represents agribusiness. I do not know who is advising Obama about agricultural issues (he has not asked me, alas), but let’s hope his advisers have a broad view of food and nutrition policy that includes social concerns about food security and food equity. Maybe we will get lucky. Let’s hope for fair weather and a huge voter turnout. Every vote counts, and—according to this video—mine is especially valued (and yours too!).

Nov 2 2008

Eating Liberally: What’s up with salt?

For this week’s Q and A on Eating Liberally, kat connects the dots between the recent increase in salt-induced kidney stones in children and the food industry’s new Smart Choices labeling system which, as I pointed out a few days ago, is particularly generous in the salt standard.

Nov 1 2008

Dietary Guidelines: the process begins

According to Food Chemical News, November 3 (which, alas, only subscribers can read online), the first meeting of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines committee began with speeches from the agency sponsors.  FCN quotes Penelope Slade Royall, deputy assistant secretary of health in HHS’s Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (an office in which I worked from 1986-88):

“even when the new guidelines are approved and released in 2010, there’s nothing the committee can do to change people’s behavior…There are very dedicated people across the country working on these [guidelines] and I don’t understand why we’re not more successful.”

Really?  I can make some guesses.  Why not start by making the guidelines clear, direct, and unambiguous?  How about “eat less sugar,” “eliminate sugary drinks,” “eat less fast food,” “eat less often,” and “eat smaller portions.”   Or just the mantra of What to Eat: “Eat less, move more, eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and don’t eat too much junk food.”

Oct 31 2008

Diabetes rates double, especially in South

The CDC announces that rates of type 2 diabetes have nearly doubled overall in the last ten years,and more than doubled in states in the south and in Puerto Rico.  Ten years ago, the average was around 5%; now it’s around 10%.  No surprise: the rates closely track rates of obesity.

Oct 31 2008

More fuss over bisphenol A

The FDA’s lack of concern (see previous post) about the safety of bisphenol A has now come under criticism from a subcommittee of its own science advisory board.  As described in USA Today, the board criticizes the FDA for relying too heavily on industry-funded studies and not holding the studies to rigorous scientific standards.    Here’s the board’s report.  An earlier story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal charged that the FDA used research – and a research summary –  provided by the plastics industry as the basis of its original conclusion that bisphenol A posed no problems.  It looks like this is turning out to be one of those unfortunate examples of industry interference with the risk assessment process.  The science of food toxicology is difficult enough without this sort of thing happening.  Alas.

Oct 31 2008

Australians like traffic-light food labels

We will be seeing industry-sponsored ratings on food packages.  Australians, on the other hand, are considering front-of-the-package traffic lights.  Thanks to Morten Strunge Meyer (MortenCopenhagen) for sending this link to the Australian report on this proposed system.

Oct 28 2008

New food rating label: a step forward?

Big Food companies have gotten together and agreed on a scoring system to identify “better-for-you” packaged foods (see below).  Thanks to my colleague in Copenhagen, Morten Strunge Meyer (MortenCopenhagen), for sending the link to the qualifying crieteria.  As is true of scoring systems in general, these are complicated and constitute a slippery slope.  Take sodium, for example.  The allowance is particularly generous (junk foods don’t taste good without it) – 480 mg per serving.  That means 479 mg qualifies and that’s still nearly half a gram.

Having one checkmark instead of the various ones run by PepsiCo, Kraft, and Unilever seems useful if – and only if – the criteria are stringent (which this one is not for sodium), and this symbol replaces all of the others.  Even so, this looks like preemption.  It’s voluntary and seems designed to head off a mandatory traffic light system (red, yellow, green)  that would warn people away from the worst junk foods.  It also preempts the FDA proposal to display the full number of calories per package.  Alas, this is a standard food industry tactic: preempt with something that seems better than what is currently available to stave off something that could be worse.

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Oct 27 2008

Worried about food safety? You should be

 A new poll says 90% of U.S. consumers are worried about food safety, but 79% of the worried think the problems are with imported food and only 21% are worried about domestic food.  Everybody should be worried about both, if you ask me.  The U.N. says China needs to do something about its food safety problems, and fast.  That would help.  China reports that melamine has been found in eggs, of all things (the chickens ate contaminated feed?).  So would cleaning up our own food safety system.

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