Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 4 2009

Update on swine flu. Oops (sorry): H1N1

The Guardian’s Mike Davis says Mexican swine flu is “a genetic chimera probably conceived in the faecal mire of an industrial pigsty.”  No wonder the pork industry is so upset about the bad publicity caused by swine flu.  Their solution to this problem?  Call it something else.  This worked and the official name of the disease is now Influenza A (H1N1).    No direct evidence, it seems, links pork CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) to this particular strain of H1N1 to human influenza.  Of course there is no direct evidence.  Nobody has been looking for it.

But now Canada has found some pigs sick with H1N1 at a farm in Alberta.  Oops again.  The World Health Organization (WHO) thinks the pigs caught the disease from a farm worker who had traveled to Mexico.  WHO reports nearly 900 cases worldwide.  As for the U.S., the New York Times has a nifty map of where the cases have been found.

Scientists have been worrying about transmission of swine flu to people for some time.  In 2003, Science magazine noted that the classic swine flu virus, H1N1, was mutating rapidly, suggesting that neither pigs nor people could remain immune to it.  And nobody was doing any surveillance for swine flu.  The Institute of Medicine, also worried, published major reports on the threat, prevention, and treatment of pandemic flu.

These days, the CDC is monitoring the situation and reports the U.S. case count is up to 226 (as of May 3).  The CDC also reports international cases and describes specific cases in California and Texas.  And, it notes, the virus is becoming increasingly resistant to antiviral drugs.  But not to worry.  It doesn’t look H1N1 will turn out to be a big worldwide pandemic like the deadly one in 1918.  At least not this time.

May 2 2009

Weekend entertainment: play Global Grocer!

That busy organization, Food and Water Watch, has produced a virtual shopping cart that lets you see where food comes from.  Click on frozen cauliflower and learn that 75% of it is imported, mainly from Mexico. The details come from the group’s report, The Poisoned Fruit of American Trade Policy.

While you are on the site, you can play another game: find the factory farms in your state.  And take a look at its other materials.  The site is complicated but one easy way to navigate it is to click on the numbers under the main banner on the home page.  This leads you to pages that list reports and other useful materials. This group is well worth knowing about if you are looking for facts about these issues.

May 1 2009

Farm Foundation seeks policy ideas. Win prizes!

The Farm Foundation, an non-profit organization sponsored by groups such as the National PorkProducers Council, the National Corn Growers Association,  and the United Egg Producers, has issued a report, The 30-Year Challenge.  This outlines the problems faced by industrial agriculture in feeding the world’s rapidly growing population.   Based on the report, the Foundation announces a 30-year challenge competition to encourage submission of policy ideas for meeting the world’s growing need for food, feed, fiber, and fuel.  The announcement of the competition is a bit short on details but does say that prizes total $20,000 and the deadline for submission of policy ideas is June 1.

Here’s a chance to let the Farm Foundation know what you think about agricultural policies and why it’s time to start working on sustainable solutions to food production.  And maybe even win a prize!

Addendum: Mary Thompson of the Farm Foundation sends along the details (you have to scroll down to the second page).  She adds this point of correction:

We take issue, however, with your description of Farm Foundation as an organization sponsored by producer groups. Farm Foundation has a 76-year history of objectivity.  We do not lobby or advocate.  The majority of our operational funds are from our endowment, which was created by our founders in 1933…We do an annual fund drive, seeking contributions from individuals, other NGOs, and companies who wish to support the Foundation’s work in providing comprehensive and objective information on timely issues impacting agriculture, food systems and rural communities…We recruit and accept third-party funding for specific projects only with the understanding that Farm Foundation leads and directs the project.  Third-party funders do not control the direction or products produced in the project.”


Apr 30 2009

FDA to ponder food ranking symbols

Confronted with the proliferation of symbols on food labels ostensibly designed to alert customers to “better choices” of packaged foods (see my previous posts on this topic), the FDA held a hearing.  It has now followed up with a memo on what it plans to do about them.  The agency posed many sensible questions about the criteria, use, and interpretation of such symbols at the hearing, but heard “little evidence.”   The FDA wants more research before deciding what to do.

Fine, but in the meantime how about a moratorium on the use of all such symbols?  Just asking.

Apr 29 2009

Is Stevia really “natural?”

The April 26 New York Times Magazine carried a seductive ad on page 15 for PepsiCo’s “Trop50 orange juice goodness with 50% less calories and sugar…And no artificial sweeteners”  PepsiCo performs this miracle by diluting the juice by half with water (really, you could do this at home).  But in case the result isn’t sweet enough for you, Trop50 adds the sweetener, Stevia.

PepsiCo can get away with claiming that its juice drink has no artificial sweeteners.  Because Stevia is isolated from leaves of the Stevia plant, the FDA lets companies claim it is “natural.”

We can debate whether a chemical sweetener isolated from Stevia leaves is really “natural” but here’s another problem: Stevia doesn’t taste like sugar.  Companies have to fuss with it to cover up its off taste.  And, they must do so “without detracting from the perceived benefits of its natural status.”  Flavor companies are working like mad to find substances that block Stevia’s bitter taste, mask its off flavors, and extend its sweetness, while staying within the scope of what the FDA allows as “natural.”

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a Stevia PR representative eager for me to see the company’s website.  “Naturally delicious” anyone?

Apr 28 2009

No patents on seeds!

Carmelo Ruiz, who blogs about agricultural issues from his bilingual base in Puerto Rico, sends information about the “no- patents-on-seeds” coalition.  This group of European advocates for open sharing of seeds and breeding methods has produced an excellent new report: The Future of Seeds and Food.  Here is a terrific summary of the current patent situation, the growing concentration of the seed industry, the legal situation (not pretty), and ideas for doing something about it.

Patents, says the report, block innovation and access to essential genetic resources, and they “foster market concentration, hamper competition, and serve to promote unjust monopoly rights.”  To address world hunger, open systems of plant and animal breeding would work much better.

If you, as I do, find issues of genetic patenting uncomfortably arcane, check out this report.  It makes clear why such patents matter and why something urgently needs to be done about them in Europe as well as in the U.S.

Apr 27 2009

Swine flu, CAFO’s, Smithfield, China: connecting the dots

Eating Liberally’s ever curious kat connects the dots between the current swine flu crisis (getting worse by the minute) and China’s interest in buying America’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods.  She wonders what I think about all that.  See the latest Ask Marion: “Who needs bioterrorism when we’ve got manure lagoons.”

April 29 update: Here is Grain’s report on these connections.

Apr 25 2009

Weekend entertainment: the cost of fast food calories

Smart Money has produced a most instructive display of the cost of 100 calories in meals at fast food restaurants.  Click on the numbers starting with #1 (for which you have to click on #2 – the numbers are off by 1 for some reason).  #1 is the most expensive: $1.47 per 100 calories for at McDonald’s Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken.  # 13 (click on #14) is a Burger King Double Whopper with Cheese at 49 cents for 100 calories but you have to buy 1010 calories at this price.  The cheapest, #15 (click on #16) is a 32-ounce Coca-Cola at 38 cents per 100.

It would be interesting to do the same thing for nutritional value.  Could nutrients (other than calories) be proportional to cost?  That idea might be worth a closer look.

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