Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 16 2009

World Food Day

Today is World Food Day and I am in Rome giving the 6th Annual George McGovern World Food Day lecture at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  The lecture is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy.

World Food Day marks the founding of FAO on October 16, 1945.  I love the FAO motto: Fiat Panis (let there be bread).  Its job is to make sure the world gets fed adequately.

FAO has just released its 2009 edition of “The State of Food Insecurity in the World.”  It contains nothing but bad news: hunger is on the rise, the global economic crisis is making things worse, with people in developing countries hit hardest.

The George McGovern lecture is in honor of the former U.S. Senator (Dem-South Dakota) and presidential candidate who has had a distinguished history of anti-hunger efforts as director of the Food for Peace program, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, and U.N. global ambassador on hunger.

I am most familiar with his work as chair of the Senate Select Committee from 1968-1977.   This committee greatly expanded food assistance programs and then developed the first federal guidelines for chronic disease prevention: Dietary Goals for the U.S. In Food Politics, I describe the work of this committee and the way it improved the safety net and transformed nutrition education in the United States.

It is a great honor to be giving a lecture in his honor.

Oct 15 2009

Connecticut takes on Smart Choices!

Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney General, says he is about to conduct an investigation into the Smart Choices program because it is “overly simplistic, inaccurate and ultimately misleading.”   Recall that Froot Loops, a product with sugar as its first ingredient, qualifies as a better-for-you option.  Apparently, Mr. Blumenthal is talking to the Attorneys General of other states and several want to join his investigation.  While they are at it, maybe they should also take a look at the role of the American Society of Nutrition in developing and managing this program.

But count on the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) to defend Froot Loops as a Smart Choice.  Explains ACSH’s Jeff Stier:

Froot Loops and Lucky Charms have the ‘Smart Choices’ label. They have sugar in them, but they also contain half of a person’s daily requirement of some vitamins. If we’re able to give kids those nutrients, it should be okay to give them some sugar. If they sold these products without sugar, kids wouldn’t eat them, or they might end up adding even more on their own….Don’t companies have the right to say those foods are better than others? It’s not as if they are making specific health claims, rather these are just comparative claims.

This Richard Blumenthal is the same one who has been seeking to ban e-cigarettes…Connecticut may have more serious problems to focus on than banning e-cigarettes and worrying about companies trying to point consumers to healthier products. Froot Loops obviously isn’t the healthiest food out there, but it’s better than many others.

It’s that debatable philosophic argument again: Is a so-called “better-for-you” product necessarily a good choice?

[Note: I’m in Rome this week and am most grateful to the six people who sent me the Times article and the two who sent the ACSH post.  Thanks so much!]

Oct 14 2009

Larry King Live on unsafe meat

Bill Marler has posted a handy link to his Monday night appearance on Larry King Live on which he, and many others, were on to discuss meat safety.  As Marler puts it, the discussion got sidetracked – I would say derailed – from food safety to whether eating meat is good for you or not. Among others, Colin Campbell, the committed vegan scientist who wrote The China Study, was given plenty of air space to argue no it is not.

Despite Marler’s best efforts, and those of mothers and grandmothers of children sickened by eating meat contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, King refused to let anyone get a word in edgewise about the need to fix our food safety system.

Forgive me, but we know what needs to be done about food safety.  As I am ever intoning, we need a single agency devoted to food safety that combines the safety functions of FDA and USDA.  That agency needs to require and enforce a science-based safety system (of the HACCP type) for all foods, from farm-to-table.

Will we ever get it?  Only if people like Larry King catch on to the problem and help generate enough public outrage to get Congress to move on food safety.  King had the chance.  He blew it.

Oct 13 2009

School food makes news, endlessly

I can think of many reasons why school food is such a hot topic these days: kids eat a significant portion of their daily calories in schools, schools set an example for what is appropriate for kids to eat, and schools are a learning environment.  Here’s the latest on what’s happening on the school food scene:

1.  The New York City Education Department announces new rules for school vending machines, as part of its new school wellness policies.  According to the account in the New York Times, the vending machines have been empty since the Snapple contract ended in August (Really?  That’s not what I observed a couple of weeks ago).  The new standards will exclude the worst of the products but the lesser evils will still be competing for students’ food dollars, thereby continuing to undermine the solvency and integrity of the school meal programs.

2. The CDC reports (MMWR, October 5)  that junk food is rampant in schools, but the percentage of schools in which children are not permitted to buy junk food or sodas is increasing in at least 37 states.

3.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) takes the USDA to task for not alerting schools when foods in the school meals programs – meat or peanut butter, for example – have been recalled because they are contaminated with dangerous bacteria.  Usually, the GAO talks straight to government.  I don’t know what happened in this case but here is its first, rather incoherent, recommendation to USDA regarding the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS):

To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS and that the Secretary of HHS should direct FDA to jointly establish a time frame for completing a memorandum of understanding on how FNS and FDA will communicate during FDA investigations and recalls that may involve USDA commodities for the school meal programs, which should specifically address how FDA will include FNS in its prerecall deliberations.

The other recommendations make somewhat more sense.  They begin by repeating the first part up through “the Secretary of USDA should direct FNS to”:

  • develop guidelines, in consultations with the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA), to be used for determining whether or not to institute an administrative hold on suspect commodities for school meal programs.
  • work with states to explore ways for states to speed notification to schools.
  • improve the timeliness and completeness of direct communication between FNS and schools about holds and recalls, such as through the commodity alert system.
  • take the lead among USDA agencies to establish a time frame in which it will improve the USDA commodity hold and recall procedures to address the role of processors and determine distributors’ involvement with processed products, which may contain recalled ingredients, to facilitate providing more timely and complete information to schools.

This needs an editor, but you get the idea.

4.  The GAO has produced yet another report, this one devoted to getting states to comply with federal rules about meal counting and claims.  These are measures designed to make sure that ineligible kids don’t get fed.  I wish I knew how much money such measures cost.  They are a tragic waste.  We need universal school meals.  Period.

5.  And then there is Jamie Oliver, who has transformed the British school meals system and is now attempting to bring his school food revolution to the United States (see the food issue of the New York Times magazine).  One can only wish him luck.

Oct 12 2009

San Francisco Chronicle column

For my latest San Francisco Chronicle column, I borrowed a query from a reader of this blog demanding financial disclosure.  This gave me the opportunity to discuss how sources of funding – especially from food companies – raise questions about whom to trust when it comes to nutrition advice.  Thanks to all of you who commented on that original post.  Most interesting.

The column appears in the Food and Wine section.  Although the San Francisco Chronicle, like many newspapers, is ailing badly, this section has just been selected by the Association of Food Journalists to win its award for best section.  I’m proud to be part of it.

Oct 9 2009

Another sad partnership story: AAFP and Coca-Cola

On October 6, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) announced its new partnership with Coca-Cola.  What does AAFP get from this?  A grant “to develop consumer education content on beverages and sweeteners for FamilyDoctor.org.”

The AAFP, says its president, looks forward to

working with The Coca-Cola Company, and other companies in the future, on the development of educational materials to teach consumers how to make the right choices and incorporate the products they love into a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Coca-Cola must be thrilled with this.  As its CEO explains in an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, soft drinks are entirely benign and have nothing to do with obesity.  Obesity is due to lack of physical activity and eating too much of other foods, not Coke.  His view of the situation is entirely predictable.

But what about the AAFP?  Family practice doctors have been telling me for years that it is not unusual for them to see overweight kids and adults in their practices who consume 1,000 to 2,000 calories a day from soft drinks alone.  The first piece of advice to give any overweight person is to stop drinking soft drinks (or other sugary drinks).

This partnership places the AAFP in embarrassing conflict of interest.  I gather that members were not consulted.  They need to make their voices heard.  I hope AAFP members decide that no matter what Coke paid for this partnership, their loss of credibility is not worth the price.

Addendum: Here’s what a Chicago Tribune blogger has to say about this.

Further addendum, October 10: As noted in the comments, AAFP members were consulted, more or less.  Apparently, they decided Big Food was less of a problem than Big Pharm.  Really?  How about selling out to neither?

Oct 8 2009

Should we irradiate meat?

In response to the revelations about meat safety (or the lack thereof) in the New York Times comes a letter from J. Patrick Boyle, President and Chief Executive of the American Meat Institute.  Mr. Boyle’s letter is worth reading:

  • It contains not a trace of apology.
  • It says meat is much safer now due to industry efforts.
  • It considers E. coli O157:H7 a “fact of nature” like floods or flu (i.e., unpreventable).
  • It blames the USDA for meat safety problems.

Why the USDA?  The USDA will not let meat packers irradiate carcasses to sterilize them.

Is irradiation the key to meat safety?  It kills bacteria, no question.  And it does not make meat radioactive.  But the sterilization is incomplete and temporary and irradiated food must be handled like fresh food.

As I discuss in my book, Safe Food, E. coli O157:H7 most definitely is preventable.  That is why I view irradiation as a late stage techno-fix.  It zaps dirty meat and lets this industry get away with producing dirty meat in the first place.

Nobody ever explained the problem with irradiation better than Carol Tucker Foreman, now at Consumers Federation of America: “sterilized poop is still poop.”

Oct 7 2009

What’s up with calorie labeling?

So the New York Times ran a story about early research on the impact of New York City’s calorie labeling postings by fast food restaurants.  The research, done by some of my New York University colleagues, looked at what customers said they were doing and compared what they said to what they actually did.  Oops.  Customers said the labeling made them choose foods more carefully but they actually bought more calories.

So, should we give up on this idea?  No way.  These are preliminary results looking at what happened during the first few weeks of calorie labeling in fast food places in low-income areas of New York City.  In such areas, restaurant choices are few, cheap food is a necessity, and people go to fast food places precisely because they can get lots of calories at low cost.

I can think of several excellent reasons for calorie labeling, none of them addressed by this particular study and all of them supported by considerable observational evidence:

  • People do not understand calories very well; calorie labeling can begin the education process especially if accompanied by materials explaining that most people require about 2,000 calories a day.
  • Some people – not all, of course – will change their behavior and choose lower calorie items when they realize how many calories are in fast food.
  • Fast food places will reduce the number of calories in the items they serve.

This last may be the most important.  Just as labeling the amount of trans fat in processed foods caused food manufacturers to eliminate trans fats from their products, so fast food sellers are looking for ways to reduce the calories in their products.  This is already happening and is the easiest way I can think of to encourage people to eat less: don’t serve as much.

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