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.
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.
As we have learned all too often, dishonest food companies cut corners on food safety any time they can get away with it. That is why inspections are absolutely necessary. Right now, the inspection system is largely voluntary and all too easily corrupted. In a series of articles in the New York Times, we now learn that some of the peanut butter caught up in the recent recalls was Certified Organic, and that the plants had passed inspection by USDA-licensed organic certifiers.
As for conventional foods: today’s front-page article expands on flaws in the food inspection system. Inspectors, for example, are paid by the plants they are inspecting (oops). Here’s my favorite quote, attributed to Mansour Samadpour, a food safety consultant: “The contributions of third-party audits to foods safety is the same as the contribution of diploma mills to education.”
When I was doing the research for my book, Safe Food, I visited a plant that manufactured meat products. The plant manager told me that you could butcher a dog in front of the onsite USDA inspector and he would never see it. I believed him: inspectors only see problems if they know what to look for.
All of this makes me think that inspections need to be done by independent agencies that are rewarded for finding problems, not ignoring them. Mandatory HACCP (standard food safety procedures) with testing and inspection would help too. And if the organic food industry wants the public to believe that organic foods are better, it must make sure that production methods meet organic standards in letter and spirit. Otherwise, why bother to pay more for organic foods?
The USDA needs to close loopholes and insist on the integrity of the inspection system. The FDA needs to figure out a way to get its inspection needs under control. These are issues for Congress to handle. I keep wondering: How bad do things have to get before Congress does something useful about food safety?
Senator Dick Durbin (Dem-IL) has introduced The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act to give this beleaguered agency the tools and resources to do its job properly. The proposed Act got immediate endorsements from food industry trade groups: grocery manufacturers, producers of fresh vegetables, and producers of frozen foods, for example.
How come food lobbying groups suddenly want a stronger FDA? No doubt because the alternative is a single food safety agency that would impose real rules with real teeth, and would oversee the safety of food from farm to table. Rosa DeLauro introduced just such a bill in the House.
And how’s this for today’s rumors (most definitely unconfirmed): Michael Osterholm is up for USDA undersecretary for food safety and Michael Taylor for head of the White House Office of Food Safety. Caroline Smith DeWaal, a strong consumer advocate for foods safety is out of the running; she works for Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). These are just rumors. If they turn out too be true, I will have more to say about the potential nominees.
I talked my way into a press screening of Food, Inc. last night. Good thing. This film is the riveting documentary directed by Robert Kenner due for release soon but already generating lots of buzz, and for good reason. It’s a terrific introduction to the way our food system works and to the effects of this system on the health of anyone who eats as well as of farm workers, farm animals, and the planet. It stars Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, among others, but I was especially moved by Barbara Kowalcyk, the eloquent and forceful food safety advocate who lost a young son to E. coli O17:H7 some years ago. I can’t wait for the film to come out so everyone can see it. I will use it in classes, not least because it’s such an inspiring call to action. Here’s the trailer.
The creativity of marketers never ceases to amaze. Johnson & Johnson, maker of the artificial sweetener, Splenda, has a product-placement partnership with Harlem Heights, the BET reality show aimed at the black hip and fabulous. As the New York Times puts it, the partnership is about integration – this time of products into the daily business of cast members. The Times quotes BET’s vice-president for integrated marketing: “You need to…understand exactly where some of the natural, organic places for integrations are, so things don’t feel staged.”
At last, a new meaning to the idea of integration!
Today’s snow storm has closed New York schools and cancelled my scheduled lecture on Staten Island. This unexpected holiday gives me time to contemplate the latest challenge to marketers of chocolate candy: gas emissions from dairy cows.
Cadbury estimates that 60% of the carbon footprint created by its chocolate operations in the U.K. comes from dairy cows. The average cow, it says, gives off 80 to 120 kilograms of methane annually, an amount equivalent to that produced by driving a car for a year.
The remedy? Reduce cow burps. How? Cadbury is going to try feeding them more clover, more starch, and less fiber, and treating them better.
Will this work? If it does, will you buy more Cadbury chocolate?
Parke Wilde, a professor at Tufts who writes a blog on food policy, has just sent me his analysis of food companies’ attempts to self-regulate the way they market junk foods to children. As he puts it, self-regulation is at a “critical juncture.” Translation: the voluntary system isn’t working very well. Food companies, he suggests, must do a better job or expect others to do it for them.