Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 4 2009

FDA cracks down on weight loss products

The FDA has its hands full these days, what with peanut butter, no commissioner, and Daschle withdrawing for consideration as secretary of Health and Human Services (the FDA’s parent agency).  Even so, the FDA is concerned about weight loss supplements that it considers fraudulent, and has now gone after 70 of them.  The FDA has a lot on its plate, as it were, and let’s hope the new administration figures out a way to make oversight of the food supply a priority.

February 10 update: the New York Times has a long piece on this problem.  Turns out that a lot of these so-called herbal products actually contain weight loss drugs of one kind or another.  They are not supposed to.

Feb 2 2009

Hope for the FDA at last: Sasha eats peanut butter!

Thanks to Food Chemical News for telling its readers about the President’s appearance on the NBC Today Show this morning:  

Matt Lauer: There’s been a massive peanut butter products recall in this country over the last several weeks, most of the products traced to one plant in Georgia that has a bit of history of sending out products even though there have been traces of Salmonella found. The question…the obvious question people want to know is, “Is the FDA doing its job?”

President Obama: Well, I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch. And so we are going to be doing a complete review of FDA operations. At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter. That’s what Sasha eats for lunch, probably three times a week, and you know I don’t want to have to worry about whether she is going to get sick as a consequence of having her lunch.

This leaves me breathless.  I’ve been saying for years that the only thing that would ever get Congress moving on the FDA would be if a relative of an important Senator became seriously ill with food poisoning, not something I would wish on anyone.  Fingers crossed everyone!

Feb 2 2009

Food industry wants stronger FDA?

Food safety must be becoming a huge problem for the food industry.  A group of ten food trade associations, one of them the Grocery Manufacturers of America, is calling on Congress to give the FDA the resources and power to impose stronger food safety regulations.  Really?  Have food companies finally figured out that a strong FDA would be good for business (consumer confidence, level playing field)?  Or are they thinking that this will give them the chance to write the regulations?

Jan 31 2009

San Francisco Chronicle: what’s up with vitamin D?

My latest column for the San Francisco Chronicle tackles today’s vexing questions about vitamin D.  How much do we need? How much is safe? How much of the fuss about it is due to marketing hype? No easy answers on this one, alas.

Jan 30 2009

Food scoring-and-ranking systems: thoughts

Food Production Daily, a food industry website from the U.K., has some  interesting things to say about food scoring and ranking systems, and especially about how their proliferation is so confusing to the public.  There are so many now, that nobody can keep them straight.  My sentiments exactly.

July 24 update: Fortunately, the website, fooducate.com, keeps track of them.  This is a great place to get started!

Jan 29 2009

Latest chapter in peanut butter saga

The CDC reports more than 500 cases and 8 deaths from Salmonella typimurium in peanut butter produced at a single plant in Georgia owned by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).

Fortunately, the number of reported cases is going down.FDA officials reveal that the PCA plant has a history of knowingly shipping peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella. But these incidents did not involve the same strain.

The peanut industry says this is one bad peanut and everyone else’s peanuts are OK.

I say (again and again): Peanuts are not kcovered by standard food safety regulations (voluntary Good Manufacturing Practices demonstrably do not work).  We need HACCP food safety regulations – with Pathogen Reduction –  for all foods, from farm to table.

January 30 update: Apparently, the New York Times editorial staff agrees with me!  And no wonder, given what their reporters are saying about ithis incident.

Jan 28 2009

More on Bisphenol A

How serious a problem is Bisphenol A, the hormone-like substance that leaches from some plastic water bottles?  The answer: how would we know?  According to investigative reporter, David Case, most of the studies of bisphenol A toxicity are sponsored by corporations that spin the results.  Take a look at his most interesting January 14 report, The real story behind bisphenol A.

In theory, whoever is paying for a study should not matter.  In practice, the sponsor matters a lot.  It’s not that scientific investigators are corrupt; most aren’t.  But sponsorship – perhaps unconsciously – influences the design of studies as well as their interpretation.   According to Case, the bisphenol A studies are a good example of this phenomenon.  You can find other examples filed under Sponsorship.

Jan 27 2009

Mercury in high fructose corn syrup

Never a dull moment.  The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a think-tank in Minneapolis, tested brand-name foods made with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and found about half of them to contain mercury.  HFCS, it seems, is made by a process that involves lye, which in turn is made in chlorine – alkali plants by a method that uses mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin, although not as bad a toxin as methymercury, the kind that accumulates in large, predatory fish. A scientific report published in Environmental Health says the amounts of mercury in HFCS ranged from 0.00 to 0.57 micrograms per gram. The IATP’s bottom line: the process for making HFCS should be changed to one that does not introduce mercury.

This seems like quite sensible advice, but how worried should we be about mercury in HFCS? I agree that mercury in any form is unlikely to be good, but I have no idea whether such low levels do measurable harm.  For one thing, these studies did not compare the amounts of mercury found in HFCS to those typically found in foods that do not contain HFCS.  My guess is that most foods contain low levels of mercury because mercury is prevalent in air, water, and soil, especially around coal-burning power plants.  Also, soft drinks are the major sources of HFCS in American diets, but these were found to be relatively free of mercury.  This is puzzling.

If anything, these studies are a call for more research on heavy metal toxicology.  In the meantime, let’s lobby for changing this process for making HFCS, but even more so for cleaning up coal-burning power plants that supply 40% of mercury in our environment.

Update January 28: Food Production Daily has a good report on this, with quotes from the Corn Refiners.

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