Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 4 2013

Feds must take stronger action against salmonella

My monthly (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: When I read that people are getting sick from salmonella in Foster Farms chicken, I don’t know what to do. Are we supposed to stop eating chicken?

A: I share your frustration.

Last month, the Department of Agriculture warned that chicken produced by Foster Farms plants in California was linked to illnesses caused by a strain of salmonella Heidelberg which is resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Although these antibiotics are not the ones usually used to treat salmonella, antibiotic resistance in general makes bacteria more virulent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now reports 362 people ill with this strain, three-quarters from California, with a shockingly high – 38 percent – rate of hospitalization.

And because most food-borne illness is never reported, some estimates suggest that there could be 9,000 cases of chicken-induced illness in California alone.

The USDA’s response? It did not require Foster Farms to recall the chicken; it just told the company to clean up its act.

According to the USDA, it’s your responsibility to make sure you don’t get sick. You should be following basic household food safety rules, cooking chicken to 165 degrees, and using a food thermometer to make sure.

Fine, but shouldn’t chicken be safe before it gets to you? You should not have to run your kitchen like a maximum-security biological laboratory.

Besides, cooking chicken to 165 degrees may not be enough. Costco, to its credit, recalled rotisserie – cooked – chickens from its store in South San Francisco when people reported getting sick after eating them. Nobody knows whether the cooking temperature wasn’t high enough or the chickens got cross-contaminated later.

Salmonella, alas, is hardly a new problem. In 1971, public health advocates petitioned the USDA to put salmonella warning labels on chicken. But the USDA said no. Salmonella, it said, is an inherent contaminant of raw meat, not an adulterant. The USDA had no need to act. You just needed to learn how to cook chicken properly.

In the 1990s, the USDA finally issued better rules for poultry safety. Despite them, the CDC reports a steady rise in salmonella outbreaks and illnesses.

The industry responds that the salmonella issue is a complex one because the bacteria are inherent in bird species.

Sorry, but salmonella illnesses are preventable.

If people are getting sick from eating contaminated chicken, the companies are not following safety rules, and the USDA is not enforcing them.

This is about politics, not public health.

For decades, advocates have complained about the USDA’s conflicting missions to promote agricultural production and protect consumer health. We have called on Congress to unite federal food safety oversight within one independent agency. Failing that, we insist that the USDA enforce its own rules.

The USDA’s recent decision to allow American poultry meat to be shipped to China for processing is hardly reassuring. The mind boggles to think that chickens raised and slaughtered in America would go to China to be turned into chicken nuggets and then come back here to be sold.

Also for decades, safety advocates have called for an end to the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in meat and poultry production. Antibiotics not only induce resistance, they induce virulence. Fortunately, the Foster Farms bacteria are still susceptible to the kinds of antibiotics most effective against salmonella, but victims of the next outbreak may not be so lucky.

Why do Congress, federal agencies and the White House permit meat and poultry producers to continue reckless use of antibiotics? Chalk this up to industry lobbying and campaign contributions.

If you can afford it, buy chicken that has not been factory farmed. Even so, you must cook the meat to a temperature that will kill bacteria, avoid cross-contamination, and sterilize everything the chicken comes near.

But the salmonella problem goes way beyond your own kitchen.

We all need to press for a food safety system that holds public health as its first priority. This means empowering the USDA to enforce its own rules, uniting the functions of USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, and using antibiotics in meat and poultry production only for therapeutic purposes.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Eat, Drink, Vote,” “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com

Nov 1 2013

Eat, Drink, Vote in Boston on Sunday

I’m signing copies of Eat, Drink, Vote at the American Public Health Association annual meeting in Boston’s convention center on Sunday, November 3.   This will be at the APHA Press booth #935 in the Expo hall.  Come say hello!

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Oct 31 2013

Happy food politics Halloween

Thanks to Food and Water Watch for this tidbit.

How much candy do Americans buy—and presumably eat—for Halloween?

According to ConfectioneryNews.com, Halloween is the largest seasonal period for confectionery in the United States generating candy sales of nearly $2.4 billion just in the last two weeks of October.

Enjoy the holiday.

Oct 30 2013

Let’s Move!’s latest: Sesame Street characters free to produce marketers

Coming soon to a supermarket near you: Sesame Street characters on packages of vegetables.

The Let’s Move! press release begins:

Washington, DC – As part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, Mrs. Obama today joined Sesame Street’s Elmo and Rosita to announce that Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) joined the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) in a two-year agreement to help promote fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to kids, making those healthy choices a little easier for busy parents and families to make.

The agreement allows PMA’s community of growers, suppliers and retailers to utilize the strength and influence of the Sesame Street brand without a licensing fee, using characters like Big Bird, Elmo, Rosita and Abby Cadabby to help deliver messages about fresh fruits and vegetables. Sesame Street characters may be on produce in stores as early as mid-2014.

This is big news.  Let’s Move! is attempting to level the marketing playing field and give fruits and vegetables a competitive edge.

I, of course, have mixed feelings.  I’ve long been on record as opposed to marketing anything to kids, whether good, bad, or indifferent.

Marketing is not education. Education is about imparting knowledge and promoting wisdom and critical thinking.

Marketing is about creating demand for a product.

Children are demonstrably unable to tell the difference or, for that matter, to distinguish marketing from entertainment.  That is why marketing to children crosses an ethical line.

But if the foods are healthy, don’t the ends justify the means?  Isn’t anything that gets kids to eat healthy foods worth doing?  After all, kids live in a marketing environment, so marketing might as well be used to do good rather than harm.

This is the rationale behind the marketing of baby carrots with “eat ‘em like junk food” ads.  Reportedly, these ads increased sales of baby carrots.

But perhaps this campaign also reinforced the idea that kids are only supposed to eat foods that come with cartoons or toys?

I’d like to see the data on the long-term effects of the campaign on sales, whether sales dropped when the commercials stopped, and whether they affected kids’ attitudes toward eating vegetables in general.

In the meantime, this will be an interesting experiment.  I’m hoping researchers are ready to go, have their evaluation methods in place, and are already collecting baseline data.

Also in the meantime, ProPolitico writers Byran Tau and Helena Bottemiller Evich point out that “Michelle Obama policy initiatives are a big deal for big business.”   Their article begins:

The latest Let’s Move! event is brought to you by the letter K. As in K Street.”

It explains how:

corporate America’s biggest players…stand to benefit from exposure, public goodwill generated from being involved in a public health or charitable effort or the policy itself.  Big lobbying forces and major industry groups like the American Beverage Association, the International Bottled Water Association, the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Restaurant Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many others have all worked closely with the East Wing on those initiatives, both of which heavily focus on private sector contributions.

If kids eat more healthfully for the next couple of years as a result of this campaign, it will be hard to do anything but applaud it.

Although the questions raised by this campaign are uncomfortable, I’m going to try to keep an open mind and wish it the very best of success.

Addition, October 31: Obamafoodorama’s eyewitness account includes the First Lady’s press release.

Oct 29 2013

How charitable is McDonald’s? Not very, says new report.

If McDonald’s apparently generous support of Ronald McDonald House Charities leaves you with warm feelings about the company’s philanthropic efforts, it’s time to rethink those feelings.

Michele Simon’s latest report, Clowning Around with Charity, should destroy all illusions about McDonald’s charitable giving.

New Picture (7)

The report comes to some interesting conclusions.  McDonald’s, it finds:

  • Promotes itself through Ronald McDonald House Charities but contributes only about 10% of the charity’s revenue.
  • Takes credit for donations.
  • Sells unhealthy children’s menu items by linking their sale to very modest charitable giving.
  • Profits from marketing to children in schools under the guise of charity and education.
  • Spends about a billion dollars a year on marketing, but only a small fraction of that amount on charitable causes.
  • Donates a lower percentage of its profits to charities than many other corporations and private citizens.
  • Explicitly created Ronald McDonald House for public relations purposes.

If you think about it, none of this is surprising, but it’s fascinating to have it all in one place.

Here’s today’s coverage so far:

Oct 28 2013

Interview with Maria Rodale about the politics of your plate

I was recently interviewed by Maria Rodale about Eat, Drink, Vote (published, not coincidentally, by Rodale Books).

Politicians in Washington may bicker back and forth about issues that don’t seem all that immediately relevant to your daily life, but their decisions do trickle down to you—three times a day, every time you sit down for a meal. Your dinner plate (and your cereal bowl and your lunch box) are ruled by politics, from the lobbyists who made your chicken cheaper to the Congresspeople who listened to food marketers’ pleas to limit restrictions on advertising to children.

Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University and author of the popular FoodPolitics.com blog, has tried to capture the politics of your plate in a new book, Eat Drink Vote, a compilation of political cartoons that perfectly capture the absurdity that is our nation’s food regulatory system. (Check out a sampling: The 19 Biggest Food Problems in America)

Here’s the video:

Oct 25 2013

Remarks at James Beard food conference

I participated in the James Beard Foundation’s annual food conference, Paradox of Appetite: Hungering for Change, earlier this week in a panel with other recipients of the 2013 James Beard Leadership awards.

If you would like to hear my short remarks (and see the video prepared for the award), click below.

Thanks to the Beard Foundation for all of this.  Enjoy!

Oct 24 2013

Happy Food Day, 2013

October 24 is Food Day, which its organizer, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), calls “a nationwide celebration of healthy, affordable, and sustainably produced food and a grassroots campaign for better food policies.”

Food Day aims to help people Eat Real. That means cutting back on sugar drinks, overly salted packaged foods, and fatty, factory-farmed meats in favor of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and sustainably raised protein. Food Day envisions shorter lines at fast-food drive-throughs—and bigger crowds at farmers markets.

Food Day is about taking personal responsibility for what you eat—what I like to call “voting with your fork.”

Join the Movement: The most important ingredient in Food Day is you! Use October 24 to start—or celebrate—eating a healthier diet and putting your family’s diet on track.

It is not, alas, about working to change policies that will make it easier for people to make healthier food choices.  For that, you must celebrate World Food Day on October 16 (and see post on that topic)—getting political and voting with your vote!

The food movement needs both (compromise on October 20?).

In honor of both, here’s this from Eat, Drink, Vote.

ClayBennett_Cartoon

 

 

 

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