Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 10 2009

Response to Pepsi ads

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Thanks to everyone who sent me this link to this interesting way to interpret those Obama-like Pepsi ads.

Feb 9 2009

The never-ending peanut butter scandal continues

The New York Times today has a long investigative report on its front page about the implications of the peanut butter recalls for food safety in America.  It’s a terrific article and it’s wonderful that the Times has at last discovered that the U.S. food safety system is deeply dysfunctional, something the Government Accountability Office has been screaming about for years.

In the meantime, the list of company recalls keeps getting longer (the FDA website identifies them with a bright red NEW!  Safe Tables Our Priority, a group devoted to protecting children from unsafe food, publishes a daily list of individually recalled peanut butter products.  Today’s collection alone numbers nearly 40 and is well worth a look.  So are the CDC’s cute reminders to throw out your recalled products.

And I can’t resist adding a comment on peanut politics.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Integrity in Science Watch sends out daily feeds.  Today’s (not yet posted) refers to a story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution revealing that the USDA, not the FDA, is responsible for the safety of exported peanuts (they might contain aflatoxin), that its Peanut Standards Board was exempted from conflict -of-interest rules by the 2002 Farm Bill, and that the head of Peanut Corporation of America, the company responsible for the tainted peanut butter, was appointed in October as a member of that Board until 2011.

What more evidence do we need that an overhaul of the food safety system is very much in order.  Congress: this is your problem to solve!  Citizens: write your congressional representatives!

Feb 9 2009

Pet food recall settlement: at last?

The courts have finally approved the settlement agreement for the class action lawsuit against pet food makers selling products contaminated with melamine.  This means that the payouts will begin sometime this year, maybe.   Legal wheels grind slowly, it seems (or maybe this isn’t slow?).

Feb 8 2009

Some good news at last: small farms!

To what no doubt was great shock to the Department of Agriculture, the number of small farms in America went up from 2002 to 2007.  This is great news for local, sustainable agriculture and let’s hope for lots more of the same.  But most of these farms are not yet self-supporting, and their owners have day (or night) jobs to stay afloat.  According to Andrew Martin in today’s New York Times, 40% of U.S. farms  (900,000 of 2.2 million) earn less than $2,500 a year in sales.  Agribusiness predominates: 5% of  farms (125,000) account for 75% of production.  But what a great sign this is of good things to come.  Let’s hope the USDA wises up and puts some support behind this welcome trend.

All this comes from the USDA’s 2007 Census on Agriculture. Check out the nifty slide show link on that page for a quick overview of the facts and figures.

Update February 10: Here’s Verlyn Klinkenborg’s New York Times editorial on the topic.  He points out that as new small farms (9 acres or less) come into existence, medium-size farms are the ones to get engulfed and devoured by agribusiness. The new diversity in crops and farmers “is a genuine source of hope for American agriculture.”

Feb 7 2009

And now, genetically engineered goats!

On Friday (of course), the FDA approved the first genetically modified goats. These have been bioengineered with a human gene that makes the anti-clotting protein, antithrombin. The goats excrete this protein into their milk (I hope their babies aren’t drinking this milk).   Antithrombin ordinarily has to be extracted from human plasma, an unreliable source.  This way, if more antithrombin is needed, the company that invented this scheme  (GTC Biotherapeutics) just milks more goats.  The FDA had previously approved doing things like this in theory, but this is the first practical application.  Some antithrombin with your goat cheese, anyone?

Feb 6 2009

CDC on the peanut butter outbreak

The CDC has just published its latest MMWR (Morbitity and Mortality Weekly Report) on the epidemiology of the peanut butter outbreak.  The good news: the number of cases seems to be going down.  Take a look at the charts.  The epidemic peaked from mid-November to mid-December but the peak in reporting the cases came a month later.  That’s why yesterday’s congressional hearing had so much to say about the need for FDA and CDC to work together to speed up the reporting ( or so reporters tell me).  And, thankfully, about the need to give FDA recall authority.

Feb 6 2009

Will Obama’s plan help food and agriculture?

An analysis by the Congressional Research Service says not much, relatively.  Although $27 billion to USDA sounds like a big chunk of change, $21 billion of that goes to food assistance (good) but only $6 billion to any kind of farm program (not so good).  Missing in action are the things many of us care deeply about: support for small farmers, organic production methods, fruits & vegetables (“specialty crops”), or any of the other things mentioned by Sam Hurst in his discussion of the report at Gourmet’s online site.

Feb 5 2009

Peanut butter update: widgets! chicken! FEMA kits! Congress!

I have a hard time keeping up with the number of products recalled because they contain potentially tainted peanut butter.  So does the FDA.  It now offers a widget that you can load on your computer to receive automatic updates on the recalls. Here’s what the widget looks like:

The recall that I find most surprising comes from the Hain Celestial group, which just called back nearly 900,000 pounds (!) of frozen chicken products because they contain peanut butter produced at the Georgia plant that caused all the problems.  Frozen chicken satay?  Why is peanut butter in chicken?

And now FEMA is recalling its emergency disaster rations because they might contain tainted peanut butter.

The 1100 products recalled to date are fast approaching the record number of pet foods recalled in 2007. That, no doubt, is why Congresswoman Rosa deLauro (Dem-CT) has just introduced legislation – “The Food Safety Modernization Act” –  to separate off food from FDA oversight and create a separate agency to regulate the safety of the food supply.  As she puts it, this is the final wake-up call.  Let’s hope.

Not only do we have one food supply that serves people, animals, and pets, but that food supply is incredibly interlocked.  If one food causes problems, you can bet that there are problems in lots of other places.

Update February 7: The New York Times has produced a video on the recalls.

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