Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 10 2013

Annals of Government shutdown: What’s up with Salmonella Heidelberg?

I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s happening with the latest horrible food poisoning outbreak: this time of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg.  Food Safety News and attorney Bill Marler have been following the events closely.

They reported that USDA—not CDC (which was on furlough)—issued the Public Health Alert.

But the outbreak is so serious that CDC recalled staff from furlough.  Now the CDC is back on the job.  It reports that as of October 7:

  • 278 persons in 17 states are infected with 7 outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg.
  • 42% of them are hospitalized (this is unusually high), and no deaths have been reported.
  • 77% of cases are in California.
  • The source is Foster Farms chicken

What does Foster Farms have to say about this?

First, it blames the government:

Consumers should know that as recently as Oct. 8, USDA-FSIS publicly assured the safety of our chicken:  “Foster Farms chicken is safe to eat but, as with all raw chicken, consumers must use proper preparation, handling and cooking practices.” There is no recall in effect and FSIS continues to inspect our poultry on a daily basis, certifying it as Grade A wholesome.”

Then, Foster Farms argues that toxic, antibiotic-resistant salmonella are normal on poultry:

Raw poultry is not a ready-to-eat product. All raw poultry is subject to naturally occurring bacteria… According to the CDC, “It is not unusual for raw poultry from any producer to have Salmonella bacteria. CDC and USDA-FSIS recommend consumers follow food safety tips to prevent Salmonella infection from raw poultry produced by Foster Farms or any other brand.”

Bill Marler asks how come Foster Farms is not issuing a recall?

Good question.  Take a look at CDC’s most recent Epi curve.  Usually, these show a standard distribution pattern over time with cases rising to a peak and then declining.  This one shows no sign of decline.

Persons infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Typhimurium, by date of illness onset as of October 7, 2013

OK, so what, as Bill Marler asks, will it take to close Foster Farms or force it to recall its tainted products?

For starters, how about getting the government opened again.  And insisting that FDA issue the final food safety rules and start enforcing them.

Update, October 11:  On October 7, USDA sent three letters of intended enforcement to Foster Farms:  Letter #1Letter #2, and Letter #3.  Now, according to a report from Bill Marler, the USDA has decided not to close Foster Farms or force a recall.

And here are two useful articles from Politico:

Oct 9 2013

Jocelyn Zuckerman’s interview about Eat, Drink, Vote

Marion Nestle Speaks Out on the Big Business of School Food

By Jocelyn Zuckerman  (published originally by On Earthrepublished by Civil Eats, and now here).

A year ago, when I was working as an editor at the magazine Whole Living, I oversaw a special issue on food featuring “Visionaries”—people making a real difference in the way this country thinks about eating. There was “The Motivated Mayor” (Michael Bloomberg); “The Integrator” (Harlem chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson); and, among several others, there was “The Badass.”

That would be Marion Nestle. The author of a handful of books that examine the intersection of food and politics, Nestle is a public-health nutritionist and a professor at New York University. She is also one of the most outspoken advocates for a national food system that prioritizes health and the environment over corporate profits. (Michael Pollan ranks Nestle the second-most powerful foodie in America, after First Lady Michelle Obama.)

Recently she published her new book, Eat, Drink, Vote, an admirably approachable look at wide-ranging issues such as farm subsidies, obesity, genetically modified foods, and trans fats.

On the eve of its release, Nestle and I sat down over lunch to discuss, among other things, lunch. Ours was fine—Caesar salad for her, Niçoise for me—but the lunches that dominated the conversation weren’t the ones on our plates. Rather, we talked about the meals that our nation’s kids will be loading onto their trays in the new school year.

It’s an issue that Nestle cares deeply about, and for good reason. For starters, school lunches (and breakfasts) tend to represent the lion’s share of the nutrition that a low-income child will get in a day. (For the truly impoverished, they may be the only meals children get.) The food served sets an example to a “large, captive, impressionable audience,” as Nestle puts it in the book, making cafeterias key battlegrounds in the fight against obesity and poor nutrition.

And it’s certainly a fight. Throughout Eat, which features some 250 food-related cartoons by illustrators around the country, Nestle calls out the entrenched powers—namely, our Congressional representatives and the deep-pocketed food and beverage lobbies to whom they seem ever more beholden—working at cross-purposes to the folks fighting for a food policy focused on promoting our own well-being and that of our environment.

Just look at what happened in 2011, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tried to rate tomato paste based on its true nutritional value. School pizza makers went running to their friends in Congress, who promptly blocked the USDA’s decision. So an eighth of a cup of tomato paste is still credited with as much nutritional value as a half a cup of vegetables. Nestle chose a cartoon that wittily depicts the you-must-be-kidding-me moment (by Pulitzer Prize-winner Mike Peters) for the cover of her book.

There’s no question that school meals are big business. In 2011, the USDA school breakfast program served nearly 12 million children, at a cost of nearly $3 billion, Nestle writes in Eat, while the lunch program served nearly 32 million children, at a cost of $11 billion. The companies involved in providing all that food have a serious interest in holding on to their share of that money, preferably while investing as few resources as possible.

“Any change in the standards means that the products that have been created specifically for school lunches [that pizza, for example] have to meet new standards,” Nestle pointed out over lunch. “And that pisses everybody off”—everybody who’s already making money off school meals, that is.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that those meals have, in fact, gotten better. In December 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The legislation marked the first time in a generation that school lunch regulations had been updated. (One telling example of just how much our dietary landscape has changed over the decades: the previous laws featured minimum calorie levels but no maximums.) The new act gave USDA the power to establish nutrition standards for all of the food sold and served in schools.

In addition to lunches and breakfasts, this includes the so-called “competitive foods” available from vending machines and carts. There are now limits on the levels of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and calories, and the standards require that snacks be rich in whole grains and provide nutritional value. Drinks can contain no more than 40 calories per 8 fluid ounces, or 60 calories per 12 fluid ounces—numbers that rule out all regular sodas and Gatorades.

 

Healthier for kids also means healthier for the environment. (Another cartoon in the book, by Joel Pett, aptly illustrates the direct link between “soft-drink pushers” and damage to the natural landscape.) There’s a direct impact on the supply chain when school lunches are heavier on organically grown produce instead of (corn-fed) chicken coated in cornmeal and deep-fried in corn oil, for example.

Given the numbers involved, healthier school lunch standards should ultimately mean a shift in what is being grown and raised in this country. Fewer sodas in vending machines means less demand for high-fructose corn syrup and less acreage devoted to monocultures of corn. Fruit and vegetable salads replacing chicken fingers means less demand for antibiotic-laden factory-farm birds. In a logical world, greater demand for healthy crops to produce federal school lunch meals would translate into more support for them in the next Farm Bill.

There’s more to making school lunches better than just changing the rules, though, Nestle explained. The food has to taste good, too, and the kids have to actually eat it. “I have been in some of the best school lunch programs in the country,” she said, “and the kids weren’t eating.” They may avoid the meals for social reasons, she explained. “It may have a bad reputation. They may not like the way the cafeteria looks. They may not have time to eat.” (She blames the no-time-to-eat problem in part on an educational culture that’s fixated on testing and suggested that programs teaching kids about growing and cooking food can help overcome some of the other barriers.)

I asked Nestle about who’s getting it right, and she replied that the now-somewhat-famous program at the Calhoun School, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, represents “the Platonic ideal” of what a school lunch operation can be. It doesn’t come as a huge shock that children eat well at an educational institution that charges in the neighborhood of $40,000 a year per student, but the man behind the program, French Culinary Institute-trained “Chef Bobo,” doesn’t just cook for rich kids.

He is a frequent speaker at conferences around the country on school lunches and healthy eating, and he regularly brings in cooks from other schools to intern in his kitchen, which features produce and chickens sourced from local vendors and includes a vegan option every day (see one of his recipes to the left). Several of Bobo’s sous chefs have gone on to start similar lunch programs at other schools, including at a public charter school in the Bronx.

Nationwide, Nestle said, there are more farm-to-table programs linking students with local farmers than ever before. Schools in cities and in the countryside are sowing their own kitchen gardens, and the three-year-old Food Corps supports a network of volunteers who work in poor communities to teach kids about healthy food, build school gardens, and help bring better food into public-school cafeterias.

Sure, school lunches still need work—someday that tomato paste will be called out for what it really is—but the fact is, we’ve come a very long way. “Look back ten years!” Nestle said in regard to the overall shift in this country’s dietary landscape. “Healthy food has gone mainstream.” Despite the entrenched interests, she said,changes are happening, in large part because Americans better understand the importance of what they put in their mouths. With Eat, Drink, Vote, the badass lunch lady furthers the cause.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Jocelyn Zuckerman is the former articles editor at OnEarth, the former executive editor of Whole Living and deputy editor of Gourmet, where she won a James Beard Award for feature writing in 2002. She is also an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Parade, and Plenty.

 

Oct 8 2013

Midweek reading: “Disease-Proof”

Katz D, Colino S.  Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well.  Hudson Street Press, 2013.

Here’s the blurb I did for this one:

Disease-Proof is not only about knowing what to do to stay healthy; it’s also about developing the skills to apply that knowledge.  Katz and Colino make the skills look easy.   I especially appreciate how they encourage readers to take responsibility for the health of others as well as themselves, and work toward creating a healthy society for all.

Oct 6 2013

Soda tax controversy goes international

My monthly first Sunday Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I hear that the Mexican government wants to increase taxes on sodas as a way to fight diabetes. The soda industry persuaded voters to defeat soda taxes in Richmond and El Monte last year. Won’t it do the same in Mexico?

A: It might. I’m just back from a lecture trip to Mexico City where I heard plenty about the proposed soda tax and the industry’s response to it.

Last month, the Mexican government proposed an additional soda tax of one peso (about 8 cents) per liter. The idea is to raise $1.5 million per year while discouraging soda consumption, thereby helping to reduce the country’s high prevalence of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Mexicans drink lots of soda. By some estimates, average per capita consumption is 50 gallons a year, the highest in the world. It’s no coincidence that more than 70 percent of Mexicans are overweight or obese, and around 15 percent have Type 2 diabetes, a prevalence that terrifies health officials. This type of diabetes, if undiagnosed and untreated, can lead to blindness or foot amputations.

‘Nutrition transition’

Mexico is a classic example of a country in “nutrition transition.” As the economy improves, people increasingly buy high-calorie ready-made foods, put on weight, and raise their risk for diabetes. Meanwhile, the poorer segments of the population continue to experience high levels of stunting, iron-deficiency anemia and vitamin A deficiency.

This makes obesity a relatively new problem in Mexico, one widely understood to result from the introduction of processed foods – especially sodas – into the Mexican food market.

I could easily see how deeply sodas are embedded in Mexico’s food culture. Sodas were advertised and available everywhere. And they come in enormous three-liter bottles that cost less than the price of bottled water – only 17 pesos ($1.35) each. Clean water is not always available, making sodas the easy choice.

Sodas are cheap because Mexico grows its own sugarcane and sells it at market prices. We, however, artificially support the higher price of U.S. sugar through tariffs and quotas. That’s why our sodas are made with high fructose corn syrup. We subsidize corn production so corn syprup costs less than sugar.

Some people think cane sugar tastes better than high fructose corn syrup, although controlled taste tests don’t always back this up. It’s ironic that U.S. supermarkets now carry, at highly inflated prices, Mexican Coca-Cola sweetened with cane sugar.

Industry efforts to defeat the Mexican soda tax have been ferocious, just as they were in Richmond and El Monte last year. Producers argue that if the tax really does decrease consumption, it will cause hundreds of thousands of jobs to be lost.

I saw a newspaper advertisement from the Mexican Beverage Association that not only attacked the science relating soft drinks to obesity, but extolled the health benefits of sodas: “Sugar is nutritious; it’s a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are essential for life. Sugar is indispensable for the brain. Soft drinks hydrate and bring energy.”

An ad from the sugarcane industry also threatened job losses – “The tax will generate unemployment and discourage productivity and investment” – and noted that workers and the poor will bear most of its burden.

The big questions

As with any such initiative, the big questions are whether the tax is likely to reduce soda consumption, obesity and diabetes, and whether the revenue will be used for widely beneficial public health purposes. Mexico’s Congress will have to address these questions when it votes on the tax in the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, a coalition of consumer and health groups, in part funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, has been putting posters in subway stations that illustrate the amounts of sugar in soft drinks. The groups are actively advocating for the soda tax and for using its funds to provide free potable water in schools – something that does not now exist. But TV stations have refused to carry their ads for fear of losing soda advertisers.

Like their U.S. colleagues, Mexican public health authorities are searching for effective ways to reverse obesity trends. Sugary drinks are an easy target. Taxing them might happen despite industry opposition – especially if the funds are earmarked for clean water.

Editor’s notesMarion Nestle will discuss her new book, “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics,” with Narsai David at the Commonwealth Club on Oct. 15 at 6 p.m., and at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Oct. 19 at 11 a.m.

She is also receiving the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for her writing about how science and public policy influence what we eat. The award ceremonies are Oct. 21 at the Hearst Tower in New York.

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

Oct 4 2013

Weekend reading: the history of U.S. vegetarianism

Shprintzen AD.  The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921.  University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

My blurb:

A fascinating account of the nineteenth-century origins of the vegetarian social movement to improve American morality and health. The book stops in 1921 when the Vegetarian Society disbanded, but that movement’s legacy is today’s passionate vegetarians, who comprise a vital part of the current movement to improve food systems and the health of people and the planet.

Oct 3 2013

Center for Consumer Freedom, Mexican style

The President of Mexico has proposed a tax on soft drinks.  The soft-drink industry is not pleased.

As with Richmond, California’s tax initiative and New York City’s soda cap, the industry is pulling out all stops to oppose the tax.

It’s even gotten the Beverage Association’s attack dog, the Center for Consumer Freedom, into the action.

la foto

Photo: Mireia Vilar

Translation:

  • Should obesity be fought with taxes?
  • Yes or no? 
  • To tax the fatties (Google’s charming translation)

CCF is putting signs on school buses, apparently.

On the off chance that you are not familiar with CCF, SourceWatch is a good place to begin.

It runs media campaigns which oppose the efforts of scientists, doctors, health advocates, animal advocates, environmentalists and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, calling them “the Nanny Culture…Its advisory board is comprised mainly of representatives from the restaurant, meat and alcoholic beverage industries.

I’ve also written about this group.  Enough said.

Oct 2 2013

While the government is shut down, have some fun. Read (not eat) “Candy”

Samira Kawash.  Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure.  Faber & Faber, 2013.

New Picture

In this delightful, intriguing account of candy in the United States, Samira Kawash argues that we must stop vilifying this sugary treat and start taking it more seriously—as a cultural icon, a marker of gender identity, a prototype of the marketing of processed foods, a source of pleasure for children and adults, and for good or ill, a contributor to daily diets.

Candy, she correctly points out, is not all that different from many other sugar-laden foods and deserves its rightful place in American diets—in moderation, of course.

Kawash, who writes the candy professor blog, wanted to call this book “In Defense of Candy,” which is what it is.  I loved her writing, her originality, and her sense of humor.  For example, she makes the connection between views of  “sweet, trivial people (women and children) and sweet, trivial candy” and observes that “So much of what we call food today is really candy.”

And so it is.

Oct 1 2013

Government held hostage over health care?

What a strange society we live in.  We need a sense of humor at a time like this.

Here’s a commentary on the whole situation from my new book, Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.

Enjoy!

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