Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 16 2013

Arsenic in rice: another food issue to worry about?

Is arsenic in rice something you should be worried about?

I never know what to say about food contaminants consumed in tiny amounts, in this case, micrograms (millionths of grams) per serving.

The FDA devotes a web page to arsenic in rice.  Here, the agency releases the results of its testing, which found amounts of arsenic mostly below 6 micrograms per serving.

Higher levels—11 micrograms per serving—were found in three samples from Texas, Louisiana and California.  The highest was 30 micrograms per serving of hot ready-to-eat rice bran cereal.

Is this good, bad, or indifferent?  And how would we know?

The FDA says such levels are too low to cause concern about short-term health problems.

But Consumers Union thinks the real issue is the long-term effects.

Today’s widely-reported message on arsenic levels in rice misses the point.  The issue is not the short-term risks of rice consumption. The concern is the long-term effects from exposure to arsenic in rice. As Consumer Reports has said in the past, consumers should not ignore the potential risks from consuming rice and rice products over a long period of time…Consumers are not well-served if they do not have the full story. The concerns about long-term effects are significant and warrant the FDA’s decision to investigate further.

The FDA says it plans further investigations.  In the meantime, it says you should:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet.
  • Vary your grains.
  • Consider diversifying infant foods

This is always good advice.

But Consumers Union  is more specific.  It suggests you worry a little and observe these limits:

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At the moment, this is the best information available.  FDA: get to work!

FDA references:

Sep 13 2013

Drink Up? The new Let’s Move! campaign

Michele Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation has taken on a new angle: Drink Up.  It issued a press release yesterday urging Americans to drink more water.

The “Drink Up: You Are What You Drink” website explains:

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Let me be absolutely clear: I am totally in favor of encouraging kids to drink water.

But:

  • Water deficiency is not a public health problem in the United States.  Childhood obesity is the problem.
  • Drinking water will only help to counter childhood obesity if it substitutes for sugary sodas.

  • Bottled water companies such as Dasani (owned by Coca-Cola) and Aquafina (PepsiCo), and their trade group The American Beverage Association (ABA), are the main supporters of this initiative.
  • This makes the message sounds like “drink bottled water,” without much attention to environmental implications.

The ABA’s congratulatory press release says:

Staying hydrated is important to staying in balance, and bottled water provides people with a convenient and popular choice. By supporting this new initiative, our industry is once again leading with meaningful ways to achieve a balanced lifestyle.”

Hydrated?  Not an issue for most people (exceptions—elite athletes, people at high altitude, the elderly).

Bottled water?  In places with decent municipal water supplies, tap water is a much better choice; it’s inexpensive, non-polluting, and generates political support for preserving the quality of municipal water supplies.  See, for example, what Food and Water Watch has to say about bottled water.

James Hamblin’s critical account  in The Atlantic indicates that the press conference must have been tough going.  Sam Kass, White House chef and executive director of Let’s Move! took the questions.

Another reporter: “Why aren’t we talking about obesity?”

Another reporter: Are we talking about replacing sugary drinks and sodas with water?”

Lawrence Soler, president and CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America, fielded that one. “It’s less a public health campaign than a campaign to encourage drinking more water. To that end, we’re being completely positive. Only encouraging people to drink water; not being negative about other drinks. “

I consider Let’s Move! to be a public health campaign, and a very important one.

Hamblin concludes:

I know we’re just trying to “keep things positive,” but missing the opportunity to use this campaign’s massive platform to clearly talk down soda or do something otherwise more productive is lamentable. Public health campaigns of this magnitude don’t come around every day…Keeping things positive and making an important point are not mutually exclusive, you fools.

My interpretation

Let’s Move! staff have stated repeatedly that they must and will work with the food industry to make progress on childhood obesity.  I’m guessing this is the best they can do. Messages to “drink less soda” (or even “drink tap water”) will not go over well with Coke, Pepsi, and the ABA; sales of sugary sodas are already declining in this country.

I’m thinking that the White House must have cut a deal with the soda industry along the lines of “we won’t say one word about soda if you will help us promote water, which you bottle under lots of brands.”   A win-win.

Isn’t drinking water better than drinking soda?  Of course it is.

But this campaign could have clarified the issues a bit better.  Jeff Cronin, communications director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest circulated a poster created by Rudy Ruiz (of the communications firm Interlex) for a public health campaign in San Antonio:

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Public health partnerships with food and beverage companies—especially soda companies—are fraught with peril.   Let’s hope this one conveys the unstated message like the one in San Antonio: My balance is less soda and more tap water.

Other resources

As always, Eddie Gehman Kohan writing at ObamaFoodorama provides a clear, detailed summary of the relevant details along with transcripts of Michele Obama’s remarks at the launch in Watertown, Wisconsin (site of a Pepsi bottling plant, among other things).

Amanda Chin has a good piece in the Huffington Post (I’m quoted).

Sep 11 2013

Why the public still distrusts GMOs: Nature Biotechnology gives the reasons

Nature Biotechnology, a research journal for biotechnology academics, has the most enlightened explanation I’ve seen recently about why genetically modified (GM) foods don’t go over well with the public (I discussed suchN reasons in detail in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).Its editorial states that despite years of evidence for the safety of eating GM foods,

Consumers are concerned about the close (some might say cushy) relationships between regulators and companies. They are concerned about food safety data being difficult to obtain from regulatory agencies. The revolving door between agribusiness and regulatory agencies and the amounts spent on political lobbying also raise red flags. Even academics have fallen in the public’s esteem, especially if there’s a whiff of a company association or industry funding for research.

Of course, the public’s misgivings about GM food go beyond just the risk to health. Corporate control of the food supply, disenfranchisement of smallholder farmers, the potential adverse effects of GM varieties on indigenous flora and fauna, and the ‘contamination’ of crops grown on non-GM or organic farms all play into negative perceptions. And for better or worse, GM food is now inextricably linked in the public consciousness with Monsanto, which has seemingly vied with big tobacco as the poster child for corporate greed and evil.

What are industry and academic scientists to do about such attitudes?

 Changing them will require a concerted and long-term effort to develop GM foods that clearly provide convincing benefits to consumers—something that seed companies have conspicuously failed to do over the past decade.

Well, yes.  This was the situation in 2003 when I first wrote Safe Food, and nothing had changed by the second edition in 2010.  Or by now, apparently.

This industry still depends on Golden Rice to save its reputation.  Maybe it ought to start working on some of the other issues mentioned in this editorial.

 

Sep 10 2013

School food: the cruel consequences of bad school-lunch policy

A reader writes:

Willingboro, NJ School Board has taken action effective for the 2013-2014 school year to discard a school meal rather than feed a student, if their parents cannot, or haven’t arranged to, refill their student’s lunch account.

Take a look at this letter from the school board administrator announcing discontinuation of humanitarian meals:

If a student goes through the food service line and it is discovered that the student does not have the required funds for a meal, the Chartwells Food Service representative has been instructed by the Willingboro Board of Education to withhold the meal from the student, with the understanding that such meal cannot be re-served and must be discarded.

I was appalled by the letter.  Hungry kids need to be fed.  They can’t learn if they are hungry.

But before going on a rant, I consulted my go-to, school-food guru, Kate Adamick of Cook for America.  She explains the fiscal realities of current school-food policies:

The truth is that there are many, many school districts that do not feed kids whose parent will not pay for them.  Some, as seems to be the prior practice of the Willingboro district, offer a “humanitarian” meal (typically, a peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk), though that is by no means required of them and by no means universal.

Of course, students who qualify for free meals under the USDA regulations cannot be refused free school meals (provided that the proper paperwork has been filled out on their behalf or that they qualify under other regulatory or statutory provisions).

The refusal to feed everyone, regardless of whether they pay, has become a more pressing issue in recent years, both because the number of families who don’t qualify for free meals but can’t afford to pay for them has increased at the same time the school food budgets have become tighter…Many school districts are truly struggling to keep their financial heads above water….

The REAL answer is for the federal government to provide free meals for all kids.  I doubt, however, that will come to pass in our lifetime.

Here’s how this system works:

  • Unlike other aspects of school education, the government requires school-meals programs to be self-supporting.  They must at least break even or do better, which is not so easy given current reimbursement rates.
  • The government reimburses schools for federally supported school meals based on the number of participants.
  • Parents often cannot or do not want to fill out the paperwork.
  • This leaves schools with a dilemma.  If they provide free meals, they lose money.

Some school districts, like the one in New York City, do everything they can to make the system work so that hungry kids get fed.   Willingboro’s school board has chosen to follow the rules to the letter, regardless of the effects of this decision on kids in its schools.

Universal school meals would solve many of the problems caused by current school food policies (for evidence, see Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America).

Ready to join the universal school meals movement, anyone?

Sep 9 2013

Microbiology lesson: the latest news on Cyclospora

As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I majored in Bacteriology.  I haven’t worked in that field for decades, but the training makes me appreciate the terrific job the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does in providing education about food safety microbiology.

The CDC website is always a good place to start (another is food safety lawyer Bill Marler’s blog).

I thought of this as I was trying to find out what’s going on with the latest big outbreak of foodborne illness, this time due to Cyclospora.

The CDC’s Cyclospora website, updated frequently, keeps track of the numbers of cases—in this case, 641 as of September 3, with 41 hospitalizations—from 24 states.

Investigators traced cases in Iowa and Nebraska to a salad mix produced by Taylor Farms de Mexico.  But this mix is not linked to cases in Texas, which complicates the investigations.

As for the biology of Cyclospora: it’s a parasitic protozoa transmitted through feces.  The CDC provides this handy diagram of its life cycle:

 

Life cycle of Cyclospora cayetanensis

What are you supposed to do to prevent getting sick from Cyclospora?  The CDC says unhelpfully: “Consumers should continue to enjoy the health benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a well-balanced diet.”

Everyone, it says, should follow safe produce handling recommendations.

Translation: Wash your veggies!

Sep 6 2013

It’s back-to-school time: food studies

Want to teach a course in food studies?  Start by joining the Association for the Study of Food and Society or talking to people in food studies programs.  Members have access to posted syllabus materials for a wide range of food studies courses.

In the meantime, here’s a place to start:

Amy Guptill, Denise A. Copelton, and Betsy Lucal.  Food & Society: Principles and Paradoxes.  Polity Press, 2013.

This is an introductory book aimed at undergraduates.  It begins with: Welcome to the study of food!

I blurbed it.

Far ranging in scope and hitting on the essential issues most likely to interest students, this book gives readers plenty to think about.  It’s well written, clear, has a point of view (sociology matters!), and thoroughly integrates social science concepts with the meaning of food in people’s lives.  An excellent introduction to courses in foods studies, food and society, and food and culture.

Sep 5 2013

If you like books with food maps, try these

Darin Jensen and Molly Roy, eds.  Food: An Atlas.  Guerrilla Cartography, 2013.

This is fun.  It’s a book of big maps on food production, distribution, security, exploration, and identity, mostly American but some international.  Take a look at such maps as those for rooftop farming in New York City, global imbalance of food availability, the rise of British food banks, and Taco trucks of East Oakland.

It reminds me a lot of:

Erik Millstone and Tim Lang.  The Atlas of Food: Who Eats What, Where and Why.  Earthscan, 2003.

This one is British and more overtly political.  Its maps cover such things as over- and under-nutrition, food aid as power, genetic modification, trade flows, advertising, and “Citizens Bite Back.”

Sep 4 2013

I’m heading for Union Square

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