Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 4 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership: Why WikiLeaks is offering $100K for a copy

WikiLeaks is offering $100,000 for a leaked copy of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, says the Washington Post.   It especially wants to see the agricultural chapters, as do we all.

For the WikiLeaks video (and pitch) that explains why it wants those TPP chapters, click here.

It’s worth trying to understand the TPP.  Since my earlier post on it, I’ve been collecting items to help clarify the various stakeholder positions on this agreement.

For the TTP  

The Obama administration, for reasons incomprehensible to Paul Krugman, among others, is very much for it.  It claims across-the-board benefits for U.S. agriculture.  For example:

Vegetables: U.S. exports of fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP countries face tariffs as high as 90 percent. Under the agreement, tariffs across the TPP region will be cut, offering new market access opportunities to U.S. producers and exporters of fresh and processed vegetables. In 2014 the United States exported almost $5 billion in fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP region.

The USDA’s has produced fact sheets on what TPP can do for individual states.   I checked the one for New York.  The expected benefits to the state are expressed generically, not specifically to New York State:

Fresh and Processed Vegetables: U.S. exports of fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP countries face tariffs as high as 90 percent. Under the agreement, tariffs across the TPP region will be cut, offering new market access opportunities to U.S. producers and exporters of fresh and processed vegetables. In 2014 the United States exported almost $5 billion in fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP region.

Dubious about the TTP

  • Start with Robert Reich’s 2-minute video: “The Worst Trade Deal You’ve Never Heard Of.”  He calls it a Trojan horse.  It allows corporations to sue governments for passing regulations that might affect corporate profits, among other bad things.
  • Paul Krugman votes “thumbs down” on the TPP.  He argues that trade agreements aren’t all that economically beneficial  and seem to be mostly about intellectual property rights–patents and the like.  He asks: “Why, exactly, should the Obama administration spend any political capital – alienating labor, disillusioning progressive activists – over such a deal?”  His slides illustrate these points.
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren tells Rachel Maddow that corporate lobbyists and executives—not the American Public—are involved in the TPP negotiations.
  • Joseph Stiglitz makes the same point.
  • Henry Greenberg and Stephanie Shiau write in the Journal of Public Health: “As it stands the TPPA poses serious risks to global public health, particularly chronic, non-communicable diseases. At greatest risk are national tobacco regulations, regulations governing the emergence of generic drugs and controls over food imports by transnational corporations.”
  • Eric Crosbie, MA, Mariaelena Gonzalez, PhD, and Stanton A. Glantz write in the American Journal of Public Health about how trade agreements prioritize investment and intellectual property rights over health.

WikiLeaks may be on the right track here.

Jun 2 2015

Industry-sponsored research: this week’s collection

Every time I collect five, I’m posting studies sponsored by food companies or trade associations that show benefits of the sponsor’s products.

I would love to be able to post industry-sponsored studies with results contrary to the sponsor’s interest, but I’m just not finding any.  If you run across some, please send.

Here’s this week’s batch, with comments on the last two:

Probiotic supplementation prevents high-fat, overfeeding-induced insulin resistance in human subjects. Carl J. Hulston, Amelia A. Churnside and Michelle C. Venables British Journal of Nutrition (2015), 113, 596–602 doi:10.1017/S0007114514004097.

  • Conclusion: These results suggest that probiotic supplementation may be useful in the prevention of diet-induced metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
  • Sponsor: The present study…was financially supported by industry funds. The cost of consumables for the study was covered by an educational grant from Yakult UK Limited.

Dairy Foods and Dairy Proteins in the Management of Type 2 Diabetes: A   Systematic Review of the Clinical Evidence.   Gonca Pasin and Kevin B Comerford.    Adv Nutr 2015; 6:245-259. doi:10.3945/an.114.007690.

  • Conclusion: Given cultured dairy products’ long history of safe use, and whey protein’s overall efficacy in clinical studies so far, these dairy products appear to have great potential to assist with the management of T2DM in millions of people worldwide, in an inexpensive and easily implementable manner.
  • Sponsor: California Dairy Research Foundation. G Pasin is the executive director of the California Dairy Research Foundation. KB Comerford is a paid consultant for the California Dairy Research Foundation.

One Egg per Day Improves Inflammation when Compared to an Oatmeal-Based Breakfast without Increasing Other Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Diabetic PatientsMartha Nydia Ballesteros , Fabrizio Valenzuela, Alma E. Robles, Elizabeth Artalejo, David Aguilar, Catherine J. Andersen, Herlindo Valdez  and Maria Luz Fernandez.   Nutrients 20157(5), 3449-3463; doi:10.3390/nu7053449

  • Conclusions:  When compared to an oatmeal breakfast, one egg per day did not result in changes in plasma glucose, our primary end point…[and other markers] indicating that eggs can be consumed without any detrimental changes in lipoprotein or glucose metabolism in this population. The most interesting finding, however, was that eggs—possibly due to their content of highly bioavailable lutein and zeaxanthin—reduced inflammation in diabetic subjects when compared to oatmeal intake.
  • Sponsor: Egg Nutrition Center

The Acute Electrocortical and Blood Pressure Effects of ChocolateM. Montopoli, L. C. Stevens, C. Smith, G. Montopoli, S. Passino, S, Brown, L. Camou, K. Carson, S. Maaske, K. Knights, W. Gibson, J. Wu.  NeuroRegulation 2015;2(1):3-28.  doi: 10.15540/nr.2.1.3.

  • Conclusions: This is the first known study to investigate acute EEG effects of consuming chocolate and suggests a potential attention-enhancing effect… there is clearly the possibility of an application of this combination of L-theanine and cacao in the treatment of hypertension.
  • Sponsor: “Chocolate products for this study were provided by a generous grant in supplies from The Hershey Company…Grateful appreciation is expressed to Dr. Debra Miller and to the staff at The Hershey Company for their guidance and support throughout this project and for their careful review of this manuscript prior to submission.”

Comment: I learned about this study from FoodNavigator, which deserves highest praise for this headline: “Step aside energy drinks: Chocolate has a stimulating effect on human brains, says Hershey-backed study.”  Bravo!

Efficacy and safety of LDL-lowering therapy among men and women: meta-analysis of individual data from 174 000 participants in 27 randomised trials.   Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration.  Lancet 2015:385:1397-1405.

  • Conclusion: “In men and women at an equivalent risk of cardiovascular disease, statin therapy is of similar effectiveness for the prevention of major vascular events.”
  • Conflicts reported: The CTT Collaboration reports funding by various British and Australian research councils and foundations, “and not by the pharmaceutical industry.” But, it says, most of trials covered by its analysis were supported by the drug industry, and numerous members of the CTT report fees, grants, consultancies, or honoraria from various companies making cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Note:  drug companies have a vested interest in promoting drug, rather than dietary, approaches to LDL-lowering.

Comment: Conflicts of interest do not necessarily mean that the results of the study were manipulated or wrong.  They do mean that the methods and results require more than the usual level of scrutiny.  Sponsored studies almost invariably produce results consistent with the sponsor’s economic or marketing interests.

It’s likely that some industry-sponsored studies produce conclusions contrary to the sponsor’s interest.  If you know of any, please send.

Jun 1 2015

Big Food owns pet food companies?

A twitter follower, @davelove1 asks:

@marionnestle what do you think about big food companies buying pet food brands?

His question referred to an article in the Washington Post titled the McDonaldization of pet foods.

The New York Times also covered the buying of pet food brands by Big Food companies, in this case, the purchase by Smucker’s of Big Heart Pet Brands, “the company once known as Del Monte.”

That rang a bell.

In my book with Malden Nesheim about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right, we used Del Monte as an example of the buying and selling of pet food brands.

Capture

That was 2009.  Now we need to add new boxes for Big Heart and for Smuckers.

Del Monte isn’t the only Big Food company to own pet food brands:

  • Nestlé (no relation) owns Purina PetCare, with a long list of brands.
  • Mars (yes, the chocolate company) has a Petcare division
  • Procter & Gamble used to own Iams but sold it to Mars in 2014 for nearly $3 billion

The one other big brand is Hills.  It is owned by Colgate Palmolive.

Of course Big Food companies want to own pet food brands; they are hugely profitable.

  • The ingredients are cheap byproducts of human food production that would otherwise go to waste.
  • They can be sold at shockingly high prices, especially when marketed with health claims.

Our book gives generic recipes for making your own complete and balanced pet foods.  Enjoy!

May 29 2015

Weekend reading: Food Ethics for Everyone

Paul Thompson.  From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone.  Oxford University Press, 2015.

I was pleased to be asked to blurb this one:

From Field to Fork makes it clear that every food choice has ethical implications and that sorting out these implications from the science and politics of food is anything but simple.   The ethical issues discussed in this book are fascinatingly complex and deserve the serious debates they are sure to stimulate.  If ever a book provided food for thought, it’s this one.

May 28 2015

What’s up with the Trade Promotion Authority act?

What’s going on with the Trade Promotion Authority act (TPA) has lots of people worried.   The bill, known as “fast track,” allows President Obama to make trade agreements that Congress can approve or reject, but cannot change.

The Senate passed the TPA.  It now goes to the House.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a congratulatory statement:

Today the Senate helped move America closer to securing responsible agreements that open markets for America’s farmers, ranchers and agribusiness and create jobs and improve wages across the country…Our farmers and ranchers face exorbitant tariffs and others barriers in important foreign markets, and if we do not act to maintain and gain market share in these places, our competitors will.

On the other hand, 2009 labor, environmental, family farm, consumer, faith, Internet freedom and other organizations oppose the TPA.  They say “Fast Track is rigged to give special rights to corporations at the expense of workers and consumers.”

TPP rally Maryland

In an article in the American Journal of Public Health last year, tobacco researchers explained the problem:

International trade agreements relocate decisions about tobacco control policy to venues where there is little opportunity for public scrutiny, participation, and debate…“Fast-track authority,” in which Congress cedes ongoing oversight authority to the President, further distances the public from the debate.

As I explained in previous posts on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), trade agreements:

  • Are conducted in secrecy
  • View safety regulations and matters such as country-of-origin labeling (see yesterday’s post) as trade barriers
  • Allow multinational corporations to sue governments for passing laws that might affect corporate profits

I’ll be trying to keep up with what’s going on with trade agreements.  Stay tuned.

May 27 2015

What’s up with Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL)?

The attack on Country-of-Origin-Labeling (COOL) is a good example of why international trade agreements require close scrutiny.

In my book What to Eat, I had this to say about COOL (among other things):

In 2002, Congress passed a law requiring Country of Origin Labeling (the apt acronym is COOL) that was to take effect in 2004.  Later, under pressure from the food industry, Congress postponed the deadline until the end of September 2006…In America, food industry opposition to COOL is just about universal.   The industry complains that tracking the origin of foods is difficult, but also would prefer that you not know how far food has traveled before it gets to you.   The Grocery Manufacturers of America, an especially vigilant trade advocacy group, called the 2002 bill “a nasty, snarly beast of a bill,” but even stronger opposition came from the meat industry.   Its lobbyists argued that COOL would be “extraordinarily costly with no discernible benefit,” but their real objection was that meat producers would have to track where animals and products come from—another sensible idea that they have long resisted.

Nevertheless, COOL was supposed to go into effect for meat in 2008 and finally did so in 2014.  In the meantime, Canada and Mexico went to the World Trade Organization to argue that COOL unfairly discriminated against meat produced in those countries.

The Hagstrom Report lists Canada’s threatened trade retaliation (if the U.S. keeps COOL, Canada will raise tariffs on these products).

The WTO agrees that Canada and Mexico have the right to do this.

Now the House has introduced a bill to repeal COOL.  The House Agriculture Committee voted for the repeal.

So much for consumers’ interest in knowing where foods come from.

I’ll be posting more about trade agreements this week and next.  Stay tuned.

May 26 2015

Q and A: Should we eat vegetables from parched California?

Q.  Marion, have you seen the NY Times article? It is about how what we eat is contributing to the CA drought. Leaves me confused. If we don’t eat these foods, the farmers will go out of business and that state will suffer. Also, it is mostly fruits, nuts and veggies mentioned. Any thoughts???        –Julie Kumar

A.  The story, in case you missed it, is summarized by its headline: “The average American consumes more than 300 gallons of California water each week by eating food that was produced there.”

California farmers produce more than a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. To do that, they use nearly 80 percent of all the water consumed in the state.

New Picture

The Times also says:

Americans consume the most water by eating meat and dairy products, primarily because a lot of water is needed to grow the crops to feed the animals. Not all of this water comes from California; about half is imported in the form of crops, like corn, from the Midwest.

What to say about this?

California has a good climate for growing vegetables year-round.  What it does not have is rain.  Even in non-drought years, the rainy season is short.  California gets virtually no rain in summers when the vegetable-growing Central Valley is at its hottest.

Nevertheless, the powers that be decided long ago that money was to be made diverting water from the Sierras to promote the growth of cities (see, for example, Chinatown and any number of documentary films)—and to irrigate California farmland.

The current drought brings the greed and lack of foresight in these decisions to public attention.  California farmers have now agreed to cuts in their water allotments, but that still leaves proponents of sustainable agriculture with the dilemma described by Julie’s question:

Does it make ethical or moral sense to boycott California vegetables, nuts, and fruits as a means to encourage producers to move their businesses to wetter locations?

In the long term, it might.  I keep thinking of Iowa, which used to be the major producer of specialty crops, but which now produces corn and soybeans under industrial conditions that are ruining municipal water supplies with nitrates from their runoffs.

We need to develop agricultural policies that promote sustainable production methods and take water use, climate change, and other such matters into serious consideration.

In the meantime, you are on your own to figure out your personal method for helping California with its water problems and for encouraging such policies as quickly as possible.

California’s water problems, by the way, are anything but new.   It’s worth digging up the 1949 study by Carey McWilliams, who edited The Nation for 20 years.  His book, no surprise, focuses on the politics.

Cover art

Or if you prefer a more historical approach, there’s this one from University of California Press in 2001.

Cover art

Where I live, it’s suddenly summer and time for putting in tomatoes.

May 22 2015

Weekend reading: Organic Struggle

Brian K. Obach.  Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States.  MIT Press, 2015.

Here’s my blurb:

Brian Obach has written an important book for everyone who produces, buys, or considers buying organically produced foods.  This is a well-researched and utterly riveting history of the issues that unite and divide organic farmers and consumers, firmly grounded in the political context of classic social movements.   If you want to advocate for healthier and more sustainable food systems, you must read this book.

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