Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 5 2015

Obama’s Clean Power Plan will reduce methylmercury in seafood. Yes!

Earlier this week, President Obama announced a plan to reduce toxic emissions from coal-burning power plants.  The purpose of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan  is to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

But from the standpoint of food politics, the new rules do something really important.  They will force coal-burning power plants to further reduce emissions of mercury.

In 2005, the EPA promulgated a rule to control mercury emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants under section 111(d): the Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR). The EPA established a nationwide cap-and-trade program that took effect in two phases: In 2010, the cap was set at 38 tons per year, and in 2018, the cap was lowered to 15 tons per year. The EPA expected, on the basis of modeling, that sources would achieve the second phase, 15-ton per year cap cost-effectively by choosing among a set of measures that included shifting generation to lower-emitting units.

Mercury from coal-burning power plants is the largest human-induced source of methymercury in the fish food chain, accounting for 40% of the amount that gets into oceans (most of the rest comes from underseas volcanos).  Mercury is converted to toxic methylmercury in seawater, and the toxin moves up the fish food chain as bigger fish eat smaller fish.  Methylmercury does very bad things to the nervous system of the growing fetus (recall the mass poisonings in Minamata, Japan in the 1950s and the shocking photos of the victims). 

Fish advisories

Large, predatory fish have the most methymercury and should not be eaten in large amounts, or at all by pregnant women.

Fish advisories expect pregnant women to know the kinds of fish they can and cannot eat, and how much.  This is not easy.

Wouldn’t it be better to prevent mercury from getting into seawater in the first place?

I like to use eliminating methylmercury as an example of why public health (“upstream”) approaches work better than personal responsibility (“downstream”) approaches.

An exceptionally clear example is how to avoid toxic levels of methylmercury in fish.   We can teach pregnant women to recognize which fish are high in methylmercury and hope this works well enough so they will avoid buying such fish (personal responsibility) or we could–as a society–require coal-burning power plants to scrub their emissions so mercury doesn’t get into ocean or lake waters in the first place (public health).

That’s what this rule does.

For explanations of how the Clean Power Plan will work, see the Union of Concerned Scientists’ review.

Vox.com explains:

The basics of the Clean Power Plan are fairly simple. The EPA is giving each state an individualized goal for reducing emissions from their electric power plants. States can then decide for themselves how to get there…. Power plant emissions have already dropped 15 percent between 2005 and 2013, thanks to a brutal recession, cheap natural gas pushing out coal, the rise of wind power, and improved efficiency. So with this new plan, EPA is expecting a further 20 percent cut in power-plant emissions from 2013 levels by 2030.

For what Obama stands to gain from this rule, see the New York Times.

But hold the celebration.  Politico Pro Energy reports that Republicans in Congress view the rule as a key component of the administration’s “war on coal” and will try to block it or sue to stop it.   The Supreme Court says that the EPA has the authority to issue this rule, but “Challengers are expected to argue that the rule is invalid because it exceeds EPA’s authority, contradicts a Clean Air Act provision meant to avoid duplicative rules, and violates the 5th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution.”   And, of course, a post-Obama president could undo the whole thing, as it is an executive branch action, not a law passed by Congress.

Yesterday’s New York Times had a front-page story on how coal lobbyists and corporate lawyers started organizing more than a year ago to fight this plan.

An important ally in the effort was the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative advocacy group that pushes policy through state legislatures. Typically, the council’s committees of corporate members will craft a model bill designed to push through policies it supports, such as rolling back environmental regulations.

The Clean Power Plan deserves massive support.

This may be a climate-change plan, but it is also a critically important public health measure.

Anyone who likes eating fish should do everything possible to support this measure.

Aug 4 2015

Become a food-safety expert: Cilantro this time

On my 12th-floor Manhattan terrace, I grow cilantro every summer.  I like to have it handy.  And I know it’s local, organic, seasonal, and deer-free—and unlikely to be contaminated with Cyclospora.

Image result for cilantro

The CDC reports 358 people to be ill with Cyclospora, most likely because they ate cilantro imported from Mexico.

It doesn’t take much web surfing to find out anything you want to know about such problems.  I like to use three sources:

The CDC

The FDA

Bill Marler

Aug 3 2015

Retraction of the Golden Rice paper: an issue of ethics

Despite my long interest in and dubious opinion about the benefits of Golden Rice (genetically modified to contain the beta-carotene precursor of vitamin A), I somehow completely missed the huge and highly embarrassing uproar over a study demonstrating the effectiveness of this rice in raising vitamin A levels in young children.

This particular uproar began with publication of the study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2012.  Last week the journal announced that it has retracted the study—on ethical, not scientific, grounds.

To explain:  Dr. Guangwen Tang, a long-time researcher at Tufts University, and her colleagues at Tufts, in China, and at Baylor and the NIH, compared the effectiveness of vitamin A capsules, Golden Rice, and spinach in raising vitamin A levels in the blood of Chinese schoolchildren.  They reported that Golden Rice proved just as effective as capsules, and somewhat better than spinach, in inducing higher vitamin A levels, just as it is supposed to do.

Golden Rice, of course, is the poster child for the benefits of GMOs, extolled by many as the solution to the developing world’s high prevalence of vitamin A deficiency (I’m dubious because I view vitamin A deficiency as a social problem requiring policy and cultural shifts).

Soon after, Greenpeace, which is decidedly anti-GMO, challenged the ethics of the study, charging that the children were being used as “guinea pigs.”

As reported in Nature,

none of the children, their parents or school teachers was aware that Golden Rice was involved, according to a 45-minute investigative news programme broadcast on 8 December on CCTV, China’s state television channel.  The informed-consent form said that the rice contained β-carotene, but not that it was genetically modified or that it was Golden Rice. Nor did it highlight uncertainty around any potential risks of ingesting such rice…Moreover, Wang didn’t apply for ethical evaluation of the trial, instead fabricating the approval documents, according to CDC. And Tang brought Golden Rice from the United States to China illegally, without due declaration to the relevant Chinese authorities, it said.

According to a report on NPR, Tufts University did a year-long investigation and agreed that ethical standards had been violated:

the study was not “conducted in full compliance with … policy or federal regulations”… the researchers did not adequately explain the nature of golden rice and made some changes in the study without getting approval from the committee at Tufts that is supposed to review all research involving human subjects.  Guangwen Tang will be banned from conducting research on human subjects for two years. For two years after that, any research that she conducts will be under the direct supervision of another investigator.

A report on the case in ScienceInsider explains the ethical problem raised by the study’s informed consent form :

U.S. guidelines stipulate that such forms use plain language understandable to lay people, and the IRB [the Tufts Institutional Review Board] agreed to let Tang say that “Golden Rice is a new rice which makes beta-carotene,” without using the loaded words “genetically modified.” (The consent form for a very similar study by Tang among adults in Boston, published in 2009, didn’t use that term either.) Given the sensitivities over transgenic food, which existed in China as well, that was the wrong decision, according to the external panel.

In 2014,  Dr. Tang sued the ASN:

ASN twice asked Tang and her six co-authors to withdraw the paper voluntarily, which they declined to do. The society recently decided to retract the paper on its own…but it has agreed to a 90-day stay after Tang filed her lawsuit, to see if the matter can be settled out of court.

But the court ruled in favor of ASN.  Hence, the retraction.  ASN issued a press release:

In a ruling by the Massachusetts Superior Court, Judge Salinger…cleared the way for the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) to retract the article “β-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as β-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children”…ASN is very pleased that the Massachusetts courts have upheld the organization’s First Amendment rights and have allowed ASN to move forward with the retraction of the article.

In its online retraction notice, ASN states the reasons:

  1. The authors are unable to provide sufficient evidence that the study had been reviewed and approved by a local ethics committee in China in a manner fully consistent with NIH guidelines….
  2. The authors are unable to substantiate through documentary evidence that all parents or children involved in the study were provided with the full consent form for the study.
  3. Specific eligibility issues were identified in regard to 2 subjects in the study.

Last week, Retraction Watch published a lengthy summary of this case that includes a long statement from Tufts University:

No questions were raised about the integrity of the study data, accuracy of the research results or safety of the research subjects…Tufts University has always been and remains deeply committed to the highest ethical and scientific standards in research.  In September 2012, w …convened an external review committee to interview those involved and to review documentation of the study…There was no evidence found of falsification or fabrication of the data that underlie the study’s primary findings. Those reviews did, however, determine that the research had not been conducted in full compliance with Tufts research policies and federal research regulations.

The retraction is a huge embarrassment, not only for the researchers involved but also for Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts’ Institutional Review Board, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and the American Society for Clinical Nutrition.

The study was funded by NIH, USDA, as well as a program in China.  NIH takes research ethics very seriously and expects the researchers it funds to adhere to the highest possible standards for research on human subjects.  Because the study did not follow standard ethical guidelines, especially with regard to research on children, Tufts had no choice but to investigate and impose sanctions, and the journal had no choice but to retract the paper.

This case reinforces my views about GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular.

The controversies are not (or not usually) about the science.  They are very much about ethics and other questions of values.

Jul 31 2015

Weekend reading: Food, Farms, and Community

Lisa Chase and Vern Grubinger.  Food, Farms, and Community: Exploring Food Systems.  University of New Hampshire Press, 2014.

Here’s my blurb for this excellent and most useful book:

If you haven’t a clue as to what’s meant by food systems, read Food, Farms, and Community right now.  The book covers the territory from farm to fork, clarifying the complexities and focusing on what’s really important: what to do to create food and farming systems that promote the health of people and the planet.

Enjoy the summer weekend!

Jul 30 2015

More industry-sponsored research with predictable results 

Once again, I am posting five food industry-sponsored studies with results that come out just the way the sponsor wants them to.  Coincidence?  Or something more serious?  I am trying to remain open-minded.  If you know of food industry-sponsored research that does not favor the sponsor’s interests, please send.  As soon as I collect five, I will post.

Diets with high-fat cheese, high-fat meat, or carbohydrate on cardiovascular risk markers in overweight postmenopausal women: a randomized crossover trial. Am J Clin Nutr ajcn109116, 2015.  doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.109116.  Thorning, T.K., Raziani, F., Bendsen, N.T., Astrup, A., Tholstrup, T., Raben, A.

  • Conclusion: Diets with cheese and meat as primary sources of SFAs [saturated fatty acids] cause higher HDL cholesterol and apo A-I and, therefore, appear to be less atherogenic than is a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet.  Also, our findings confirm that cheese increases fecal fat excretion.
  • Sponsor: Supported 50% by the Danish Dairy Research Foundation and the Danish Agriculture and Food Council (Denmark) and 50% by the Dairy Research Institute (United States), the Dairy Farmers of Canada (Canada), the Centre National Interprofessionel de l’Economie Laitie`re (France), Dairy Australia (Australia), and the Nederlandse Zuivel Organisatie (Netherlands).

Normal or High Polyphenol Concentration in Orange Juice Affects Antioxidant Activity, Blood Pressure, and Body Weight in Obese or Overweight AdultsOscar D Rangel-Huerta, Concepcion M Aguilera, Maria V Martin, Maria J Soto, Maria C Rico, Fernando Vallejo, Francisco Tomas-Barberan, Antonio J Perez-de-la-Cruz, Angel Gil, and Maria D Mesa,  J. Nutrition.  First published July 1, 2015, doi: 10.3945/​jn.115.213660.  jn213660

  • Conclusions: Our results show that the consumption of either NPJ [normal polyphenol juice] or HPJ [high polyphenol juice] protected against DNA damage and lipid peroxidation, modified several antioxidant enzymes, and reduced body weight in overweight or obese nonsmoking adults.
  • Sponsor: Supported by research contract 3345 between the University of Granada–Enterprise General Foundation and Coca-Cola Europe [Coca-Cola owns Minute Maid and Simply Orange].

Fructose-Containing Sugars and Cardiovascular Disease.    James M Rippe and Theodore J Angelopoulos.   Adv Nutr 2015; 6:430-439 doi:10.3945/an.114.008177.

  • Conclusion:  …although it appears prudent to avoid excessive consumption of fructose-containing sugars, levels within the normal range of human consumption are not uniquely related to CVD risk factors with the exception of triglycerides, which may rise when simple sugars exceed 20% of energy per day, particularly in hypercaloric settings.  [My translation: this implies it’s OK to eat sugars up to 20% of calories per day, even though health authorities typically recommend 10% or less].
  • Author’s disclosure: JM Rippe has received consulting fees from ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods, Florida Department of Citrus, PepsiCo International, The Coca Cola Company, Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group, Corn Refiners Association, and Weight Watchers International.

Sugars and Health Controversies: What Does the Science Say?   James M Rippe and Theodore J Angelopoulos.   Adv Nutr 2015; 6:493S-503S doi:10.3945/an.114.007195

  • Conclusion: …there is little scientific justification for recommending restricting sugar consumption below the reasonable upper limit recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 of no more than 25% of calories.  [Note: health authorities routinely recommend no more than 10% of calories].
  • Sponsor: supported in part by an educational grant from the Corn Refiners Association. Publication costs for this supplement were defrayed in part by the payment of page charges. This publication must therefore be hereby marked “advertisement.”
  • Author’s disclosure:  JM Rippe’s research laboratory has received unrestricted grants and JM Rippe has received consulting fees from ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods, the Florida Department of Citrus, PepsiCo International, The Coca-Cola Company, the Corn Refiners Association, Weight Watchers International, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, and various publishers.

Do Fructose-Containing Sugars Lead to Adverse Health Consequences?  Results of Recent Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses.   Vanessa Ha, Adrian I Cozma, Vivian LW Choo, Sonia Blanco Mejia, Russell J   de Souza, and John L Sievenpiper.   Adv Nutr 2015; 6:504S-511S doi:10.3945/an.114.007468.

  • Conclusion: it is difficult to separate the contribution of fructose-containing sugars from that of other sources of excess calories in the epidemic of obesity and cardiometabolic disease. Attention needs to remain focused on reducing the overconsumption of all caloric foods associated with obesity and cardiometabolic disease, including sugary beverages and foods, and promoting greater physical activity.
  • Sponsor: Aspects of this work were funded by…a research grant from the Calorie Control Council.   [Note: the Council promotes the benefits of fructose].
  • Authors’ disclosure: RJdS has received research support from the CIHR, Calorie Control Council, the Canadian Foundation for Dietetic Research, and The Coca-Cola Company (investigator-initiated unrestricted grant)… JLS has received research support from the CIHR, Calorie Control Council, The Coca-Cola Company (investigator-initiated unrestricted educational grant), Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (investigator-initiated unrestricted educational grant), Pulse Canada, and The International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research & Education Foundation. He has received travel funding, speaker fees, and/or honoraria from [among many others]… International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) North America, ILSI Brazil, Abbott Laboratories, Pulse Canada, Canadian Sugar Institute, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, The Coca-Cola Company, Corn Refiners Association, World Sugar Research Organization, Dairy Farmers of Canada….
Jul 29 2015

Court asks for life in prison in peanut butter Salmonella case

Federal court officers are recommending what attorneys are calling an “unprecedented” sentence of life in prison for a Stewart Parnell, the former owner of the Peanut Corporation of America.  He was convicted last fall of selling bulk peanut butter from his plant in Georgia to food processors—even after the peanut butter tested positive for Salmonella.

The CDC associated the tainted peanuts with the deaths of 9 people and illnesses among more than 700.

The government’s sentencing recommendations say:

The Government submits that the U.S. Probation Office correctly calculated the Sentencing Guidelines adjusted offense level for Stewart Parnell to be 47 with criminal history category I, which results in a life sentence Guidelines range; for Michael Parnell, to be adjusted offense level 37 with criminal history category I, which results in a 210 to 262 months Guidelines range; and for Wilkerson to be adjusted offense level 30 with a criminal history of I, which results in a 97 to 121 months Guidelines range.

Does the punishment fit the crime?  Bill Marler’s discusses of the legal issues related to this conviction as opposed to the results of similar cases.  Marler is usually unsympathetic to owners of companies producing foods that kill people, but in this instance he says:

I find it a bit hard to parse out why some have been targeted – OK, perhaps the Parnell prosecution is a bit easier because it was so clearly intentional – and some have not, or at least not yet.  Honestly, what are the differences in prosecuting the Jensens, DeCosters and ConAgra and leaving the others – so far – unmolested…Is it the number of sick, the number of dead? Is it the economic consequences? What really are the criteria, or, should it simply be left to the discretion of the prosecutor as to who or what feels the sting of the criminal justice system?

Jul 28 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership’s food issues: rice, sugar, Malaysian palm-oil, trans fats

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations are taking place this week in Maui, as usual, in deep secret.

Doug Palmer of Pro Politico describes the major food issues: dairy, origin names, pork, rice, and sugar.  The issues come down to market share.  Every country wants to protect its own products but have free access to markets in other countries.

Although not a food, tobacco best explains why the TPP makes people nervous.  US tobacco companies want the TPP to open new markets.  But one of the TPP provisions is said to allow corporations sue governments that pass rules that might hurt the corporation’s business.  Philip Morris sued Australia over its “plain packaging” law and is now suing Great Britain.

The US position is supposedly that a country’s measures  to protect the health of humans, animals, or plants should not be in violation of the TPP, and that challenges to tobacco-control measures should be cleared with TPP partners.   Malaysia, for example, has proposed to exempt tobacco-control measures from challenges under TPP.

Malaysia?

The State Department has just taken Malaysia off its list of the worst countries for human trafficking (see the July 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report).

What a coincidence.  This allows Malaysia to participate in TPP negotiations.

But what bad timing.  The Wall Street Journal has just published a harrowing story about the de facto slavery of palm-oil workers on Malaysian plantations (the New York Times just did one on “sea slaves” forced to fish for pet food or animal feed).

As Rainforest Action Network said of the Malaysia story in a press release:

July 27, 2015 (SAN FRANCISCO) – The Obama administration has removed Malaysia from the list of worst offenders for human trafficking and forced labor today, one day after The Wall Street Journal published an extensive report on human trafficking and forced labor on Malaysian palm oil plantations that directly supply major U.S. companies. Malaysia is one of 12 nations in the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and inclusion of a country with the lowest ranking in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report would be problematic for the administration.

And then, there’s the trans-fat connection:  The US demand for replacement of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils has pushed Malaysia and other palm-oil countries to produce more palm oil, faster.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

Palm oil has been repeatedly named on the U.S. Department of Labor’s list of industries that involve forced and child labor, most recently in 2014. Activists have blamed palm-oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia for large-scale deforestation and human-rights abuses. Oil palm growers respond that the palm tree, a high-yield crop, is a useful tool for socioeconomic development.

palm oil

The TPP is hard to understand, not least because negotiations are secret.  In giving the President the go-ahead to sign the agreement, Congress made two stipulations:

  • Congress must be notified 90 days in advance of signing.
  • The terms of the agreement must be disclosed to the public 60 days prior to signing.

At least that.  TPP deserves very close scrutiny.

Jul 27 2015

Our endlessly arcane and unhealthy sugar policy

While we are on the topic of sugars (see previous post) I saw this ad on the Hagstrom Report.  I wondered what it was about.
sugar

I went to the American Sugar Alliance website to look.

Legislation introduced by Congressman Ted Yoho (R-FL) to end global sugar subsidies in favor of a free market has picked up key endorsements in recent weeks, including many conservative organizations and numerous lawmakers.

Yoho’s bill would instruct the administration to target the foreign sugar subsidies that are distorting world prices. Once foreign subsidies are eradicated, U.S. sugar policy would be eliminated.

If I understand this correctly, Congressman Yoho is offering a trade:  If foreign governments of sugar-producing countries will stop subsidizing their countries’ sugar producers, we will stop charging tariffs on the sugar we import from them and we will end our quota system for sugar beets, both of which keep U.S. sugar prices considerably higher than world market prices.

For decades, U.S. Presidents have pledged to fix sugar policies (see my post explaining how they work), but they always get stopped by the well organized interests of the U.S. sugar industry—the producers of cane and beet sugar.

Current policies result in higher sugar prices for consumers but since the higher costs average out to only about $10 per person per year, nobody gets too upset about them.

European sugar quotas are supposed to end this year.  Whether they will is uncertain.

But wait!  Maybe higher sugar prices are a Good Thing.  Higher prices generally discourage consumption.

Clearly, these higher prices are not high enough.  This graph shows trends in the availability (not really consumption) of sugars in the food supply per capita, in pounds per year.

Capture

The good news: Total sugars have been declining in the food supply since about 2000 and now “only” amount to about 100 pounds per person per year.

Most of the drop is in the availability of cane and beet sugars (sucrose), now down to just over 40 pounds per capita.

The not-so-good news:  Sucrose (glucose and fructose) is being replaced by corn syrup (glucose) and high fructose corn syrup (glucose and fructose).

The bottom line: just about everyone would be healthier consuming less of any kind of sugar.

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