Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 9 2015

Red meat politics

I was interested to read Clare Foran’s piece in The National Journal on The Political Battle Over Red Meat.   It nicely summarizes the lobbying to stop the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee from saying that diets would be healthier and more sustainable if they included less red meat.

Her piece includes this illustration of why the meat industry objects to such ideas.

Infographic

Since 2000, the meat industry has been relatively quiet over the Dietary Guidelines, mainly because—as I discussed in Food Politics—this industry had won most of the political battles.

The 2000 Dietary Guidelines recommended 2-3 servings a day of 2-3 ounces of meat for a total of 4-9 ounces a day—an increase over previous recommendations.

But then:

  • The 2005 Guidelines folded meat in with other sources of protein: “When selecting and preparing meat, poultry, dry beans, and milk or milk products, make choices that are lean, low-fat, or fat-free.”
  • The 2010 Guidelines said “Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.”

If current trends in Guidelines continue, the meat recommendation might disappear entirely.

Meat industry lobbyists want to make sure meat maintains its historic place in the center of American plates.

What will the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee say?  Its report is due out soon.  Stay tuned.

Feb 6 2015

Weekend reading: The U.S. Food System

Roni Neff, editor.  Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity.  Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Jossey-Bass, 2015. 

New Picture (1)

This is an undergraduate textbook for students in courses dealing with almost anything having to do with food as it relates to larger societal issues of economics, policy, marketing, culture, security, health, and the environment.  It is large (542 pages, 8.5 x 11), easy to read, and well illustrated.  It ought to be terrific in stimulating thinking about these issues, particularly because it covers everything you can think of that’s important in this area, from farm subsidies to school lunches.  The only thing missing is international dimensions, but that would take another book of this size.

Also focused on the U.S. food system is the Institute of Medicine’s report I wrote about a couple of weeks ago: A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System.

Picture1

Between the two, you have a full course on food systems, especially because the IOM report comes with:

Feb 5 2015

Food politics in action: Potatoes!

The National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) has just recommended that white potatoes be included in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.*

This recommendation contradicts previous policy, which excluded white potatoes from the WIC package on the grounds that starchy vegetables are not lacking in the diets of WIC recipients and it would be better to use WIC to encourage consumption of a broader range of vegetables.

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, the potato lobby objected, insisted that white potatoes were just as healthy as other starchy vegetables, and that women weren’t eating enough of them.  It got Congress to overturn USDA’s restrictions on the number of times white potatoes (usually fried) could be served in the school lunch program.

And it got Congress to order USDA  to put potatoes back into WIC—unless it conducted a study demonstrating that potatoes should be excluded.  The USDA gave up and told state agencies to allow potatoes to be purchased by WIC recipients starting next summer.

In deciding in favor of potatoes, the committee said it is concerned that “”Current consumption of starchy vegetables does not meet 2010 DGA [Dietary Guidelines for Americans] recommendations for this food group.”

Really?  I have a hard time believing that WIC recipients are suffering from lack of potatoes in their diets.  Potatoes are fine foods, but highly caloric when prepared in the usual ways.  Encouraging WIC recipients to choose leafy greens and other vegetables seems like a good idea.

But the IOM committee took the 2010 Dietary Guidelines at face value and says this is what the rules are until changed.  So they effectively tossed this hot potato into lap of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines committee.

While waiting to see that committee’s report—expected soon—the take-home lesson is clear: lobbying works.

*The USDA has a new report out on WIC: The WIC Program: Background, Trends, and Economic Issues, 2015 Edition.

Feb 4 2015

Buyers beware: supplements are not what they seem. Again.

I still quaintly read the paper copy of the New York Times so I know that the left column of yesterday’s  front page—judged by the editors as the second most important story of the day—was devoted to yet another exposé of supplement fraud.

The New York State attorney general did some sophisticated testing.  His report concludes that major supplement retailers—GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart—are selling herbal supplements that do not contain what the labels say they contain or contain unlabeled ingredients that could be allergenic.

The examples are either amusing or shocking, depending on point of view:

  • A popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality”…contained only powdered garlic and rice.
  • At Walmart…ginkgo biloba, a Chinese plant promoted as a memory enhancer, contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat — despite a claim on the label that the product was wheat- and gluten-free.
  • Three out of six herbal products at Target — ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and valerian root, a sleep aid — tested negative for the herbs on their labels. But they did contain powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots.
  • And at GNC…it found pills with unlisted ingredients used as fillers, like powdered legumes, the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, a hazard for people with allergies.

I’ve been writing about this kind of thing for years, but two aspects of this story are news.

  • First, the state is doing what the FDA ought to be doing if its hands weren’t tied by DSHEA, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.  That act essentially deregulated dietary supplements.
  • Second, these are not some fly-by-night supplement sellers.  They are major retailers.  The supplement industry’s argument that only a few unscrupulous small supplement makers are cheating on ingredients doesn’t work in this case.

Why don’t people stop taking supplements when they hear things like this?

The major proven benefits of supplements are their placebo effects.  The actual ingredients make no difference.

The obvious conclusion is that if you must buy supplements, buy the cheapest ones.  But that doesn’t work either because more expensive supplements produce stronger placebo effects.

Placebo effects are great things, and I’m for them.  But caveat emptor.

Related documents

 

Feb 3 2015

Obama’s budget calls for a single food safety agency!

Starting on page 82 of President Obama’s 150-page, $4 trillion 2016 federal budget is a section on food safety calling for creation of a single food safety agency.

The Budget proposes to consolidate the FSIS [the Food Safety and Inspection Service of USDA] and the food safety related components of the FDA to create a single new agency within HHS…A single Federal food safety agency would provide focused, centralized leadership, a primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards, and clear lines of responsibility and accountability that will enhance both prevention of and responses to outbreaks of food borne illnesses.  It would rationalize the food safety regulatory regime and allow the Federal government to better allocate resources and responsibilities.

Wow!  Food safety advocates in and out of government have been pushing for something like this since the early 1990s.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says:

The budget proposes an additional $301 million for the FDA to implement that law, though part of the money would come from user fees imposed on the food industry.

Where do I apply?

Is this a good idea?  It sure could be but the devil is in the details.

Does it have a chance in this Congress?  I’m not holding my breath.

Feb 2 2015

Food Politics 101: The School Nutrition Association vs. Fruits & Vegetables

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is the organization that ostensibly represents the interests of school food service personnel.

I say ostensibly because the SNA has moved in a quite different direction.  It now fully represents the interests of its corporate food industry donors.

In the recent past, it supported federal efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school meals.  Now it fights all efforts to do so.

Recent events illustrate these points.

1.  Nancy Huehnergarth reports on the SNA meeting in Phoenix:

The annual conference, which this year ran from January 11 through 13, is “where school nutrition directors and industry representatives [came] together to build successful partnerships to better serve the nation’s children,” according to the SNA’s website. But a review of the conference agenda, speakers, educational sessions and sponsors paint a far different picture — one of an overwhelmingly industry-driven event heavy on the promotion of food and beverage offerings from major processed food corporations.

2.  The SNA has just issued a Position Paper on school meals.

It calls for more funding for school meals (good idea).

But then it insists on some very bad ideas:

  • Stop requiring fruits and vegetables to be served with every meal.
  • Don’t require so much whole grain.
  • Back off on lower sodium.
  • Allow any junk food to be part of the reimbursable meal.
  • Allow any junk food to be sold in competition with school meals.

In other words, return to the junk food school environment that flourished before the Institute of Medicine wrote two reports on improving the nutritional quality of school meals, Michelle Obama instituted Let’s Move!, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorizing USDA to set nutritional standards, USDA wrote those standards, and most schools in the United States went right ahead and implemented them.

The ostensible reason for the pushback?  Prevent waste.

3.  The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) did an analysis of trends in student participation in school meals.

This  research firmly counters the idea that students are turning away from school meals in droves in order to avoid having to eat fruits and vegetables.  It cites the recession and the increased price of the lunches as the reasons for the decline in participation.

Writing in Politico, Helena Bottemiller Evich points to the politics:

Student rejection of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products and declining participation has been a key part of the political debate over the push to relax some of the new standards. The move has sparked a battle that is expected to intensify this year as Congress looks to reauthorize the law governing school nutrition programs.

4.  Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh Produce Association issued a response to SNA.

While we agree with many recommendations in the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) 2015 Position Paper, we are deeply disappointed that SNA has chosen to continue its ill-advised fight against serving kids more fruits and vegetables in schools. The requirement that kids receive one-half cup of fruits or vegetables in school meals is being successfully met by tens of thousands of schools across the country. This is a modest step for the health of our children, especially in these critical learning years. When health classes teach students to make Half Their Plate consist of fruits and vegetables, it would be unconscionable for the school cafeteria to undercut that message by not serving at least one-half cup in school meals.

With friends like the SNA, school food advocates don’t need enemies.

Chalk this one up to food industry divide-and-conquer strategies.  Food companies pay SNA’s bills.  They get what they pay for.

The SNA ought to be the strongest advocate for healthier school meals.  It’s a tragedy that this organization has become the leading defender of junk food.

Jan 30 2015

USDA’s farm “typology” report: defines small, midsize, large

The USDA has just posted its enormous—more than 700 pages—2012 Census of Agriculture (Farm Typology) report.

Its definitions and results are impressive.  Definitions are based on a metric called Gross Case Farm Income (GCFI):

  • Small             <$350,000
  • Midsize          >$350,000 but less than $1 million
  • Large              >$1 million but less than $5 million
  • Very large     >$5 million

Another metric: average number of acres per category (one square mile is 640 acres):

  • Small:  GCFI between $150,000 and $350,000:   961 acres
  • Midsize:             1582 acres
  • Large:                 2926 acres
  • Very large:       4673 acres

And some basic facts:

  • 88% of farms are Small (GCFI <$350,000).
  • 12% are Midsize and Large, but they account of 80% of agriculture sales.

That’s US agriculture in a snapshot.

Jan 29 2015

A single food agency? Again? Really? Yes!

I don’t generally reproduce press releases but I can hardly improve on this one.  

[WASHINGTON, DC] – U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) today introduced the Safe Food Act of 2015,, which would create a single, independent food safety agency. Currently food safety oversight is split up among 15 different agencies, resulting in a patchwork where no single voice guides industry, retailers and consumers. Durbin and DeLauro introduced similar legislation in 1999, 2004, 2005 and 2007.

Let’s give them credit for persistence in the face of adversity.

The Safe Food Act would:

  • Transfer and consolidate food safety authorities for inspections, enforcement and labeling into a single food safety agency
  • Provide authority to require the recall of unsafe food
  • Require risk assessments and preventive control plans to reduce adulteration
  • Authorize enforcement actions to strengthen contaminant performance standards
  • Improve foreign food import inspections
  • Require full food traceability to better identify sources of outbreaks

The Government Accountability Office has been pressing for a single food agency for decades, mainly because food safety authority is largely split between FDA and USDA in ways that make no sense at all.

It’s terrific that DeLauro and Durbin are taking the matter up again and writing op-eds to encourage support.

They deserve all the support they can get!

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