Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 5 2017

The Brazil meat scandal: A Global Meal News roundup

Global Meat News is another one of those industry newsletters I follow closely.  It’s been tracking what’s been happening with meat in Brazil.  This is a great place to find out about this quickly.

Apr 4 2017

More on the prospective FDA Commissioner: Where is food?

Here’s what’s come in on Scott Gottlieb’s nomination as FDA Commissioner since my post last week.

From the New England Journal of Medicinea scathing commentary observes that “Gottlieb’s background places the agency, and the public, in a difficult position.”   Two reasons: (1) “His previous experience in academic medicine, applied science, and government service is threadbare.”  (2) “Gottlieb has been enmeshed in highly remunerative relationships with the biopharmaceutical industry, including sitting on various corporate boards…Gottlieb seems unlikely to have earned his corporate-board perches with scientific expertise.”

From Politico: Gottlieb says he will recuse himself–for one year (that’s all?)–from some (not all?) agency decisions dealing with more than 20 drug companies.  This is because he is a board member or adviser to those companies or funds them through his venture capital roles.  Here is his financial disclosure form.

From StatNewsMore details on Gottlieb’s financial entanglements with drug companies: “Gottlieb’s critics argue that his expansive resume creates a conflict-of-interest minefield that could cast doubt on the FDA’s decision making.”

From the New York Times:

Dr. Gottlieb, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has also been a prolific writer and public speaker, criticizing the agency’s approach. “In so heavily prioritizing one of its obligations — the protection of consumers — the F.D.A. has sometimes subordinated and neglected its other key obligation, which is to guide new medical innovations to market,” Dr. Gottlieb wrote in 2012 in National Affairs, a conservative-leaning political journal.

Also from the New England Journal of MedicineA commentary discusses the challenges faced by an FDA Commissioner having to do with evidence for drug efficacy, drug development, and drug prices.  It concludes: “All these challenges require a strongly resourced FDA working at the cutting edge of regulatory science. A commissioner who is able to advocate for such a vision, which includes less dependence on industry funding, will bring the agency into the 21st century.”  Will someone so closely tied to the drug industry fit this description?

Concerns about Gottlieb center on his financial ties to the drug industry.

But what about food?

A reader reminds me about pre-election promises to get rid of the FDA Food Police.

From The Hill, September, 2016:

In a fact sheet posted online Thursday, the campaign highlighted a number of “specific regulations to be eliminated” under the GOP nominee’s economic plan, including what they called the “FDA Food Police.”

“The FDA Food Police, which dictate how the federal government expects farmers to produce fruits and vegetables and even dictates the nutritional content of dog food,” it read.“The rules govern the soil farmers use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperatures and even what animals may roam which fields and when,” the statement continued. “It also greatly increased inspections of food ‘facilities,’ and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill.”

One can only speculate at this point, but I’m assuming that what you see is what you get.

Apr 3 2017

The U.K.’s efforts to reduce sugar intake

The British government is serious about reducing sugars, especially in the diets of children.  Its agency, Public Health England (PHE), has been hard at work for several years.

In 2014, it issued a report announcing plans for initiatives to reduce overall sugar intake: Sugar Reduction: Responding to the Challenge.

In 2015, its report provided evidence for why eating less sugar is necesssary: Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) has concluded that the recommended average population maximum intake of sugar should be halved: it should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy. SACN also recommended that consumption of sugar sweetened drinks should be minimized by both adults and children. By meeting these recommendations within 10 years we would not only improve an individual’s quality of life but could save the NHS, based on a conservative assessment, around £500 m every year.

In 2016, a different agency of the UK government issued a plan for action to reduce childhood obesity. Among other recommendations, the plan called for taxes on soft drinks, but it also challenged the food and beverage industries to reduce sugars in products aimed at children by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in the first year.  It said companies could do this by reducing sugar levels in products, reducing portion size, or shifting purchases to lower sugar alternatives.

In 2017, Public Health England set targets: Sugar Reduction: Achieving the 20%.

The role for Public Health England (PHE) is to advise government on setting the sugar reduction guidelines per 100 g of product and the calorie or portion size guidelines for specific single serving products. PHE is committed to publishing the category-specific guidelines for the nine initial categories of food in March 2017 and this report fulfills that commitment.

The guidelines are quite precise:

The good news: everyone has to do this so it will be an across-the-board reduction.

The not-so-good news: the reports say not one word about enforcement.

Public Health England plans follow-up reports.  Stay tuned.

Mar 31 2017

Weekend Reading: Fast Food Kids

Amy L. Best.  Fast Food Kids: French Fries, Lunch Lines, and Social Ties.  New York University Press, 2017.

This is an academic sociologist’s account of what and how kids eat in school, and why.  Amy Best, a professor at George Mason University, spent several years quietly observing kids eating at McDonald’s and Chipotle, and in cafeterias in a low- and high-income high school.  She also did countless interviews.

The result is a reality-based analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of school lunch programs, and how school cafeterias are used by kids as public spaces defined, as Best puts it, by racial segregation and educational and income inequalities.  She also has plenty to say about attempts to reform school meals, the role of “hypervigilant” parents, and the draw of fast food.

Of school food, she says:

Unlike family food, school food holds little if any sacred value; nor does it contain the allure of commercial foods…What is clear is that for some kids, school lunch will continue to be regarded with indifference (and in some cases open contempt).  That is the case because the food is school food.  In principle, kids find the relationship to public school objectionable, not the food itself (even though some school food really does warrant genuine complaint).  Boredom with food is also about boredom with school.

She argues for introducing critical food literacy into the school curriculum, meaning critical thinking about current food system issues.  This sounds to me like what Alice Waters has been trying to do–and is doing–through her Edible Schoolyard projects, and also like the work of the Center for Ecoliteracy.  Both call for issues related to school lunch to be part of the school’s educational mission.  Best does not mention either effort in her book, an unfortunate omission in an otherwise thoughtful account of a complicated and important topic.

Mar 30 2017

Global Meat News Special Edition on Food Safety

Special Edition: Food Safety

Food safety is an issue every meat business takes considerable careover as the financial costs of a recall, not to mention the reputational risk, can be devastating. In this special newsletter, GlobalMeatNews takes a look at the latest recalls, changes to food safety regulation and other key developments across the supply chain.

Mar 29 2017

What’s up with with the FDA?

Two things:

I.  The White House wants the FDA to take a $40 million cut for the rest of this year, according to Politico.  Politico got a copy of a detailed chart given to congressional appropriations committees.  Here’s the FDA piece:

The FDA is supposed to absorb the cut by not hiring people it otherwise planned to.

II.  President Trump has nominated Scott Gottlieb to be FDA Commissioner.  The New York Times describes Gottlieb as a venture capitalist with strong ties to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

Scientific American summarizes what is known about the nominee, but its discussion is all about drugs and says not one word about food.

If he supports a deregulatory agenda, which it looks like he does, what will happen to inconvenient food regulations such as labels, restrictions on health claims, and food safety?

Let’s keep a close eye on how this one plays out.

Mar 28 2017

Canadian report on soda taxes

A group of Canadian health organizations has issued a report on the health and economic impacts of sugary drink consumption, based on research they commissioned..

The research predicts dire effects if sugary drink consumption is not curtailed—more than $50 billion in health care costs over the next 25 years.

The report says that Canadians purchased an average of 444 ml of sugary drinks per day in 2015, well over the recommended sugar maximum of no more than 10% of total daily calories.

Sales of classic Coke and Pepsi are down, but look what is happening with other sugary beverages:

  • Energy drinks              +638%
  • Sweetened coffees      +579%
  • Flavoured water         +527%
  • Drinkable yogurt        +283%
  • Sweetened teas            + 36%
  • Flavoured milk            + 21%
  • Sports drinks               +  4%

The report estimates that a 20 per cent excise levy on sugary drinks will do wonders for health, and will account for government revenue of $1.7 billion per year.   These revenues could support healthy living initiatives such as

  • Subsidies for fruits and vegetables
  • Healthy school lunch programs
  • Public education
  • Food literacy and skills education
  • Physical activity initiatives
  • Food security, safe drinking water, low-fat milk in Indigenous communities

Here are the documents

Mar 27 2017

Our prospective USDA Secretary, Sonny Perdue

I’m traveling and having a hard time keeping up with all the input on Sonny Perdue, the nominee for USDA secretary who doesn’t seem to be encountering much trouble from Congress.

Here’s what I’ve collected so far.

The New York Times summarizes Perdue’s ethics problems while governor of Georgia.  He held onto four farming operations and at least 13 ethics complaints were filed against him.

The Environmental Working Group says its investigations reveal that from 2003 to 2010, Perdue:

  • Refused to put his businesses in a blind trust.
  • Signed state tax legislation that gave him a $100,000 tax break on a land deal.
  • Received gifts from lobbyists after signing a sweeping order to ban such gifts.
  • Filled state agencies and boards with business partners and political donors.
  • Allocated state funds to projects that benefited companies he created after his time in office.
  • Took joy rides in state helicopters.

And from 1996 to 2004, Perdue received more than $278,000 in federal farm subsidies.

Civil Eats and MapLight say that Perdue does not like regulations: 

Emails obtained by MapLight suggest Perdue was more preoccupied by the potential for government regulation than the possibility of more sick children.

Here’s the paperwork he submitted for his congressional hearing.

Politico, which has been covering the nomination process closely, says that in Perdue’s congressional hearing,

Perdue “pledged that he would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Trump administration’s top trade negotiators to ensure that U.S. agriculture, which is extremely reliant on exports, doesn’t get shortchanged by trade shakeups or any of the new bilateral deals the president wants to pursue. He committed to fighting to protect key rural and farm programs from the administration’s proposed budget cuts and to working to make sure farmers have an adequate supply of foreign workers to harvest their crops despite the administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants,” the Pro Ag team added. Perdue also said he’s “absolutely committed” to addressing the struggles of America’s dairy farmers ahead of the 2018 farm bill.

Politico also commented on what Perdue said during his hearing:

“Agriculture is in my heart, and I look forward to fighting for the producers of America,” Perdue told the committee. “I will absolutely be an advocate and a fighter, where necessary.”

Perdue, who wore a tie with tractors on it and often drew on his experience of being raised on a farm in Georgia, pledged that he would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Trump administration’s top trade negotiators to ensure that U.S. agriculture, which is extremely reliant on exports, doesn’t get shortchanged by trade shakeups or any of the new bilateral deals the president wants to pursue. He committed to fighting to protect key rural and farm programs from the administration’s proposed budget cuts and to working to make sure farmers have an adequate supply of foreign workers to harvest their crops despite the administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Politico also summarized some of the coverage

  • Democrats in Georgia are hoping Democratic senators on Capitol Hill will bring up Perdue’s controversial role in a debate over state use of the Confederate battle flag. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution has it here.
  • WSJ has focused on Perdue’s record on anti-poverty policies and what it could mean for food stamps here.
  • Cosmopolitan (yes, Cosmopolitan) has rounded up 10 things to know about Perdue here.

Everyone expects his appointment to go through.

Addition: I somehow missed Ian Kullgren’s analysis in Politico a couple of weeks ago.  Worth a read

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