by Marion Nestle

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Aug 19 2013

Books about food industry work: first-hand

Seth Holmes.  Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. .  University of California Press, 2013.

This book came highly recommended and for good reason.  It is a riveting account by a PhD (anthropology)/MD, now on the faculty of the School of Public Health in Berkeley, who did his dissertation fieldwork as a participant/observer/migrant berry picker.  This meant starting out in Oaxaca, traveling to the U.S. border, crossing it illegally, getting caught, going to jail, getting out, working in the fields with fellow migrants who made it through, and enduring almost everything they had to endure.  The almost?  As an American citizen and white, he was treated better—a difference he makes stark and clear.  For anyone with a conscience, this book is not an easy read; we don’t treat Mexican immigrant workers with much respect and Holmes writes eloquently about how that disrespect feels to people who are making enormous sacrifices to create better lives for their children. What must be done?  “Broad coalitions of people must actively engage in…concrete legal, political, civil, and economic actions…[so these people] no longer have to migrate across a deadly border in order to provide us with fresh fruit in exchange for their broken bodies.”

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies is just out but it reminded me of another participant/observer study that first appeared in 2005.

Steve Striffler.  Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food, Yale University Press, 2007.

I know about this book because I blurbed it:

An extraordinarily powerful indictment of the U.S. chicken industry.  This book will do for chicken what Fast Food Nation did for beef.

Striffler is an anthropologist now at the University of New Orleans who did his dissertation research working on poultry processing lines.  He lived with the other workers, went with them to their home towns, and experienced what they experienced.   Not easy.  He has much to say about the effect of this kind of work on the people who do it, the communities in which they live, and the impact of industrial animal farming on people, rural America, and the animals themselves.

This is anthropology at its best by courageous people.

Aug 12 2013

What’s up with Chinese infant formula?

I would never have predicted that infant formula, of all things, would become the poster child for the down side of globalization.  Look at all the issues:

Price fixing

The Chinese government has just fined six infant formula companies for fixing prices:

  • Mead Johnson (US): $33 million
  • Dumex/Danone (France): $28 million
  • Biostime (Hong Kong): $27 million
  • Abbott Labs (US): $13 million
  •  Royal FrieslandCampina (The Netherlands): $8 million
  •  Fonterra (New Zealand): $700,000

The fines may seem severe but the Chinese bought $12.7 billion worth of infant formula in 2012 and are expected to buy $18.4 billion in 2014.

Botulism contamination

Fonterra, the New Zealand manufacturer of infant formula contaminated with the type of bacteria that cause botulism, says it’s sorry.

We deeply apologize to the people who have been affected by the issue.

Food safety is our first and foremost interest.

That’s  what they all say when something like this happens.

The company noticed botulinum contamination in March but did not identify the contaminating strain or notify consumers until last week.  That’s also typical.

Fonterra made $15.7 billion in sales last year, more than half of it from selling dairy foods to China.  Other big customers are in Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Vietnam.

China has now stopped importing Fonterra’ powdered infant formula.  This alone was worth nearly $1.9 billion last year.

Recall that Fonterra was a part owner of the Chinese company that made infant formula laced with melamine—the formula that made more than 300,000 babies sick.  Six died.  That happened in 2008, with dire consequences for Chinese formula manufacturers.

Distrust of Chinese infant formula

Since then, the Chinese have become suspicious of local infant formula and are buying foreign infant formula to the point of scarcity.  The new scare makes that situation even worse.

In Hong Kong, officials have been cracking down on foreign infant formula smugglers.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times attributes the scandal to three problems with China’s rapidly expanding economy:

  • Complete lack of faith in Chinese companies.
  • Corner-cutting deeply ingrained in Chinese business culture, with no government regulatory enforcement.
  • Bad incentives.

He has a Slide Show to back this up.

Other consequences

Decline in breastfeeding.  Rates of breastfeeding in China are declining.  Do Western infant formula companies have anything to do with this?

Environmental Pollution.  I was at an agriculture meeting in New Zealand a few years ago and got an earful about what it means to convert a sheep-growing country to one focused on dairy cattle: pristine to polluted.

Alas, the externalized costs of globalization.

Aug 9 2013

Weekend mystery: Where did the GM wheat come from?

Nature Magazine has a piece on the intense search for the source of the unapproved genetically modified wheat that turned up in an Oregon field.  The wheat turns out to be a test strain developed and planted by Monsanto some years ago.

No GM wheat has as yet been permitted to be planted.

Monsanto says the GM wheat must have gotten into the field by sabotage.

But the real mystery is why it hasn’t turned up in more places, as this map of Monsanto test plantings shows.

 

Aug 6 2013

Good news: FDA issues rules for a gluten-free claim on food packages

In what will surely be good news to people with celiac disease and other problems related to gluten intolerance, the FDA has just issued a final rule for defining foods as “gluten-free.”

This, after nine years of work on this issue (see timeline below).

The rule states that companies can label their products gluten-free if they contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million) gluten.  This, says FDA,

is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods using valid scientific analytical tools. Also, most people with celiac disease can tolerate foods with very small amounts of gluten. This level is consistent with those set by other countries and international bodies that set food safety standards.

As for gluten intolerance: Roughly 1% of the U.S. population has diagnosable gluten intolerance.  For those who do, eating grains containing gluten (wheat and some others) triggers an abnormal immune response that damages the intestinal tract.  To prevent symptoms—of which there can be many, none of them pleasant—people with this condition must scrupulously avoid eating gluten-containing foods.

The new rule will help establish some uniformity in labeling.  Note: gluten-free does not mean sugar-free.

In reading through the FDA’s notice in the Federal Register, I am struck by the complexity of the agency’s processes for doing something like this.

Policy wonk that I am, I immediately made a timeline.  This indicates that the FDA spent nine years getting to this point. Impressive, no?

Timeline: FDA’s Gluten-Free Rule

YEAR Action toward completing the rule
2004 Congress passes Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act; instructs FDA to issue rule defining “gluten-free.”  FDA establishes Threshold Working Group to review literature on safety cut point.
2005 Threshold Working Group suggests approaches to defining threshold.  FDA asks for comments on the report.  Asks Food Advisory Committee to consider approaches.
2006 FDA posts report and responds to comments.  Announces public hearing.   Gets 2400 comments related to the hearing.
2007 FDA proposes rule to define gluten-free.  Sets 20 ppm cut point.  Begins Health Hazard Assessment.
2011 FDA publishes Health Hazard Assessment.  Reopens comment period.
2012 FDA responds to about 2000 comments.
2013 FDA publishes final rule.

FDA’s documents on the gluten-free rule:

Aug 4 2013

Some reflections on the mayor’s food forum: San Francisco Chronicle column

I used my August (monthly, first Sunday) column for the San Francisco Chronicle to reflect on the meaning of the Mayor’s Food Forum last month.

Q: I hear that you moderated a food forum for candidates for mayor of New York City and got them to say what they thought about hunger, nutrition and local agriculture. Did any of them say anything worth telling?

A: The forum was indeed amazing. But I’d go further.

I’d call it historic – a turning point in the food movement.

This had to be the first time that food advocacy organizations – an astonishing 88 of them – joined forces to induce candidates for city office to agree to respond to questions about issues of concern to every one of those groups.

Six candidates turned up. What they said hardly mattered (and at this point, the less said about the individual candidates, the better). What does matter is that they thought this audience important enough to come and state their positions on how food production and consumption affect public health, and how political leaders can use their authority to improve the food system.

Food issues have become prominent enough to make politicians and would-be politicians take notice.

The sold-out audience of nearly 1,000 filled the auditorium at the New School as well as two overflow rooms. Others watched the forum streamed live online. (http://new.livestream.com/TheNewSchool/nycfoodforum).

When I was invited to moderate, I could hardly believe what the organizers had accomplished. Twelve groups, each working separately for improvements in food assistance, food access, working conditions, local farming, food systems or health had formed a coalition to plan the forum and make it happen.

These groups met for a more than a year to identify the specific issues they most wanted candidates to think about. Judging from the length of the questions I was given, this cannot have been easy. The organizers must have been exceptionally patient – and persistent – to get 12 advocacy groups to agree on the key issues.

They also did a great deal of community organizing. They not only recruited 76 other food advocacy groups to support the forum, but also encouraged development of an additional forum for young people in low-income communities to get involved in the food issues most relevant to their lives.

Some of these kids were invited to ask questions of the candidates. One, from a Brooklyn teenager: “Where do you shop for food?” This may sound like a naive question, but it elicited a surprisingly thoughtful response that touched on sensitive issues of income and class.

The grown-up questions concerned issues vital to the host groups: How would the new mayor address hunger and food insecurity, inadequate access to healthy food, the low wages and inhumane treatment of restaurant and fast-food workers, the poor quality of school food, and the high rates of diet-related chronic disease among city residents.

Such problems are hardly unique to New York. Even the more city-centered questions – how to use the city’s purchasing power to support regional agriculture and the food economy, and to promote city land for urban farming – have plenty of relevance for other urban areas, including Bay Area cities.

The candidates made it clear that they had thought about the issues, and had come prepared to address them.

Here’s my inescapable conclusion: The food movement is strong enough to make candidates for office stand up, listen and take food issues seriously.

Last fall, writing about California’s Proposition 37 that sought to label genetically modified foods, Michael Pollan issued a challenge to food advocates.

The food movement, he said, needs to do more than work for agricultural reform and an increased market share for healthier food. Advocacy groups need to get together to create a real political movement – an organized force strong enough to propel food concerns onto the national agenda and force politicians to take action to improve food systems.

The forum was a first step in that direction. It proved that food coalitions can have political power.

I can’t think of a better time for food advocacy groups to join forces and work collectively toward common food system goals.

E-mail questions to: food@sfchronicle.com

Aug 2 2013

Weekend Reading: Two Books About Cooking

Tamar Adler.  An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace.  Scribner 2011.

The book comes with a foreword by Alice Waters and a blurb from Michael Pollan: “Tamar Adler has written the best book on cooking with economy and grace that I have read since MFK Fisher.”  He ought to know (see below).

Ms. Adler cooked at Chez Panisse.  She says:

Cooking is best approached from wherever you find yourself when you are hungry, and should extend long past the end of the page.  There should be serving, and also eating, and storing away what’s left; there should be looking at meals’ remainders with interest and imagining all the good things they will become.

She begins with “how to boil water” and ends with “how to end.”  Very MFK Fisher indeed.

Michael Pollan.  Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.  Penguin Press, 2013

A review of this book should seem superfluous as a mere look at Pollan’s website makes clear.   But I want to go on record as saying how much I enjoyed reading it.  He writes about the time he spends in the kitchen learning from experienced cooks how to barbecue (fire), make stews (water), breads (air), and cheese (earth).

The writing is so vivid and engaging that I had the strangest reaction to this book: I could smell what was cooking.

Jul 29 2013

FDA’s latest round of food safety proposals: food imports

The FDA has finally released safety rules for imported foods, two years after Congress passed the food safety law.  OK.   We now have them.  At last.

Here’s what the FDA is up against:

  • 150 different countries ship foods to the U.S.
  • These account for about 15% of the food supply, but 50% of fresh fruits and 20% of fresh vegetables.
  • The agency has the capacity to inspect about 2% of imported foods.

To deal with this disconnect, the FDA proposes to hold importers accountable for the safety of what they ship to us.

The proposed rules allow two ways to do this: Importers can do their own onsite safety audit, or they can verify that their suppliers did so.

Both methods involve verification by certified verifiers that suppliers used “prevention-oriented food safety practices” (HACCP in other words), and achieved the same level of food safety as domestic growers and processors.

Neither requires inspection by FDA, although importers may use inspection.

The proposed rule and the third-party accreditation proposed rule are available for public comment for the next 120 days.

The previous proposed rules, for produce safety and food production facilities (see below), have been given another 60 days for public comment.  Comments on all proposals will now be due at the same time.  The FDA expect to issue the rules 12 to 18 months after the comments come in and then it will take another 18 months for rules to go into effect.

What does all this mean?

The FDA hardly has the resources to manage U.S. inspections so expecting it to do foreign inspections is unrealistic.  This plan shifts the regulatory burden to producers and shippers (why does this sound like foxes guarding henhouses?).

The FDA also intends to certify third-party auditors.  These invariably involve conflicts of interest, although that system  seems to have worked fairly reasonably well for organic foods.  But we are talking about the safety of imported foods here, and lives are at stake.

This is undoubtedly the best the FDA can do given its limited resources and its problems with Congress.  This Congress is hardly likely to view food safety as a national priority and give the FDA what it needs.

Recall: FDA appropriations go through agricultural appropriations committees, not health appropriations.  And this Congress cannot even pass a decent farm bill.

Congratulations to the FDA for making the best of a bad situation.  And fingers crossed that the proposals survive, get implemented by 2015, and nothing bad happens in the interim.

The document collection:

For a detailed discussion of the pros, cons, and questions, see the account in Food Safety News

Jul 24 2013

Michele Obama to La Raza: Hold companies responsible for what they make and market to kids

It’s been more than three years since Michele Obama’s speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Association about the unhealthy effects of their food marketing on kids.

But she’s back, this time talking to an audience representing specific targets of food industry marketing—Hispanics.

In a speech to the National Council of La Raza, she said:

While we still have a long way to go, the good news is that right now, we have everything we need to reclaim our children’s health — that is, if we’re willing to step up and continue to do our part in our own families and communities.

And that starts by using our power as consumers to hold companies responsible for the food they make and how they market it to our kids.

In 2008 alone, companies spent well over half a billion dollars on food, beverage and restaurant ads in Latino media markets — many of them for unhealthy products.

And those of us with kids who have seen our kids begging and pleading for something they saw on TV, we know just how persuasive these ads can be.

So we all know that the food industry has some serious work to do when it comes to how they market food to our kids.

But here’s the thing — ultimately, we all have the power to decide whether or not to actually buy those foods…Goya can produce low-sodium products, but if we don’t buy them, they will stop selling them….

In the end, we create the demand for these products and it’s up to us to demand quality, affordable food that is good for our kids.  But it’s on us.  (Applause)

OK, so she’s not exactly calling for boycotts or talking about legislation that might put some limits on food industry marketing.  But reading between the lines, it comes pretty close.

(Applause) indeed!

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