by Marion Nestle

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Jan 20 2014

How to get people to buy healthier food: cardboard cutouts?

Can it really be this easy?  Morrison’s, a grocery chain in the U.K., put cardboard cutouts of doctors near the produce section.

A new pilot scheme in a Morrisons store in Salford, using cardboard cut-outs of local GPs in the fresh produce aisles delivered a 20% rise in the sales of fresh fruit and a 30% uplift for frozen fruit.

All of this is part of Great Britain’s Public Health “Responsibility Deal,” which aims to enlist businesses to voluntarily promote health objectives.

The Responsibility Deal embodies the Government’s ambition for a more collaborative approach to tackling the challenges caused by our lifestyle choices.

Organisations signing up to the Responsibility Deal commit to taking action voluntarily to improve public health through their responsibilities as employers, as well as through their commercial actions and their community activities. Organisations can sign up to be either national partners or local partners.

The principles and ambitions of the Responsibility Deal are set out in its core commitments and supporting pledges.

This is all it takes?  Really?

Why do I think this won’t work nearly as well in America?  We have a long way to go, says the USDA.

What might work?  Celebrities?  Sports figures?  Political figures?

Jan 16 2014

Congress on curbing food marketing to kids: not a chance.

Congress can’t pass a farm bill but it has plenty of time to micromanage nutrition and health.  Buried in the pork-filled Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 (see Monday’s post) are some zingers.  Here’s one:

appropr

This refers to the ill-fated IWG report I’ve discussed previously. To recap:

  • Congress asked the FTC to examine the effects of food marketing to children and make recommendations.
  • The FTC, USDA, FDA, and CDC got together and produced a report recommending voluntary guidelines for marketing to children based on the nutritional quality of the foods.
  • I thought the guidelines were weak in addition to being voluntary (they allowed lots of junk foods to qualify).
  • The food industry disagreed, strongly, and went to Congress to object.
  • Congress caved in to industry pressure and said the report could not be released unless the FTC produced a cost-benefit analysis.
  • End of story.
  • Why Congress feels that it’s necessary to do this again is beyond me.

I suppose we should be glad our legislators are at least doing something.

As for the food industry’s role in all this: when food companies say they are doing everything they can to reduce marketing junk foods to kids, you now know what they really mean.

Jan 15 2014

The FDA clarifies: Is your drink a supplement or a food?

By an act of Congress, dietary supplements are regulated less strictly than conventional foods, so much so that some beverage manufacturers would much prefer to have their products labeled as dietary supplements than foods, energy shots, for example.

Under the law, the FDA pretty much has to keep hands off of supplements, except when something egregious happens, like people getting sick or dying.

The FDA is now trying to clarify the difference between beverages that are supplements and those that are drugs.  It just issued:

These documents, however, are guidance.  The are not regulations:

This guidance represents the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) current thinking on this topic.  It does not create or confer any rights for or on any person and does not operate to bind FDA or the public.  You may use an alternative approach if the approach satisfies the requirements of the applicable statutes and regulations.

Why is FDA doing this?  I’m guessing for two reasons.

1.  The weird ingredients in energy drinks:

We have observed an increase in the marketing of liquid products with a wide array of ingredients and intended uses.  Some of these products are marketed as dietary supplements, and others as conventional foods. 

We have seen a growth in the marketplace of beverages and other conventional foods that contain novel substances, such as added botanical ingredients or their extracts.  Some of these substances have not previously been used in conventional foods and may be unapproved food additives.

2.  The high caffeine levels in those drinks.

Other substances that have been present in the food supply for many years are now being added to beverages and other conventional foods at levels in excess of their traditional use levels, or in new beverages or other conventional foods.  This trend raises questions regarding whether these new uses are unapproved food additive uses.

Caffeine is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) at the levels added to soft drinks.

But the levels in energy drinks are so much higher that the FDA has questions about whether GRAS applies to them.

These guidance documents are open for comment.  If you care about such issues, weigh in now.

Jan 14 2014

Congress releases its draft budget bill (sigh)

In the strange way the U.S. government works, Congress has produced the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014,” which authorizes payments for government services, including those related to agriculture.

This is not the farm bill.  It’s what Congress decides taxpayers will pay for in the farm bill as well as bills that cover other programs run by USDA.

The House summary of agriculture appropriations is a lot easier to read than the bill itself, although it contains its share of double speak.  Try this:

WIC – This program provides supplemental nutritional foods needed by pregnant and nursing mothers, babies and young children. The bill provides full funding for WIC at $6.7 billion – $153 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level…This level will ensure all eligible participants will be served.

Can someone please explain to me how a cut of $153 million will ensure service to everyone who is eligible?  WIC is not an entitlement; eligible people cannot be served once the money runs out.

The bill does provide full spending—$82.2 billion—for SNAP, but only because it has to.  SNAP is an entitlement and spending for it is mandatory.  Unless, of course, Congress ever passes the farm bill, which currently contains a $9 billion proposed cut.

And here’s more double speak.  “The legislation includes several provisions to reduce spending and increase oversight of taxpayer dollars.”  How?  By authorizing spending for:

  • Oversight and monitoring requirements for the WIC program, including a directive for the Secretary of Agriculture to increase oversight of vendors to help rein in food costs;
  • A provision requiring USDA to submit a plan for reducing high error rates and improper payments in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs;
  • Requirements for the Secretary of Agriculture to help weed out and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in the SNAP program – including a directive to ban fraudulent vendors, and a prohibition on advertisements or outreach with foreign governments.

And why does the FDA’s budget still get decided by committees dealing with agricultural appropriations?

The FDA is a public health agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, which is funded by entirely different committees which you might think understand its mission a lot better than committees fussing about legislation that

restricts the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing certain regulations that would allow harmful government interference in the private market for the livestock and poultry industry.

I can hardly wait to see what the farm bill will look like.

Jan 13 2014

What are Americans eating?

I’ve only just come across this USDA chart, which first appeared in an article in Amber Waves.

USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers looked at 1998-2006 grocery store food expenditures and compared what consumers buy to dietary guidelines for healthy eating.  

Oops.  

Jan 8 2014

The endless GMO saga: today’s chapter

A reader writes: “Any chance you might weigh in on the latest GMO piece in the times?”

Sure.  This article, in case you missed it, puts anyone who opposes GMOs in the same camp as climate denialists.

I haven’t commented on it because I wrote a book about the topic in 2003—Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety—in which I said everything I had to say about the topic.  Nothing new has happened since.

In that book, I argued that the safety of GMOs is a surrogate for what people really worry about but aren’t allowed to discuss: corporate control of the food supply.

I drew on the literature of risk communication to explain what kinds of issues most worry the public: those that are technological, unfamiliar, and under someone else’s control.

Why should the public trust GMOs?  They are under corporate control and not labeled.

By pouring money into fighting labeling, the biotech industry looks like it’s got plenty to hide.  

For one possibility about what’s hidden, take a look at Tom Philpott’s take on the need for stronger and increasingly toxic pesticides to overcome the weed resistance to Roundup that is now widespread.

Now that GMO labeling initiatives are making some headway, guess what:

PoliticoPro tells us tells us that the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) now wants the industry to do voluntary labeling.  According to a leaked draft for discussion, the Association is working on legislation to send to Congress.  This would:

  • Require FDA to set up a voluntary labeling standard for foods that do not contain GMOs and determine the safety of GMO products.
  • Preclude states from adopting any laws that are not identical to the federal requirements and create a legal framework so that FDA can take a more active role in regulating GMO-labeling claims.
  • Require GMO producers to notify the FDA about all new bioengineered foods four months before they could be marketed.
  • Require FDA to define “natural”
  • Set up a national standard for voluntary GMO labeling 

While you are waiting for all this to happen, take a look at the Wall Street Journal’s perspective on this video: Can you spot the GMOs in your grocery store?

Here’s what JustLabelIt’s Executive Director Scott Faber says:

This ‘Hail Mary’ pass comes too late to deny consumers the right to know what’s in their food. Two states have already given consumers the same rights as consumers in 64 other countries around world, and 20 more states are poised to pass GE labeling legislation in 2014. Now is the time for food companies to work with JLI and others to craft a national mandatory labeling system, not make desperate moves to block states from protecting their consumers from misleading “natural” claims or to tie FDA’s hands in red tape.

Really, labeling would solve lots of problems, but let’s make it mandatory please.

Jan 2 2014

McDonald’s dietary recommendations for employees

Right after Christmas, the Wall Street Journal wrote that McDonald’s had taken down its website advising employees how to eat more healthfully—by not eating McDonald’s core products.

Oops.

Nothing on the Web really disappears, in part because of screenshots.  The website Russia Today, of all places, had done just that (thanks Ben Kelley, for sending).

mcdonalds unhealthy

Here’s an aggregation of what else got sent to me from other donors who prefer to remain anonymous:

After yet another PR headache, McDonald’s has taken down its employee resources website following what it deemed “unwarranted scrutiny and inappropriate commentary.”

My favorite comment comes from a tweet from Center for Science in the Public Interest, @CSPI:

Too bad re @McDonalds‘ McResource site. We liked its sensible #nutrition advice for employees (not to eat fast food) ow.ly/s5RXj

Enjoy and happy new year!

Dec 29 2013

My last San Francisco Chronicle column: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Looking back at year of progress for food system

After 5 1/2 years and 70 columns written exclusively for The Chronicle, this is my last. As I move on, I do so with much hope for a healthier and more equitable food system.

My optimism comes from taking the long view of progress in agriculture, food, nutrition and public health. When I look back on what’s happened since, say, 1980, I see enormous improvement in the foods available in supermarkets and in schools, the availability of organic and locally grown food, and public interest in everything about food, from taste to politics.

At this time of year, it’s customary to highlight the 10 most notable achievements of the past 12 months. But let me point out one conspicuous absence from this list – the creation of a stronger and more compassionate safety net for the poor and unemployed. Working toward this goal needs to be high on the food advocacy agenda for 2014.

With that gap in mind, here’s where I’ve seen noteworthy progress:

School nutrition standardsThe new rules are the result of the most significant achievement of Michelle Obama‘s Let’s Move! campaign – the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010. This act required schools to provide not only healthier meals, but also snacks. Early reports find most schools to be doing a good job of putting the new rules into effect. Yes, the rules do not go nearly far enough (they are too generous in sugar, for example), but they are a step in the right direction and lay the groundwork for even better standards.

Food safety rulesThe Food and Drug Administration finally started issuing regulations for the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. Once final, these rules will go a long way toward requiring food producers to take measures to ensure safety, and giving the FDA the authority to make sure they do. Yes, its details still need tweaking, but FSMA is a milestone on the road to a safer food supply. The next steps will be to bring the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s authority in line with the FDA’s, and to develop a single food safety agency that combines the functions of both.

FDA’s guidance on antibiotic resistanceThe FDA has called on drug companies to voluntarily agree to stop using medically important antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals and to require a veterinarian’s prescription when using these drugs to treat, prevent or control animal disease. Yes, this is voluntary and drug companies have three years to comply. But the FDA has taken the first step toward banning antibiotics for anything but therapeutic purposes, an impressive achievement given current political realities.

Let’s Move!’s food marketing initiativeMarketing is the elephant in the room of childhood obesity. It overwhelmingly influences kids to prefer, demand and consume junk foods and sodas. Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign has no authority to regulate marketing to kids. By keeping a focus on this issue, she gives advocates plenty of room to hold food companies publicly accountable for their marketing practices.

Soda and junk food taxes in MexicoDespite intense and well-organized opposition by its soda, sugar and small-business industries, the Mexican government passed a 1-peso-per-liter tax on soft drinks and an 8 percent tax on junk foods.

These measures were meant to counter the country’s 70 percent of overweight people and, no coincidence, record-breaking soda consumption. The initiative succeeded as a result of strong advocacy support and also because the revenues were committed to social purposes, among them providing clean drinking water in schools. Other countries are likely to be inspired to enact similar measures.

GMO labeling initiativesConnecticut passed a GMO labeling law in 2013, but election initiatives in California and Washington failed. Even though the food and biotechnology industries poured tens of millions of dollars into defeating labeling measures, the margins of defeat were small. My crystal ball says that some such measures will eventually pass. The food biotechnology industry must think so too; some of its groups are calling for voluntary GMO labeling.

Fast-food workers’ wage demandsPeople who work full time should be able to support their families and not have to be on public assistance. If you work 40 hours at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, you will earn less than $300, and that’s before taxes.

USDA‘s agricultural coexistence initiativesBy agricultural coexistence, the USDA means peaceful relations between quite different farming systems – industrial and GMO versus organic and sustainable. Peaceful coexistence would be a lot easier if GMO pollen didn’t drift onto organic crops, if Congress supported sustainable agriculture in proportion to its size, and if the ag-biotech industry didn’t dismiss cooperation out of hand.

The New York City mayoral candidates forum and coalition buildingAbout 85 food and nutrition advocacy groups put their differences aside to jointly question mayoral candidates on their views about food problems facing city residents. Seven candidates showed up to answer questions, a clear sign that coalitions are strong enough to demand attention.

A personal perspectiveThe past year brought many new food studies programs into universities. When we created food studies programs at New York University in 1996, only one other such program existed. Today, universities throughout the country are training young people to advocate for food systems healthier for the planet and for people, rich and poor.

University of California Press released the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics,” and Rodale Books issued “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

The message of both books – the first in text and the second in cartoons – is the same: Vote with your fork for a more delicious and sustainable food system. Even better, vote with your vote! Engage in food politics to make our food system more conducive to health and social justice.

The food movement is making much progress, but much more remains to be done. I’ve had a great run at The Chronicle, for which I deeply thank readers and editors. I will continue to write about food matters on my blog, at www.foodpolitics.com. Please join me there.

Marion Nestle is also the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics” and “What to Eat.” She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail:food@sfchronicle.com

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