by Marion Nestle

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Jun 5 2013

Coke as a broker of peace and conflict

Coca-Cola as a peace broker

I don’t know what to make of Coca-Cola’s recent marketing strategies, as reported in the Washington  Post.   The ad,

“Small World Machines” starts with a relatively straightforward premise: India and Pakistan do not get along so well. It ends with the promise of peace: “Togetherness, humanity, this is what we all want, more and more exchange,” a woman, either Indian or Pakistani, narrates as the music swells. Sounds great. How do we get there? By buying Coke, of course.

The idea is to have two vending machines, one in Lahore and one in New Delhi, each with views of the other.  To buy a Coke, buyers have to cooperate.  Here are photos showing how it works.  And here’s how Coke explains it, with video and slides. 

As the Post explains, this may not be as far-fetched as it seems.

Sharing tasks and short-term, low-risk social interactions are classic conflict resolution tactics, including as a part of the civilian-to-civilian interactions sometimes termed “track two diplomacy.”  Indo-Pakistani tensions could use all the help they can get.

But the Post concludes with an update: 

Deputy foreign editor Karin Brulliard, a former Pakistan bureau chief, alerts me that, per the Wall Street Journal, Pepsi dominates the soda market there. Maybe that’s what’s been holding back peace?

This is not the first time that Coke markets its products as the key to world peace.  Those of you who are old enough might recall the “I’d like to teach the world to sing” video from 1990.

Coca-Cola as a conflict promoter

Who at Coke got the clever idea of producing personalized bottles with 150 popular names—in Israel, of all places?

Oops.  Forgot the 1.5 million Arabs who live there.

Alas, the campaign has caused a huge controversy in the Mideast.

Recall: All this is about selling Coke internationally.  Americans aren’t buying it so much anymore, so overseas it goes.

Jun 2 2013

Got marketing? Organics face quandary

My monthly, first Sunday, food matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I read that the new farm bill is going to establish a checkoff program for organics. What’s that? Is this good for organics?

A: As with everything in food politics, the answer depends on who you are. If you are a big producer of organic foods, it’s good news. If you are small, it may cost you more than it’s worth. And if all you want is to buy organic foods at a price you can afford, it could go either way.

Let’s start with the farm bill, which still has many hurdles to jump before it gets passed. The bill ties agricultural policy to food stamps (which take up 80 percent of the budget), favors large industrial farms over small, and only occasionally tosses in a token program to promote public health or environmental protection.

One such token is the organic checkoff. Both the Senate and House have amended the farm bill to permit organic producers and handlers to form a marketing and promotion program, commonly known as a checkoff.

Fee required

The way this works is that if the amendments survive, the bill passes and organic growers agree on the program – all iffy at the moment – the Department of Agriculture will require every producer and handler of certified organic foods to pay a fee per unit sale (the checkoff). The fees go into a common fund to be used for research and marketing of organic foods in general.

The USDA currently administers 19 checkoff programs. The best known are beef (“it’s what’s for dinner”), milk (“got milk?”) and eggs (“the incredible edible”). Others cover foods such as blueberries, Hass avocados, mangos, peanuts, popcorn and watermelon.

In these cases, the industry or its representatives voted for the programs. They are administered by the USDA but the industry pays for them.

Checkoff funds are allowed to be used for advertising, consumer education, foreign market development and research. They cannot be used for lobbying, although the distinction between promoting a product to consumers and extolling its virtues to lawmakers can be subtle.

The Organic Trade Association, which represents hundreds of organic producers but is dominated by the big ones, has lobbied for this program since 2010. The association is concerned that consumers cannot currently tell the difference between “natural,” a term that is unregulated, and “certified organic,” which is highly regulated, requires inspection and is more expensive to produce.

Mostly, the association wants to increase market share. Sales of organic foods in the United States have been growing by about 10 percent annually and reached $35 billion last year, but this amount is minuscule in comparison to total food sales. The growth potential of organic foods is enormous.

The congressional go-ahead is a triumph for the association, which convinced a majority of the Senate and House that the public wants the farm bill to support organics.

Opposing viewpoint

That many producers of conventional foods and their friends in Congress do not like organics is an understatement. They resent that consumers are willing to pay premium prices for organics. They consider organics to be a slap in the face – a personal assault on conventional agricultural practices.

They cite many reasons why the organic checkoff should not be allowed. For one thing, it is distinctly different from all other commodity checkoff programs – “organic” is a production process, not a food.

Because farmers are allowed to pay fees into only one checkoff program, the growers of organic blueberries would have to choose between the one for organics and the one for blueberries.

Questioning the cost

Critics of the entire concept of checkoff programs say all they do is increase food prices by passing the costs of promotion on to consumers.

Small organic producers and handlers are also leery. They object to having to pay fees for something that is not guaranteed to do them any good. Evidence for the benefits of checkoff programs is mixed. Some farmers benefit, while others do not.

And because checkoff funds are not allowed to be used for advertising that implies disparagement of other foods or production processes, small organic producers fear that marketing will focus exclusively on whether or not a product is certified and will be used to promote any organic product, including junk food. The rules will not allow promotion to focus on the benefits of organics to health or the environment.

Checkoffs are about marketing. They are not about health, sustainability, human welfare or any other value cherished by today’s food movement. Much as I favor organic over conventional production methods, I’m hoping organic producers will think carefully before approving a checkoff.

May 31 2013

Annals of public relations: the food industry vs. obesity

Yesterday was a blitz day for food industry public relations.

PR #1.  Coca-Cola placed a full-page ad in the New York Times: “Beating obesity will take all of us.”

Coke’s promises [with my comments]:

  • Offer low- or no-calorie drinks in every market [but focus advertising on the sugary ones].
  • Provide transparent nutrition information, listing calories on the front of all packages [but per serving, not total for the big ones]
  • Help get people moving [divert attention from the caloric effects of sodas]
  • Market responsibly, including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world [I will believe it when I see it]

“Obesity won’t be solved overnight,” Coke says, but we know that when people come together around shared solutions, good things happen.” 

Like drinking less Coke? 

PR #2.  The food industry’s Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation issued a press release to say that its member companies have more than met their stated goal of reducing 1.5 trillion calories in the marketplace in the United States.   Indra Nooyi, HWCF Chair, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, said:

Our industry has an important role to play in helping people lead healthy lives and our actions are having a positive impact…We see continued opportunities to give consumers the choices they’re looking for and to work collaboratively with the public and non-profit sectors on initiatives that enable continued progress.

Really?  Where are the data?  On what basis does the group make this claim?  The press release says that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is doing a study but the results won’t be released until the fall.

Hence: Public relations.  As I noted in a previous post on this promise in 2010.

What are we to make of all this?  Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt?*  History suggests the latter possibility.  Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products without doing anything, and every promise helps stave off regulation.

Oops.  Forgot.  

Addition:  I forgot to post the accompanying report from the Hudson Institute about how low-calorie beverages are driving all the sales growth for soda companies, at least in the US.

May 30 2013

Chinese buy Smithfield: What about food safety, the environment, community health, animal welfare, worker rights?

I first heard about the impending of Smithfield (the gigantic ham-and-pork company) to the Chinese company, Shuanghui International Holdings, from MeatPoultry.com:

The acquisition positions Smithfield to expand its offerings in China through Shuanghui’s distribution network. Shuanghui will acquire all of Smithfield’s outstanding shares for $34 per share in cash, which is a 31 percent premium…Smithfield’s stock price rose nearly 28 percent to $33.20…Smithfield’s common stock will no longer be publicly traded, and the company will become a wholly owned independent subsidiary of Shuanghui.

MeatPoultry.com also reported a statement from the CEO of Shuanghui: 

We are excited about this…Together, [Shuanghui and Smithfield Foods] can be a global leader in animal protein…We are No. 1 in China; Smithfield is No. 1 in the US…Chinese consumers like American pork. US farmers want foreign markets for their pork. This will be a win-win for both countries.

Not exactly, says a e-mailed news release from the Waterkeeper Alliance:

This deal with the Shuanghui – a company with a very recent history of producing tainted food – raises the specter that Americans will lose more control of their food supply, be exposed to tainted food and be left with even more devastated farming communities and drinking water supplies as a result of increased industrialized meat production.

The New York Times put this sale on the front page and Stephanie Strom has an even longer piece on it in the business section.   The Washington Post also had plenty to say.

Smithfield, you may recall, is a company famous for factory farms, pollution, and truly appalling labor practices documented, in among many other places, the movie, Food, Inc.

In 2009, I commented on a previous attempt by Smithfield to sell out to a Chinese company.

Let’s not be too xenophobic about China. China already owns vast amounts of American real estate, holds vast amounts of American debt, and produces vast amounts of the food we eat–globalization in all its glory. We can no longer survive without China so we better figure out quickly how to make this marriage work.

We also better figure out how to make our food production system more sustainable and less harmful to farm animals, the environment, farm workers, and consumers. I was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released its report last April. Our report fully documented how CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are not nice to animals; pollute air, soil, and water; turn communities into garbage dumps; and promote transmission of nasty—and often antibiotic resistant–microbial diseases to farm workers, community residents, and everyone else.

One major finding of the Pew Commission was that laws protecting communities and the environment currently exist; they just aren’t enforced.  Too bad for anyone living near an industrial pig farm.

This deal stinks?

Additions, May 31: Reuters discusses the ractopamine issue, said to be key to understanding this deal.  The Chinese do not allow use of ractopamine as a growth promoter, but the U.S. does.  Once Smithfield started phasing out its use, the deal became possible.

Ractopamine is a beta-agonist. Initially developed to treat asthma in humans, ractopamine was found to be extremely effective at changing the metabolism of an animal, so that the animal would quickly and cost-effectively add sought-after muscle. The FDA approved the use of beta-agonists in pigs in 1999, for cattle in 2003 and for turkeys in 2008.

Helena Bottemiller writing on NBC News, also discusses this issue.

In March, Smithfield Inc., converted its Tar Heel, N.C. plant – the world’s largest pork processing facility – to slaughter only hogs that were raised without the use of ractopamine….the company’s product line will be 50 percent ractopamine-free as of June 1…Earlier this year, China and Russia demanded that all American meat exports be certified ractopamine-free. The U.S. government initially refused these certification demands, so Russia shut down its market to U.S. beef and pork in February. 

Addition, June 1: The New York Times writes that the Committee on Foreign Investment is about to undertake a national security review of the deal.  The big questions: Are Smithfield’s sales to the military secure?  Does it use special farming technology that could be transferred to China?  Will Shuanghui have the power to disrupt the U.S. food chain for pork?

Another addition, June 1: Apparently, Shuanghui has a history of findings of maggots, excessive bacteria and illegal additives.

Addition, June 4: Guess who owns half of Shuanghui, the company that wants to buy Smithfield: Goldman Sachs, among others.

Addition, June 5: The Wall Street Journal has this helpful graphic comparing the pork supply chains in China and the U.S. along with an excellent summary of the issues involved.

image

May 29 2013

Keeping track of the farm bill: 194 amendments so far, just in the Senate

Congress is in recess this week so nothing new is happening on the farm bill.

I’m indebted to Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the Hagstrom Report and follows farm bill issues closely, for publishing a list of amendments filed to date on the Senate draft of the bill.  Would you believe 194?

Of these, the Senate has managed to deal with a few.

The Senate passed:

  • Cantwell amendment to allow Indian tribes to participate in certain soil and water conservation programs. (#919)
  • Sessions amendment to clarify eligibility criteria for agricultural irrigation assistance. (#945, as modified) by unanimous consent.
  • Franken amendment to provide access to grocery delivery for homebound seniors and individuals with disabilities eligible for supplemental nutrition assistance benefits. (#992) by unanimous consent.
  • Vitter amendment to end food stamp eligibility for convicted violent rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. (#1056) by unanimous consent. 
It rejected:
  • Shaheen amendment to reform the federal sugar program, and for other purposes. (#925)
  • Gillibrand amendment to strike a reduction in the supplemental nutrition assistance program, with an offset that limits crop insurance reimbursements to providers. (#931)
  • Roberts amendment to improve and extend certain nutrition programs. (#948)
  • Inhofe amendment to repeal the nutrition entitlement programs and establish a nutrition assistance block grant program. (#960)
  • Sanders amendment to permit states to require that any food, beverage, or other edible product offered for sale have a label on indicating that the food, beverage, or other edible product contains a genetically engineered ingredient. (#965) by a vote of 71 to 27.

Attempts to eliminate cuts to SNAP failed (sigh) but so did an attempt to leave food stamps up to states (cheers).  This means SNAP will have at least a $4 billion cut over 10 years—the best that can be hoped for at this point.

The Senate rejected  GM labeling.

Reform the sugar program?  Don’t be silly.  At some point, I’ll have more to say about that one.

As for the next 190 or so….  And as for what the House will do….

It would be great drama if it weren’t so sad and so much weren’t at stake. 

May 22 2013

Civics lesson: SNAP amendments to the farm bill

I know the mere words “farm bill” are enough to put any sane person into a coma, but what’s happening in Congress can be quite entertaining if you don’t care what happens.

For example, the bill is so big and covers so much territory that just about every legislator introduces amendments (these are tracked by FarmBillPrimer.org).

Because SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) takes up 80% of farm bill funding to the tune of about $80 billion a year, lots of amendments deal with further decreasing the budget allocation or restoring amounts that have been cut.  So far, none of these has passed.

But legislators have other things they want SNAP to do.  For example, Senator Tom Coburn MD (Rep-Oklahoma) has introduced several amendments pertaining to SNAP, among them:

Amendment 1000 - Junk Food Purchases with SNAP: Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to approve state demonstration projects that limit the purchase of junk food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Additional information here

 

Energy drinks, candy bars, sodas, ice cream, potato chips, fancy bakery cakes and cookies are all eligible foods under the program, as defined by statute…Few people would qualify these goods as “nutritional assistance.”

Amendment 1001 - Food Stamps: Returns the title of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to its original name, the Food Stamp program. Additional information here.   

Congress renamed the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and made a name change to the underlying legislative bill governing food stamps. Given spending patterns and eligible purchases in the program, though, SNAP is anything but nutritious for recipients or the country as a whole. Instead of misleading the public as to its benefits, SNAP should be renamed its original title, the Food Stamp Program. This name…is also a reminder of the core goal of the program: to serve our nation’s most vulnerable.

Amendment 1002 – SNAP Promotion Limitation: Limits the amount of SNAP funding that may be used to promote increased participation and enrollment in the program to 1% of overall funds and prevents SNAP funding for soap operas and parties. Additional information here.

Giveaways, soap operas, and radio miniseries all may be solid advertising opportunities for private companies wishing to market a product. They are not, however, appropriate uses of taxpayer funds to advocate for greater enrollment in SNAP, which would even further drain the government’s already-depleted coffers.

 Want to take bets on whether the Senate, let alone the House, will pass any of these?
May 20 2013

What I’m reading about the farm bill: sarcastic, sober, troubling

The best recent analysis of what’s happening with the farm bill comes from Tom Laskawy on Grist.

For one thing, it has a great title: “Undead farm bill: Everyone’s favorite legislative zombie shuffles on.”

For another, it makes a troubling point: if Congress fails to pass a farm bill, the good parts go out with the bad.

Actually, the question really is whether Congress will ever pass a farm bill again. For the first time, those close to the legislative process are starting to have their doubts. And that may be a really bad thing.

Bah, humbug, you say! The farm bill is larded with bipartisan subsidies for the largest-scale farmers who grow commodities like corn, soy, and cotton. It’s also the bill that authorizes the federal crop insurance program, which has grown like gangbusters over the last decade. Last year (thanks to the drought) farmers received over $17 billion in insurance payouts — almost all of which benefited large-scale commodity agriculture. A chicken pox on all their coops!

That not an unreasonable reaction. But also at stake in the farm bill are billions of dollars for conservation programs that help farmers mitigate the environmental effects of their work, and pay them to set aside marginal farmland as wildlife habitat. It also contains millions in federal funds that support organic farmers, help younger and “new” farmers get their start, and prop up local food efforts, organic research, and farmers markets.

What’s good in the current farm bill draft?  The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (which represents growers of fruits, vegetables, nuts) summarizes:

  • Specialty Crop Block Grants funded at $72.5 million in fiscal 2014-2017 and $85 million in FY2018
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative funded at $50 million in FY2014-15; $55 million in FY 2016-2017; and $65 million in FY2018
  • Coordinated Plant Management Program funded at $62.5 million in FY2014-2017 and $75 million in FY2018
  • Market Access Program and Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Section 32 specialty crop purchases at 2008 levels
  • DoD Fresh program fully funded at $50 million per year consistent with 2008 Farm Bill levels
Dan Flynn of Food Safety News compares the amount of time spent on the farm bill to the Korean War and explains the meaning of its  proposal to transfer “non-inspection” of catfish from USDA to FDA.

Here are the bills:

This is all so disheartening.  Eternal optimist that I am, even I am having trouble with this one.

May 15 2013

The Ag Committees’ Farm Bill Title IV (food stamps): Mean-Spirited

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-–Title IV in the Senate and the House farm bills—is the elephant in the room because it takes up roughly 80% of the bill’s total cost to taxpayers.   SNAP benefits cost roughly $80 billion per year for 47.5 million participants.

Yesterday, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill with no amendments to its draft of  the Title IV Nutrition section.  The committee proposes more than $4 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next 10 years.

Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said of the vote:

Unfortunately…[the Senate Ag Committee] passed a bill that values foreign corporate welfare over feeding our children, seniors, and low-income working people. If this version of the Farm Bill becomes law, $4.1 billion in SNAP funding would be cut, and that would mean $90 less a month for 500,000 families already struggling to make ends meet.

For out-of-work American adults and their out-of-luck children, SNAP is a lifeline, the remaining survivor of the once effective safety net.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that anyone who qualifies is eligible to receive benefits.  That’s how Congress set it up but with budget cuts the only issue of concern, the $80 billion annual cost of SNAP is a sitting duck.

That’s why these bills look so mean-spirited.

Apparently, Congress could not care less about making sure that the down-and-out have access to better and healthier food.

Instead, the emphasis is on reducing enrollments and preventing fraud.  Yes, fraud is a problem in SNAP, but a relatively small one.  And whether fraud is worth the time, energy, and hundreds of millions of dollars a year spent on its prevention is arguable.

But this is about politics, and it’s possible that the new anti-fraud measures may be a small price to pay for hanging onto the bulk of the benefits.

As the Senate summary puts it:

The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 strengthens the integrity and accountability of federal nutrition programs. The legislation ensures that every dollar be spent responsibly so that those who need help can get it. The bill cracks down on fraud and abuse, while strengthening efforts to get food assistance to those most in need.

The proposed bill:

  • Cracks down on trafficking (and allocates $12 million per year for that purpose)
  • Prevents lottery winners from receiving benefits
  • Prevents college students from misusing benefits
  • Limits SNAP eligibility for college students
  • Prevents utility allowances from influencing size of benefits

The House summary says: “FARRM makes common-sense reforms, closes program loopholes, and cracks down on waste,fraud, and abuse saving the American taxpayer over $20 billion.”

  • Ensures all households meet the asset and income tests stated in SNAP law before they can receive benefits.
  • Updates financial resource limits to more accurately reflect low-income households.
  • Restricts categorical eligibility to only those households receiving cash assistance from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or other state general assistance programs.
  • Stops states from giving recipients utility benefit payments that increase SNAP benefits.
  • Ends SNAP benefits for lottery or gambling winners.
  • Prevents traditional college students from receiving SNAP.
  • Requires states to verify SNAP benefits are not paid to deceased individuals.
  • Requires states to verify that beneficiaries are not receiving payments in more than one state.
  • Prevents SNAP benefits from being used to pay for substantial bottle deposits when contents are dumped and bottles returned for refunds..
  • Prohibits counting medical marijuana as an income deduction for SNAP benefits.
  • Ensures illegal Immigrants do not receive SNAP benefits.
  • Prevents USDA from promoting the SNAP program through outreach via television, radio and billboard advertisements.
  • Prohibits USDA from entering into agreements with foreign governments designed to promote SNAP benefits.
  • Requires states to report outcomes on education and training programs for SNAP recipients.

Yes, most of these sound reasonable, although eliminating outreach seems like a really bad idea.  But do they represent the most serious problems with SNAP?

Where is congressional will to meet the needs of the poorest members of our society?  This is about cost-cutting and power politics.  It is not about taking care of the most vulnerable members of society, among them 23 million children.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the useful parts of this legislation—those focused on improving the health of SNAP participants—and why SNAP benefits are so contentious in this Congress.

In the meantime, the House Ag Committee does its version of the farm bill starting at 10:00 this morning.

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