Nov 16 2012

Chicago emulates New York’s public health policies? Not quite.

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not exactly Michael Bloomberg when it comes to public health approaches to obesity and chronic disease prevention.

In October, he announced that he’d gotten Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple to agree to post calorie information on vending machines in Chicago government buildings (something that they will have to do anyway whenever the FDA ever gets around to issuing final rules for menu labeling).

At the same time, he announced a health competition between Chicago city workers and those in San Antonio with rewards paid by the American Beverage Association through a $5 million gift.  This partnership was widely interpreted as a ploy to stave off the kind of soda tax and cap initiatives proposed by the Bloomberg administration in New York City.

And now, in yet another deal with soda companies, Mayor Emanuel has accepted a $3 million grant from Coca-Cola to pay for a park district program “to fight obesity and diabetes by offering nutrition education as well as exercise classes run by armed forces veterans.”

If the idea of soda companies funding anti-obesity campaigns strikes you as ironic—don’t sodas have something to do with obesity in the first place?— you need to understand Mayor Emanuel’s point of view.

His stated philosophy is that it’s better “to give people personal responsibility and the information necessary to make the right choices about their health than it is to legislate their behavior.”

Maybe so, but when faced with today’s “eat more” food environment, personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance.

But wait: Isn’t Chicago making an important environmental change?  Its public schools are banning energy drinks.

Well, almost.

The new policy sets nutrition standards for all vending machine food and a la carte items sold in cafeterias and excludes energy drinks—with one exception: Gatorade, a PepsiCo product, “can only be used after students have engaged in a school sports activity.”

Are public health partnerships with soda companies a good idea?  The money is nice and undoubtedly badly needed, but worth the price?  Mayor Emanuel thinks so.

I’m dubious.

Nov 14 2012

Where are we on the farm bill and where should we be?

The best explanation of what’s happening with the long-delayed 2012 farm bill comes from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.  In September, it produced a still very much relevant Q and Aon the topic. The 2008 farm bill expired without being renewed.  If Congress does not act soon, farm policy will be in big trouble. Here are some brief excerpts:

What is the relationship between the farm bill and the automatic budget cuts scheduled for January 1? The new farm bill, when and if it becomes law, will cut more spending from farm bill programs overall, on a net basis, than the automatic budget cuts scheduled to begin on January 1 under the requirements of the Budget Control Act of 2011…Whether Congress postpones the start date for automatic cuts or in other ways amends the Budget Control Act when it returns to DC after the elections is one of the biggest issues hanging over the lame duck session.

What are the farm bill choices that Congress has during the lame duck session? There are two theories about what happens next.  In one, the House returns after the elections and finally brings its bill to the floor, passes the bill with amendments, the House and Senate versions then get reconciled in a farm bill “conference” committee, and a melded final bill is…sent to the President for his signature — all within the three to five weeks of the short “lame duck” session. In the other theory, Congress returns after the election and works out the details of a bill to extend, with some modifications, the 2008 Farm Bill until a date in the spring, summer, or fall of 2013.  Under this scenario, the new session of Congress that begins in January (and lasts for the next two years) will start the five-year farm bill process all over again, with both House and Senate Agriculture Committees formulating a new bill that will then go through the entire legislative process all over again….

Could a new Congress next year simply revert to the farm bills passed this year? No, not exactly.  Legislation does not carry forward from one Congress to the next.  The process must start all over again, with bills introduced, markups in Committee, and votes on the floor of both bodies… That said, if the leaders and members of the Agriculture Committees (some of whom will be new next year) decide to bring forth and approve essentially the same bill they produced in 2012, that is an option open to them.  But it still must go through the normal process and be subject to amendments and voting all over again.

What is the best path forward? There can be little doubt that the best path forward is for Congress to finish its work on the 2012 Farm Bill in 2012.  That will mean getting the House bill to the House floor very quickly when the lame duck session begins, but leaving plenty of time for debate and amendments.

Sigh.  The Q and A explains the consequences of congressional inaction.  The elephant in the farm bill, of course, is SNAP (formerly food stamps), which accounts for roughly 80% of farm bill spending at a time when budget cuts head the congressional agenda.  The most recent data show SNAP participation—and, therefore, costs—to be at a record high: more than 47 million.

As to what to do about the farm bill: The Atlantic has just posted a speech by Wendell Berry on “the 50-year farm bill.”

I have described the need for a farm bill that makes sense of and for agriculture — not the fiscal and political sense of agriculture, as in the customary five-year farm bills, but the ecological sense without which agricultural sense cannot be made, and without which agriculture cannot be made sustainable. “A 50-Year Farm Bill,” which has been in circulation now for more than three years, is a proposal by The Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, with the concurrence of numerous allied groups and individuals. This bill addresses the most urgent problems of our dominant way of agriculture: soil erosion, toxic pollution of soil and water, loss of biodiversity, the destruction of farming communities and cultures. It addresses these problems by invoking nature’s primary law, in default of which her other laws are of no avail: Keep the ground covered, and keep it covered whenever possible with perennial plants.

We need a farm bill that promotes health–of people and the planet.  Buried in the messy politics of the farm bill is an opportunity to do much good.

Will Congress take it?  Only if we insist.

Nov 13 2012

Food books worth blurbing: just published

I get asked to blurb books every now and then and say yes to the ones I especially appreciate.  Here are three recently published books, well worth having and reading: 

Fred Kaufman, Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food, Wiley, 2012.

In Bet the Farm, Fred Kaufman connects the dots between food commodity markets and world hunger.  Kaufman is a wonderfully entertaining writer, able to make the most arcane details of such matters as wheat futures crystal clear.  Readers will be alternately amused and appalled by his accounts of relief agencies and the interventions of rich nations.  This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about feeding the hungry in today’s globalized food marketplace.  It’s on the reading list for my NYU classes.

Counihan C, Van Esterik P, eds.  Food and Culture,  Routledge, 2012.

Food and Culture is the indispensable resource for anyone delving into food studies for the first time.  The editors have conveniently gathered readings from classic texts to the latest writings on cutting-edge issues in this field.  Although in its third edition, the book has so much new material that it reads as fresh and should appeal and be useful to students and others from a wide range of disciplines. 

Jon Krampner, An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food, Columbia University Press, 2012. 

Creamy and Crunchy is a fast-paced, entertaining, and wonderfully gossipy look at the history of everything about peanut butter, from nutrition to allergies and genetic modification—and with recipes, yet. Everyone who loves peanut butter will want to read this book (personally, I prefer crunchy).

Nov 12 2012

Kids don’t need kids’ food

I did an interview for Childhood Obesity with Jamie Devereaux, its features editor.

Here are the first and last questions.  For the entire interview, click here:

The issue of access to healthy food is a major topic in the overall childhood obesity discussion in America. How important do you think it is to focus on solving the problems of food access as an objective in addressing childhood obesity?

I was impressed with Michelle Obama’s choice of targets for reducing childhood obesity—improving access to food in inner cities and improving school food. Both are excellent targets and, in a rational world, should attract widespread bipartisan support. It’s self-evident that it is more difficult to make healthier food choices  when no healthy food choices are available or when healthier foods are relatively expensive.

Some years ago I lived in a low-income Washington, D.C., neighborhood and was appalled at the poor quality of the supposedly fresh foods offered in the single grocery store within walking distance. I wouldn’t buy it and wouldn’t expect anyone else to want it either. Some studies report that inadequate access is a huge problem in inner cities and rural areas; others say the opposite. Without getting into arcane details about how the studies differ, the access problem just seems obvious and obviously needs to be fixed.

Finally, if you could shape the discussion of healthy food access for children in America—how would you frame it and what would you focus on?

Kids don’t need kids’ food. If adults are eating healthfully, kids should be eating the same foods that adults eat. Babies don’t need commercial baby food. Older kids don’t need kids’ products. Families can all eat the same foods, and that should make life easier for all concerned. If you don’t want your kids drinking sodas, don’t bring them home from the supermarket. Teach kids to eat real foods early on, and they will be great eaters throughout life.

Nov 3 2012

Tuesday’s election: Food politics at issue

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the implication of Tuesday’s election for food politics.

Q: Neither of the presidential candidates is saying much about food issues. Do you think the election will make any difference to Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve children’s health?

A: Of course it will. For anyone concerned about the health consequences of our current food system, the upcoming election raises an overriding issue: Given food industry marketing practices, should government use its regulatory powers to promote public health or leave it up to individuals to take responsibility for dealing with such practices?

Republicans generally oppose federal intervention in public health matters – witness debates over health care reform – whereas Democrats appear more amenable to an active federal role.

The Democratic platform states: “With prevention and treatment initiatives on obesity and public health, Democrats are leading the way on supporting healthier, more physically active families and healthy children.”

Policy or lifestyle?

In contrast, the Republican platform states: “When approximately 80 percent of health care costs are related to lifestyle – smoking, obesity, substance abuse – far greater emphasis has to be put upon personal responsibility for health maintenance.”

At issue is the disproportionate influence of food and beverage corporations over policies designed to address obesity and its consequences. Sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, for short) are a good example of how the interests of food and beverage corporations dominate American politics.

Because regular consumption of sodas is associated with increased health risks, an obvious public health strategy is to discourage overconsumption. The job of soda companies, however, is to sell more soda, not less. As a federal health official explained last year, policies to reduce consumption of any food are “fraught with political challenges not associated with clinical interventions that focus on individuals.”

Corporate spending

One such challenge is corporate spending on contributions to election campaigns. Although soda political action committees tend to donate to incumbent candidates from both parties, soda company executives overwhelmingly favor the election of Mitt Romney.

As reported in the Oct. 12 issue of the newsletter Beverage Digest, soda executives view the re-election of President Obama as a “headwind” that could lead to greater regulation of advertising and product claims, aggressive safety inspections and characterizations of sodas as contributors to obesity. In contrast, they think a win by Mitt Romney likely to usher in “more beneficial regulatory and tax policies.”

As for lobbying, what concerns soda companies is revealed by disclosure forms filed with the Senate Public Records Office. Coca-Cola reports lobbying on, among other issues, agriculture, climate change, health and wellness, and competitive foods sold in schools. PepsiCo reports lobbying on marketing and advertising to children. Their opinions on such issues can be surmised.

But Coca-Cola also says it lobbies to “oppose programs and legislation that discriminate against specific foods and beverages” and to “promote programs that allow customers to make informed choices about the beverages they buy.”

Lobbyists

Soda companies have lobbied actively against public health interventions recommended by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity in 2010 and adopted as goals of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

Implementation of several interventions – more informative food labels, restrictions on misleading health claims, limits on sodas and snacks sold in schools, menu-labeling in fast-food restaurants, and food safety standards – has been delayed, reportedly to prevent nanny-state public health measures from becoming campaign issues.

To counter New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 16-ounce cap on soda sales, the industry invested heavily in advertisements, a new website and more, all focused on “freedom of choice” – in my mind, a euphemism for protecting sales.

Soda tax

Although the obesity task force suggested that taxing sodas was worth studying, the American Beverage Association lobbied to “oppose proposals to tax sugary beverages” at the federal level. The soda industry reports spending more than $2 million to defeat Richmond’s soda tax ballot initiative Measure N, outspending tax advocates by 87 to 1.

In opposing measures to reduce obesity, the soda industry is promoting corporate health over public health and personal responsibility over public health.

Supporters of public health have real choices on Tuesday. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Let’s Move will get another chance.

Nov 2 2012

Mother Jones: How the industry minimized (and minimizes) the health effects of sugars

One of the great ironies of food politics these days is this: while journalists and scientists are increasingly documenting the health consequences of diets way too high in added sugars, the producers of two forms of those sugars—sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—are doing everything they can to decrease their rivals’ market shares.

Once the election is over, I will write about the ugly legal battles between the producers of sugar cane and beets (sucrose) and the corn refiners who produce HFCS.  But in the meantime, don’t miss the current issue of Mother Jones.

It has just published an investigative report by journalist Gary Taubes and dental health administrator Cristen Kearns Couzens:  Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies: How the industry kept scientists from asking: Does sugar kill?

Their report is a detailed account of how the sugar industry manipulated scientists and government officials into overlooking the health problems caused by overconsumption of sugars and instead focusing on overconsumption of dietary fat (both removed from their caloric context, alas).

Their winning campaign, crafted with the help of the prestigious public relations firm Carl Byoir & Associates, had been prompted by a poll showing that consumers had come to see sugar as fattening, and that most doctors suspected it might exacerbate, if not cause, heart disease and diabetes.

With an initial annual budget of nearly $800,000 ($3.4 million today) collected from the makers of Dixie Crystals, Domino, C&H, Great Western, and other sugar brands, the association recruited a stable of medical and nutritional professionals to allay the public’s fears, brought snack and beverage companies into the fold, and bankrolled scientific papers that contributed to a “highly supportive” FDA ruling, which, the Silver Anvil application boasted, made it “unlikely that sugar will be subject to legislative restriction in coming years.”

The report is accompanied by riveting background information, examples of sugar advertisements, and formerly confidential documents:

Much of what’s in this report came as news to me, but is consistent with what I know.  Here, for example, is a comparison of the increasingly complicated and obfuscated sugar recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from 1980 through 2010:

  • 1980     Avoid too much sugar.
  • 1985     Avoid too much sugar.
  • 1990     Use sugars only in moderation.
  • 1995     Choose a diet moderate in sugars.
  • 2000    Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars.
  • 2005     Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners, such as amounts suggested by the USDA Food Guide and the DASH eating plan.
  • 2010     Reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars.

“Avoid too much sugar” is still good advice.
And here’s a photo of a billboard in Guatamala, taken a couple of years ago by anthropologist Emily Yates-Doerr.  If the sugar industry isn’t selling enough sugar here, might as well push it onto people in emerging economies.

Curl up with Mother Jones over the weekend , hopefully one free of hurricanes (I, along with many others, am still waiting for electricity, water, and heat).

Oct 23 2012

Multivitamins prevent cancer (maybe), sell supplements (definitely)

According to a new study in JAMA, multivitamins might reduce the risk of some cancers, although not by much.

But even a tiny benefit, restricted to skin cancers in healthy male doctors—but not prostate cancers, alas—is good news for the supplement industry.  Supplement sellers are eager to make sure you don’t miss this research.

The study results came out on October 18.  Pfizer, the maker of the Centrum Silver pills used in the study, placed this ad in the New York Times on October 19:

But that’s not all.  CVS pharmacy sent me this personal e-mail message:

Pfizer, of course, could not be happier.

Why do I think this is about marketing, not public health?

Oct 19 2012

Calories as an instrument of government control?

My 2012 book with Mal Nesheim, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, includes a chapter on the use of calories in international relations.

I thought of this chapter while reading a story in yesterday’s New York Times.

Apparently, the Israeli military restricted the amount of food available to residents of Gaza during the blockade that lasted from from 2007 to mid-2010.

The Israeli military calculated the number of calories that the blockaded residents would need to avoid malnutrition.

The purpose of the blockade was to weaken support for Hamas, the militant group that won legislative elections in 2006 and took full control of Gaza in 2007 after a brief factional war…In the calculation, Israel applied an average daily requirement of 2,279 calories per person, in line with World Health Organization guidelines.

I’m not sure where the 2,279 figure comes from.  Calorie estimations established jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization say that adult men aged 20-70 need 2400 to 3000 calories a day on average, depending on age, weight, and physical activity level.  Adult women need 1800 to 2400.

The FAO sets a calorie cut point for populations to define hunger.  It defines populations consuming 1,800 calories per capita per day, on average, as chronically undernourished and hungry.

On this basis, 2,279 will be adequate for some adults—those who are female, smaller, older, and less active.  It is unlikely to be adequate for younger, bigger, more active men.

The Israeli Defense Ministry released this document under a court order.  It would be interesting to see how it arrived at this figure.

For an interesting discussion of the use of calories as an instrument of state power, see Nick Cullather’s “The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia.”

 

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