by Marion Nestle

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Mar 22 2013

Reading for the holiday weekend: Kosher!

Timothy D. Lytton.  Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food.  Harvard University Press, 2013.

I blurbed this one, and for good reason:

Kosher is one terrific book.  It’s a wonderfully entertaining account of the squabbles, finger-pointing, and cutthroat competition that turned kosher certification from scandalous corruption to a respectable—and highly profitable—business.  Today, if a food is labeled kosher, it is kosher, which is more than can be said of most claims on food labels. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the fun in Timothy Lytton’s presentation of an unusually successful case study in business ethics.

Here’s Lytton’s  flyer on how to get it.  And his recent column in Food Safety News.

Mar 21 2013

If we want food companies to act ethically…

I was fascinated to read Michael Mudd’s piece in the New York Times on Sunday, “How to force ethics on the food industry.”  Noting that the court overturned Mayor Bloomberg’s 16-ounce soda ban, he said:

But governments should not be deterred by this and should step up their efforts to protect the public health by limiting the marketing tactics of food companies. Anyone who believes these interventions are uncalled-for doesn’t know the industry the way I do.

…The industry is guilty because it knew what the consequences of its actions might be. Large food processors employed a flock of Ph.D. nutritionists and food scientists. The connection between calorie consumption and weight gain was always as plain as the number on the bathroom scale. But instead of acknowledging this and taking corrective action to sell a better product more responsibly, food processors played innocent by blending in with the crowd of causes.

This sent me to dig through my files to search for what I’d saved about Mr. Mudd’s efforts at Kraft.  Here, for example, is the front page of USA Today, July 1, 2003.  Kraft chose USA Today to announce its new anti-obesity initiatives, and gave it an exclusive to do so.

The initiatives included, among a long list, elimination of all in-school marketing, setting nutritional criteria for marketing practices, and establishing meaningful criteria for health claims.

Even at the time, I was dubious:

They have to demonstrate what it is they’re actually doing before I can start turning cartwheels about this…Kraft has other credibility problems when it comes to marketing healthier products…Philip Morris Co., the tobacco giant now called Altria Group, owns 84 percent of Kraft [Altria sold off Kraft in 2007].

One year later, Kraft announced  that  it had begun to act on its promises.  After another six months, Kraft introduced its Sensible Solution  program  to label “better-for-you” products. leaving plenty to be dubious about.  By 2004, Michael Mudd was no longer with Kraft.

In 2007, I sent a couple of students out to see whether Kraft had kept its promises.  Not a chance, as we documented.

How come?  Food companies are not social service agencies.  Their job is to sell products.  And, as Michael Moss explains in Salt, Sugar, Fatthey must do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

As Mr. Mudd now puts it,

It’s time to end the charade and mandate the needed changes that the industry has refused to make. 

Mar 18 2013

Apologies for the meltdown

For the past few days, FoodPolitics.com has been down off and on, apparently because of routine maintenance but maybe some other  problems with the server.   Fortunately, the site does not seem to have been hacked.  I am traveling and will resume blogging tomorrow or Wednesday.  Thanks for your patience and stay tuned!

Mar 13 2013

Daily News editorial: The Judge Drank Corporate Kool-Aid

Politics, they say, makes strange bedfellows.  I can understand why the New York Times would do a front-page investigative report on how soda companies engage minority groups as partners while slamming Mayor Bloomberg for overreaching with his soda cap initiative.

But can someone please explain the Daily News?   Here’s yesterday’s front page:

This was followed by two pages of “Soda plan struck down; our cups runneth over” and other gleeful responses to the judge’s soda cap decision.

But then there’s this astonishing editorial.  Explain, please.

Judge drinks the Kool-Aid

In putting Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban on ice, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling did a huge disservice to the health and welfare of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.

Tingling concluded that the prohibition against selling sugared beverages in containers larger than 16 ounces was both arbitrary and beyond the authority of the Board of Health, which approved the regulations.

The only thing arbitrary here was Tingling’s ruling. More, the judge was the only party who was guilty of overreaching.

At heart, he simply substituted his judgment as to sound public policy for the board’s — an action that’s beyond a judge’s proper purview.

Most amazingly, Tingling held that the board had acted rationally in voting the portion cap as one method of trying to rein in the city’s epidemic of obesity and obesity-related diseases.

He bought the indisputable premise that the board was right to draw connections among high soda consumption, obesity and diabetes, which are debilitating New Yorkers young and old.

But then the judge threw that over by stating the obvious fact that the board did not have the power to ban supersized sugar drinks everywhere, only in establishments regulated by the Health Department.

Because the public could get a 32-ounce cup at, say, a 7-Eleven, but not at restaurants, he in effect deemed the ban to be an ill-designed contraption destined to fail. But who is Milton Tingling to say that? No one.

His fundamental error was to consider the regulation from the point of view of vendors who were hoping to get out from under it.

Those covered by the ban claimed they were the victims of capriciously unequal treatment and shifted Tingling’s concern away from the pressing rationale for a regulation that would have been broadly applied.

There’s nothing arbitrary about the consequences of drinking large quantities of sodas and other overly sweetened beverages.

The correlation in certain communities among consuming soda, becoming obese and contracting related diseases are certain.

The neighborhoods with the highest obesity rates — Harlem, the South Bronx, central Brooklyn — have the largest percentages of people who are likely to drink more than one sugar-sweetened beverage each day.

All too predictably, people in low-income areas such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York, Brooklyn — places where soda consumption is highest — are four times as likely to die from diabetes as residents of the more affluent upper East Side, where people generally consume far fewer sugary drinks.

No matter.

Tingling attended to the arguments of businesses looking after their own financial interests over the demands of public health — while at the same time declaring that the Board of Health is barred from taking into account the substantial economic costs generated by obesity.

Ultimately, Tingling bought into the all-or-nothing argument — the same line of thinking that killed an earlier Bloomberg proposal that would have barred people from buying sugary sodas with food stamps.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture killed that experiment, asserting that it would be unfair and unproductive to target only a limited population in such a test. So Bloomberg tried to go bigger, and Tingling shot him down.

If bringing down a serious threat is a rational goal, as Tingling wrote, then you do it as best you can, even incrementally.

A halfway measure is better than no measure and is certainly not arbitrary.

Bloomberg vows an appeal.

Here’s hoping that Tingling’s judicial superiors recognize that pursuing public health is not just rational, it’s imperative. 

Afterthought: compare this to the Times’ editorial:

There are better ways for Mr. Bloomberg to use his time and resources to combat obesity.  One is to push Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature to impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks…the big-drinks ban was ill conceived and poorly constructed from the start.

Mar 12 2013

Corporate health 1, public health 0: Judge nixes Bloomberg soda cap

Late yesterday afternoon, while I was fielding international calls about the soda size cap scheduled to take effect today, state Supreme Court justice Milton A. Tingling “enjoined and permanently restrained” New York City from implementing the portion-size rule.  

First, let’s recall what the soda cap is about.

In the 1950s, a 16-ounce soda was LARGE.

 

Today, a 16-ounce soda is SMALL.

 

Never mind the effect of increasing portion size and calories on body weight.  The court, says the Tingling opinion:

Does not find the necessity to address at this point the appropriateness of the Board’s attempts to classify obesity as an epidemic or a contributing factor to chronic disease…the issue before this court is whether the Board has the authority to mandate which issues come under its jurisdiction…in this case it the Portion Cap Rule and whether the Board has the authority to promulgate same (page 10). 

He concludes that the proposed rule is: 

Fraught with arbitrary and capricious consequences… uneven enforcement even within a particular City block, much less the City as a whole…It is arbitrary and capricious because it applies to some but not all food establishments in the City, it excludes other beverages that have significantly higher concentrations of sugar sweeteners and/or calories on suspect grounds, and …no limitations on re-fills…the Portion Cap Rule is found to be arbitrary and capricious (page 34). 

And this:

The Portion Cap Rule, if upheld, would create an administrative Leviathan…The Rule would not only violate the separation of powers doctrine, it would eviscerate it. Such an evisceration has the potential to be more troubling than sugar sweetened beverages (page 35). 

OK, so the soda industry won this round.  How come? 

The New York Times points out that the portion size cap aroused:

the ire of the American soft-drink industry, which undertook a multimillion-dollar campaign to block it, flying banners from airplanes over Coney Island, plastering subway stations with advertisements and filing the lawsuit that led to the ruling.

The American Beverage Association issued this statement:     

The court ruling provides a sigh of relief to New Yorkers and thousands of small businesses in New York City that would have been harmed by this arbitrary and unpopular ban.  With this ruling behind us, we look forward to collaborating with city leaders on solutions that will have a meaningful and lasting impact on the people of New York City.

The Mayor says the city will appeal.

CSPI’s Michael Jacobson notes that this is what happened with calorie labels.  Eventually, he reminds us, the city prevailed:

Many years hence, people will look back and think it was crazy for sugar drinks to ever be served in 32- and 64-ounce pails. 

Mar 10 2013

Daily News Op-Ed: Bloomberg’s soda ‘ban’ should be only the beginning

My double-page op-ed in today’s New York Daily News:

Liberty from big soda: Why Bloomberg’s ‘ban’ should be only the beginning of a public health revolution

 

 

 

Barring any late legal surprises, Mayor Bloomberg’s 16-ounce cap on sugary sodas goes into effect on Tuesday, March 12. After that, restaurants, movie theaters, sports venues and food carts will not be permitted to sell extra-large portions of sugar-packed drinks.

Stay calm. This does not signal the end of democracy in America. This is not the nanny state gone out of control.

If we want Americans to be healthy, we are going to have to take actions like this – and many more – and do so soon. It’s long past time to tax sugar soda, crack down further on what gets sold in our schools, tackle abusive marketing practices, demand a redesign of labels – and extend the soda cap, no matter how controversial it may seem. This must be the beginning, not the end, of efforts toward a healthier America.

In short, we need a series of serious changes to make the healthy choice the easy choice. The soda size cap is a nudge in that direction. You will still be able to drink all the soda, and down all the sugar, that you want. The cap on soda size makes it just a tiny bit harder for you to do so.

That “tiny bit harder” is its point. If you have to order two sodas instead of one, maybe you won’t. If you have to add sugar to your coffee drink yourself, maybe you will only add one or two teaspoons instead of the 10 or more someone else put in there for you.

For a public health nutritionist like me, the soda size cap is a terrific idea. Unlike other foods, sodas are a unique target for intervention. They contain sugars – and sugar calories – but nothing else of nutritional value. They are candy in liquid form. Candy has a place in healthy diets, but a small one. So it should be for sodas.

It’s no surprise that people who drink large amounts of liquid candy have worse diets, are heavier, and have more health problems than those who do not. And it looks like the body doesn’t compute the calories from liquid sugars as accurately as it does for sugars in foods.

On top of that, big sizes make the problems worse. To state the obvious, larger portions have more calories. If an 8-ounce soft drink provides 100 calories, then a 16-ounce drink provides 200, a 32-ounce drink provides 400 and a 64-ounce drink provides 800.

But big sizes also have other effects. They induce people to eat and drink more than they would if given smaller portions. Big sizes confuse people into underestimating the number of calories consumed.

Most people eat whatever size is in front of them – the “default,” in public health-speak – and are content with that amount. So a reasonable goal of public health intervention is to change the default drink to a smaller size. Hence: Bloomberg’s 16-ounce size cap.

From my nutritionist’s perspective, a 16-ounce soda is still generous. Just one contains the equivalent of 12 packets of sugar. Just one provides 10% of the daily calorie needs of someone who typically eats 2,000 calories a day. Just one contains the upper limit of sugar intake that health officials recommend for an entire day. Once you down a 16-ounce soda, it’s best to stop right there.

You may find this hard to believe, but the original Coca-Cola was 6.5 ounces, smaller than any size available today. In the 1950s, Coke advertised its 16-ounce bottle as large enough to serve three.

Times have changed. The sizes of foods and drinks have expanded, and so have waistlines. This is no coincidence. On the basis of calories alone, larger portions are all you need to explain why Americans are putting on pounds.

City officials concerned about the health of their citizens, as those in New York most definitely are, want to do everything they can to prevent obesity and the illnesses that go with it. Their rationale is humanitarian, but also fiscal. Poor health is expensive for both individuals and society. You don’t believe that excessive weight is an issue? Just ask the military.

We can thank Big Soda – Coca-Cola, Pepsi and their trade association, the American Beverage Association – for the contribution of big sodas to weight gain. Soda companies have spent fortunes to create demand, to make drinking large amounts seem normal, to market sodas as essential for health and happiness and, these days, to fight Bloomberg’s soda cap and take the city to court over it.

Soda companies may make things you like to drink, but they are not social service agencies. Their job is to get you to buy more soda to satisfy the financial demands of investors. They are about business. They are not about fun or happiness or personal choice – and they certainly are not about health.

The soda industry may profess to care more about your well-being these days, but it ultimately will not do anything to promote health if doing so harms sales.

So-called “nanny-state” measures – like bans on driving while drunk, smoking in public places and, now, selling absurdly large sugary drinks – help to level the playing field. Such measures are about giving everyone an equal opportunity to live a safer and healthier life.

At the moment, it is up to you to make healthier choices, but that’s not easy in the face of relentless soda marketing. Governments have a responsibility to provide healthier environments for their citizens.

Here are some additional actions New York City should take, if only it were allowed to.

Close the loopholes. The city does not have jurisdiction over sales of sodas in convenience stores and supermarkets. The state does. Gov. Cuomo denied Mayor Bloomberg’s request to extend the size cap to those stores, not on principle but because he hadn’t thought about it. He should, right now. Let’s keep all sugary drinks to 16 ounces or less.

Fix the price differential. A 7.5-ounce can of soda costs twice as much per ounce as a two-liter bottle, and you can’t buy just one; it comes in an 8-pack. Price determines sales. If a 16-ounce soda costs a dollar, a 32-ounce soda should cost two dollars.

Tax sodas. Most people wouldn’t dream of eating candy all day, but soda companies have made it seem normal to drink sodas from morning to night. Raising the price of sodas would discourage sales, especially among young people most susceptible to marketing efforts and most vulnerable to weight gain. A one-cent tax per ounce should do the trick and raise plenty of needed revenue besides.

Remove vending machines from schools. Yes, the Beverage Association only puts “better-for-you” drinks in school vending machines, but sugar-filled sports drinks are still liquid candy. And kids should not have to pay for water in schools.

Restrict marketing of sodas to children. Soda companies market extensively to children and adolescents, especially those in low-income neighborhoods. Just look at billboards, celebrity photos on soda cans and Pepsi’s $50 million dollar deal with Beyoncé. They should not be permitted to market to kids this way. We already have restrictions on cigarette and alcohol marketing to kids. It breaks no new ground to add sodas to the list.

Don’t let SNAP (food stamp) benefits be used for sodas. Bloomberg tried this, but the federal Department of Agriculture said no. There is absolutely no reason that taxpayer-subsidized food assistance for low-income people should go toward junk with no nutritional value. He should try again.

Show full calories on the front of containers. The current way calories are tallied, in a measure called “calories-per-serving,” is confusing because the servings are unrealistically small and people don’t do the math. Soda cans already give the full calories in tiny type on the Nutrition Facts label, but I want to see the full calories in big type on the front.

Actions like these will evoke ferocious opposition from the soda industry, and it will spare no expense to make sure such things never happen. We would surely hear more and more howls of “nanny-state” from those who insist Bloomberg has led us to the brink of a public health police state. Polls say that many New Yorkers oppose the 16-ounce cap and would oppose measures like this, too.

But I can’t tell whether the opposition comes from genuine concern about limits on personal choice or because soda companies have spent millions of dollars to protect their interests and gin up histrionic, misinformed opposition.

Come Tuesday, the 16-ounce soda is the new default size in New York City. While waiting for the court decision and for politics to play out, why not give it a chance? Maybe it will help you live a healthier and longer life.

 

Mar 7 2013

Lancet series on chronic diseases, many of them diet-related

The Lancet has just published a series of articles on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) the collective term for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic conditions caused in large part by poor diets, lack of physical activity, or cigarettes or alcohol.

Since food politics is a big part of this discussion, these papers are worth a look.  For example, as editor Richard Horton explains in his editorial:

So where are the global conferences on NCDs, the research meetings, the task forces, the grand challenges initiated by funders and foundations? They don’t exist. We, the global health community, understand that chronic diseases are a present danger to the health of our societies. Yet we are unable to translate that understanding into real political action. We cannot quite bring ourselves to put heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, diabetes, or mental ill-health, together with their associated risk factors, on an equal footing with childhood pneumonia and diarrhoea, preventable maternal death, or epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The disconnect between the reality of people’s lives in countries and the concerns of professional and political leaders has rarely been greater.

Here are the papers in this series.  Read them and ponder.

Independent global accountability for NCDs

Robert Beaglehole, Ruth Bonita, Richard Horton

Full Text | PDF

NCDs: a challenge to sustainable human development

Helen Clark

Full Text | PDF

Embedding non-communicable diseases in the post-2015 development agenda

George Alleyne, Agnes Binagwaho, Andy Haines, Selim Jahan, Rachel Nugent, Ariella Rojhani, David Stuckler, for The Lancet NCD Action Group

Summary | Full Text | PDF

Country actions to meet UN commitments on non-communicable diseases: a stepwise approach

Ruth Bonita, Roger Magnusson, Pascal Bovet, Dong Zhao, Deborah C Malta, Robert Geneau, Il Suh, Kavumpurathu Raman Thankappan, Martin McKee, James Hospedales, Maximilian de Courten, Simon Capewell, Robert Beaglehole, on behalf of The Lancet NCD Action Group

Summary | Full Text | PDF

Inequalities in non-communicable diseases and effective responses

Mariachiara Di Cesare, Young-Ho Khang, Perviz Asaria, Tony Blakely, Melanie J Cowan, Farshad Farzadfar, Ramiro Guerrero, Nayu Ikeda, Catherine Kyobutungi, Kelias P Msyamboza, Sophal Oum, John W Lynch, Michael G Marmot, Majid Ezzati, on behalf of The Lancet NCD Action Group

Summary | Full Text | PDF

Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink industries

Rob Moodie, David Stuckler, Carlos Monteiro, Nick Sheron, Bruce Neal, Thaksaphon Thamarangsi, Paul Lincoln, Sally Casswell, on behalf of The Lancet NCD Action Group

Summary | Full Text | PDF

Promotion of access to essential medicines for non-communicable diseases: practical implications of the UN Political Declaration

Hans V Hogerzeil, Jonathan Liberman, Veronika J Wirtz, Sandeep P Kishore, Sakthi Selvaraj, Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, Faith N Mwangi-Powell, Tido von Schoen-Angerer

Summary | Full Text | PDF

Improving responsiveness of health systems to non-communicable diseases

Rifat Atun, Shabbar Jaffar, Sania Nishtar, Felicia M Knaul, Mauricio L Barreto, Moffat Nyirenda, Nicholas Banatvala, Peter Piot

Summary | Full Text | PDF

Mar 3 2013

Food Matters: Horsemeat scandal has eaters nervous

My monthly (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle is now out, this time on the horsemeat scandal.

Q: It makes me sick to think that anyone could eat horsemeat. I don’t see how it could get into so many foods. Tell me how I can be sure I’m not eating it.

A: From this side of the Atlantic, the discovery of horsemeat in European hamburger and frozen dinners is the most riveting of scandals, replete with DNA technology, veterinary drugs, impossible-to-trace supply chains, smuggling, organized crime and outright fraud – not to mention the usual finger-pointing, cover-ups and protestations of shock that accompany food crises.

It is easy to explain how horsemeat got into vast amounts of hamburger and prepared meals. Horses are expensive to house and feed. Something has to be done with them when they are no longer wanted for farming, transport, racing or recreation. Horsemeat is edible, even delicious to some, and costs less than beef.

Complications

In Europe, the supply chains are exceptionally complicated, involving countless companies in more than 21 countries that process, transport or sell horses or horsemeat. The complexity makes it relatively easy to use horses to smuggle people or drugs, to label horsemeat as beef or to slip it into hamburger.

This would just be a matter of economic fraud if people didn’t care whether they ate horsemeat. But some Europeans, and most Americans, care very much. Like you, many people are appalled at the idea of eating any companion animal, let alone one symbolic of the rugged West.

Beyond cultural prohibitions, there are other reasons to avoid eating meat from horses not raised for food. Horses are routinely treated with veterinary drugs, legal and not. The drug traces found in European horsemeat may be too low to cause harm, but hardly seem likely to promote human health.

How long horsemeat has been passed off as European beef is unknown, as is why officials in Ireland decided to do DNA tests on supermarket meals in the first place. Whether done as routine testing or because of a tip, the results were startling. More than one-third of the tested “beef” samples contained horsemeat. Later tests in Great Britain identified “beef” meals made entirely from horsemeat.

This, as the Guardian’s writer Felicity Lawrence wrote in her guide to the scandal, can only be “industrial scale adulteration.”

The ensuing crisis forced many food companies and retailers to recall vast numbers of products, some intended for school meals. Nestlé (no relation) recalled pasta meals, but issued assurances that such products do not leave Europe and that none of its American products contains horsemeat-laden European beef.

What to make of this? In our food studies programs at New York University, we discuss food as a marker of cultural identity. People in other nations eat horsemeat. But like you, about 80 percent of Americans are appalled at the idea of eating horsemeat and oppose slaughtering horses for food or any other reason.

Yet horsemeat used to be eaten by Americans (and still is, by some), and even more so by pets. As Malden C. Nesheim and I wrote in our book about the pet food industry, “Feed Your Pet Right,” horse slaughterhouses created pet food companies to dispose of the meat. Through the 1940s, nearly all domestic horsemeat ended up in pet food.

Under pressure from horse lovers and animal welfare advocates, pet food companies replaced horsemeat with meat from other animals. Although horsemeat is permitted in pet food, and in theory could show up in rendered byproducts and meals, no American company would knowingly use it as an explicit item in an ingredient list. One can only imagine the uproar if it did.

Inspection issues

In 2007, Congress blocked the Department of Agriculture from inspecting slaughterhouses, effectively banning their use. As unintended consequences, the 140,000 or so unwanted horses each year had to be transported to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico, and populations of neglected and abandoned horses increased. As a result, Congress permitted horse slaughterhouses to reopen last year, but the USDA has yet to authorize inspectors to work in them.

Could American beef be contaminated with horsemeat? We had a similar scandal in the 1950s. But if U.S. officials are testing hamburger for horsemeat DNA these days, they aren’t saying.

Because horsemeat is not produced here, it won’t be in butcher shops or supermarkets – unless the stores imported it or acquired contaminated products before the recalls, or unless the USDA assigns inspectors and allows horse slaughterhouses to reopen. Right now, without DNA testing, you can’t be sure.

You find this alarming? Short of going vegetarian, you have an option: Buy kosher meat. Jewish dietary laws prohibit horsemeat – horses are not ruminants and do not have cloven hooves – and kosher slaughterhouses are diligent about excluding forbidden animals.

This gives the horsemeat scandal one clear winner: Sales of kosher meat are booming.

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