by Marion Nestle

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Feb 15 2013

A gift from AGree: position papers on food and agriculture.

AGree is a foundation-sponsored group devoted to nonpartisan ways to “transform federal food and agriculture policy to meet the challenges of the future:”  future demands for food and improvements in conservation, public health, and agricultural communities.   

It has just posted a series of position papers reflecting its members’ short- and long-term thinking about how to:

AGree also offers a report on Facing the Future: Critical Challenges to Food and Agriculture.  It has identified a set of strategies in addition to the ones listed above to address the challenges confronting the global food and agriculture system.

 

These papers are useful for anyone interested in how to improve agricultural systems and it’s great that this group is laying the groundwork for serious thinking about these issues.

Feb 11 2013

My small share of Ed Koch’s legacy: an apartment in New York

Among the many articles about former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who died on February 1, almost all mentioned his rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village.   Few noted that NYU owned its building.

Several readers of this blog, knowing that I have lived in that apartment since Koch moved out, suggested I say a word  about it.  This is not the first time I’ve been asked.  I told some of the story to the New York Times in 2002.

As the Times reported last week,

In 1967, he [Koch] moved to a one-bedroom unit at 14 Washington Place. This was the rent-controlled apartment that he originally considered more appealing than Gracie Mansion. It had a working fireplace and the occasional rodent visitor — though no cockroaches. And besides, he told a reporter, “I know where everything is.”

“It’s small. I like it. It’s me,” he said, just before assuming office. “I don’t care what anybody says: I won’t give it up.”

I arrived in New York in the fall of 1988 when I joined the NYU faculty as chair of what was then called the Department of Home Economics and Nutrition (now the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health).

NYU rents housing to some of its faculty, and assigned me to a small, one-bedroom apartment in what used to be the maid’s quarters at the back of one of the university’s town houses on Washington Square.  The apartment had no kitchen.  The refrigerator in the living room.  When I complained, they insisted this was an improvement; the previous tenant kept it in her bedroom.

I was new to New York real estate, and longed for something more appropriate for someone who cares about food.

I got my chance a year later when Ann Marcus became dean of my school.  She arranged for me to meet the head of NYU’s  housing office to discuss options.  I missed California and wanted a garden.  Well, he said, it’s too bad about the Koch apartment.  It has a large terrace—but Koch will never move.

That surprised me.  I had just read that Koch, who had just lost the primary election to David Dinkins, was negotiating for an apartment at 2 Fifth Avenue.  His sister Pat worked at NYU.   I went straight to her and explained that this was about an apartment in New York.  Was her brother really leaving?  “He’s packing this weekend,” she told me, “go take a look.”

I did and found the Mayor on the telephone surrounded by bodyguards.

They said “Do you have any idea how lucky you are?  His new apartment may be bigger, but this one is nicer.”

Really?  This seemed like a stretch.  Every inch was covered with furniture and the closets were so full that stuff fell out of them when I opened the doors.  Yards of dark green paint were hanging off the ceilings.  The window shades were drawn—security—and the place was dark.

But the terrace!

By the time I moved in three months later, NYU had done a renovation.  The walls shone with white paint.   The galley kitchen had been converted to a pass-through. The fireplace worked.  The terrace had new tiles.  I could see the Empire State Building from the living room window.  It would do just fine.

I still had to cope with the bullet-proof windows that hardly opened, the heavy security doors, and the secure telephone lines that cost $300 to replace.  And the rent was a lot more than Koch’s $475.

That was 1990.  I’ve now lived in the apartment as long as Koch did.   I’m still grateful to him for leaving at just the right time.

I feel the same way about the apartment that he did:

It’s small. I like it. It’s me. I won’t give it up.

Feb 8 2013

Rumor: the White House is holding out for weak calorie labeling

I hope the rumors I’m hearing are not true.

What sources are telling me is that the White House has decided not to allow the FDA to require calorie labels in movie theaters or anywhere else where selling food is not the primary business.

If these rumors have any validity, this situation is a sad commentary on how corporate pressures are undermining Michelle Obama’s Let Move campaign.

There is no practical reason that keeps movie theaters from posting calorie labels.

Plenty are already doing it.  New York City has had calorie labeling in movie theaters since 2008.  And guess what?  The world has not come to an end.

It’s approaching three years since President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, which authorizes national calorie labeling.

But the FDA still has not issued final rules, reportedly because the White House is holding them up.

The delay has left plenty of time for industry lobbying and pushback.

If the new rules exempt movie theaters and other such places, New York will not be able to continue requiring them to post the information.  That would be a significant setback.

So would exempting prepared foods in chain groceries and convenience stores, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest makes clear.

If you have concerns about this issue, send a message to Mrs. Obama at the White House.

Menu labeling that covers movie theaters as well as fast-food places will help people make healthier food choices.  It will also be a significant achievement of Let’s Move.

In the meantime, I’m keeping fingers crossed that the rumors are false.

Feb 7 2013

Yet another food worry? Nanoparticles.

As You Sow, an advocacy group for environmental corporate accountability, has been paying close attention to nanotechnology.  It has just issued a report, Slipping Through the Cracks: An Issue Brief on Nanomaterials in Foods.

An Issue Brief on Nanomaterials in Foods

 

According to an account in the New York Times, the CEO of As You Sow, Andy Behar, says:

We’re not taking a no nano position…We’re saying just show it’s safe before you put these things into food or food packaging.
Nanotechnology, as I have discussed previously, is the use of tiny particles for many purposes, among them food.  These particles are really, really small, on the scale of nanometers (nm), one billionth, or 10−9, of a meter.
Are they safe to eat?

The FDA’s nanotechnology web page provides a 2007 report from a task force, a 2012 fact sheet, and a draft-for-comment on how industry should deal with nanoparticles in foods and food packaging.

The fact sheet says:

FDA has long encountered the combination of promise, risk, and uncertainty that accompanies emerging technologies…The very changes in biological, chemical and other properties that can make nanotechnology applications so exciting also may merit examination to determine any effects on product safety, effectiveness, or other attributes. Understanding nanotechnol­ogy remains a top FDA priority. FDA is monitoring the evolving science and has a robust research agenda to help assess the safety and effectiveness of products using nanotechnology.

My translation: the FDA has no idea whether this technology is safe or not and is depending on industry to find out.

Because the FDA does not require labeling of nanomaterials (the European Union does), you have to decide for yourself whether this is something you want to add to your list of food worries.

Just a thought: real foods don’t have added nanoparticles.

Feb 6 2013

New books in my library

Philip Ackerman-Leist.  Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems. Chelsea Green 2013.

Rebuilding the Foodshed introduces readers to local food systems in all their complexities.  In moving from industrial to regional food systems, communities must consider an enormous range of factors, from geographic to socioeconomic.  Difficult as doing this may be, this book makes it clear that the results are well worth the effort in their benefits to farmers and farm workers, as well as to eaters.   This book is on the reading list for my food advocacy class at NYU this summer.

John Ayto.  The Diner’s Dictionary: Word Origins of Food & Drink, 2nd ed.  Oxford, 2012.

The Diner's Dictionary: Word Origins of Food and Drink

The is the second edition of a book first published in 1990, long before the food movement really got going.  You won’t find an entry for locavore.  It’s also British. You will find an entry for lobscouse: “from its name comes the term scouse ‘Liverpudlian’, which has come into wide use since the Second World War.”  I happen to adore this sort of scholarly discussion and delighted to have this book, but it may be a bit of an acquired taste.

 

Feb 5 2013

USDA proposes rules for “competitive” snack foods

At long last, the USDA announced that it has released its proposed rules governing the nutritional content of snacks, sodas, and meals sold in competition with federally subsidized school breakfasts and lunches.

As soon as the rules get published in the Federal Register, which is supposed to happen this week, people will have 60 days to file comments.  Although USDA has not said when it will issue final rules, it did say that it will give schools another year to implement them.

The rules apply to foods sold outside the school meals in vending machines and a la carte lines.  They will not apply to fundraisers.  They set minimum standards.  States and localities that want stricter standards may do so.  A recent CDC analysis says states are already doing this (see Competitive Foods and Beverages in U.S. Schools: A State Policy Analysis).

Under the proposed rules, schools must provide:

  • Potable water at no charge [this alone is cause for celebration].
  • Real foods that are either something recognizable as a food or something that naturally contains 10% of the Daily Value in calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber.
  • Snacks with less than 200 mg sodium per serving.
  • Desserts with less than 35% of calories from sugars or less than 35% of weight as sugars.
  • Beverages with no more than 40 or 50 calories per 8-ounce serving.

There are plenty of exceptions.   I can only guess that the exemption for sweetened yogurt—30 grams of sugars in 8 ounces—has something to do with dairy lobbying.

My immediate reaction: these rules are a big improvement and deserve much support.

Applause to USDA for this one!

Feb 1 2013

Wonder of wonders: food companies favor GMO labels!

Stephanie Strom reports in today’s New York Times that a group of food companies—among them several that put millions of dollars into opposing California’s Proposition 37 last November—are now favoring labeling of genetically modified foods.

Those companies won the election; Proposition 37 lost, although not by a very wide margin.   

But in the process, two things happened: they lost credibility, and they created a movement for GMO labeling initiatives in other states.

Advocates for GMO labeling figured out that although Big Food and Big Soda were willing to invest $40 million to defeat the California labeling initiative, they might hesitate if confronted with initiatives in many other states.

Good thinking.  Ms. Strom reports the previously unthinkable:

Some of the major food companies and Wal-Mart, the country’s largest grocery store operator, have been discussing lobbying for a national labeling program.

Executives from PepsiCo, ConAgra and about 20 other major food companies, as well as Wal-Mart and advocacy groups that favor labeling, attended a meeting in January in Washington convened by the Meridian Institute, which organizes discussions of major issues.

…“They spent an awful lot of money in California — talk about a lack of return on investment,” said Gary Hirshberg, co-chairman of the Just Label It campaign, which advocates national labeling, and chairman of Stonyfield, an organic dairy company.

…Mr. Hirshberg said some company representatives wanted to find ways to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to proceed with federal labeling.

I have to say that I never thought I’d live to see this happen.  I was one of four consumer representatives to the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in the early 1990s when the FDA was considering approval of GMOs and whether or not to require them to be labeled.

We warned the FDA that if GMOs were not labeled, the public would wonder what the industry was trying to hide.  This, we said, would not only hurt the FDA’s credibility, but would end up hurting the GMO industry as well.

As I discuss in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, the FDA’s main arguments at the time were that (a) it would be misleading to label GMOs because they were no different from foods produced through traditional genetic crosses, and (b) the process by which foods are produced is not material.

Even then, it was evident that argument (b) made no sense.  The FDA already permitted foods to be labeled as Made from Concentrate, Previously Frozen, Irradiated, and, later, Organic.

As I’ve discussed previously, GMO labeling is no big deal.  All the label needs to say is “May be made from genetically modified corn, soy, or sugar,” as Hershey’s does in Great Britain.

Let’s hope the FDA takes notice.

 

Jan 31 2013

FDA’s research on food labels: any help?

Nutrition Facts panels on food labels are notoriously confusing.  People who use them usually look for only one item such as fat or calories.

As I’ve discussed previously. the label is so difficult to interpret that the FDA devotes pages on its website to explaining it.  When the FDA did the original research in the early 1990s, it tested a large number of formats.  When it became clear that people did not understand any of them very well, the FDA chose the least worst—the one that was understood least poorly.

Two decades later, the FDA is revisiting the Nutrition Facts panel to make it easier to understand in the light of today’s concerns about calories and obesity.  Once again, it is testing multiple formats.  The results of the first round of research have just been published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (JAND), and reporters are trying to make sense of them.

FDA researchers tested 10 formats differing in number of servings and columns (1 or 2, each), font size, and wording.  They asked respondents for opinions about the healthfulness of the product, number of calories and nutrients per serving, perceptions of the label, and the ability to choose healthier products and those with fewer calories.  This, like the research in the early 1990s, is complicated.

The result:

For products that contain 2 servings but are customarily consumed at a single eating occasion, using a single-serving or dual-column labeling approach may help consumers make healthier food choices.

Here’s an example of one of the formats that may help:

Soda companies are already doing something like this, but a 20-ounce soda has more than 2 servings.  Serving size is what confuses.  If it’s 100 calories per serving, those calories have to be multiplied by the number of servings per container.

The Institute of Medicine produced two reports for the FDA on front-of-package labels and also suggested a way to integrate its ideas into the Nutrition Facts label.

Is the FDA testing this idea?  I hope so.

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