Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 11 2013

USDA asks for public input on how to communicate “agricultural coexistence”

I am indebted to Farm Futures for the heads up about the USDA’s just-published request for public input on what it calls “enhancing agricultural coexistence.”

Agricultural coexistence, the USDA says,

refers to the concurrent cultivation of crops produced through diverse agricultural systems, including traditionally produced, organic, identity preserved (IP), and genetically engineered crops.  As the complexity and diversity of U.S. agriculture increases, so does the importance of managing issues that affect agricultural coexistence, such as seed purity, gene flow, post-harvest mixing, identity testing, and market requirements.

My translation: The USDA wants producers of traditional crops and organic foods to stop complaining that GMOs are contaminating their crops, and producers of GMO crops to stop complaining that they get prosecuted if they try to save seeds from year to year.

The USDA explains that it is doing this in response to recommendations from its Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture.  This committee recommended actions to promote agricultural coexistence in five areas:

  1. Potential compensation mechanisms
  2. Stewardship
  3. Education and outreach
  4. Research
  5. Seed quality

How come the USDA is collecting input on #3 rather than the far-more-likely-to-be-controversial #1 and #2?

Early in 2011, I wrote about USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s use of Cold War rhetoric to promote détente between growers of organic and GMO foods.  I pointed out that while the USDA had no intention of backing down on support of GM agriculture, it was at least recognizing the threat to organic production.

I noted that the USDA was unlikely to get very far with this initiative because so many farm groups representing industrial agriculture so strongly objected to Vilsack’s coexistence proposal.  The groups argued that coexistence could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

If you can’t do anything about underlying structural problems, try communication.

Have something to say about what it will take to support all systems of agricultural production?  Now is a good time to weigh in.

 

Nov 8 2013

Rudd Center’s new Report: Fast Food Facts, 2013

The Yale Rudd Center, in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has just released its 2013 report on fast food marketing to kids.

Screenshot 2013-11-10 15.16.26

This report takes a look at what, if anything, the top 18 fast food restaurant chains have done to improve the nutritional quality of menu items since the last report in 2010.

Quick summary: not much.

It also analyzes changes in marketing to children and teens on TV, the internet, and social and mobile media.

Quick summary: getting worse and increasingly focused on minorities.

Check it out:

Nov 7 2013

Trans-fat: FDA proposes to eliminate GRAS status

The FDA has just announced a proposal to withdraw GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status for trans-fat.

My first reaction: Isn’t trans-fat already out of the food supply?  Hasn’t this been one of the food industry’s greatest public health achievements?

Once the FDA started to require trans-fat to be listed on food labels, food companies quickly stopped using partially hydrogenated oils (the source of trans-fat) and found healthier substitutes.  That’s why most food labels list zero grams trans-fat.

But the FDA allows food labels to say zero trans-fat if its amount is below 0.5 gram per serving.

Some manufacturers are still using a little.  This new initiative will encourage them to get rid of those last little bits.

Contrary to the New York Times headline, this is not exactly a ban on trans-fat.  If trans-fat is no longer GRAS, manufacturers can still file a food additive petition to continue using partially hydrogenated oils.

The Federal Register notice asks for input for the next 60 days.

I say congratulations to all:

  • To food companies who worked hard to find ways to substitute healthier fats for trans-fats.
  • To the FDA for finally taking care of the trans-fat 0.5-gram loophole.
  • To Center for Science in the Public Interest for bringing health problems with trans-fat to public attention.
  • To all of the researchers who did the science linking trans-fat to higher LDL-cholesterol levels and to heart disease risk.
  • To the New York City health department for banning trans-fats from use in city restaurants.

Americans will be healthier as a result of all of your efforts.

Resources

At the moment, the FDA has not yet posted its Federal Register notice on the GRAS status of trans-fat. When it does, the notice should be available here.

CSPI’s home page on trans fat

The FDA trans-fat home page

FDA consumer materials

FDA guidance for industry

Research

Nov 6 2013

In food politics too, money talks

Can money buy elections?  Apparently so.

Yesterday’s election results indicate that the GMO-labeling initiative in Washington state and the soda tax initiative in Telluride, CO both failed.

Washington’s I-522

According to USA Today, the defeat cost opponents $22 million.  All of that—except $550—came from out of state.

The top five contributors were the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and Bayer CropScience.

But the Grocery Manufacturers Association was required to list its contributors.  The top five?  PepsiCo, Nestlé (no relation), Coca-Cola, General Mills, ConAgra  at about a million each when you add it all up.

USA Today reports:

Food industry ads claimed that the initiative would raise food prices. Labels would mislead consumers into thinking that products that contain genetically engineered ingredients are “somehow different, unsafe or unhealthy,” said Brian Kennedy of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry group based in Washington, D.C.

The Yes on 522 campaigns emphasized consumers right to know what’s in their food.

But PoliticoPro points out that because votes are mailed in, more than 600,000 votes may still be left to count.

The food and biotech industries used their considerable war chest to make ad buys across the state, pointing out all of the products that would not be covered under the measure — such as cheese, beer, restaurant food and even, they claimed, pet food — and pushing the message that the bill is misleading and would considerably raise food prices. They said the law would hurt Washington’s farm families.

As I told USA Today, sooner or later, one of these is going to pass. At some point the industry is going to get tired of pouring this kind of money into these campaigns and will beg for labeling, which is what should have happened in the first place.

The Telluride soda tax

Telluride is a small town, so the amounts are much smaller.

According to ProPolitico, the Colorado Beverage Association installed an onsite lobbyist to generate opposition to the measure through meetings and an Internet site.

The largest donors to the opposition campaign were a Texas billionaire who owns a second home in Telluride ($55,000), and the the local and national beverage associations. were the largest contributors to the anti-tax campaign, giving $20,000 and $55,000 respectively.

Taxes, of course, are never popular even when intended for public health purposes, as this one was.

Soda taxes too, will pass eventually.

Patience and fortitude.

Addition: Here’s the Washington State vote as of this morning.

Nov 4 2013

Feds must take stronger action against salmonella

My monthly (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: When I read that people are getting sick from salmonella in Foster Farms chicken, I don’t know what to do. Are we supposed to stop eating chicken?

A: I share your frustration.

Last month, the Department of Agriculture warned that chicken produced by Foster Farms plants in California was linked to illnesses caused by a strain of salmonella Heidelberg which is resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Although these antibiotics are not the ones usually used to treat salmonella, antibiotic resistance in general makes bacteria more virulent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now reports 362 people ill with this strain, three-quarters from California, with a shockingly high – 38 percent – rate of hospitalization.

And because most food-borne illness is never reported, some estimates suggest that there could be 9,000 cases of chicken-induced illness in California alone.

The USDA’s response? It did not require Foster Farms to recall the chicken; it just told the company to clean up its act.

According to the USDA, it’s your responsibility to make sure you don’t get sick. You should be following basic household food safety rules, cooking chicken to 165 degrees, and using a food thermometer to make sure.

Fine, but shouldn’t chicken be safe before it gets to you? You should not have to run your kitchen like a maximum-security biological laboratory.

Besides, cooking chicken to 165 degrees may not be enough. Costco, to its credit, recalled rotisserie – cooked – chickens from its store in South San Francisco when people reported getting sick after eating them. Nobody knows whether the cooking temperature wasn’t high enough or the chickens got cross-contaminated later.

Salmonella, alas, is hardly a new problem. In 1971, public health advocates petitioned the USDA to put salmonella warning labels on chicken. But the USDA said no. Salmonella, it said, is an inherent contaminant of raw meat, not an adulterant. The USDA had no need to act. You just needed to learn how to cook chicken properly.

In the 1990s, the USDA finally issued better rules for poultry safety. Despite them, the CDC reports a steady rise in salmonella outbreaks and illnesses.

The industry responds that the salmonella issue is a complex one because the bacteria are inherent in bird species.

Sorry, but salmonella illnesses are preventable.

If people are getting sick from eating contaminated chicken, the companies are not following safety rules, and the USDA is not enforcing them.

This is about politics, not public health.

For decades, advocates have complained about the USDA’s conflicting missions to promote agricultural production and protect consumer health. We have called on Congress to unite federal food safety oversight within one independent agency. Failing that, we insist that the USDA enforce its own rules.

The USDA’s recent decision to allow American poultry meat to be shipped to China for processing is hardly reassuring. The mind boggles to think that chickens raised and slaughtered in America would go to China to be turned into chicken nuggets and then come back here to be sold.

Also for decades, safety advocates have called for an end to the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in meat and poultry production. Antibiotics not only induce resistance, they induce virulence. Fortunately, the Foster Farms bacteria are still susceptible to the kinds of antibiotics most effective against salmonella, but victims of the next outbreak may not be so lucky.

Why do Congress, federal agencies and the White House permit meat and poultry producers to continue reckless use of antibiotics? Chalk this up to industry lobbying and campaign contributions.

If you can afford it, buy chicken that has not been factory farmed. Even so, you must cook the meat to a temperature that will kill bacteria, avoid cross-contamination, and sterilize everything the chicken comes near.

But the salmonella problem goes way beyond your own kitchen.

We all need to press for a food safety system that holds public health as its first priority. This means empowering the USDA to enforce its own rules, uniting the functions of USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, and using antibiotics in meat and poultry production only for therapeutic purposes.

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

Nov 1 2013

Eat, Drink, Vote in Boston on Sunday

I’m signing copies of Eat, Drink, Vote at the American Public Health Association annual meeting in Boston’s convention center on Sunday, November 3.   This will be at the APHA Press booth #935 in the Expo hall.  Come say hello!

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Oct 31 2013

Happy food politics Halloween

Thanks to Food and Water Watch for this tidbit.

How much candy do Americans buy—and presumably eat—for Halloween?

According to ConfectioneryNews.com, Halloween is the largest seasonal period for confectionery in the United States generating candy sales of nearly $2.4 billion just in the last two weeks of October.

Enjoy the holiday.

Oct 30 2013

Let’s Move!’s latest: Sesame Street characters free to produce marketers

Coming soon to a supermarket near you: Sesame Street characters on packages of vegetables.

The Let’s Move! press release begins:

Washington, DC – As part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, Mrs. Obama today joined Sesame Street’s Elmo and Rosita to announce that Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) joined the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) in a two-year agreement to help promote fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to kids, making those healthy choices a little easier for busy parents and families to make.

The agreement allows PMA’s community of growers, suppliers and retailers to utilize the strength and influence of the Sesame Street brand without a licensing fee, using characters like Big Bird, Elmo, Rosita and Abby Cadabby to help deliver messages about fresh fruits and vegetables. Sesame Street characters may be on produce in stores as early as mid-2014.

This is big news.  Let’s Move! is attempting to level the marketing playing field and give fruits and vegetables a competitive edge.

I, of course, have mixed feelings.  I’ve long been on record as opposed to marketing anything to kids, whether good, bad, or indifferent.

Marketing is not education. Education is about imparting knowledge and promoting wisdom and critical thinking.

Marketing is about creating demand for a product.

Children are demonstrably unable to tell the difference or, for that matter, to distinguish marketing from entertainment.  That is why marketing to children crosses an ethical line.

But if the foods are healthy, don’t the ends justify the means?  Isn’t anything that gets kids to eat healthy foods worth doing?  After all, kids live in a marketing environment, so marketing might as well be used to do good rather than harm.

This is the rationale behind the marketing of baby carrots with “eat ‘em like junk food” ads.  Reportedly, these ads increased sales of baby carrots.

But perhaps this campaign also reinforced the idea that kids are only supposed to eat foods that come with cartoons or toys?

I’d like to see the data on the long-term effects of the campaign on sales, whether sales dropped when the commercials stopped, and whether they affected kids’ attitudes toward eating vegetables in general.

In the meantime, this will be an interesting experiment.  I’m hoping researchers are ready to go, have their evaluation methods in place, and are already collecting baseline data.

Also in the meantime, ProPolitico writers Byran Tau and Helena Bottemiller Evich point out that “Michelle Obama policy initiatives are a big deal for big business.”   Their article begins:

The latest Let’s Move! event is brought to you by the letter K. As in K Street.”

It explains how:

corporate America’s biggest players…stand to benefit from exposure, public goodwill generated from being involved in a public health or charitable effort or the policy itself.  Big lobbying forces and major industry groups like the American Beverage Association, the International Bottled Water Association, the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Restaurant Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many others have all worked closely with the East Wing on those initiatives, both of which heavily focus on private sector contributions.

If kids eat more healthfully for the next couple of years as a result of this campaign, it will be hard to do anything but applaud it.

Although the questions raised by this campaign are uncomfortable, I’m going to try to keep an open mind and wish it the very best of success.

Addition, October 31: Obamafoodorama’s eyewitness account includes the First Lady’s press release.

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