Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 20 2013

October, Berkeley style

From the cafe at the French Hotel, Berkeley.

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Posted from 35,000 feet over the Sierras.

Oct 19 2013

Food Politics, San Francisco Style

Window, the Marlowe, south of Market.

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Oct 17 2013

Soda consumption up in California

The title of a new study from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA) and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research says it all:, Still Bubbling Over: California Adolescents Drinking More Soda and Other Sugar-Sweetened Beverages.

Consumption of sodas may be declining among everyone else, but teenagers—the prime target audience—are drinking more.

Health advocates: get to work!

Background information:

Oct 16 2013

Today is World Food Day: Perspectives

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has organized a series of Perspectives on World Food Day.

Mine is titled “A Push for Sustainable Food Systems.”  It’s illustrated with cartoons from Eat, Drink, Vote.

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From my perspective as a public health nutritionist, this year’s theme for World Food Day,Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition, seems especially appropriate.  Food insecurity and obesity are the most important nutrition problems in the world today.  Each affects roughly a billion people.  Each is a consequence of food system inequities.

Most countries produce or import enough food for the needs of their populations, but do not always ensure that it is equitably distributed.  Because many people lack resources to obtain adequate food on a reliable basis, hunger is a matter of politics.  Political conflict, insufficient responses to natural disasters, corrupt institutions, and inequalities in income and education constitute the “root” causes of malnutrition.  It’s not enough to distribute food to hungry people.  Governments should take actions to redress system inequities that lead to hunger in the first place.

Similarly, the causes of obesity go beyond the poor food choices of individuals.  Obesity is one result of an industrialized and unsustainable food system that treats agricultural products as commodities, uses most of these products  to feed animals or produce fuel for automobiles, provides little support to farmers who produce fruits and vegetables, and provides endless incentives for overproduction.

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The result is an overabundant food system dependent on the sales of meat and obesity-promoting snack and beverage products, and on marketing such products to populations in low-income countries. Much evidence confirms that individuals find it difficult to resist food marketing pressures on their own.  If countries are to prevent rising rates of obesity, governments must intervene.

The extent to which governments should be involved in the food choices of individuals is a matter of debate.  Making sure people are fed is one function of government; another is promoting public health.  Because research demonstrates profound effects of food marketing on personal dietary choices, governments can set policies that make healthful choices the easier choices such as promoting fruit and vegetable production and setting limits on marketing practices, not least to reduce health care costs.

Whether the world can continue to produce enough food to meet growing population needs is questionable, but the need for sustainable food systems is not.  Governments must support food systems that provide farmers and workers with a reasonable standard of living, replenish soil nutrients, conserve natural resources, and minimize pollution and greenhouse gases—and promote health.  Governments and corporations must go beyond perceptions of food as a fungible commodity to understand food as an essential source of life, and firmly link agricultural policies to those for health, labor, and the environment. If politicians cannot commit to policies to reverse global warming, then ordinary citizens will have to take action.  And they are rising to the occasion, as exemplified by today’s burgeoning food movement.

Oct 14 2013

Annals of Nutrition Science: Coca-Cola 1; NHANES 0

I got called by a couple of reporters asking for comment on a paper just published in PLoS One, an online, open-access—and highly respected (at least until now)—medical journal.

The paper examines the validity of calorie-intake estimations obtained from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1971 to 2010 (click on Download to see the entire paper).

Its “shocking” conclusion: people underreport calorie intake on surveys.

My first comment to reporters: duh.

The authors present—-as if it were a bombshell—-something that has been known for years: people underreport food intake, usually by a third or more, and obese respondents underreport even more.   The study quantifies the degree of underreporting and comes to conclusions no different from those reported for decades.

Question #1: Why would anyone do a study like this?  Answer:  Look who sponsored it: Coca-Cola!

Question #2: Why would Coca-Cola want to fund a study to cast doubt on information derived from NHANES:  See the Abstract:

The confluence of these results and other methodological limitations suggest that the ability to estimate population trends in caloric intake and generate empirically supported public policy relevant to diet-health relationships from U.S. nutritional surveillance is extremely limited.

And see the paper’s conclusion:

As such, there are no valid population-level data to support speculations regarding trends in caloric consumption and the etiology of the obesity epidemic.

Got that?  If data from NHANES are not valid, then studies showing a correlation between sodas and obesity are not valid, and recommendations to drink less soda are unjustified.

This study, then, is a classic example of why food industry sponsorship of nutrition research is so pernicious.  Coca-Cola is systematically recruiting sympathetic nutrition researchers to cast doubt on science linking soda consumption to health problems.

Question #3: Why would a prestigious journal like PLoS One publish something like this?  The science in this article passed peer review.  Evidently nobody considered that politics might have something to do with the design of the study and its conclusions.

I’m guessing that PLoS One editors have become complacent.  The journal just came up smelling like roses in a Science Magazine sting operation examining the quality of peer review in open-access scientific journals.  The author sent an evidently false paper to hundreds of such journals.  Of 106 that said they did peer review, 70% accepted the paper.  But PLoS One turned it down for the right reasons.

If you think that science has nothing to do with politics, Coca-Cola vs. NHANES is a good reason to reconsider.

Oct 11 2013

Annals of public speaking: Apologies to the Newark Museum for my missed lecture

My apologies to the Newark Museum and to anyone who came to my scheduled talk last night.

I missed my lecture for the standard excuse: bad traffic karma.  Very bad.

Even though rush hour traffic through the Holland Tunnel was horrendous, I would have made it on time if the taxi driver had not decided to sneak through the last red light before entering the approach to the skyway in New Jersey.

He was caught, pulled over and—alas for both of us—found to be driving with a suspended license.

So there we were, stuck along the side of a walled highway, with no escape possible.

I explained my plight to the arresting officer, but got no sympathy.

I felt sorry for the driver but even sorrier for the people waiting for me to show up.

I’m disappointed not to get to the museum (I worked hard on that talk).  And the museum looks like a wonderful place to visit.

 

I’m hoping my lecture gets rescheduled.  If it does, I promise to take the PATH train.

Oct 10 2013

Annals of Government shutdown: What’s up with Salmonella Heidelberg?

I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s happening with the latest horrible food poisoning outbreak: this time of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg.  Food Safety News and attorney Bill Marler have been following the events closely.

They reported that USDA—not CDC (which was on furlough)—issued the Public Health Alert.

But the outbreak is so serious that CDC recalled staff from furlough.  Now the CDC is back on the job.  It reports that as of October 7:

  • 278 persons in 17 states are infected with 7 outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg.
  • 42% of them are hospitalized (this is unusually high), and no deaths have been reported.
  • 77% of cases are in California.
  • The source is Foster Farms chicken

What does Foster Farms have to say about this?

First, it blames the government:

Consumers should know that as recently as Oct. 8, USDA-FSIS publicly assured the safety of our chicken:  “Foster Farms chicken is safe to eat but, as with all raw chicken, consumers must use proper preparation, handling and cooking practices.” There is no recall in effect and FSIS continues to inspect our poultry on a daily basis, certifying it as Grade A wholesome.”

Then, Foster Farms argues that toxic, antibiotic-resistant salmonella are normal on poultry:

Raw poultry is not a ready-to-eat product. All raw poultry is subject to naturally occurring bacteria… According to the CDC, “It is not unusual for raw poultry from any producer to have Salmonella bacteria. CDC and USDA-FSIS recommend consumers follow food safety tips to prevent Salmonella infection from raw poultry produced by Foster Farms or any other brand.”

Bill Marler asks how come Foster Farms is not issuing a recall?

Good question.  Take a look at CDC’s most recent Epi curve.  Usually, these show a standard distribution pattern over time with cases rising to a peak and then declining.  This one shows no sign of decline.

Persons infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Typhimurium, by date of illness onset as of October 7, 2013

OK, so what, as Bill Marler asks, will it take to close Foster Farms or force it to recall its tainted products?

For starters, how about getting the government opened again.  And insisting that FDA issue the final food safety rules and start enforcing them.

Update, October 11:  On October 7, USDA sent three letters of intended enforcement to Foster Farms:  Letter #1Letter #2, and Letter #3.  Now, according to a report from Bill Marler, the USDA has decided not to close Foster Farms or force a recall.

And here are two useful articles from Politico:

Oct 9 2013

Jocelyn Zuckerman’s interview about Eat, Drink, Vote

Marion Nestle Speaks Out on the Big Business of School Food

By Jocelyn Zuckerman  (published originally by On Earthrepublished by Civil Eats, and now here).

A year ago, when I was working as an editor at the magazine Whole Living, I oversaw a special issue on food featuring “Visionaries”—people making a real difference in the way this country thinks about eating. There was “The Motivated Mayor” (Michael Bloomberg); “The Integrator” (Harlem chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson); and, among several others, there was “The Badass.”

That would be Marion Nestle. The author of a handful of books that examine the intersection of food and politics, Nestle is a public-health nutritionist and a professor at New York University. She is also one of the most outspoken advocates for a national food system that prioritizes health and the environment over corporate profits. (Michael Pollan ranks Nestle the second-most powerful foodie in America, after First Lady Michelle Obama.)

Recently she published her new book, Eat, Drink, Vote, an admirably approachable look at wide-ranging issues such as farm subsidies, obesity, genetically modified foods, and trans fats.

On the eve of its release, Nestle and I sat down over lunch to discuss, among other things, lunch. Ours was fine—Caesar salad for her, Niçoise for me—but the lunches that dominated the conversation weren’t the ones on our plates. Rather, we talked about the meals that our nation’s kids will be loading onto their trays in the new school year.

It’s an issue that Nestle cares deeply about, and for good reason. For starters, school lunches (and breakfasts) tend to represent the lion’s share of the nutrition that a low-income child will get in a day. (For the truly impoverished, they may be the only meals children get.) The food served sets an example to a “large, captive, impressionable audience,” as Nestle puts it in the book, making cafeterias key battlegrounds in the fight against obesity and poor nutrition.

And it’s certainly a fight. Throughout Eat, which features some 250 food-related cartoons by illustrators around the country, Nestle calls out the entrenched powers—namely, our Congressional representatives and the deep-pocketed food and beverage lobbies to whom they seem ever more beholden—working at cross-purposes to the folks fighting for a food policy focused on promoting our own well-being and that of our environment.

Just look at what happened in 2011, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tried to rate tomato paste based on its true nutritional value. School pizza makers went running to their friends in Congress, who promptly blocked the USDA’s decision. So an eighth of a cup of tomato paste is still credited with as much nutritional value as a half a cup of vegetables. Nestle chose a cartoon that wittily depicts the you-must-be-kidding-me moment (by Pulitzer Prize-winner Mike Peters) for the cover of her book.

There’s no question that school meals are big business. In 2011, the USDA school breakfast program served nearly 12 million children, at a cost of nearly $3 billion, Nestle writes in Eat, while the lunch program served nearly 32 million children, at a cost of $11 billion. The companies involved in providing all that food have a serious interest in holding on to their share of that money, preferably while investing as few resources as possible.

“Any change in the standards means that the products that have been created specifically for school lunches [that pizza, for example] have to meet new standards,” Nestle pointed out over lunch. “And that pisses everybody off”—everybody who’s already making money off school meals, that is.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that those meals have, in fact, gotten better. In December 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The legislation marked the first time in a generation that school lunch regulations had been updated. (One telling example of just how much our dietary landscape has changed over the decades: the previous laws featured minimum calorie levels but no maximums.) The new act gave USDA the power to establish nutrition standards for all of the food sold and served in schools.

In addition to lunches and breakfasts, this includes the so-called “competitive foods” available from vending machines and carts. There are now limits on the levels of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and calories, and the standards require that snacks be rich in whole grains and provide nutritional value. Drinks can contain no more than 40 calories per 8 fluid ounces, or 60 calories per 12 fluid ounces—numbers that rule out all regular sodas and Gatorades.

 

Healthier for kids also means healthier for the environment. (Another cartoon in the book, by Joel Pett, aptly illustrates the direct link between “soft-drink pushers” and damage to the natural landscape.) There’s a direct impact on the supply chain when school lunches are heavier on organically grown produce instead of (corn-fed) chicken coated in cornmeal and deep-fried in corn oil, for example.

Given the numbers involved, healthier school lunch standards should ultimately mean a shift in what is being grown and raised in this country. Fewer sodas in vending machines means less demand for high-fructose corn syrup and less acreage devoted to monocultures of corn. Fruit and vegetable salads replacing chicken fingers means less demand for antibiotic-laden factory-farm birds. In a logical world, greater demand for healthy crops to produce federal school lunch meals would translate into more support for them in the next Farm Bill.

There’s more to making school lunches better than just changing the rules, though, Nestle explained. The food has to taste good, too, and the kids have to actually eat it. “I have been in some of the best school lunch programs in the country,” she said, “and the kids weren’t eating.” They may avoid the meals for social reasons, she explained. “It may have a bad reputation. They may not like the way the cafeteria looks. They may not have time to eat.” (She blames the no-time-to-eat problem in part on an educational culture that’s fixated on testing and suggested that programs teaching kids about growing and cooking food can help overcome some of the other barriers.)

I asked Nestle about who’s getting it right, and she replied that the now-somewhat-famous program at the Calhoun School, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, represents “the Platonic ideal” of what a school lunch operation can be. It doesn’t come as a huge shock that children eat well at an educational institution that charges in the neighborhood of $40,000 a year per student, but the man behind the program, French Culinary Institute-trained “Chef Bobo,” doesn’t just cook for rich kids.

He is a frequent speaker at conferences around the country on school lunches and healthy eating, and he regularly brings in cooks from other schools to intern in his kitchen, which features produce and chickens sourced from local vendors and includes a vegan option every day (see one of his recipes to the left). Several of Bobo’s sous chefs have gone on to start similar lunch programs at other schools, including at a public charter school in the Bronx.

Nationwide, Nestle said, there are more farm-to-table programs linking students with local farmers than ever before. Schools in cities and in the countryside are sowing their own kitchen gardens, and the three-year-old Food Corps supports a network of volunteers who work in poor communities to teach kids about healthy food, build school gardens, and help bring better food into public-school cafeterias.

Sure, school lunches still need work—someday that tomato paste will be called out for what it really is—but the fact is, we’ve come a very long way. “Look back ten years!” Nestle said in regard to the overall shift in this country’s dietary landscape. “Healthy food has gone mainstream.” Despite the entrenched interests, she said,changes are happening, in large part because Americans better understand the importance of what they put in their mouths. With Eat, Drink, Vote, the badass lunch lady furthers the cause.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Jocelyn Zuckerman is the former articles editor at OnEarth, the former executive editor of Whole Living and deputy editor of Gourmet, where she won a James Beard Award for feature writing in 2002. She is also an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Parade, and Plenty.

 

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