Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 11 2013

Why the public still distrusts GMOs: Nature Biotechnology gives the reasons

Nature Biotechnology, a research journal for biotechnology academics, has the most enlightened explanation I’ve seen recently about why genetically modified (GM) foods don’t go over well with the public (I discussed suchN reasons in detail in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).Its editorial states that despite years of evidence for the safety of eating GM foods,

Consumers are concerned about the close (some might say cushy) relationships between regulators and companies. They are concerned about food safety data being difficult to obtain from regulatory agencies. The revolving door between agribusiness and regulatory agencies and the amounts spent on political lobbying also raise red flags. Even academics have fallen in the public’s esteem, especially if there’s a whiff of a company association or industry funding for research.

Of course, the public’s misgivings about GM food go beyond just the risk to health. Corporate control of the food supply, disenfranchisement of smallholder farmers, the potential adverse effects of GM varieties on indigenous flora and fauna, and the ‘contamination’ of crops grown on non-GM or organic farms all play into negative perceptions. And for better or worse, GM food is now inextricably linked in the public consciousness with Monsanto, which has seemingly vied with big tobacco as the poster child for corporate greed and evil.

What are industry and academic scientists to do about such attitudes?

 Changing them will require a concerted and long-term effort to develop GM foods that clearly provide convincing benefits to consumers—something that seed companies have conspicuously failed to do over the past decade.

Well, yes.  This was the situation in 2003 when I first wrote Safe Food, and nothing had changed by the second edition in 2010.  Or by now, apparently.

This industry still depends on Golden Rice to save its reputation.  Maybe it ought to start working on some of the other issues mentioned in this editorial.

 

Sep 10 2013

School food: the cruel consequences of bad school-lunch policy

A reader writes:

Willingboro, NJ School Board has taken action effective for the 2013-2014 school year to discard a school meal rather than feed a student, if their parents cannot, or haven’t arranged to, refill their student’s lunch account.

Take a look at this letter from the school board administrator announcing discontinuation of humanitarian meals:

If a student goes through the food service line and it is discovered that the student does not have the required funds for a meal, the Chartwells Food Service representative has been instructed by the Willingboro Board of Education to withhold the meal from the student, with the understanding that such meal cannot be re-served and must be discarded.

I was appalled by the letter.  Hungry kids need to be fed.  They can’t learn if they are hungry.

But before going on a rant, I consulted my go-to, school-food guru, Kate Adamick of Cook for America.  She explains the fiscal realities of current school-food policies:

The truth is that there are many, many school districts that do not feed kids whose parent will not pay for them.  Some, as seems to be the prior practice of the Willingboro district, offer a “humanitarian” meal (typically, a peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk), though that is by no means required of them and by no means universal.

Of course, students who qualify for free meals under the USDA regulations cannot be refused free school meals (provided that the proper paperwork has been filled out on their behalf or that they qualify under other regulatory or statutory provisions).

The refusal to feed everyone, regardless of whether they pay, has become a more pressing issue in recent years, both because the number of families who don’t qualify for free meals but can’t afford to pay for them has increased at the same time the school food budgets have become tighter…Many school districts are truly struggling to keep their financial heads above water….

The REAL answer is for the federal government to provide free meals for all kids.  I doubt, however, that will come to pass in our lifetime.

Here’s how this system works:

  • Unlike other aspects of school education, the government requires school-meals programs to be self-supporting.  They must at least break even or do better, which is not so easy given current reimbursement rates.
  • The government reimburses schools for federally supported school meals based on the number of participants.
  • Parents often cannot or do not want to fill out the paperwork.
  • This leaves schools with a dilemma.  If they provide free meals, they lose money.

Some school districts, like the one in New York City, do everything they can to make the system work so that hungry kids get fed.   Willingboro’s school board has chosen to follow the rules to the letter, regardless of the effects of this decision on kids in its schools.

Universal school meals would solve many of the problems caused by current school food policies (for evidence, see Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America).

Ready to join the universal school meals movement, anyone?

Sep 9 2013

Microbiology lesson: the latest news on Cyclospora

As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I majored in Bacteriology.  I haven’t worked in that field for decades, but the training makes me appreciate the terrific job the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does in providing education about food safety microbiology.

The CDC website is always a good place to start (another is food safety lawyer Bill Marler’s blog).

I thought of this as I was trying to find out what’s going on with the latest big outbreak of foodborne illness, this time due to Cyclospora.

The CDC’s Cyclospora website, updated frequently, keeps track of the numbers of cases—in this case, 641 as of September 3, with 41 hospitalizations—from 24 states.

Investigators traced cases in Iowa and Nebraska to a salad mix produced by Taylor Farms de Mexico.  But this mix is not linked to cases in Texas, which complicates the investigations.

As for the biology of Cyclospora: it’s a parasitic protozoa transmitted through feces.  The CDC provides this handy diagram of its life cycle:

 

Life cycle of Cyclospora cayetanensis

What are you supposed to do to prevent getting sick from Cyclospora?  The CDC says unhelpfully: “Consumers should continue to enjoy the health benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a well-balanced diet.”

Everyone, it says, should follow safe produce handling recommendations.

Translation: Wash your veggies!

Sep 6 2013

It’s back-to-school time: food studies

Want to teach a course in food studies?  Start by joining the Association for the Study of Food and Society or talking to people in food studies programs.  Members have access to posted syllabus materials for a wide range of food studies courses.

In the meantime, here’s a place to start:

Amy Guptill, Denise A. Copelton, and Betsy Lucal.  Food & Society: Principles and Paradoxes.  Polity Press, 2013.

This is an introductory book aimed at undergraduates.  It begins with: Welcome to the study of food!

I blurbed it.

Far ranging in scope and hitting on the essential issues most likely to interest students, this book gives readers plenty to think about.  It’s well written, clear, has a point of view (sociology matters!), and thoroughly integrates social science concepts with the meaning of food in people’s lives.  An excellent introduction to courses in foods studies, food and society, and food and culture.

Sep 5 2013

If you like books with food maps, try these

Darin Jensen and Molly Roy, eds.  Food: An Atlas.  Guerrilla Cartography, 2013.

This is fun.  It’s a book of big maps on food production, distribution, security, exploration, and identity, mostly American but some international.  Take a look at such maps as those for rooftop farming in New York City, global imbalance of food availability, the rise of British food banks, and Taco trucks of East Oakland.

It reminds me a lot of:

Erik Millstone and Tim Lang.  The Atlas of Food: Who Eats What, Where and Why.  Earthscan, 2003.

This one is British and more overtly political.  Its maps cover such things as over- and under-nutrition, food aid as power, genetic modification, trade flows, advertising, and “Citizens Bite Back.”

Sep 4 2013

I’m heading for Union Square

photo 1

Sep 3 2013

Out today! Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics

 

Three items:

1.  The Cartoonist Group is sponsoring a caption contest.  The winner gets a signed copy of the book.

2.  If you live in New York: copies will be available at the Union Square farmers’ market tomorrow (Wednesday) from noon to 1:30 p.m.

3.  If you’d like a preview, here’s what Nanci Hellmich says about it in today’s USA Today ( This online version comes with a generous helping of  interactive cartoons): 

Cartoons poke fun at weight, diet and food politics 

A new book, “Eat, Drink, Vote,” has more than 250 cartoons that take a humorous look at food topics.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Nutrition professor Marion Nestle says cartoons can spotlight food politics
  • She shares more than 250 of her favorite cartoons in her new book
  • Her goal: Have people get active in food politics

When it comes to diet, weight and food politics in this country, cartoons often make the messages easier to swallow.

Cartoons and comics can convey “complicated conceptual information at a glance, and if they are good, make it funny, pointed, sharp, ironic and sometimes even sarcastic,” says Marion Nestle, a longtime nutrition professor at New York University and veteran consumer advocate. “In one drawing, cartoonists can convey not only what the idea is about, but what they think about it.”

Nestle shares more than 250 of her favorite cartoons and comics in her new book, Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics(Rodale Books, $18.99) created in collaboration with The Cartoonist Group.

For years, Nestle has hounded the food industry about its marketing strategies, which she detailed in her 2002 book, Food Politics. In 2006, she detailed how to grocery shop for a healthful diet in What to Eat, and in 2012 she discussed the latest science on what causes people to be overweight in Why Calories Count, written with Malden Nesheim.

Nestle believes that the obesity problem is this country is fostered by a food environment that encourages people to eat more often, in more places and in larger amounts than is good for maintaining a healthy weight.

About a third of adults in this country are obese, which is roughly 35 or more pounds over a healthy weight. A third of children and teens are overweight or obese. Obesity increases the risk of many diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer.

Beginning in the 1980s when obesity rates in this country started to climb, food became more widely available with the proliferation of fast-food places and the increase in portion sizes, she says. People started eating outside of the home more often and snacking more frequently, Nestle says.

She says the current food environment results from the need of food companies not only to make a profit but to report an increase in profits to Wall Street every 90 days — and do so in a highly over-abundant and fiercely competitive marketplace. To lose weight, she says, people have to eat less, but eating less is terrible for business. Hence: politics.

Nestle says there are many examples of what she considers food politics run amok. One case in point: The U.S. Department of Agriculture established new nutrition standards for school lunches that went into effect in the 2012-2013 school year. But bowing to pressure from food companies, “Congress insisted that the USDA count the tomato paste on pizza as a serving of vegetables,” Nestle says.

“It’s ridiculous to have Congress micromanaging school food rules. Several cartoons in the book make that point brilliantly.”

About the book, Nestle says: “I want these cartoons to inspire readers to become active in food politics, personally and politically. You can buy food at farmers markets, go to grocery stores that sell healthier foods, support locally grown food and organic food, support animal welfare.

“There are loads of ways to choose foods and diets that will be healthier for people and the planet. Everyone who’s interested can join groups that are working for policies that will make healthy food choices the easy choices.”

Vote with your fork, she says. “Even better, vote with your vote!”

And #4: a couple of other items related to the book:

August 31 Review in the San Francisco Chronicle

August 14 Interview with Kerry Trueman on Amazon.com

Sep 1 2013

“Natural” on food labels? Ain’t necessarily so…

It’s the first Sunday of the month and time for my monthly Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle.  In this one, I deal with the annoying “natural” on food labels, a term that the FDA prefers not to define.

Q: I am doing legislative research on food policy for one of my state’s senators on the definition of “natural.” As things stand, it’s difficult for consumers to understand what “natural” means on food labels. How should the FDA define this term so it is accurate and not misleading?

A: I was traveling in New England when your question arrived, and it sent me right to the nearest Hannaford supermarket. Hannaford makes this research easy. Sections everywhere in the store are labeled “organic and natural.”

Organic is no problem. Certified organic products must be made with ingredients raised or grown without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, irradiation, sewage sludge or genetic modification.

But what are we to make of Honey BBQ All Natural Potato Chips containing 20 ingredients, among them monosodium glutamate, yellow food color, and undoubtedly genetically modified corn and soy, but “no hydrogenated fats and gluten free”? Or Healthy Natural Dog Food containing meat by-products and other such things but “no artificial preservatives, colors or fillers”?

The Food and Drug Administration is not much help. Its answer: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA … has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

If you have made it through all the not’s in this non-definition, you can begin to understand how the FDA can allow high-fructose corn syrup to be “natural.” Even though enzymes, synthetic or not, are required to convert cornstarch to this mixture of glucose and fructose, it does not contain artificial colors or flavors.

But the products I mentioned do. Yellow No. 5 is an artificial color. You must assume that the corn or soy in any “natural” product is genetically modified unless the label says GMO-free or Certified Organic. You may be someone who has a hard time considering GMO ingredients “natural.”

In the last decade, new products marketed with “natural” claims have proliferated, and it’s easy to understand why. Marketers love the term. “Natural” sells products, not the least because consumers consider it a synonym for healthful and, often, for organic. Anyone would rather buy “100 percent natural seltzer water” – “calorie-free, no sugar, no sodium, gluten-free” (things never found in water) – than plain seltzer.

While “natural” does not necessarily mean “healthy” or even “healthier,” it works splendidly as a marketing term and explains why many junk-food manufacturers are switching from expensive organic ingredients to those they can market as “natural.”

The FDA isn’t fixing this situation because, according to a statement in response to a petition by Center for Science in the Public Interest, it’s “not an enforcement priority.”

Manufacturers of highly processed foods could not be happier with this nondecision.

In the absence of regulation, enter litigation. In recent years, advocacy groups have filed dozens of lawsuits seeking to ban “natural” claims on foods containing ingredients that seem unnatural, especially those genetically modified. Judges tend to say it’s the FDA’s problem and are calling on the agency to define the term.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for meat and dairy products, has attempted to clarify what it means by “natural.” Its Food Safety and Inspection Service says meat and poultry can be labeled “natural” when they are minimally processed and have no artificial flavorings, colorings or preservatives. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service says “naturally raised” means the meat must come from animals produced with no hormone growth promoters, no antibiotics and no animal by-products.

How about all of the above? And if the public really can’t tell the difference between “natural” and “organic,” the closer the definition of “natural” is to that of “organic,” the less confused they will be.

Perhaps you could advise the senator to begin with the organic standards. And then toss in working definitions that exclude anything synthetic, artificial and more than minimally processed.

You should expect food industry lobbying against this idea to be fierce. But the public will be better served if the compromises in defining “natural” come at the end of the negotiations rather than at the beginning.

Marion Nestle is the author of “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

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