Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 16 2013

What’s that cartoon?

Oops.  Amazon left off the last question in Kerry Trueman’s interview.

KT: And what a bonus to get to the end of the book and find that wonderful cartoon of yourself by Clay Bennett! How did that come about?

I know.  I love it.   Minutes before the book was being sent to press, my editor realized that there were a couple of blank pages at the end.  And I didn’t have a bio in the book.  Why not commission a cartoon?  Clay Bennett is the only one of the cartoonists I’ve met—I went to a talk he gave in New York at the launch of another Cartoonist Group book—and I very much enjoy his work, as who does not?   He’s the editorial cartoonist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and won a Pulitzer Prize at some point.  He produced the cartoon over that weekend.  I think it’s the perfect way to end the book.

Clay Bennett editorial cartoon

 

 

Aug 15 2013

Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics: Q and A

Amazon.com has just posted an interview that I did with Kerry Trueman about my forthcoming (September 3!) book, Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.

Kerry Trueman, an environmental advocate, interviews public health nutritionist, Marion Nestle, author of Eat Drink Vote

Jude Stewart

Kerry Trueman: Has politics always had such a huge impact on the way we eat?

Marion Nestle: Of course it has. As long as we have had inequities between rich and poor, politics has made some people fat while others starved. Think, for example, of the sugar trade and slavery, the Boston tea party, or the role of stolen bread in Les Misérables. Bread riots and food fights are about politics. But those events seem simple compared to what we deal with now, when no food issue seems too small to generate arguments about who wins or loses. Congressional insistence that the tomato paste on pizza counts as a vegetable serving is only the most recent case in point.

KT: How do you reconcile the fact that what’s good for us as individuals–namely, eating less junk food–is bad for business?

MN: I don’t think these facts are easily reconciled. They can only be observed and commented and acted upon. The job of the food industry is to produce products that will not only sell well, but will sell increasingly well over time, in order to produce growing returns to investors. Reconciliation requires companies either to sell less (impossible from a business standpoint) or make up the difference with sales of healthier products. Unfortunately, the so-called healthier products–and whether they really are is debatable–rarely sell as well. In practice, companies touch all bases at once: they put most marketing efforts into their core products, they proliferate new better-for-you products, and they seek new customers for their products among the vast populations of the developing world–where, no surprise, the prevalence of obesity is increasing, along with its related diseases.

KT: Why did you want to do a book of food politics cartoons?

MN: If truth be told, I’ve been wanting to do one for years. Cartoons are such a great way to engage audiences. Politics can be dreary. Cartoons make it fun. I’ve collected cartoons for years on everything about food and nutrition. I would have loved to do a book on nutrition in cartoons but getting permission to reprint them was too difficult and expensive. For the cartoons in my last book, Why Calories Count, I contacted the copyright holder, Sara Thaves, who represents the work of about 50 cartoonists. During our negotiations about how much they would cost, Sara asked if I might be interested in doing a book using Cartoonist Group cartoons. Would I ever! Sara ended up sending me more than 1,100 cartoons–all on food politics. I put them in categories and started writing. The only hard part was winnowing the drawings to a publishable number. But what a gorgeous book this turned out to be! The cartoons are in full color.

KT: In Eat Drink Vote, you note that, it ought to be possible to enjoy the pleasures of food and eat healthfully at the same time. Why does that ideal meal elude so many of us?

MN: Because our food choices are so strongly influenced by the food environment. Given a large plate of food, for example, practically everyone will eat more from it than from a smaller portion. And then there’s the cooking problem. For decades, Americans have been told that cooking is too much trouble and takes too much time. As a result, many people would rather order in and wait for it to arrive and get heated up again than to start from scratch. And healthy foods cost more than highly processed junk foods, and not only on the basis of calories. The government supports the production of corn and soybeans, for example, but not that of broccoli or carrots. I should also mention that food companies get to deduct the cost of marketing, even marketing to children, from their taxes as legitimate business expenses.

KT: On the subject of food and pleasure, you enjoy the occasional slice of pizza or scoop of ice cream, just as Michelle Obama loves her french fries. Do you subscribe to the all things in moderation philosophy, or are there some things you simply won’t eat, ever?

MN: The only food I can think of that I won’t ever eat is brains, and that’s rarely a problem. And yes, I do subscribe to everything in moderation although it’s hard to admit it without irony. The phrase has been so misused by food companies and some of my fellow nutritionists to defend sales of junk foods and drinks. There is no question that some foods are healthier to eat than others and we all would be better off eating more of the healthier ones and fewer of the less healthful foods. But fewer does not and should not mean none. And what’s wrong with pizza, pray tell? In my view, life is too short not to leave plenty of room for freshly baked pizza, toffee candy, real vanilla ice cream, and a crusty, yeasty white bread–all in moderation, of course.  

Aug 14 2013

General Mills wants the FDA to define “whole grain”

Ah the ironies of food marketing.  General Mills is asking the FDA to come up with a decent (translation: favorable to General Mills) definition of “whole grain.”

You might think that the meaning of “whole grain” is perfectly clear.  Wheat grains contain three parts, the bran, the germ, and the endosperm (the starch-and-protein part).

As I explained in a column for the San Francisco Chronicle, the FDA has not issued a rule defining whole grains.  Its has nonbinding guidance.  This says anything labeled “100 percent whole grain” must contain all three components of the original wheat seed, in proportion.

But what about products that are not 100% whole grain, which means most food products.  Here’s why General Mills cares about this issue:

Into this regulatory gap has charged the industry-sponsored Whole Grain Council, a trade association for marketers of whole grain foods.  The council issues two certifying stamps: 100 percent and Basic. One hundred percent fits the FDA guidance.

But the far more prevalent Basic stamp allows refined grains and not-necessarily-in-proportion additions of bran or germ.

General Mills wants the FDA to finalize its 2006 guidance).  This recommended:

  • At least 8 grams of whole grain per 30 gram serving for basic whole grain statements
  • At least 16 grams of whole grain per 30 gram serving for statements such as “100% whole grain”
  • All three components must be present in natural proportions

According to the account in Food Chemical News,  General Mills wants to head off the proposal from Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI); this would require posting the percentage of whole grains.

CSPI points out that many “whole grain” claims are misleading.  Without having to reveal the percentage of whole grain, companies can claim whole grains with only 8 grams of whole grains in a 30-gram serving.   This is 27% whole grain, meaning 73% not whole grain.

Yes, the FDA needs to act on this one, and the sooner the better.

Aug 12 2013

What’s up with Chinese infant formula?

I would never have predicted that infant formula, of all things, would become the poster child for the down side of globalization.  Look at all the issues:

Price fixing

The Chinese government has just fined six infant formula companies for fixing prices:

  • Mead Johnson (US): $33 million
  • Dumex/Danone (France): $28 million
  • Biostime (Hong Kong): $27 million
  • Abbott Labs (US): $13 million
  •  Royal FrieslandCampina (The Netherlands): $8 million
  •  Fonterra (New Zealand): $700,000

The fines may seem severe but the Chinese bought $12.7 billion worth of infant formula in 2012 and are expected to buy $18.4 billion in 2014.

Botulism contamination

Fonterra, the New Zealand manufacturer of infant formula contaminated with the type of bacteria that cause botulism, says it’s sorry.

We deeply apologize to the people who have been affected by the issue.

Food safety is our first and foremost interest.

That’s  what they all say when something like this happens.

The company noticed botulinum contamination in March but did not identify the contaminating strain or notify consumers until last week.  That’s also typical.

Fonterra made $15.7 billion in sales last year, more than half of it from selling dairy foods to China.  Other big customers are in Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Vietnam.

China has now stopped importing Fonterra’ powdered infant formula.  This alone was worth nearly $1.9 billion last year.

Recall that Fonterra was a part owner of the Chinese company that made infant formula laced with melamine—the formula that made more than 300,000 babies sick.  Six died.  That happened in 2008, with dire consequences for Chinese formula manufacturers.

Distrust of Chinese infant formula

Since then, the Chinese have become suspicious of local infant formula and are buying foreign infant formula to the point of scarcity.  The new scare makes that situation even worse.

In Hong Kong, officials have been cracking down on foreign infant formula smugglers.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times attributes the scandal to three problems with China’s rapidly expanding economy:

  • Complete lack of faith in Chinese companies.
  • Corner-cutting deeply ingrained in Chinese business culture, with no government regulatory enforcement.
  • Bad incentives.

He has a Slide Show to back this up.

Other consequences

Decline in breastfeeding.  Rates of breastfeeding in China are declining.  Do Western infant formula companies have anything to do with this?

Environmental Pollution.  I was at an agriculture meeting in New Zealand a few years ago and got an earful about what it means to convert a sheep-growing country to one focused on dairy cattle: pristine to polluted.

Alas, the externalized costs of globalization.

Aug 9 2013

Weekend mystery: Where did the GM wheat come from?

Nature Magazine has a piece on the intense search for the source of the unapproved genetically modified wheat that turned up in an Oregon field.  The wheat turns out to be a test strain developed and planted by Monsanto some years ago.

No GM wheat has as yet been permitted to be planted.

Monsanto says the GM wheat must have gotten into the field by sabotage.

But the real mystery is why it hasn’t turned up in more places, as this map of Monsanto test plantings shows.

 

Aug 8 2013

Agriculture policy needs to support health policy: Fruits and vegetables!

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a new report yesterday: “The $11 trillion reward: How simple dietary changes can save lives and money, and how we get there.”

Never mind the hype ($11 trillion?  That’s too big to understand).   Whatever the real number, the report makes one thing clear: if we don’t get healthier, health care costs will rise.  A lot.

To stay healthy, we need to eat more fruits and vegetables (F&V).  But that’s not  so easy.  They are relatively expensive, not always easy to deal with, and thoroughly unsupported by federal agricultural policy.

To fix that, UCS calls for federal policies to:

  • Increase research on F&V.
  • Remove planting restrictions that stop commodity farmers from growing F&V.
  • Make crop insurance available for F&V producers.
  • Make healthy, locally grown food more available and accessible.
  • Promote the growth of farmers markets, local food outlets.
  • Facilitate the use of SNAP benefits at local food markets.
  • Educate consumers about F&V and how to prepare them.

Here’s more on this report:

 

 

 

Aug 7 2013

You think the FDA gets to approve all food additives as safe? Not a chance.

I was invited to write the editorial to accompany a study published today in JAMA Internal Medicine looking at the highly conflicted process used to decide whether food additives are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).

Here’s the study.

Here’s my editorial.

I know this sounds completely crazy, but here’s what the study found:

  • Manufacturers get to decide whether food additives are safe or not.
  • Manufacturers get to decide whether to bother to tell the FDA the additives are in the food supply.

And if they do volunteer to inform the FDA (and many do),

  • Manufacturers get to decide who sits on the panels that review the evidence for safety.

In reading the study, it seemed to me that:

  • As long as not too many people roll over dead after eating foods with new additives, nobody will ever have a clue whether the additive is safe.
  • The regulatory gap has spawned an entire enterprise of GRAS consultants and GRAS consulting firms who are in the business—presumably lucrative—of providing the scientific documentation the FDA needs to determine additive safety.

Some of the consultants need to do a better job.  The FDA raises enough questions that about 15% (my estimate) of the requests would be denied.

The good news: If the FDA sees the safety documentation, it does its job.

But what happens to the rejected additives?  Or the ones that don’t get voluntarily sent to FDA?

Nobody really knows (think: caffeine in alcohol drinks–the FDA had no idea).

We need a better food safety system in this country and conflicts of interests in GRAS additive approvals are a good place to start.

Here’s what USA Today has to say about this (I’m quoted).

 

 

Aug 6 2013

Good news: FDA issues rules for a gluten-free claim on food packages

In what will surely be good news to people with celiac disease and other problems related to gluten intolerance, the FDA has just issued a final rule for defining foods as “gluten-free.”

This, after nine years of work on this issue (see timeline below).

The rule states that companies can label their products gluten-free if they contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million) gluten.  This, says FDA,

is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods using valid scientific analytical tools. Also, most people with celiac disease can tolerate foods with very small amounts of gluten. This level is consistent with those set by other countries and international bodies that set food safety standards.

As for gluten intolerance: Roughly 1% of the U.S. population has diagnosable gluten intolerance.  For those who do, eating grains containing gluten (wheat and some others) triggers an abnormal immune response that damages the intestinal tract.  To prevent symptoms—of which there can be many, none of them pleasant—people with this condition must scrupulously avoid eating gluten-containing foods.

The new rule will help establish some uniformity in labeling.  Note: gluten-free does not mean sugar-free.

In reading through the FDA’s notice in the Federal Register, I am struck by the complexity of the agency’s processes for doing something like this.

Policy wonk that I am, I immediately made a timeline.  This indicates that the FDA spent nine years getting to this point. Impressive, no?

Timeline: FDA’s Gluten-Free Rule

YEAR Action toward completing the rule
2004 Congress passes Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act; instructs FDA to issue rule defining “gluten-free.”  FDA establishes Threshold Working Group to review literature on safety cut point.
2005 Threshold Working Group suggests approaches to defining threshold.  FDA asks for comments on the report.  Asks Food Advisory Committee to consider approaches.
2006 FDA posts report and responds to comments.  Announces public hearing.   Gets 2400 comments related to the hearing.
2007 FDA proposes rule to define gluten-free.  Sets 20 ppm cut point.  Begins Health Hazard Assessment.
2011 FDA publishes Health Hazard Assessment.  Reopens comment period.
2012 FDA responds to about 2000 comments.
2013 FDA publishes final rule.

FDA’s documents on the gluten-free rule:

Page 33 of 278« First...3132333435...Last »