Mar 27 2013

How to make people think foods are healthy: greenwash!

Green labels are all that it takes to make consumers think that foods are healthier, says a new study (see full reference below):

You don’t believe this?

Decide for yourself: Which candy bar is healthier?

This clever study found that green labels increase perceived healthfulness, especially among consumers who place high importance on healthy eating.

Read it and weep: Jonathon P. Schuldt (2013): Does Green Mean Healthy? Nutrition Label Color Affects Perceptions of Healthfulness, Health Communication, DOI:10.1080/10410236.2012.725270.

Mar 26 2013

More on energy drinks

You have to love the marketing geniuses at Monster Energy Drink.

As I suggested in a previous post, it and similar products have become the new frontier for food advocacy, largely because of linkages, as yet unproven, between their high caffeine content and the deaths of several young people.

Now, Suffolk County has passed legislation that blocks companies from giving free samples and coupons to minors and selling the drinks in county parks.

In 2010, Suffolk Country introduced a previous version of the bill that proposed to ban sales of energy drinks to anyone 19 or younger.

How is Monster Energy responding to such assaults?

Clever: change its labels from Supplement Facts to Nutrition Facts.

Why would it do this?

As explained in the New York Times, Monster Beverage “will no longer be required to tell federal regulators about reports potentially linking its products to deaths and injuries” [doing so is required for supplements, but not foods].

A spokesman for Monster, Michael Sitrick, said the company had decided to market its products as beverages for several reasons. One was to stop what he described as “misguided criticism” that the company was selling its energy drinks as dietary supplements because of the belief that such products were more lightly regulated than beverages [Misguided? They are more lightly regulated].

Another consideration, he said, was that consumers can use government-subsidized food stamps to buy beverages [EBT-card benefits cannot be spent on supplements].

Let’s see if other places follow Suffolk County’s lead.

Mar 25 2013

White House weakened food safety rules

I subscribe to Food Chemical News, at great expense but for good reason.  On Friday, I received this alert addressed to Dear Subscriber:

Food Chemical News has discovered a stunning set of documents, made available by the Department of Health and Human Services as part of a transparency initiative, that prove FDA was forced by the White House Office of Management and Budget to remove certain elements from the draft of its FDA Food Safety Modernization Act preventive controls proposal. It had long been speculated among FDA watchers that the agency intended to include requirements for product testing, maintaining supplier verification programs and tracking consumer complaints in its FSMA proposal, published in the Federal Register Jan. 16, but the eight documents we found this week, while searching for other information, confirm it.

Food Safety News picked up the story.

Food Chemical News is reporting that documents released on regulations.gov on Feb. 28 reveal cuts made by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to the implementing regulatory package for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).Those apparent cuts include striking out requirements for food companies to test for microbial contamination of environments and finished food products, as well as rules for companies to maintain supplier verification programs and track consumer complaints.

We encourage readers to review the documents here and comment on anything of interest in our comment section.

The documents say that the White House deleted:
  • Requirements for environmental monitoring for pathogens.
  • Requirements for finished product testing for pathogens.
  • An assumption that if environmental monitoring finds pathogens on food-contact, the pathogens are also in the food.
  • Requirements for a supplier approval and verification program.
  • A requirement that companies review consumer complaints about safety.
  • FDA authority to copy company records.
The White House also:
  • Added a year to the length of time companies and farms of all sizes have to comply with the law. 
Why?  Undoubtedly election-year politics.  The election is over.  
The FDA needs to do its job.  
Let’s get these items reinserted.
The safety of Americans is at stake here.  
Mar 22 2013

Reading for the holiday weekend: Kosher!

Timothy D. Lytton.  Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food.  Harvard University Press, 2013.

I blurbed this one, and for good reason:

Kosher is one terrific book.  It’s a wonderfully entertaining account of the squabbles, finger-pointing, and cutthroat competition that turned kosher certification from scandalous corruption to a respectable—and highly profitable—business.  Today, if a food is labeled kosher, it is kosher, which is more than can be said of most claims on food labels. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the fun in Timothy Lytton’s presentation of an unusually successful case study in business ethics.

Here’s Lytton’s  flyer on how to get it.  And his recent column in Food Safety News.

Mar 21 2013

If we want food companies to act ethically…

I was fascinated to read Michael Mudd’s piece in the New York Times on Sunday, “How to force ethics on the food industry.”  Noting that the court overturned Mayor Bloomberg’s 16-ounce soda ban, he said:

But governments should not be deterred by this and should step up their efforts to protect the public health by limiting the marketing tactics of food companies. Anyone who believes these interventions are uncalled-for doesn’t know the industry the way I do.

…The industry is guilty because it knew what the consequences of its actions might be. Large food processors employed a flock of Ph.D. nutritionists and food scientists. The connection between calorie consumption and weight gain was always as plain as the number on the bathroom scale. But instead of acknowledging this and taking corrective action to sell a better product more responsibly, food processors played innocent by blending in with the crowd of causes.

This sent me to dig through my files to search for what I’d saved about Mr. Mudd’s efforts at Kraft.  Here, for example, is the front page of USA Today, July 1, 2003.  Kraft chose USA Today to announce its new anti-obesity initiatives, and gave it an exclusive to do so.

The initiatives included, among a long list, elimination of all in-school marketing, setting nutritional criteria for marketing practices, and establishing meaningful criteria for health claims.

Even at the time, I was dubious:

They have to demonstrate what it is they’re actually doing before I can start turning cartwheels about this…Kraft has other credibility problems when it comes to marketing healthier products…Philip Morris Co., the tobacco giant now called Altria Group, owns 84 percent of Kraft [Altria sold off Kraft in 2007].

One year later, Kraft announced  that  it had begun to act on its promises.  After another six months, Kraft introduced its Sensible Solution  program  to label “better-for-you” products. leaving plenty to be dubious about.  By 2004, Michael Mudd was no longer with Kraft.

In 2007, I sent a couple of students out to see whether Kraft had kept its promises.  Not a chance, as we documented.

How come?  Food companies are not social service agencies.  Their job is to sell products.  And, as Michael Moss explains in Salt, Sugar, Fatthey must do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

As Mr. Mudd now puts it,

It’s time to end the charade and mandate the needed changes that the industry has refused to make. 

Mar 20 2013

Dietary supplements: A round-up of bad news

The bad news about dietary supplements pours in.  Most of them are harmless, but this industry is largely unregulated and the lack of oversight shows.

Here’s a brief summary of recent reports and an old one I’ve been saving for an occasion like this:

Some supplements do more harm than good

     A lengthy investigative report in the New York Times describes the death of a 22-year-old Army private attributed to taking a recommended dose of a workout supplement, Jack3d, bought at a GNC store on the base.

Jack3d contains a powerful stimulant called dimethylamylamine, or DMAA for short, which has similar effects as amphetamines, but claims to produce “ultra-intense muscle-gorging strength, energy, power and endurance.”

Some supplement companies don’t report problems to FDA

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in Dietary Supplements: FDA May Have Opportunities to Expand Its Use of Reported Health Problems to Oversee Products, reports a doubling of the number of adverse event complaints to the FDA since 2008.  It attributes the increase to FDA’s enforcement efforts and to lawsuits publicizing situations in which supplement firms are not reporting problems.

Some supplement companies can’t back up health claims

Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued two reports examining health claims on immune support and weight loss supplements, both fast-growing segments of the industry.

In its first report, Structure/Function Claims Fail To Meet Federal Requirements, the OIG points to FDA’s limited enforcement authority over such claims.  As a result, supplement companies cut corners and ignore requirements for such claims.

Some supplement companies make it hard to complain

In its second report, Dietary Supplements: Companies May Be Difficult To Locate in an Emergency, OIG says that many supplements do not put information about where to file adverse event reports on their labels.   Many companies fail to register with the FDA.  And when companies do register, they neglect to provide required information.  About 20% of dietary supplement labels dd not provide telephone numbers or addresses where consumers can report adverse events.

The supplement industry brought this on itself

A year or so ago, the New York Times published a long article about the cozy relationship between Senator Orrin Hatch (Rep-Utah) and the supplement industry.

If you want to understand how the supplement industry gets away with ignoring regulations, read how “Senator Orrin G. Hatch has helped the nutritional supplement industry, and been rewarded with donations.”

He was the chief author of a federal law enacted 17 years ago that allows companies to make general health claims about their products, but exempts them from federal reviews of their safety or effectiveness before they go to market. During the Obama administration, Mr. Hatch has repeatedly intervened with his colleagues in Congress and federal regulators in Washington to fight proposed rules that industry officials consider objectionable.

When Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994, it effectively deregulated the industry, allowing it to use a new category of vague health claims (“structure-function”), to use Supplement Facts labels, and to escape much in the way of oversight.

Even if we assume that most supplement manufacturers are honest about what’s in their products and what the products can and cannot do, some are not.  DSHEA gave the less honest manufacturers plenty of room to cause trouble, and so they do.

We will be seeing more such reports, no doubt.

Mar 19 2013

Mini Book Review: The Stop

I’m teaching Food Advocacy at NYU this semester and am using a book that comes out today:

Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis.  The Stop: How the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement.  Random House Canada 2013.

Husband and wife team Saul and Curtis wrote this chronicle of Saul’s 15-year stint as the director of The Stop, a place that started out as a soup kitchen but ended up as much more.

This is an important book.  The Stop is no ordinary account of the substantial benefits of soup kitchens to servers and served.  It is an impassioned account of how to create food systems that foster independence and eliminate the indignities of charity.   Saul and Curtis put a human face on poverty.  If you want to know what today’s food movement is really about—and why it is anything but elitist–read this book.

Ordinarily, I hope that readers will order and buy books I mention at local, independent bookshops.  But this one is only available in Canada.  Here’s its link at Amazon Canada.

Mar 18 2013

Apologies for the meltdown

For the past few days, FoodPolitics.com has been down off and on, apparently because of routine maintenance but maybe some other  problems with the server.   Fortunately, the site does not seem to have been hacked.  I am traveling and will resume blogging tomorrow or Wednesday.  Thanks for your patience and stay tuned!

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