Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
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:

Aug 4 2013

Some reflections on the mayor’s food forum: San Francisco Chronicle column

I used my August (monthly, first Sunday) column for the San Francisco Chronicle to reflect on the meaning of the Mayor’s Food Forum last month.

Q: I hear that you moderated a food forum for candidates for mayor of New York City and got them to say what they thought about hunger, nutrition and local agriculture. Did any of them say anything worth telling?

A: The forum was indeed amazing. But I’d go further.

I’d call it historic – a turning point in the food movement.

This had to be the first time that food advocacy organizations – an astonishing 88 of them – joined forces to induce candidates for city office to agree to respond to questions about issues of concern to every one of those groups.

Six candidates turned up. What they said hardly mattered (and at this point, the less said about the individual candidates, the better). What does matter is that they thought this audience important enough to come and state their positions on how food production and consumption affect public health, and how political leaders can use their authority to improve the food system.

Food issues have become prominent enough to make politicians and would-be politicians take notice.

The sold-out audience of nearly 1,000 filled the auditorium at the New School as well as two overflow rooms. Others watched the forum streamed live online. (http://new.livestream.com/TheNewSchool/nycfoodforum).

When I was invited to moderate, I could hardly believe what the organizers had accomplished. Twelve groups, each working separately for improvements in food assistance, food access, working conditions, local farming, food systems or health had formed a coalition to plan the forum and make it happen.

These groups met for a more than a year to identify the specific issues they most wanted candidates to think about. Judging from the length of the questions I was given, this cannot have been easy. The organizers must have been exceptionally patient – and persistent – to get 12 advocacy groups to agree on the key issues.

They also did a great deal of community organizing. They not only recruited 76 other food advocacy groups to support the forum, but also encouraged development of an additional forum for young people in low-income communities to get involved in the food issues most relevant to their lives.

Some of these kids were invited to ask questions of the candidates. One, from a Brooklyn teenager: “Where do you shop for food?” This may sound like a naive question, but it elicited a surprisingly thoughtful response that touched on sensitive issues of income and class.

The grown-up questions concerned issues vital to the host groups: How would the new mayor address hunger and food insecurity, inadequate access to healthy food, the low wages and inhumane treatment of restaurant and fast-food workers, the poor quality of school food, and the high rates of diet-related chronic disease among city residents.

Such problems are hardly unique to New York. Even the more city-centered questions – how to use the city’s purchasing power to support regional agriculture and the food economy, and to promote city land for urban farming – have plenty of relevance for other urban areas, including Bay Area cities.

The candidates made it clear that they had thought about the issues, and had come prepared to address them.

Here’s my inescapable conclusion: The food movement is strong enough to make candidates for office stand up, listen and take food issues seriously.

Last fall, writing about California’s Proposition 37 that sought to label genetically modified foods, Michael Pollan issued a challenge to food advocates.

The food movement, he said, needs to do more than work for agricultural reform and an increased market share for healthier food. Advocacy groups need to get together to create a real political movement – an organized force strong enough to propel food concerns onto the national agenda and force politicians to take action to improve food systems.

The forum was a first step in that direction. It proved that food coalitions can have political power.

I can’t think of a better time for food advocacy groups to join forces and work collectively toward common food system goals.

E-mail questions to: food@sfchronicle.com

Aug 2 2013

Weekend Reading: Two Books About Cooking

Tamar Adler.  An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace.  Scribner 2011.

The book comes with a foreword by Alice Waters and a blurb from Michael Pollan: “Tamar Adler has written the best book on cooking with economy and grace that I have read since MFK Fisher.”  He ought to know (see below).

Ms. Adler cooked at Chez Panisse.  She says:

Cooking is best approached from wherever you find yourself when you are hungry, and should extend long past the end of the page.  There should be serving, and also eating, and storing away what’s left; there should be looking at meals’ remainders with interest and imagining all the good things they will become.

She begins with “how to boil water” and ends with “how to end.”  Very MFK Fisher indeed.

Michael Pollan.  Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.  Penguin Press, 2013

A review of this book should seem superfluous as a mere look at Pollan’s website makes clear.   But I want to go on record as saying how much I enjoyed reading it.  He writes about the time he spends in the kitchen learning from experienced cooks how to barbecue (fire), make stews (water), breads (air), and cheese (earth).

The writing is so vivid and engaging that I had the strangest reaction to this book: I could smell what was cooking.

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