Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 5 2014

Book: Culinary Imagination

Sandra M. Gilbert.  The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity.  WW Norton, 2014

New Picture

I blurbed this one:

It is hard to imagine how Sandra Gilbert could have produced so broad an overview of contemporary food writing and thought, not only literary analysis but also history, memoir, and bibliography.  Anyone wanting an introduction to the meaning of food culture should start here.  After reading this “foodoir,” you may not want to live her life but you will certainly want to read everything that she did.

Aug 4 2014

USDA’s new poultry inspection system, complicated but voluntary

I thought it might be time for a summary of why USDA’s new requirements for poultry inspection are so controversial.  Some groups think they are a big step forward; others most definitely do not.

The USDA says its new rules, which are largely based on research published in 2011:

  • Will place new requirements on the poultry industry.
  • Will prevent 5000 illnesses a year from Salmonella and Campylobacter
  • Puts trained USDA inspectors where they will do the most good.
  • Require poultry facilities to test for Salmonella and Campylobacter at two points during production (USDA will continue to do its own testing).
  • Giving poultry producers the option of doing their own inspections.
  • Caps the maximum line speed at 140 birds per minute (rather than the 175 the industry wanted).
  • Estimates the public health benefit at $79 million.

It also says

More inspectors will now be available to more frequently remove birds from the evisceration line for close food safety examinations, take samples for testing, check plant sanitation, verify compliance with food safety plans, observe live birds for signs of disease or mistreatment, and ensuring plants are meeting all applicable regulations.

To read the Federal Register notice (when it’s ready), click here.

The main issues

Line speed:  this refers to the evisceration line and is the speed at which workers must deal with the chickens.  The current speed is 140 birds per minute.  This means 2.33 birds per second.   It’s hard to imagine that any worker could manage that—or any inspector could see anything—at that speed.

The National Council of La Raza wrote USDA  in 2012 that raising the line speed posed a hazard to worker safety and “would recklessly threaten the health and safety of poultry workers.”  USDA listened.  The NCLR must be pleased.

The poultry industry is not pleased.  The National Chicken Council complains that “politics have trumped sound science, 15 years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute.”

Politico ProAg points out that the new system will cost the poultry industry $259 million—what it would have gained if line speeds increased to 175 per minute.

Privatization of inspectors.  The new rules shift responsibility for inspecting chickens, no matter how impossible, to company employees—the fox guarding the chickens, as it were. Food and Water Watch argues that this poses a conflict of interest since it’s in the managers’ interest to keep the lines moving as fast as possible and not to find anything wrong.   Food and Water Watch says the new system “will transfer most poultry inspection from government inspectors to the companies so they can police themselves.” Several members of Congress have also complained.   The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report noting that USDA doesn’t really have data on which to base this change.

Change in function of USDA inspectors.  Up to 1,500 USDA phased out of poultry production may have to relocate or retire.  USDA estimates it will save $90 million over the next three years from this reduction.

Turkeys.  The new system allows turkey plants to raise line speeds to 55 per minute, up from 51 birds per minute.  The National Turkey Federation says most turkey plants will comply.

Waivers.  The Washington Post says the new system “provides a waiver to 20 plants that are already in a pilot program, letting them operate at 175 birds per minute.”

Voluntary.  The program is voluntary.  Plants can continue doing things the way they are.  

What to make of all this?  The testing requirements are a huge step forward.  The inspection changes seem mixed. It’s hard to believe that line inspection is useful even at 140 birds per minute.  

I’d rather have USDA inspectors making sure prevention controls are in place and adhered to, the testing is done honestly, and keeping an eye out for unsafe worker conditions (which, alas, is not their job).  

Let’s give it a try and see how it works in practice.

In the meantime, here’s what else is happening on the poultry safety front:

Other related news

Salmonella is not an adulterant, says USDA.  If it were, anything contaminated with it could not be sold.  USDA denied the petition from Center for Science in the Public Interest to have four antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella declared as as adulterants in ground meat and poultry products.

After thoroughly reviewing the available data, FSIS has concluded that the data does not support giving the four strains of [antibiotic-resistant] salmonella identified in the petition a different status as an adulterant in raw ground meat and raw ground poultry than salmonella strains susceptible to antibiotics.

The Foster Farms Salmonella outbreak is over, says the CDC.

The CDC announced today a total of 634 persons infected with seven outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg were reported from 29 states and Puerto Rico from March 1, 2013 to July 11, 2014.

Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback investigations conducted by local, state, and federal officials indicated that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken was the source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections.

38% of ill persons were hospitalized, but no deaths were reported.

Most ill persons (77%) were reported from California, but cases were reported in other states as well.

And that’s why all of this matters so much.

Aug 1 2014

For your food studies library: Books that Cook

Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite, eds.  Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal.  New York University Press, 2014.

I have a special interest in this book: I wrote its Foreword.  Here’s an excerpt:

Books that Cook brings the food revolution into the study of English literature— brilliantly, deftly, and with no apologies. No apologies are needed. As editors Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite explain, Food Studies necessarily encompasses literature. Basic food texts—cookbooks and recipes—are as much a form of literature as are fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, and poetry. And why not? They tell stories. They convey myths. They are replete with drama, symbolic meaning, and psychological insight.

Furthermore, they offer plenty to talk about: culture, religion, ethics, personal identity, and anything else that it means to be human. That food generates profound literary memories is famously known from what ensued after Proust dipped his madeleine in tea.  Writers of all time have used food memories to spark traditional literary texts. Today, we view cookbooks and recipes as equally worthy of literary analysis. Even recipes.

They used the end of the Foreword as a blurb:

Books that Cook propels the food movement and in doing so makes a political as well as a literary statement. It makes a difference. Read it. Savor the writings. Delight in them. Think about them. And if they inspire you to do your own writing about food, so much the better.

I also have a special interest in one of the editors, Jennifer Cognard-Black.  I’ve never met her, but I contacted her after reading an article she wrote for Ms Magazine.  The article, The Feminist Food Revolution, comes with this description:

From farms to community gardens to restaurants, women are taking food back into their own hands.  So why do men keep getting all the credit?

This last phrase got my attention, particularly because she mentions me in the article.  Interesting, no?

The Foreword was fun to write and the book is fun to read.

Thanks Jennifer, Melissa, and NYU Press for this contribution to food studies, published today, and most welcome.

Jul 31 2014

Rep. Rosa de Lauro introduces the SWEET soda tax act!

Yesterday, the fabulous Representative Rosa DeLauro (Dem_CT) introduced the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tax Act of 2014 (SWEET Act).  Here’s a quick summary of the bill. The SWEET Act (you have to love the name) would put an excise tax of one cent per teaspoon of sugars (a teaspoon is about 4 grams). The bill is clearly aimed at sugary drinks, which account for about half of total sugar intake.  According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines (page 29),

  • Sodas, energy, and sports drinks account for 35.7% of total sugars
  • Fruit drinks—a category that does not include 100% juices—account for another 10.5%.
  • Sugar-sweetened teas account for 3.5%.

The tax ought to raise about $10 billion a year, and is earmarked for programs to combat soda-related disease. It also ought to further reduce consumption of sugary drinks, as is already happening in Mexico. If you would like to endorse this legislation, contact Kelly.Horton@mail.house.gov in Representative DeLauro’s office. References

 

Jul 30 2014

Health claims for coconut water: water works really well

The big surprise in Michael Moss’s tough look at health claims on coconut water in today’s New York Times—worth looking at online for the terrific video—is this:

One Last Comparison

These days, coconut water’s big rival may be plain old water. How do they compare? Scientists are still wrestling with the question, and while their findings vary, water is starting to look just fine for most people. A 2012 study (funded by Vita Coco) in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that neither coconut water nor sports drinks were better than water in hydrating young men after hourlong workouts.

Really?  An industry-funded study that comes to a conclusion against the interest of the funder?

This requires a look at the original paper.

So a round of applause please for the authors who did this funded study, “Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise-trained men,” and nevertheless came to this conclusion:

Our data indicate that both coconut water (natural, concentrated and not from concentrate) and bottled water provide similar rehydrating effects as compared to a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink.  Moreover, none of the beverages impacted treadmill exercise performance differently during the rehydration period.

Lest there be any ambiguity about what this means, their data clearly show that VitaCoco, a sports drink (not named but I’d bet on Gatorade), and coconut water from concentrate all rehydrated men who spent 60 minutes on a treadmill to the same extent.

In other words: for rehydration, water works just as well as coconut water or sports drinks.   No surprise, really.

VitaCoco must be disappointed, but it still has one thing going for it: coconut water tastes really good.

Jul 29 2014

Last call for comments on proposed food label: more on Added Sugars

August 1 is the deadline for filing comments on FDA’s food label proposals.

Two were released yesterday, one for and one against.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) organized a statement in support of listing added sugars signed by 280 scientists, physicians, and public health officials (including me).

The press release says:

In a letter submitted as a public comment for the agency’s first label update since 1994, the signatories point out that sugar overconsumption contributes to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other ailments….Many food and beverage manufacturers add excessive amounts of sugar to their products, including those that they market as healthy options. In our current food environment, many people are unknowingly and unavoidably consuming excess sugar. Given our soaring rates of chronic diseases and the link between sugar and these diseases, citizens have a right to know how much sugar has been added to their foods.

People who signed the letter include many from Healthy Food Action, a national network of health professionals founded by Dr. David Wallinga.  I am a co-author of the statement with UCS staff and Dr. Robert Lustig.

In contrast, the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), an organization of nutrition scientists to which I belong, produced a strong statement against labeling added sugars.

ASN also has concerns that the inclusion of added sugars on the label may divert attention away from total calories and other important contributors to weight gain. The inclusion of added sugars on the label may confuse consumers and create the perception that naturally occurring sugars are somehow more beneficial because they are “natural” and do not have health effects similar to added sugars…There is no supporting evidence that indicates that the inclusion of added sugars on the food label will translate into the American public reducing caloric intake from added or total sugars or total energy intake…it is important to consider potential unintended consequences of  reformulation as well. When sugar is removed from a solid food product…The replacement is often fat and/or starch which could lead to a product with higher calories per serving. ASN encourages FDA to carefully consider potential adverse consequences of this proposed determination, including gaining input from food scientists…An investment in consumer education… is likely to be most productive for consumer understanding relative to added sugars, and would assure that consumers do not experience increased confusion, which they may encounter if added sugars are declared on the Nutrition Facts label.

These comments, which read as though written by sugar trade association groups, were signed by the president of ASN.  Although the statement letter gives no indication of the process by which these comments were developed, I’m told it was prepared by ASN’s public policy committee.

If so, it would help to know whether members of the committee have financial ties to the sugar industry or to food companies that use sugar in their products.

I wonder how much of the ASN membership agrees with this position on Added Sugars.   I certainly don’t.

 

Jul 28 2014

On deadline: comments on FDA’s food label proposals

The FDA is taking comments on its proposals to revamp the food label through August 1, 2014 (instructions are at bottom of post).

I’ve already filed comments on Added Sugars and on whether Vitamin D should be added to food labels.

And I just filed further comments on the FDA’s proposals for the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels.  If you would like to read what I said, click here.

I’ve also filed comments on the FDA’s Serving Size proposals.

These proposals are highly technical and tough to slog through, so I tried to deal with the big picture.

July 27, 2014

TO:                  FDA

FROM:           Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University

RE:                  Comments: Serving size proposals, Docket No. FDA-2004-N-0258

In addressing the question of how to change serving size designations on food labels, FDA is faced with an impossible dilemma .  Serving sizes, which are supposed to be based on amounts typically consumed from packaged products, are invariably perceived as recommendations for dietary intake.

To comment on each of the bold-face, italicized points:

  • Typically consumed:  This information derives from dietary intake surveys which invariably underestimate actual intake, often by 30% to 40%.
  • Packaged foods: Food labels only appear on packaged foods.  RACC amounts on packaged foods are often much lower than amounts served in restaurants or fast-food places (pizza is an obvious example).  It is unclear whether amounts reported as consumed are from packages (with Nutrition Facts labels) or are from restaurants or fast-food places where portion sizes can be much higher than those for foods in packages.
  • Recommendation:  Substantial anecdotal information suggests that people view labeled serving sizes as what they should be eating.  They view the serving sizes as meaningless compared to the portion sizes of foods they are accustomed to eating.

What is well established is that overall calorie intake has increased since RACCs were established in 1993 and marketplace portion sizes have also increased.

Therefore, any increase in RACC runs the risk of being interpreted as a validation of current portion sizes and as a recommendation to eat more.

On the other hand, larger portions have more calories.  These must appear on the label.

To address this dilemma, FDA should:

  • Make dual-column labeling mandatory for all food and beverage packages likely to be consumed in one sitting.
  • Require total calories in the package to be displayed on the front of the package.
  • Include a footnote explaining that the serving size is not meant as a recommendation

INSTRUCTIONS FOR FILING COMMENTS

The FDA provides:

File comments here

Jul 25 2014

Weekend thinking: NutraIngredients-USA’s special edition on cognitive health 

The role of specific nutrients in brain health isn’t something I think about much.  I’m of the opinion that a reasonably healthy diet takes care of health.  Stop worrying, be happy.

But I’m always interested in what the food industry is cooking up based on current research, and here’s a good sampling to ponder.

For this Special Edition, NutraIngredients-USA has a long hard think about cognitive health…

Cognition spans the lifetime, from development in the womb right through to old age. So, which ingredients have the best science? How are companies approaching this sector and what claims can they make? What’s all this about the gut-brain axis? And what’s happening with botanicals in this space?

 

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