by Marion Nestle

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Aug 15 2012

Happy 100th birthday Julia Child

Julia Child did not like nutritionists.

She thought our interest in nutritional values (“nutritionism”) had ruined the pleasure and cultural meaning of food.

In 1991, the food writer and cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, had the thrilling (if overly optimistic) idea that if Julia met me, she would change her mind about nutritionists.  Nancy arranged to host a dinner party to introduce us.

But woe.  Nancy fell and broke her foot.

Julia would do the dinner.  In her Cambridge kitchen!

I wish I could say that the evening was a great success but it did not go well.  Julia did sign my copy of Mastering, but grudgingly (even though it had been so well used that it was falling apart).

Later, after my NYU department introduced our academic programs in Food Studies—so clearly inspired by her work—she relented.

I have a handful of treasured cards and letters from her.  Here’s one:

I miss her.

As does everyone else:

Jul 20 2012

SNAP to Health: A Fresh Approach to Strengthening SNAP

I’m on the advisory committee for SNAP to Health, a project of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, chaired by Dr. Susan Blumenthal.

The Commission released its report on Wednesday in Washington DC at a congressional briefing at which I (and several others) spoke.

The report, Snap to Health, is online at this link.  Its recommendations are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The major points made at the briefing:

  • SNAP funding must be preserved; the program is a lifeline for 46 million Americans, half of them children.
  • SNAP, as Rep. Ron Wyden (Dem-OR) put it, “is a conveyor belt for calories.”  It would be better if the calories came from healthier foods.
  • The prevalence of obesity is high among low-income Americans and some evidence suggests that rates may be higher among SNAP participants.
  • Buying healthier foods with SNAP benefits is not easy.  There are problems with access, cost, and relentless marketing of junk foods to low-income groups in general and to EBT users in particular.

As I discussed in my remarks (which are also supposed to be posted on SnapToHealth.org soon), food companies and retailers specifically target marketing efforts to low-income groups and to SNAP participants.  No such efforts market healthier foods to EBT users.

Michele Simon’s recent report documents the extensive lobbying efforts of food companies to make sure that SNAP recipients can use EBT cards to buy their products.

The Snap to Health report is meant to start a national conversation about helping this program to address twenty-first century health challenges.

Let the conversation begin!

Jun 19 2012

Senators grapple with the farm bill this week

This is the week to pay close attention to what’s happening with the farm bill.  The senate has agreed to begin voting this afternoon on 73 amendments.*

As the Washington Post puts it, this week’s “vote-o-rama” might actually end up passing a five-year bill that would

cost $969 billion over the next decade and includes $23.6 billion in proposed cuts, making it a slimmed-down version of legislation that historically served as one of the main opportunities for members of Congress to deliver pork-barrel spending to their constituents.

Roll Call explains the politics behind the Senate’s plan.

Although final Senate approval is far from guaranteed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced a 73-amendment agreement just before 8:30 p.m., hours after Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) could be seen and heard wrangling with rank-and-file Members in the chamber.

The farm bill is the perfect embodiment of stakeholder politics in action.  The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which has been tracking farm bill events closely, says that

On Thursday, NSAC joined over 90 organizations in a letter supporting passage of the amendment to re-link soil and wetland conservation requirements to crop insurnace premium subsidies, the largest farm subsidy in the new farm bill. Earlier, at the beginning of the week, NSAC also joined over 500 organizations on a letter opposing any farm bill that increased the size of the cuts to farm conservation programs beyond the ten percent cut in the pending Senate bill. A sign-on letter in support of beginning, minority, and veteran farmer amendments will be delivered Monday.

The San Francisco Chronicle points out that California produce growers like the farm bill pretty much as it is.  In 2008, it provided them with some support.  They are opposed to caps on crop insurance subsidies favored by food movement advocates.

The article quotes Kari Hamerschlag, an analyst with the Environmental Working Group:

just 600 farmers in California, or 2 percent, receive 33 percent of the crop insurance subsidies going to the state, an average of $98,000 apiece. Capping the subsidies at $40,000 per farm would save $33 million in California alone…That would be enough…to provide the fresh fruit and vegetable snack program for poor children to 1,178 schools, or quadruple the money for local and regional food programs in the state, or increase a conservation incentive program by half.

As a nation we have to decide, is it more import to subsidize high profits for crop insurance companies, or healthy food for kids?

It looks like we will get the answer to this question from the Senate this week.  Stay tuned.

* Addition:  If you need a scorecard, I just got sent the farm bill primer listing the amendments.

May 11 2012

FDA panel recommends approval of another iffy weight-loss drug

I was riveted by an article in today’s New York Times about the latest decision of an FDA drug advisory panel.

The panel voted to approve a new weight-loss drug, lorcaserin.  The vote was mixed: 18 for approval, 4 against, and 1 abstention. The majority felt that the benefits outweighed the risks and that even if there were risks, “new tools are needed to treat a major health problem.”

The benefits are worth a look.

  • People taking the drug lost an average of  5.8% of their body weight in a year, compared to 2.5% for people taking a placebo.  This difference is below the FDA’s standard for approval which requires a 5% difference.
  • Among those taking the drug, 47% lost at least 5 percent of their weight after a year, whereas only 23% of those taking the placebo did so.  This meets a second FDA standard for approval.

What about the risks?  The drug:

  • Causes tumors in rats (although perhaps at higher doses than might be taken by people).
  • Damages heart valves (in the same way the withdrawn drug, Fen-Phen, did).

Also in the Times is a piece by Dr. Danielle Ofri on her experience with patients who want weight-loss drugs.

She quotes from an essay called “Lemons for Obesity” by Dr. Michael S. Lauer, who was a minority voter on the FDA panel that approved the weight-loss drug Qnexa earlier this year.

The weight-loss field is strewn with lemons, more so than other areas of medicine, Dr. Lauer argues. Because of the enormous potential market for these drugs — two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese — pharmaceutical companies rush new drugs to market after conducting only small clinical trials. The F.D.A. and doctors are complicit in the process, Dr. Lauer says, leaving the population at large to act essentially as guinea pigs.

Shares of the maker of the drug nearly doubled after the decision.  The Times reported that “Arguments by investors have been passionate.”

People who cannot easily lose weight are desperate for help.

But is it ethical to put them at this kind of risk?

Mar 7 2012

U.N. Special Rapporteur: Five Ways to Fix Unhealthy Diets

Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has issued five recommendations for fixing diets and food systems:

  • Tax unhealthy products.
  • Regulate foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar.
  • Crack down on junk food advertising.
  • Overhaul misguided agricultural subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper than others.
  • Support local food production so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods.

De Schutter explains:

One in seven people globally are undernourished, and many more suffer from the ‘hidden hunger’ of micronutrient deficiency, while 1.3 billion are overweight or obese.

Faced with this public health crisis, we continue to prescribe medical remedies: nutrition pills and early-life nutrition strategies for those lacking in calories; slimming pills, lifestyle advice and calorie counting for the overweight.

But we must tackle the systemic problems that generate poor nutrition in all its forms.

Governments, he said:

have often been indifferent to what kind of calories are on offer, at what price, to whom they are accessible, and how they are marketed…We have deferred to food companies the responsibility for ensuring that a good nutritional balance emerges.

…Heavy processing thrives in our global food system, and is a win-win for multinational agri-food companies…But for the people, it is a lose-lose…In better-off countries, the poorest population groups are most affected because foods high in fats, sugar and salt are often cheaper than healthy diets as a result of misguided subsidies whose health impacts have been wholly ignored.

Much to ponder here.  Let’s hope government health agencies listen hard and get to work.

For further information, the press release adds these links:

Feb 6 2012

Happy 2nd Birthday Let’s Move!

On the occasion of the two-year anniversary of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, it’s time to reflect again on what the campaign means for the White House, for childhood obesity, and for the food movement.

A year later, I summarized some of the campaign’s accomplishments.  From the beginning, I’ve been impressed with its smart choice of targets: to reduce childhood obesity by improving school food and inner city access to healthy foods.

I’m reminded of the political savvy that went into the campaign by an editorial in The Nation (February 6), “America’s First Lady Blues.”  In it, Ilyse Hogue writes about Michelle Obama’s careful treading of the fine line between marital independence and submission, using Let’s Move! as an example.

Hogue praises Mrs. Obama’s choice of a target that looks “soft,” but is anything but:

In an effort to fit Michelle’s role into a traditional profile, the media constantly reminds us that her work is on presumably soft subjects, primarily her hallmark cause to end childhood obesity…Slurs aside, what critics miss is that this campaign is not aimed at soft targets.

The food and beverage industry is a powerful lobbying force, spending nearly $16.3 million in the 2008 cycle to defeat initiatives—like a “soda tax” and limits on aggressive advertising aimed at kids—that would encourage a healthier diet and thus cut into its massive profits.

To tackle childhood obesity, we’ll have to confront complicated issues of race, class, entrenched corporate power, and access to healthy food.

Indeed we will.  Childhood obesity is a focal point for issues of social justice.

Happy birthday Let’s Move!  And many more.

Jan 16 2012

The latest in meat safety: another form of zapping?

Bacterial contamination of meat is an ongoing problem and everyone wishes for an easy fix—one that does not require meat producers and packers to prevent contamination.

Irradiation works, but raises feasibility and other concerns.

How about electrocution?

Food Production Daily reports that hitting meat with electrical current reduces toxic E. coli O157:H7 on meat surfaces by 2 log units.

The research report says researchers inoculated meat with the bacteria and then applied electrical current.  But by inoculation they must mean just on the surface, because they only counted surface bacteria.

Surface bacteria, alas, are not the problem.  Searing meat effectively kills surface bacteria.   Bacteria in the interior (of hamburger, for example) survive unless the meat is well cooked.

And 2 log units is unlikely to be good enough for bacteria that cause harm at low doses, as this kind does.  The FDA requires a 5 log reduction for fresh juices, for example.

I wish researchers would apply their talents to figuring out how to keep toxic bacteria from getting into and onto animals in the first place.  Then we wouldn’t have to worry about designing techno-fixes to deal with contaminated meat.

 

Dec 23 2011

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur vs. the World Trade Organization

On December 19, Food Chemical News reported that Pascal Lamy, secretary-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) “traded blows” with  United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, over the role of trade in food security.

As far as I can tell, the “blows” were figurative, not literal, but the debate was real.   De Schutter had written a report questioning whether greater trade liberalization—the goal of WTO—could deliver on food security (for the basis of this debate, see below).

“Developing countries are rightly concerned that their hands will be tied by trade rules,” De Schutter said, and called for higher tariffs and targeted farm subsidies to stimulate local food production.   He labeled the “WTO’s vision as “outdated. … The right to food is not a commodity, and we must stop treating it that way.”

For some time now, I’ve been following the De Schutter’s work, not least because he is using the office of Special Rapporteur as a bully pulpit from which to promote healthier and more sustainable and equitable food systems throughout the world.

De Schutter, among other things, is my occasional colleague at NYU.

Olivier De Schutter (LL.M., Harvard University ; Ph.D., University of Louvain (UCL)), the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food since May 2008, is a Professor at the Catholic University of Louvain and at the College of Europe (Natolin). He is also a Member of the Global Law School Faculty at New York University and is Visiting Professor at Columbia University.

As Special Rapporteur, he is supposed to

Report both to the UN General Assembly (Third Committee) and to the Human Rights Council on the fulfillment of the mandate…In addition to addressing structural issues threatening the full enjoyment of the right to food, the Special Rapporteur may send communications to governments, called letters of allegation, in urgent cases brought to his attention by reliable sources.

Professor De Schutter has used this office to produce a remarkable succession of reports and position papers on a broad range of topics related to food, agriculture, and human and environmental health:

Take a look at the documents listed under these categories.  They are a terrific resource for anyone interested in the human right to food.

As for De Schutter vs. WTO, see:

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