by Marion Nestle

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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   He labeled the “WTO’s vision as “outdated.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:

Dec 20 2011

FDA tests apple juice for arsenic, says most are OK

Perhaps in response to Consumer Reports’ charges that levels of arsenic in children’s juices are so high that more restrictive standards would be healthier (see previous post), the FDA has done its own tests, updated its arsenic home page, and strengthened its Q and A on arsenic.

The Q and A includes these questions:

Is the arsenic in apple juice predominantly organic or inorganic?  Due to limited data available to answer this question, in October 2011, FDA collected and analyzed 94 samples of apple juices available for sale in the United States. Results from this data indicate that there are relatively low levels of arsenic in apple juice, with 95 percent of the apple juice samples tested being below 10 ppb total arsenic, but that the arsenic in these samples was predominantly the inorganic form [the bad kind].

Did the FDA test any of the samples tested by the Dr. Oz Show? On September 10-11, 2011, the FDA completed laboratory analysis of the same lot of Gerber apple juice that was tested by the Dr. Oz Show [Dr. Oz complained about the dangers of arsenic in juice], as well as several other lots produced in the same facility. The FDA’s testing detected very low levels of total arsenic in all samples tested. These new results were consistent with the FDA’s results obtained in the FDA’s routine monitoring program and are well below the results reported by the Dr. Oz Show. The FDA has concluded that the very low levels detected during our analysis are not a public health risk and the juice products are safe for consumption.

Food Quality News reports that safe or not, the FDA is still “considering setting a guidance level for inorganic arsenic in apple juice and apple juice concentrate that will further minimise public exposure to this contaminant.”

As well it should.  And preferably at the lower levels recommended by Consumer Reports.

 

 

Nov 23 2011

Happy Occupied Thanksgiving!

From Brian McFadden’s “The Strip,” New York Times, November 20.

Enjoy the holiday, family, and friends!

Nov 21 2011

Budget talks fail: what’s happening with the farm bill?

As of this morning, it looks like the SuperCommittee process has failed.  This committee was supposed to recommend specific budget cuts by tonight.  If it fails, automatic budget cuts, half to the military, go into effect in January 2013—after the 2012 election.

What does this mean for the farm bill?

The chairs and vice-chairs of the House and Senate agriculture committee have been meeting in secret—from the rest of the agriculture committee members as well as from the public—to recommend how to cut $23 billion from agriculture appropriations.

On Friday, the Environmental Working Group obtained a leaked copy of the secret recommendations.

These recommendations, rumored to be not quite final, were to go to the SuperCommittee today.  Now what?

I’m guessing the farm bill is up for grabs and will now have to go through the usual legislative processes.  This could be good or bad, depending on the politics.

In the meantime, I counted 97 recommendations in the secret committee’s report.  A few of the most interesting:

Commodities

  • Eliminate direct payments, counter-cyclical payments, average crop revenue election, and supplemental revenue assistance payments to create $15 billion in savings.
  • Expand crop insurance for “underserved” crops, including fruits and vegetables.
  • Create a special program to protect cotton producers.
  • Protect commodity producers against both price and yield losses.
  • Restrict benefits to farmers who make less than $950,000 per year (adjusted gross), or twice that for couples.
  • Set payment limits of $105,000 per producer, or twice that for couples.
  • Do something complicated with dairy by replacing two programs with two others.

Conservation

  • Cut the budget by an unspecified amount (continuing a long tradition of cutting conservation).
  • Reduce reserve acres from 32 million to 25 million over 10 years.

Nutrition

  • Cut SNAP (food stamp) benefits by about $4 billion a year, by eliminating automatic enrollment for anyone who gets energy benefits.
  • Require retailers to stock more fruits and vegetables.
  • Give USDA the authority to require documented need for states to allow SNAP benefits to be used in restaurants by the disabled and homeless.
  • Give USDA $5 million per year to prevent trafficking of benefits.
  • Require USDA to set rules to prevent lottery winners from getting SNAP benefits (what is this about?).
  • Grant $10 million to encourage whole grains in school meals.
  • Grant $20 million a year for incentives for SNAP recipients to buy fruits and vegetables.

“Specialty” crops (translation: fruits and vegetables)

  • Fund promotion program for farmers’ markets at $20 million a year
  • Give USDA $5 million to collect data on organics
  • Provide $61 million a year for programs to prevent agricultural pests
  • Give $70 million a year for grants to states to promote specialty crops
  • Allot $15 million a year to run the National Organic Program
  • Provide $40 million a year for specialty crop research.
  • Provide up to 75% of the cost of organic certification (maximum $750).

As in the past, SNAP takes up about 80% of the total farm bill budget, with the remainder going mainly to commodity support and insurance programs.

As always, large agricultural producers get most of the support money—$ billions—but this plan throws a handful of small benefits ($ millions) to help fruit-and-vegetable growers.

How any of this might work in practice is unclear, as is what happens next.  A whole new opportunity for lobbying, perhaps.  Stay tuned.

Oct 25 2011

Happy Food Day!

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) launched Food Day yesterday with a splendid lunch right in the middle of Times Square.  I got to be one of the lucky eaters.

The purpose of Food Day is to promote discussion of critical issues in agriculture, food, nutrition, and health.  Its goals:

  • Promote healthy eating.
  • Support sustainable farms.
  • Expand access to food and alleviate hunger.
  • Reform factory farms.
  • Curb junk-food marketing to kids.

For half an hour, it got big-time billboard coverage.

The lunch was nutritionally correct and quite delicious, thanks to Ellie Krieger who did the menus and is posed here with Mario Batali.

Tom Farley, director of New York City’s Health Department, gave the opening speech with updates on his department’s new “cut down on sodas” campaign.  For example: One soda a day translates to 50 pounds of sugar a year, and you have to walk three miles to burn off the calories in one 20-ounce soda!  He’s here with Michael Jacobson who has directed CSPI since the early 1970s.

Tom Chapin sang from his album for kids, “give peas a chance.”

It was all anyone needed to be inspired to join the food movement and sign up for the food day campaign!

Later addition: Mike Jacobson sent this one with Morgan Spurlock.

Sep 30 2011

Disappointing UN Declaration on chronic disease prevention

As I mentioned in a previous post, the United Nations General Assembly met this month to consider resolutions about doing something to address rising rates of “non-communicable” diseases (i.e., chronic as opposed to infectious diseases such as obesity-related coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancers).

The Declaration adopted by the Assembly disappointed a consortium of 140 non-profit public health advocacy groups who issued a statement noting the conflicts of interest that occur when international agencies “partner” with companies that make products that contribute to an increase in disease risks.”

The consortium suggested actions that they hoped the U.N. would recommend, such as:

  • Realign food policies for food and agricultural subsidies with sound nutrition science
  • Mandate easy-to-understand front-of-pack nutrition labeling
  • Ban the promotion of breast-milk substitutes and high-fat, -sugar and -salt foods to children and young people
  • Prohibit advertising and brand sponsorship for alcohol beverages
  • Increase taxes on alcohol beverages
  • Expand nutritious school meal programs

The group also said that the U.N. should still work on:

  • Developing tools to navigate the trade law barriers to health policy innovation,
  •  Establishing disease-reduction targets and policy implementation schedules
  • Instituting mechanisms to keep commercially self-interested parties at arms-length and public-interest groups constructively involved

Food companies and trade associations are actively involved in lobbying the U.N. not to do any of these things.  This consortium has much work to do.


 

 

Aug 7 2011

McDonald’s Happy Meals healthier?

 My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column is in answer to a question about the deeper meaning of the fuss over McDonald’s “healthier” Happy Meals.

Q: Wouldn’t it be the best form of activism to encourage people to buy McDonald’s slightly-less-bad-for-you Happy Meals? If the new formulation flops, do you really think McDonald’s will take more baby steps in the same direction? Aren’t you letting perfect be the enemy of the good?

A: The question, for those of you ignoring national media, refers to McDonald’s announcement that it plans to restructure its Happy Meals for kids by adding fruit, downsizing the fries and reducing calories by 20 percent and sodium by 15 percent.

Skeptic that I am, I took a look at McDonald’s lengthy press release. The company does not claim to be making healthier changes. It says it is offering customers improved nutrition choices. This is something quite different.

At issue is the default meal – the one that gets handed to you without your having to ask for anything. Plenty of research shows that although customers can request other options, most take the default. So the default is what counts.

McDonald’s says its new default will include a quarter cup of apple slices (how many slices can that be?), less sodium and 1 ounce less of french fries (thereby reducing calories and fat). These are steps in the right direction, but tiny baby steps.

The rest is up to you: hamburger, cheeseburger or McNuggets.

As for beverage, the press release says, “McDonald’s will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.”

This sounds great. “Automatically” makes me think the default Happy Meal will come with low-fat milk. No such luck. It’s up to you to choose from soda or low-fat chocolate or plain milk.

Want something healthy? You have to ask for it. And the meal still comes with a toy, although the meal isn’t healthy enough to qualify for a toy under the San Francisco’s nutrition standards, which are scheduled to go into effect in December.

The McNuggets meal meets the San Francisco standard for sodium, overall calories and for saturated fat – if you choose low-fat white milk. It fails the other criteria. Fat provides about 40 percent of the calories (the standard is 35 percent), and fruit misses the mark by 50 percent. The hamburger and cheeseburger meals fare worse. And even if french fries count as a vegetable, they don’t reach the three-quarter-cup standard. Sodas, of course, have too much sugar.

No toy for you, San Francisco kids.

So let’s get back to the underlying question: Isn’t perfect the enemy of the good? Aren’t baby steps like these in the right direction and, therefore, deserving of support?

I don’t think so. McDonald’s proposed changes are a reason to ask a different question: Is a better-for-you Happy Meal a good choice? Wouldn’t your child be better off eating something healthy, not just slightly healthier?

Couldn’t McDonald’s, the largest fast-food maker in the world, come up with something genuinely healthy that also tastes good?

“Better for you” is a marketing ploy, and McDonald’s must need help. Although its annual sales are $24 billion from its 14,000 outlets in the United States, Happy Meals have not been doing well.

Business analysts attribute declining sales since 2003 to the unsophisticated toys. Toys are the only reason kids want Happy Meals, but more parents are ordering adult meals and splitting them with the kids. But what if Happy Meals appear healthier?

Let’s be clear: McDonald’s is not a social service agency. It is a business. Its business interests come first. This means selling more food to more people more often, viewing food choice exclusively as a matter of personal responsibility and pretending that the company’s $1.3 billion annual marketing expenditure has no effect on consumer choice.

I suspect McDonald’s actions are attempts to appease Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign and perhaps to attract health-minded families to its outlets.

But surely the changes are also part of a calculated public relations effort to discourage other communities from enacting nutrition standards like those in San Francisco.

What McDonald’s actions make clear is the need for federal action to make it easier for people to make healthier choices for their kids. This means putting some curbs on marketing below-standard foods to kids and insisting that default kids menus be healthy.

If McDonald’s were serious about promoting kids’ health, it would offer default Happy Meals that meet San Francisco’s nutrition standards and advertise them to the hilt. Until the company does that, I’m reserving applause.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” among other books, and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail her at food@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page G – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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