Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 24 2013

Britain’s new food label: traffic lights (sort of)

The UK is introducing a uniform system of front-of-package food labeling—voluntary of course.

The new voluntary scheme includes traffic light colours as well as GDAs

The food industry hates it.  It’s got traffic-light colors, and we already know what that means in practice.  People tend not to buy red-labeled products.

That’s why trade associations are complaining that this system is too simplistic, misleading, and unscientific.

Worst of all, it will confuse consumers into not buying products that fit just fine into healthful diets.

Tch, tch.

Australia is introducing a star system to rate products.  Food companies don’t like that one either.

In the meantime, we’ve heard nothing about front-of-package labeling from our very own FDA since the Institute of Medicine released its recommendations in October 2011, and it looked like the FDA had given up on the idea in February 2012.

Front-of-package labels were on the early agenda for Let’s Move!

Maybe the European labeling initiatives will encourage the FDA to do so?

Jun 21 2013

Government in (in)action: House votes no on farm bill

Yesterday, the House rejected H.R. 1947, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, by a vote of 234 to 195.

Voting against the bill were:

  • Republicans who thought a $20 billion cut to SNAP (food stamps) and a $5 billion cut to farm supports were not nearly deep enough.
  • Democrats who were appalled by the cuts to SNAP and the addition of amendments requiring SNAP applicants to be tested for drugs, to be rejected if they had ever been found guilty of felonies, and to be required to work.

Unless Congress gets its act together, support for SNAP and agriculture revert to the provisions of the 2008 bill [Oops.  The 1949 bill].  Congress will have to deal with some of trauma that results from this.

My favorite comment on this situation comes from Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger:

We celebrate the failure of this horrific federal Farm Bill which would have slashed SNAP nutrition benefits by over $20 billion. Not only would this Farm Bill have taken food off the table of low-income children, veterans, working parents, and people with disabilities, it would have actually expanded corporate welfare for agri-businesses…It’s time to go back to the drawing board, and for both houses of Congress…to pass a Farm Bill that puts the interests of hungry Americans, consumers, family farmers, the environment, and taxpayers above those of corporate welfare.

Is any of this news?  Not page 1, apparently.  I’m in Los Angeles where the New York Times put the story on page 12.

Other comments worth reading:

Jun 20 2013

World Food Prize goes to Monsanto!

A reader, Leah Pressman, left this Feedback message this morning:

She sends a link to the story in the New York Times.

The world food prize foundation awarded [this year’s prize] to several scientists on the teams working for Monsanto who figured out how to make genetically modified crops.

I am stunned by this and eagerly await your comments. The Times eventually mentions (see continuation) that “the foundation that administers the prize has received[…]a 5 million dollar contribution from Monsanto” among other corporations.

The World Food Prize is about agricultural productivity and has always favored industrial methods.  Monsanto produces by industrial methods.

As I keep saying, when it comes to food politics, you can’t make this stuff up.

Jun 19 2013

MIni book review: specialized but worth reading

Policy wonk types: try this one!

Melvin Delgado.  Social Justice and the Urban Obesity Crisis: Implications for Social Work.  Columbia University Press, 2013.

This is an academic’s analysis of the social causes of obesity, especially among the urban poor, and what to do about it.  Although the book is aimed at social workers, it works for public health as well.  Delgado calls for community-based participatory health promotion principles and interventions.  These are clearly needed.

If only they weren’t so hard to do…

Jun 18 2013

The Farm Bill farce: 227 amendments

The House of Representatives Rules Committee is dealing with the Farm Bill.  The Committee has posted the relevant documents on its website, so you can judge for yourself how our political system works these days.

It’s hard to know what to make of the amendments—all 227 of them—or which ones are worth attention.  Many deal with SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which the House wants cut to pieces.

The Rules Committee will decide this afternoon what to do about the amendments.  Discuss?  Invoke cloture and cut off discussion?  We will see.

In the meantime, here are some examples.

  • Repeals the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center.
  • Requires that at least 50 percent of the funds made available for the Farmers Market Nutrition Program be reserved for seniors.
  • Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to conduct a study on current USDA programs related to the Lesser Prairie Chicken to analyze the economic impact and effectiveness of these programs.
  • Facilitates cost-neutral purchasing of Kosher and Halal food within the Emergency Food Assistance Program and improve information provided to participating food banks on availability of Kosher and Halal food.
  • Allows states to conduct drug testing on SNAP applicants as a condition for receiving benefits.
  • Prohibits the availability of funds for China under the Food For Peace Act. 
  • Prohibits retaliatory actions against livestock producers and poultry growers when they express opinions about unfairness in the marketplace to public officials.
  • Prohibits the USDA from sending payments to the Brazil Cotton Institute.
  • Eliminates funding for Nutrition Education programs.
  • Establishes the sense of Congress that the Federal Government should increase financial support provided to urban community gardens and victory gardens to heighten awareness of nutrition and self-sufficiency.
  • Allows Skyview subdivision to meet the requirements of the USDA Rural Development grant for water and waste disposal.

You get the idea.  Think: lobbying.

The main issue is SNAP.  House Republicans don’t like it much (too expensive, too wasteful, too inducing of dependency and fraud).

You don’t believe this?  Here’s what the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas, R-Okla., produced to convince House members to vote for a farm bill with $20 billion cut from SNAP over the next 10 years.

farmbill

 

Addition: The White House says it will veto the farm bill if the $20 billion SNAP cut remains.

 

Jun 17 2013

Mini book review: Foodist

I’m on the road this week and getting caught up on reading.  I”m not usually interested in diet books but this one is more about healthy eating than losing weight.

Darya Pino Rose.  Foodist: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight Without Dieting.  HarperOne, 2013.

I first heard of Darya Pino Rose in connection with her guide to getting through supermarkets.  She’s a neurobiologist who confesses to chronic dieting.  Once she figured out the science, she figured the rest  would be easy.

Focusing on real food instead of those specialty, highly processed diet foods is the secret to making healthy food enjoyable.  My recipe for how to make cauliflower taste as good as french fries (p. 237) has convinced hundreds of skeptics that vegetables aren’t just palatable, but can be insanely delicious.

Her advice for handling restaurants and friends and family is eminently sensible and worth trying for those who have trouble with such things (and who does not?).

Jun 14 2013

Music for the weekend: Jen Chapin’s video “Feed Your Baby”

I was sent a press release this week: “Thought this evocative and provocative song/video “Feed Your Baby” about our broken food system by Jen Chapin (daughter of the late great Harry Chapin) might interest you.”

It did.

I thought the drawings were gorgeous.  But I couldn’t understand the words.

When I complained, they sent them and promised to get the words posted on YouTube.

“Feed Your Baby” (words & music by Jen Chapin)

city shut down the B84
was our only good ride to the grocery store
paycheck goes to the glucose strip
patience goes to the 95 minute bus trip
30 hour week — I wish they’d give me more
and I wonder what it’s all for
when I can’t feed my baby no more

worry worry work and cry
full warm breast goes limp and dry
wilted leaves still priced too high
red raw fingers fill the sack
raid the trailers send them back
silos rotting still I lack
enough to feed my baby
its tough to feed my baby

Granma grew her yams in the yard
in the Carib sun chile it’s not so hard
but she traded that sun for the cold and the cash
strong hands picking up office trash
you never dig dirt with a new green card
but her fingers still ache for the yard
now that feeding her baby’s so hard

worry worry work and cry
full warm breast goes limp and dry
wilted leaves still priced too high
red raw fingers fill the sack
raid the trailers send them back
silos rotting still I lack
enough to feed my baby
its tough to feed my baby

junk food minefield on the tv
dinnertime battle him against me
change the channel try not to see
starvation
still starvation
in the 21st century

worry worry work and cry
full warm breast goes limp and dry
wilted leaves still priced too high
red raw fingers fill the sack
raid the trailers send them back
silos rotting still I lack
enough to feed my baby
its tough to feed my baby

Here’s what the press release says this is about:

Chapin says, “I’ve been thinking about food justice issues for as long as I can remember, but it was only when I became a mother (and a mother of an exhaustingly picky eater in my 2nd son Van, at that) that my ideas coalesced into a song.

Being responsible for the nourishment of small children really brings it all into stark and harrowing detail and you experience the joys and heartbreaks of our industrial food system in a new way — the good and the bad, the plentiful and the scarce, the gorgeously natural and the mindlessly over-processed.

Maria Eugênia (with animation assistance by Nick Matias) brought all these contrasts, and really, a lot of the heartbreak, to their powerful video.  

Jun 13 2013

The endless debates about salt: Don’t worry. Eat (real) food

Since 1980, U.S. dietary guidelines have advised eating less sodium (salt is 40% sodium, 60% chloride).  Although sodium is an essential nutrient, most Americans consume way more than they need or is good for them—around 3,400 milligrams a day.

The 2010 guidelines advised healthy people to consume no more than 2,300 mg per day (~6 grams, or 1.5 teaspoons).  They advised even less, 1,500 mg, for people with or at high risk for high blood pressure.  Since blood pressure increases with age in countries with high salt intake, this applies or will apply to just about everyone.  

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine said it was imperative to find effective strategies to lower salt intake.  This means dealing with processed and restaurant foods, because that’s where most of the salt comes from, as can be seen from this list of major food sources

Because consumers have no choice about the amount of salt in processed and restaurant foods, education cannot be enough to achieve salt reduction.  Scientists in Australia have just proved this point.

As I explained to a reporter,

Why anyone would think that nutrition education alone would change behavior is beyond me. By this time everyone should know that to change behavior requires not only education, but a food environment—social, political, economic—that supports and promotes the behavior change.

Most dietary sodium comes from processed foods, restaurant foods, and other pre-prepared foods.  All the label can do is say ‘don’t eat me’ It can’t help with what people can eat.

The easiest and most effective way to help people reduce sodium intake is to require food producers and food preparers to use less of it. Good luck with that. I’m not optimistic, particularly given the conflicting and confusing science. 

Ah yes.  The conflicting science.  The IOM now says that there’s no evidence one way or the other that reducing sodium below 2,300 mg per day, or even to 1,500 per day, does much good, and that low sodium intakes could be harmful (but this too is controversial).

Yes, they could, but as Mark Bittman blogs,    

It may be true that there are no benefits in an ultra-low-salt diet, but almost no one is eating an ultra-low-salt diet. It’s not quite like worrying about whether we get “enough” sugar, but it’s nearly as ridiculous.

And now, as Food Navigator explains, the IOM committee is complaining that its report has been badly misinterpreted.  All they said was:

As to whether we should cut back to 1,500 mg or to 2,300 mg sodium a day, meanwhile, the jury is out, says the IOM, not because consuming 1500 mg/day is dangerous, but because there is just not enough data on the benefits of consuming such low levels to support a firm conclusion.

IOM committee members were so bothered by misleading press accounts that they wrote an op-ed to JAMA to clarify:

Rather than focusing on disagreements about specific targets that currently affect less than 10% of the US population (ie, sodium intake of <2300 mg/d vs <1500 mg/d),  the IOM, AHA, WHO, and DGA are congruent in suggesting that excess sodium intake should be reduced, and this is likely to have significant public health effects. Accomplishing such a reduction will require efforts to decrease sodium in the food environment….

The bottom line, Bittman says (and I enthusiastically agree), is that

Salt intake — like weight, and body mass index — is a convenient baseline for public policy people to talk about. If you focus on eating less salt — and, indeed, less sugar — you will inevitably eat less processed food, fast food, junk food (it’s all the same thing.) If you eat less processed food (etc.) you eat more real food. If you eat more real food, not only are you healthier, but you probably don’t have to pay attention to how much salt you’re eating. Wowie zowie. 

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