Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 31 2013

Annals of public relations: the food industry vs. obesity

Yesterday was a blitz day for food industry public relations.

PR #1.  Coca-Cola placed a full-page ad in the New York Times: “Beating obesity will take all of us.”

Coke’s promises [with my comments]:

  • Offer low- or no-calorie drinks in every market [but focus advertising on the sugary ones].
  • Provide transparent nutrition information, listing calories on the front of all packages [but per serving, not total for the big ones]
  • Help get people moving [divert attention from the caloric effects of sodas]
  • Market responsibly, including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world [I will believe it when I see it]

“Obesity won’t be solved overnight,” Coke says, but we know that when people come together around shared solutions, good things happen.” 

Like drinking less Coke? 

PR #2.  The food industry’s Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation issued a press release to say that its member companies have more than met their stated goal of reducing 1.5 trillion calories in the marketplace in the United States.   Indra Nooyi, HWCF Chair, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, said:

Our industry has an important role to play in helping people lead healthy lives and our actions are having a positive impact…We see continued opportunities to give consumers the choices they’re looking for and to work collaboratively with the public and non-profit sectors on initiatives that enable continued progress.

Really?  Where are the data?  On what basis does the group make this claim?  The press release says that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is doing a study but the results won’t be released until the fall.

Hence: Public relations.  As I noted in a previous post on this promise in 2010.

What are we to make of all this?  Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt?*  History suggests the latter possibility.  Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products without doing anything, and every promise helps stave off regulation.

Oops.  Forgot.  

Addition:  I forgot to post the accompanying report from the Hudson Institute about how low-calorie beverages are driving all the sales growth for soda companies, at least in the US.

May 30 2013

Chinese buy Smithfield: What about food safety, the environment, community health, animal welfare, worker rights?

I first heard about the impending of Smithfield (the gigantic ham-and-pork company) to the Chinese company, Shuanghui International Holdings, from MeatPoultry.com:

The acquisition positions Smithfield to expand its offerings in China through Shuanghui’s distribution network. Shuanghui will acquire all of Smithfield’s outstanding shares for $34 per share in cash, which is a 31 percent premium…Smithfield’s stock price rose nearly 28 percent to $33.20…Smithfield’s common stock will no longer be publicly traded, and the company will become a wholly owned independent subsidiary of Shuanghui.

MeatPoultry.com also reported a statement from the CEO of Shuanghui: 

We are excited about this…Together, [Shuanghui and Smithfield Foods] can be a global leader in animal protein…We are No. 1 in China; Smithfield is No. 1 in the US…Chinese consumers like American pork. US farmers want foreign markets for their pork. This will be a win-win for both countries.

Not exactly, says a e-mailed news release from the Waterkeeper Alliance:

This deal with the Shuanghui – a company with a very recent history of producing tainted food – raises the specter that Americans will lose more control of their food supply, be exposed to tainted food and be left with even more devastated farming communities and drinking water supplies as a result of increased industrialized meat production.

The New York Times put this sale on the front page and Stephanie Strom has an even longer piece on it in the business section.   The Washington Post also had plenty to say.

Smithfield, you may recall, is a company famous for factory farms, pollution, and truly appalling labor practices documented, in among many other places, the movie, Food, Inc.

In 2009, I commented on a previous attempt by Smithfield to sell out to a Chinese company.

Let’s not be too xenophobic about China. China already owns vast amounts of American real estate, holds vast amounts of American debt, and produces vast amounts of the food we eat–globalization in all its glory. We can no longer survive without China so we better figure out quickly how to make this marriage work.

We also better figure out how to make our food production system more sustainable and less harmful to farm animals, the environment, farm workers, and consumers. I was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released its report last April. Our report fully documented how CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are not nice to animals; pollute air, soil, and water; turn communities into garbage dumps; and promote transmission of nasty—and often antibiotic resistant–microbial diseases to farm workers, community residents, and everyone else.

One major finding of the Pew Commission was that laws protecting communities and the environment currently exist; they just aren’t enforced.  Too bad for anyone living near an industrial pig farm.

This deal stinks?

Additions, May 31: Reuters discusses the ractopamine issue, said to be key to understanding this deal.  The Chinese do not allow use of ractopamine as a growth promoter, but the U.S. does.  Once Smithfield started phasing out its use, the deal became possible.

Ractopamine is a beta-agonist. Initially developed to treat asthma in humans, ractopamine was found to be extremely effective at changing the metabolism of an animal, so that the animal would quickly and cost-effectively add sought-after muscle. The FDA approved the use of beta-agonists in pigs in 1999, for cattle in 2003 and for turkeys in 2008.

Helena Bottemiller writing on NBC News, also discusses this issue.

In March, Smithfield Inc., converted its Tar Heel, N.C. plant – the world’s largest pork processing facility – to slaughter only hogs that were raised without the use of ractopamine….the company’s product line will be 50 percent ractopamine-free as of June 1…Earlier this year, China and Russia demanded that all American meat exports be certified ractopamine-free. The U.S. government initially refused these certification demands, so Russia shut down its market to U.S. beef and pork in February. 

Addition, June 1: The New York Times writes that the Committee on Foreign Investment is about to undertake a national security review of the deal.  The big questions: Are Smithfield’s sales to the military secure?  Does it use special farming technology that could be transferred to China?  Will Shuanghui have the power to disrupt the U.S. food chain for pork?

Another addition, June 1: Apparently, Shuanghui has a history of findings of maggots, excessive bacteria and illegal additives.

Addition, June 4: Guess who owns half of Shuanghui, the company that wants to buy Smithfield: Goldman Sachs, among others.

Addition, June 5: The Wall Street Journal has this helpful graphic comparing the pork supply chains in China and the U.S. along with an excellent summary of the issues involved.

image

May 29 2013

Keeping track of the farm bill: 194 amendments so far, just in the Senate

Congress is in recess this week so nothing new is happening on the farm bill.

I’m indebted to Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the Hagstrom Report and follows farm bill issues closely, for publishing a list of amendments filed to date on the Senate draft of the bill.  Would you believe 194?

Of these, the Senate has managed to deal with a few.

The Senate passed:

  • Cantwell amendment to allow Indian tribes to participate in certain soil and water conservation programs. (#919)
  • Sessions amendment to clarify eligibility criteria for agricultural irrigation assistance. (#945, as modified) by unanimous consent.
  • Franken amendment to provide access to grocery delivery for homebound seniors and individuals with disabilities eligible for supplemental nutrition assistance benefits. (#992) by unanimous consent.
  • Vitter amendment to end food stamp eligibility for convicted violent rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. (#1056) by unanimous consent. 
It rejected:
  • Shaheen amendment to reform the federal sugar program, and for other purposes. (#925)
  • Gillibrand amendment to strike a reduction in the supplemental nutrition assistance program, with an offset that limits crop insurance reimbursements to providers. (#931)
  • Roberts amendment to improve and extend certain nutrition programs. (#948)
  • Inhofe amendment to repeal the nutrition entitlement programs and establish a nutrition assistance block grant program. (#960)
  • Sanders amendment to permit states to require that any food, beverage, or other edible product offered for sale have a label on indicating that the food, beverage, or other edible product contains a genetically engineered ingredient. (#965) by a vote of 71 to 27.

Attempts to eliminate cuts to SNAP failed (sigh) but so did an attempt to leave food stamps up to states (cheers).  This means SNAP will have at least a $4 billion cut over 10 years—the best that can be hoped for at this point.

The Senate rejected  GM labeling.

Reform the sugar program?  Don’t be silly.  At some point, I’ll have more to say about that one.

As for the next 190 or so….  And as for what the House will do….

It would be great drama if it weren’t so sad and so much weren’t at stake. 

May 28 2013

It’s summer reading time, at last

I’m going to try to get caught up with some reading recommendations this week, starting with this lovely one:

Marcy, Nikiko, and David Mas Masumoto.  The Perfect Peach: Stories and Recipes from the Masumoto Family Farm.  Ten Speed Press, 2013.

The Perfect Peach: Recipes and Stories from the Masumoto Family Farm

I was asked to blurb this book and did so right away (who could possibly say no to Mas Masumoto?):

I have one word for the writing, photography, essays, and topic of this book: luscious.  The Masumoto family has produced a glorious paean to the fruit they raise along with delightful ideas about what to do with an abundance of this heavenly fruit: sangria, salsa, pizza, and, of course, shortcake.  I can’t wait for summer.

May 24 2013

Weekend viewing: A food politics story for kids—Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory

I’ve been waiting for the weekend to write about the kids’ story by Bettina Elias Siegel, the school food advocate who writes The Lunch Tray blog  (and who put “pink slime” on the map).

Her video story—in rhyme yet—is titled Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory: A Tale of Processed Food and is worth the 12 minutes it takes to watch it (try it out on your kids!).

I wondered about the back story: how did she come to write it, who did the illustrations, how did she put it together?    Fortunately, Dana Woldow, also a long time food advocate, has just posted an interview with Ms. Siegel on just those points (the interview starts about half way down the post).  Ms. Siegel says:

If kids could see more clearly how the processed food, fast food and soda industries are earning profits at the expense of their health, I do think they might grow resistant to those industries’ marketing tactics. That was the idea behind Mr. Zee and his apples.

The interview explains the details of how the story got written, illustrated, and posted.

Ms. Woldow’s column concludes:

Of course, not everyone has the equipment, the confidence, or the patience to make their own video, but anyone can use social media. Watch Bettina’s video (with your children, if you have any), and if you like it, share it with your friends. It won’t undo all the marketing that Big Food does to kids, but it’s a start.

Try it out on your kids.  What do they think of it?

May 23 2013

Kathleen Merrigan on agriculture’s political problems

The Farm Journal reports on a speech given by Kathleen Merrigan, who recently stepped down as USDA Deputy Secretary, to  Crop Life’s 2013 National Policy Conference.     

Why did she step down?  “Because it’s a hard job.”

Her speech dealt with problems faced by agriculture in today’s political climate.  She listed ten.  These begin with (1) immigration, (2) tax reform, and (3) food safety.

Number 9 was GMO labeling:

Merrigan described this as a sort of “whack-a-mole” problem. USDA and FDA haven’t allowed organic producers to put “non-GMO” on labels, but support is growing in some states, such as Washington, to require labeling. She says people want a verdict and she doesn’t expect the issue to go away. 

I don’t either.

May 22 2013

Civics lesson: SNAP amendments to the farm bill

I know the mere words “farm bill” are enough to put any sane person into a coma, but what’s happening in Congress can be quite entertaining if you don’t care what happens.

For example, the bill is so big and covers so much territory that just about every legislator introduces amendments (these are tracked by FarmBillPrimer.org).

Because SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) takes up 80% of farm bill funding to the tune of about $80 billion a year, lots of amendments deal with further decreasing the budget allocation or restoring amounts that have been cut.  So far, none of these has passed.

But legislators have other things they want SNAP to do.  For example, Senator Tom Coburn MD (Rep-Oklahoma) has introduced several amendments pertaining to SNAP, among them:

Amendment 1000 - Junk Food Purchases with SNAP: Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to approve state demonstration projects that limit the purchase of junk food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Additional information here

 

Energy drinks, candy bars, sodas, ice cream, potato chips, fancy bakery cakes and cookies are all eligible foods under the program, as defined by statute…Few people would qualify these goods as “nutritional assistance.”

Amendment 1001 - Food Stamps: Returns the title of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to its original name, the Food Stamp program. Additional information here.   

Congress renamed the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and made a name change to the underlying legislative bill governing food stamps. Given spending patterns and eligible purchases in the program, though, SNAP is anything but nutritious for recipients or the country as a whole. Instead of misleading the public as to its benefits, SNAP should be renamed its original title, the Food Stamp Program. This name…is also a reminder of the core goal of the program: to serve our nation’s most vulnerable.

Amendment 1002 – SNAP Promotion Limitation: Limits the amount of SNAP funding that may be used to promote increased participation and enrollment in the program to 1% of overall funds and prevents SNAP funding for soap operas and parties. Additional information here.

Giveaways, soap operas, and radio miniseries all may be solid advertising opportunities for private companies wishing to market a product. They are not, however, appropriate uses of taxpayer funds to advocate for greater enrollment in SNAP, which would even further drain the government’s already-depleted coffers.

 Want to take bets on whether the Senate, let alone the House, will pass any of these?
May 21 2013

FoodNavigator-USA’s enlightening interview: the industry POV on GMOs

I just read Elaine Watson’s lengthy interview on FoodNavigator-USA with Cathy Enright, the executive vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)—the trade organization for producers of GMO foods.

If you have any doubts about why the agbiotech industry has failed “to win hearts and minds about the merits of genetically engineered ingredients,” read this interview.

Ms. Enright’s comments are remarkable for their tone-deafness to the issues that so trouble ordinary people about GMO foods.

Here, for example, are few selected quotes from the interview:

  • Consumers are not worried about biotechnology in other areas of their lives…Take human insulin [injected by millions of diabetics every day], which is genetically engineered, or some cancer drugs. But when it comes to food, people are making emotional not factual arguments.
  • The food industry has let the debate be hijacked by a small group of well-organized and media-savvy advocacy groups with connections to the natural and organic industry, which has a vested interest in this debate.
  • There has been a sophisticated and coordinated attempt to create a sense of alarm about foods we have been consuming safely for decades.
  • We have a climate in the US now that is incredibly unfriendly to food biotechnology. Yet we need to dramatically increase the protein supply if we are going to feed everyone by 2050.
  • If the anti-biotech lobby gets its way, these new products (plus a host of others…) will be rejected by consumers before they even get to market.
  • We are not saying that people don’t have the right to know what’s in their food, but mandatory GMO labeling ‘prominently displayed’, as is proposed, is not informing people, it’s scaring people.  It’s saying these foods are different, unhealthy or unsafe, and that is just not true.

One more time:  Whether or not GMO foods are the same as other foods, healthy, or safe, there are plenty of reasons for concerns about them, many of them quite rational.  The most obvious is transparency.  It’s time BIO recognized that it will never win the hearts and mind of the public until it labels GMO foods as such.

The sooner the industry does that, the sooner  the conversation about the merits of GMO foods can begin.

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