Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 27 2014

On two views of GMOs: Michael Specter vs. Vandana Shiva and Gary Hirshberg

Michael Specter’s article “Seeds of Doubt” in the current issue of The New Yorker  is a critical profile of  India’s Vandana Shiva and her active opposition to genetically modified foods.  At the end, it offers this somewhat temporizing statement:

Genetically modified crops will not solve the problem of the hundreds of millions of people who go to bed hungry every night. It would be far better if the world’s foods contained an adequate supply of vitamins. It would also help the people of many poverty-stricken countries if their governments were less corrupt. Working roads would do more to reduce nutritional deficits than any G.M.O. possibly could, and so would a more equitable distribution of the Earth’s dwindling supply of freshwater. No single crop or approach to farming can possibly feed the world. To prevent billions of people from living in hunger, we will need to use every one of them.

Despite this peace offering, his article elicited a firm rebuttal from Dr. Shiva. It also elicited a rebuttal from Gary Hirshberg, chair of Just Label It. If you want to get into the weeds of the GMO arguments, all three of these pieces are well worth reading.

They raise and debate the same arguments I discussed in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, first published in 2003 and out in a second edition in 2010. As I explain in the book, the gist of the arguments comes from two apparently irreconcilable views of GMO foods:

  1. The “science-based” position: If GMOs are safe (which they demonstrably are), there can be no rational reason to oppose them.
  2. The “societal value-based” position: Even if GMOs are safe (and this is debatable), there are still plenty of other reasons to oppose them.

Specter holds the first position.  Shiva and Hirshberg hold the second. Those who hold the “science-based” position would do well to take societal values more seriously.

Seed patents, monoculture, weed resistance, and other such concerns trouble people who care about food systems that promote health, protect the environment, and provide social justice.

Labeling, right from the start, would have acknowledged the importance of such values. Until GMO foods are labeled as such, the same arguments are likely to go on endlessly, with no reconciliation in sight.

Additions:

Aug 25 2014

More money in food: USDA’s food dollar

While I’m thinking about the role of money in food, take a look at USDA’s new food dollar series.

Farm and agribusiness get 11.8 cents on the dollar.

The real money is in adding value through processing (18.6 cents) and food service (33.7 cents).

When farmers complain that it’s hard to make a living, they aren’t kidding.

Screenshot 2014-08-20 09.50.54

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aug 21 2014

Mercury in fish–again. Watch out for tuna.

In June I wrote about the FDA’s advice to pregnant women to avoid eating fish high in methylmercury.  The advisory said to avoid the four fish highest in methylmercury:  shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.

I was surprised that the advisory didn’t warn about the high mercury levels in albacore tuna, and I was skeptical about the FDA’s  insistence that pregnant women must eat fish.

Now Consumer Reports advises pregnant women not to eat tuna at all.

Consumer Reports:

So what’s going on here?

In my book, What to Eat, I included a chapter on this very topic: “The Methylmercury Dilemma.”  Here’s a quote:

Albacore tuna clearly belonged on the list of fish to avoid, but advice to restrict its consumption would surely affect the livelihoods of people who fish for, can, and sell tuna.   Because hardly anyone knows the difference between one kind of tuna and another, fish companies worried that consumers would interpret advice to avoid albacore tuna as advice to avoid all tuna.  Industry lobbyists urged the FDA to keep albacore tuna off the methylmercury advisory.   Somehow, albacore tuna got left off.

That was in 2006.   Consumer Reports tells us that pretty much all tuna is too high in methylmercury to be consumed by pregnant women.  So this comment still seems relevant, no?

Evidence: Here’s the response from the National Fisheries Institute:  “Consumer Reports has long history of intentionally mischaracterizing tuna.”

Aug 20 2014

Money in food

It’s a slow news week so I’m digging in to some items saved over the course of the year.

Here’s one from The Hartman Group, a market-research consulting firm: “Why [software] investors are pouring their lettuce into food.”

The article is about start-ups funded by software billionaires, but its point—there’s money to be made in food—reminds me of Fred Kaufman’s work on food commodity trading.

Making money from food is good when it keeps people employed and pays living wages.

It’s not so good when it adds to world hunger.

Aug 18 2014

Food Navigator on what’s happening with the nutrition label

Food Navigator—USA’s Elaine Watson just put together a special edition on the revamping of the Nutrition Facts label.  Her title: Radical overhaul or a missed opportunity?

To understand what’s happening with food labels, you can start with the FDA’s home page on its proposed revisions.  The comment period has ended.  You can read the comments that have been filed on the Nutrition and Supplement Facts panels, and those filed on the proposed changes to the standards for serving sizes.  These are fun to read; opinions, to say the least, vary.

But back to Food Navigator, which collects in various pieces on the topic in one place.  The “Radical overhaul” piece contains a summary of the major provisions.  Others in the series are also useful (I’m quoted in some of them):

Does vitamin D belong on the Nutrition Facts panel?

FDA proposals to list “added sugars” on the Nutrition Facts panel have already generated heated debate, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that its plan to include vitamin D is proving equally controversial…

Should ‘added sugars’ be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel?

A row is brewing over the merits of including ‘added sugars’ on the Nutrition Facts panel, with critics arguing that our bodies don’t distinguish between ‘naturally occurring’ and ‘added’ sugar – and neither should food labels – and supporters saying it will help consumers identify foods with more empty calories.

 Nutrition Facts overhaul is a missed opportunity for long chain omega-3s EPA and DHA, says GOED

The FDA’s overhaul of the Nutrition Facts panel misses a public health opportunity by prohibiting firms from even highlighting long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA on the panel, says GOED.

What are the biggest contributors of added sugars to the US diet?

Check out this analysis of NHANES data to see where our added sugars are coming from plus read new comments about the ‘added sugars’ labeling proposal from Ocean Spray cranberries and others.

Former FDA commissioner: Nutrition Facts overhaul doesn’t go far enough

FDA proposals to overhaul the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels don’t got far enough, says former FDA commissioner David Kessler, M.D.

Behavioral scientists: Changing serving sizes on Nutrition Facts label could have unintended consequences

FDA proposals to change the way serving sizes are calculated to better reflect real-life eating behavior could encourage some people to eat even more unless the wording is changed, says one expert group.

Until phosphorus gets on the USDA’s radar, labeling policy won’t change: NKF

While phosphorus is an essential nutrient found naturally in some foods such as egg yolk and milk, it is increasingly added to packaged foods via a raft of phosphorus additives, and some experts believe it should be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel.

Canada’s proposed Nutrition Label changes emphasize calories, sugar

Health Canada is proposing changes to nutrition labels that would make them easier for consumers to read.

RD: There’s a health continuum for every food; what pillars do you want to stand on?

Rachel Cheatham, RD, founder of nutrition strategy consultancy FoodScape Group, talks food labeling at the IFT show.

Is your product ready for nutrition label changes?

“A 16-ounce drink and a two-ounce bag of potato chips are a single serving. If it’s bigger than that, from 200 to 400%, then you need to declare two columns of information—one for the serving size and one for the whole container.”

Proposed nutrition labels more effective than current labels: survey

Consumers find proposed labels easier to read in less time.

How much do consumers use (and understand) nutrition labels?

New research from the NPD Group is questioning how many US consumers even routinely check nutrition labels anymore.

 FDA’s proposed nutrition label changes emphasize calories, serving sizes

If approved, the new labels would place a bigger emphasis on total calories and update serving sizes, while also drawing attention to added sugars and nutrients such as Vitamin D and potassium.

CRN, NPA submit comments on FDA’s proposed changes to food, supplement labels

Both the Council for Responsible Nutrition and the Natural Products Association have submitted a comments on FDA’s proposed revisions for food and dietary supplement labels.

The FDA’s next step is to deal with the comments and issue final rules.  By when?

Eventually.  Stay tuned.

Aug 15 2014

Weekend reading: Globalization and Food Sovereignty

Peter Andrée, Jeffrey Ayres, Michael J. Bosia, and Marie-Josée Massicotte.  Globalization and Food Sovereignty: Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food.  University of Toronto Press, 2014.

New Picture (1)

This is a book in a series on political economy and public policy, edited by political science professors in Canada and the United States with deep interests in food movements.  The chapters, by various authors, define food sovereignty as “a central issue that cuts across social, political, economic, cultural, and ecological domains.”  They deal with such matters as fair trade, local food, food security, and other food movements in places such as Cuba, Australia, France, and Brazil.

The editors say:

This volume posits that–given the incrasing attention to the politics of food as local, national, and global–it is important to incorporate these new areanas of political action much more widely into curriculums and scholarship and focus especially the framework and methodologies of political science on the profoundly political issues raised by the food sovereignty response…we seek to develop the study of food politics as a more engaged arena within the social sciences….

I say, yes!

 

 

Aug 14 2014

It’s salt war time again: new research, arguments over public health recommendations, and issues of conflicts of interest

Here are the burning questions about sodium (which is 40% of salt) intake:

(a) Does too much dietary sodium cause high blood pressure?   Answer: an unambiguous yes (although not necessarily in everyone).

(b) Are public health recommendations to reduce salt intake warranted?  I think so, but others disagree.

(c) If so, to what level?  Although virtually all committees reviewing the evidence on salt and hypertension view public health recommendations as warranted, and advise an upper limit of about 2 grams of sodium (5 grams of salt, a bit more than a teaspoon (see table from the Wall Street Journal), these too are under debate.

These recommendations are strongly opposed by The Salt Institute, the trade association for the salt industry, its industry supporters, and some groups of investigators.

Now the New England Journal of Medicine weighs in with three new studies, an editorial, and a cartoon video.  The papers:

Start with the video,  narrated by the editor, Dr. Jeffrey Drazen (click on video link on the right side).  It gives an excellent summary of the three papers.  Despite their methodological differences, all confirm (a).  They disagree on (c) and, therefore, (b).

Are public health recommendations warranted?

But note Dr. Drazen’s suggestion: “throw away the salt shaker.”

He is in favor of reducing salt intake.  But the salt shaker is not where most dietary salt comes from.  At least 75% of salt in American diets comes from restaurant and processed foods.   As Dr. Yoni Freedhoff explains:

If you’d like to reduce the sodium in your diet, rather than keep a running tally of how much you’re actually consuming, why not try instead to determine what percentage of your diet comes from restaurants and boxes? Sure, there’s data to suggest you might simply find other ways to add salt to your diet. But visit restaurants and consume processed foods less frequently, and I’d be willing to wager that you’ll be far more likely to see health benefits than were you to simply fill your grocery cart with low-sodium versions of highly processed foods.

Individuals cannot cut down on salt on their own.  That’s one reason why public health policies are needed—to get restaurants and processed food manufacturers to reduce salt content.

Two of the papers say that the only people who need to cut down on salt are those with hypertension and older people (one of the studies says that means people over age 55).

You can’t expect 70 or 80 million people to reduce salt intake on their own.  Hence: public health recommendations.

Conflict of interest alert

Some of the investigators report receiving grants or fees from companies that make anti-hypertensive drugs but the editorial accompanying the papers is of special concern.   Written by Dr. Suzanne Oparil, it says about one of the studies:

These provocative findings beg for a randomized, controlled outcome trial to compare reduced sodium intake with usual diet. In the absence of such a trial, the results argue against reduction of dietary sodium as an isolated public health recommendation.

These conclusions sent me right to her conflict-of-interest disclosure statement.  Although Dr. Oparil reports receiving grants or fees from companies making anti-hypertensive drugs—-and, even more remarkable, from The Salt Institute—she states that she has no conflicts of interest.

I think she does.

Implications

Her editorial is especially unfortunate because it influences the way reporters write about the studies.

The Associated Press account, for example, begins:

A large international study questions the conventional wisdom that most people should cut back on salt, suggesting that the amount most folks consume is OK for heart health — and too little may be as bad as too much. The findings came under immediate attack by other scientists.

As well they should.  Blood pressure rises with age and huge swaths of the population would be healthier eating less salt.   The AP reporter quoted me saying so:

“People don’t eat salt, they eat food,” she said. “Lots of people have high blood pressure and lots of people are getting older,” making salt a growing concern, she said. “That’s the context in which this is taking place.”

The three studies are complicated to interpret because of differences in methods and discrepancies in outcomes.  They agree that if you already have hypertension or are “elderly,” or eat a lot of salt, you should cut down.

This seems like a good idea for just about anyone.   People don’t eat salt; they eat foods containing salt, and foods high in salt tend to be high in other things best consumed in small amounts.

The studies also talk about the protective effects of potassium, best obtained from vegetables.

Eat a lot of vegetables and not too much junk food, and you don’t have to worry about any of this.

Aug 13 2014

Sales of packaged, processed foods are declining: Three reasons why

Everybody agrees that the packaged food industry isn’t selling as much as it used to.  Here are three explanations for this trend.

1.  The packaging: The Wall Street Journal says it’s all about the old-style packaging that makes foods seem unnatural.  Clear packaging works better for sales.

2.  More sophisticated consumers: The Hartman Group research and consulting firm has a new report analyzing this trend: “Recipe for Growth in Packaged Foods:”

The biggest long-term challenge facing the U.S. food industry is that taste preferences are changing. This is most apparent among highly urbane and educated consumers, where the arbitrary boundaries of “too sweet” and “too fatty” are altering in ways inimical to the core food science paradigm of the U.S. food and beverage industry.

The U.S. food industry routinely serves crude flavor profiles associated with the unsophisticated farm cuisine of Middle America: heavy on salt, dairy and animal fat and, in the past half century, sugar…For years, there was growing demand for these flavors in all sorts of foods, primarily because U.S. preferences were not changing.

Now they are. The increasing multiculturalism of the U.S. population plus the globally well-traveled, savvy upper-middle class have created a large population of consumers intentionally seeking complex flavor profiles imported from much more sophisticated food cultures.

3.  Not enough corporate social responsibility: Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign achieved two coups in the last week or so.  First General Mills and now Kellogg have signed on to its Climate Declaration which commits them to reducing greenhouse gases produced in their processing chains.  Oxfam organized more than 200,000 signatures on a petition—and produced a report, Standing on the Sidelines—to induce these companies to pay more attention to their effects on climate change.

Food advocacy is making headway.  Keep at it!

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