Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 24 2012

What to do about front-of-package food labels?

The British Food Standards Agency has just announced a new front-of-package voluntary labeling system to go onto food packages next year, maybe.

The exact design is still uncertain, but it might look like this:

An example of the what the new hybrid food labels might look like. Shows traffic light sytem, %GDA system and high, medium, low system.

Compare this to the scheme Mark Bittman suggested in the Sunday Times last week.

Bittman’s idea does way more.  He suggests one design to

  • Rate foods on the basis of nutrition, “foodness” (an index of the extent of processing), and welfare (of everyone and everything)
  • Give them an overall score and a traffic light ranking (green, yellow, red)
  • Note whether they contain GMOs or not

Here’s how it would look:

 

Recall that the FDA recruited the Institute of Medicine to recommend a new labeling scheme.  It did just that a year ago, in a report advising the FDA to restrict front-of-package labels to information about calories, saturated and trans fat, sugar, and salt.

Since then, the FDA has said not a word about its food labeling initiative (More research needed? Election-year politics?)

In the meantime, Whole Foods has implemented its own new traffic light labeling scheme, but without those pesky red symbols well established to discourage sales.  If the food doesn’t rate a green or yellow symbol, it won’t have anything on it.

Everybody is doing food rating systems.  The owner of Rouge Tomate has developed SPE certification for restaurants, a system based on “Sourcing, Preparing, and Enhancing philosophy and culinary techniques.”

All of the people doing rating and certification systems set up their own criteria, and all differ.

Are these systems helpful?  Only if you trust that they are meaningful.  I don’t know how to find that out without doing a lot of research.

Readers: Do you like these systems?  Use them? Find them helpful?  I don’t, but am willing to be persuaded otherwise.

Oct 23 2012

Multivitamins prevent cancer (maybe), sell supplements (definitely)

According to a new study in JAMA, multivitamins might reduce the risk of some cancers, although not by much.

But even a tiny benefit, restricted to skin cancers in healthy male doctors—but not prostate cancers, alas—is good news for the supplement industry.  Supplement sellers are eager to make sure you don’t miss this research.

The study results came out on October 18.  Pfizer, the maker of the Centrum Silver pills used in the study, placed this ad in the New York Times on October 19:

But that’s not all.  CVS pharmacy sent me this personal e-mail message:

Pfizer, of course, could not be happier.

Why do I think this is about marketing, not public health?

Oct 22 2012

Rest in peace George McGovern

Former Senator (D-SD) George McGovern died yesterday at age 90.

His accomplishments as a Senator and statesmen were legion, many of them strongly connected to food politics.

As I mentioned in 2009 when I gave the state department’s annual George McGovern lecture in Rome, he chaired the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs from 1968-1977.   This committee greatly expanded food assistance programs and then developed the first federal guidelines for chronic disease prevention: Dietary Goals for the U.S.

In Food Politics, I described the work of this strongly bipartisan committee (Bob Dole was its lead Republican member) and how it did so much to improve the lives of women and children living in poverty in the United States, and of poor people throughout the world.

The committee also broke new ground in shifting nutrition education from a focus on eating more of a variety of foods to eating less of foods that increased risks for chronic disease.

What’s shown here is the February 1977 version of this landmark report.  As the result of outraged protests by food producers affected by the “eat less” messages, the committee was forced to tone down its recommendations.  The committee issued a revised report in December that year.

That was the committee’s final act.  Congress disbanded it and McGovern lost his bid for reelection.

McGovern leaves an extraordinary legacy, one unimaginable in this era of partisan politics.

He was far ahead of his time, as this 1977 photo shows.  It is a fitting tribute.

Oct 19 2012

Calories as an instrument of government control?

My 2012 book with Mal Nesheim, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, includes a chapter on the use of calories in international relations.

I thought of this chapter while reading a story in yesterday’s New York Times.

Apparently, the Israeli military restricted the amount of food available to residents of Gaza during the blockade that lasted from from 2007 to mid-2010.

The Israeli military calculated the number of calories that the blockaded residents would need to avoid malnutrition.

The purpose of the blockade was to weaken support for Hamas, the militant group that won legislative elections in 2006 and took full control of Gaza in 2007 after a brief factional war…In the calculation, Israel applied an average daily requirement of 2,279 calories per person, in line with World Health Organization guidelines.

I’m not sure where the 2,279 figure comes from.  Calorie estimations established jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization say that adult men aged 20-70 need 2400 to 3000 calories a day on average, depending on age, weight, and physical activity level.  Adult women need 1800 to 2400.

The FAO sets a calorie cut point for populations to define hunger.  It defines populations consuming 1,800 calories per capita per day, on average, as chronically undernourished and hungry.

On this basis, 2,279 will be adequate for some adults—those who are female, smaller, older, and less active.  It is unlikely to be adequate for younger, bigger, more active men.

The Israeli Defense Ministry released this document under a court order.  It would be interesting to see how it arrived at this figure.

For an interesting discussion of the use of calories as an instrument of state power, see Nick Cullather’s “The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia.”

 

Oct 18 2012

The New England Journal takes on the food industry

Last week’s New England Journal of Medicine weighs in with several commentaries and research articles.  Some of these were published earlier in online versions:

And this week, it has another on using tax strategies to promote public health.

It looks to me as though the health establishment is finally catching on to what obesity is really about and giving serious thought to what to do about it.  This is important work.

Oct 17 2012

The latest dismal report on world hunger

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has just released the latest iteration of its annual report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012.

It’s bottom line estimate: 870 million people in the world are hungry, 852 million of them in developing countries.

The good news is that this figure represents a decline of 132 million people from 1990-92 to 2010-12, or from 18.6 percent to 12.5 percent of the world’s population.  In developing countries, the decline is from 23.2 percent to 14.9 percent.

The not-so-good news: Since 2007-2008, global progress in reducing hunger has slowed and leveled off, and hunger in Africa has gotten worse.

Much of the press attention to the report yawned at the major message but instead focused on errors in the previous estimates, which were higher.

the projections were wrong. They were calculated using figures from non-U.N. sources that were fed into the U.N.’s number-crunching model, because FAO was expected to quickly come up with an estimate of how many people might go hungry from the dual crises of high food prices and the global downturn

The UN bases its hunger projections on figures on population, food supply, food losses, dietary energy requirements, food distribution, and other factors.

The report contains other bad news.  While 870 million people remain hungry, the world confronts a double burden of malnutrition: 1.4 billion people are dealing with the consequences of overweight and obesity.

Focusing on the need to address world hunger Sir Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development, Imperial College, London writes in the Huffington Post:

as I set out in my latest book One billion hungry: can we feed the world?, I believe there is reason for optimism. Yes we can feed the world, but only if we accept that agricultural development is the best route to achieving sustainable economic growth in developing countries, and achieve an agriculture that is highly productive, stable, resilient and equitable.

Sounds like a good plan to me.  Let’s get busy.

Oct 16 2012

Big Soda to Bloomberg: We’ll see you in court

Mayor Bloomberg’s cap on soda sizes at 16 ounces has elicited a hard-hitting, Friday-afternoon (let’s hide it if we can), but otherwise well organized cease-and-desist lawsuit from the soft drink industry.

The suit, New York Statewide Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce et al. v. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene et al., is represented by Latham & Watkins, a law firm that often represents the American Beverage Association (ABA), the leading soft-drink trade group and one of the plaintiffs in this case.

Other plaintiffs are the Teamsters Local 812, the Korean-American Grocers Association of New York, the National Association of Theatre Owners of New York State, and—-no surprise—the National Restaurant Association.

These groups are all concerned that the soda cap might encourage people to reduce soda sales (its point, after all).  This would drive down profits for stores, concession stands in movie theaters, restaurants, and the people who distribute sugary beverages.

The basis of the suit includes these complaints [with my comments]:

  • The Board of Health does not have the legal authority to cap soda sizes at 16 ounces (only the City Council does): “This case is not about obesity in New York City,” the plaintiffs wrote in the opening sentence of the suit. “This case is about the Board of Health, appointed by the mayor, bypassing the proper legislative process for governing the city.” [Legal experts think that cities do have the authority to regulate public health, witness smoking bans, helmet laws, and seatbelt requirements]
  • The cap is a ban on personal freedom. [Nobody is stopping people from buying more soda if they want it]
  • Most New Yorkers oppose the soda cap. [Perhaps because of the extraordinarily expensive campaign conducted by the soda industry]
  • The cap is “arbitrary and capricious,” because it applies only to some businesses and targets only certain types of beverages: “Delis and hotdog stands are barred from selling a 20-ounce lemonade, but the 7-Eleven a few feet away remains free to sell Big Gulps.”  [The rule applies to all businesses over which the city has jurisdiction, so there is nothing arbitrary about it] 

This lawsuit is clearly about profits, not health.  Let’s hope the Court throws it out.

The first 14 of the documents are available in a zip file here (but only for the next week or so).

Oct 15 2012

Pro-Proposition 37 forces are getting busy

Michael Pollan has a terrific piece in this Sunday’s Times Magazine on why the food movement needs to get behind California’s Proposition 37, flaws and all.

California’s Proposition 37, which would require that genetically modified (G.M.) foods carry a label, has the potential to do just that — to change the politics of food not just in California but nationally too.

…sooner or later, the food movement will have to engage in the hard politics of Washington — of voting with votes, not just forks.

…Obama’s attitude toward the food movement has always been: What movement? I don’t see it. Show me. On Nov. 6, the voters of California will have the opportunity to do just that.

Helping this along are two videos from Food and Water Watch, both really well done.

And then there’s this one, from a creative pro-Prop 37 individual (was he suggesting that it’s OK to give Pepsi to that baby?  Not at all—see comment below from Ali Partavi).

Enjoy!  Whatever you think of GMOs, people want and have a right to know the source of their food.

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