Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 10 2012

California judge: Richmond cannot require anti-soda tax group to disclose donors

I’m following the soda tax initiative in Richmond, CA with rapt attention.  Richmond, as I explained last week, is a low-income city with a lot of obesity-related chronic disease and high soda consumption.

Residents will vote on its soda tax initiative in November.  In the meantime, the American Beverage Association has gone to work to spin the science, attack critics, and fund “community coalition” groups to oppose the initiative.

Richmond requires such groups to disclose their top donors on political mailings.  The soda-industry funded “Coalition” went to court to block this requirement on First Amendment grounds.

Now, according to Robert Rogers, the terrific reporter for the Contra Costa Times who has been working on this story, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order doing just that.

Complete victory for our side,” said coalition spokesman Chuck Finnie. “(Judge Charles Breyer) indicated he doesn’t think (the ordinance) applies to us because we are not engaged in independent expenditures. (Breyer) indicated a city can’t require a campaign to publish political arguments under the guise of claiming it is a disclosure.

This will be back in court on September 18.

In the meantime, “Big Soda” is expected to spend more than a million dollars in Richmond to make its efforts look like a local campaign.

Here is the Statement on Ruling on Richmond Mailer Ordinance.

And here are related Contra Costa Times stories on the soda tax initiative.

Sep 7 2012

Weekend food image: Lake Geneva

Thanks to Juan Pablo Peña-Rosas of the World Health Organization for sending this photo.

It’s of Lake Geneva in front of Nestlé’s (no relation) food museum in Vevey.

The museum’s current exhibit is called COLLECTIONNEZ-MOI!  It includes thousands of such things as sardine cans, fruit wrapping papers, soft drink bottles, and—my favorite—sugar cubes obsessively accumulated by private collectors, and well worth the visit (I was there a month or so ago).

And the fork!

Sep 6 2012

Big Soda sues to hide its funding of anti-tax campaign

Sometimes the actions of food companies defy credulity.

Get this: The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, a “grassroots” group funded by the American Beverage Association, has taken the city of Richmond, California to court to block it from requiring disclosure of funding sources in election campaigns.

In case you haven’t been following this situation, the Richmond city council got a soda tax initiative (“Measure N”) placed on the November ballot.

Richmond is a low-income, mixed-race city (80% non-white), with an 11% unemployment rate, and an average household income of $23,000 a year.  It population is largely obese and drinks a lot of sodas.

You would hardly think a city like this would get on the radar of Big Soda, but you would be oh so wrong.

For details, we have to thank Robert Rogers who writes for the local Contra Costa Times.

Mr. Rogers has been following the money.

Because California requires lobbyists to register, he has been able to get hard numbers on the relative spending of anti-tax forces and those who favor the tax.  The difference is impressive.

The city of Richmond must have suspected that something like this would happen because the city council passed an ordinance that requires special interest groups to disclose who funds them in campaign literature.  They must list their top five funders.

You might think this idea entirely appropriate to a democratic society, but the American Beverage Association (translation: Coca-Cola and PepsiCo) does not.

According to Rogers’ account on September 4, Big Soda has sued the city in federal court to stop it from insisting that campaigns disclose who funds them.

On what grounds, pray tell?

The First Amendment, of course.

The suit, filed in federal court in San Francisco on Aug. 30, seeks an order barring the city from imposing its campaign ordinance on the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, a declaration that the groups’ First Amendment rights were violated and money to cover court costs.

The coalition is funded mostly by the American Beverage Association and has spent more than $350,000 locally in an effort to defeat a November ballot measure that could impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sales of all sugar-sweetened beverages in the city.

…Coalition spokesman Chuck Finnie said Tuesday that the law itself is unconstitutional and should not be applied to the anti-soda tax groups.

“The law in question is being enforced to prevent opponents of an unfair, misleading and misguided tax from being able to communicate effectively with Richmond voters,” Finnie said. “The sponsors of the Measure N tax don’t want voters to hear how the tax is going to raise grocery bills, hurt local businesses on which livelihoods depend, and the fact that city politicians would be free to spend all of the money raised by Measure N in any way they see fit and that not one penny must be used to fund anti-obesity efforts.”

In other words, revealing funding sources prevents “effective communication.”

The court will hear this suit on Friday.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are the relevant documents, thanks to Robert Rogers.

Sep 5 2012

Are organics more nutritious? Again? Sigh.

The latest study arguing that organics are not more nutritious than conventionally grown crops once again makes big-time news.

The last time I wrote about a study like this, I posted the British newspaper headlines.

Never mind the media hype.  Here’s what the authors conclude:

The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Isn’t reducing exposure to pesticides and antibiotic use precisely what organic production is supposed to do?

Organics is about production methods free of certain chemical pesticides, herbicides, irradiation, GMOs, and sewage sludge in plant crops, and antibiotics and hormones in animals.

This meta-analysis confirms that organic foods have much lower levels of these things.  I’d call that doing exactly what it is supposed to.

But what about nutrients?  I can’t think of a single reason why organics should have fewer nutrients than conventional crops, and plenty of reasons why they might have a bit more if the soils are rich enough.

Plants make their own vitamins.  The vitamin levels should not be expected to differ significantly.  The mineral content might.

But even if organics do have higher levels of nutrients, so what?  Will people eating them be healthier as a result?

Just as with supplements, additional nutrients do not make healthy people healthier.

The only reason for organics to be about nutrition is marketing.  Nutrition turns out to be a better selling point than lower levels of pesticides and antibiotics.  It also makes better headlines, apparently.

But aren’t those lower levels—in production and in the body—good reasons to buy organics?

I think so.  You?

Sep 4 2012

Some reflections on Labor Day, 2012

Economists tell us that we are in a recovery period.  Jobs, yes.  But money?  No.

According to the report in the New York Times, the employment statistics reflect substantial increases in low-wage jobs but losses in better paying jobs.

Lower-wage occupations, with median hourly wages of $7.69 to $13.83, accounted for 21 percent of job losses during the retraction. Since employment started expanding, they have accounted for 58 percent of all job growth.

The occupations with the fastest growth were retail sales (at a median wage of $10.97 an hour) and food preparation workers ($9.04 an hour). Each category has grown by more than 300,000 workers since June 2009.

Need a job?  Head for the kitchen.

But be careful.  According to another New York Times report, a new study finds that:

Low-wage workers are routinely denied proper overtime pay and are often paid less than the minimum wage…Of workers who receive tips, 12 percent said their employer had stolen some of the tips.

Wouldn’t unions help?  They might, but take a look at the Ithaca Journal’s analysis of union membership.  New York, it seems leads the nation in the percentage of its workers who belong to labor unions: 24.1% in 2011.

But, this percentage:

glosses over the fact that while union representation has increased in the state’s public sector, it has fallen off dramatically in the private sector.

Last year, according to the unionstats.com website, 72.2 percent of the state’s public work force was unionized…But in the private sector, the unionization rate last year was 13.5 percent.

The easy answer for the decline in the private sector, analysts say, is the state’s loss of job slots in the manufacturing sector — 908,400 in 1991 to 458,000 in 2011 — which has long been organized labor’s bread and butter.

But there are other reasons for the resistance to private sector unionization:

Part is based on employers’ imagined need to increase their profitability and part has to do with a tremendous growth in law firms and consultants that specialize in breaking private unions.

No wonder more than 46 million Americans qualify for and receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

The food service industry exists on low-wage jobs.  Such jobs should be entry-level, not permanent.  They are not a solution to America’s economic problems and they are not good for social stability or American democracy.

What is the solution?  Wish I knew.

Any ideas?

Sep 2 2012

Regulations do change eating behavior

My monthly, first Sunday column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I still don’t get it. Why would a city government think that a food regulation would promote health when any one of them is so easy to evade?

A: Quick answer: because they work.

As I explained in my July discussion of Richmond’s proposed soda tax, regulations make it easier for people to eat healthfully without having to think about it. They make the default choice the healthy choice. Most people choose the default, no matter what it is.

Telling people cigarettes cause cancer hardly ever got anyone to stop. But regulations did. Taxing cigarettes, banning advertising, setting age limits for purchases, and restricting smoking in airplanes, workplaces, bars and restaurants made it easier for smokers to stop.

Economists say, obesity and its consequences cost our society $190 billion annually in health care and lost productivity, so health officials increasingly want to find equally effective strategies to discourage people from over-consuming sugary drinks and fast food.

Research backs up regulatory approaches. We know what makes us overeat: billions of dollars in advertising messages, food sold everywhere – in gas stations, vending machines, libraries and stores that sell clothing, books, office supplies, cosmetics and drugs – and huge portions of food at bargain prices.

Research also shows what sells food to kids: cartoons, celebrities, commercials on their favorite television programs, and toys in Happy Meals. This kind of marketing induces kids to want the products, pester their parents for them, and throw tantrums if parents say no. Marketing makes kids think they are supposed to eat advertised foods, and so undermines parental authority.

Public health officials look for ways to intervene, given their particular legislated mandates and authority. But much as they might like to, they can’t do much about marketing to children. Food and beverage companies invoke the First Amendment to protect their “right” to market junk foods to kids. They lobby Congress on this issue so effectively that they even managed to block the Federal Trade Commission‘s proposed nonbinding, voluntary nutrition standards for marketing food to kids.

Short of marketing restrictions, city officials are trying other options. They pass laws to require menu labeling for fast food, ban trans fats, prohibit toys in fast-food kids’ meals and restrict junk foods sold in schools. They propose taxes on sodas and caps on soda sizes.

Research demonstrating the value of regulatory approaches is now pouring in.

Studies of the effects of menu labeling show that not everyone pays attention, but those who do are more likely to reduce their calorie purchases. Menu labels certainly change my behavior. Do I really want a 600-calorie breakfast muffin? Not today, thanks.

New York City’s 2008 ban on use of hydrogenated oils containing trans fats means that New Yorkers get less trans fat with their fast food, even in low-income neighborhoods. Whether this reduction accounts for the recent decline in the city’s rates of heart disease remains to be demonstrated, but getting rid of trans fats certainly hasn’t hurt.

Canadian researchers report that kids are three times more likely to choose healthier meals if those meals come with a toy and the regular ones do not. When it comes to kids’ food choices, the meal with the toy is invariably the default.

A recent study in Pediatrics compared obesity rates in kids living in states with and without restrictions on the kinds of foods sold in schools. Guess what – the kids living in states where schools don’t sell junk food are not as overweight.

Circulation has just published an American Heart Association review of “evidence-based population approaches” to improving diets. It concludes that evidence supports the value of intense media campaigns, on-site educational programs in stores, subsidies for fruits and vegetables, taxes, school gardens, worksite wellness programs and restrictions on marketing to children.

The benefits of the approaches shown in these studies may appear small, but together they offer hope that current trends can be reversed.

Researchers also suggest other approaches, not yet tried. The Yale Rudd Center has just shown that color-coded food labels (“traffic lights”) encourage healthier food choices.

And Rand Corp. researchers propose initiatives like those that worked for alcoholic beverages: Limit the density of fast-food outlets, ban sales in places that are not food stores, insist that supermarkets put junk foods and sodas where they are hard to see, ban drive-through sales, restrict portion sizes and use warning labels.

These regulatory approaches are worth trying. If research continues to demonstrate their value, cities will have even more reason to use them. If the research becomes compelling enough, the federal government might need to act.

In the meantime, cities are leading the way, Richmond among them. Their initiatives are well worth trying, testing and supporting.

**Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com

Aug 31 2012

Advocacy groups sue FDA to get busy on safety standards

I’ve written previously about the holdup on implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act by the White House Office of Management and Budget, reportedly because anything regulatory is likely to be a campaign issue in this especially contentious election year.

To get things moving, The Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health have sued the FDA to implement the rules on the grounds that the law requires federal agencies to conclude matters presented to them “within a reasonable amount of time.”

The suit complains that the FDA is failing to meet required deadlines for at least seven new food regulations and that nine more are coming due in 2013.  It asks the court to order the agency to enforce the law right now.

In several instances, the FDA has attempted to make FSMA’s deadlines only to have its work held up at the White House Office of Management and Budget. FDA reported sending its proposed Foreign Supplier Verification Program to the OMB in November and its proposed produce safety standards in December, though the OMB has yet to release either regulation. Both were required by FSMA on Jan. 4.

FSMA also required FDA to establish standards for analyzing and documenting hazards and implementing preventative measures by July 4 of this year, the suit recounts.

The plaintiffs are especially alarmed that the FDA is not enforcing policies that are “self-executing,” meaning the new preventive standards for example.

From where I sit, the preventive standards are the critical factor in stopping outbreaks of foodborne illness before they happen.

While we are waiting for politics to resolve, the CDC keeps adding new outbreak home pages.

Would implementation of preventive standards help?  Yes it would, especially if the problem is in the packing houses (packing houses can be cleaned).

Aug 30 2012

Does starvation increase longevity? Not in monkeys.

The New York Times front page today has a report of a long-term study at NIH of severe calorie restriction in Rhesus monkeys.  It found that calorie restriction did not extend the monkeys’ lifespan.

I’m not at all surprised.  My co-author and I reviewed the literature on calorie restriction for a chapter in our book, Why Calories Count.

The new study makes news because it contradicts a study done in Wisconsin showing that severe calorie restriction extends life.  Severe means 25% to 30% fewer calories per day that are needed to maintain normal body weight.  I’d call this a starvation diet.

An editorial accompanying the report of the study in Nature attributes the difference between the results of this NIH trial and the Wisconsin study to a difference in dietary composition, suggesting that calories differ in their effects.

Not necessarily.  The Wisconsin study allowed the control monkeys to eat a lot of junk food and they were fatter than normal.  The NIH study restricted calorie intake in its control monkeys so they maintained normal weight and were healthier.  This is the simplest explanation of the difference.

Studies in rats, mice, and many other animals show that calorie restriction extends life.

But what about primates?

Starvation can hardly be good for health.  It causes weight loss, of course, but also a host of physiological and psychological problems.  These were extensively documented in humans during World War II in Ancel Keys’ Starvation studies.

The relationship between BMI and human longevity has been examined in several recent studies, all of which show similar results: Longevity is best associated with BMIs in the range considered normal or slightly overweight.  Above that range—but also below it—mortality increases.  

Being underweight is associated with higher mortality.

A Canadian study provides this example:

And one from the National Cancer Institute provides another:

The bottom line?  Eat a healthy diet and balance calories to maintain a healthy weight within that range.

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