Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 11 2016

Do we have a food movement? The New York Times food issue

The New York Time published its annual food issue on Sunday, this one with the theme, “Can Big Food Change?”

In the circles in which I travel, Michael Pollan’s “Big food strikes back: Why did the Obamas fail to take on corporate agriculture?” caused the biggest stir.  Here’s what set people off:

On “Outlobbied and Outgunned:”  The word I’ve been using to describe food industry lobbying against Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign is ferocious.

I’ve always thought that Mrs. Obama must have picked the goal of Let’s Move!—“Ending childhood obesity in a generation“—as a safe, bipartisan issue that Republicans and Democrats could all get behind.  Doesn’t everyone want kids to be healthy?

I can’t imagine that she could have predicted how controversial matters like healthy school lunches or nutrition standards for food advertising to kids would become.

Whatever.  The food industry’s response to everything Let’s Move! tried to do was ferocious.

Despite all that, as I’ve said, Let’s Move! managed to accomplish some important gains: healthier school meals, more informative food and menu labels, the White House garden, and—most important—getting food issues on the national agenda.

On “the food movement barely exists:” I once taught a course on food as a social movement with Troy Duster, a sociologist then at NYU, who had much experience teaching about social movements.

He made one point repeatedly: those who are in the middle of a social movement cannot possibly judge its effectiveness.  You can only know when a movement has succeeded or failed when it is over.

This one is not over yet.

This movement, fragmented in issues and groups as it most definitely is, may not have clout in Washington, DC, but it is having an enormous effect on supermarkets, food product manufacturers, fast food chains, the producers of meat, eggs, and poultry, and young people in this country.

How else to explain:

  • The vast improvement in the quality of foods sold in supermarkets
  • The rush of food product makers to remove artificial colors, flavors, trans-fats. and other potentially harmful food additives, including sugars and salt
  • The insistence of fast food chains on sourcing meat from animals raised without hormones or antibiotics
  • The actions of meat, egg, and poultry producers to care for their animals more humanely
  • Soda tax initiatives in so many cities

And my personal favorite,

  • The enormous numbers of college students clamoring for courses about food systems and the role of food in matters as diverse as global resource inequities and climate change.

As Troy Duster kept telling us, it’s not over until it’s over.

While waiting for enlightenment, let’s celebrate the proliferation of food organizations.  They are all working on important issues and doing plenty of good.

And yes, let’s encourage all of them to move beyond the local, engage in national politics, and put some pressure on Washington to come up with better food policies.

Here are the other articles in the magazine, all of them well worth reading.

Oct 10 2016

Save the date: Food Film Fest, New York, October 20-24

New York City’s Food Film Fest opens October 20.

The organizers are offering a 20% discount off of all tickets and VIP passes to readers of this blog.

Use the code FOODPOLITICS20 to take advantage of it.

The festival runs from October 20-23 at the AMC 25 in Times Square and is a benefit for the Billion Oyster Project.

All showings feature Taste What You See on the Screen service.  Each night has a different theme:

  • THRS – Best of 10 Years
  • FRI – Louisiana + More
  • SAT – Food Porn
  • SUN – Japan

For details, tickets, etc, click here.

Oct 7 2016

Weekend reading: why we love eating meat

Marta Zaraska.  Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat.  Basic Books, 2016.

If this were just another diatribe against meat-eating, I would not have bothered to read it but this book is much more interesting than that.  The Polish-Canadian journalist Marta Zaraska describes herself as a “sloppy vegetarian,” someone who doesn’t eat much meat but

can’t seem to completely let go of meat either.  There is something in it—in its cultural, historic, and social appeal, or maybe in its chemical composition—that keeps luring me back.

And that’s what this book is about: the cultural, historic, and social (and maybe even the chemical) appeal of eating meat.  Zaraska identifies the reasons—the hooks—of this appeal, linked as they are to genetics, culture, history, and the politics of the meat industry and government.

Although Zaraska clearly thinks eating less meat would be good for health, animal welfare, and the environment, that’s not really the book’s goal.  Instead, it’s to understand why most people don’t want to be vegetarian, let alone vegan, and why even small steps in that direction are worth taking.

What’s impressive about this book is the friendliness, human understanding, and charm of its writing, and the global scope of the interviews on which it draws (full disclosure: it briefly quotes my work).

A couple of scientific points didn’t ring right (beans do have methionine, just not as much as is needed), and I’m not sure that mock meats, meat substitutes, and edible insects will satisfy the “hooks” she describes so well, but these are minor quibbles.

Oct 6 2016

FoodNavigator-USA’s focus on “alternative” proteins

FoodNavigator-USA.com has a Special Edition on alternative proteinsmeaning plant proteins that can substitute for the proteins in meat and other animal products.  These are not only useful for vegetarians, but cost less, and are much kinder to the environment.

As interest in them has grown, food companies have taken notice.  FoodNavigator says:

According to Lux Research , ‘alternative proteins’ such as soy, algae, pea, rice and canola, will account for up to a third of the protein market by 2054. But which ones have the most potential, and will new market entrants from duckweed and sacha inchi to cricket powder gain any real traction in the marketplace?

Oct 5 2016

Some thoughts about SNAP: declining enrollments and legal issues

Let’s start with the USDA’s latest figures on SNAP participation.  Enrollment is down by a couple of million which could be good news (people have jobs that pay enough to make them ineligible) or bad news (elibility runs out).

The USDA issued a report in 2001 explaining the reasons.

 

As the report explains:

The large decrease in the number of food stamp participants is due to both a decrease in the number eligible for food stamps and a decrease in the rate at which eligible persons participate. The decrease in the participation rate played a slightly more important role, explaining 56 percent of the fall in the number of participants. The decrease in the number of eligible persons explains 44 percent of the fall in the number of participants.

Next, let’s look at the article in the New York Times on attempts to improve the quality of foods that can be purchased with SNAP benefits.

There have been manymanymany calls for the food stamp program to promote more healthful diets. Many states have requested waivers allowing for restrictions on what benefits can buy (some items, like alcohol, tobacco and household supplies, are already prohibited). Further restrictions have been rejected by the Department of Agriculture, which administers this welfare program.

The article is based on a study trying incentives for buying fruits and vegetables, restrictions on junk foods, and a combination of both.   The study concluded:

A food benefit program that pairs incentives for purchasing more fruits and vegetables with restrictions on the purchase of less nutritious foods may reduce energy intake and improve the nutritional quality of the diet of participants compared with a program that does not include incentives or restrictions.

the study was accompanied by an editorial calling for a trial of mixed incentives and restrictions.

But, as Daniel Bowman Simon tells me, the law only allows the USDA to do incentives.  By law, it cannot do additional exclusions.  This is because Congress says what retailers can and cannot sell to SNAP recipients:

As written in 7 U.S. Code § 2012, section (k)

“Food” means (1) any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption….

It looks to me as though excluding soft drinks, for example, would require Congress—not the USDA—to change this definition or let states do so.

Daniel wonders why USDA doesn’t make this clear.  Me too.

I’m told that three states have requested waivers and that the USDA is considering them.  How?  I don’t know, but stay tuned.

NOTE:  Several readers filed corrections on this post and I thank them.  I have revised it accordingly.

Oct 4 2016

Michelle Obama: The Legacy of Let’s Move!

Tomorrow afternoon, First Lady Michelle Obama will be talking about the impact of her Let’s Move! initiative to end childhood obesity in a generation.  She is expected to say something there about the future of the White House kitchen garden.

In the meantime, two reporters wrote accounts of her legacy yesterday (both quote me).

VOX

Julia Belluz talks about “how Michelle Obama quietly changed what Americans eat.”

I spoke with a dozen people who worked closely on her campaign, as well as the health and food policy researchers who studied it…I learned that some of the very things that made Michelle Obama sometimes appear soft — the industry collaborations, the emphasis on exercise — were part of the shrewd strategy that made her effective. Through her leadership, the Obama administration seized on a moment when America started paying attention to food, and made fighting obesity a top priority — both symbolically and legislatively.

Obama planted a garden, waged snappy social media campaigns, and worked behind the scenes with researchers, lawmakers, heads of government departments, schools, and food giants to quietly change what Americans eat.

Even observers who previously worried about Obama’s food industry partnerships now called her advocacy “brilliant,” “unprecedented,” and a “godsend.”

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Sarah Fritsche writes about “how the Obama administration led an American food movement” and provides an extraordinarily impressive timeline of accomplishments from 2009 on.

These are impressive stats, but as the Obamas enter their final months in the White House, one is left to wonder what exactly will be the lasting impact and legacy of the administration.

In an increasingly divisive political scene, and with the November election up for grabs, it may be too soon to tell. While childhood obesity rates appear to be leveling off, says Nestle, it takes a long time to gather data and track results. And, although the food industry is on alert, if the incoming administration takes less of a watchdog approach, these strides in food policy and awareness run the risk of losing momentum.

“Will it be undone is the big question,” says Nestle. “It depends a lot on who gets elected.”

Sep 30 2016

Weekend reading: “Chickenizing”

Ellen K. Silbergeld. : How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals, and Consumers.  Johns Hopkins Press, 2016.

Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences, epidemiology, and health policy at Hopkins, has long been a strong advocate for getting toxic substances out of our food supply.  Here, she takes on our system of industrial farm animal production in a plea for better treatment of everyone and everything involved in it.

Big issue #1: the use of antibiotics as growth promoters.  This not only induces bacteria to become resistant to those drugs, but also is unnecessary.

Big issue #2: the failure of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point—the method for preventing food safety problems) to prevent harmful, antibiotic-resistant bacteria from reaching the public.

Overall, she says:

The inextricable relationship between industrial food animal production and the environment challenges us in two ways.  First, we are all at risk–not just those of us who consume the products of industrially raised animals–and second, decontaminating food products will not contain the public health problems of this industry.  It is time to think about industrial food animal production as an industry in terms of environmental pollution, and it is long overdue to recognize that its pollution footprint, like its production, is industrial in scale (p. 127).

As for the remedy, “agriculture is an industry, and as such it carries certain obligations.”  These include, among others:

  • Industries must abide by laws that prevent monopolization, price fixing, and overconcentration.
  • Industries must bear full liability for unsafe products.
  • Industries must obey the labor laws of the country.

She has plenty more to say about government’s role in all this.

Our role is to insist that industry and government follow and apply laws.  We had best get busy.

Sep 29 2016

The EPA says glyphosate is “not likely” to be carcinogenic

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done an extensive analysis of research on whether glyphosate (Roundup), the herbicide to which GMO crops are resistant, is carcinogenic.

To put this in context, the amount of glyphosate used in the United States is huge and rising (the scale is hundreds of millions of pounds).

Its report is long and detailed, written in government-speak, and a challenge to understand.  Here is its major conclusion (page 141):

For cancer descriptors, the available data and weight-of-evidence clearly do not support the descriptors “carcinogenic to humans”, “likely to be carcinogenic to humans”, or “inadequate information to assess carcinogenic potential”. For the “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential” descriptor, considerations could be looked at in isolation; however, following a thorough integrative weight-of-evidence evaluation of the available data, the database would not support this cancer descriptor. The strongest support is for “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” at doses relevant to human health risk assessment [my emphasis].

But this review is not over yet.  Still to be done is work on glyphosate’s immediate toxic effects.  The EPA is working with other agencies to:

  • Compare the toxicity of glyphosate vs. formulations, as well as compare formulations vs. formulations
  • Provide publicly available toxicology data on cancer-related endpoints
  • Provide publicly available toxicology data on non-cancer endpoints
  • Investigate the mechanisms of how glyphosate and formulations cause toxic effects

Expect more reports like this to come.

Addition: In 2015, the European Food Safety Agency’s peer review of risk assessments of glyphosate concluded that it was “unlikely” to cause cancer in humans.

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