Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 20 2016

The food scene: Tel Aviv

I’m in Israel this week at a meeting on Sustainable Food Systems* along with some basic food tourism.

The trip started with a visit to the small-but-impressive farmers’ market at the Port of Tel Aviv.

The market is under umbrellas to protect people, sprouts, and other vegetables from the intense Mediterranean sun (it’s hot here).  

The market is in two sections, separated by an indoor section with stalls for an amazing array of (mostly) locally produced artisanal food products.

And here’s Shir Halpern who developed this market, runs others, and is doing everything possible to encourage young farmers.

This is a great way to start any visit to a new country.

*Just for fun, here’s my interview in today’s Haaretz—-in Hebrew.   And here’s an English translation (thanks to Hemi Weingarten of Fooducate)

Jun 17 2016

Philadelphia passes soda tax!

 

Of course, it’s not over yet.

Jun 16 2016

Today’s big news: the Philadelphia soda tax vote

The Philadelphia city council votes sometime today on whether to pass a soda tax, with most—but not all—of the revenues targeted to pre-kindergarten education.  I’m getting on an airplane pretty soon and will miss the vote, but it is widely assumed to pass.

The decision is up to the city council.  Although the soda industry spent more than $4 million on public relations to urge the council to vote no, and promised to fund the first year of pre-K, its efforts don’t seem to be working.

To put this in context: Sodas are an easy target for public health measures.  Nobody needs them, they are candy in liquid form, and they have no nutritional value.   But it seems as though their makers are willing to spare no expense to stop any city that attempts to tax them.  The total in Philly is $4.9 million by the latest rumors.

Americans are highly likely to support taxes that are earmarked for social purposes, as the Philly tax mostly is.

Every other city council can see that Berkeley gets more than a million a year for discretionary child health programs.  Philadelphia is a bigger city and will get more, but is using it to fill budget holes as well as Pre-K.  I’m guessing lots of places will figure out that they can do this too.

At the very least, the soda industry will be willing to donate huge amounts of money to get city councils to delay or block measure, as it did in Philadelphia.

This vote is worth watching closely (you can do that here).  I’m sorry to be missing it but will try to catch up with it later.

References

Politico’s deep dive is here.

 

Jun 15 2016

Seafood politics: Catfish? Really?

The Senate just voted to reverse a decision of Congress last year to remove catfish inspection from the FDA (which is usually in charge of regulating seafood) and give it to the USDA (which usually regulates meat and poultry).

Why did the 2008 and 2012 farm bills say that catfish inspection should be given to USDA?

It depends on whom you ask.

  • Defenders say it’s because USDA has the resources to protect us against unsafe Vietnamese catfish.
  • Critics said it’s to protect the Mississippi catfish industry against the food safety hazards of cheap imported catfish from Vietnam.

Indeed, the USDA inspection program is finding antibiotics and other unapproved carcinogens in catfish imported from Vietnam.

This issue, however, is a sticking point in US negotiations with Vietnam over the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Vietnam wants the USDA catfish inspection removed as an unfair barrier to trade.

As I wrote about this issue in 2013,

What is this about?  Not fish safety, really.  It’s about protecting catfish farmers in the South and setting up “more rigorous” safety criteria that will exclude competitive foreign catfish imports, especially from Vietnam.

Food retailers and retail trade associations are for reverting inspection to FDA. They say USDA’s catfish inspection program will take years to allow imports from Vietnam, thereby causing the cost of domestic catfish to rise.

But today, Politico Morning Agriculture reports that more than 100 House Republicans are urging repeal of the USDA’s catfish inspection program, pointing out that

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has 10 times stated that this program is “duplicative” and at “high risk” for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement…This is not a food safety issue.  USDA acknowledges that catfish, regardless of where it comes from, is considered a “low risk food.”

When I wrote this issue previously, I got comments that I needed to better appreciate the superiority of USDA’s import safety program.  As I said in response:

It’s not surprising if USDA’s import safety system is better than the FDA’s.  USDA gets $14 million a year to run its currently non-operating catfish inspection system.  The FDA gets $700,000 and, according to the Government Accountability Office, has managed pretty well with it.

My conclusion then and now:

If the political fuss over catfish inspection reveals anything, it is why we so badly need a single food safety agency—one that combines and integrates the food safety functions of USDA and FDA—to ensure the safety of the American food supply.

Documents

Jun 14 2016

BeverageDaily.com on functional drinks

The Beverage Daily newsletter always has something interesting from its business perspective.  Its June 3 mailing was a special edition—a collection of its articles—about “functional” beverages.  In nutrition-speak, functional means something added above and beyond the nutrients that were there to begin with.

Here’s what Beverage Daily says about them:

Once, beverages were simply about hydration. Now, people want hydration and more from their drinks.

Rich with innovation, the functional beverage category is full of exciting developments and new ideas. From beauty beverages to digestive health drinks, these beverages offer something extra to consumers.

The functional beverage market accounts for around 7% of total beverages by volume, according to figures from Zenith International. But the real interest is in value, with functional beverages accounting for around 13% of the beverage category in terms of value.

From my perspective, functional beverages are about marketing.  You want hydration?  Try water!

Jun 13 2016

Annals of food safety: General Mills Flour

The CDC has started a page on the E. coli O121 (STEC O121) outbreak linked to General Mills flour:

In interviews, ill people answered questions about the foods they ate and other exposures in the week before they became ill. Sixteen (76%) of 21 people reported that they or someone in their household used flour in the week before they became ill. Nine (41%) of 22 people reported eating or tasting raw homemade dough or batter. Twelve (55%) of 22 people reported using Gold Medal brand flour. Three ill people reported eating or playing with raw dough at restaurants.

The CDC’s “At A Glance”

  • Case Count: 38
  • States: 20
  • Deaths: 0
  • Hospitalizations: 10
  • Recall: Yes
 Here’s the “epi curve”—the graph of when people became ill and how many.

It looks like cases are—or were—popping up one at a time.  There is always a reporting lag.

While waiting for more information, the CDC recommends:

  • Do not use, serve, or sell the recalled flours.
  • Do not eat raw dough or batter, whether made from recalled flour or any other flour.
  • Bake items made with raw dough or batter before eating them.
  • Do not taste raw dough or batter.
  • Do not serve raw dough to customers or allow children and other guests to play with raw dough.

But really. Gold Medal flour?  If flour is used for cooking or baking, the bacteria would be killed.

OK.  I totally get eating raw cookie dough.  I did plenty of that back in the day when I baked cookies for my kids, and they helped clean the bowl.  Eating raw cookie dough may sound disgusting, but the mix is truly delicious.

If you’ve never tried it, now is not a good time to start.  In 2009, there was a really nasty E. coli outbreak from eating pre-packaged raw cookie dough.

But eating or playing with raw dough in restaurants?   Is this common practice?  News to me.

Documents

Jun 10 2016

Commencement speech: CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College

I gave the commencement address to graduates of Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York this week. Here’s what I said.  And here’s what someone in the audience tweeted:

I was especially pleased because it came with an honorary degree.

Jun 9 2016

CSPI and Public Citizen sue the FDA over absurd delays in regulating the safety of—oysters!

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has sued the FDA for ignoring its 2012 petition to prevent illnesses and deaths caused by eating raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico contaminated with toxic Vibrio vulnificus.

The lawsuit, filed jointly with Public Citizen, asks the FDA to set standards to make sure these bacteria are “nondetectable in oysters and other molluscan shellfish sold for raw consumption.”

The FDA is supposed to respond to the complaint by July 25.

This issue goes back a long way.  I wrote about it in 2011 in the context of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Food Safety: FDA Needs to Reassess Its Approach to Reducing an Illness Caused by Eating Raw Oysters.

Vibrio vulnificus bacteria are considered “flesh-eating;” they kill half the 30 or so people who eat contaminated raw oysters.   Treating the raw oysters before allowing them to be sold kills the bacteria.  California requires this and nobody eating California oysters gets sick from Vibrio.  As I wrote in 2011:

In 2001, the oyster industry trade association, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), promised the FDA that this industry would substantially reduce Vibrio infections in oysters within seven years through a program of voluntary self-regulation and education aimed at high-risk groups. If this program failed to reduce the infection rate, the ISSC agreed that the FDA could require oysters to be treated after harvesting to kill pathogenic Vibrio.

So what happened?  Late in 2009, the FDA said it would issue rules, but backed off under pressure from the oyster industry and friendly state officials.

Despite years of warnings and promises that it obviously has no intention of meeting, the Gulf oyster industry has been able to stave off FDA regulations for 15 years at the cost of about 15 preventable deaths a year.

CSPI and Public Citizen are trying the legal route.  I hope it works.

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