Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 15 2016

Weekend reading: a how-to for sustainable food systems (again)

I’m not sure how this happened, but I posted the title and cover of this book in October without saying a thing about it.  My apologies.  Here it is again.

Darryl Benjamin and Lyndon Virkler.  Farm to Table: The Essential Guide to Sustainable Food Systems for Students, Professionals, and Consumers.  Chelsea Green, 2016.

 

This is two books in one.

The first part, Farm, is about the real costs of industrial agriculture, environmental and human, and what can be and is being done about them.

The second part, Table, is a how-to for restaurants, schools, and institutions who want to source from local farms and for local farmers who want to supply those places.

The book gives specific examples illustrated with charts and photos and provides theory as well as practice suggestions.

The chapter on marketing gives the seven Ps–product, price, place, promotion, people, process, and physical evidence—along with things to consider and tips.

We have emphasized throughout this book that Farm-to-Table products sell themselves.  This is usually true once people have sampled their quality, understand their importance to the community and to the environment, and know where to find them.  The role of marketing is to facilitate those connections.

This is a great guide for beginners but there is plenty to learn hear for everyone.

Dec 14 2016

The pros and cons of taxing foods based on their sugar content

The Urban Institute has just published The Pros and Cons of Taxing Sweetened Beverages Based on Sugar Content.

The report is funded by the American Heart Association and others.  The AHA issued a press release.

The sections of the report state its conclusions:

  • Taxing Sugar Content Is the Least Costly Way to Reduce Sugar Consumption
  • Taxing Based on Sugar Content Is Feasible at the National Level
  • Taxing Based on Sugar Content Raises More Issues at the State and Local Level but Is Generally Feasible As Well

The report concludes:

We conclude that taxing based on the amount of added sugar a drink contains, either by taxing sugar content directly or by levying higher volume taxes on drinks with more sugar, is feasible in many jurisdictions and reduces sugar consumption more effectively than comparable taxes on drink volume.

Broad-based volume or sales taxes on all soft drinks, however, raise revenue more efficiently.

Federal, state, and local policymakers thus face trade-offs between using sweetened-beverage taxes to raise revenue and to discourage consumption of added sugars.

Keep this in mind when trying to do this in your community.

Dec 13 2016

Lawyers file class action against leading pet food companies. The issue? Prescription pet foods.

Attorneys in California Minnesota, Georgia, and North Carolina have filed a class action lawsuit in California against the leading manufacturers and sellers of pet food: Mars, Nestlé (no relation) Purina, Hills, Petsmart, and several veterinary hospital chains owned by one or another of these companies.

Why?  Prescription pet foods cost more but are no different than any other kind of pet food.

As the complain puts it:

  • Defendents’ prescription pet food contains no drug or other ingredient not also common in non-prescription pet food.
  • Defendents’ marketing, labeling, and/or sale of prescription pet food is deceptive, collusive, and in violation of federal antitrust law and California consumer-protection law.
  • Defendents are engaged in an anticompetitive conspiracy to market and sell pet food as prescription pet food to consumers at above-market prices that would not otherwise prevail in the absence of their collusive prescription-authorization requirement.

As Malden Nesheim and I explained in our book Feed Your Pet Right (which is really an analysis of the pet food industry), all compete-and-balanced pet foods must meet identical nutritional standards.

The only difference between the most expensive and cheapest commercial pet foods is in where the ingredients come from.  When writing our book, we could not find any research demonstrating that pets eating the most expensive commercial brands were any healthier than those eating the cheapest.

No pet food company would want to do research like that.   Much more and better research is needed.

The lawsuit charges that the companies are using prescriptions to raise the price of the products.

The complaint is interesting to read.

  • Item 46 points out that prescription pet food does not follow FDA requirements for manufacture, does not appear in the FDA’s “green book” listing approved animal drugs, and is made from the same ingredients found in common pet foods.
  • Item 53 points out that nobody would purchase prescription pet food at higher prices, “if not for the misleading marketing described herein.”

I will be watching this one with riveted interest.  Stay tuned.

Dec 12 2016

Food-Navigator-USA’s special edition on food labeling and litigation

This is one of FoodNavigator-USA’s special edition collections of articles on similar themes, in this case food labeling and lawsuits over labeling issues.  These are a quick way to get up to speed on what’s happening from a food industry perspective .  FoodNavigator introduces this collection:

Food and beverage companies have faced a tsunami of false advertising lawsuits over the past five years. But how big of an issue is this for the industry, who has been targeted, and what strategies are working, both for plaintiffs and defendants in these cases? In this special edition, we also look into labeling issues and trends, from healthy, Paleo and grass-fed claims to NuTek’s potassium salt petition.

Dec 9 2016

Weekend reading: Chow Chop Suey

Anne Mendelson.  Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey.  Columbia University Press, 2016.

When this book was sent to me for a blurb, my first thought was do we really need another book about Chinese food in America? As it turns out, we most definitely do.  I did the blurb, and happily:

Chow Chop Suey is an eye-opener, a book that will give everyone a deep appreciation of the exquisite skill required to produce authentic Chinese food and the sweep of history that brought Chinese cooking to America.  Anne Mendelson’s prodigious research has given us a highly respectful, insightful, refreshing, wonderfully written, and utterly compelling account of the role and plight of Chinese restaurant workers in this country.  I learned something new on every page.

An excerpt to give the flavor, from a section explaining the problems with translating Chinese cooking to American cooks.  In discussing an early attempt by Mrs. Yuenren Chao and her daughter Rulan:

Apparently Professor Chao had found Rulan’s translation too neatly compressed into proper usage and gone through it in a correctness-be-damned spirit, supplying back-formations with a more original take on Chinese nuances.  The result was sentences like “Roughly speaking, ch’ao [stir-frying] may be defined as a big-fire-shallow-fat-continual-stirring-quick-frying of cut-up material with wet seasoning.”  Anyone who has ever seen the action in a Chinese kitchen will recognize this as an unerring slap shot.

If, like me, you don’t think Chinese food is nearly as delicious as you remembered it from your childhood, you are right and this book explains why.

Dec 8 2016

Food Politics Alaska style: Supermarket prices

I visited the AC supermarket in Utqiagvik, the town formerly known as Barrow.

It could be anywhere USA, with anything you could possibly want, including fresh blueberries from Argentina.  How’s that for food miles?

Remember: all of this, no exceptions, comes in by cargo plane.

The produce section was lovely, with remarkably fresh foods at equally remarkable prices.

Would you believe the green leaf lettuce is $3.50, the baby carrots $7.29, and the romaine $4.69?  New York prices on steroids.

How about white potatoes at $3.29, red ones at $2.79, and baking potatoes at $18.99 for 10 pounds.

Or the reason I was so concerned about the tossed out school lunch milk cartons: $7.11 on sale.

How about bread on sale for $5.98 a loaf?

Just to make me feel at home, here are the sugary drinks down one entire aisle.  The 12-packs were on sale for $10.98, which must not be enough to discourage sales.

Are soft drinks a problem in Utqiagvik/Barrow?

Yes, they are.

The prevalence of obesity and diabetes is low, but rising steadily, and the Indian Health Service dentists told me that they see plenty of little kids with rotted teeth from drinking sodas and sweet juices in baby bottles.

The nutrition transition is taking place in America too, and for the same reasons that obesity and diabetes are becoming problems in the developing world.

Dec 7 2016

Food Politics Alaska Style: School Meals

I was in Alaska last week and got to spend a few days in Utqiagvik, the town formerly known as Barrow—thanks to an invitation from diabetes educators Angela Valdez and Laura Thomas.

Utqiagvik/Barrow is the northernmost city in the United States, several hundred miles above the arctic circle.  It has a population of about 4000, of which 60% are Inupiak, historically and today subsistence whale hunters.  

I visited the Fred Ipalook elementary school and observed its USDA federally subsidized lunch program for  100% of the kids. 

The meal consisted of a frozen juice cup (made from multiple juice concentrates), and previously frozen mashed potatoes, corn, and a steak patty.  All kids got the requisite carton of milk.

The lunch period was barely 20 minutes.  The littlest kids barely had time to eat the frozen juice, which they all ate first.

These kids don’t drink milk (for reasons of culture and lactose intolerance) and the milk cartons were mostly thrown out.   This seemed especially wasteful because milk is expensive here.  All foods are flown in and heavy ones cost a lot to send.

I wondered about alternative sources of vitamin D for kids who don’t drink milk (whale blubber for those who have it?).

Sunshine is not an option.  Here, for example, is my tourist photo taken at 11:00 a.m.  The sun never makes it over the horizon this time of year.

Tomorrow: Utqiagvik/Barrow supermarket and some comparison price shopping.

Dec 6 2016

GMO alfalfa, sugar beets, canola: U.S. trends

USDA has just released a report on the adoption of these three GM crops in the U.S.  Ordinarily, USDA just tracks corn, soybeans, and cotton.

Here’s a quick summary of trends in alfalfa (green), sugarbeets (red), and canola (blue):

Canola hovers at around 90% of total, sugar beets at 95%, and alfalfa (a perennial) is just getting started at a bit over 10%, but rising.

Why?  According to data summarized by USDA, yields are higher and herbicide use and labor costs are lower.

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