Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 9 2012

Proposition 37 take-home lesson: the power of money in politics

The take-home lesson from the defeat of Proposition 37—GMO labeling—is crystal clear.

As Tom Philpott explains in his Mother Jones post,

No fewer than two massive sectors of the established food economy saw it as a threat: the GMO seed/agrichemical industry, led by giant companies Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, and Bayer; and the food-processing/junk-food industries who transform GMO crops into profitable products, led by Kraft, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and their ilk. Collectively, these companies represent billions in annual profits; and they perceived a material threat to their bottom lines in the labeling requirement, as evidenced by the gusher of cash they poured into defeating it.

The proof lies in this remarkable graph of poll results produced by Pepperdine University/California Business Roundtable.  Polling results started to shift only after the October 1 start of the “No on 37″ television ad campaign.

Philpott and others see this defeat as just the beginning of a strong increase in public concern about the role of money in politics.

As for labeling of GMOs:  As I’ve said before, proposition 37 deserved support, and GMOs should be labeled.

In a way, it’s hard to understand why the industry thinks it is justified to put $46 million ($46 million!) into defeating a labeling initiative.   The world has not come to an end.

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In response to European public pressure, McDonald’s, another American company, produces its products without GMOs.

Demands for GMO labeling are not going to go away.

The heavy-handed industry campaign against labeling ought to have some consequences.  One is likely to be increasing support for efforts to Just Label It.

Addition:

I’ve just seen the tough analysis by Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island Journal:

As far as I can tell, the Prop 37 campaign failed to put together a field campaign capable of countering the flood of deceptive ads broadcast by the No campaign…

I don’t understand why the Prop 37 campaigners tried to fight on the airwaves in the first place. From Moment One they knew they would be hugely outspent on TV, radio and web ads…

When you’re the underdog, you don’t go toe-to-toe with the big guy. You have to resort to asymmetrical warfare, guerilla warfare. In electoral politics, that means prioritizing the ground war(organizers and activists) over the air war (paid advertisements)…

the good food movement needs to recommit itself to building power through old-fashioned, Saul Alinsky style organizing.

Nov 7 2012

The election is over (whew): what’s next?

My post-hurricane Manhattan apartment still does not have telephone, internet, or television service, so I followed the election results on Twitter.

I knew that President Obama had been reelected when the Empire State Building turned on blue lights.

What’s ahead for food politics?

With the election out of the way, maybe the FDA can now:

  • Release final food safety rules (please!)
  • Issue proposed rules for front-of-package labels
  • Issue proposed rules for revising food labels
  • Require “added sugars” to be listed on labels
  • Define “natural”
  • Clarify “whole grain”
  • Release rules for menu labeling in fast-food restaurants

Maybe the USDA can

  • Release nutrition standards for competitive foods served in schools

And maybe Congress can pass the farm bill?

As for lessons learned:

  • The food industry has proven that it can defeat consumer initiatives by spending lots of money: $45 to $50 million on California’s Proposition 37 (GMO labeling), $4 million on soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte.
  • But if enough such initiatives get started, food companies might get the message?
The election leaves plenty of work to do.  Get busy!
Nov 5 2012

Tuesday: Vote with your vote!

Tuesday’s election has huge implications for food politics (see previous post).  I’ve been asked to state an opinion.  In case myviews are not obvious, here’s what I’m voting for and hoping you will too:

  • If you care abou the issues discusssed here: Vote to reelect President Obama.
  • If you live in California, lead the nation: Vote YES on 37 (GMO labels).
  • If you live in Richmond, CA: Vote YES on Measures N and O (soda taxes and where that money will go).
  • If you live in El Monte, CA: Vote YES on Measure H (soda taxes).

It’s great to vote with your fork.  But the food movement needs real votes.

Vote with your vote!

Nov 3 2012

Tuesday’s election: Food politics at issue

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the implication of Tuesday’s election for food politics.

Q: Neither of the presidential candidates is saying much about food issues. Do you think the election will make any difference to Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve children’s health?

A: Of course it will. For anyone concerned about the health consequences of our current food system, the upcoming election raises an overriding issue: Given food industry marketing practices, should government use its regulatory powers to promote public health or leave it up to individuals to take responsibility for dealing with such practices?

Republicans generally oppose federal intervention in public health matters – witness debates over health care reform – whereas Democrats appear more amenable to an active federal role.

The Democratic platform states: “With prevention and treatment initiatives on obesity and public health, Democrats are leading the way on supporting healthier, more physically active families and healthy children.”

Policy or lifestyle?

In contrast, the Republican platform states: “When approximately 80 percent of health care costs are related to lifestyle – smoking, obesity, substance abuse – far greater emphasis has to be put upon personal responsibility for health maintenance.”

At issue is the disproportionate influence of food and beverage corporations over policies designed to address obesity and its consequences. Sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, for short) are a good example of how the interests of food and beverage corporations dominate American politics.

Because regular consumption of sodas is associated with increased health risks, an obvious public health strategy is to discourage overconsumption. The job of soda companies, however, is to sell more soda, not less. As a federal health official explained last year, policies to reduce consumption of any food are “fraught with political challenges not associated with clinical interventions that focus on individuals.”

Corporate spending

One such challenge is corporate spending on contributions to election campaigns. Although soda political action committees tend to donate to incumbent candidates from both parties, soda company executives overwhelmingly favor the election of Mitt Romney.

As reported in the Oct. 12 issue of the newsletter Beverage Digest, soda executives view the re-election of President Obama as a “headwind” that could lead to greater regulation of advertising and product claims, aggressive safety inspections and characterizations of sodas as contributors to obesity. In contrast, they think a win by Mitt Romney likely to usher in “more beneficial regulatory and tax policies.”

As for lobbying, what concerns soda companies is revealed by disclosure forms filed with the Senate Public Records Office. Coca-Cola reports lobbying on, among other issues, agriculture, climate change, health and wellness, and competitive foods sold in schools. PepsiCo reports lobbying on marketing and advertising to children. Their opinions on such issues can be surmised.

But Coca-Cola also says it lobbies to “oppose programs and legislation that discriminate against specific foods and beverages” and to “promote programs that allow customers to make informed choices about the beverages they buy.”

Lobbyists

Soda companies have lobbied actively against public health interventions recommended by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity in 2010 and adopted as goals of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

Implementation of several interventions – more informative food labels, restrictions on misleading health claims, limits on sodas and snacks sold in schools, menu-labeling in fast-food restaurants, and food safety standards – has been delayed, reportedly to prevent nanny-state public health measures from becoming campaign issues.

To counter New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 16-ounce cap on soda sales, the industry invested heavily in advertisements, a new website and more, all focused on “freedom of choice” – in my mind, a euphemism for protecting sales.

Soda tax

Although the obesity task force suggested that taxing sodas was worth studying, the American Beverage Association lobbied to “oppose proposals to tax sugary beverages” at the federal level. The soda industry reports spending more than $2 million to defeat Richmond’s soda tax ballot initiative Measure N, outspending tax advocates by 87 to 1.

In opposing measures to reduce obesity, the soda industry is promoting corporate health over public health and personal responsibility over public health.

Supporters of public health have real choices on Tuesday. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Let’s Move will get another chance.

Nov 2 2012

Mother Jones: How the industry minimized (and minimizes) the health effects of sugars

One of the great ironies of food politics these days is this: while journalists and scientists are increasingly documenting the health consequences of diets way too high in added sugars, the producers of two forms of those sugars—sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—are doing everything they can to decrease their rivals’ market shares.

Once the election is over, I will write about the ugly legal battles between the producers of sugar cane and beets (sucrose) and the corn refiners who produce HFCS.  But in the meantime, don’t miss the current issue of Mother Jones.

It has just published an investigative report by journalist Gary Taubes and dental health administrator Cristen Kearns Couzens:  Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies: How the industry kept scientists from asking: Does sugar kill?

Their report is a detailed account of how the sugar industry manipulated scientists and government officials into overlooking the health problems caused by overconsumption of sugars and instead focusing on overconsumption of dietary fat (both removed from their caloric context, alas).

Their winning campaign, crafted with the help of the prestigious public relations firm Carl Byoir & Associates, had been prompted by a poll showing that consumers had come to see sugar as fattening, and that most doctors suspected it might exacerbate, if not cause, heart disease and diabetes.

With an initial annual budget of nearly $800,000 ($3.4 million today) collected from the makers of Dixie Crystals, Domino, C&H, Great Western, and other sugar brands, the association recruited a stable of medical and nutritional professionals to allay the public’s fears, brought snack and beverage companies into the fold, and bankrolled scientific papers that contributed to a “highly supportive” FDA ruling, which, the Silver Anvil application boasted, made it “unlikely that sugar will be subject to legislative restriction in coming years.”

The report is accompanied by riveting background information, examples of sugar advertisements, and formerly confidential documents:

Much of what’s in this report came as news to me, but is consistent with what I know.  Here, for example, is a comparison of the increasingly complicated and obfuscated sugar recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from 1980 through 2010:

  • 1980     Avoid too much sugar.
  • 1985     Avoid too much sugar.
  • 1990     Use sugars only in moderation.
  • 1995     Choose a diet moderate in sugars.
  • 2000    Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars.
  • 2005     Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners, such as amounts suggested by the USDA Food Guide and the DASH eating plan.
  • 2010     Reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars.

“Avoid too much sugar” is still good advice.
And here’s a photo of a billboard in Guatamala, taken a couple of years ago by anthropologist Emily Yates-Doerr.  If the sugar industry isn’t selling enough sugar here, might as well push it onto people in emerging economies.

Curl up with Mother Jones over the weekend , hopefully one free of hurricanes (I, along with many others, am still waiting for electricity, water, and heat).

Nov 1 2012

Energy drinks: Why deregulation is not such a good idea

Concerns that highly caffeinated Monster Energy drinks might be responsible for the recent deaths of at least five young adults are, as I see it, a direct result of deregulation of food oversight.

Here’s my version of the history leading up to the present situation:

  • In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which in essence deregulated dietary supplements, permitted them to be labeled and regulated as supplements, not foods, and removed much of FDA’s authority over their contents and health claims.
  • The dietary supplement industry, as I explain in Food Politics, wrote much of the key language of this law.
  • When the FDA tried to enforce its food rules for supplements, the courts ruled in favor of manufacturers on First Amendment grounds.
  • Because rules for supplements are less restrictive than those for foods, some manufacturers prefer labeling their products as supplements.
  • Monster Energy drinks are labeled as supplements, removing them from much of FDA’s authority.

The results of DSHEA, in this case, are explained by the New York Times:

But while the F.D.A. regularly makes adverse event reports about drugs and medical devices publicly available, it does not do so for dietary supplements like energy drinks. Because of that policy, consumers had no way of knowing of the complaints about Monster Energy drinks before incident reports were released by the F.D.A. in response to a formal Freedom of Information Act request.

Also, while supplement makers have been required since late 2007 to alert the F.D.A. to possible product-related deaths and injuries, Monster Beverage submitted just one such report to the agency over the last four years, agency officials said.

Most likely because of their high caffeine content, sales of energy drinks are rising rapidly, as shown in this graphic from the Times:

Booming sales means booming profits, and the makers of energy drinks are under pressure to cash in.  That sometimes means cutting corners or not always matching contents to labels.

For example, a Consumer Reports investigation of the caffeine content of energy drinks identified some discrepancies.

Caffeine levels per serving ranged from about 6 milligrams to 242 milligrams per serving—and some containers have more than one serving. The highest level was in 5-hour Energy Extra Strength; the lowest in the seemingly oxymoronic 5-hour Energy Decaf…By comparison, an 8-ounce cup of coffee has about 100 milligrams; a 16-ounce Starbucks Grande, 330 milligrams.

Five of the 16 products that list a specific amount of caffeine…had more than 20 percent above their labeled amount on average in the samples we tested. On the other hand, one…had caffeine about 70 percent below the labeled amount.

Consumer Reports noted one other key point: the FDA considers caffeine as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) and does not require amounts to be listed on labels.

A representative of the Monster Beverage Corporation explained that his company does not list caffeine levels “because there is no legal or commercial business requirement to do so, and also because our products are completely safe, and the actual numbers are not meaningful to most consumers.”

Consumer Reports points out that Monster drinks—like those of 16 other products—warn against use by children, pregnant or nursing women, and people sensitive to caffeine, and recommend a daily limit.

Whether the Monster Energy drinks are really responsible for the reported deaths will not be easy to establish.  One victim, age 14, is said to have consumed two 24-ounce Monster drinks containing 240 mg caffeine each within a day or two.

That energy drinks are labeled as supplements ties the FDA’s hands in dealing with such products.

Here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Label energy drinks with standard Nutrition Facts panels.
  • Require amounts of caffeine to be stated on the label.
  • Limit the amount of caffeine that can be included in soft drinks.

Two Senators (Durban and Blumenthal)—not for the first time—are pushing the FDA to investigate.  Good idea.  I can only speculate about why the FDA isn’t responding, but I’m guessing that this issue, like so many others, is too controversial to take up during an election campaign.

Soon, please.

Oct 30 2012

Is USDA changing its sugar consumption estimates? Why?

If I weren’t so concerned about USDA’s dropping its data on calories in the food supply (see previous post), I might not have become so alarmed about the New York Times report on the sudden drop in estimates of sugar consumption.

USDA provides data on amounts reported as consumed, from 1970 to 2011.

These have declined, not necessarily because people are eating less but because USDA changed its methods.

According to the Times account:

In e-mails the center obtained through a Freedom of Information request, officials at sugar industry trade groups discussed the benefits of the lower estimate and how they might persuade the U.S.D.A. to make a change that would reduce it even more.

“We perceive it to be in our interest to see as low a per-capita sweetener consumption estimate as possible,” Jack Roney, director of economics and policy analysis at the American Sugar Alliance, wrote in an e-mail on March 30, 2011.

These figures are for reported intake—always an underestimate.

Reported intake is much lower than amounts of sugars available for consumption—amounts produced, less exports, plus imports—always an overestimate (the truth lies somewhere in between).

Food availability figures also indicate declines, but suggest that Americans have access to about 65 pounds a year each of table sugar and corn syrup for more than 130 pounds per year total.

None of these figures is precise.  But if the methods for calculation are the same every year, trends should be discernible.

Adjusting for waste introduces new sources of error and makes trends impossible to determine.

The USDA used to re-correct the entire food availability series when making changes in methods.  Why aren’t its data collectors doing that now?

We neeed USDA to be keeping up with food availability data.  What to do?

Oct 29 2012

Why isn’t USDA keeping up its series on calories in the food supply?

In November 2011, I wrote about my frustration over the USDA’s discontinuation of a data set it had published continuously since 1909: Nutrients in the Food Supply.   For unfathomable (to me) reasons, USDA stopped the data set in 2006.

For decades—since 1909—USDA has converted information about food availability (the amount of food produced in the U.S., less exports, plus imports) to per capita nutrient availability in a continuous series (it also publishes data on calorie intakes from certain foods). 

This is the data set I use to explain how calories in the food supply have increased to today’s 3,900 per person per day from 3200 in 1980—an increase of 700 calories per day in parallel with rising rates of obesity.

USDA stopped this series in 2006. It now only publishes calorie supply figures that have been adjusted for waste. 

When I wrote USDA to ask whether more recent data were available, here’s what I got back (in its entirety):

Because of other project priorities the Food Supply project has been curtailed.  There are programming issues to which we haven’t been able to devote available resources.

In July this year, I wrote letters to everyone I could think of at USDA who might shed some light on this and, hopefully, restore the data set.  Although I hated to bother her, I even wrote to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

Her reply: 

 As I will discuss in a later post this week about USDA’s data on sugar availability, the agency seems to be changing the way it evaluates food supply data. 

This is bizarre.  USDA must have figures on total calories available in the food supply.  Otherwise, how could it produce figures adjusted for waste? 

I’ve been concerned that I’m the only one who cares about this, but a similar issue has emerged about USDA data on sugar availability.  I’ll write about that once hurricane Sandy blows over.

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