Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 18 2012

The New England Journal takes on the food industry

Last week’s New England Journal of Medicine weighs in with several commentaries and research articles.  Some of these were published earlier in online versions:

And this week, it has another on using tax strategies to promote public health.

It looks to me as though the health establishment is finally catching on to what obesity is really about and giving serious thought to what to do about it.  This is important work.

Oct 17 2012

The latest dismal report on world hunger

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has just released the latest iteration of its annual report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012.

It’s bottom line estimate: 870 million people in the world are hungry, 852 million of them in developing countries.

The good news is that this figure represents a decline of 132 million people from 1990-92 to 2010-12, or from 18.6 percent to 12.5 percent of the world’s population.  In developing countries, the decline is from 23.2 percent to 14.9 percent.

The not-so-good news: Since 2007-2008, global progress in reducing hunger has slowed and leveled off, and hunger in Africa has gotten worse.

Much of the press attention to the report yawned at the major message but instead focused on errors in the previous estimates, which were higher.

the projections were wrong. They were calculated using figures from non-U.N. sources that were fed into the U.N.’s number-crunching model, because FAO was expected to quickly come up with an estimate of how many people might go hungry from the dual crises of high food prices and the global downturn

The UN bases its hunger projections on figures on population, food supply, food losses, dietary energy requirements, food distribution, and other factors.

The report contains other bad news.  While 870 million people remain hungry, the world confronts a double burden of malnutrition: 1.4 billion people are dealing with the consequences of overweight and obesity.

Focusing on the need to address world hunger Sir Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development, Imperial College, London writes in the Huffington Post:

as I set out in my latest book One billion hungry: can we feed the world?, I believe there is reason for optimism. Yes we can feed the world, but only if we accept that agricultural development is the best route to achieving sustainable economic growth in developing countries, and achieve an agriculture that is highly productive, stable, resilient and equitable.

Sounds like a good plan to me.  Let’s get busy.

Oct 16 2012

Big Soda to Bloomberg: We’ll see you in court

Mayor Bloomberg’s cap on soda sizes at 16 ounces has elicited a hard-hitting, Friday-afternoon (let’s hide it if we can), but otherwise well organized cease-and-desist lawsuit from the soft drink industry.

The suit, New York Statewide Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce et al. v. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene et al., is represented by Latham & Watkins, a law firm that often represents the American Beverage Association (ABA), the leading soft-drink trade group and one of the plaintiffs in this case.

Other plaintiffs are the Teamsters Local 812, the Korean-American Grocers Association of New York, the National Association of Theatre Owners of New York State, and—-no surprise—the National Restaurant Association.

These groups are all concerned that the soda cap might encourage people to reduce soda sales (its point, after all).  This would drive down profits for stores, concession stands in movie theaters, restaurants, and the people who distribute sugary beverages.

The basis of the suit includes these complaints [with my comments]:

  • The Board of Health does not have the legal authority to cap soda sizes at 16 ounces (only the City Council does): “This case is not about obesity in New York City,” the plaintiffs wrote in the opening sentence of the suit. “This case is about the Board of Health, appointed by the mayor, bypassing the proper legislative process for governing the city.” [Legal experts think that cities do have the authority to regulate public health, witness smoking bans, helmet laws, and seatbelt requirements]
  • The cap is a ban on personal freedom. [Nobody is stopping people from buying more soda if they want it]
  • Most New Yorkers oppose the soda cap. [Perhaps because of the extraordinarily expensive campaign conducted by the soda industry]
  • The cap is “arbitrary and capricious,” because it applies only to some businesses and targets only certain types of beverages: “Delis and hotdog stands are barred from selling a 20-ounce lemonade, but the 7-Eleven a few feet away remains free to sell Big Gulps.”  [The rule applies to all businesses over which the city has jurisdiction, so there is nothing arbitrary about it] 

This lawsuit is clearly about profits, not health.  Let’s hope the Court throws it out.

The first 14 of the documents are available in a zip file here (but only for the next week or so).

Oct 15 2012

Pro-Proposition 37 forces are getting busy

Michael Pollan has a terrific piece in this Sunday’s Times Magazine on why the food movement needs to get behind California’s Proposition 37, flaws and all.

California’s Proposition 37, which would require that genetically modified (G.M.) foods carry a label, has the potential to do just that — to change the politics of food not just in California but nationally too.

…sooner or later, the food movement will have to engage in the hard politics of Washington — of voting with votes, not just forks.

…Obama’s attitude toward the food movement has always been: What movement? I don’t see it. Show me. On Nov. 6, the voters of California will have the opportunity to do just that.

Helping this along are two videos from Food and Water Watch, both really well done.

And then there’s this one, from a creative pro-Prop 37 individual (was he suggesting that it’s OK to give Pepsi to that baby?  Not at all—see comment below from Ali Partavi).

Enjoy!  Whatever you think of GMOs, people want and have a right to know the source of their food.

Oct 12 2012

The latest in dietetic junk food

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) has just concluded its annual meeting and exhibition.

I was unable to attend but colleagues have been sending photos and giving me products or other objects collected at the exhibition.  This exhibition is always worth a look.  It typically features displays by food companies (Big Food and small) giving away samples of what I love to call “dietetic junk foods” in order to encourage dietitians to recommend them to clients.

Thanks to my NYU colleague, Lisa Sasson, for alerting me to these entertaining examples.

First: sugar-supplemented Stevia:

Next: The National Confectioners Association has a handy guide to moderate candy consumption:

Then: Frito-Lay (owned by PepsiCo) ‘s new Gluten-Free chips.

Potato chips did not ever contain gluten, but never mind.   They remind me of products offered during the low-carb craze a few years ago, like the ones I photographed when working on What to Eat in 2005.

Eat healthfully and enjoy the weekend!

Oct 11 2012

Big Soda vs. Richmond City Council

The latest disclosure figures show that Big Soda, in the guise of a community coalition, has spent $2.2 million to defeat the Richmond, CA soda tax initiative in November.

The pro-tax group report spending $25,293 so far.

This means Big Soda is outspending public health advocacy by 87 to 1—along with filing a successful lawsuit to keep from having to disclose its funding of the “community coalition.”

I can think of lots of good things Big Soda could do with that money in this community, none of them having to do with selling more soda.

David vs. Goliath on the November ballot?

Oct 10 2012

CSPI launches “Real Bears” Video. Hint: soda companies won’t like it.

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has just launched its new drink-less-soda initiative, “The Real Bears” video, just in time for Food Day on October 24.

According to USA Today, CSPI teamed up with

Alex Bogusky, the culturally influential ad legend whose former agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, has created ads for such hot-button clients as Burger King, Domino’s and, yes, Coca-Cola.

Bogusky left the agency world in disgust two years ago. Now, he’s back in a new role: taking on the cola industry….

The video is, to say the least, hard hitting.  I’m waiting for soda industry responses and will post them here.  Stay tuned.

 

Oct 9 2012

Big Soda to put calorie labels on vending machines in city offices in Chicago and San Antonio

Yesterday, Beverage Digest announced that the American Beverage Association (ABA) and its Big Soda members—PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Dr Pepper/Snapple—were starting a “new vending machine program to help combat obesity.”

The new “Calories Count Vending Program” starts in 2013 in city buildings in Chicago and San Antonio.

This, Beverage Digest says, “is what can happen when the industry and mayors work together, collaboratively.”   It quotes an executive from Dr Pepper Snapple: “this program is yet another example of how the beverage industry is providing meaningful solutions to help reduce obesity.”

Really?  If these companies really wanted to help reduce obesity, they might start by eliminating sugary drinks.  But never mind.  This is about politics, not health.

For one thing, calorie labels are going to have to go on most vending machines anyway, as soon as the FDA gets around to writing the regulations for them.

For another, this move heads off any attempt to introduce (horrors!) taxes on sodas or caps on bottle size in those two cities.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is quite clear about that.  He says his approach to the health issue “is better because it emphasizes personal responsibility.”

He prefers to have Chicago city workers compete with those from San Antonio for a $5 million grant from the ABA.  The ABA has also agreed to pay $1,000 to workers who meet health goals to be determined.

Although this might look like a bribe, Emanuel denies that the program is a payoff:

I believe firmly in personal responsibility,” the mayor said at a City Hall news conference with the pop company executives. “I believe in competition, and I believe in cash rewards for people that actually make progress in managing their health care.”

According to the New York Times, Mayor Emanuel actively sought the ABA grant.

If only personal responsibility worked, alas.  So much evidence now shows that it’s not enough to change behavior.  It is also necessary to create a food environment more favorable to making healthful choices.

That’s the public health approach taken by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg .  His approach is to make the food environment more conducive to healthful choices without anyone having to consciously think about them.  This approach is more likely to reduce soda consumption, which is why the ABA wants to head off taxes and caps.

Oh well.  Education is always a good thing, and here’s what the ABA says the vending machines will look like.

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