Apr 27 2012

American Enterprise Institute advocates single food-safety agency!

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. 

The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative (to say the least) think tank, has just issued a report on reforming the farm bill to ensure a safer food system.  Its stunning conclusion:

More feasibly, in the short to medium term, changes in food safety regulation should aim at correcting inconsistencies or loopholes that exist in US food safety laws.

For example, policymakers could merge the FSIS and the FDA to allow for a better allocation of resources and exploit potential return to scales.

Standardizing states’ detection systems for food-borne illnesses and collecting better data about the incidence of food-borne illnesses would make firms more accountable and help construct better food safety policies.

Merge the food safety functions of USDA and FDA?  This, of course, is precisely what food safety advocates and the Government Accountability Office have been urging since the early 1990s. 

Now, maybe, it has a chance?

Apr 26 2012

Walmart’s embarrassing bribery case

On April 22, the New York Times published an unusually lengthy account (front page plus three full pages) of how Walmart executives in Mexico bribed officials to allow the company to open stores in many locations in record time.

I was struck by the simplicity of the rationale for the illegal behavior (I’ve italicized the key points):

But The Times’s examination uncovered a prolonged struggle at the highest levels of Wal-Mart, a struggle that pitted the company’s much publicized commitment to the highest moral and ethical standards against its relentless pursuit of growth.

Under fire from labor critics, worried about press leaks and facing a sagging stock price, Wal-Mart’s leaders recognized that the allegations could have devastating consequences, documents and interviews show.

Wal-Mart de Mexico was the company’s brightest success story, pitched to investors as a model for future growth. (Today, one in five Wal-Mart stores is in Mexico.) Confronted with evidence of corruption in Mexico, top Wal-Mart executives focused more on damage control than on rooting out wrongdoing.

As I keep saying, Wall Street pressures on corporations not only to make profits, but to grow profits every quarter, are the root cause of much food company corruption and corner-cutting.

 

Apr 25 2012

What’s up with mad cow?

You have to feel sorry for the beef industry.  First pink slime, now a mad cow.

Here’s what we know about the latest mad cow scare (the USDA has a page devoted to mad cow disease, so does the FDA, and I wrote about it in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).

  • Mad cow is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a fatal disease caused by abnormal proteins (prions) in the brain and nervous system.
  • The disease affected 37,311 cows in Great Britain in 1992.
  • In 2011, there were only 29 cases worldwide.
  • No human case has been seen in the U.S., except for one in a woman who moved here from England at the time.
  • The affected cow found in California is only the fourth in the U.S. since the testing program started a decade ago.
  • The USDA tests about 40,000 cows a year out of the 34 million slaughtered. 
  • This one was evidently high risk.  It died and was sent to a rendering plant.  It either looked suspicious enough to be singled out for testing or was picked up on routine testing.
  • When the test came back positive, authorities impounded the carcass.
  • It never entered the food supply for either people or pets.
  • How it got the disease in the first place is either unknown or undisclosed.  The most likely possibility is that the disease developed spontaneously (as it does occasionally in older cows).

According to the Wall Street Journal,

The disease was detected on a cow carcass taken in for rendering last Wednesday at an animal-rendering plant in Hanford, Calif., said Dennis Luckey, vice president of Baker Commodities Inc., a Los Angeles-based processor of animal byproducts that operates the facility.

Mr. Luckey said the cow had died at a dairy he couldn’t immediately identify, saying that information was in the hands of the USDA.

The plant renders cows that have died to make commodities such as “high-protein ingredients for poultry feed and pet food,” according to Baker’s website.

During the British mad cow scare of the 1990s, people eating beef and cats eating cow byproducts got the disease, but dogs did not. 

The USDA is issuing assurances that the system is working since mad cow prions from this cow did not get into the food supply for people or pets.

My assessment: The risk of you getting this disease from eating beef is extremely small.

You don’t find this reassuring? Eat your veggies!

Apr 24 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Starting a healthy lifestyle early

On Tuesdays, I answer questions about nutrition in NYU’s student newspaper, the Washington Square News.  Today’s is about youthful immortality.

Question: Many students have expressed that, being so young, they can eat whatever they want and stay thin. What kind of implications does the type of food we eat have on our body weight? If a student is thin but eats bad foods, are there still detrimental effects? Additionally, at what age does what you eat tend to have the biggest effect on you?
Answer: It’s not only youth that keeps college students trim. It’s the lifestyle: running to classes, late nights studying or partying, irregular meals, eating on the run. Once students get past the hurdle of the “freshman 15″ — the weight gain that comes from unlimited access to meal plans — most do not gain weight in college.

It’s what happens afterward that counts. Even the most interesting jobs can require long hours in front of a computer or chained to a desk. Eating out of boredom becomes routine and, once middle age hits, it’s all over. The metabolic rate drops with age, and you can’t eat the same way you used to without putting on pounds.

The college years are a great time to start behaving in ways that will promote lifetime health. If you smoke cigarettes, stop while you can. Don’t binge drink. Practice safe sex.

As for diet, eat your veggies. Whenever you can, eat real foods, shop at farmers’ markets and learn to cook. Cooking is a skill that will bring you — and your family and friends — great pleasure throughout life. If you cook, you will always have the most delicious and healthiest of diets at your fingertips.

You don’t know how? Try an Internet search for “free cooking lessons online.” Mark Bittman’s Minimalist videos, for example, make things simple with results that can be spectacular.

Do the best you can to eat well now, and think of it as easy life insurance.

Apr 23 2012

Gatorade: the new health food?

On April 20, I received a letter from a Gatorade PR person commenting on one of my posts reposted at the Atlantic Health/Food section.

After reading the letter, I searched my posts for references to Gatorade but can’t find anything specific other than my reporting the more than $100 million a year Pepsi spends to advertise this product.

So I’m guessing the letter must be referring to my comments about sports drinks in general:

Hi Marion –

I recently read your article in The Atlantic and would like to make sure you have the most current information. Your article criticizes sports drinks, advising against them because the sugars and carbs will make you fat. It also discusses the main sweetener in most sports drinks is high fructose corn syrup.

I would like to point out the carbohydrates and calories are functional in Gatorade, a sports drink, and are meant to provide fuel specifically for athletes.

The ingredients in Gatorade are backed by years of scientific research that support the need for carbohydrate sugars for fuel during training or competition and we only recommend Gatorade during the active occasion.

Also, high fructose corn syrup is not an ingredient in any Gatorade products.

For those looking for a lower-calorie sports beverage, Gatorade offers G2, which delivers the same amount of electrolytes as original Gatorade but with half the calories. Gatorade also recently introduced G Series FIT 02 Perform, which is designed for a fitness athlete and has 10 calories per 8oz serving.

Please let me know if you have any questions or need any additional information.

Best,

Katie Montiel, Gatorade Communications

I’m always happy to hear from interested readers.

And aren’t you glad to know that sugar is a functional (translation: “good-for-you”) ingredient in Gatorade?

Apr 20 2012

Where are we on BPA?

BPA has become a classic example of how point of view influences decisions about low-dose chemicals in the food supply for which the science is uncertain.

If you are a believer in the “precautionary principle,” any suggestion of harm is enough to support banning BPA until it is proven safe.

European countries tend to subscribe to the precautionary principle.  Sweden, for example, has just banned BPA.

If, on the other hand, you believe that nothing should be banned until incontrovertibly demonstrated by science to cause harm, you won’t act against BPA until the evidence for harm is overwhelming.

That’s the FDA’s position.  Even though the FDA is troubled by the lack of better information about the safety of BPA, it recently denied a petition from the National Resources Defense Council to ban it (see FDA Law Blog for details).

Although FDA is not persuaded by the data and information in your petition to initiate rulemaking to revoke the food additive approvals for BPA, FDA will continue in its broader and more comprehensive review of emerging data and information on BPA.

This tells me that the FDA is plenty worried about BPA but will not (or cannot) act without more evidence.

The FDA’s main page on BPA says:

At this interim stage, FDA shares the perspective of the National Toxicology Program that recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children.

Its page on the chemical nature of BPA explains that because it is used to make a hard, clear plastic used for reusable water bottles (including baby bottles) and epoxy resins that line the inside of metal-based food and beverage cans, BPA is extremely widespread in the food supply.

The FDA first approved BPA in the early 1960s. In 2008, the agency released a draft report judging BPA safe in food contact materials. In 2010 and again on March 30, 2012, the FDA issued an interim update on BPA.

These reports say that the FDA considers BPA safe at current levels of exposure, but also suggest that reducing exposure is a good idea.

Thus, the FDA’s consumer page on BPA says

The Food and Drug Administration’s assessment is that the scientific evidence at this time does not suggest that the very low levels of human exposure to BPA through the diet are unsafe [note obfuscating double negative].

The agency has performed extensive research on BPA, has reviewed hundreds of other studies, and is continuing to address questions and potential concerns raised by certain studies [it must be desperate for answers].

FDA scientists have also recently determined that exposure to BPA through foods for infants is much less than had been previously believed and that the trace amounts of the chemical that enter the body, whether it’s an adult or a child, are rapidly metabolized and eliminated [if true, this should come as a huge relief].

FDA’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, offers advice for parents about BPA, reiterating its safety, but asking:

Q: Should I throw away baby bottles that contain BPA?

A: Parents should examine bottles and discard them if worn or scratched because scratches can both harbor germs and, in BPA-containing bottles, lead to greater release of BPA.  For those who want to use baby bottles and feeding cups not made with BPA, consumers should know that such products are now widely available in the U.S. market.

What all this means is that the FDA is sticking to—or has to stick to—a science-based position on BPA, but it is hedging bets by urging parents and the public to apply the precautionary principle and avoid BPA whenever possible.

This shifts the burden of protection against harm from the government to you.

Does this make sense?  I don’t think so.  You?

Apr 19 2012

Books: thinking about food

Two thoughtful books about how to think about food:

Peter Kaminsky, Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy (And Really Well), Knopf, 2012.

I blurbed this one:

Peter Kaminsky’s rules for taking pounds off and keeping them off are based on a really good idea: flavor per calorie.  That works for him and should make dieting a pleasure.

His chapter titles get the tone and flavor: The fundamentals of flavor, the elements of taste; the joy of cooking.  And he offers a practical guide to restaurant dining.  Most useful.  He’s a good writer and the book is fun to read.

Barb Stuckey, Taste: What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good, Free Press, 2012.

Stuckey is a professional food developer for whom understanding what makes for taste and flavor is essential.  This chatty and accessible book is a great introduction to how and what we taste, and why.  She ends it with a chapter on 15 ways to get more from every bite.  My favorite: “be adventurous, but patient.”

Apr 18 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Consuming Calories

On Tuesdays, I answer questions about nutrition for NYU’s student newspaper, the Washington Square News.  Yesterday’s was about when calories count.

Question: With finals approaching ,many students will be staying up very late. Is the time of day important in relation to when you are consuming most of your calories? What are some good late-night, study snack options for students?

Answer: Having just written a book about calories, they are much on my mind. Here is one take-home lesson from the book. If you look only at body weight, calories are the determining factor. If you eat more calories than you need, you gain weight no matter where the calories come from.

But if you care about health, the source of the calories is crucial. What can be confusing about this distinction is that eating a healthy diet — one with plenty of vegetables, fruits and grains and only occasional junk food — makes it much easier to balance calories.

The two results of what you eat — weight and health — are closely linked.

Does when you eat matter? From a strictly caloric standpoint, no. If you haven’t overeaten during the day, adding calories late at night should not be a problem.

But if you habitually add late-night calories to full meals during the day, you might find your weight creeping up. Some studies show that the more times a day people eat, the more calories they consume. But others find that consuming small amounts of food throughout the day helps people maintain weight. You need to figure out for yourself which pattern works best.

The only way to tell if you are eating the right amount of calories is to weigh yourself regularly. If your weight is going up, you might want to avoid adding calories in late-night snacks.

What’s a reasonable snack? Any real, relatively unprocessed food is always a good choice: fruits, vegetables, nuts, yogurt, cheese, crackers, sandwiches, salads. Even pizza can do the trick if it’s thin crust and not overflowing with cheese.

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