Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 14 2013

Barclays agrees to stop speculating on food. Is Fred Kaufman responsible?

World Development Movement proudly announces that Barclays bank has agreed to stop speculation on food commodities.  Betting on food drives up world food prices.

Until now, Barclays has been the leading UK bank involved in speculation on food including staples like wheat, maize and soy. The bank made up to an estimated £500 million from speculating on food in 2010 and 2011.

The effects of speculation on world hunger is the reason why Fred Kaufman wrote Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food (Wiley, 2012).  As I noted in an earlier post, his book is a riveting account of how banks make money by treating food as a speculative widget, driving up prices, and adding global hunger.

Did Bet the Farm have anything to do with shaming Barclay’s into doing the right thing?

World Development Movement takes credit.  Kaufman should too.

Feb 13 2013

Petition to FDA: it’s time to put “added sugars” on food labels

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) held a press conference this morning to announce that 10 health departments, 20 health and consumer organizations, and 41 health professionals (including me) have signed a letter in support of its petition asking the FDA to:

  • Initiate a rule-making proceeding to ensure that the content of sucrose and HFCS in beverages is limited to safe levels consistent with authoritative recommendations. 
  • Revise the “Sugars” line on Nutrition Facts labels to address “added sugars.”
  • Set targets for lower levels of added sugars in other foods that provide significant amounts. 
  • Conduct a public education campaign to encourage consumers to consume less added sugars.
Why?  Check out CSPI’s infographic:  Sugar: Too Much of a Sweet Thing.
The petition also asks the FDA to work with the food industry to:
  • Limit the sale of oversized sugar-sweetened beverages in restaurants
  • Limit the sale of oversized sugar-sweetened beverages from vending machines
  • Develop means to reduce the use of added sugars.

Our letter of support begins:

The undersigned scientists and organizations are concerned about Americans’ excess consumption of added sugars…Every edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (going back to 1980) has recommended reducing consumption of added sugars, but Americans are consuming more added sugars (including sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and other caloric sweeteners) now than they did in 1980. And that high level of consumption…is contributing to serious health problems.

If the situation with trans fats was any indication, the food industry will reduce the sugars in its products if it has to disclose them.

This is not the first time that CSPI has tried to get added sugars labeled (see petition from 1999).  I’m hoping the letter of support will encourage the FDA to take action this time.

Maybe it will even put sugars on front-of-package labels, as the Institute of Medicine suggested in 2011.

Feb 11 2013

My small share of Ed Koch’s legacy: an apartment in New York

Among the many articles about former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who died on February 1, almost all mentioned his rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village.   Few noted that NYU owned its building.

Several readers of this blog, knowing that I have lived in that apartment since Koch moved out, suggested I say a word  about it.  This is not the first time I’ve been asked.  I told some of the story to the New York Times in 2002.

As the Times reported last week,

In 1967, he [Koch] moved to a one-bedroom unit at 14 Washington Place. This was the rent-controlled apartment that he originally considered more appealing than Gracie Mansion. It had a working fireplace and the occasional rodent visitor — though no cockroaches. And besides, he told a reporter, “I know where everything is.”

“It’s small. I like it. It’s me,” he said, just before assuming office. “I don’t care what anybody says: I won’t give it up.”

I arrived in New York in the fall of 1988 when I joined the NYU faculty as chair of what was then called the Department of Home Economics and Nutrition (now the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health).

NYU rents housing to some of its faculty, and assigned me to a small, one-bedroom apartment in what used to be the maid’s quarters at the back of one of the university’s town houses on Washington Square.  The apartment had no kitchen.  The refrigerator in the living room.  When I complained, they insisted this was an improvement; the previous tenant kept it in her bedroom.

I was new to New York real estate, and longed for something more appropriate for someone who cares about food.

I got my chance a year later when Ann Marcus became dean of my school.  She arranged for me to meet the head of NYU’s  housing office to discuss options.  I missed California and wanted a garden.  Well, he said, it’s too bad about the Koch apartment.  It has a large terrace—but Koch will never move.

That surprised me.  I had just read that Koch, who had just lost the primary election to David Dinkins, was negotiating for an apartment at 2 Fifth Avenue.  His sister Pat worked at NYU.   I went straight to her and explained that this was about an apartment in New York.  Was her brother really leaving?  “He’s packing this weekend,” she told me, “go take a look.”

I did and found the Mayor on the telephone surrounded by bodyguards.

They said “Do you have any idea how lucky you are?  His new apartment may be bigger, but this one is nicer.”

Really?  This seemed like a stretch.  Every inch was covered with furniture and the closets were so full that stuff fell out of them when I opened the doors.  Yards of dark green paint were hanging off the ceilings.  The window shades were drawn—security—and the place was dark.

But the terrace!

By the time I moved in three months later, NYU had done a renovation.  The walls shone with white paint.   The galley kitchen had been converted to a pass-through. The fireplace worked.  The terrace had new tiles.  I could see the Empire State Building from the living room window.  It would do just fine.

I still had to cope with the bullet-proof windows that hardly opened, the heavy security doors, and the secure telephone lines that cost $300 to replace.  And the rent was a lot more than Koch’s $475.

That was 1990.  I’ve now lived in the apartment as long as Koch did.   I’m still grateful to him for leaving at just the right time.

I feel the same way about the apartment that he did:

It’s small. I like it. It’s me. I won’t give it up.

Feb 8 2013

Rumor: the White House is holding out for weak calorie labeling

I hope the rumors I’m hearing are not true.

What sources are telling me is that the White House has decided not to allow the FDA to require calorie labels in movie theaters or anywhere else where selling food is not the primary business.

If these rumors have any validity, this situation is a sad commentary on how corporate pressures are undermining Michelle Obama’s Let Move campaign.

There is no practical reason that keeps movie theaters from posting calorie labels.

Plenty are already doing it.  New York City has had calorie labeling in movie theaters since 2008.  And guess what?  The world has not come to an end.

It’s approaching three years since President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, which authorizes national calorie labeling.

But the FDA still has not issued final rules, reportedly because the White House is holding them up.

The delay has left plenty of time for industry lobbying and pushback.

If the new rules exempt movie theaters and other such places, New York will not be able to continue requiring them to post the information.  That would be a significant setback.

So would exempting prepared foods in chain groceries and convenience stores, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest makes clear.

If you have concerns about this issue, send a message to Mrs. Obama at the White House.

Menu labeling that covers movie theaters as well as fast-food places will help people make healthier food choices.  It will also be a significant achievement of Let’s Move.

In the meantime, I’m keeping fingers crossed that the rumors are false.

Feb 7 2013

Yet another food worry? Nanoparticles.

As You Sow, an advocacy group for environmental corporate accountability, has been paying close attention to nanotechnology.  It has just issued a report, Slipping Through the Cracks: An Issue Brief on Nanomaterials in Foods.

An Issue Brief on Nanomaterials in Foods

 

According to an account in the New York Times, the CEO of As You Sow, Andy Behar, says:

We’re not taking a no nano position…We’re saying just show it’s safe before you put these things into food or food packaging.
Nanotechnology, as I have discussed previously, is the use of tiny particles for many purposes, among them food.  These particles are really, really small, on the scale of nanometers (nm), one billionth, or 10−9, of a meter.
Are they safe to eat?

The FDA’s nanotechnology web page provides a 2007 report from a task force, a 2012 fact sheet, and a draft-for-comment on how industry should deal with nanoparticles in foods and food packaging.

The fact sheet says:

FDA has long encountered the combination of promise, risk, and uncertainty that accompanies emerging technologies…The very changes in biological, chemical and other properties that can make nanotechnology applications so exciting also may merit examination to determine any effects on product safety, effectiveness, or other attributes. Understanding nanotechnol­ogy remains a top FDA priority. FDA is monitoring the evolving science and has a robust research agenda to help assess the safety and effectiveness of products using nanotechnology.

My translation: the FDA has no idea whether this technology is safe or not and is depending on industry to find out.

Because the FDA does not require labeling of nanomaterials (the European Union does), you have to decide for yourself whether this is something you want to add to your list of food worries.

Just a thought: real foods don’t have added nanoparticles.

Feb 6 2013

New books in my library

Philip Ackerman-Leist.  Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems. Chelsea Green 2013.

Rebuilding the Foodshed introduces readers to local food systems in all their complexities.  In moving from industrial to regional food systems, communities must consider an enormous range of factors, from geographic to socioeconomic.  Difficult as doing this may be, this book makes it clear that the results are well worth the effort in their benefits to farmers and farm workers, as well as to eaters.   This book is on the reading list for my food advocacy class at NYU this summer.

John Ayto.  The Diner’s Dictionary: Word Origins of Food & Drink, 2nd ed.  Oxford, 2012.

The Diner's Dictionary: Word Origins of Food and Drink

The is the second edition of a book first published in 1990, long before the food movement really got going.  You won’t find an entry for locavore.  It’s also British. You will find an entry for lobscouse: “from its name comes the term scouse ‘Liverpudlian’, which has come into wide use since the Second World War.”  I happen to adore this sort of scholarly discussion and delighted to have this book, but it may be a bit of an acquired taste.

 

Feb 5 2013

USDA proposes rules for “competitive” snack foods

At long last, the USDA announced that it has released its proposed rules governing the nutritional content of snacks, sodas, and meals sold in competition with federally subsidized school breakfasts and lunches.

As soon as the rules get published in the Federal Register, which is supposed to happen this week, people will have 60 days to file comments.  Although USDA has not said when it will issue final rules, it did say that it will give schools another year to implement them.

The rules apply to foods sold outside the school meals in vending machines and a la carte lines.  They will not apply to fundraisers.  They set minimum standards.  States and localities that want stricter standards may do so.  A recent CDC analysis says states are already doing this (see Competitive Foods and Beverages in U.S. Schools: A State Policy Analysis).

Under the proposed rules, schools must provide:

  • Potable water at no charge [this alone is cause for celebration].
  • Real foods that are either something recognizable as a food or something that naturally contains 10% of the Daily Value in calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber.
  • Snacks with less than 200 mg sodium per serving.
  • Desserts with less than 35% of calories from sugars or less than 35% of weight as sugars.
  • Beverages with no more than 40 or 50 calories per 8-ounce serving.

There are plenty of exceptions.   I can only guess that the exemption for sweetened yogurt—30 grams of sugars in 8 ounces—has something to do with dairy lobbying.

My immediate reaction: these rules are a big improvement and deserve much support.

Applause to USDA for this one!

Feb 3 2013

Soda-size cap is a public health issue

Here’s my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column from the San Francisco Chronicle. The question (edited) came from a reader of this blog.

Q: You view New York City’s cap on any soda larger than 16 ounces as good for public health. I don’t care if sodas are bad for us. The question is “Whose choice is it?” And what role should the nanny state play in this issue?

A: Your question comes up at a time when the New York State Supreme Court is hearing arguments about whether New York City’s health department has the right to establish a limit on soda sizes.

As an advocate for public health, I think a soda cap makes sense. Sixteen ounces provides two full servings, about 50 grams of sugars, and 200 calories – 10 percent of daily calories for someone who consumes 2,000 calories a day.

That’s a generous amount. In the 1950s, Coca-Cola advertised this size as large enough to serve three people.

You may not care whether sodas are bad for health, but plenty of other people do. These include, among others, officials who must spend taxpayer dollars to care for the health of people with obesity-related chronic illnesses, employers dealing with a chronically ill workforce, the parents and teachers of overweight children, dentists who treat tooth decay, and a military desperate for recruits who can meet fitness standards.

Poor health is much more than an individual, personal problem. If you are ill, your illness has consequences for others.

That is where public health measures come in. The closest analogy is food fortification. You have to eat vitamins and iron with your bread and cereals whether you want to or not. You have to wear seat belts in a car and a helmet on a motorcycle. You can’t drive much over the speed limit or under the influence. You can’t smoke in public places.

Would you leave it up to individuals to do as they please in these instances regardless of the effects of their choices on themselves, other people and society? Haven’t these “nanny state” measures, as you call them, made life healthier and safer for everyone?

All the soda cap is designed to do is to make the default food choice the healthier choice. This isn’t about denial of choice. If you want more than 16 ounces, no government official is stopping you from ordering as many of those sizes as you like.

What troubles me about the freedom-to-choose, nanny-state argument is that it deflects attention from the real issue: the ferocious efforts of the soda industry to protect sales of its products at any monetary or social cost.

The lawsuit against the soda cap is a perfect example. It is funded by the American Beverage Association, the trade association for Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other soft-drink companies, at what must be astronomical expense.

To confuse the public about corporate profits as a motive, the beverage association enlisted two distinguished civil rights groups – the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation – to file an amicus brief on behalf of its lawsuit.

Never mind that the obesity rate for the communities these groups represent is considerably higher than average in New York City, and that these neighborhoods would benefit most from the soda cap. The amicus brief argues that the soda cap discriminates against them.

The brief, however, neglects to mention that both amicus groups received large donations from soda companies and that the NAACP in particular has a long history of partnership with Coca-Cola.

Financial arrangements between soda companies and ostensibly independent groups demand scrutiny. National and local reporters – bless them – have done just that.

They report, among other connections, that one of the law firms working for Coca-Cola wrote the amicus brief, and that a former president of the Hispanic Federation just took a job with that company.

Last fall, the East Bay Express exposed how the soda industry exploited race issues to divide the electorate and defeat the Measure N soda tax initiative in Richmond. It revealed

that the beverage association not only paid for the successful “grassroots” campaign against Measure N but also encouraged views of the soda tax as racist.

Driven by this experience, the soda industry is repeating this tactic in New York City.

Is a cap on soda sizes discriminatory against groups working for civil rights? Not a chance.

Public health measures are about alleviating health disparities and giving everyone equal access to healthy diets and lifestyles. This makes public health – and initiatives like the soda cap – broadly inclusive and democratic.

If anything is undemocratic and elitist, it is suing New York City over the soda cap.

In funding this lawsuit, the soda industry has made it clear that it will go to any length to protect its profits, even if it means discrediting the groups that would most benefit from this rather benign public health initiative.

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