Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 16 2017

Does Monsanto collude with EPA to cast doubt on the carcinogenicity of Roundup?

Yesterday’s New York Times reports about how the agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto is trying to cast doubt on evidence that its herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) is carcinogenic or otherwise harmful to human health.

The Times based its analysis on documents unsealed by a federal court in a case in which people are claiming that glyphosate caused them to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined a couple of years ago.

The documents indicate collusion between EPA officials and Monsanto over the IARC finding:

Court records show that Monsanto was tipped off to the determination by a deputy division director at the E.P.A., Jess Rowland, months beforehand. That led the company to prepare a public relations assault on the finding well in advance of its publication. Monsanto executives, in their internal email traffic, also said Mr. Rowland had promised to beat back an effort by the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct its own review.

The documents confirm previous disclosures of Monsanto’s attempts to manipulate academic research.

The disclosures are the latest to raise concerns about the integrity of academic research financed by agrochemical companies. Last year, a review by The New York Times showed how the industry can manipulate academic research or misstate findings. Declarations of interest included in a Monsanto-financed paper on glyphosate that appeared in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology said panel members were recruited by a consulting firm. Email traffic made public shows that Monsanto officials discussed and debated scientists who should be considered, and shaped the project.

The Times article does not link to the actual documents, but these are posted on the Website of US Right to Know.

They make interesting reading.  Here, for example, is a quote from the first document, Jess Rowland unsealed, (page 4, lines 19-24):

Monsanto has made it clear throughout this litigation that it intends to rely on EPA’s conclusions in the defense of this case, particularly in this first phase of general causation. Based on these documents alone, it is clear that Monsanto enjoyed considerable influence within the EPA’s OPP, and was close with Mr. Rowland, who promised to try to “kill” the glyphosate issue for them; coincidentally, a report authored chiefly by him was “accidentally leaked” just at the time of his planned retirement.

Posted on

Court documents:

Jess Rowland documents unsealed (115 pages) (3.14.17)
— Documents unsealed (227 pages) (3.14.17)
— Judge Vince Chhabria’s ruling to unseal documents (3.13.17)
Plaintiffs Reply In Support of Motion to Compel Deposition of Jess Rowland (see especially Marion Copley letter on p. 11) (2.27.17)

Reporting & analysis:

Unsealed Documents Raise Questions on Monsanto Weed Killer, by Danny Hakim (New York Times) (3.15.17)
— Court Documents Reveal Ghostwritten Studies, Questions On Monsanto Weed Killer’s Safety, by Katrina Pascual (Tech Times) (3.15.17)
EPA Official Accused of Helping Monsanto “Kill” Cancer Study, by Joel Rosenblatt, Lydia Mulvany and Peter Waldman (Bloomberg) (3.14.17)
Monsanto Accused of Ghostwriting Papers on Roundup Cancer Risk, by Joel Rosenblatt (Bloomberg) (3.14.17)
Plaintiffs in U.S. Lawsuit Say Monsanto Ghostwrote Roundup Studies, by Brendan Pierson (Reuters) (3.14.17)
— Judge Threatens to Sanction Monsanto for Secrecy in Roundup Cancer Litigation, by Carey Gillam (Huffington Post/USRTK)) (3.10.17)
Monsanto Cancer Suits Turn to EPA Deputy’s “Suspicious” Role, by Joel Rosenblatt (Bloomberg) (2.27.17)
Questions Raised About EPA-Monsanto Collusion Raised in Cancer Lawsuits, by Carey Gillam (Huffington Post/USRTK) (2.13.17)
Monsanto, EPA Seek to Keep Talks About Glyphosate Cancer Review a Secret, by Carey Gillam (Huffington Post/USRTK) (1.18.17)

Other related documents and articles:

Glyphosate: discorde à l’agence de protection de l’environnement américaine, by Stéphane Foucart (Le Monde) (3.14.17)
Summary of ORD comments on OPP’s glyphosate cancer assessment (12.14.15)

Addition: The New York Times reports that a European Chemical agency says Roundup is not carcinogenic.

Mar 15 2017

Philadelphia’s soda tax: a round up

If you are having trouble keeping up with articles about soda taxes, you are not the only one.  I’m trying to do this by dealing with one city at a time.  Here’s what’s come in recently about what’s happening in Philadelphia:

Children are getting educated in prekindergarten. The city is taking the first steps toward a massive rebuilding of parks, recreation centers, and libraries. Nine community schools are helping students and their families. The city is meeting its revenue projections, and the soda industry says sugary drinks sales have declined…The soda industry claims that sales declines are forcing them to lay off hundreds of workers. This same industry spent $10 million and made plenty of misleading claims trying to kill the tax and is now funding a lawsuit against the city over it, so we should be skeptical of any unverifiable numbers they put out. It’s particularly tough to accept their claim that they have to lay off workers now, when they are still spending hundreds of thousands on advertising, lobbyists, and lawyers.

Addition

Mar 14 2017

R.I.P. Carol Field

I am grief stricken to learn of the death of Carol Field, food writer extraordinaire, friend, and occasional travel companion.  The San Francisco Chronicle has a lovely obituary for her with wonderful photographs.

But here’s my personal favorite from a happy day at the octopus fountain in Monopoli, Italy, circa 1993.

 

Mar 13 2017

R.I.P. George Blackburn

I was sad to hear of the death of George Blackburn who, as the New York Times put it, “helped America eat better.”

He was an important influence on my career.  I first heard of him in the mid-1970s, when I was working at the medical school at the University of California San Francisco.  He and colleagues began publishing articles about the shocking extent of malnutrition—frank starvation !—in patients hospitalized for long periods of time:

These papers spurred immediate self-searching at hospitals, leading to the creation of nutrition support services and development of teaching materials by the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition—very exciting events at the time.

But his other influence on my career was more personal.  In 1988, I was just finishing up two years in Washington DC as the managing editor of the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health.  This was a staff position that gave me no public credit for the writing, editing, and production supervision I had done on the report.  It was released that year, but it had not been an easy process.

Soon after its release, I gave a presentation about the report at a national meeting.  After my talk, Dr. Blackburn stood up and asked to make a comment.

What the audience needed to understand, he said, was that the report never would have appeared if it had not been for my work.  In essence, he gave me credit for everything that was good about the report, and shifted the blame elsewhere for its failings.

I am grateful for his exceptional kindness and generosity to this day. and will never forget him.

Mar 10 2017

Edible Communities: Happy 15th Anniversary!

I was invited to write a short piece for Edible Communities reflecting on the 15-year anniversary of these publications, which began with Edible Ojai and now include 90 Edible Magazines throughout the country.

They titled it: Where to From Here? The Local Food Movement 15 Years Later

The editor writes:

Edible Communities began in 2002 with the launch of Edible Ojai, a magazine that chronicled the rising interest in farm-to-table/local, organic and natural foods. Since that time, the organization started by Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian has grown into a revolutionary, award-winning media network that encompasses over 90 independently-owned and operated magazines and websites across the United States and Canada. In 2011, Edible Communities was recognized by the prestigious James Beard Foundation as “the voice of the local food movement.”

As the organization celebrates its 15th anniversary, Marion Nestle looks back at how the local food movement has changed the way we eat and how the world (especially the U.S. and Canada) can best ensure—via political action and other means—a healthy and sustainable food supply in the years to come.

And here’s what I wrote:

Can it really be 15 years since Edible Ojai kick-started the Edible Communities contribution to the local food movement? Edible Communities has played such a vital role in the stunning changes that have taken place in the North American food world since the mid 1990s. At a time when global politics seems ever more intimidating and irrational, local food movements shine as beacons of empowerment and hope. By making food choices that support regional farmers and producers, we vote with our forks for healthier and more sustainable lives for ourselves, our children, our communities, and our planet.

I use the word “vote” advisedly. Choosing local food is an outright act of politics.

I am a college professor and I hear all the time from students about how much they want to find work that will give meaning to their lives and help change the world, but how pessimistic they feel about whether this is possible in today’s political environment. They see what needs to be done, but don’t know how or where to begin.

Begin with food, I tell them.

They are too young to realize how much the food movement already has accomplished: a lot. The food system has changed so much for the better since Edible Communities began its journey.

Here is my personal measure of its progress. In 1996, my New York University colleagues and I created undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs in Food Studies. Everyone thought we were out of our minds: Why would anyone want to study about food? But we got lucky. The New York Times wrote about our programs the week after they were approved. That very afternoon, we had students in our offices waving the clipping and telling us that they had waited all their lives for these programs. Now, just about every college I visit offers some version of a Food Studies program or food courses in fields as diverse as English, history, art and biology.  Students see how food is an entry point into the most pressing problems in today’s society: health, climate change, immigration, the –isms (sex, gender, race, age), and inequities in education, income, and power.

Some gains of local food movements are easier to measure than others. One of my favorites: The New Oxford American Dictionary added “locavore” as its word of the year in 2007.

The easiest to measure are those counted by the USDA, starting with farmers’ markets. In 1994, there were 1,755; by 2016, there were 8,669. The USDA is mainly devoted to promoting industrial agriculture but has had to pay attention (if a bit grudgingly) to the growth of local and regional food systems. It reports that about 8 percent of U.S. farms market foods on the local level, mostly directly to consumers through farmers’ markets and  harvest subscription (CSA) arrangements. It estimates local food sales at more than $6 billion a year. This is a tiny fraction of U.S. food sales, but growing all the time.

More signs of progress: Since 2007, regional food hubs, which the USDA defines as collaborative enterprises for moving local foods into larger mainstream markets, have tripled in number. The USDA finds four times as many school districts with farm-to-school programs as it did a decade ago. It even notes the number of farms selling directly to retail stores or restaurants. As for what seems obvious to me—the increasing value of local food to local economies—the USDA remains hesitant (hence: grudging). It admits that “local economic benefits may accrue from greater local retention of the spent food dollar” but is withholding judgment pending further research.

The USDA partners with other federal agencies in a Local Foods, Local Places program aimed at revitalizing communities through the development of local food systems. These not only involve farmers’ markets, but also cooperative groceries, central kitchens, business incubators, bike paths and sidewalks, and school and community gardens. This program may be minuscule in federal terms, but that it exists at all is testimony to how effectively local food movements have encouraged the development of home, school, community and urban gardens. The Edible Communities publications have both chronicled and championed all these changes.

One more measurable change: the increasing sales of organics. Organic production, of course, is not necessarily local but it is very much part of the food movement.  Its growth is remarkable—from about $15 billion in sales in 2006 to nearly $40 billion in 2015. As the Organic Trade Association puts it, “Consumer demand for organic has grown by double-digits nearly every year since the 1990s.” This has happened so quickly that the demand now exceeds the supply.

My last example: In the summer, even New York City supermarket chains proudly display locally grown foods, usually defined as coming from within New York, New Jersey or Connecticut, but still a lot closer than California or Latin America, where much of the city’s food usually comes from.

But the USDA has no idea how to measure the other critical accomplishments of the food movement. It is hard to put a number on the personal and societal values associated with knowing where food comes from and how it is produced.

Some months ago in the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan complained that the food movement is barely a political force in Washington, DC, despite its having created “purchase by purchase, a $50 billion alternative food economy, comprising organic food, local food and artisanal food.” “Call it Little Food,” he said, pointing out that “while it is still tiny in comparison with Big Food, it is nevertheless the fastest-growing sector of the food economy.”

His concern was the need to consolidate these gains, join forces and exert power at the national level. Even in today’s political climate, this can—and must—be done. I’ve seen local food movements in the United States evolve over the years to increasingly converge with movements for organics, and also with those for better access to food and for health, food justice, environmental justice, food sovereignty, living wages and gender, racial and economic equity. We need to keep doing this, now more than ever.

The congressional Freedom Caucus is doing all it can to revoke a long list of federal regulations, many of which deal with food. Its members want to do away with healthier school meals, the National Organic Program, food labels, menu labels and a host of food safety regulations. We need to do more than vote with forks to protect the gains of the last few years. We need to “vote with votes.” This means doing basic politics. The most important strategy by far is to write, call and meet with our own congressional representatives or their staff. If one person does this, they might not notice. But if several do, they pay attention. If many do, they pay more attention. Get friends to help.

We often hear it said that “all politics is local.” Local food movements prove that point. So much can be done at the local level to strengthen food systems and encourage community action. Real social change starts locally, and builds from there. That’s why Edible Communities matters so much. They are a force for strengthening local food movements, supporting community development and taking political action for a healthier and more sustainable future. May they flourish!

Mar 9 2017

Another soda success story: Howard County, MD

The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut has a new study out on the Howard County Unsweetened campaign.

The study’s key findings:

  • Sales of sugar-sweetened soda declined nearly 20 percent
  • Sales of 100 percent juice fell 15 percent
  • Sales of fruit drinks with added sugars fell a little more than 15 percent

The study attributes the success of the campaign to its policy work:

  • Eliminating sugary drinks in school vending machines
  • Increasing access to water in schools
  • Getting a state law passed to improve healthy drinks in childcare centers
  • Getting a state law passed to make healthier drinks available on government sites
  • Engaging nearly 50 community organizations to offer healthier drinks

It also notes community-wide public health outreach efforts:

  • TV ads, social media messages, and online ads
  • Direct dissemination of public health information at community and athletic events, local swimming pools, and health fairs
  • Training of healthcare professionals

This was a big effort.  Big efforts pay off.

The documents

Mar 8 2017

Pet owners: watch out for Evangers’ beef foods

The FDA warns pet owners not to feed their pets any of these foods because of risk of pentobarbital contamination (this seems like a really good idea).

  • Evanger’s Hunk of Beef: 20109
  • Evanger’s Braised Beef: 20107
  • Against the Grain Pulled Beef: 80001

The products have expiration dates of December 2019-January 2021.

The FDA explains:

The FDA began investigating Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company Inc. when it learned about five dogs in a single household that suffered acute neurological symptoms shortly after eating the product. One dog was euthanized after secondary complications, and three others recovered after receiving veterinary care. One of the dogs treated remains on seizure medication, and the fifth dog that ate the least amount of food recovered with time.

The stomach contents of the deceased dog and an open can of the product were tested by an FDA Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network lab, and unopened cans of the product from the pet owner and retailer that sold the products (from the same production lot), were tested by FDA’s lab. All of the samples tested positive for pentobarbital.

In a classic example of how NOT to instill confidence among customers in your products, Evangers’ is fighting the FDA’s assertions about how it sources ingredients.

I highly recommend working with the FDA to clean up food safety problems.  Really, that is a much better approach.

Pet food buyers: There are plenty of pet food brands that do not contain pentobarbital (a euthanasia drug).

Give Evangers’ a pass until all this gets straightened out.

Mar 7 2017

Conflicts of interest among National Academies’ GMO committee members: an analysis

Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University and Tim Schwab of Food and Water Watch have done an analysis of financial conflicts of interest among members of the committee that produced a large report on agricultural biotechnology last year.  Their paper (and the report) are open access so you can read them both and decide for yourself whether you think Krimsky and Schwab are being fair.

Academics’ financial ties to companies with an interest in the outcome of their work are a well established problem because such ties are known to influence the results and interpretation of research as well as the opinions of advisory committee members—even though the recipients of corporate gifts (even small ones) are unaware of the influence , had no intention of being influenced, and deny that such influence exists.

The Academies’ GMO report stated that none of the 20 committee members had financial ties to the GMO industry.

But these investigators found evidence of several kinds of undisclosed ties among six of the 20 members:

  • Holds patents
  • Holds equity
  • Serves on company advisory committee
  • Receives research funding
  • Employed by company or non-profit funded by company
  • Consults for company

The authors make it clear that these sorts of financial ties ought to have been disclosed.  I agree.

But here’s the National Academies’ in-denial response to the paper.  My translation: “we did everything right and this is a witch hunt.”

No you did not do everything right.  Disclosure should be rigorous, given the level of passion involved in views of GMOs and the need for trust in Academy reports.

And no, this is not a witch hunt.  This is a call for full disclosure.

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