Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 13 2016

Weekend reading: Miraculous Abundance [Permaculture]

Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer.  Miraculous Abundance: One quarter acre, two French farmers, and enough food to feed the world.  Foreword by Eliot Coleman.  Chelsea Green, 2016.

This book, more about philosophy than a how-to, describes how two inexperienced beginners succeeded in creating a gorgeous, productive, self-sustaining farm on 1000 square meters of land in Normandy—La Ferme du Bec Hellouin.

They did this by using the techniques of permaculture.  This they define as “a box of smart tools that allows the creation of a lifestyle that respects the earth and its inhabitants—a practical method inspired by nature.”  Later, they explain that it is based on an ethic: “Take care of the earth. Take care of the people.  Equitably share resources.”  As I said, philosophy, not how-to.

You have to read the book to figure out what all this means in practice.  It seems to come down to what I thought of as French Intensive methods.  These use raised beds, rich soil, composting, and thoughtful planting of coordinated crops that support each other’s growth and nutritional needs.  Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya—nine seeds—approach works the same way.   The authors drew on the work of John Jeavons, Eliot Coleman, and many other small-scale sustainable farmers from all over the world to develop their version of these methods.

If the color photographs are any indication, the results are magnificent.   The place is so highly productive that it easily supports the two of them.  The mandala garden alone made we want to get on the next plane just to see how it works in controlling weeds.

The moral: you could do this at home.

May 12 2016

Chipotle’s food safety issues: the saga continues

Food Safety News continues to be incredulous at Chipotle’s apparent denial of responsibility for the safety of food served in its outlets.

For sure, what has happened at Chipotle restaurants is unusual—illnesses caused by multiple toxic microbes at multiple locations:

  • Seattle — E. coli O157:H7, July 2015, five sick people, source unknown;
  • Simi Valley, Calif. — Norovirus, August 2015, 234 people, source was sick employee;
  • Minnesota — Salmonella Newport, August and September 2015, 64 sick people, source was tomatoes but it remains unclear  at what point in the field-to-fork chain the pathogen was introduced;
  • Nine states — E. coli O26, began October 2015 and declared over Feb. 1, 55 sick people, source unknown, states involved are California, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington; and
  • Three states — E. coli O26, began December 2015 declared over Feb. 1, five sick people, source unknown, states involved are Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska; and closing out in
  • Boston — Norovirus in December, 151 sickened.

Chipotle did the obvious right thing.  It brought on board the most experienced and highly regarded food safety experts: Mansour Samadpour (he has a food safety consulting company), James Marsden (to head up its food safety initiatives), Dave Theno (formerly of Jack in the Box) and David Acheson (former FDA food safety official).

Perhaps before they had time to weigh in, Chipotle’s counsel wrote a letter to the CDC complaining about the way the agency was conducting its investigation.

The CDC recently responded in no uncertain terms as Food Safety News discussed.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says:

My thought:  “In 23 years being involved with every major food illness outbreak in the US, I have never seen a company take on the CDC or public health in this manner.  Frankly, it is bizarre given that Chipotle was involved in multiple Salmonella, Norovirus and E. coli cases in 2015.  As the CDC states in its responsive letter, it has to protect the public health and that is what it did.”

His view of the score: CDC 1, Chipotle Lawyer 0.

Chipotle’s food safety consultants have their work cut out for them.  Let’s hope they figure out the problem and find ways to solve it—soon.

May 11 2016

Healthy? Natural? It’s up to the FDA.

The terms “healthy” and “natural” help to sell food products.  They are about marketing, not health.

This makes life difficult for the FDA, which has the unenviable job of defining what the terms mean on food labels.

In a victory for the maker of KIND bars, the FDA has just said that the bars can be advertised as healthy—and that the agency will be revisiting its long-standing definition of the term.  This is what that definition says now:

You may use the term “healthy” or related terms as an implied nutrient content claim on the label or in labeling of a food that is useful in creating a diet that is consistent with dietary recommendations if the food meets the conditions for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and other nutrients…In addition, the food must comply with definitions and declaration requirements for any specific NCCs [Nutrient Content Claims].

The chronology :

As reported by Food-Navigator-USA (in a remarkably thorough account of these events),

Dr. Susan Mayne, Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, said: We do not object to the specific statement that you would like to place on your bar wrappers, on the condition that there will be no other nutrition-related statement, such as express or implied nutrient content claims, on the same panel of the label…We agree with you that our regulations concerning nutrient content claims are due for a reevaluation in light of evolving nutrition research.”

What this sounds like is that FDA will be soliciting comments on the meaning of “healthy.”   It also sounds like the FDA agrees that fat is not an appropriate criterion.  But will the FDA set a limit on sugars?  KIND bars are sweetened.

This looks like the FDA will request comments as the start of its interminable rulemaking process.

In the meantime, here’s the Wall Street Journal’s video explanation of the absurdity of the current rules.

Natural

The FDA is further along in that process for “Natural.  The comment period closed and Politico Pro Morning Agriculture reports that more than 5000 came in.  These have not yet been posted, but Morning Ag has some.  It says opinions vary.  Widely.

  • FDA should prohibit using the term.
  • Acceptable post-harvest processing and production methods [including GMOs]
  • No chemicals, no additives, and no kitchen chemistry
  • Some forms of processing can be used – and indeed may be necessary.
  • ‘Natural’ means that this product contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients.

I’ve commented many times in the past on the ongoing debates about “natural.”

I repeat: When it comes to food labels, “healthy” and “natural” are marketing terms.  Their purpose is to sell food products.

Caveat emptor.

May 10 2016

Congress, FOIA, and Checkoff programs

Congress in its infinite wisdom is now doing Big Ag a big favor.  It wants to exempt checkoff programs from having to deal with pesky Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The House Appropriations Committee just approved its version of the 2017 Agriculture Appropriations bill along with committee report language getting checkoffs off the hook.

Checkoff programs, you will recall are commodity research and promotion programs run by boards and overseen by USDA.   The Milk Board, for example, does the milk mustache campaign.

Checkoffs mainly do generic marketing.  They are not supposed to lobby.  The USDA is supposed to manage the boards—but not with federal money.

So are checkoffs government programs or not?

The checkoffs like to say they are government when convenient, but not government when inconvenient.  This is one of those times.

The report language says because checkoffs are “not agencies of the federal government,” they should not be subject to FOIA laws.

I learned about this latest example of congressional protection of industry from a tweet on May 2 from Associated Press reporter Candice Choi.

Food commodity trade groups, she shows, wrote a letter to Congress to exempt checkoff programs from being subject to FOIA requests.

Congress happily incorporated that language right into the Appropriations Act.

In their article about this latest act of hypocrisy, Candice Choi and Mary Clare Jalonick write:

On April 11, a group of 14 trade associations sent a letter to Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., the subcommittee’s top Democrat, asking them to urge USDA to recognize that the promotional programs are not subject to public records requests.  The rationale was that the programs are funded by producers, according to a copy of a letter obtained by the AP.

Irony alert: A Supreme Court decision in 2005 upheld the checkoffs’ collection of fees from producers as being protected as “government speech.”

Hypocrisy alert: Trade associations wrote the letter, not the checkoff boards.  This is because the boards are not allowed to lobby, but their closely related trade associations can.

Choi and Jalonick also point out that:

The checkoff programs were established by the government at the industry’s urging as a way to collect mandatory fees from producers for promotional efforts. That has resulted in considerable marketing muscle for agricultural products. Last year, the egg board had revenue of more than $22 million; the pork board’s revenue topped $98 million in 2014.

The Fern quotes professor Parke Wilde of Tufts University, a long-standing expert on checkoff programs.  These, he says,

have always been subject to freedom of information laws. It stands to reason: Farmers and the public deserve to know what’s really going on with these well-funded USDA-sponsored programs….

Wilde obtained documents

about the 2006 decision by the Pork Board to pay $60 million to the National Pork Producers Council for the rights to the advertising slogan of pork as “the other white meat.” Wilde wrote in 2013, “It looks to me like the sale price was drastically inflated as a way of funneling money from the semi-public checkoff program to the private-sector trade association.”

Just last year, a FOIA request from The Guardian, revealed that the egg checkoff, working with Unilever, agreed to use its influence to have Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo removed from Whole Foods.

Lobbying or not?  You decide.

The National Farmers Union says it

strongly opposes the blurred lines between the commodity trade associations and the checkoff boards. Our policy states that mandatory producer assessments should not go to organizations that engage in lobbying, and no contracts should be awarded to organizations that carry out political or lobbying activities.

FOIA is a central pillar of transparency in our democracy. It provides for an open government where citizens can request records from federal agencies – with some exemptions for national security, law enforcement and personal privacy…Take a look at the letter NFU sent today, and let your members of Congress know that this language is not in the best interest of family farmers, ranchers or consumers.

Thanks to The Hagstrom Report for this list of references

Capital Press — Commodity groups seek Freedom of Information exemption for checkoff boards

National Public Radio — Under Attack, Commodity Promotion Programs Try To Hide Their Emails

U.S. Food Policy —Checkoff program supporters seek to shield checkoff boards from freedom-of-information scrutiny

The Guardian — Largest U.S. food producers ask Congress to shield lobbying activities

Fortune — Where’s the Beef? You Won’t be Able to Find Out if Agricultural Groups Get Their Way

May 9 2016

Coca-Cola items: Warren Buffett’s gaffe. Share a Coke and a Song.

Warren Buffett, the billionnaire who owns 9.3% of Coca-Cola stock, understandably defends its products.  When challenged by shareholders in his company, Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett said:

He also said he drank 700 calories worth of Coca-Cola each day (translation: 44 teaspoons of sugars).  As Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest put it, this much sugar is not in the interest of anyone’s health.

Maybe the Wizard of Omaha can maintain good health while consuming more than three times the added sugars recommended by the nation’s leading health officials, but it’s a sure-fire prescription for increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and tooth decay for the rest of his fellow citizens…the American Heart Association whose scientific panels have reviewed the evidence as well call for an even more conservative daily limit of added sugars: six teaspoons for women and nine for men.

Business analysts were just as dismayed.   said in the Financial Times that Buffett made five mistakes in laughing off the CocaCola question (my paraphrases):

  • Shareholders asked a serious question that deserved a serious answer.
  • Not everyone knows how many calories are in sodas.
  • Poor people are at greater risk from the hazards of sugary drinks.
  • Politicians know that sugary drinks are a problem.
  • Coca-Cola knows sugary drinks are a problem.

In the meantime, the Berkeley Media Studies Group has produced its take on Coke’s new “Share a Coke and a Song” campaign:

When health advocates and the business community think Coca-Cola is in trouble, it is.

Can this campaign survive satire?

This company’s responses are always interesting to follow.  Buffett is a big investor.  But it is increasingly having to respond to health concerns.

I will be watching for the next chapter in this saga.

May 6 2016

Weekend reading: Jennifer Pomeranz’s Food Law

Jennifer L. Pomeranz.  Food Law for Public Health.  Oxford University Press, 2016.

I’m told that food law is the hottest area in legal education right now.  At a time when law schools and lawyers are struggling, food law offers opportunities.  Food issues are so controversial that they constitute a full employment act.

Jennifer Pomeranz is my colleague at NYU.  Her book could not be more timely, and I was delighted to give it a blurb:

If you want to know how laws and regulations affect what you eat, how those laws are made, and why they cause so much controversy, Food Law for Public Health is a terrific place to start.

May 5 2016

More on corporate funding of nutrition research: exchange of letters

In January this year, JAMA Internal Medicine published my Viewpoint on corporate funding of nutrition research: science or marketing.

Richard Kahn, former chief scientist and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association, wrote a letter in reply (see below for more about him**).  The journal published his letter, along with my response, in its current issue.  Here’s what I said.

In Reply Dr Kahn requests evidence that nutrition research funded by food companies is of lesser quality than studies funded by independent agencies or performed by investigators with nonfinancial conflicts of interest. Concerns about such issues are relatively recent; few published studies address them directly. Instead, concerns about industry sponsorship of nutrition research derive from comparisons with the results of studies of funding by tobacco, chemical, drug, or medical device companies. This research typically finds industry-sponsored studies to report results more favorable to the products of the sponsor than studies not funded by industry. It identifies subtle rather than substantive differences in the quality of this research; industry-funded studies are more likely to underreport unfavorable results and interpret neutral results more positively.1 When results are negative, they are less likely to be published.2

Between March 2015 and March 2016, I identified 166 industry-funded nutrition research studies and posted and discussed them on my blog.3 Of these, 154 reported results favorable to the interest of the sponsor; only 12 reported contrary results. The few studies systematically examining the influence of industry funding on nutrition research tend to confirm results obtained from other industries. For example, a systematic review comparing industry-funded and nonindustry-funded trials of probiotics in infant formula reported no association of funding source with research quality. Industry-funded studies, however, seemed more likely to report favorable conclusions unsupported by the data.4

Dr Kahn states that sponsored studies often specify that the funder had no role in the study. Only recently have some journals required such statements, and I am unaware of research on the extent of this practice or authors’ adherence to it. Among the 166 industry-funded studies that I reviewed, few disclosed involvement of a sponsor.

Dr Kahn asks whether industry funding is any more biasing than career self-interest or intellectual passion. Unlike industry funding, self-interest and passions are intrinsic to every scientist who conducts research, are a matter of public record, cannot be eliminated, and have not been shown to consistently bias research results in the same ways as industry funding.5 Fortunately, nutrition societies and research institutions are developing policies to manage financial relationships with industry.6 Such policies hold promise for preventing financial conflicts of research in nutrition research.

1. Lundh  A, Sismondo  S, Lexchin  J, Busuioc  OA, Bero  L.  Industry sponsorship and research outcome. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;12:MR000033. PubMed

2. Rising  K, Bacchetti  P, Bero  L.  Reporting bias in drug trials submitted to the Food and Drug Administration: review of publication and presentation. PLoS Med. 2008;5(11):e217. PubMed   |  Link to Article

3. Nestle  M. Food Politics Blog. http://www.foodpolitics.com/. Accessed March 2, 2016.

4. Mugambi  MN, Musekiwa  A, Lombard  M, Young  T, Blaauw  R.  Association between funding source, methodological quality and research outcomes in randomized controlled trials of synbiotics, probiotics and prebiotics added to infant formula: a systematic review. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2013;13:137. PubMed   |  Link to Article
5. Bero  L.  What is in a name? Nonfinancial influences on the outcomes of systematic reviews and guidelines. J Clin Epidemiol. 2014;67(11):1239-1241. PubMed   |  Link to Article 
6. Charles Perkins Centre. Engagement with Industry Guidelines 2015. University of Sydney, 2015. https://intranet.sydney.edu.au/perkins/research-support/engaging-with-industry.html. Accessed March 2, 2016.
**Richard Kahn is infamous in my circles for supporting the positions of the sugar and soda industries while with the American Diabetes Association and now.  I wrote about what he said in an interview with Corporate Crime Reporter in my book What to Eat (pages 355-356).  Recently, The Russells (of CrossFit) had a lot more to say about Kahn’s ongoing opposition to public health measures.
May 4 2016

Big Ag forces firing of long-time Farm News cartoonist

I love cartoons (witness Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics) and was appalled when I read this tweet:

Here’s the offending cartoon:

In a Facebook post the cartoonist, Rick Friday, explained:

I am no longer the Editorial Cartoonist for Farm News due to the attached cartoon which was published yesterday. Apparently a large company affiliated with one of the corporations mentioned in the cartoon was insulted and cancelled their advertisement with the paper, thus, resulting in the reprimand of my editor and cancellation of It’s Friday cartoons after 21 years of service and over 1090 published cartoons to over 24,000 households per week in 33 counties of Iowa.

I did my research and only submitted the facts in my cartoon.

That’s okay, hopefully my children and my grandchildren will see that this last cartoon published by Farm News out of Fort Dodge, Iowa, will shine light on how fragile our rights to free speech and free press really are in the country.

The Des Moines Register explains further:

The CEOs at the ag giants earned about $52.9 million last year, based on Morningstar data. Monsanto and DuPont, the parent of Johnston-based Pioneer, are large seed and chemical companies, and Deere is a large farm equipment manufacturer.

Profits for the three companies, all with large operations across Iowa, also have declined as farm income has been squeezed. After peaking in 2013, U.S. farm income this year is projected to fall to $183 billion, its lowest level since 2002.

US Uncut adds more details:

Friday received an email from his supervisor at Farm News, informing him that he would be fired, citing he was “instructed” by a superior to not accept another cartoon from Friday. The supervisor told Friday that “in the eyes of some, Big Ag cannot be criticized or poked fun at.”

It also published Friday’s cartoons based on his firing.  Here’s one:

Friday has done other cartoons like this.  It’s not surprising that he has corporate advertisers upset.

How to help? Consider a quick note to Farm News about how badly Americans need a free, independent press to discuss farm issues.

Here’s the publisher’s contact information:

Larry Bushman
lbushman@messengernews.net

(Thanks to Daniel Bowman Simon for keeping me up on such things.)

Addition, May 5: Friday’s view of all this.

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