Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 9 2016

CSPI and Public Citizen sue the FDA over absurd delays in regulating the safety of—oysters!

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has sued the FDA for ignoring its 2012 petition to prevent illnesses and deaths caused by eating raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico contaminated with toxic Vibrio vulnificus.

The lawsuit, filed jointly with Public Citizen, asks the FDA to set standards to make sure these bacteria are “nondetectable in oysters and other molluscan shellfish sold for raw consumption.”

The FDA is supposed to respond to the complaint by July 25.

This issue goes back a long way.  I wrote about it in 2011 in the context of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Food Safety: FDA Needs to Reassess Its Approach to Reducing an Illness Caused by Eating Raw Oysters.

Vibrio vulnificus bacteria are considered “flesh-eating;” they kill half the 30 or so people who eat contaminated raw oysters.   Treating the raw oysters before allowing them to be sold kills the bacteria.  California requires this and nobody eating California oysters gets sick from Vibrio.  As I wrote in 2011:

In 2001, the oyster industry trade association, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), promised the FDA that this industry would substantially reduce Vibrio infections in oysters within seven years through a program of voluntary self-regulation and education aimed at high-risk groups. If this program failed to reduce the infection rate, the ISSC agreed that the FDA could require oysters to be treated after harvesting to kill pathogenic Vibrio.

So what happened?  Late in 2009, the FDA said it would issue rules, but backed off under pressure from the oyster industry and friendly state officials.

Despite years of warnings and promises that it obviously has no intention of meeting, the Gulf oyster industry has been able to stave off FDA regulations for 15 years at the cost of about 15 preventable deaths a year.

CSPI and Public Citizen are trying the legal route.  I hope it works.

Jun 8 2016

Where are we on Golden Rice?

Golden Rice, genetically engineered to contain beta carotene, has long been the poster child for the benefits of GMOs—as witnessed by this Time Magazine cover of July 31, 2000.Golden Rice on Time cover

Beta-carotene is a precursor of vitamin A and the idea behind this rice was that it could—a conditional word expressing uncertainty—help prevent blindness due to vitamin A deficiency in areas of the world where this deficiency is rampant.

But vitamin A deficiency is a social problem.  Fruits and vegetables containing beta-carotene are widely available in such areas, but are not grown or consumed as a result of cultural or economic issues.  If they are consumed, people cannot absorb the beta-carotene cannot be absorbed because of poor diets, diarrheal diseases, or worms.

Here we are, 16 years after the Time cover, and Golden Rice is still not on the market.

I predicted its current problems in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, first published in 2003.  In Table 12 (page 158) I outlined the many basic research studies and research on production, consumer acceptance and use, and clinical effectiveness that would have to be done before Golden Rice could be shown to achieve its intended purpose.  Much of this research has now been done but plenty more still needs doing on getting it produced and into the mouths of people who most need its beta-carotene.

Proponents of the benefits of Golden Rice, however, complain that anti-GMO activists are responsible for keeping the rice off the market.

Not so, says an article in the Source, a publication of Washington University in St. Louis.  Based on what some of its researchers have just published in an article in Agriculture and Human Values, the Source quotes one of its authors:

The rice simply has not been successful in test plots of the rice breeding institutes in the Philippines, where the leading research is being done,” Stone said. “It has not even been submitted for approval to the regulatory agency, the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI)…The simple fact is that after 24 years of research and breeding, Golden Rice is still years away from being ready for release.”

As I learned long ago, even the slightest skepticism about Golden Rice is perceived by uncritical proponents of GMOs as an attack on science and the entire food biotechnology enterprise.  If you publicly express doubt that Golden Rice can solve the vitamin A problem, you will be accused, as I have been, of responsibility for the illnesses and deaths of millions of children.

As the table in Safe Food makes clear, Golden Rice is a highly technical approach to solving a nutritional problem resulting from cultural and socioeconomic factors.

Such solutions do occasionally succeed.  The best examples I can think of are iodized salt to prevent goiter and water fluoridation to prevent tooth decay.  But both of these interventions address geographical mineral deficiencies, not deficiencies resulting from cultural prohibitions or poverty.

Is Golden Rice worth a try?  Sure it is.  But not when it is used to demonstrate that GMO foods are good for the public as well as the owners of seed and pesticide companies.

Jun 7 2016

World Resources Institute report

The World Resources Institute has a new paper out: Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future.

This is the most recent item in its series: World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future.

The paper is about how food choices affect land, water and climate change.  It provides further evidence that eating less meat and dairy would be more sustainable.

Resources:

Jun 6 2016

The Senate’s (mostly unfunded) agenda for the FDA

Food Chemical News reports that the Senate Appropriations bill comes with report language instructing the FDA to:

  • Conduct a risk assessment to see how harmful it really is to eat Listeria-tainted frozen vegetables [these, presumably, would be cooked before eating].  CRF Frozen Foods had to recall of 358 organic products after 7 people became ill.
  • Release no sodium guidelines before the National Academies of Science has a chance to update the Daily Reference Intake (DRI) for sodium [which will take years].  The report says “it is “imperative that any guidance be issued using the latest sound science…based upon an updated DRI report.”  House directives said the same thing.  [The FDA has just released voluntary sodium guidelines for public comment].
  • Release its overdue report on food traceability systems: “The Committee directs the FDA to collaborate with science-based international and industry-led food traceability initiatives of the type recommended by the pilot projects…[and] to make publicly available information on FDA’s efforts to encourage…traceability initiatives.”
  • Reconsider its E. coli standard.  The Senate views this standard as too stringent and disruptive of raw milk cheese businesses.
  • Actively engage stakeholders in best practice standards for medical foods. “They should work together on “forming a framework for a distinct regulatory pathway for medical foods that does not encumber its progress towards approval for patient use.”
  • Better enforce standards for antibiotics in shrimp imports.
  • Sample olive oil bottles at retail to determine if they are adulterated, and report findings to Congress.
  • Report on efforts to implement regulations for the growing commercial human milk industry.

Some of these directives would improve food safety, but some would not.

All make more work for the FDA.

Does the Senate also plan to appropriate sufficient funds for the FDA to do all this in addition to what it is already doing?  Want to take bets?

Jun 3 2016

Weekend reading: Science & Nutrition Research

I’ve just started getting a new Science and Research newsletter from William Reed: Informing Business Growth.

Some of the listings focus on dietary patterns or emerging microbiome research:

But most of them focus on single nutrients, ingredients, or foods—suggesting that they are about marketing those ingredients, not necessary health (people don’t eat single foods exclusively; we eat meals and mixtures).

These are a lot of fun.  They raise the possibility of magic bullets (if only).

But watch out for the weasel words “may,” “could,” “might”.  These mean “may or may not,” “could or could not,” “might or might not.”

Wouldn’t you rather eat chocolate than beets?  That’s what such studies are about.  And I wonder how many of them are funded by the makers of the products.  Want to take a look?

Jun 2 2016

Open for comment: the FDA’s new guidance for voluntary salt reduction

Yesterday, the FDA opened for public comment its long-awaited guidance for industry about reducing salt in processed food products.  The guidance affects about 150 products.  It gives baseline data for those products and sets targets for salt reduction.

Please note that I am using the word salt, not sodium.  The targets are for sodium reduction.  Most dietary sodium comes from salt added to processed foods and pre-prepared foods.  Salt is 40% sodium.  The target dietary intake of 2300 mg sodium comes to just under 6 grams of salt a day, which is not particularly low.  It is, however, lower than current intake levels.

In a blog post, FDA official Susan Mayne said the link between sodium intake and blood pressure is “strong and well documented,” but

In fact, it’s very difficult in the current marketplace NOT to consume too much sodium. The average intake today is over 3,400 milligrams—significantly more than the 2,300 milligram limit recommended by federal guidelines. And it’s not just adults who are eating too much sodium: Children and teens consume more than is recommended.

Vox, for example, provides a terrific chart on the amounts of sodium in foods.  It starts with this:

Susan Mayne goes on to explain that

the FDA assessed the sodium content of thousands of products in the marketplace and engaged with experts in industry, academia, and government to get the best available scientific and technical input. We know that sodium has important functions in many foods, such as taste, texture, and microbial safety… Our approach encourages gradually reducing sodium in the majority of foods that contain it…Moreover, our draft targets apply to processed and prepared foods that are eaten both at home and outside the home.

Despite the voluntary nature of the guidance and the lengthy timeline (up to ten years) for implementation, the makers of processed foods are sure to object.  At their urging, the House committee on appropriations, in draft report language, urged the FDA to postpone guidance on salt until the CDC and Institute of Medicine update the Dietary Reference Intake standards for sodium intake.

The Salt Institute, the trade association for the salt industry, issued a press release charging malpractice:

The issuance today of new “voluntary” sodium reduction mandates by the FDA is tantamount to malpractice and inexcusable in the face of years of scientific evidence showing that population-wide sodium reduction strategies are unnecessary and could be harmful. This effort will limit the food choices of Americans, not increase them as the FDA claims. It will make our food less safe and endanger public health.

In JAMA, CDC Director Thomas Frieden rebuts the scientific arguments point by point and, in my view, demolishes them.  He explains how important this initiative is to public health:

Thirty-nine countries have established sodium targets for foods and meals, with 36 of those adopting voluntary approaches. Setting targets helps create a level playing field for the food industry, supporting reductions already begun by companies such as Walmart, Darden, Unilever, PespsiCo, General Mills, Mars, Nestlé, and others. The United Kingdom set voluntary sodium reduction targets in 2003; from 2003 to 2011 sodium intake decreased 15%. During this same period, average blood pressure decreased, and, following no change in prior years, deaths from ischemic heart disease and stroke decreased by approximately 40% [the reference for this last statement is BMJ Open. 2014;4(4):e004549].

Most people would be healthier cutting down on salt intake.  Food company executives know this.  Politico Morning Agriculture points out that some Big Food companies have joined the public health community in supporting the FDA’s proposal.

The band of strange bedfellows – the American Heart Association, Mars, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Nestlé, PepsiCo, American Public Health Association, Unilever and the Center for Science in the Public Interest – all signed on to a letter last month to Senate Appropriations ag subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran and ranking member Jeff Merkley to support the FDA on sodium. Find that here.

From a public health perspective, the FDA initiative is a step in the right direction but could go further.  It should have required mandatory salt reduction.  Judging from the Salt Institute’s reaction, this is still a big step.  The New York Times quotes Michael Jacobson:

“The F.D.A. found a sweet spot between doing nothing and regulating…This will at least give the public benchmarks against which we can gauge sodium content of foods.”

FDA resources:  

Jun 1 2016

FDA: What is happening with front-of-package labels?

The FDA issued its final rules for the Nutrition Facts panels, but now I want to know: What ever happened to its front-of-package (FOP) initiatives?

The New York Times editorial on the new food label raised this very question.

But the labels, which most food companies will have to use by July 2018, still have serious limitations. They require busy shoppers to absorb a lot of facts, not all of which are equally important, and then do the math themselves while standing in the grocery aisle. And the labels are on the back of the package, where only the most motivated shoppers will look.

The editorial refers to the FDA’s front-of-package initiatives early in the Obama administration.  These involved two reports from the Institute of Medicine.  The first, released in 2010, examined about 20 existing front-of-package schemes cluttering up the labels of processed foods and evaluated their strengths and weaknesses.  It recommended that FOP labels deal only with calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.  My question at the time: why not sugars?  The committee’s answer: calories took care of it.

But the IOM’s second report in 2011 included sugars and recommended a point system for evaluating the amounts of it and those nutrients in processed foods.  Packages would get zero stars if their saturated and trans fat, sodium, or sugars exceeded certain cut points.

The Times editorial explained what happened next:

the Grocery Manufacturers Association [GMA] called the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation “untested” and “interpretive.” Along with the Food Marketing Institute, it developed its own front-of-package labeling system, which includes some useful information, but is more complex and less helpful than the institute’s version.

As I stated at the time, the FDA let the GMA get away with this and has said not one more word about front-of-package labels.

According to the Times, the FDA is still studying the matter.

it’s not clear when or if the agency will require front-of-package labels. The food industry, of course, wants to make its products appear as healthy as possible. The F.D.A. would serve consumers best by taking the Institute of Medicine’s good advice and putting clear and concise nutrition labels right where most shoppers will see them.

It certainly would.  It’s time to take those IOM reports out of the drawer and get busy writing rules for them.

May 31 2016

Why trade issues matter: the still-to-be-ratified Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)

Every now and then I like to try to catch up with the arcane topic of trade agreements (see last week’s post).  Today, I’ll deal with the other one still in play, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office states the administration’s position on the TPP.  Ballotpedia.org has a helpful summary of where we are on it.

For this one, should you be at all interested, the full text of the TPP is available online.  Like all trade agreements in which the U.S. participates, the TPP is about reducing and eliminating tariffs.  In principle, this is supposed to foster competition and create business opportunities and, as the Trade Representative’s Office says, “leveling the playing field for American workers & American businesses.”

The TPP was signed by the U.S. and the 11 other participating countries in February.  But for us to participate in it, Congress has to ratify the agreement.  It has not yet done so, not least because the TPP is caught up in election-year politics.

Contributing to slow approval is the weak endorsement of the International Trade Commission, which was required to report on the agreement’s economic effects.  Its conclusion: TPP would improve the economy by 2032 (the target year, apparently)—but by less than 1%.  The report gives examples of the increased percentage over baseline in 2032:

  • Annual real income: $57.3 billion (0.23 %)
  • Real GDP: $42.7 billion (0.15 %)
  • Employment would be 0.07 %
  • Exports: $27.2 billion (1.0 %)
  • Imports: $48.9 billion (1.1 %)
  • Agriculture and food output: $10.0 billion (0.5 %)

So TPP has an upside, but a small one.

What about the downside?

For starters, see the letter filed in January by 1500 groups opposing the agreement, and this BMJ paper, just out, about the TPP’s potential to block public health policies such as front-of-package food labels.

Public Citizen also has concerns.  These include, among others, that the TPP would:

  • Make it easier for corporations to offshore American jobs.
  • Push down domestic wages.
  • Flood the U.S. with unsafe imported food.
  • Permit big pharmaceutical corporations to keep lower cost generic drugs off the market.
  • Tacitly permit human rights violations in partner countries (the agreement does not mention “human rights”).

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has problems with the “fast-track” rules passed by Congress earlier this year.  Under these rules, Congress is only allowed to vote yes or no on the agreement.  It cannot amend it. The IATP says:

Provisions in the chapter on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards, for example, would reduce the food safety inspection capacity of food imports, and relegate controversies over GMOs to questions of market access rather than public or environmental health. The inclusion of investor state rules would give foreign corporations new ways to challenge a wide range of environmental and consumer laws around the world for alleged loss of anticipated profits. New rules on patent protections would limit farmers’ ability to save seeds. The agreement fails to acknowledge climate change while expanding an extractive mode of globalization. Like previous failed trade agreements, there are a lot of promises to help farmers that will likely result in the accelerated loss of family farms.

Should you want to do some advocacy on this issue, the IATP has produced a timeline for urging Congress to say no to the TPP, and a handy form for doing so.

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