Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 29 2014

Historic! First Lady and President actively support school nutrition standards

Today, the House Appropriations Committee will discuss the annual spending bill for the Agriculture Department, meaning that it will consider proposals to weaken nutrition standards for school meals.

In what has to be a groundbreaking move, First Lady Michelle Obama has an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times.

Yet some members of the House of Representatives are now threatening to roll back these new standards and lower the quality of food our kids get in school. They want to make it optional, not mandatory, for schools to serve fruits and vegetables to our kids. They also want to allow more sodium and fewer whole grains than recommended into school lunches.

…Remember a few years ago when Congress declared that the sauce on a slice of pizza should count as a vegetable in school lunches? You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that this doesn’t make much sense. Yet we’re seeing the same thing happening again with these new efforts to lower nutrition standards in our schools.

Our children deserve so much better than this.

Yes, they do, and how terrific that she is saying this.

Also a must read is ObamaFoodorama’s account of the President’s position on all this.  From White House press secretary Jay Carney:

It is “inappropriate to let politics and pressure from the food industry” change federal law.

“The President and First Lady both feel very strongly about the need to continue moving forward when it comes to school nutrition and not allowing politics to pull us backward,” Carney said.

Carney made his comments during a gaggle aboard Air Force One when asked about the President’s “reaction” to the First Lady’s event on Tuesday with school nutrition pros.

For a nutritionist like me, this is history in the making.  Cheers to both and let’s hope their efforts work.

Addition, June 2:  If you cannot understand why the School Nutrition Association is pushing for the waiver and elimination of the rules, see Jerry Hagstrom’s lucid explanation: they don’t cook.

When the school-lunch program started, most schools cooked their own food. As the number of children participating in the school-lunch program grew, the need to provide more food led the schools to buy prepackaged, processed food, which led to the companies making those foods becoming big players within SNA. Under the new rules, those companies have to come up with tasty products with less salt, sugar, and fat and use whole grains. At the same time, the fruit and vegetable requirements—which bring more business to the United Fresh Produce Association—threaten to take up more of the school-lunch budget.

 

May 28 2014

Let’s Move! on the move to rescue school nutrition standards

At a time when Michelle Obama is under widespread criticism for complicity with the food industry (see Fed Up!, the movie), she and her Let’s Move! staff are doing everything possible—openly and overtly—to preserve the nutrition standards in the school meals program.

As I’ve written previously, a House subcommittee voted to allow schools to waive the new standards.  Waivers mean that Congress is interfering—on political grounds—with nutrition standards established by scientific committees of the Institute of Medicine.

Here’s what the White House is doing:

(Audio) USDA — Hosted media call on nutrition and military readiness

Mission: Readiness urges vigilance against special interests

Roll Call — National Security Will Suffer With Derailment of School Nutrition Standards

It’s impressive that the White House is taking on this issue so forcefully.

Support the Let’s Move! staff.  Sign CSPI’s Change.Org petition and write your legislators.  They are discussing this issue right now.  Tell them now!

May 27 2014

Olivier de Schutter finishes tenure as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Olivier de Schutter must be finishing up his six-year term as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

His final report to the U. N. Human Rights Council

Objectives such as supplying diverse, culturally-acceptable foods to communities, supporting smallholders, sustaining soil and water resources, and raising food security within particularly vulnerable areas, must not be crowded out by the one-dimensional quest to produce more food,

In a speech to the annual summit of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Reuters reports: 

Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed, he said.

De Schutter, who has held his post of special rapporteur on the right to food since 2008 and earlier headed the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

In 2005, a U.N. convention on tobacco control aimed at reducing deaths and health problems caused by the product went into force after long negotiations under the umbrella of the WHO.

In a report to the rights council in 2012, de Schutter said a similar accord on food should include taxing unhealthy products, regulating food high in saturated fats, salt and sugar, and “cracking down on junk food advertising.”

That report also called for an overhaul on the system of farm subsidies “that make certain ingredients cheaper than others”, and for support for local production “so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods.”

De Schutter  reports that public procurement can and should be used to ‘buy justice’ in food systems (also see press release):

“Public procurement represents a rare opportunity to support more nutritious diets and more sustainable food systems in one fell swoop,” he said, as he released his final publication as UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

Recalling that OECD countries spend an average of 12% of GDP on public procurement, and developing countries only slightly less, he identified five principles for using public procurement to support the realization of the right to food:

  • Source preferentially from small-scale food producers and help them to access tenders
  • Guarantee living wages and fair prices along the food supply chain
  • Set specific requirements for adequate food diets
  • Source locally whenever possible and impose sustainability requirements on suppliers; and
  • Increase participation and accountability in the food system

De Schutter has done honorable work as Special Rapporteur and his role in this position will be missed.

May 23 2014

GMO labels cost families $800/year: Guess who paid for the study?

Yesterday, Food Navigator reported that Cornell economists calculated that GMO labels would cost the average family of four a whopping $800 per year.

This seemed so improbable that I immediately wondered:  Who paid for it?

I clicked on the link to the study: Bingo!

The work on this report was supported financially by the Council for Biotechnology Information.

You won’t find the list of companies and groups that support the Council on its website, but Source Watch fills the gap.

I am increasingly alarmed by the increasing extent of industry research sponsorship—it’s become a huge issue in  studies of nutrition, diet, and health.

The influence of funding source on research outcomes is so predictable—many studies have now shown that industry-funded studies almost invariably produce results that favor the sponsor—that I’m batting nearly 100% on conflict-of-interest  checks, of which this GMO study is a particularly blatant example.

It’s not that industry pays investigators to find the desired answers to questions.  It’s more complicated than that.  It has to do with the way investigators ask and try to answer the research questions.  The industry favored biases get built into the study’s assumptions and controls, often (I think) unconsciously.

This study, for example, is based on an elaborate set of assumptions leading to the $800 per family estimate.  Other assumptions might give different results.   The authors do not discuss the limitations of their estimates, nor are they required to in this type of report.

But I’m willing to hazard a guess that independently funded studies would come to considerably lower estimates.

Moral: if a study produces surprising results that favor an industry position, look hard to see who sponsored it.

Addition, May 24:

A reader sent in further information about the Council for Biotechnology Information:

Council for Biotechnology Information

1201 Maryland Avenue, SW., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20024 USA

Phone: 202-962-9200 web site: http://gmoanswers.com

(CBI: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Council_for_Biotechnology_Information.

http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Council_for_Biotechnology_Information.

Experts: http://gmoanswers.com/experts. Founding members and supporting partners:

http://gmoanswers.com/about. There are also offices in Saskatoon (SK, Canada)

(http://whybiotech.ca)  and Mexico City (AgroBio Mexico: http://agrobiomexico.org.mx.)

May 22 2014

A roundup on pet food items

I haven’t said anything about pet food in a while, but plenty is happening with it since my pet food books came out—Pet Food Politics (2008) and Feed Your Pet Right (2010).

A few items I’ve collected over the past month or so.

  • FDA regulations: The FDA finally issued its proposed rule for processing standards for all facilities engaged in manufacturing, processing, packing or holding animal feed and pet food.  These include  Good Manufacturing Processes (GMPs) and risk-based preventive controls (formerly known as HACCP), among other provisions.
  • Safety tips: Food Safety News lists ten ways to make pet food safer—pay attention and follow food safety procedures diligently, for one thing.
  • Double standard: Bill Marler complains that the FDA is constantly announcing recalls of Salmonella-contaminated pet foods, even though few of them result in cases of Salmonella in pets or humans, whereas foods for humans take forever to get recalled even when they cause illness.
  • Pet food recalls: The FDA certainly lists plenty of pet food recalls, and even has a web page for them.
  • FDA oversight: The FDA is on the job and testing.  Bravo issued recalls because of potential Listeria contamination.  It did so because the FDA says an independent lab detected the bacteria in a sample.
  • Marketing wars: Pet Food Industry, the excellent publication for manufacturers, has a juicy story about the marketing claims war between Nestlé (no relation) Purina PetCare and Blue Buffalo.  Each has sued the other.  Blue Buffalo has already been called on its advertising claims, perhaps in response to a complaint from  Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
  • The ongoing mystery: Pet jerky treats, mostly imported from China, linked to at least 3 human illnesses and more than 1,000 dog deaths and 4,800 dog illnesses, mostly from gastrointestinal problems, liver and kidney disease, and neurological and skin conditions.  The FDA says it still can’t figure out the cause, despite 7 years of trying. symptoms in their pets,” said FDA.

If we can’t get pet food right, there’s not much hope for human food either.

May 21 2014

Really, sugars are sugars. Some sugar is good. Less is better.

We need a break from school food issues.

I love this graphic, designed by Noelle Campbell.  It’s from an article by Rebecca Adams in the Huffington Post (I’m quoted).

sugar

 

May 20 2014

Update on Congress vs. school nutrition standards

The Associated Press reported that First Lady Michelle Obama rallied supporters of the USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals in an off-the-record telephone call “with advocacy groups to discuss ongoing efforts around school nutrition and the significant advancements we have made to make it easier for families to raise healthy kids.”

Screenshot 2014-05-19 21.58.14

Today the House Committee on Appropriations is doing its markup on the agricultural appropriations bill.  This is likely to overturn nutrition standards established by scientific experts in order to:

  • Reverse USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals.
  • Reverse the exclusion of white potatoes from the WIC package.

As Politico puts it,

In the case of WIC and white potatoes, the provision follows on strong lobbying by the industry which is hoping to win similar language Thursday when the full Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to consider its own version of the same agriculture bill.

…For the industry, concerned that younger women have moved away from potatoes, gaining access to WIC is an important marketing tool.

Just as strongly, critics worry that the end result will be to open the door to other special interests and wreck a long-standing commitment by Congress to let independent scientists decide what foods are most needed.

As I see it, the food industry couldn’t get its way through the usual rulemaking processes, so it did an end run and got Congress to overturn the work of no less than three committees of the Institute of Medicine.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack explains what’s at stake:

The House bill would undermine the effort to provide kids with more nutritious food and would be a major step backwards for the health of American children, just at the time childhood obesity rates are finally starting to level off. School nutrition standards are developed by independent experts, over 90% of schools report that they are successfully implementing them, and studies show they are working to help kids be healthier. USDA has continued to show flexibility in implementing these new standards, and Congress should focus on partnering with USDA, states, schools, and parents to help our kids have access to more healthy food, not less.

In an e-mail, the Pew Charitable Trusts wrote:

We are disappointed that the House agriculture appropriations bill includes a provision that would weaken national nutrition standards for foods served in schools…it is unfortunate that the House would consider letting schools opt out of efforts to improve the health of children served through these program…Ninety percent of schools already report that they are meeting USDA’s updated nutrition standards for school lunches. Turning back now would be a costly mistake.”

The School Nutrition Association disagrees.  In its version of reality, “since these standards took effect, more than one million fewer students choose school lunch each day, reducing revenue for school meal programs already struggling to manage the increased cost of preparing meals under the new standards.”

To this, Claire Benjamin of Food Policy Action, asks:

Why are Members fighting to roll back school nutrition standards? Our nation is facing a health and obesity crisis, and rather than think about the future of our children the members pushing for these rollbacks are only thinking about future campaign contributions,” said Claire Benjamin, managing director of Food Policy Action (FPA). “Schools have already made real progress implementing the reforms, and it is extremely disappointing that some members of Congress are advocating for business as usual.”

Other responses:

Write your Congressional representatives and ask them to leave nutrition standards to scientists, not food companies with vested interests in selling their products to government food assistance programs.

Additions, May 20:

Addition, May 21:

Addition, May 24:

  • Major General says school nutrition standards are a matter of national security
May 19 2014

Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: A lovely read

Dan Barber.  The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.  Penguin Press, 2014.

New Picture (1)

 

Here’s a welcome addition to any library.  Dan Barber, justifiably renowned chef of Blue Hill in New York City and at Stone Barns and its farm in Westchester, writes as well as he cooks—and that’s very well indeed.

The book contains his musings on who and what it takes to produce wonderful food that is also seasonal, locally sourced, and sustainably raised.  He groups the musings on people, places, and cooking into four sections: Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed.

He explains the meaning of the Third Plate title:

  • The first plate is passé: a 7-ounce corn-fed steak with a small side of vegetables.
  • The second plate is where we are now: grass-fed steak, heirloom carrots grown in organic soil.
  • The third plate is the future: the positions of meat and vegetables reversed.

As Barber puts it,

I was looking toward a new cuisine, one that goes beyond raising awareness about the provenance of ingredients and—like all great cuisines—begins to reflect what the landscape can provide.

To do that, he talked to farmers.

The farmers in this book farm one level down.  They don’t think in terms of cultivating one thing…Instead, they grow nature by orchestrating a whole system of farming.  And they produce a lot of things—delicious food, to be sure, but also things we can’t easily measure or see…I confess I kept getting pulled into visiting the farms in this book because I was in pursuit of how an ingredient was grown or raised…I went in search of answers to practical questions.  Each time I tried to parse the specifics of how something was grown, I was instead pointed in the opposite direction: to the interactions and relationships among all the parts of the farm and then, with more time, to the interactions and relationships embedded in the culture and history of the place.

No wonder his food tastes so good!

 

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