Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 25 2016

Guest blog for Scientific American: the new food label

Guest Blog

The FDA’s new rules for food labeling are finally here

The changes are a step toward better health and less obesity, especially in children

By Marion Nestle on May 24, 2016

The FDA’s announcement of final rules for its overhaul of labels on food packages is a signature accomplishment of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

In 2010, in setting the agenda for Let’s Move!, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity called for improving the clarity, accuracy, and consistency of food package labels to enable parents and children to make healthier food choices.  The Task Force noted that more than half the adult public used food labels to decide what to buy, but that the current labels had hardly changed since the FDA’s regulations of 1993.

The FDA actually began work on revising the food label in 2005 with a request for public input on updating serving sizes, and it began formal rulemaking in 2008.  The FDA proposed rules and issued its last call for comments in 2014.

I attribute this nine-year process to details and politics.

First, the details. The Federal Register notice on the food label takes up 943 pages, and it takes another 170 pages to explain the changes in serving sizes.

FDA’s fact sheet on the changes explains the politics.  Most changes are relatively uncontroversial: the greater emphasis on calories, the removal of calories from fat, the requirement for “dual column” labels for “per serving” and “per package,” the updating of serving sizes to more closely reflect actual intake, and the rewording of the Daily Value footnote.  As Michelle Obama put it, ”you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids.  So that’s a phenomenal achievement.”

Indeed it is, especially in light of a political climate in which the food industry and Congress do all they can to undermine public health measures in school food and child nutrition programs.

Mrs. Obama alluded to the ongoing political controversy: “most important of all, this label will tell you how much sugar in your snack was added during processing, and how much of it comes from ingredients like fruit.”

The new food label distinguishes between intrinsic sugars in food and those added in manufacturing; it also sets a Daily Value for the maximum amount of sugars recommended for diets of 2,000 calories a day.  I credit the Center for Science in the Public Interest for this accomplishment; it petitioned FDA for these changes in 2013 (its first added sugar petition was in 1999).

The Washington Post got right to the core of the controversy: “Why the sugar industry hates the FDA’s new Nutrition Facts label.” Americans consume roughly twice the amount of sugar recommended for good health, and sugars are rampant in processed foods.  All it takes is one 16-ounce soft drink to reach the 50-gram daily maximum.

The Sugar Association, the trade group for producers of sugar cane and sugar beets invokes science as the reason for its intense opposition: “We are concerned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science, and could actually deter us from our shared goal of a healthier America.”

The Association argues, correctly, that the sugars that occur naturally in fruits are biochemically identical to those added in manufacturing.  But this argument misses how added sugars dilute the nutritional value of food products.  Much research supports the health benefits of eating fruit, whereas added sugars raise risks for obesity and other chronic conditions.

The Sugar Association does not really care about science.  It cares about what will happen to sales if people read labels and reject products with added sugars.  This, of course, is one of the purposes of Added Sugars on food labels.

The Association has reason to worry.  Since 1999, per capita consumption of sugars has fallen in the United States, although it still exceeds the 10 percent of calories recommended by the World Health Organization last year.  The new label should accelerate that downward trend.

An even greater worry is that labeling added sugars might encourage manufacturers to reduce the amounts in their products.  The FDA’s listing of trans-fatty acids on food labels in 2006 led to an immediate reductionin the use of hydrogenated oils as ingredients in food products.  I expect to see grams of sugars decline by the time these rules take effect in May 2018 (small food producers get until May 2019).

I see the new label as a political win for public health and Let’s Move!  But let’s keep this in perspective.  Healthful diets are based on foods, not food products.  We would all be healthier eating foods that do not come with Nutrition Facts panels, and saving most of those that do for once-in-a-while occasions.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Recent Scientific American Articles by Marion Nestle

May 24 2016

Does glyphosate (Roundup) cause cancer?

Glyphosate is an herbicide made by Monsanto to be used on crops genetically modified by Monsanto to resist it.  Growers can spray glyphosate on their crops.  When it works well, weeds die and the crops flourish.

It is widely used in production of genetically modified crops (HT—herbicide tolerant—in the figure).

Monsanto says it has many benefits and is risk free.

But in March 2015, The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said that glyphosate/Roundup is “probably carcinogenic to humans” (see my post on this).

Now a joint WHO/FAO meeting on pesticide residues concludes

glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.

How to reconcile these divergent conclusions?

The Guardian says one possible explanation lies with who participated in the WHO/FAO meeting.  It notes that the meeting’s chair is vice-president of the International Life Science Institute (ILSI) Europe.  ILSI positions itself as an independent research group, but SourceWatch considers it a lobbying group and some critics view it as a front group for the food industry.  Says The Guardian:

In 2012, the ILSI group took a $500,000 (£344,234) donation from Monsanto and a $528,500 donation from the industry group Croplife International, which represents Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and others, according to documents obtained by the US right to know campaign…the news sparked furious condemnation from green MEPs and NGOs, intensified by the report’s release two days before an EU relicensing vote on glyphosate, which will be worth billions of dollars to industry.

Even if questions about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate/Roundup are in dispute, one issue is not; weeds are increasingly developing resistance to the herbicide.  Farmers are forced to use other, perhaps more toxic, herbicides to get rid of resistant weeds.

The molecular basis of glyphosate/Roundup resistance is well understood, and more and more weeds are developing resistance.

If enough of them do, farmers will stop using glyphosate/Roundup and the carcinogenicity issue will become moot..

Let’s hope IARC and independent WHO/FAO committees are taking a close look at the potential carcinogenicity of all those replacement herbicides.

May 23 2016

Food-Navigator-USA’s Special Edition on Organics

This is one of Food Navigator-USA’s special editions in which this industry-focused newsletter collects several of its posts on particular topics—in this case, organics.

But first, take a look at the USDA’s summary of trends in organic food sales:

Special Edition: Where next for organics?

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales increased from $3.6 billion in 1997 to over $39 billion in 2014. But can the meteoric growth continue? And will organic ultimately replace the more nebulous ‘all-natural’ as consumers increasingly look for claims that are underpinned by consistent standards?

May 20 2016

New food label! Congratulations Let’s Move! & FDA

I kept hearing rumors this week that Michelle Obama would announce the revised Nutrition Facts panel at today’s summit meeting of the Partnership for a Healthier America, the public-private partnership organization that supports Let’s Move!

And here is the graphic from the White House press release:

Congratulations on the long-awaited changes:

  • Calories big and bold
  • Added sugars

  • Serving sizes updated
  • “Dual column” labels for “per serving” and “per package”
  • Daily Value footnote: “The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet.  2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.”
  • Nutrients: Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium.  Voluntary: Vitamins A and C.

Expect to see this on food packages in two years (small food producers get an additional year to comply).

Here are the relevant FDA documents:

Here are the early comments (I will be adding more as they arrive):

The new food label is an extraordinary accomplishment, especially in the light of a political climate in which the food industry and its friends in Congress fight public health nutrition measures tooth and nail.

For background, see some of my posts on food labels since 2008:

Addition, May 26: Politico reports that 6 food trade groups commissioned a study to demonstrate that the cost of implementing the new food labels would be much higher than estimated by the FDA.  Although the paper does not disclose its funding (or if it does, I missed it), Politico says the funders included the Corn Refiners Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Sugar Association, the American Bakers Association, and the International Dairy Foods Association.  As with most industry-funded studies, they got what they paid for.

May 19 2016

SNAP politics: strange bedfellows

Wouldn’t it be useful if stores that accept SNAP benefits stocked some other real—as opposed to packaged—foods in addition to the apples, oranges, and bananas most of them now seem to carry (witness Walgreens)?

Congress thought so when it passed the 2014 farm bill.  This intended

to expand or preserve the availability of staple foods in underserved areas with moderate- and low income populations by maintaining or increasing the number of retail outlets that offer an assortment of perishable food and staple food items, as determined by the Secretary, in those areas.

In response, USDA proposed new regulations to improve what SNAP retailers had in stock.

The 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to develop regulations to ensure that stores that accept SNAP offer a broader variety of healthy food choices. The stocking provisions in the proposed rule would require SNAP-authorized retail establishments to offer a larger inventory and variety of healthy food options so that recipients have access to more healthy food choices. SNAP retailers would be required to offer seven varieties of qualifying foods in four staple food groups for sale on a continuous basis, along with perishable foods in at least three of the four staple food groups. The staple foods groups are dairy products; breads and cereals; meats, poultry and fish; and fruits and vegetables. In addition, the proposal calls for retailers to stock at least six units within each variety, leading to a total of at least 168 required food items per store.

Guess what?  Some retailers don’t like this idea.

What to do when you don’t like food regulations?  Go straight to Congress.

Now the House agriculture committee is complaining to USDA about the rule.  It says that USDA’s estimate of the cost per store ($140) is wrong.  Retailers say it will cost them $5000 per month to implement.

Who’s right?  Hence: politics.

The Congressional Black Caucus also wants the USDA to back off on this rule.  It says communities need these retailers (the quality of the foods they sell is not an issue, apparently).  Here is its letter.

Civil Eats has a good summary of the issues.

It troubles me greatly that SNAP divides advocates for the poor and advocates for health.  Don’t all of us want the recipients of federal food assistance to have access to healthful food choices?

May 18 2016

New report on GMOs: safe but “more research needed” (sigh)

The National Academies of Science has just released its long-awaited report “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects.”

I was a reviewer on this report months ago and as far as I can tell it hasn’t changed much from when I sent in my comments.  Here’s what I said:

In light of public polarization of opinion of GE foods, this report tries to do something quite difficult—to come to evidence-based opinions about the risks and benefits of these foods now and in the future.  The report makes it clear that the committee listened carefully to a wide variety of opinions about risks and benefits and tried to make sense of the varying viewpoints based on available evidence.  This was not easy, given the inadequacy of much of the evidence.

I give the report high marks for its neutral tone and cautious interpretations.  The report clearly reveals how little is known about the effects of GE foods, how much GE is about crops fed to animals and how little is about food for people (except indirectly), and how minimally the promises of food biotechnology have been realized, except as they benefit large agricultural producers.

In trying to be fair, the committee will please nobody.  Proponents will be distressed that the benefits are not more strongly celebrated.  Critics will be upset that the report treats many of their concerns pejoratively (“activism”).  Both sides will find plenty in the report to buttress their views.  The overall conclusion, “more research needed,” makes sense but is not helpful in bringing the two sides together.

Some examples:

The Environmental Working Group, for example, likes:

  • The implied call for mandatory GMO labeling: “Mandatory labeling provides the opportunity for consumers to make their own personal risk-benefit decisions.”
  • The recommendations to fix the GMO regulatory system, including putting in some limits on “GMO crops and the chemicals used with them.”
  • The confirmation that “GMO crops have not, to date, increased actual yields and should not be exclusively relied upon to meet long-term food security needs.”

But Food & Water Watch issued a statement and a position paper claiming that the Academies and committee members have ties to the biotechnology industry and agricultural corporations.  The group says that Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical Company each donated between $1 million and $5 million to the Academies in 2014, citing a treasurer’s report, and that the report is conflicted from the get go.

Today’s New York Times has a good summary of diverse reactions to the report, and points out:

Perhaps because of the sensitivity and complexity of the issue, many of the document’s conclusions are hedged by caveats.

“We received impassioned requests to give the public a simple, general, authoritative answer about G.E. crops,” Fred Gould, a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University and chairman of the committee that compiled the report, wrote in the preface. “Given the complexity of G.E. issues, we did not see that as appropriate.”

May 17 2016

Congressional (mis)action on child nutrition

First the good news

The USDA is applying its school-food rules  to child and adult care programs.  It has just released its final rule for these programs.  These go into effect in October 2017.

Previously, the USDA released standards for the Women, Infants and Children program and for the National School Lunch Program.

Now all three food assistance programs are more or less aligned with the Dietary Guidelines.

The child and adult feeding programs will specify more fruits and vegetables, less sugar and fat, but have reduce the standards for whole grain-rich products and sodium.  Presumably, this will make the rules more acceptable to people who don’t like them, of which there are many (see below).

And now the bad news

The House has released its child nutrition reauthorization bill, with the Orwellian title: “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act.”  Like all such titles, this one means the opposite of what it says.

The House bill increases reimbursements for school breakfasts (good), but then lowers the nutrition standards for school meals and makes it harder for schools to qualify for universal free meals.  Here’s the committee’s bill summary.  And here is what the House Education and Workforce Committee says in its fact sheet.

The Hagstrom Report quotes Margo Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest saying that the House bill will:

  • Freeze sodium reduction for at least three years.
  • Require yet another scientific review of sodium.
  • Weaken the whole grain standards.
  • Let junk food back into schools
  • Allow schools to replace fresh produce with dried (without a sugar limit), canned (without a sodium or sugar limit), and frozen fruits and vegetables, thereby allowing schools to replace fresh apples and carrots with sugary fruit snacks, potato chips, jam, or trail mix containing candy.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says this bill will increase food insecurity among children.

Fortunately, not everyone in the House loves this bill.  A letter signed by 111 House members details objections.

The House will be working on this bill tomorrow.  What will the Senate do?

School food advocates: it’s time to get busy.  Here’s the list of House members.  Write to yours today!

May 16 2016

Bill Marler on what is and is not working in the food safety system

The latest Salmonella outbreak comes courtesy of Pacific Coast Fruit Company, which produces Taylor Farms Organic Power Greens Kale Medley.

OrganicKaleMedley-1web

Alas, Salmonella do not care whether or not vegetables are USDA Certified Organic—even kale.

Coral Beach discusses the details of the investigation into this outbreak at Food Safety News this morning.

And food safety lawyer Bill Marler has some pointed questions about this outbreak.

  •  Why no announcement of the Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak?
  •  Why no recall of the product?
  •  Given that the product was distributed nationwide, are we seeing a spike in Salmonella Enteritis cases in states other than Minnesota?
  • Why was the announcement removed from Pacific Coast Fruit Website?

He also has plenty to say about what another recent outbreak (this one due to frozen vegetables contaminated with Listeria) tells us about what is and what is not working in our current food safety system.

His essay makes the point that foodborne illness outbreaks due to contaminated meat are becoming increasingly rare.  Most current outbreaks are due to contaminated vegetables.

How come?  For meat, the system is working.

  • Regulation: prevention controls on meat and poultry went into effect in the mid-1990s.
  • The CDC’s ability to track outbreaks is good and getting better, thanks to genetic fingerprinting.
  • Government agencies are doing more testing.
  • The US Attorney’s office has shown interest in “finding companies and their CEOs criminally responsible for manufacturing tainted foods.  Lawsuits and jail time have a unique ability to make companies pay attention.”
  • Recalls are “both disruptive and expensive.”
  • Publicity about recalls discourages the public from buying similar products.

In sum, “recall costs, slumping sales, along with civil and criminal liability, are powerful market incentives.   The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) should help once companies start following its regulations.

He ought to know.  When Congress was foot-dragging on passing FSMA, Marler sent every member of Congress a tee shirt with this image:

He better be careful.  If he’s right about market forces cleaning up food safety problems, he may get his wish.

But we still have a long way to go on vegetable safety, apparently.

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