Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 20 2014

New House Majority Leader represents Big Ag

I love reading Politico Pro Agriculture.  It comments this morning on the new Majority Leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who represents the San Joaquin Valley where Big Agriculture is worth $3 billion.  This comes from 16 commodities, among them cotton, garlic, cattle, tomatoes and wine grapes..

Pro Ag quotes Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif:

Majority Leader-elect McCarthy has provided critical leadership on a number of issues impacting the produce industry, including ensuring passage of a farm bill that recognizes the importance of fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, ongoing work to negotiate a solution to our water crisis, and of course working to address the immigration needs of agriculture…We look forward to working this year with the new majority leader to bring relief to our drought stricken farmers and to finally fix our broken immigration system.

Pro Ag did some homework and checked the lobbying database on Open Secrets.

  • McCarthy’s 2013-14 campaign contributions from agribusiness PACs and individuals: $226,550.
  • McCarthy is third in rank among top House recipients of food and beverage contributions so far in 2014: $67,481.

As for what to expect from McCarthy?  Think Eric Cantor.

According to Vox‘s Ezra Klein,

It’s hard to come up with ways in which Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who previously served as House Republican Whip, differs from Cantor. They both want to cut taxes. They both voted for the Ryan budget. They both want to repeal Obamacare. And, for all the talk of Cantor’s defeat being about immigration reform, McCarthy has basically the same position on immigration reform: he’s abstractly for immigration reform, but he’s not going to bring any solution to the problem up for a vote.

Business as usual, alas.

Jun 19 2014

Corn Refiners to test the new food label

ProPolitico writes that the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) and five other industry groups have written the FDA that they intend to fund their own research on the FDA’s proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label.

The FDA already has a research project underway.

Why would the CRA—the trade association for the makers of high fructose corn syrup—want to bother with an expensive and complicated research project like this?

In an interview, John Bode, CRA president and CEO, told Politico:

The FDA has estimated that changes to the label could cost the industry $2.3 billion, but ‘we suspect that is a very conservative number.

OK.  So one purpose of the research will be to prove that the new food label will cost industry a lot more money than the FDA estimates.

Let me take a guess here and surmise that another purpose will be to prove that listing “added sugars” on food labels “misleads” the public.

This will be industry-funded research.  No matter how well it appears to be done, it is highly likely to produce the answers the CRA wants.

Otherwise, why do it?

If you are a betting person, this one looks like a sure thing.

FDA: finish up those studies and get the results out!

Addition, June 20:  Legal analysts, one a former attorney for CSPI who now works for a law firm representing industry clients, advise against putting “added sugars” on the label.  

 

Jun 18 2014

Time Magazine: “Eat Butter.” Maybe in moderation, please?

I love butter as much as the next person, but when I went to New York’s Food Fest yesterday, the butter makers were all proudly displaying Time Magazine’s provocative June 23 cover.

INTcover0623LR.jpg

The cover story is by Bryan Walsh.

It comes with an even more provacative video–one of those “everything you thought you knew about diet is wrong” things.

I’m quoted in his article, but I wish he had quoted more of my comments about context.

He says saturated fat consumption is down, but heart disease is still the number one killer of Americans.

Yes it is, but not nearly as much as it used to be (as I discussed in a previous post):

Americans must be doing something right.

The big problem is type-2 diabetes.  It’s going up in parallel with obesity: Fat calories and sugar calories contribute to obesity.

The dietary bottom line?  Eat your veggies, balance calories, and stay active.

Really, it’s not more complicated than that.

But that kind of advice will never make the cover of Time, alas.

Addition, June 20: David Katz on how easy it is to misinterpret studies of saturated fat (or sugars for that matter) and health.

Jun 17 2014

Fish politics: The FDA’s updated policy on eating fish while pregnant

Eating fish presents difficult dilemmas (I evaluate them in five chapters of What to Eat).

This one is about asking pregnant women to weigh the benefits of fish-eating against the hazards of their toxic chemical contaminants to the developing fetus.

The Dietary Guidelines tell pregnant women to eat 2-to-3 servings of low-mercury fish per week (actually, it’s methylmercury that is of concern, but the FDA calls it mercury and I will too).

But to do that, pregnant women have to:

  • Know which fish are low in mercury
  • Recognize these fish at the supermarket, even if they are mislabeled (which they sometimes are).

Only a few fish, all large predators, are high in mercury.  The FDA advisory says these are:

  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • King Mackerel
  • Tilefish

What?  This list leaves off the fifth large predator: Albacore (white) tuna.  This tuna has about half the mercury as the other four, but still much more than other kinds of fish.

The figure below comes from the Institute of Medicine’s fish report.  It shows that fish highest in omega-3 fatty acids, the ones that are supposed to promote neurological development in the fetus and cognitive development in infants, are also highest in mercury.

fish

White tuna is the line toward the bottom.  The ones in the blue boxes are all much lower in omega-3s and in mercury except for farmed Atlantic salmon (high in omega-3s, very low in mercury).

What’s going on here?

  • Tuna producers know you can’t tell the difference between white and other kinds of tuna and don’t want you to stop eating tuna during pregnancy.
  • The data on the importance of eating fish to children’s cognitive development are questionable (in my opinion).  The studies are short term and it’s difficult to know whether the small gains in early cognitive development that have been reported make any difference a few months later.
  • The FDA must be under intense pressure to promote fish consumption.

I think it is absurd to require pregnant women to know which fish to avoid.  In supermarkets, fish can look pretty much alike and you cannot count on fish sellers to know the differences.

Other dilemmas:

  • Even smaller fish have PCBs, another toxin best avoided by pregnant women, if not everyone.
  • The world’s seafood supply is falling rapidly as a result of overfishing.
  • Half of the mercury in seafood derives from emissions from coal-burning power plants.  The best way to reduce mercury in fish is to clean up the emissions from those plants, but plant owners want to avoid the expense.

That’s fish politics, for you.

The FDA documents:

Jun 13 2014

The FDA, cheese boards, and public policy

Is the FDA at war with small, artisanal cheese makers?

I hope not.

But the FDA seems especially clumsy in its dealings with artisanal cheese makers over food safety issues.

The FDA has some legitimate concerns.  Milk is anything but sterile.  Salting and aging cheese kills pathogens but not always completely, and there is always a possibility of recontamination of the rind.

Like all food producers, cheese makers— no matter what their size—ought to be following standard food safety procedures.  Most do.

Even so, contamination happens.  That’s why testing is such a good idea.   It can stop contaminated cheese from making customers sick.

Last week, an FDA official, Monica Metz,  set off a firestorm with a letter to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets,

The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements, which require that “all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained.” 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized.  The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products.

The American Cheese Society immediately issued a rebuttal:

For centuries, cheesemakers have been creating delicious, nutritious, unique cheeses aged on wood.

Today’s cheesemakers—large and small, domestic and international—continue to use this material for production due to its inherent safety, unique contribution to the aging and flavor-development process, and track record of safety as part of overall plant hygiene and good manufacturing practices. No foodborne illness outbreak has been found to be caused by the use of wood as an aging surface.

The FDA responded with a clarification

Recently, you may have heard some concerns suggesting the FDA has taken steps to end the long-standing practice in the cheesemaking industry of using wooden boards to age cheese. To be clear, we have not and are not prohibiting or banning the long-standing practice of using wood shelving in artisanal cheese. Nor does the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) require any such action. Reports to the contrary are not accurate.

Whew.  Hang onto those boards, but do keep them clean.

As for the FDA: it needs to go further and do a whole lot more to reassure artisanal cheese makers who are convinced that the agency is out to get them and put them out of business. 

Jun 11 2014

Michele Simon’s latest report: “Whitewashed” (she means dairy foods)

I always am interested in Michele Simon’s provocative reports.  Her latest, Whitewashed, is no exception.  It’s about how the government promotes dairy foods, no matter what kind or where they appear.

New Picture

Read her blog post here.

Download the full report here.

Read the executive summary here.

Here’s are some of the surprising (to me) findings detailed in the report:

  • About half of all milk is consumed either as flavored milk, with cereal, or in a drink;
  • Nearly half of the milk supply goes to make about 9 billion pounds of cheese and 1.5 billion gallons of frozen desserts–two-thirds of which is ice cream;
  • 11 percent of all sugar goes into the production of dairy products.

Where the government enters the picture is through the “checkoff programs” for promoting milk and dairy.  These are USDA-Sponsored programs, paid for by dairy farmers through checkoff fees, but run by the USDA.

U.S. Department of Agriculture employees attend checkoff meetings, monitor activities, and are responsible for evaluation of the programs. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the legality of the checkoff programs as “government speech”, finding: “the message … is controlled by the Federal Government.”

The report has some interesting findings about the checkoff.  Although checkoff funds are supposed to be used for generic marketing, the dairy checkoff helped:

  • McDonald’s make sure that dairy foods play an important role in product development.
  • Taco Bell introduce its double steak quesadillas and cheese shreds.
  • Pizza Hut develop its 3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza and “Summer of Cheese” ad campaign.
  • Dominos add more cheese to its pizzas as a result of a $35 million partnership.
  • Domino’s “Smart Slice” program introduce its pizza to more than 2,000 schools in 2011.
  • Promote “Chocolate Milk Has Muscle” and “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk.”

I like dairy foods, but should the government be doing this?

 

Jun 10 2014

Dueling infographics on the school lunch wars

Thanks to Tracy Fox for sending the latest salvos in the absurd political fight over nutrition standards for school meals.

The first comes from the School Nutrition Association (scroll down to find the image).  This is the organization increasingly discredited for its close ties to food companies that supply products for school meals, as well as its lobbying of Congress on behalf of those companies .

Screenshot 2014-06-10 13.38.07

 

The second comes from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major funder of anti-obesity initiatives.

infographic

This particular political fight isn’t over yet.  The School Nutrition Association is on the wrong side of this issue, as shown by the divisions in its ranks—the 19 former presidents who wrote Congress to oppose weakening the standards, for example.

Who loses in this one?  Kids’ health, alas.

Jun 9 2014

New book for city folk: The Rooftop Beekeeper

Megan Paska: The Rooftop Beekeeper: A Scrappy Guide to Keeping Urban Honeybees.  Chronicle Books, 2014.

Megan Paska sent me a copy of her new book and I’m so glad she did.  I know lots of people who want to try raising bees in their home towns but don’t know how to start.

Now I know what to tell them.  Read this book.

It covers what bees are, why they matter, why you should raise them, why cities are great places to raise them, how to start, what you need—hives, nets, food, and the like—where to put them, and how to take care of bees in every season.

And it provides recipes for doing wonderful things with the overabundance of honey your bees are likely to produce.

I particularly like this section:

What to say to your neighbors.

Bee stings hurt.  It’s easy to see why many people assume that they’re going to die when they get stung by a bee…The fact is that bees already live with us, even in a city…Next time you are at a park or see a planted flowerbed on the street, consider not only the honeybee but also other wild pollinators you will likely see there, drifting from flower to flower…As beekeepers, it’s part of our job description to enlighten others to this simple fact: Bees are not so different from us.  They live for one another, and they can’t thrive without community.

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