Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 8 2015

Should scientists with financial ties to Monsanto be subject to FOIA requests?

Sunday’s New York Times story on academic conflicts of interest focused on scientists with financial ties to Monsanto.  The ties were revealed by open-records requests for e-mails and other information.

The Times was not the only one to make these requests.  U.S. Right to Know, a group devoted to investigating Big Food and its front groups had already done so.  U.S. Right to Know is funded primarily by the Organic Consumers Association, a national grassroots network advocating for organics, sustainability, and food safety—but against GMOs.

U.S. Right to Know rightfully takes credit for establishing the basis of the Times’ story.  It sent open-records requests to scientists working for public institutions who seemed likely to have financial ties to Monsanto.  Bingo.  Some of the e-mails revealed such ties.*

But should government-funded scientists be subjected to open records requests?  Couldn’t these requests amount to open season on academics—a modern-day version of witchhunts?  This question is now under active debate (and see comments on my previous post).

While these debates are raging, here is one aspect of this story that the New York Times did not tell.

Earlier this month, Paul Thacker and my NYU colleague Charles Seife, wrote a piece for PLoS [Public Library of Science] Blogs arguing that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests “for personal correspondence are not just appropriate, but crucial to ensuring transparency.”   They argue that the benefits of transparency outweigh the costs.

But transparency laws remain a fundamental tool for monitoring possible scientific misbehavior. And it would be a mistake to believe that scientists should not be subject to a high level of outside scrutiny. So long as scientists receive government money, they are subject to government oversight; so long as their work affects the public, journalists and other watchdogs are simply doing their jobs when they seek out possible misconduct and questionable practices that could threaten the public interest.

Thacker and Seife explain:

Last week, Nature reported that the University of Florida had provided them with emails that U.S. Right to Know had FOIA’d on one of their researchers…the [Nature] story noted that the researcher has received money from Monsanto to fund expenses incurred while giving educational talks on GMOs.  The article also noted that the PR Firm Ketchum had provided the scientist with canned answers to respond to GMO critics, although it is unclear if he used them [the Times story says he did but now regrets it].

The article does not report that the scientist has repeatedly denied having a financial relationship with Monsanto. The article also does not report on an email titled “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update” from the researcher to Monsanto in which the scientist advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California to require labeling of GMO products.

Some readers of PLoS were outraged that this online journal would publish an article supporting open-records requests of scientists (see, for example, this from the American Council on Science and Health).

Here’s where things get interesting.

PLoS responded to the criticism by, of all things, retracting the article.

Seife and Thacker explained their views in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.

If the public pays your salary, citizens have the right — within limits — to see what you’re doing. That’s the principle at the core of the federal Freedom of Information Act and of the many similar state freedom of information laws… “snooping” on scientists’ inboxes by journalists, watchdogs and government officials has revealed significant problems that would never have come to light via other means.

That, of course, is the basis of the New York Times’ exposé of Monsanto’s funding of scientists to testify on the company’s behalf to reporters, Congress, and the public.

Bottom line: Because industry-funded science and scientists almost invariably provide data and testimony that favors the sponsors interests, the press and public need to know about sponsorship.

One more comment:  A substantial body of literature exists on industry sponsorship of science, particularly on the effects of pharmaceutical industry funding of medical professionals.  Conflicts-of-interest researchers conclude that such conflicts are generally unconscious, unintentional, and unrecognized by participants.  The remedy is increased government spending for research, an unlikely possibility these days.  This means journalists will be kept busy exposing the many problems that arise when scientists take industry funding.

*The documents collected by the New York Times


Sep 6 2015

Another exposé of industry-funded scientists: this time, GMOs and organics

Today’s New York Times has another front-page (and on the inside, full-page) story on the food industry’s financial relationships with academic scientists.

The article describes how Monsanto funded scientists to lobby for GMOs in Washington (I will say more about this in a subsequent post).

But, as is clear from this report, the organic industry is doing much the same.

The Times based the story on e-mails it collected through open records law requests (the equivalent of Freedom of Information Act requests for federal documents).

And surprise!  I turn up in Charles Benbrook’s.  I learned this from checking Twitter yesterday.


I’m only on the B-list for influencing public opinion?  Alas.

It seems that Charles Benbrook, a strong proponent of organics (as am I), was working with (for?) the Organic Valley Cooperative on a public relations campaign to promote his organics-funded study demonstrating that organic milk has a healthier fatty acid profile than conventional milk.

I vaguely remember him contacting me about the study, but I didn’t write anything about it.  It appeared to be an industry-funded study with results favoring the sponsor’s interests—much as, in this case, I sympathize with those interests.

A few months later, I did write write about another conflicted organic study:

The study is not independently funded….This study is another example of how the outcome of sponsored research invariably favors the sponsor’s interests.  The paper says “the  [Sheepdrove] Trust  had  no  influence  on  the  design  and management of the  research  project  and  the  preparation  of publications  from the project,” but that’s exactly what studies funded by Coca-Cola say.  It’s an amazing coincidence how the results of sponsored studies almost invariably favor the sponsor’s interests.  And that’s true of results I like just as it is of results that I don’t like.

Benbrook has been criticized recently for not fully disclosing his ties to the organic industry.  Even if he had, disclosure is not enough.

The bottom line: Conflicted studies are conflicted, no matter who pays for them.

Documents: Charles Benbrook

Sep 4 2015

Weekend reading (and cooking): Eating Well on $4 a Day

Leanne Brown.  Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4 / Day.  Workman, 2015.

Leanne Brown is a graduate of our food studies program at New York University who, while in graduate school, became concerned about the plight of SNAP (food stamp) recipients who must feed their families on an average of $4 per day.

She wrote this book for them, first as a class project, then as an online gift, free for the taking.

It was downloaded 700,000 times.

Then she went to a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish the book.  At some point Workman picked it up.

It’s won an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and a place for Leanne in Forbes 30 under 30 for 2015.

The book has truly delicious recipes.  It starts with tips useful for anyone on a food budget.

I’m proud of what she’s accomplished.  The book is beautifully photographed, the recipes are terrific, and every time a copy is sold, Workman will donate another one to someone who needs it.

Sep 3 2015

Five more industry-funded studies with predictable results. Score since March: 52:1

Energy flux: staying in energy balance at a high level is necessary to prevent weight gain for most people.  Gregory A Hand, Robin P Shook, James O Hill, Peter R Giacobbi, and Steven N Blair.   Expert Rev. Endocrinol. Metab.  Early online, 1–7 (2015)

  • Conclusion: Maintaining energy balance at a higher caloric intake and expenditure should be a more successful long-term strategy for weight maintenance than reduced consumption or extreme caloric restriction at a low level of energy expenditure (a low energy flux) and improve intervention effectiveness for sustainable methods for body weight stability. [Implication: eat more to lose weight?]
  • Funding: GA Hand received non-restricted research funding and travel grant from The Coca Cola Company and a travel grant from International Life Sciences Institute. RP Shook received a travel grant from the Coca Cola Company. JO Hill received research support from the Coca Cola Company and the American Beverage Association. JO Hill is on the advisory board for McDonalds, General Mills, Curves, Consumer Goods Association, Calorie Control Council, International Food Information Council and McCormick Science Institute. JO Hill is a consultant for Walt Disney, has equity in Gelesis and Active Planet and is on the Board of Directors for International Life Sciences Institute and Livewell Colarado. SN Blair is the principal investigator on projects supported by unrestricted research grants from The Coca Cola Company to the University of South Carolina.
  • Comment: Some of these investigators were among those highlighted in the New York Times article revealing Coca-Cola’s funding of research demonstrating that physical activity is more important than diet in weight maintenance.

Reducing obesity will require involvement of all sectors of society. James O. Hill, John C. Peters and Steven N. Blair. Obesity Volume 23, Issue 2, February 2015, Page: 255.

  • Conclusion: If the physical inactivity industry could commit to increasing physical activity by 78 calories a day per person, we would begin seeing some real success…we need innovative thinking, recognition that both food and physical activity are important, and open minds about how to engage all of society in making changes.
  • Disclosure: Dr. Hill reports personal fees from Coca-Cola, personal fees from McDonald’s, grants from American Beverage Association, personal fees from Walt Disney Company, personal fees from General Mills, personal fees from Calorie Control Council, other from International Life Sciences Institute, and other from Retrofit outside the submitted work. In addition, Dr. Hill has a patent Energy Gap issued. Dr. Blair reports grants from Technogym and grants from Coca-Cola. Dr. Peters has no competing interests to disclose.
  • Comment: same investigators as in previous example.

Instant Oatmeal Increases Satiety and Reduces Energy Intake Compared to a Ready-to-Eat Oat-Based Breakfast Cereal: A Randomized Crossover Trial. Candida J. Rebello MS, RD, William D. Johnson PhD, Corby K. Martin PhD, Hongmei Han MS, Yi-Fang Chu PhD, Nicolas Bordenave PhD, B. Jan Willem van Klinken MD, PhD, Marianne O’Shea PhD & Frank L. Greenway MD.  Journal of the American College of Nutrition Published online: 14 Aug 2015.  DOI:10.1080/07315724.2015.1032442

  • Conclusion: Oatmeal suppresses appetite, increases satiety, and reduces energy intake compared to the RTEC [ready-to-eat cereal].
  • Funding: The trial was funded by Quaker Oats Center of Excellence and PepsiCo R&D Nutrition….

Impact of equol-producing capacity and soy-isoflavone profiles of supplements on bone calcium retention in postmenopausal women: a randomized crossover trial.  Jessica W Pawlowski, Berdine R Martin, George P McCabe, Linda McCabe, George S Jackson, Munro Peacock, Stephen Barnes, and Connie M Weaver. Am J Clin Nutr September 2015 vol. 102 no. 3 695-703.

  • Conclusion: Soy isoflavones, although not as potent as risedronate [a drug used to treat osteoporosis], are effective bone-preserving agents in postmenopausal women regardless of their equol-producing status, and mixed isoflavones in their natural ratios are more effective than enriched genistein.  [Equol is an isoflavone produced by intestinal bacteria]
  • Conflicts: CMW is on the scientific advisory board of Pharmavite [the maker of SoyJoy]. SB has a US patent on the use of conjugated isoflavones and the prevention of osteoporosis.

Agave Inulin Supplementation Affects the Fecal Microbiota of Healthy Adults Participating in a Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover TrialHannah D Holscher, Laura L Bauer, Vishnupriya Gourineni, Christine L Pelkman, George C Fahey, Jr., and Kelly S Swanson. J. Nutr. 2015; 145:2025-2032 doi:10.3945/jn.115.217331

  • Conclusions: Agave inulin supplementation shifted the gastrointestinal microbiota composition and activity in healthy adults. Further investigation is warranted to determine whether the observed changes translate into health benefits in human populations.  [Note: Agave inulin is a prebiotic, a fiber that can be metabolized by intestinal bacteria.  The study reports enrichment of fecal Bifidobacterium (the good kind)].
  • Funding: Supported in part by Global Nutrition R&D, Ingredion Incorporated, Bridgewater, NJ.  V Gourineni and CL Pelkman are employees of Global Nutrition R&D, Ingredion, Incorporated.  [Ingredion manufactures prebiotic fibers]

As always, please send examples, particularly of industry-funded studies that do not produce results in the sponsor’s interest.

Sep 2 2015

Soda Politics: the first copy!

Soda Politics is out (almost)!  It ships to preorders next week!


Max Sinsheimer, my editor at Oxford University Press, just gave me this advance copy.

The official publication date is October 5, but copies should be widely available well before then.  Enjoy!

For information about it, click here.

Sep 1 2015

GM potato approved for production

On Friday, the USDA announced that it approved production of “Innate” potatoes, genetically modified by the Simplot company to

  • Resist blight
  • Store longer at cold temperatures
  • Not turn brown when cooked
  • Produce less acrylamide

The official Federal Register notice is published here.

Earlier this year, the FDA “completed its consultation” with Simplot:

Simplot’s varieties of Ranger Russet, Russet Burbank and Atlantic potatoes are collectively known by the trade name “Innate” and are genetically engineered to reduce the formation of black spot bruises by lowering the levels of certain enzymes in the potatoes.

In addition, they are engineered to produce less acrylamide by lowering the levels of an amino acid called asparagine and by lowering the levels of reducing-sugars. Acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods during high-temperature cooking, such as frying, and has been found to be carcinogenic in rodents.

These sound like useful traits.  According to the Simplot video (worth watching), the company is proud of having produced a “better, more sustainable potato.”


  • Will Simplot voluntarily label its potatoes as genetically modified with enhanced characteristics?  There is precedent for doing so.  In the early 1990s, Calgene intended to do just that with its GM tomatoes (but the tomatoes failed in production and Monsanto bought the company).
  • Will McDonald’s use Innate potatoes for its French Fries?
  • Will supermarkets carry them?

I will be watching this one with great interest.

Aug 31 2015

Bacteria in ground beef dangerous or natural? Depends on point of view, apparently.

Consumer Reports has just done a major report on the safety of ground beef.

In its announcement of the report, Consumer Reports says:

All 458 pounds of beef we examined contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli)…Almost 20 percent contained C. perfringens, a bacteria that causes almost 1 million cases of food poisoning annually. Ten percent of the samples had a strain of S. aureus bacteria that can produce a toxin that can make you sick…One of the most significant findings of our research is that beef from conventionally raised cows was more likely to have bacteria overall, as well as bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, than beef from sustainably raised cows.

For public health people, results like this should send alarm signals.  The presence of E. coli, even the non-toxic type, indicates fecal contamination.  This is more than a yuck problem.  If E. coli is there, dangerous fecal pathogens could be there too.

But the North American Meat Institute headlined its response: “Consumer Reports Ground Beef Study Confirms Strong Safety of Ground Beef.”

The “bacteria identified in the Consumer Reports testing are types that rarely cause foodborne illness. Bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, Enterococcus, and generic E. coli are commonly found in the environment and are not considered pathogenic bacteria…Bacteria occur naturally on all raw food products from beef to blueberries so finding certain types on some foods in a grocery store is not surprising and should not be concerning,”

For the meat industry, fecal contamination is normal, natural, and you don’t need to worry about it—just be sure to cook your meat to a temperature high enough to kill all pathogens.

Good luck with that.

My advice: if you like ground beef rare, go to a butcher shop and ask to have one piece of meat ground for you in a freshly cleaned grinder.

Aug 28 2015

Weekend reading: Vanessa Domine’s Healthy Teens, Healthy Schools

Vanessa Domine.  Healthy Teens, Healthy Schools: How Media Literacy Can Renew Education in the United States.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Image result for Healthy Teens, Healthy Schools

Here’s my blurb:

If you are not concerned about the effects of exposure to electronic media on the health of teenagers, you should be.   This book presents a well-researched, highly compelling case for the urgent need for media literacy education to be incorporated into school wellness programs as soon as possible.

For information about how online marketing affects kids’ food choices, take a look at the work of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, particularly in media advocacy training.

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also has resources about online marketing to kids (scroll down for a list).

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