Jan 10 2014

Action on Sugar to the food industry: reduce sugar now!

A group of public health experts based mainly in Britain have announced a new anti-sugar campaign.

Called Action on Sugar, it is modeled on Great Britain’s campaign to get the food industry to gradually reduce salt in processed foods—voluntarily.  That campaign is considered to have led to a reduction of 25% to 40%.

Action on Sugar’s objective: Reduce sugar in packaged foods by 20% to 30% over the next 3 to 5 years.

Action on Sugar is a group of specialists concerned with sugar and its effects on health. It is successfully working to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government over the harmful effects of a high sugar diet, and bring about a reduction in the amount of sugar in processed foods. Action on Sugar is supported by 18 expert advisors.

As one of the experts put it, “Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are now pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focused on profit not health”—just like the tobacco industry behaves.

You have to love the British press:

New Picture

Enjoy the weekend!

 

Jan 9 2014

Are GMOs “natural?” The FDA won’t say.

I’ve written frequently about the “natural” issue—what’s natural in foods and what’s not—on this site and now must do so again.

Yesterday, FoodNavigator reported that the FDA “respectfully declined” to decide once and for all whether foods labeled “natural” can include GMOs.

To summarize what brought this on:

  • Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers referred a lawsuit over “all-natural’ claims on GMO-containing Mission tortilla chips to the FDA to decide whether GMO-containing products can be considered “natural.”
  • So did two other judges in cases involving Campbell Soup and General Mills Kix cereal.

The FDA’s letter to the three judges says the agency has to make decisions like this in the context of rulemaking, not litigation.

So how about making a decision about what “natural” means once and for all?

Not a chance.  The FDA says it has better things to do:  “Because especially in the foods arena, FDA operates in a world of limited resources, we necessarily must prioritize which issues to address.”

Back to court, this one goes, or so it seems.

Jan 8 2014

The endless GMO saga: today’s chapter

A reader writes: “Any chance you might weigh in on the latest GMO piece in the times?”

Sure.  This article, in case you missed it, puts anyone who opposes GMOs in the same camp as climate denialists.

I haven’t commented on it because I wrote a book about the topic in 2003—Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety—in which I said everything I had to say about the topic.  Nothing new has happened since.

In that book, I argued that the safety of GMOs is a surrogate for what people really worry about but aren’t allowed to discuss: corporate control of the food supply.

I drew on the literature of risk communication to explain what kinds of issues most worry the public: those that are technological, unfamiliar, and under someone else’s control.

Why should the public trust GMOs?  They are under corporate control and not labeled.

By pouring money into fighting labeling, the biotech industry looks like it’s got plenty to hide.  

For one possibility about what’s hidden, take a look at Tom Philpott’s take on the need for stronger and increasingly toxic pesticides to overcome the weed resistance to Roundup that is now widespread.

Now that GMO labeling initiatives are making some headway, guess what:

PoliticoPro tells us tells us that the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) now wants the industry to do voluntary labeling.  According to a leaked draft for discussion, the Association is working on legislation to send to Congress.  This would:

  • Require FDA to set up a voluntary labeling standard for foods that do not contain GMOs and determine the safety of GMO products.
  • Preclude states from adopting any laws that are not identical to the federal requirements and create a legal framework so that FDA can take a more active role in regulating GMO-labeling claims.
  • Require GMO producers to notify the FDA about all new bioengineered foods four months before they could be marketed.
  • Require FDA to define “natural”
  • Set up a national standard for voluntary GMO labeling 

While you are waiting for all this to happen, take a look at the Wall Street Journal’s perspective on this video: Can you spot the GMOs in your grocery store?

Here’s what JustLabelIt’s Executive Director Scott Faber says:

This ‘Hail Mary’ pass comes too late to deny consumers the right to know what’s in their food. Two states have already given consumers the same rights as consumers in 64 other countries around world, and 20 more states are poised to pass GE labeling legislation in 2014. Now is the time for food companies to work with JLI and others to craft a national mandatory labeling system, not make desperate moves to block states from protecting their consumers from misleading “natural” claims or to tie FDA’s hands in red tape.

Really, labeling would solve lots of problems, but let’s make it mandatory please.

Jan 7 2014

Today’s irony: butter

A new report from Finland says that people with metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, cholesterol, sugar, etc) do not follow dietary recommendations.

In particular, their diets contain too much saturated fat and sodium.

The saturated fat part is funny because this morning’s PoliticoPro Agriculture notes that the American Butter Institute (yes, such things exist) proudly announces that Americans are consuming more butter.

The Butter Institute’s press release, according to PoliticoPro, says:

Margarine and other spreads are no longer viewed as healthier alternatives…since 2002, Americans have increased butter consumption by 25 percent. In 2012, per capita consumption reached 5.6 pounds a year, a dramatic increase from the 1997 low of 4.1 pounds.

We still have a way to go to beat the Finns.  In 2011, average butter consumption in Finland was 4 kilos (nearly 9 pounds), and rising.

Love butter?  Better eat your veggies and balance calories!

Jan 6 2014

Welcome to 2014: Fun Facts from Advertising Age

Advertising Age has just issued its 2014 Marketing Fact Pack with all kinds of useful tidbits.  Here is a sample:

  • McDonald’s was the highest ranking food advertiser in 2012, meaning the company that spends the most money on “measured media,” the kind that goes through advertising agencies: $1.424 billion, of which $957 million was spent in the U.S.  This doesn’t count marketing that does not go through advertising agencies.
  • The top ten fast food restaurants spent $6.1 billion on advertising, just in the U.S. in 2012.
  • The top ten beverage brands spent $1.77 billion on U.S. advertising in 2012: Coca-Cola $243 million, Pepsi $274 million, Gatorade $101 million, etc.
  • TV is still the largest advertising medium (39%) followed by the Internet (19%), newspapers (15.5%), magazines, radio and outdoor and cinema.  This is the first year that the Internet has surpassed newspapers.
  • The Internet share of advertising is expected to rise to 31% by 2016.
  • Americans spent 271 minutes a day watching TV in 2013 and another 316 minutes on digital media.  Total minutes with any medium: 712 (but some of this is multitasking).
  • Nearly one in six adults watches more than 40 hours of TV a week.
  • Americans spent only 18 minutes a day reading newspapers.
  • The cost of a 30-second TV spot on The Simpsons is $231,532.
  • The cost of a 30-second TV spot on The Biggest Loser is $91,672.
  • The top 20% of Americans earned 51% of all income in 2012.
  • Mean income for all households was $71,274; for the lowest 20% it was $11.490; for the highest 20% $181.905.

Welcome to 2014!

Jan 3 2014

Winter Friday: a good day for GMO announcements

Two today:

General Mills: GMO-free Cheerios

General Mills says it will make a GMO-free version of its Cheerios cereal.  This is surprising because it says Cheerios’ oats have never been GMO.   Now, it will take extra trouble—and, no doubt, charge more—to make sure the GMO and non-GMO sugars and corn don’t mix.

USDA deregulates 2,4-D herbicide for GMOs

The USDA released its draft Environmental Impact Statement:

as part of its review to determine whether to deregulate genetically engineered (GE) corn and soybean plants that are resistant to several herbicides, including one known as 2,4-D.  [USDA] APHIS is performing an assessment of these GE plants, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting a concurrent review of the related herbicides.

…Dow AgroSciences’ GE corn and soybean plants are the first developed to be resistant to 2,4-D and are intended to provide farmers with new plants to help address the problem of weeds that have developed resistance to other herbicides.

Dow, which filed the petition for this action, is pleased.

Is 2,4-D safe?  The USDA says yes.

The National Pesticide Information Center sort of says so too, except that it lists plenty of reasons for concern, “possibly carcinogenic” among them.

Earth Justice points out that this action will allow farmers to douse fields with 2,4-D:

The potent and toxic 2,4-D has been linked to many human health problems. It also is likely to harm non-genetically engineered crops in neighboring fields, threaten endangered species, and ultimately lead to the development of weeds that are resistant to it, leading to even more problems.

Even more reason to buy and promote organics!

Jan 2 2014

McDonald’s dietary recommendations for employees

Right after Christmas, the Wall Street Journal wrote that McDonald’s had taken down its website advising employees how to eat more healthfully—by not eating McDonald’s core products.

Oops.

Nothing on the Web really disappears, in part because of screenshots.  The website Russia Today, of all places, had done just that (thanks Ben Kelley, for sending).

mcdonalds unhealthy

Here’s an aggregation of what else got sent to me from other donors who prefer to remain anonymous:

After yet another PR headache, McDonald’s has taken down its employee resources website following what it deemed “unwarranted scrutiny and inappropriate commentary.”

My favorite comment comes from a tweet from Center for Science in the Public Interest, @CSPI:

Too bad re @McDonalds‘ McResource site. We liked its sensible #nutrition advice for employees (not to eat fast food) ow.ly/s5RXj

Enjoy and happy new year!

Dec 29 2013

My last San Francisco Chronicle column: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Looking back at year of progress for food system

After 5 1/2 years and 70 columns written exclusively for The Chronicle, this is my last. As I move on, I do so with much hope for a healthier and more equitable food system.

My optimism comes from taking the long view of progress in agriculture, food, nutrition and public health. When I look back on what’s happened since, say, 1980, I see enormous improvement in the foods available in supermarkets and in schools, the availability of organic and locally grown food, and public interest in everything about food, from taste to politics.

At this time of year, it’s customary to highlight the 10 most notable achievements of the past 12 months. But let me point out one conspicuous absence from this list – the creation of a stronger and more compassionate safety net for the poor and unemployed. Working toward this goal needs to be high on the food advocacy agenda for 2014.

With that gap in mind, here’s where I’ve seen noteworthy progress:

School nutrition standardsThe new rules are the result of the most significant achievement of Michelle Obama‘s Let’s Move! campaign – the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010. This act required schools to provide not only healthier meals, but also snacks. Early reports find most schools to be doing a good job of putting the new rules into effect. Yes, the rules do not go nearly far enough (they are too generous in sugar, for example), but they are a step in the right direction and lay the groundwork for even better standards.

Food safety rulesThe Food and Drug Administration finally started issuing regulations for the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. Once final, these rules will go a long way toward requiring food producers to take measures to ensure safety, and giving the FDA the authority to make sure they do. Yes, its details still need tweaking, but FSMA is a milestone on the road to a safer food supply. The next steps will be to bring the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s authority in line with the FDA’s, and to develop a single food safety agency that combines the functions of both.

FDA’s guidance on antibiotic resistanceThe FDA has called on drug companies to voluntarily agree to stop using medically important antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals and to require a veterinarian’s prescription when using these drugs to treat, prevent or control animal disease. Yes, this is voluntary and drug companies have three years to comply. But the FDA has taken the first step toward banning antibiotics for anything but therapeutic purposes, an impressive achievement given current political realities.

Let’s Move!’s food marketing initiativeMarketing is the elephant in the room of childhood obesity. It overwhelmingly influences kids to prefer, demand and consume junk foods and sodas. Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign has no authority to regulate marketing to kids. By keeping a focus on this issue, she gives advocates plenty of room to hold food companies publicly accountable for their marketing practices.

Soda and junk food taxes in MexicoDespite intense and well-organized opposition by its soda, sugar and small-business industries, the Mexican government passed a 1-peso-per-liter tax on soft drinks and an 8 percent tax on junk foods.

These measures were meant to counter the country’s 70 percent of overweight people and, no coincidence, record-breaking soda consumption. The initiative succeeded as a result of strong advocacy support and also because the revenues were committed to social purposes, among them providing clean drinking water in schools. Other countries are likely to be inspired to enact similar measures.

GMO labeling initiativesConnecticut passed a GMO labeling law in 2013, but election initiatives in California and Washington failed. Even though the food and biotechnology industries poured tens of millions of dollars into defeating labeling measures, the margins of defeat were small. My crystal ball says that some such measures will eventually pass. The food biotechnology industry must think so too; some of its groups are calling for voluntary GMO labeling.

Fast-food workers’ wage demandsPeople who work full time should be able to support their families and not have to be on public assistance. If you work 40 hours at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, you will earn less than $300, and that’s before taxes.

USDA‘s agricultural coexistence initiativesBy agricultural coexistence, the USDA means peaceful relations between quite different farming systems – industrial and GMO versus organic and sustainable. Peaceful coexistence would be a lot easier if GMO pollen didn’t drift onto organic crops, if Congress supported sustainable agriculture in proportion to its size, and if the ag-biotech industry didn’t dismiss cooperation out of hand.

The New York City mayoral candidates forum and coalition buildingAbout 85 food and nutrition advocacy groups put their differences aside to jointly question mayoral candidates on their views about food problems facing city residents. Seven candidates showed up to answer questions, a clear sign that coalitions are strong enough to demand attention.

A personal perspectiveThe past year brought many new food studies programs into universities. When we created food studies programs at New York University in 1996, only one other such program existed. Today, universities throughout the country are training young people to advocate for food systems healthier for the planet and for people, rich and poor.

University of California Press released the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics,” and Rodale Books issued “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

The message of both books – the first in text and the second in cartoons – is the same: Vote with your fork for a more delicious and sustainable food system. Even better, vote with your vote! Engage in food politics to make our food system more conducive to health and social justice.

The food movement is making much progress, but much more remains to be done. I’ve had a great run at The Chronicle, for which I deeply thank readers and editors. I will continue to write about food matters on my blog, at www.foodpolitics.com. Please join me there.

Marion Nestle is also the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics” and “What to Eat.” She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail:food@sfchronicle.com

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