by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Calorie-labeling

Jan 10 2013

Predictions for 2013 in food politics

For my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle, I devote the one in January every year to predictions.  Last year I got them all pretty much on target.  It didn’t take much genius to figure out that election-year politics would bring things to a standstill.  This year’s column was much harder to do, not least because the FDA was releasing blocked initiatives right up to the printing deadline.

 Q: I just looked at your 2012 crystal ball column. Your predictions were spot on. But what about 2013? Any possibility for good news in food politics?

A: Food issues are invariably controversial and anyone could see that nothing would get done about them during an election year. With the election over, the big question is whether and when the stalled actions will be released.

The Food and Drug Administration has already unblocked one pending decision. In December, it released the draft environmental assessment on genetically modified salmon – dated May 4, 2012. Here comes my first prediction:

The FDA will approve production of genetically modified salmon: Because these salmon are raised in Canada and Panama with safeguards against escape, the FDA finds they have no environmental impact on the United States. The decision is now open for public comment. Unless responses force the FDA to seek further delays, expect to see genetically modified salmon in production by the end of the year.

Pressures to label genetically modified foods will increase: If approval of the genetically modified salmon does nothing else, it will intensify efforts to push states and the FDA to require GM labeling.

Whatever Congress does with the farm bill will reflect no fundamental change in policy: Unwilling to stand up to Southern farm lobbies, Congress extended the worst parts of the 2008 farm bill until September. Don’t count on this Congress to do what’s most needed in 2013: restructure agricultural policy to promote health and sustainability.

The FDA will start the formal rule-making process for more effective food safety regulations: President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in January 2011. Two years later, despite the FDA’s best efforts, its regulations – held up by the White House – have just been released for public comment. Lives are at stake on this one.

The FDA will issue rules for menu labels: The Affordable Care Act of 2010 required calorie information to be posted by fast-food and chain restaurants and vending machines. The FDA’s draft applied to foods served by movie theaters, lunch wagons, bowling alleys, trains and airlines, but lobbying led the FDA to propose rules that no longer covered those venues. Will its final rules at least apply to movie theaters? Fingers crossed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will delay issuing nutrition standards for competitive foods: When the USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals in January 2012, the rules elicited unexpected levels of opposition. Congress intervened and forced the tomato sauce on pizza to count as a vegetable serving. The USDA, reeling, agreed to give schools greater flexibility. Still to come are nutrition standards for snacks and sodas sold in competition with school meals. Unhappy prediction: an uproar from food companies defending their “right” to sell junk foods to kids in schools and more congressional micromanagement.

The FDA will delay revising food labels: Late in 2009, the FDA began research on the understanding of food labels and listed more relevant labels as a goal in its strategic plan for 2012-16. Although the Institute of Medicine produced two reports on how to deal with front-of-package labeling and advised the FDA to allow only four items – calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugars – in such labels, food companies jumped the gun. They started using Facts Up Front labels that include “good” nutrients as well as “bad.”

Will the FDA insist on labels that actually help consumers make better choices? Will it require added sugars to be listed, define “natural” or clarify rules for whole-grain claims? I’m not holding my breath.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation will increase, but so will pressure to cut benefits: Demands on Snap – food stamps – reached record levels in 2012 and show no sign of decline. Antihunger advocates will be working hard to retain the program’s benefits, while antiobesity advocates work to transform the benefits to promote purchases of healthier foods. My dream: The groups will join forces to do both.

Sugar-sweetened beverages will continue to be the flash point for efforts to counter childhood obesity: The defeat of soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte (Los Angeles County) will inspire other communities to try their own versions of soda tax and size-cap initiatives. As research increasingly links sugary drinks to poor diets and health, soda companies will find it difficult to oppose such initiatives.

Grassroots efforts will have greater impact: Because so little progress can be expected from government these days, I’m predicting bigger and noisier grassroots efforts to create systems of food production and consumption that are healthier for people and the planet. Much work needs to be done. This is the year to do it.

And a personal note: In 2013, I’m looking forward to publication of the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics” and, in September, my new editorial cartoon book with Rodale Press: “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

Oct 9 2012

Big Soda to put calorie labels on vending machines in city offices in Chicago and San Antonio

Yesterday, Beverage Digest announced that the American Beverage Association (ABA) and its Big Soda members—PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Dr Pepper/Snapple—were starting a “new vending machine program to help combat obesity.”

The new “Calories Count Vending Program” starts in 2013 in city buildings in Chicago and San Antonio.

This, Beverage Digest says, “is what can happen when the industry and mayors work together, collaboratively.”   It quotes an executive from Dr Pepper Snapple: “this program is yet another example of how the beverage industry is providing meaningful solutions to help reduce obesity.”

Really?  If these companies really wanted to help reduce obesity, they might start by eliminating sugary drinks.  But never mind.  This is about politics, not health.

For one thing, calorie labels are going to have to go on most vending machines anyway, as soon as the FDA gets around to writing the regulations for them.

For another, this move heads off any attempt to introduce (horrors!) taxes on sodas or caps on bottle size in those two cities.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is quite clear about that.  He says his approach to the health issue “is better because it emphasizes personal responsibility.”

He prefers to have Chicago city workers compete with those from San Antonio for a $5 million grant from the ABA.  The ABA has also agreed to pay $1,000 to workers who meet health goals to be determined.

Although this might look like a bribe, Emanuel denies that the program is a payoff:

I believe firmly in personal responsibility,” the mayor said at a City Hall news conference with the pop company executives. “I believe in competition, and I believe in cash rewards for people that actually make progress in managing their health care.”

According to the New York Times, Mayor Emanuel actively sought the ABA grant.

If only personal responsibility worked, alas.  So much evidence now shows that it’s not enough to change behavior.  It is also necessary to create a food environment more favorable to making healthful choices.

That’s the public health approach taken by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg .  His approach is to make the food environment more conducive to healthful choices without anyone having to consciously think about them.  This approach is more likely to reduce soda consumption, which is why the ABA wants to head off taxes and caps.

Oh well.  Education is always a good thing, and here’s what the ABA says the vending machines will look like.

Sep 13 2012

McDonald’s will post calorie info on menus. Won’t it have to anyway?

I’m puzzled by the huge media attention to McDonald’s announcement that it will post calories on menu boards.

McDonald’s will have to do this sooner or later.  By doing it now, it gets a public relations bonus.

Why will it have to?  Because the Affordable Care Act takes menu labeling national (see my previous post on this).

When the Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, it made menu labeling constitutional.

The FDA wrote proposed rules for menu labeling early in April.  These, you may recall, contain exemptions for movie theaters and other venues.  Note: There is still time to file complaints about the exemptions.

Implementation of the rules can’t begin until the White House Office of Management and Budget releases them.  It’s had them—along with food safety and other regulations—under consideration for months.

Presumably, OMB will act eventually.

McDonald’s looks like a champion getting out in front on this one.

Other fast food places will have to post calories too.  The only question is when.

Aug 13 2012

Think pizza should list calories? Sign on.

Remember menu labeling?

The Affordable Care Act (now ruled constitutional) instituted national menu labeling—the posting of calories on the menu boards of fast food chains.

The FDA still has not issued final rules, leaving vast amounts of time for lobbying and pushback.

Now John Carter (Rep-TX) has introduced HR 6174, the anything but “Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2012.”

This bill was introduced under lobbying pressure from the pizza and supermarket industries.

Its purpose is to exempt supermarkets and convenience stores from having to post calorie information on prepared foods.  This would allow pizza chains to list calories per serving, thereby defeating the entire purpose of the menu labeling law.

The pizza industry learned that it could get Congress to do what it wanted.  Even a dab of tomato paste on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving in school meals.

If you thing calorie labeling on pizza might be a good idea, now is the time to write your congressional representatives.  Here’s how.

Jul 30 2012

Pizza chains want easier (or no) menu labeling

Now that the Supreme Court says that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, it’s time to get those pesky menu labeling regulations in place.  That Act, you may recall, included a provision to take menu labeling national.

Late in May, Nation’s Restaurant News reported that pizza restaurant chains were banding together to fight FDA’s forthcoming menu-labeling regulations.

The American Pizza Community (TAPC) represents chains like Domino’s Pizza, Papa John’s Pizza, Little Caesar Enterprises, the International Pizza Hut Franchise Holders Association, Hungry Howie’s and Godfather’s Pizza.

TAPC members want alternatives for menu labeling that “would work for pizza.”

When there are 34 million ways to top a pizza just at Domino’s, it’s easy to understand how the one-size-fits-all situation currently proposed doesn’t work for pizza.

On June 4, Food Chemical News said the pizza industry would be asking Congress for an exemption from the menu labeling final rule.

Two days later, TAPC denied that charge.

On June 19, the Washington Post reported that TAPC met with congressional representatives to push for changes to the menu labeling plan.  What kind of changes?  Could they include exemptions?  Not clear.

TAPC is getting somewhere.  Congressman John Carter (R-TX) has just introduced a bill to weaken the national menu labeling law.  This would exempt supermarkets and convenience stores from having to post calorie information on prepared foods, gives a break to pizza, and allows calories to be listed by serving size.

Also in the meantime, Food Chemical News says the House Appropriations subcommittee told the FDA to narrow the focus of its menu labeling rule.  Translation: leave out movie theaters and, maybe, pizza.

I happen to love pizza, but it is unquestionably a major source of calories in American diets.  A slice of a big thick pizza can easily run 1000 calories.  I’d like to think that some pizza eaters might find that information useful.

I think pizza places should label calories—really, they can figure out how to do it—and that’s what I told  CBS TV on June 20.

Margo Wootan at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has an op-ed in The Hill with a good summary of the reasons why menu labeling needs to get moving.  If you agree, CSPI has a model letter you can quickly send to the President, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (the FDA’s parent agency), and the FDA.

What’s holding up the regs?  First, the Supreme Court, but that’s no longer an excuse.  The upcoming election maybe?  That’s no excuse either.

Jun 29 2012

Supreme Court ACA ruling: implications for food politics

The Supreme Court ruling that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is indeed constitutional means that Americans will now have greater access to health care as well as to services to help prevent disease.

The American Public Health Association summarizes the benefits: 

  • 31 million Americans are projected to gain health coverage by 2019
  • 54 million U.S. families have additional benefits, including greater access to preventive health care services
  • 2.5 million young adults up to age 26 are able to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans;
  • nearly 18 million children with pre-existing conditions are protected from insurance coverage denials;
  • seniors can access preventive services

Let’s add menu labeling to the list.  The ACA takes menu labeling national.  The FDA proposed the rules for this process more than a year ago, with no further action.

The Supreme Court says go for it. 

FDA: No more excuses.  Get busy!

Apr 3 2012

Food politics in action: the White House vs. the FDA

Today’s New York Times has a long investigative piece on White House interference with FDA decision-making.

The FDA is supposed to make regulatory decisions on the basis of science. When President Obama came into office, he pledged to make decisions based on science and facts rather than ideology:

The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry…It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient.

The Times article documents instances in which the administration failed to keep that pledge.  Most of the instances concerned FDA-regulated drugs and devices, but one involves calorie labeling on restaurant menus.

Recall that when President Obama signed the health care reform act in 2010, he signed menu labeling into law.  This required chain restaurants and vending machines to post calorie labels.

The F.D.A.’s first draft of the guidelines — approved by the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House — included rules for movie theaters, lunch wagons, trains and airlines.

But when the FDA released its proposed regulations a year ago, these venues were exempted.

As I said at the time, “Uh oh. Food is sold everywhere these days as anyone who has been to a drug store lately can attest.”

According to the Times’ account, a White House health adviser insisted on these exemptions out of fear that Fox News might view labels on movie popcorn

as an especially silly example of the government intrusions that conservatives often mocked as the nanny state… This was the era of Glenn Beck, and the White House was terrified that Beck would get up and say this is all part of the nanny state.

That’s bad enough but I noticed other key omissions in the FDA’s proposed rules.  For one thing, they allow impossibly large ranges such as the 200-to-800 calories that Chipotle posts, for example.

For another, they say nothing about alcoholic beverages.  As I explain in Why Calories Count, alcohol calories count and alcohol is almost as calorie as fat (7 per gram).  The FDA is ducking this ostensibly because it does not have jurisdiction over alcohol (the Treasury Department does).

The FDA needs to take a good hard look at these issues.

It has not yet propose final rules.  Maybe the Times’ article will give the FDA some breathing room and allow it to do the right thing this time.

And the FDA needs to get the rules out fast.  If the Supreme Court strikes down health care reform, will that mean the end of menu labeling as well?

Sep 12 2011

Calorie labeling in action: baseball!

I went to Mets v. Cubs at Citifield last night (Cubs 10, Mets 6, 11 innings).  While everyone else was engrossed in the game, I was distracted by the vendors.

They wore calorie label buttons!

I managed to get one.

Is anyone evaluating this public health education method?

Whether it does any good or not, I wish I could have gotten the button for peanuts: 960 calories!

 

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