by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: CSPI(Center for Science in the Public Interest)

Oct 6 2009

The high human cost of unsafe food

I think we need a whole lot more public outrage about unsafe food.  Maybe the recent front-page articles in the Washington Post and New York Times will do the trick.

Both tell tragic stories of women who developed hemolytic uremia syndrome in response to eating a food contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.  Both reveal the appalling physical and monetary cost of these illnesses.  Recall: we also do not have an effective and affordable health care system.

To me, the most chilling part of the Times investigation had to do with the lack of testing for dangerous pathogens.  No meat packing company wants to test.  Why not?  They know the animals coming into the plant are contaminated.  They know that tests would come up positive.  They know that if they find pathogens, they have to recall the meat.

It’s obvious why meat is contaminated.  The making of hamburger is enough to put anyone off, as the letters to today’s Times attest.  In my book, Safe Food, I discuss a study demonstrating that one pound of commercial hamburger could contain meat from more than 400 cattle.  The Times’ article takes such facts to a personal level.  The 22-year-old woman who ate the tainted hamburger is paralyzed from the waist down and likely never to walk again.

Read these articles and you will understand that meat companies will not do what is needed to produce safe food unless they are forced to.

And it’s not just hamburger that causes problems.  Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has a new report out on the ten foods that cause the most cases of foodborne illness in America.  Hamburger isn’t even on the list.  Instead, it’s leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts, and berries.  [Addendum October 9: for a critical analysis, see the Perishable Pundit’s comments on the study].

So how come Congress isn’t forcing all food producers to produce safe food?  Could it be because there isn’t enough public outrage to counteract industry pressures and make Congress act?

Put me out of business big box WebBill Marler, who represents both of the victims profiled in those articles, is begging Congress to put him out of business.

His message is clear: get busy and pass meaningful food safety legislation, right now, before it is too late.

I’m hoping these articles and the CSPI report will be seen by senatorial staff who will urge their bosses to support the House bill passed last spring.

Maybe we need hundreds of thousands of people to deluge Congress with appeals to act on food safety, now.

You would like to do this but don’t know how?  Easy.  Find your own representatives online on the House site and your Senator just as easily.  The e-mail addresses are right there waiting to be used.

Addendum: Here’s one rep who is on the job: Rosa de Lauro (Dem-CT).  Take a look at her statement about the Times article.  Where, she wonders, was the USDA while all this was going on?   Doing lots of good things, according to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack:

No priority is greater to me than food safety and I am firmly committed to taking the steps necessary to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness and protect the American people from preventable illnesses. We will continue to make improvements to reduce the presence of E. coli 0157:H7.

Suggestion: enforce HACCP!

Mar 25 2009

What do I think of Açaí?

I’m often asked about Açaí, the latest miracle fruit that is supposed to cure whatever ails you.

If this is a miracle, it’s one that must be enjoyed by the company that makes MonaVie brand Açaí, which sells for about $40 a bottle.  I had heard about Açaí and was not overly impressed.  But then I got an e-mail from a MonaVie enthsiast who was so convinced of its benefits that he sent me the research.

Here’s one of the studies. It looks formidible but its conclusions are simple.  In translation: MonaVie contains antioxidants.  The antioxidants in MonaVie act like antioxidants in the test tube and in the body, and they work better than potato starch, which has no antioxidants. Why am I not surprised? This is a study sponsored by the manufacturer.

You can read about this study and the rest of fuss over this juice in the March 12 New York Times. It’s in the Style Section (where else?).  The bottom line: all juices have antioxidants and most are a lot cheaper than MonaVie.

As for weight-loss claims: This month’s Nutrition Action Healthletter explains how to analyze Internet advertising, using Açaí as an example of truth-bending.

Mar 5 2009

Food Safety Legislation: Fix FDA vs. Fix the System?

Senator Dick Durbin (Dem-IL) has introduced The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act to give this beleaguered agency the tools and resources to do its job properly.  The proposed Act got immediate endorsements from food industry trade groups: grocery manufacturers, producers of fresh vegetables, and producers of frozen foods, for example.

How come food lobbying groups suddenly want a stronger FDA?  No doubt because the alternative is a single food safety agency that would impose real rules with real teeth, and would oversee the safety of food from farm to table.  Rosa DeLauro introduced just such a bill in the House.

And how’s this for today’s rumors (most definitely unconfirmed): Michael Osterholm is up for USDA undersecretary for food safety and Michael Taylor for head of the White House Office of Food Safety.  Caroline Smith DeWaal, a strong consumer advocate for foods safety is out of the running; she works for Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).  These are just rumors.  If they turn out too be true, I will have more to say about the potential nominees.

Feb 22 2009

Washington lobbying in action!

Thanks to CSPI’s Margo Wootan for sending the link to this nifty video about school lunch lobbying (she is featured in it, eloquently).  The video, made by the American News Project, takes place at a January 28 hearing on school lunch nutrition regulations run by the Institute of Medicine (IOM).  The IOM is working on developing science-based criteria for the nutritional quality of school meals.  Take a look at who is in the audience.  Question: What are they doing there?  Answer: The USDA buys enormous quantities of food commodities to supply schools enrolled in federal school meal programs.  The video gets a 5-star YouTube rating, and for good reason.

Feb 19 2009

CSPI’s latest campaign: Topps marketing

I am interested to see that the Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken on Topps marketing as a new campaign, and for good reason.  Topps, famous for chewing gum and baseball trading cards, makes a bunch of candies aimed at kids, one of them in the shape of infant feeding bottles. Disney is now using a kids’ music group – the Jonas Brothers – to promote the baby bottle candy.  Not a good idea.

In 2007, Michael Eisner, the former head of Disney bought Topps from the family firm that had owned it for decades.    Long before the sale, I once had lunch with Arthur Shorin, the former owner of Topps.  I was impressed by his responsible attitude about marketing candy to children.  He was facing a difficult problem.  Without doing irresponsible marketing, he couldn’t sell enough candy to stay in business.  Hence the sale to Eisner. At the time, Mr. Shorin said “This will be a change in ownership, not a change in direction.” Well, that’s business for you.

Update February 20: thanks to Dan for the correction.  Fixed.

Jan 19 2009

CSPI sues Coke over Vitamin Water claims

Center for Science in the Public Interest has filed a class-action lawsuit against Coca-Cola, the parent company of Glaceau Vitamin Water.   Vitamin Water, says CSPI, makes sugary drinks that promote obesity but positions these products as healthful because they contain added vitamins and herbs.  Does this make them healthier?  No, but it certainly makes them sell better.

Jan 2 2009

Happy new year: top anti-junk food marketing moments in 2008

The childhood obesity team at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sends along its new year’s greeting: “great anti-junk food marketing” moments in 2008.  These mostly focus on progress in industry self-regulation (voluntary) but also on congressional legislation to restrict marketing and put healthier foods in schools.  Food marketing to kids is the point of food industry vulnerability.  Food companies must stop marketing junk foods to kids.  Voluntary self-regulation is notoriously ineffective.  Legislative intervention is essential.  Maybe this will be possible under the new administration?  Fingers crossed.

Nov 12 2008

Calorie labeling updates

As calorie labeling initiatives spread across the country, it’s fun to keep track of them.  The latest is Westchester County, New York.  The easiest way to get the complete list is from the menu labeling web page produced by Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

April 9 update: Ulster County New York has just passed one.  Here’s the latest map from CSPI.

May 6 update: Here’s where to track CSPI’s 2009 legislative summaries.

May 13 update: Massachusetts passes labeling law.  That’s the second one (California did this back in September but it doesn’t go into effect until 2011).

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