by Marion Nestle

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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.”

Jan 8 2013

A Man. A Plan. Panamá!

On vacation in Panamá, I found few visible signs of food politics.

I had asked to visit the mountain site where genetically modified salmon are being raised in the mountains (see previous post).  Not a chance.

This made me even more curious.  I conducted an informal survey of every educated Panamanian I met:

  • Are you aware that genetically modified salmon are being raised in your country?
  • Do you care?

The answers: No and No.

I found only two exceptions: (1) a government official impressed by what he told me were five levels of security to make sure the fish don’t escape, and (2) an associate of the soon-to-open biodiversity museum (designed by Frank Gehry) who hoped that the museum could be a forum for such issues.

Both confirmed that the newspapers said nothing about GM salmon and that few people knew about them.

A chef’s reaction: Panamanian salmon!  He couldn’t wait to get some.

But I did see this Christmas display along the Avenida Balboa.

The Coca-Cola banner also says Alcaldía de Panamá: trabajando para ti (Mayor of Panamá City: working for you).

Happy new year!  Happy to be back.

Dec 26 2012

The hazards of GM foods: patent protection and international relations

Writing in Slate, Fred Kaufman takes a fresh look at the controversies over genetically modified (GM) foods.  Forget the other issues, he says.   Pay attention to patents:

GM foods’ effect on health is uncertain, but their effect on farmers, scientists, and the marketplace is clear. Some GM foods may be healthy, others not; every genetic modification is different. But every GM food becomes dangerous—not to health, but to society—when it can be patented. Right now, the driving force behind the development of new genetic crop modifications is the fact that they possess the potential to be enormously profitable….

That brings me to the GM salmon, in particular AquAdvantage brand engineered to grow faster and bigger than wild salmon.

Last Friday (always a good time to release something controversial), the FDA let loose its draft environmental assessment on the GM salmon.  The draft finding of “no effect” is now open for comment.

I find the draft statement remarkable for two reasons.

  • It is dated May 4, 2012, suggesting that it was considered too political to release before the election.
  • It applies only to production of GM salmon outside the United States.

The FDA had already ruled that the salmon are safe to eat:

With respect to food safety, FDA has concluded that food from AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon, and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of food from triploid AquAdvantage Salmon. Further, FDA has concluded that no significant food safety hazards or risks have been identified with respect to the phenotype of the AquAdvantage Salmon.

With respect to environmental impact, the FDA says:

FDA preliminarily concludes that the development, production, and grow-out of AquAdvantage Salmon under the conditions proposed in the materials submitted by the sponsor in support of an NADA [New Animal Drug Application], and as described in this draft EA [Environmental Assessment], will not result in significant effects on the quality of the human environment in the United States.

AquAdvantage is not intended to be grown in the United States.  It is being raised on Prince Edward Island in Canada and in Panama and will be processed in Panama.

Under the proposed action, AquAdvantage Salmon would not be produced or grown in the United States, or in net pens or cages, and no live fish would be imported for processing.

…As the proposed action would only allow production and grow-out of AquAdvantage Salmon at facilities outside of the United States, the areas of the local surrounding environments that are most likely to be affected by the action lie largely within the sovereign authority of other countries (i.e., Canada and Panama).

Because NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] does not require an analysis of environmental effects in foreign sovereign countries, effects on the local environments of Canada and Panama have not been considered and evaluated in this draft EA except insofar as it was necessary to do so in order to determine whether there would be significant effects on the environment of the United States….

In addition, social, economic and cultural effects of the proposed action on the United States have not been analyzed and evaluated because the analysis in this draft EA preliminarily indicates that the proposed action will not significantly affect the physical environment of the United States.

If I am getting this right, the FDA is saying that since the salmon is being raised elsewhere, it’s OK to produce it.

This report is generally interpreted as opening the door to marketing of GM salmon within the United States, and soon.

Will it be labeled as such?  I suppose that too is up to Canada and Panama.

Revisit patent protection anyone?

Dec 17 2012

Fish: the Wild West of the supermarket

Last week, the New York Times reported—and not for the first time—that fish are routinely mislabeled.

When I was doing the research for What to Eat (my book about food issues in which I used supermarkets as an organizing device), it was clear that the fish aisle was the Wild West of food marketing.  Anything goes.

Unless you are an expert, it’s hard to tell one fish from another.  Many fish sellers, alas, are not expert either.

I divided the issues into dilemmas and quandaries.

The dilemmas:

  • Farmed v. wild
  • Methymercury v. omega-3’s
  • PCBs v. omega-3’s

The quandaries:

  • Country-of-origin labels
  • Artificial seafood (surimi)
  • Artificial color (salmon dyes)
  • “Organic”
  • “Not-GMO”

The chapter I called “The Fish-Labeling Quandaries” begins:

Just about any American supermarket has a fish counter offering fresh, frozen, whole, and filleted seafood, almost certain to be bewildering in variety, quality, and price.   The signs that accompany the fish do not always help much.   Like other fresh foods, fish do not come with Nutrition Facts labels, but sellers are supposed to tell you what species are, whether they were previously frozen.  Beginning in spring 2005, they also were supposed to tell you what country the fish came from and whether they were farmed….

A nearby…supermarket…offered a refrigerator case packed with plastic-wrapped seafood…Although the wrappings were clearly marked with the species, weight, and price, none said where or how the fish had been raised.  In answer to a question about whether a piece of salmon was farm-raised or wild, a clerk replied, “I really have no idea where this thing comes from.”

…How anyone can make a reasonable choice about which fish to buy on the basis of these seemingly arbitrary and confusing labels is a mystery to me.  Better labeling would certainly help, particularly of the country of origin, but you might also want to know what the fish signs really mean when they tell you that seafood is “artificial,” “color-added,” “organic,” or, for that matter, “not genetically modified.”   By this time, you can guess that each of these labeling terms takes you into matters that do not precisely qualify as fish dilemmas, but do present any number of what I think are fish quandaries—puzzles you have to deal with when deciding what fish to buy.

According to the Times, fish sellers either lie or are clueless about what they are selling.

What to do?

My advice: find a fish seller you can trust.

But, as I put it then and the Times article confirms, “it is not always easy or possible to know whether your fishmonger is trustworthy.”

Catch your own?

Oct 2 2012

My quick visit to a salmon farm in Norway: a brief report

I’m just back from a trip sponsored by the Norwegian Seafood Council, whose job it is to promote sales of farmed fish from Norway.  The Council takes great pride in the quality of Norwegian fish farming.

I wrote about the dilemmas of fish farming in What to Eat, but I had never been to one.  I went because I wanted to see a fish farm for myself, and this one was about 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle, near Tromsø.

The principal argument for fish farming is that wild fish are being fished out and will soon disappear.  As the argument goes, if we want fish, farming is how we will have to get them (there is also a pro-farming argument about omega-3 fatty acids, but let’s not go there right now).

Before I left on this trip, I was sent a letter from an anti-farming advocate detailing all of the arguments against fish farming.  This is worth a read (or see the Fish Farming Dilemma chapter in What to Eat).

We were taken to see a farm with 12 nets:

FIsh farm near Skjervoy, Norway

We went out to one of the nets to have a look.

This farm is managed from a control room on a boat, and monitored by computers that measure water conditions, currents, feed, and other factors.

A camera is placed in the nets about half way down looking up at the fish.  This monitors the amount of feed.  If the camera sees feed, it’s time to stop.

We were taken to the plant where the fish are harvested.

This particular plant produces salmon for the Japanese sushi and sashimi markets.  It was pristine.  The fish are harvested under conditions that ought to satisfy any humane society.

Overall, we saw none of the disease and pollution problems that I had expected to see.  Norway tightly regulates fish farming in quantity and quality.  The farms looked well managed, and the fish looked healthy.  The farm tests extensively for contaminating heavy metals and pathogens, reports no lice, and vaccinates young fish against disease.

The fresh salmon looked pink (because they are fed dye), streaked with fat (they are well fed), and had a nice light taste, but one quite different from that of wild Alaskan salmon.

The one set of questions left unanswered had to do with what the salmon are fed (we asked for and have been promised this information).

I came home with a handful of salmon feed pellets.  They look like dog food but feel greasy and smell fishy.

Therein lies the dilemma.  To get salmon or any other farmed fish to taste like fish, it is necessary to supplement their corn and soybean rations with fish meal and fish oil obtained from wild fish stocks, thereby further depleting ocean fish.

If we must have fish farming, it looked to me as though Norway was doing it well.  Elsewhere?  I have no idea.

Should we have fish farming?  I see it as a dilemma.

As always, I await your thoughts.

Addition, October 5: Elyssa Altman, writer of the blog, PoorMansFeast.com, was also on this trip.  Her report of it is more detailed than mine and addresses many of the questions asked in the comments.

 

 

May 16 2012

Follow-up on sushi tuna scrape: it’s supposed to be cooked!

In response to my post on tuna scrape, Professor Alan Reilly, Chief Executive, Food Safety Authority of Ireland (the equivalent of our FDA) sent this photograph of an actual tuna scrape label.

 

After I forwarded it to Bill Marler, he noticed that it is one of several photographs posted on the FDA’s tuna scrape recall web page).

The type is too small to read so I’ve done some cropping:

Professor Reilly asks:

What is puzzling me is why this product “minced tuna” was used in sushi products. The label (copy attached) clearly states that the product must be cooked before consumption and it is for industrial uses only (labelled not for retail).

Those are good questions, but here’s another, equally alarming.  What’s that strangely formatted Nutrition Facts label? It does not precisely follow FDA design or content requirements.

This is a red flag.  If the company is not following labeling rules, it might not be  following other rules either—safety, for example.

Safety?  Uh oh.

Bill Marler reports that the FDA “483 Inspection Report” on the Indian tuna processing facility is now available.  Read these quotes and shudder:

  • Tanks used for storage of process waters have apparent visible debris, filth and microbiological contamination.
  • There is no laboratory analysis for water used in ice manufacturing at the [redacted] facility to show the water used to make ice is potable.
  • Apparent bird feces were observed on the ice manufacturing equipment at Moon Fishery; insects and filth were observed in and on the equipment.
  • Tuna processed at your facility, which is consumed raw or cooked, comes in direct contact with water and ice.

I draw several lessons from this episode:

  • Food is safer when cooked.
  • Labels need to be read—and followed—carefully.
  • Raw sushi is a high risk product, especially if it doesn’t cost much.
  • The FDA needs to be doing a lot more inspecting of overseas facilities, and before they cause problems.

All of this means that we need a better food safety system, one that can address the enormous proportion of our food supply that comes to us from countries with weaker food safety standards.

Addition, May 17: Ben Embarek, a food safety scientist at the World Health Organization notes that the 483 report reveals that Moon’s HACCP plan did not list appropriate critical control points.  Anyone auditing the plan should have picked up the problems on paper, which is easier and less expensive to do than an on-site inspection.  But the FDA does not pre-audit international HACCP plans.  They are supposed to be cleared by exporting companies registered by FDA.  Comment: it’s hard to imagine that the current system can work, and it clearly does not.

May 6 2012

Tuna scrape: a case study in international food safety

My Q and A column in the San Francisco Chronicle appears on the first Sunday of every month.  This one is about safety problems with tuna scrape.

Q: I had no idea that the tuna in my sushi roll was scraped off the bones in India, ground up, frozen, and shipped to California. Is this another “slime” product? Can I eat it raw?

A: No sooner did the furor over lean, finely textured beef (a.k.a. “pink slime”) die down than we have another one over sushi tuna. On April 13, the Food and Drug Administration said Moon Marine USA, an importing company based in Cupertino, was voluntarily recalling 30 tons of frozen raw ground yellowfin tuna, packaged as Nakaochi scrape.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigations linked consumption of Nakaochi scrape sushi to about 250 diagnosed cases and an estimated 6,000 or so undiagnosed cases of illness caused by two rare strains of salmonella. Among the victims who were interviewed, more than 80 percent said they ate spicy tuna sushi rolls purchased in grocery stores or restaurants.

Scrape refers to the meat left on fish skeletons after the filets are cut off. This is perfectly good fish, but difficult to get at. I once visited an Alaskan salmon packing plant and asked what happened to the delicious looking meat between the bones. The answer: pet food. (Lucky cats.)

A hot commodity

But tuna is too valuable to leave behind, and companies in India use special devices to scoop out the meat, combine it with scrapings from many other fish, chop the mixture, freeze it in blocks, and ship it to importers in the United States. Unlike “pink slime,” tuna scrape is not treated with ammonia or anything else to kill harmful bacteria.

Nevertheless, it is supposed to be safe. The FDA requires producers of imported foods to follow established safety plans. Although the United States imports about 80 percent of seafood sold domestically, the FDA only inspects 1 or 2 percent.

This means we have to rely on the diligence of international food producers in following safe-handling procedures, and of U.S. importers in verifying safety through pathogen testing. But even well-intentioned producers can make safety errors, especially when dealing with high-risk foods.

Tuna scrape is very high risk. Its supply chain is long, complicated and international, leaving many opportunities for contamination. And it is eaten raw.

This tuna scrape came from a single processing plant in India owned by Moon Marine International of Taiwan. Tuna are plentiful off the Indian coast, and the tuna processing industry is expanding rapidly. India has dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fish processing facilities, but most are relatively small and their number, size and geographical dispersion make monitoring difficult.

Safe handling issues

The frozen scrape blocks are supposed to be held at subzero temperatures throughout shipping. Even so, they pose a safety risk. They combine the scrapings from many fish. One contaminated scraping can contaminate the entire lot.

And subzero freezing may kill some salmonella, but large fractions can survive, remain viable, and multiply when the blocks are thawed.

Once the tuna scrape arrived in America, I’m guessing it was trucked to Cupertino and from there to retailers and distributors who further trucked them to restaurants and grocery stores. There, sushi chefs thawed the scrape and used it to make spicy tuna rolls.

Tuna scrape is used in supermarket-grade sushi, not the fancy stuff. Sushi used to be – and still is, in places – an art form requiring exceptional skills. In Japan, sushi chefs can train for as many as 10 years to learn how to recognize the freshest, safest and most delicious fish. Sushi served by such chefs is made to order. It is never pre-prepared. It can be breathtakingly expensive.

But in America, sushi has gone mainstream. You can find prepackaged sushi rolls at practically any supermarket or convenience store, at a cost equivalent to hamburger.

Cheap sushi is made with cheap ingredients – hence, Nakaochi scrape – by chefs with far less training. A typical certification program for sushi chefs in this country can be completed in two or three months. Some offer certification online. Although these programs address safe food-handling procedures, the training is necessarily superficial.

What are the odds?

Sushi aficionados argue that while raw fish is never perfectly safe, the safety odds are much better when the chef is well trained, and the fish are freshly caught and cut to order in front of you. By their standards, tuna scrape is suitable only for pet food, which is at least cooked to kill pathogens.

If anything, the tuna scrape outbreak teaches why it is so important to know where food comes from and how it is made. Caveat emptor.

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this monthly column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Addition, May 14Bill Marler reports that the FDA “483 Inspection Report” on the Indian tuna processing facility is now available.  Here are excerpts from the most revealing section:

Tanks used for storage of process waters have apparent visible debris, filth and microbiological contamination…There is no laboratory analysis for water used in ice manufacturing at the [redacted] facility to show the water used to make ice is potable…Apparent bird feces were observed on the ice manufacturing equipment at Moon Fishery; insects and filth were observed in and on the equipment…Tuna processed at your facility, which is consumed raw or cooked, comes in direct contact with water and ice.

Oct 31 2011

The latest fish story: this time it’s Boston-area restaurants

When I wrote What to Eat, a book devoted to discussion of food issues using supermarkets as an organizing device, I needed five chapters to discuss issues related to fish.  By the time I was through, I considered the fish sections of supermarkets to be the Wild West of the food industry: anything goes and the buyer had best be wary.

Fish regulation, I pointed out, is divided among at least four federal agencies: USDA for marketing, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for ocean fisheries, EPA for fish caught for sport and recreation, and FDA for fish safety.  This alone should tell you that this is a virtually unregulated industry.

Now the Boston Globe presents the latest evidence for this dismal view.  Investigative reporters examined fish served in Boston-area restaurants.  Oops.  They found widespread bait and switch.  In many restaurants—even good ones—the fish served are not what customers think they paid for.

On the menu, but not on your platefish at restaurants were mislabeled about half the time, sometimes deliberately.  The site takes some work to scroll through but is worth the effort.  Here is one example:

At East Bay Grille in Plymouth, what was advertised as native scrod or haddock was actually previously frozen Pacific cod. A general manager said the restaurant hadn’t yet updated the menu. The revised menu, however, still describes the fish as “fresh day boat scrod.”

From sea to sushi bar, a system open to abusefish is a largely unregulated industry and problems are pervasive.

Suppliers such as Goldwell use the names interchangeably, contributing to a little-known but pervasive problem in the international seafood industry: lower-quality and less expensive fish mislabeled as desirable species. Some distributors do this unknowingly, while others intend to deceive. Lax government oversight, industry indifference, and consumer ignorance allow mislabeling to flourish.

Fish misidentification is especially common at sushi restaurants, partly because they use various names for the same fish. The confusion can be compounded by packaging labels written in other languages that are incorrectly translated into English.

Bertucci’s tries to right a wrong: How hake ended up as cod on the menu at 94 Bertucci’s restaurants.

Scrutiny vowed on fish labeling: state officials vow to improve oversight of seafood sales.

Good luck to state officials.  They will have their hands full trying to get on top of this industry.  Here’s what I wrote in What to Eat:

Much of this industry acts like it is virtually unregulated and as if all it cares about is selling fish as quickly as possible at as high a price as the traffic will bear.  Out of ignorance or, sometimes, unscrupulousness, the more profit-minded segments of this industry bend the rules to their own advantage any time they can get away with it.  No wonder “fishy” translates as “suspicious.”  If you want to buy fish, you need to watch out for labels that are sometimes untruthful and often misleading” (p. 232).

Thanks to the Boston Globe for exposing this fish scandal. 

And thanks to Consumer Reports for doing a similar story in its December issue.  Its investigation found 20% of 190 samples to be mislabeled.  And the only fish consistently labeled correctly were Chilean sea bass, coho salmon, and bluefin and ahi tuna. 

Regulation anyone?

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