by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labels

May 23 2014

GMO labels cost families $800/year: Guess who paid for the study?

Yesterday, Food Navigator reported that Cornell economists calculated that GMO labels would cost the average family of four a whopping $800 per year.

This seemed so improbable that I immediately wondered:  Who paid for it?

I clicked on the link to the study: Bingo!

The work on this report was supported financially by the Council for Biotechnology Information.

You won’t find the list of companies and groups that support the Council on its website, but Source Watch fills the gap.

I am increasingly alarmed by the increasing extent of industry research sponsorship—it’s become a huge issue in  studies of nutrition, diet, and health.

The influence of funding source on research outcomes is so predictable—many studies have now shown that industry-funded studies almost invariably produce results that favor the sponsor—that I’m batting nearly 100% on conflict-of-interest  checks, of which this GMO study is a particularly blatant example.

It’s not that industry pays investigators to find the desired answers to questions.  It’s more complicated than that.  It has to do with the way investigators ask and try to answer the research questions.  The industry favored biases get built into the study’s assumptions and controls, often (I think) unconsciously.

This study, for example, is based on an elaborate set of assumptions leading to the $800 per family estimate.  Other assumptions might give different results.   The authors do not discuss the limitations of their estimates, nor are they required to in this type of report.

But I’m willing to hazard a guess that independently funded studies would come to considerably lower estimates.

Moral: if a study produces surprising results that favor an industry position, look hard to see who sponsored it.

Addition, May 24:

A reader sent in further information about the Council for Biotechnology Information:

Council for Biotechnology Information

1201 Maryland Avenue, SW., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20024 USA

Phone: 202-962-9200 web site: http://gmoanswers.com

(CBI: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Council_for_Biotechnology_Information.

http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Council_for_Biotechnology_Information.

Experts: http://gmoanswers.com/experts. Founding members and supporting partners:

http://gmoanswers.com/about. There are also offices in Saskatoon (SK, Canada)

(http://whybiotech.ca)  and Mexico City (AgroBio Mexico: http://agrobiomexico.org.mx.)

Apr 23 2014

POM v. Coca-Cola at the Supreme Court: The Mind Boggles

You might think that the Supreme Court of the United States would have more important things to do than to weigh in on which of two beverage companies puts less misleading labels on its products, but apparently not.

The highest court in the land takes POM Wonderful’s accusation against Coca-Cola seriously.  Coke’s Minute Maid juice, POM says, is advertised in ways that mislead the public.

POM should know.   It’s been under fire from the Federal Trade Commission for equally absurd label claims.

Here’s the Coca-Cola product at issue.

And here’s what the label says, in case you can’t read it (with emphasis added):

Enhanced Juice/Minute Maid/100% Fruit Juice Blend

Omega-3/DHA/HELP NOURISH YOUR BRAIN

5 Nutrients to Support Brain and Body

Pomegranate  Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices

From concentrate with added ingredients and other natural flavors

Never mind the nutritional quality or the ridiculous structure/function claims on this particular product (here’s Fooducate’s analysis from 2009—it has 29 grams of sugars, among other things).

POM doesn’t want Coke getting away with selling cheap grape and apple juices as pomengranate juice and undercutting their prices.  Coke’s drink is 99% apple and grape juice; it contains less than 1% pomegranate or blueberry juice.  You would never know that from looking at the label.

Why is the court interested?  The Minute Maid label is legal by FDA standards.  Therefore, can the label be considered misleading?

Coca-Cola won in the lower court, but the Supreme Court seems sympathetic to POM (here’s the transcript of the hearing).

The New York Times account has the best quotes:

Kathleen M. Sullivan, a lawyer for Coca-Cola, said consumers were not misled.

“We don’t think that consumers are quite as unintelligent as Pom must think they are,” she said. “They know when something is a flavored blend of five juices and the nonpredominant juices are just a flavor.”

Justice Kennedy frowned. “Don’t make me feel bad,” he said, “because I thought that this was pomegranate juice.”

It also quotes from Justice Alito:

You don’t think there are a lot of people who buy pomegranate juice because they think it has health benefits, and they would be very surprised to find when they bring home this bottle that’s got a big picture of a pomegranate on it, and it says ‘pomegranate’ on it, that it is — what is it — less than one half of 1 percent pomegranate juice?”

Where is the FDA on all this?  Blame its inaction on the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which allowed ridiculous health claims on food labels and forced the FDA to keep hands off.

This outcome of this case, silly as it is, will be fun to watch.

Mar 18 2014

And on the GMO labeling front…

The food industry is so worried about the prospect of GMO labeling that companies have banded together to try an end run.  According to Politico

The coalition is calling for legislation that would require mandatory premarket approval of GMO food ingredients by FDA and grant authority to the agency to label products that raise safety concerns, set up a voluntary program for food companies to label foods that are GMO free, include GMO ingredients in a definition of “natural” foods and preempt state labeling laws.

Voluntary, of course, means that companies can voluntarily not label and maintain the status quo.

Considering GMO foods as “natural” is unlikely to go over well with anyone who already thinks that calling high fructose corn syrup “natural” is a stretch.

As for preempting state labeling laws, here’s what the industry is up against—a plethora of proposals—here summarized by  Politico Morning Agriculture:

- Rhode Island: H 7042, would require food and seed that contains more than .09 percent GMO ingredients to be labeled. The bill further defines “natural” to mean GMO-free.  

- Missouri: SB533 seeks to require the labeling of all genetically modified meat and fish raised and sold in the state.

- Vermont:  MA has already reported on the introduction last week in Vermont’s Senate of H. 112, a House-passed bill that would require GMO food labeling.  State Sen. Eldred French (D) has introduced S. 289, which would make manufacturers and growers of GMO crops liable for trespassing and damages should their seed drift into other fields:

- Washington: While voters in the Evergreen State knocked down a GMO labeling ballot initiative last fall, lawmakers are pushing for a narrower labeling effort that focuses on specifically protecting the state’s salmon fisheries in the event that FDA approves the genetically engineered AquaAdvantage Salmon. State Rep. Cary Condotta (R) has introduced HB 2143, which would require the labeling of GMO salmon:

- Alaska: State Rep. Geran Tarr (D) has introduced HB 215, which would require the labeling of foods with GMO ingredients with exceptions for animal feed, alcohol and foods processed with GE enzymes. The bill also would create an exemption from labeling forgenetically modified fish or genetically modified fish products”:

- Florida: SB 558 would require that by Jan. 1, 2016, GMO food items for sale in the state be labeled in text printed underneath the product’s ingredient list. The bill contains exceptions for animal feed, alcohol and processed food that a GMO ingredient does not account for “more than one-half of 1 percent of the total weight.”

- West Virginia: Mountain State lawmakers are set to consider three GMO bills — a labeling measure, a seed and crop disclosure initiative, and a liability measure for contamination crops at another agricultural operation.

- 2013 labeling bill carryovers: A labeling bill in Hawaii’s House of Representatives, HB 174, which was introduced last January, could see some action this year as efforts by many of the islands each tackle the cultivation of GMOs could spur action by the state house on the issue. Also, a labeling bill in Illinois, SB 1666, has picked up 12 cosponsors, many of them signing on just this fall.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) seems to think that GMO labeling initiatives are winning.  It is now calling for “open dialogue.”  

And if the mandatory ballot labeling activity in more than 30 states in 2013 is any indication, the anti-GMO message is getting through. There are three components common to all these legislative efforts and ballot initiatives: they are framed as consumers’ “right to know;” they exempted alcohol, dairy, meat and restaurant food; and they would allow lawsuits based on asserted non-compliance.

I still don’t get it.  What are the food and biotechnology industries so afraid of?

They think GMOs solve major world food problems.  If so, what’s to hide? 

Feb 28 2014

The food label proposals: some follow-up items

Release of the FDA’s proposals for revisions of the Nutrition Facts label got, to say the least, lots of attention.

A few items need some follow up.

The politics

The best discussion of the First Lady’s involvement in the new food label comes from Helena Bottemiller Evich at Politico:

The reaction of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)

How’s this for a brilliant response?

We welcome First Lady Michelle Obama’s announcement of the proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts panel and thank her for her leadership on this and broader health issues.  The nation could not ask for a more thoughtful, effective or passionate advocate than Michelle Obama.

For 20 years, the Nutrition Facts panel has been an invaluable tool to help consumers build more healthful diets for themselves and their families, and the time is right for an update.

Diets, eating patterns and consumer preferences have changed dramatically since the Nutrition Facts were first introduced.  Just as food and beverage manufacturers have responded by creating more than 20,000 healthier product choices since 2002, and by providing tools like Facts Up Front front-of-pack labels, the FDA is responding with a thoughtful review of the Nutrition Facts panel.

We look forward to working with the FDA and other stakeholders as these proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts label make their way through the rule making process.

It is critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science.  Equally as important is ensuring that any changes ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers.

How you can file comments

A frustrated reader complains that he can’t find information on the FDA’s website about how to file comments.     That’s because the proposals haven’t been published yet.

They are scheduled for publication in the Federal Register on March 3.  Look for instructions then.  After that, the FDA will collect comments for 90 days.

Two sets of proposed rules will be open for comment:

Start drafting comments now!

Dec 26 2013

A post-Xmas roundup of items on GMOs

The holidays are a quiet time for food politics so I thought I catch up on some pending items, starting with GMOs.

No, tired as you may be of them, GMO issues are not going to disappear in 2014.

My prediction: labeling will come, maybe sooner rather than later, although it’s hard to say in what form.

Dec 19 2013

Chile’s new food labeling rules: Why can’t we do this?

A reporter in South America called yesterday to ask me about the new rules for food labels and marketing to children just issued by the Chilean ministry of health.

The rules establish nutrition standards for foods.  Products that exceed the standards will have to say high in sugar, salt, or fat in brightly colored labels (red, green, blue) on the front of the packages.

New Picture

The standards themselves are much stricter than anything ever proposed in the United States, even than those of the ill-fated Interagency Working Group (IWG).

New Picture

Sodas, for example, can only contain 15 grams of sugars per 8 ounces (they typically contain 27 grams).

I’m told that other rules deal with advertising to children (no toys, nothing specifically enticing such as cartoons).

How could this happen?

I’m not up on Chilean politics.  All I know is that these rules were proposed under the current president whose wife was behind the Elige Viver Sano program, one quite similar to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move!

If you know something about the politics of this initiative, please write a comment.  I’d like to know more about this.  Thanks!

Update: Thanks to Dr. Corinna Hawkes Dr Corinna Hawkes, Head of Policy and Public Affairs for the World Cancer Research Fund International sends the following information:

 

 

 

Dec 18 2013

American Meat Institute defines Fine, Lightly Textured Beef (a.k.a. “pink slime”)

Yesterday, the American Meat Institute sent out an advisory to the news media with a helpful glossary of terms to “use and avoid in coverage of lean finely textured beef” (LFTB).

Lean finely textured beef (LFTB)?  Recall the pejorative: “pink slime?”

Academic that I am, I love precise meanings.

The AMI says these terms are proper to use:

Lean Finely Textured Beef: This product is produced by Beef Products,  Inc.  More detail is available at www.beefisbeef.com.

Finely Textured Beef: This product is produced by Cargill.  More detail is available at www.groundbeefanswers.com.

Beef: Both LFTB and FTB are defined as beef by USDA.

Product: Just as a steak or roast are considered a product of a company, LFTB and FTB are products of BPI and Cargill respectively.

But AMI says, you should never use this term:

Pink Slime: While this term has been commonly used to describe LFTB, there is nothing slimy about it.  The negative connotation of the phrase “pink slime” shows bias and is inappropriate to describe a wholesome, safe, nutritious and USDA inspected beef product.

You also are not supposed to use the terms Filler, Binder, Extender, or Additive.

Aren’t you happy to have this clarified?

Dec 6 2013

Monsanto has a public image problem? A surprise?

Thanks to Politico for alerting us to Monsanto’s sudden discovery:  it has just recognized—can you believe this?—that it has a public image problem.

In recent months the company has shaken up its senior public relations staff, upped its relationship with one of the nation’s largest public relations firms and helped launch a website designed to combat the fallacies surrounding genetically modified organisms.

Monsanto revealed its public image worries in its annual filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission.  The SEC requires companies to list societal factors that create risk to its profitability. Monsanto’s first three:

1.  Threats to patent rights

Efforts to protect our intellectual property rights and to defend claims against us can increase our costs and will not always succeed; any failures could adversely affect sales and profitability or restrict our ability to do business.

Intellectual property rights are crucial to our business, particularly our Seeds and Genomics segment. We endeavor to obtain and protect our intellectual property rights in jurisdictions in which our products are produced or used and in jurisdictions into which our products are imported.

2. Too much regulation

We are subject to extensive regulation affecting our seed biotechnology and agricultural products and our research and manufacturing processes, which affects our sales and profitability.

Regulatory and legislative requirements affect the development, manufacture and distribution of our products, including the testing and planting of seeds containing our biotechnology traits and the import of crops grown from those seeds, and non-compliance can harm our sales and profitability.

3. Bad public relations

The degree of public acceptance or perceived public acceptance of our biotechnology products can affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, regulatory requirements and customer purchase decisions.

Some opponents of our technology actively raise public concern about the potential for adverse effects of our products on human or animal health, other plants and the environment. .. Public concern can affect the timing of, and whether we are able to obtain, government approvals.

Even after approvals are granted, public concern may lead to increased regulation or legislation or litigation…which could affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, and may adversely affect sales of our products to farmers, due to their concerns about available markets for the sale of crops or other products derived from biotechnology.

Maybe if the company was less aggressive about defending itself against risks #1 and #2, public relations would be less of an issue.

Do the close calls on labeling initiatives in California and  Washington worry Monsanto?  Of course they do.  They should.

I was on the FDA food advisory committee in 1994 and witnessed Monsanto’s aggressive opposition to labeling.

If public image is a problem for the company, it has nobody to blame but itself. 

The only surprise:  Why did public demands for labeling take so long?

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