by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labels

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.”

Nov 9 2012

Proposition 37 take-home lesson: the power of money in politics

The take-home lesson from the defeat of Proposition 37—GMO labeling—is crystal clear.

As Tom Philpott explains in his Mother Jones post,

No fewer than two massive sectors of the established food economy saw it as a threat: the GMO seed/agrichemical industry, led by giant companies Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, and Bayer; and the food-processing/junk-food industries who transform GMO crops into profitable products, led by Kraft, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and their ilk. Collectively, these companies represent billions in annual profits; and they perceived a material threat to their bottom lines in the labeling requirement, as evidenced by the gusher of cash they poured into defeating it.

The proof lies in this remarkable graph of poll results produced by Pepperdine University/California Business Roundtable.  Polling results started to shift only after the October 1 start of the “No on 37” television ad campaign.

Philpott and others see this defeat as just the beginning of a strong increase in public concern about the role of money in politics.

As for labeling of GMOs:  As I’ve said before, proposition 37 deserved support, and GMOs should be labeled.

In a way, it’s hard to understand why the industry thinks it is justified to put $46 million ($46 million!) into defeating a labeling initiative.   The world has not come to an end.

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In response to European public pressure, McDonald’s, another American company, produces its products without GMOs.

Demands for GMO labeling are not going to go away.

The heavy-handed industry campaign against labeling ought to have some consequences.  One is likely to be increasing support for efforts to Just Label It.

Addition:

I’ve just seen the tough analysis by Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island Journal:

As far as I can tell, the Prop 37 campaign failed to put together a field campaign capable of countering the flood of deceptive ads broadcast by the No campaign…

I don’t understand why the Prop 37 campaigners tried to fight on the airwaves in the first place. From Moment One they knew they would be hugely outspent on TV, radio and web ads…

When you’re the underdog, you don’t go toe-to-toe with the big guy. You have to resort to asymmetrical warfare, guerilla warfare. In electoral politics, that means prioritizing the ground war(organizers and activists) over the air war (paid advertisements)…

the good food movement needs to recommit itself to building power through old-fashioned, Saul Alinsky style organizing.

Nov 7 2012

The election is over (whew): what’s next?

My post-hurricane Manhattan apartment still does not have telephone, internet, or television service, so I followed the election results on Twitter.

I knew that President Obama had been reelected when the Empire State Building turned on blue lights.

What’s ahead for food politics?

With the election out of the way, maybe the FDA can now:

  • Release final food safety rules (please!)
  • Issue proposed rules for front-of-package labels
  • Issue proposed rules for revising food labels
  • Require “added sugars” to be listed on labels
  • Define “natural”
  • Clarify “whole grain”
  • Release rules for menu labeling in fast-food restaurants

Maybe the USDA can

  • Release nutrition standards for competitive foods served in schools

And maybe Congress can pass the farm bill?

As for lessons learned:

  • The food industry has proven that it can defeat consumer initiatives by spending lots of money: $45 to $50 million on California’s Proposition 37 (GMO labeling), $4 million on soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte.
  • But if enough such initiatives get started, food companies might get the message?
The election leaves plenty of work to do.  Get busy!
Nov 5 2012

Tuesday: Vote with your vote!

Tuesday’s election has huge implications for food politics (see previous post).  I’ve been asked to state an opinion.  In case myviews are not obvious, here’s what I’m voting for and hoping you will too:

  • If you care abou the issues discusssed here: Vote to reelect President Obama.
  • If you live in California, lead the nation: Vote YES on 37 (GMO labels).
  • If you live in Richmond, CA: Vote YES on Measures N and O (soda taxes and where that money will go).
  • If you live in El Monte, CA: Vote YES on Measure H (soda taxes).

It’s great to vote with your fork.  But the food movement needs real votes.

Vote with your vote!

Oct 24 2012

What to do about front-of-package food labels?

The British Food Standards Agency has just announced a new front-of-package voluntary labeling system to go onto food packages next year, maybe.

The exact design is still uncertain, but it might look like this:

An example of the what the new hybrid food labels might look like. Shows traffic light sytem, %GDA system and high, medium, low system.

Compare this to the scheme Mark Bittman suggested in the Sunday Times last week.

Bittman’s idea does way more.  He suggests one design to

  • Rate foods on the basis of nutrition, “foodness” (an index of the extent of processing), and welfare (of everyone and everything)
  • Give them an overall score and a traffic light ranking (green, yellow, red)
  • Note whether they contain GMOs or not

Here’s how it would look:

 

Recall that the FDA recruited the Institute of Medicine to recommend a new labeling scheme.  It did just that a year ago, in a report advising the FDA to restrict front-of-package labels to information about calories, saturated and trans fat, sugar, and salt.

Since then, the FDA has said not a word about its food labeling initiative (More research needed? Election-year politics?)

In the meantime, Whole Foods has implemented its own new traffic light labeling scheme, but without those pesky red symbols well established to discourage sales.  If the food doesn’t rate a green or yellow symbol, it won’t have anything on it.

Everybody is doing food rating systems.  The owner of Rouge Tomate has developed SPE certification for restaurants, a system based on “Sourcing, Preparing, and Enhancing philosophy and culinary techniques.”

All of the people doing rating and certification systems set up their own criteria, and all differ.

Are these systems helpful?  Only if you trust that they are meaningful.  I don’t know how to find that out without doing a lot of research.

Readers: Do you like these systems?  Use them? Find them helpful?  I don’t, but am willing to be persuaded otherwise.

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 2 2012

FDA releases strategic plan for 2012-2016

Ordinarily I find government plans of this type to be soporific but this one is especially well written and well thought out (with some caveats).

The report is a statement of FDA commitment to what it is going to do in the next four years in food areas that affect people and animals.  It includes many promises, among them this one of particular interest: 

Program Goal 4: Provide accurate and useful information so consumers can choose a healthier diet and reduce the risk of chronic disease and obesity

Objective 1. Update the Nutrition Facts label.

  • Publish proposed rules updating the nutrition facts label and serving sizes [OK, but by when?].
  • Publish final rules updating the nutrition facts label and serving sizes [Ditto].

Objective 2.  Implement menu and vending machine labeling regulations.

  • Publish final menu and vending machine labeling regulations [OK, but by when?].
  • Collaborate with states, localities and other partners to ensure high rates of compliance.

Objective 3.  Improve consumer access to and use of nutrition information.

  • Explore front‐of‐pack nutrition labeling opportunities [Explore?  See comment below].
  • Collaborate with public/private sector parties on nutrition education [Collaborate?  See comment below].
  • Implement updated standards for the labeling of pet food including nutrition and ingredient information [How about a Pet Facts label for pet foods that someone might actually be able to understand?].
  • Implement standards for animal feed ingredients.
  • Publish final rule defining and permitting use of the term “gluten free” in the labeling of foods.

Goal-setting processes usually include dates by which the objectives are to be completed.  These do not, which suggests that the FDA can continue to delay action until 2016. 

I also do not understand what is meant by “Explore front‐of‐pack nutrition labeling opportunities.”  Explore?  The FDA has already sponsored two Institute of Medicine reports on front-of-pack labeling.  Does this mean the agency is ignoring them and intends further research?

And “Collaborate with public/private sector parties on nutrition education?”  What does the FDA have in mind for the content of such education?  You can bet that no collaborative campaign can focus on “don’t drink your calories.” 

FDA needs to deliver on these items, and sooner rather than later.  This year?  I’m not counting on it.

 

Mar 5 2012

Petitions to label GM foods deserve support

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle is inspired by California’s petition initiative to get labeling of genetically modified foods on the ballot.

Q. I was just handed a petition for a ballot initiative to label genetically modified foods. I signed it, but how come GM foods aren’t already labeled?

A. Labeling GM foods should be a no-brainer. Practically everyone wants them labeled. That’s why the Committee for the Right to Know is collecting signatures for a California ballot initiative to require it.

To say that food biotechnology industry supporters oppose this idea is to understate the matter. They think the future of GM foods is at stake. They must believe that if the foods were labeled, nobody would buy them.

If consumers distrust GM foods, the industry has nobody to blame but itself. It has done little to inspire trust.

Labeling promotes trust. Not labeling is undemocratic; it does not allow choice.

As I discuss in my book, “Safe Food,” I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee when the agency approved production of the first GM tomato in 1994. As we learned later, the FDA was not asking our opinion. It was using us to gather reactions to decisions already made.

For reasons in part scientific but largely in response to industry pressures, the FDA decided that GM foods are inherently safe and no different from foods produced through traditional genetic techniques. Therefore, the thinking went, labeling would be unnecessary and mislead people into thinking that the foods are different and somehow inferior.

Some of us strongly advised the FDA to reconsider. We thought the issue of trust was paramount. If the products had some public benefit, people would buy them.

Consumers in Great Britain, for example, readily accepted tomato paste prominently labeled GM, not least because the cans were priced below those with conventional tomatoes.

But once Monsanto shipped GM corn to England without labeling it, and placed advertisements in British newspapers hyping the benefits of GM foods, the British public lost confidence. Sales declined and supermarket chains no longer were willing to carry GM items.

Today, close to 90 percent of corn, soybeans and sugar beets grown in the United States are GM varieties. You must assume that ingredients made from these foods are GM – unless the product is certified organic.

When researching “What to Eat,” I knew that Hawaiian papayas engineered to resist ringspot virus were the most likely candidates. I had some tested. The conventional was GM. The organic was not. Without labels, you have no way of knowing whether you are buying GM fruits and vegetables.

Intelligent people can argue about whether GM crops are good, bad or indifferent for agriculture, the environment and market economies, or whether the products are safe. But one point is clear. The absence of labeling cannot be good in the long run for business or American democracy.

Consumers have a right to know how foods are produced. Polls consistently report that most people want GM labeling. Lack of labeling raises uncomfortable questions about what the biotechnology industry and the FDA are trying to hide.

The FDA already requires labels to identify food that is made from concentrate or irradiated. At least 50 countries in Europe and elsewhere require disclosure of GM ingredients. I’ve seen candy bar labels in England with this statement: “Contains genetically modified sugar, soya and corn.” We could do this, too.

Last year, 14 states, including Oregon, New York and Vermont, introduced bills to require GM foods to be labeled. None passed, but the campaign has now gone national.

If you want a GM-label measure on the California ballot, go to labelgmos.org.  Just Label It is still collecting signatures. Signing these petitions is an important way to exercise your democratic rights as a citizen.

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