by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: San-Francisco-Chronicle

Dec 29 2013

My last San Francisco Chronicle column: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Looking back at year of progress for food system

After 5 1/2 years and 70 columns written exclusively for The Chronicle, this is my last. As I move on, I do so with much hope for a healthier and more equitable food system.

My optimism comes from taking the long view of progress in agriculture, food, nutrition and public health. When I look back on what’s happened since, say, 1980, I see enormous improvement in the foods available in supermarkets and in schools, the availability of organic and locally grown food, and public interest in everything about food, from taste to politics.

At this time of year, it’s customary to highlight the 10 most notable achievements of the past 12 months. But let me point out one conspicuous absence from this list – the creation of a stronger and more compassionate safety net for the poor and unemployed. Working toward this goal needs to be high on the food advocacy agenda for 2014.

With that gap in mind, here’s where I’ve seen noteworthy progress:

School nutrition standardsThe new rules are the result of the most significant achievement of Michelle Obama‘s Let’s Move! campaign – the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010. This act required schools to provide not only healthier meals, but also snacks. Early reports find most schools to be doing a good job of putting the new rules into effect. Yes, the rules do not go nearly far enough (they are too generous in sugar, for example), but they are a step in the right direction and lay the groundwork for even better standards.

Food safety rulesThe Food and Drug Administration finally started issuing regulations for the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. Once final, these rules will go a long way toward requiring food producers to take measures to ensure safety, and giving the FDA the authority to make sure they do. Yes, its details still need tweaking, but FSMA is a milestone on the road to a safer food supply. The next steps will be to bring the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s authority in line with the FDA’s, and to develop a single food safety agency that combines the functions of both.

FDA’s guidance on antibiotic resistanceThe FDA has called on drug companies to voluntarily agree to stop using medically important antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals and to require a veterinarian’s prescription when using these drugs to treat, prevent or control animal disease. Yes, this is voluntary and drug companies have three years to comply. But the FDA has taken the first step toward banning antibiotics for anything but therapeutic purposes, an impressive achievement given current political realities.

Let’s Move!’s food marketing initiativeMarketing is the elephant in the room of childhood obesity. It overwhelmingly influences kids to prefer, demand and consume junk foods and sodas. Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign has no authority to regulate marketing to kids. By keeping a focus on this issue, she gives advocates plenty of room to hold food companies publicly accountable for their marketing practices.

Soda and junk food taxes in MexicoDespite intense and well-organized opposition by its soda, sugar and small-business industries, the Mexican government passed a 1-peso-per-liter tax on soft drinks and an 8 percent tax on junk foods.

These measures were meant to counter the country’s 70 percent of overweight people and, no coincidence, record-breaking soda consumption. The initiative succeeded as a result of strong advocacy support and also because the revenues were committed to social purposes, among them providing clean drinking water in schools. Other countries are likely to be inspired to enact similar measures.

GMO labeling initiativesConnecticut passed a GMO labeling law in 2013, but election initiatives in California and Washington failed. Even though the food and biotechnology industries poured tens of millions of dollars into defeating labeling measures, the margins of defeat were small. My crystal ball says that some such measures will eventually pass. The food biotechnology industry must think so too; some of its groups are calling for voluntary GMO labeling.

Fast-food workers’ wage demandsPeople who work full time should be able to support their families and not have to be on public assistance. If you work 40 hours at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, you will earn less than $300, and that’s before taxes.

USDA‘s agricultural coexistence initiativesBy agricultural coexistence, the USDA means peaceful relations between quite different farming systems – industrial and GMO versus organic and sustainable. Peaceful coexistence would be a lot easier if GMO pollen didn’t drift onto organic crops, if Congress supported sustainable agriculture in proportion to its size, and if the ag-biotech industry didn’t dismiss cooperation out of hand.

The New York City mayoral candidates forum and coalition buildingAbout 85 food and nutrition advocacy groups put their differences aside to jointly question mayoral candidates on their views about food problems facing city residents. Seven candidates showed up to answer questions, a clear sign that coalitions are strong enough to demand attention.

A personal perspectiveThe past year brought many new food studies programs into universities. When we created food studies programs at New York University in 1996, only one other such program existed. Today, universities throughout the country are training young people to advocate for food systems healthier for the planet and for people, rich and poor.

University of California Press released the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics,” and Rodale Books issued “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

The message of both books – the first in text and the second in cartoons – is the same: Vote with your fork for a more delicious and sustainable food system. Even better, vote with your vote! Engage in food politics to make our food system more conducive to health and social justice.

The food movement is making much progress, but much more remains to be done. I’ve had a great run at The Chronicle, for which I deeply thank readers and editors. I will continue to write about food matters on my blog, at www.foodpolitics.com. Please join me there.

Marion Nestle is also the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics” and “What to Eat.” She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail:food@sfchronicle.com

Dec 1 2013

Why no San Francisco Chronicle column today? A repeat (sigh).

I’m repeating this post from last week because, evidently, I’m confused about dates.  Today is the first Sunday in December; last Sunday was not.

Here’s what I said last week.  It’s still true.

It’s the first Sunday in December and normally I would be posting my San Francisco Chronicle Food Matters column.  But I am leaving the Chronicle—after five and a half years and nearly 70 columns.  I will write one more for the end of the year, but that will be the last.

My timing turned out to be prescient.  My column appeared in the Chronicle’s free-standing, prize-winning food section.  The Chronicle is now ending that separate section.

I have no information about why this is happening other than what’s been speculated and what the paper’s editor says.

I started writing the column in the spring of 2008 at the invitation of Michael Bauer.  I thought it would be a splendid opportunity—a public platform for my ideas about food and nutrition—and the chance to work with writers whose work I respected.

Indeed it was.

But I also knew that the paper was having financial difficulties and did not expect it to survive for much longer.  I agreed to take on the column under the assumption that the paper would not last more than a year or so.

Wrong.

At first I wrote a column every three weeks.  When that proved too much—I do have a full-time job at NYU, after all—I asked to have the schedule reduced to once a month.  Even that proved difficult.

My editor at the Chronicle has always been the terrific Miriam Morgan, who convincingly discouraged my occasional attempts to give up the column.

But now I’m working on a demanding book manuscript and the column is too much of an interruption.

I will miss having the column, but I won’t miss the deadlines.

My column’s time has come.  But when Miriam Morgan told me that the paper would be making some changes in the food section, I had no idea that this meant the end of the food section as well.

Alas.

But all may not be lost.  Want to help save the Chronicle food section?  Click here.

Nov 4 2013

Feds must take stronger action against salmonella

My monthly (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: When I read that people are getting sick from salmonella in Foster Farms chicken, I don’t know what to do. Are we supposed to stop eating chicken?

A: I share your frustration.

Last month, the Department of Agriculture warned that chicken produced by Foster Farms plants in California was linked to illnesses caused by a strain of salmonella Heidelberg which is resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Although these antibiotics are not the ones usually used to treat salmonella, antibiotic resistance in general makes bacteria more virulent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now reports 362 people ill with this strain, three-quarters from California, with a shockingly high – 38 percent – rate of hospitalization.

And because most food-borne illness is never reported, some estimates suggest that there could be 9,000 cases of chicken-induced illness in California alone.

The USDA’s response? It did not require Foster Farms to recall the chicken; it just told the company to clean up its act.

According to the USDA, it’s your responsibility to make sure you don’t get sick. You should be following basic household food safety rules, cooking chicken to 165 degrees, and using a food thermometer to make sure.

Fine, but shouldn’t chicken be safe before it gets to you? You should not have to run your kitchen like a maximum-security biological laboratory.

Besides, cooking chicken to 165 degrees may not be enough. Costco, to its credit, recalled rotisserie – cooked – chickens from its store in South San Francisco when people reported getting sick after eating them. Nobody knows whether the cooking temperature wasn’t high enough or the chickens got cross-contaminated later.

Salmonella, alas, is hardly a new problem. In 1971, public health advocates petitioned the USDA to put salmonella warning labels on chicken. But the USDA said no. Salmonella, it said, is an inherent contaminant of raw meat, not an adulterant. The USDA had no need to act. You just needed to learn how to cook chicken properly.

In the 1990s, the USDA finally issued better rules for poultry safety. Despite them, the CDC reports a steady rise in salmonella outbreaks and illnesses.

The industry responds that the salmonella issue is a complex one because the bacteria are inherent in bird species.

Sorry, but salmonella illnesses are preventable.

If people are getting sick from eating contaminated chicken, the companies are not following safety rules, and the USDA is not enforcing them.

This is about politics, not public health.

For decades, advocates have complained about the USDA’s conflicting missions to promote agricultural production and protect consumer health. We have called on Congress to unite federal food safety oversight within one independent agency. Failing that, we insist that the USDA enforce its own rules.

The USDA’s recent decision to allow American poultry meat to be shipped to China for processing is hardly reassuring. The mind boggles to think that chickens raised and slaughtered in America would go to China to be turned into chicken nuggets and then come back here to be sold.

Also for decades, safety advocates have called for an end to the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in meat and poultry production. Antibiotics not only induce resistance, they induce virulence. Fortunately, the Foster Farms bacteria are still susceptible to the kinds of antibiotics most effective against salmonella, but victims of the next outbreak may not be so lucky.

Why do Congress, federal agencies and the White House permit meat and poultry producers to continue reckless use of antibiotics? Chalk this up to industry lobbying and campaign contributions.

If you can afford it, buy chicken that has not been factory farmed. Even so, you must cook the meat to a temperature that will kill bacteria, avoid cross-contamination, and sterilize everything the chicken comes near.

But the salmonella problem goes way beyond your own kitchen.

We all need to press for a food safety system that holds public health as its first priority. This means empowering the USDA to enforce its own rules, uniting the functions of USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, and using antibiotics in meat and poultry production only for therapeutic purposes.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Eat, Drink, Vote,” “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com

Oct 6 2013

Soda tax controversy goes international

My monthly first Sunday Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I hear that the Mexican government wants to increase taxes on sodas as a way to fight diabetes. The soda industry persuaded voters to defeat soda taxes in Richmond and El Monte last year. Won’t it do the same in Mexico?

A: It might. I’m just back from a lecture trip to Mexico City where I heard plenty about the proposed soda tax and the industry’s response to it.

Last month, the Mexican government proposed an additional soda tax of one peso (about 8 cents) per liter. The idea is to raise $1.5 million per year while discouraging soda consumption, thereby helping to reduce the country’s high prevalence of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Mexicans drink lots of soda. By some estimates, average per capita consumption is 50 gallons a year, the highest in the world. It’s no coincidence that more than 70 percent of Mexicans are overweight or obese, and around 15 percent have Type 2 diabetes, a prevalence that terrifies health officials. This type of diabetes, if undiagnosed and untreated, can lead to blindness or foot amputations.

‘Nutrition transition’

Mexico is a classic example of a country in “nutrition transition.” As the economy improves, people increasingly buy high-calorie ready-made foods, put on weight, and raise their risk for diabetes. Meanwhile, the poorer segments of the population continue to experience high levels of stunting, iron-deficiency anemia and vitamin A deficiency.

This makes obesity a relatively new problem in Mexico, one widely understood to result from the introduction of processed foods – especially sodas – into the Mexican food market.

I could easily see how deeply sodas are embedded in Mexico’s food culture. Sodas were advertised and available everywhere. And they come in enormous three-liter bottles that cost less than the price of bottled water – only 17 pesos ($1.35) each. Clean water is not always available, making sodas the easy choice.

Sodas are cheap because Mexico grows its own sugarcane and sells it at market prices. We, however, artificially support the higher price of U.S. sugar through tariffs and quotas. That’s why our sodas are made with high fructose corn syrup. We subsidize corn production so corn syprup costs less than sugar.

Some people think cane sugar tastes better than high fructose corn syrup, although controlled taste tests don’t always back this up. It’s ironic that U.S. supermarkets now carry, at highly inflated prices, Mexican Coca-Cola sweetened with cane sugar.

Industry efforts to defeat the Mexican soda tax have been ferocious, just as they were in Richmond and El Monte last year. Producers argue that if the tax really does decrease consumption, it will cause hundreds of thousands of jobs to be lost.

I saw a newspaper advertisement from the Mexican Beverage Association that not only attacked the science relating soft drinks to obesity, but extolled the health benefits of sodas: “Sugar is nutritious; it’s a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are essential for life. Sugar is indispensable for the brain. Soft drinks hydrate and bring energy.”

An ad from the sugarcane industry also threatened job losses – “The tax will generate unemployment and discourage productivity and investment” – and noted that workers and the poor will bear most of its burden.

The big questions

As with any such initiative, the big questions are whether the tax is likely to reduce soda consumption, obesity and diabetes, and whether the revenue will be used for widely beneficial public health purposes. Mexico’s Congress will have to address these questions when it votes on the tax in the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, a coalition of consumer and health groups, in part funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, has been putting posters in subway stations that illustrate the amounts of sugar in soft drinks. The groups are actively advocating for the soda tax and for using its funds to provide free potable water in schools – something that does not now exist. But TV stations have refused to carry their ads for fear of losing soda advertisers.

Like their U.S. colleagues, Mexican public health authorities are searching for effective ways to reverse obesity trends. Sugary drinks are an easy target. Taxing them might happen despite industry opposition – especially if the funds are earmarked for clean water.

Editor’s notesMarion Nestle will discuss her new book, “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics,” with Narsai David at the Commonwealth Club on Oct. 15 at 6 p.m., and at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Oct. 19 at 11 a.m.

She is also receiving the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for her writing about how science and public policy influence what we eat. The award ceremonies are Oct. 21 at the Hearst Tower in New York.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Eat, Drink, Vote,” “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com

Sep 1 2013

“Natural” on food labels? Ain’t necessarily so…

It’s the first Sunday of the month and time for my monthly Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle.  In this one, I deal with the annoying “natural” on food labels, a term that the FDA prefers not to define.

Q: I am doing legislative research on food policy for one of my state’s senators on the definition of “natural.” As things stand, it’s difficult for consumers to understand what “natural” means on food labels. How should the FDA define this term so it is accurate and not misleading?

A: I was traveling in New England when your question arrived, and it sent me right to the nearest Hannaford supermarket. Hannaford makes this research easy. Sections everywhere in the store are labeled “organic and natural.”

Organic is no problem. Certified organic products must be made with ingredients raised or grown without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, irradiation, sewage sludge or genetic modification.

But what are we to make of Honey BBQ All Natural Potato Chips containing 20 ingredients, among them monosodium glutamate, yellow food color, and undoubtedly genetically modified corn and soy, but “no hydrogenated fats and gluten free”? Or Healthy Natural Dog Food containing meat by-products and other such things but “no artificial preservatives, colors or fillers”?

The Food and Drug Administration is not much help. Its answer: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA … has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

If you have made it through all the not’s in this non-definition, you can begin to understand how the FDA can allow high-fructose corn syrup to be “natural.” Even though enzymes, synthetic or not, are required to convert cornstarch to this mixture of glucose and fructose, it does not contain artificial colors or flavors.

But the products I mentioned do. Yellow No. 5 is an artificial color. You must assume that the corn or soy in any “natural” product is genetically modified unless the label says GMO-free or Certified Organic. You may be someone who has a hard time considering GMO ingredients “natural.”

In the last decade, new products marketed with “natural” claims have proliferated, and it’s easy to understand why. Marketers love the term. “Natural” sells products, not the least because consumers consider it a synonym for healthful and, often, for organic. Anyone would rather buy “100 percent natural seltzer water” – “calorie-free, no sugar, no sodium, gluten-free” (things never found in water) – than plain seltzer.

While “natural” does not necessarily mean “healthy” or even “healthier,” it works splendidly as a marketing term and explains why many junk-food manufacturers are switching from expensive organic ingredients to those they can market as “natural.”

The FDA isn’t fixing this situation because, according to a statement in response to a petition by Center for Science in the Public Interest, it’s “not an enforcement priority.”

Manufacturers of highly processed foods could not be happier with this nondecision.

In the absence of regulation, enter litigation. In recent years, advocacy groups have filed dozens of lawsuits seeking to ban “natural” claims on foods containing ingredients that seem unnatural, especially those genetically modified. Judges tend to say it’s the FDA’s problem and are calling on the agency to define the term.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for meat and dairy products, has attempted to clarify what it means by “natural.” Its Food Safety and Inspection Service says meat and poultry can be labeled “natural” when they are minimally processed and have no artificial flavorings, colorings or preservatives. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service says “naturally raised” means the meat must come from animals produced with no hormone growth promoters, no antibiotics and no animal by-products.

How about all of the above? And if the public really can’t tell the difference between “natural” and “organic,” the closer the definition of “natural” is to that of “organic,” the less confused they will be.

Perhaps you could advise the senator to begin with the organic standards. And then toss in working definitions that exclude anything synthetic, artificial and more than minimally processed.

You should expect food industry lobbying against this idea to be fierce. But the public will be better served if the compromises in defining “natural” come at the end of the negotiations rather than at the beginning.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail:food@sfchronicle.com

Aug 4 2013

Some reflections on the mayor’s food forum: San Francisco Chronicle column

I used my August (monthly, first Sunday) column for the San Francisco Chronicle to reflect on the meaning of the Mayor’s Food Forum last month.

Q: I hear that you moderated a food forum for candidates for mayor of New York City and got them to say what they thought about hunger, nutrition and local agriculture. Did any of them say anything worth telling?

A: The forum was indeed amazing. But I’d go further.

I’d call it historic – a turning point in the food movement.

This had to be the first time that food advocacy organizations – an astonishing 88 of them – joined forces to induce candidates for city office to agree to respond to questions about issues of concern to every one of those groups.

Six candidates turned up. What they said hardly mattered (and at this point, the less said about the individual candidates, the better). What does matter is that they thought this audience important enough to come and state their positions on how food production and consumption affect public health, and how political leaders can use their authority to improve the food system.

Food issues have become prominent enough to make politicians and would-be politicians take notice.

The sold-out audience of nearly 1,000 filled the auditorium at the New School as well as two overflow rooms. Others watched the forum streamed live online. (http://new.livestream.com/TheNewSchool/nycfoodforum).

When I was invited to moderate, I could hardly believe what the organizers had accomplished. Twelve groups, each working separately for improvements in food assistance, food access, working conditions, local farming, food systems or health had formed a coalition to plan the forum and make it happen.

These groups met for a more than a year to identify the specific issues they most wanted candidates to think about. Judging from the length of the questions I was given, this cannot have been easy. The organizers must have been exceptionally patient – and persistent – to get 12 advocacy groups to agree on the key issues.

They also did a great deal of community organizing. They not only recruited 76 other food advocacy groups to support the forum, but also encouraged development of an additional forum for young people in low-income communities to get involved in the food issues most relevant to their lives.

Some of these kids were invited to ask questions of the candidates. One, from a Brooklyn teenager: “Where do you shop for food?” This may sound like a naive question, but it elicited a surprisingly thoughtful response that touched on sensitive issues of income and class.

The grown-up questions concerned issues vital to the host groups: How would the new mayor address hunger and food insecurity, inadequate access to healthy food, the low wages and inhumane treatment of restaurant and fast-food workers, the poor quality of school food, and the high rates of diet-related chronic disease among city residents.

Such problems are hardly unique to New York. Even the more city-centered questions – how to use the city’s purchasing power to support regional agriculture and the food economy, and to promote city land for urban farming – have plenty of relevance for other urban areas, including Bay Area cities.

The candidates made it clear that they had thought about the issues, and had come prepared to address them.

Here’s my inescapable conclusion: The food movement is strong enough to make candidates for office stand up, listen and take food issues seriously.

Last fall, writing about California’s Proposition 37 that sought to label genetically modified foods, Michael Pollan issued a challenge to food advocates.

The food movement, he said, needs to do more than work for agricultural reform and an increased market share for healthier food. Advocacy groups need to get together to create a real political movement – an organized force strong enough to propel food concerns onto the national agenda and force politicians to take action to improve food systems.

The forum was a first step in that direction. It proved that food coalitions can have political power.

I can’t think of a better time for food advocacy groups to join forces and work collectively toward common food system goals.

E-mail questions to: food@sfchronicle.com

Jul 7 2013

Q: What is your opinion about (fill in the blank)?

My monthly (first Sunday) column for the San Francisco Chronicle appears today.  This time, I caught up with some questions.

Q: What is your opinion about (fill in the blank)?

A: Questions have been flooding in lately asking what I think about one or another food or nutrition topic under current discussion. I ordinarily don’t respond to them because any reader of this column should be able to predict what I’m likely to say. Occasionally, some misunderstand, so let’s deal with some clarifications.

Q: I know you have a very mainstream position and a skepticism for “vegan scientists.” Kaiser Permanente recently came out for plant-based diets. The United Nations says, “A global shift toward a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change.”

A: Of course I favor plant-based diets. Such diets are demonstrably better for health and kinder to the environment. But plant-based does not necessarily mean vegan, which entirely excludes animal products. This quotation appears to come from vegan websites, not the United Nations. The U.N. report notes that animal agriculture contributes to climate change, but says nothing about dietary advice or vegan diets. Kaiser Permanente urges physicians to advocate “eating healthy, whole, plant-based foods (primarily fruits and vegetables) and minimizing consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products.” Minimize is not the same as exclude.

Q: You haven’t said anything about the genetically modified wheat found in Oregon. Don’t you care?

A: I haven’t written about this incident because I’m waiting to learn how the wheat got there. GM wheat is not approved for planting anywhere, and it’s been nine years since Monsanto grew its last test plots. Without more information, I can only speculate. Has GM wheat been growing ever since? Did the seeds suddenly germinate? Were they mixed with conventional seeds by mistake? Monsanto has its own explanation: sabotage. The need for a true explanation is urgent. Several countries have refused to accept shipments of American wheat unless it can be certified GM-free.

Q: Just like everyone else, you don’t write much about food safety.

A: I wrote half a book (“Safe Food”) about food safety – the other half is about GMOs – and I updated it for a new edition in 2010. But I can hardly keep up with the endless outbreaks day after day. One deserves special attention because it involves a mix of frozen berries and pomegranate grains labeled as Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend. The contaminant is unusual – a strain of hepatitis A virus usually confined to North Africa and the Middle East and rarely seen in this country. More than 130 people have gotten hepatitis liver infections from eating this product. Its label says the organic fruits in the mix came from Argentina, Chile and Turkey, as well as the U.S. These circumstances emphasize that organic doesn’t necessarily mean local and frozen doesn’t necessarily mean safe. The Centers for Disease Control still has this one under investigation. And the Food and Drug Administration still has not issued final safety regulations

Q: You claim to be some kind of expert on the farm bill. Explain what just happened.

A: Expert? Nobody can be expert on the farm bill. It’s too big and complicated for one person to understand. Lobbyists, advocates and some congressional staff may know parts of it thoroughly, but the whole thing? Hopeless. I taught a course on the farm bill a couple of years ago – a depressing introduction to the worst of American politics. Anyone can figure out what agricultural policy ought to do: promote production of adequate food at an affordable price, provide a decent living for farmers and farmworkers, protect the environment and promote health, for starters, but this is a large order for any piece of legislation and impossible for our current Congress. The House failed to pass it, mainly because Republicans thought cuts to SNAP, food stamps, weren’t deep enough and Democrats were appalled by the size of the cuts and by new requirements for drug testing and work. I have no crystal ball for seeing how this will play out, but I’m not optimistic that this Congress will do anything much for new farmers, small farmers or fruit and vegetable producers.

Q: Why are you so hard on nutritional supplements? You must be one of those people who thinks they kill people.

A: Don’t get me wrong. Nutrient supplements are great for people who have nutrient deficiencies. Whether they make people worse is arguable, but study after study shows that nutrient supplements do not make healthy people healthier. If you like to take supplements, I’m guessing you don’t care much about what the science says. Supplements aren’t about evidence-based medicine. They are about deep distrust of modern diets, science and the health care system. If nothing else, supplements are powerful placebos, and I’m not at all convinced they are seriously harmful. My advice: Supplements, like everything else about nutrition, should be taken in moderation.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at foodpolitics.com. E-mail questions to: food@sfchronicle.com

Jun 2 2013

Got marketing? Organics face quandary

My monthly, first Sunday, food matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I read that the new farm bill is going to establish a checkoff program for organics. What’s that? Is this good for organics?

A: As with everything in food politics, the answer depends on who you are. If you are a big producer of organic foods, it’s good news. If you are small, it may cost you more than it’s worth. And if all you want is to buy organic foods at a price you can afford, it could go either way.

Let’s start with the farm bill, which still has many hurdles to jump before it gets passed. The bill ties agricultural policy to food stamps (which take up 80 percent of the budget), favors large industrial farms over small, and only occasionally tosses in a token program to promote public health or environmental protection.

One such token is the organic checkoff. Both the Senate and House have amended the farm bill to permit organic producers and handlers to form a marketing and promotion program, commonly known as a checkoff.

Fee required

The way this works is that if the amendments survive, the bill passes and organic growers agree on the program – all iffy at the moment – the Department of Agriculture will require every producer and handler of certified organic foods to pay a fee per unit sale (the checkoff). The fees go into a common fund to be used for research and marketing of organic foods in general.

The USDA currently administers 19 checkoff programs. The best known are beef (“it’s what’s for dinner”), milk (“got milk?”) and eggs (“the incredible edible”). Others cover foods such as blueberries, Hass avocados, mangos, peanuts, popcorn and watermelon.

In these cases, the industry or its representatives voted for the programs. They are administered by the USDA but the industry pays for them.

Checkoff funds are allowed to be used for advertising, consumer education, foreign market development and research. They cannot be used for lobbying, although the distinction between promoting a product to consumers and extolling its virtues to lawmakers can be subtle.

The Organic Trade Association, which represents hundreds of organic producers but is dominated by the big ones, has lobbied for this program since 2010. The association is concerned that consumers cannot currently tell the difference between “natural,” a term that is unregulated, and “certified organic,” which is highly regulated, requires inspection and is more expensive to produce.

Mostly, the association wants to increase market share. Sales of organic foods in the United States have been growing by about 10 percent annually and reached $35 billion last year, but this amount is minuscule in comparison to total food sales. The growth potential of organic foods is enormous.

The congressional go-ahead is a triumph for the association, which convinced a majority of the Senate and House that the public wants the farm bill to support organics.

Opposing viewpoint

That many producers of conventional foods and their friends in Congress do not like organics is an understatement. They resent that consumers are willing to pay premium prices for organics. They consider organics to be a slap in the face – a personal assault on conventional agricultural practices.

They cite many reasons why the organic checkoff should not be allowed. For one thing, it is distinctly different from all other commodity checkoff programs – “organic” is a production process, not a food.

Because farmers are allowed to pay fees into only one checkoff program, the growers of organic blueberries would have to choose between the one for organics and the one for blueberries.

Questioning the cost

Critics of the entire concept of checkoff programs say all they do is increase food prices by passing the costs of promotion on to consumers.

Small organic producers and handlers are also leery. They object to having to pay fees for something that is not guaranteed to do them any good. Evidence for the benefits of checkoff programs is mixed. Some farmers benefit, while others do not.

And because checkoff funds are not allowed to be used for advertising that implies disparagement of other foods or production processes, small organic producers fear that marketing will focus exclusively on whether or not a product is certified and will be used to promote any organic product, including junk food. The rules will not allow promotion to focus on the benefits of organics to health or the environment.

Checkoffs are about marketing. They are not about health, sustainability, human welfare or any other value cherished by today’s food movement. Much as I favor organic over conventional production methods, I’m hoping organic producers will think carefully before approving a checkoff.

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