Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 14 2019

Weekend reading: Canned

Anna Zeide.  Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry.  University of California Press, 2018.

Image result for Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry

This book uses the history of canned foods—beginning with condensed milk, peas, olives, tomatoes, and tuna, and ending up with BPA (bisphenol A, an endocrine disrupter)—to examine Americans’ changing relationship with industrially produced foods.

Canned foods have had their ups and downs in this country.  As Zeide explains, canning

means that people who have insecure housing without steady access to refrigeration, or who simply to not have the time or materials to prep fresh ingredients, can still eat relatively healthful meals.  Canned fruits, vegetables, and fish would be welcome additions to the food deserts of many low-income areas, which otherwise provide highly processed, sugary, and fatty foods with little nutritional quality.  Relatedly, the rejection of canned food—especially among members of a younger generation who hail from middle-and upper-class backgrounds—has implicit class biases.  Cans were once a symbol of modernity in the United States but now are seen as poverty food.  If we are to expect a fresher, perhaps healthier, way of eating to spread to all people, we must create economic and regulatory systems that make that possible (p. 192).

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Jun 13 2019

Can Oreo cookies be sustainable?

We are seeing intense pressure on food companies to adopt more sustainable supply-chain and production practices.  But can an ultra-processed food ever be sustainably produced?  Or, is a sustainable snack food an oxymoron?

In BakeryandSnacks.com’s Spotlight on Sustainability, snack food companies say what they are doing to reduce their impact on the environment:

Jun 12 2019

Bayer defends glyphosate

This is the second full-page ad like this I’ve seen in the New York Times.  This one is from June 4.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, ads like these cost on the order of $85,000 or so.

Bayer, you may recall, bought Monsanto some months ago along with all its baggage (some of which is increasing doubts about the safety of glyphosate for human health).

The ad quotes the EPA as saying that glyphosate is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans, the agency’s most favorable classification.”

Perhaps, but other agencies—and the courts—come to quite different conclusions.  As the Financial Times explains, Bayer’s

weedkiller woes offer two cautionary tales. The first is the high reputational and financial cost of trying to distort the scientific record. Monsanto’s perceived attempts to game the literature prompted the jury to award punitive damages. Questionable practices allegedly included “ghostwriting” papers: persuading outside academics to put their names to internally written, more flattering research, then publishing in scientific journals.

The second cautionary tale has to do with glyphosate’s induction of weed resistance.

Bayer stocks are not doing well.  Its stockholders are complaining.

Bayer faces more than 13,000 lawsuits over cancers claimed to be caused by glyphosate.

Hence: these ads.

Jun 11 2019

My latest publication: food and nutrition policy primer

How the US food system affects public health is a matter of intense current interest. “Food system” means the totality of processes through which food is produced, transported, sold, prepared, consumed, and wasted.4 Policies governing these processes emerged piecemeal over the past century in response to specific problems as they arose, with regulatory authority assigned to whatever agency seemed most appropriate at the time.5 Today, multiple federal agencies oversee food policies. For some policy areas, oversight is split among several agencies—the antithesis of a systems approach.

US food policies deal with eight distinct purposes, all of them directly relevant to public health:

  • Agricultural support: Overseen by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), agricultural support polices are governed by farm bills passed every five years or so. These bills determine what crops are raised and grown, how sustainably, and the extent to which production methods contribute to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Food assistance: The USDA also administers food assistance for low-income Americans through programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), the Women, Infants, and Children program, and school meals.
  • Nutrition education: This policy is set forth in dietary guidelines revised every five years since 1980 (overseen jointly by the USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services) and in the MyPlate food guide (USDA).
  • Food and nutrition research: The National Institutes of Health and the USDA fund studies of diet and disease risk.
  • Nutrition monitoring: The USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are responsible for keeping track of the quantity and quality of the foods we eat and how diet affects our health.
  • Food product regulation: Rules about food labels, health claims, and product contents are overseen by three agencies: the USDA for meat and poultry; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for other foods, beverages, and dietary supplements; and the Federal Trade Commission for advertising.
  • Food safety: Regulation of food safety is split between the USDA for meat and poultry and the FDA for other foods.
  • Food trade: More than 20 federal agencies are involved in regulating the export and import of food commodities and products, among them are the FDA, the USDA, and the Department of Homeland Security.

This list alone explains why advocates call for a coordinated national food policy.6

The food policy primers in this issue of AJPH address the critical links between agricultural policies and health (Miller et al., p. 986) and key components of food assistance policies: direct food aid to the poor (Brownell et al., p. 988) and nutrition standards for school food (Schwartz et al., p. 989). Their authors are well-established policy experts whose thoughtful comments on the political opposition these programs face make it clear why food system approaches to addressing hunger, obesity, and climate change are essential.

Politics stands in the way of rational policy development, as the editorial by Franckle et al. (p. 992) suggests. Although its authors found substantial bipartisan support for introducing incentives to improve the nutritional quality of foods purchased by SNAP participants, congressional interest in this program remains focused almost entirely on reducing enrollments and costs. Please note that for a special issue of AJPH next year, I am guest editing a series of articles on SNAP that will provide deeper analyses of that program’s history, achievements, needs for improvement, and politics. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, how can US public health advocates achieve a systems approach to oversight of the eight food and nutrition policy areas? A recent report in the Lancet suggests a roadmap for action. It urges adoption of “triple-duty” policies that address hunger, obesity, and the effects of agricultural production on climate change simultaneously.7 For example, a largely—but not necessarily exclusively—plant-based diet serves all three purposes, and all federal food policies and programs, including SNAP, should support it. The primers and editorial should get us thinking about how to advocate a range of food system policies that do a better job of promoting public health. Read on.

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST: The author’s work is supported by New York University retirement funds, book royalties, and honoraria for lectures about matters relevant to this comment.

1. IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the WorldRome, ItalyFood and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations2018Google Scholar
2. GBD 2015 Obesity Collaborators; Afshin A, Forouzanfar MH, Reitsma MBet al. Health effects of overweight and obesity in 195 countries over 25 yearsN Engl J Med2017;377:1327CrossrefMedlineGoogle Scholar
3. Vermeulen SJ, Campbell BM, Ingram JSIClimate change and food systemsAnnu Rev Environ Resour2012;37:195222CrossrefGoogle Scholar
4. Institute of Medicine; National Research Council; Nesheim MC, Oria M, Yih PT, eds. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DCNational Academies Press2015Google Scholar
5. Nestle M, Lee PR, Baron RBNutrition policy update. In: Weininger J, Briggs GM, eds. Nutrition Update. Vol 1. New York, NYWiley1983:285313Google Scholar
6. Bittman M, Pollan M, Salvador R, De Schutter OA national food policy for the 21st century2015. Available at: https://medium.com/food-is-the-new-internet/a-national-food-policy-for-the-21st-century-7d323ee7c65f. Accessed March 17, 2019. Google Scholar
7. Swinburn BA, Kraak VI, Allender Set al. The global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change: the Lancet Commission reportLancet2019;393(10173):791846CrossrefMedlineGoogle Scholar
Jun 10 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: dairy foods, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease

Knowing that this review was sponsored by the dairy industry, can you predict its conclusions?

Association between dairy intake and the risk of contracting type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases: a systematic review and meta-analysis with subgroup analysis of men versus women. Moshe Mishali, Shiri Prizant-Passal, Tova Avrech, and Yehuda Shoenfeld. Nutrition Reviews 2019;77(6):417–429.

Conclusions: “In conclusion, these results, indicating that dairy product consumption decreases the risk of T2D and CVD, are in line with the recommendations for the public to consume dairy products. The findings about sex differences and the positive effect of milk on women need further establishment. Future studies should focus on isolating the effect of dairy products for men and women throughout their life span

Funding. This work was financed by the Israel Dairy Board.

Declaration of interests. M.M. is a consultant for the Israel Dairy Board. S.P. was paid for her work by the Israel Dairy Board. T.A. is Chief Health Officer at the Israel Dairy Board. Y.S. is a consultant for the Israel Dairy Board.

Comment: This is a study paid for by the Israeli dairy industry.  As such, it can well be considered an advertisement.  Like other such industry-funded studies (as I discuss in Unsavory Truth), it puts a positive spin on equivocal results (“need further establishment”).

Jun 7 2019

Weekend viewing: The Biggest Little Farm

I rarely review food movies, but this is an especially good one, beautifully filmed, inspiring, yet raw enough to ring true: The Biggest Little Farm.

I saw this in Ithaca’s Cinemopolis last week along with about ten other people.  There should have been more.  It’s well worth seeing.

The film is about a young couple (John Chester is a filmmaker, Molly Chester is a professional cook), with a dream to farm in a way that promotes biodiversity.  They know nothing about farming but somehow acquire 200 acres of barren, parched land an hour north of Los Angeles.

Well advised to apply principles of regenerative agriculture, they transform the soil and turn the property into a lush orchard in served by a Noah’s ark of animals, chickens, ducks—and endlessly invasive wildlife.

The film, conceived, directed, and gorgeously filmed by John Chester, develops its dramatic tension and emotional depth from the realities of making this farm project work.  Nature is indeed red in tooth and claw; coyotes do kill chickens every chance they get; and beloved pigs do get sick.

By year seven, the farm is stunningly beautiful, fully regenerated, ecologically balanced, and productive.

This is vastly inspiring; farming as it ought to be done is not easy, but it is possible and worth doing.

See this film and decide for yourself whether you find it as charming as I did.

With that said, I walked out of the movie with one burning question: What was the business model?

The farm looks expensive, very expensive.  How did the Chesters get the money to do this and survive the years before they could sell anything, especially since 70% of the early fruit crops were consumed by birds?

The film mentions an investor but provides no details.  I want them.

The biggest barrier to young people going into farming is the cost—of land, equipment, labor, plants, animals.  How did this couple, who had no money to start with, finance this farm?

Other people who want to do this kind of farming need to know this.

Jun 6 2019

Food industry: efforts to fight hunger?

I keep saying that food companies are not social service or public health agencies and should not be viewed as such.  They are businesses, and everything they do must aim to promote sales and returns to investors.

BakeryandSnacks.com, an industry newsletter to which I subscribe, has collected several of its articles on the anti-hunger activities of its member companies.  Is this public health or public relations?  Read and decide.

Jun 5 2019

Trump’s trade war with China: not going well for US farmers or citizens

As I may have mentioned previously, I have trouble understanding the ins and outs of trade policy.  Fortunately, I subscribe to Politico Morning Agriculture, whose writers are diligent in sorting out the complexities of what our government is doing with respect to trade and what it means.

Here’s what Politico is saying about our current trade dispute with the People’s Republic of China.

In a recent article,  Politico  reports a steady decline in American agricultural exports to China.  The figures are startling:

  • 2019: $6.5 billion
  • 2018: $16.8 billion
  • 2017: $21.8 billion

These figures are from USDA’s latest Outlook for Agricultural trade.

Much of the drop is in soybean exports:  US farmers shipped $17 billion worth of soybeans worldwide in 2019, down from $21.6 billion last year.  Shipments to China accounted for much of the difference.

The US usually runs an agricultural trade surplus (we sell more abroad than we import).  The USDA says the trade surplus is $8 billion in 2019, down from $15.8 billion in fiscal 2018 and $21.1 billion in fiscal 2017.

Politico also reports that the Trump Administration is doing what it can to relieve the pain experienced by US soybean producers [pain that the administration’s policies caused in the first place].  It has promised between $15 billion and $20 billion in bailouts.

The real burden will fall on taxpayers and heartland farmers.

If the president moves ahead with 25 percent tariffs on everything China exports to the United States, it could amount to a tax hike of more than $2,000 on the average American family, swamping the reduction they won from Trump’s signature legislative achievement — the 2017 tax law.

The pain will be felt most acutely by lower-income voters who rely on cheap imports and Midwestern farmers who make up critical slices of Trump’s political base and will help decide the outcome of the 2020 election.

As to who is responsible for this mess?  According to Politico again, “China says U.S. ‘solely to blame’ for collapse of trade talks.”

How will this end?  Badly for U.S. agriculture, I’m guessing.

We need a rational food policy in this country, big time.

Reference: Agricultural Economic Insights on implications of the trade war with China