Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 20 2018

Weekend reading: Paul Greenberg’s The Omega Principle

Paul Greenberg.  The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet.  Penguin Press, 2018.

This is the third installment of Paul Greenberg’s fish trilogy (the previous two are Four Fish and American Catch, both also well worth the read).

This one sounds like a book about nutrition—a nutrient—but it’s not.  It may have started out that way, as a book about omega-3 fatty acids whose principal dietary source is fish, but Greenberg soon figured out that claims for the miraculous health benefits of omega-3s don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Instead, he uses omega-3s as an organizing framework for discussing how we use and misuse fish for industrial purposes.  To do this, he travels.  He goes to the Mediterranean to examine what happens to anchovies, Peru to see what happens to anchoveta, to the Antarctic to see what happens to krill.

His point?  If we destroy the bottom of the seafood chain to make fishmeal or fertilizer, we destroy the ecology of fish higher up on the food chain.

Greenberg is a lively, entertaining writer who tells great fish tales in pursuit of a serious message: if we want food in our future, we need to eat lower on the food chain.

And the book comes with recipes.  My favorite: Roulades of Antarctic penguin breast.  It begins: “Never make this recipe, please.”

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Jul 19 2018

Food Navigator Special Edition: Healthy Snacks

Here’s another one of FoodNavigator-USA’s collection of articles on single topics, this one on “healthy” snacks.  I’m putting “healthy” in quotes because these are all processed food products.  If you are trying to track snacking trends, here they are.

Special Edition: Healthy Snacks

Hartman Group says roughly half of the eating occasions in the US are now snacks, but if snacking is still about treating yourself, are we treating ourselves a little too much? How can manufacturers meet demand for fresher, healthier snacks that are also portable and convenient? In this FoodNavigator-USA special, we explore how manufacturers are adapting to changing eating patterns.

  • Messy Monkeys balances nutrition with affordability for US launch: Finding nutrient-dense snacks becomes more of a challenge for moms once they exit the baby aisle and right around the time ‘picky-eater syndrome’ sets in. To fill this gap, Messy Monkeys is positioning itself as an affordable and healthy snack for kids rolling out to stores this month… Read
  • Ready to pig out (minus the bacon)? Outstanding Foods gears up for launch: Vegan jerky is picking up steam, but hasn’t set the world on fire, yet. And while bacon-flavored potato and corn chips are a staple in the salty snacks aisle, they don’t pretend to replicate the taste and texture of a strip of bacon. But what if you could create a plant-based snack so bacon-like that even meat lovers struggle to distinguish it from the real thing?.. Read

 

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Jul 18 2018

Uh oh. California is reporting problems with kids eating cannabis edibles

The Los Angeles Times reports that calls to California poison control centers about kids ingesting marijuana “edibles” are increasing.  There have already been about 400 calls this year.

California legalized marijuana in 2016.  Edibles are a big part of the cannabis market.  They are often packaged to look like regular candy, cookies, brownies, and other treats.

  • Nearly half of last year’s calls involved children 5 and younger
  • 64 were about toddlers who were a year old
  • 38 calls were about children under 12 months old

Kids who eat them are brought to emergency rooms, and these visits too are increasing.

I’ve written about kids eating edibles before, in connection with legalization in Colorado.

Of this, Elise McDonough, former editor of High Times, and author of the High Times Cannabis Cookbook, says:

And keep edibles away from pets too.

While we are on this topic, here’s what pediatricians are saying about marijuana use during pregnancy, lactation, and early childhood. While waiting for further research,

Advice from medical professionals should be consistent: pregnant and lactating women should be advised to avoid cannabis use, and women (and men) caring for developing children also should be advised to maintain abstinence.

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Jul 17 2018

Lab-grown meat: FDA v. USDA

The FDA held a public meeting last week on lab-grown “meat,” meaning, in FDA-speak, “foods produced using animal cell culture technology.”  The meeting agenda is here.

At issue are:

The FDA’s announcement of the meeting, and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s statement staked FDA’s territory over these products.  Gottlieb said:

The FDA has a long history of ensuring food safety and applying our statutory framework while supporting rapidly evolving areas of technological innovation in food. The agency currently evaluates microbial, algal and fungal cells generated by large-scale culture and used as direct food ingredients. The agency administers safety assessment programs for a broad array of food ingredients, including foods derived from genetically engineered plants, and also manages safety issues associated with cell culture technology in therapeutic settings.

But if these foods are meat, then USDA is responsible for their regulation.  In a statement to Politico (behind paywall), a USDA spokesperson said:

According to federal law, meat and poultry inspections are the sole purview of USDA, so we expect any product marketed as ‘meat’ to be USDA’s responsibility. We look forward to working with FDA as we engage the public on this issue.”

Politico points out what’s at stake in the jurisdictional dispute.

There are at least 10 lab-grown meat companies across the globe that are furiously working to figure out how to get their products to market. Some of the startups are driven by a desire to reduce animal agriculture’s environmental footprint as developing countries increasingly drive demand for meat and dairy products. Major investors who’ve moved to get into the action include innovators like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Tyson Ventures, an investment arm of meat giant Tyson Foods.

The meat industry, as you might expect, does not want these foods to be called “meat.”  But the industry has not reached agreement on strategies (some meat companies have invested in lab-grown meat startups).

The US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) in February asked federal government regulators to adopt a definition for meat that would exclude cell-cultured products (often called “clean meat“).  This week though, the more-powerful National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) asked the same regulatory agency to rule the opposite.

The NCBA wrote  a letter to USDA stating its position:

NCBA is alarmed by the growing number of flagrantly deceptive food product labels proliferating the marketplace. Consumers have the right to expect that the information on food labels is truthful and not misleading, just as all food products should expect to compete on a fair, level playing field…NCBA firmly believes that the term beef should only be applicable to products derived from actual livestock raised by farmers and ranchers.

Global Meat News has a good summary of the industry’s concerns.

Four members of Congress chided the FDA for jumping into this:

Cell-based food technologies and products are an emerging science, and both agencies should be working collaboratively on a scientific approach towards a framework to regulate these products.

Good luck with that.  The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) has a report on the FDA meeting.  I’m quoted:

Between the two agencies, I favor FDA…USDA’s primary role is to support and defend industrial agricultural production. The agency tolerates, but is unenthusiastic about organics. It will do the same for lab-based meat.

The FDA has opened questions about lab-grown meat for public comment.  File comments here.  The deadline is September 25.

Added comment

At a Politico Summit meeting today,

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said…that the agency is working closely with USDA on early efforts to establish a regulatory framework for lab-grown meat, or “cell-cultured foods,” the FDA’s preferred name for it.

We shall see.

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Jul 16 2018

The Trump Administration’s support of infant formula v. breastfeeding

By this time, you have no doubt heard about the Trump Administration’s attempts to stop the World Health Organization from promoting breastfeeding.  Incredible but true.

Here is a brief timeline of how this story got out.

May 25   Lucy Sullivan, executive director o 1000 Days (the first 1000 days of life are critical to an infant’s survival) sent out a tweet warning of a battle brewing over breastfeeding at WHO’s World Health Assembly, where countries are negotiating a resolution on infant and young child feeding.

June 7   Amruta Byatnal writes about “A Moment of Reckoning for Nutrition Advocates at the WHA” [World Health Assembly: “Nutrition advocates have accused the U.S. of siding with private sector interests, sparking a controversy over what they assumed would be a routine effort to provide advice on breastfeeding and the use of breast milk substitutes.”

July 8  The New York Times takes the story national: “Opposition to Breast-Feeding Resolution by U.S. Stuns World Health Officials.”  The Guardian also publishes an account.   These make it clear that the Trump Administration threatened Ecuador to drop its support of breastfeeding.  As the Times put it,

The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced….The confrontation was the latest example of the Trump administration siding with corporate interests on numerous public health and environmental issues.

Ironically, Russia stepped in and introduced the measure, which passed despite US attempts to block it.

July 9  President Trump sends out a tweet:

July 9  Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services, also sends out a tweet, supporting the President: “America has a long history of supporting mothers and breastfeeding around the world and is the largest bilateral donor of such foreign assistance programs. Those unable to breastfeed shouldn’t be stigmatized; they should be equally supported with info and access to alternatives.”

July 9  The New York Times publishes an editorial: “Why Breast-Feeding Scares Donald Trump.”  Its answer: “It comes down to public health abroad could hurt American companies’ profits.”

What this is about

Infant formula works for babies, but breastfeeding is demonstrably better.  This is especially true for women who cannot afford formula, do not have clean water to dilute the powder properly, or lack refrigeration to store formula properly.

But breastfeeding has a serious political problem: it does not make money for formula companies.  As I explained in Waht to Eat:

Infant formulas cause controversy and are endlessly contentious for three important reasons.  Formulas are (1) largely unnecessary (most mothers can breast feed their infants), (2) not as perfect as breast milk for feeding babies, and (3) more expensive than breast feeding.  Breast milk is nutritionally superior to formula, but from a marketing standpoint it has one serious disadvantage: it is free.   Beyond one-time purchases of breast pumps, storage bottles, or special clothing, nobody makes money from it.

Formula companies are happy to pay lip service to “breast is best,” as long as policies do not promote breastfeeding over formula.

This is not the first time the US has taken this position.  In 1981, when the United Nations developed the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes, all of its member countries agreed to abide by the Code except for the United States and South Africa.  Eventually, South Africa signed on.  The U.S. was the last hold out and did not agree to abide by the Code until 1994.  Why not?  Because the Code could set a precedent that might adversely affect U.S. corporations.

The Washington Post (“US efforts”) and The Atlantic (“epic battle”) review this history.

The formula industry’s problem

As I also explained in What to Eat, only about 4 million babies are born in the US each year, meaning that the formula market is limited and static.  That is why formula companies work so hard to convince mothers that breastfeeding is too difficult, unsanitary, inefficient, and ineffective to continue, and that they would be better off switching to formulas and staying on formulas long past the time when babies should be eating solid foods.

The reactions

My favorites are from

Add this to the growing list of ways the Trump Administration favors corporate interests over public health. Alas.

Additions

Maplight reports:

Three of the largest infant formula companies — U.S.-based Abbott Laboratories, Swiss-based Nestle, and U.K.-based Reckitt Benckiser — have spent $60.7 million lobbying U.S. lawmakers and officials during the last decade….While the New York Times reported that the formula manufacturers didn’t play a visible role in the debate over the WHO resolution, lobbying records show they have a significant Capitol Hill presence that often extends beyond infant nutrition.

Stephen Colbert’s take

 

Jul 13 2018

Weekend action: speak up for public health

As I posted last week, the New York Times has a handy guide to how to participate in politics.

The American Public Health Association (APHA) also has a guide, Speak for Health, specifically focused on lobbying on behalf of health.

The guide explains how to be effective in reaching lawmakers and their staff.  It suggests how you can:

  • Meet with your members of Congress or their staff, or invite them to visit you.
  • Attend a public forum and ask a question.
  • Submit an op-ed to your local paper. Email APHA for a template letter or technical assistance.
  • Use Facebook or Twitter to engage your members of Congress. Make sure to use #SpeakForHealth!
  • Email or call your members of Congress. Use an APHA action alert as a phone script or email message. It’s quick and easy.

These ideas work for agriculture, food, and nutrition issues too.  Use them.

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Jul 12 2018

Food Navigator’s collection of articles on “healthy fats”

Fat remains in the news.  Which ones are health, and which not?  FoodNavigator-USA collects its articles on the topic.  My thoughts:  Beyond that, food fats are mixtures of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fatty acids, of the omega-3, -6, and -9 varieties.  And then there are the hydrogenated trans-fats.  These variations make fats complicated.

One attribute of fats is not complicated: fat has 9 calories/gram compared to 4 for protein and carbohydrate.  A tablespoon of oil, butter, lard, or tallow has about 100 calories.  If you are concerned about energy balance, watch out for fat calories (and the other ones count too).

FoodNavigator’s Special Edition: Healthy fats
Fat – we are told – is back. But what kind of fat, and can you have too much of a good thing? Is the science changing on saturated fats? Is whole milk a better choice, or should we stick to low fat dairy? Is coconut oil as healthy as some marketers make out, and is the pressure off to reduce fat now all eyes are on added sugar?  Get the lowdown on fat in this special edition…

Jul 11 2018

Tariffs induce trade retaliation. Ouch.

This administration’s tariffs on steel and other imports have induced the affected countries to retaliate, particularly by targeting agricultural products.

China has already targeted pork products (see previous post).

Canada has Here is this impressive list (scroll down to Table 3).

Mexico’s list includes port, cheeses, apples, sausages, frozen potatoes, frozen cranberries, orange juice and whiskey.

Fortune Magazine explains in one graph what’s at stake for U.S. agriculture:

 

 

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