by Marion Nestle
Apr 30 2010

Food politics: our government at work (and play)

I’ve been collecting items sent to me this week about government actions at the local, state, and national level.  Here’s the weekend round up.

Santa Clara County, California, Board of Supervisors bans toys in kids meals: On April 27, the San Jose Mercury News announced that this county, clearly at the vanguard of actions to help prevent childhood obesity, passed a groundbreaking law banning toys in kids’ meals that do not meet minimal nutrition standards (the very ones I talked about in a previous post).  Companies can still give out toys in meals, as long as the meals meet those standards.  What an excellent idea.  Let’s hope this idea catches on in other communities.

Here’s the press release, a a fact sheet on childhood obesity, and remarks by the president of the board of supervisors, along with recommendations from the local public health agency.  Thanks to Michele Simon for the documents.

Connecticut state legislature plays computer games: This photo, attributed to the Associated Press, arrived from Michelle Futrell.  I worried that it might be Photoshopped.  Whether it is or not, it is flying around the Internet, in versions that clearly identify each of hard-at-play legislators.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) teaches kids about marketing: The FTC regulates advertising, including food advertising, and it must be getting increasingly concerned about the effects of marketing on kids.  To counter some of these effects, it has created a website,, an interactive site to teach kids about advertising.  After playing these games, the FTC wants kids to be able to answer these questions:

  • Who is responsible for the ad?
  • What is the ad actually saying?
  • What does the ad want me to do?

The New York Times concludes: “Perhaps the effort comes not a moment too soon. Adweek devotes this week’s issue to “Kids” and “How the industry is striving to conquer this coveted market.” Thanks to Lisa Young for sending the links.

The FDA asks for comments on front-of-package (FOP) labeling: Patricia Kuntze, a consumer affairs advisor at the FDA sends the April 28 press release and the April 29 Federal Register notice announcing the FDA’s call for public comment on this topic.  The agency particularly wants data on:

  • The extent to which consumers notice, use, and understand FOP nutrition symbols or shelf tags
  • Results of research examining the effectiveness of various FOP approaches
  • Graphic design, marketing, and advertising that will help consumers understand nutrition information
  • The extent to which FOP labeling influences food manufacturers’ decisions about the contents of their products

The goal, says the FDA, is to make “calorie and nutrition information available to consumers in ways that will help them choose foods for more healthful diets – an effort that has taken on special importance, given the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases in the U.S. and of increasingly busy lifestyles that demand quick, nutritious food.”

Here is a speech on the topic by FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.  For information about how to submit comments, click here. To submit comments, refer to docket FDA-2010-N-0210 and click here. You have until July 28 to do it.

Public comment, of course, includes the food industry and a FoodNavigator call for industry comment cites my recent commentary in JAMA with David Ludwig.  I’m glad food industry people are reading it and I hope the FDA does too.

The White House equivocates on organics: What’s going on with the White House garden?  Is it organic or not?   Michael Pollan forwards this item from the Associated Press:

Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass, an old friend of President Barack Obama’s who oversees the garden, says labeling the crops “organic” isn’t the point, even though the White House only uses natural, not synthetic, fertilizers and pesticides.

“To come out and say (organic) is the one and only way, which is how this would be interpreted, doesn’t make any sense,” Kass said Monday as he walked among the garden’s newly planted broccoli, rhubarb, carrots and spinach. “This is not about getting into all that. This is about kids.”

Uh oh.  Has “Organic” become the new O-word?  Surely, the White House is not secretly pouring herbicides and pesticides over its garden vegetables.  If not, are we hearing a small indication of big agribusiness pushback?

  • Sheila

    While the FTC is teaching kids about marketing, I hope somebody hammers home the point to think about the implied benefit and whether that is a real benefit or not. For example, I recently saw a print ad for a national brand of bologna which stated proudly that a bologna sandwich has 75% less sugar than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. What…so this makes bologna sandwich healthy??! And why does the bologna sandwich have any sugar at all?

  • Interesting idea about removing prizes. There were lots of times when I was a kid that I specifically requesting to go to McDonald’s because they had great prizes that week (like Barbie and Hot Wheels, or I remember some fun Bambi toys too!) As far as just the food, I would’ve been just as happy at home eating Mac n’ cheese or peanut butter and jelly or whatever my mom usually made. It was all about the prize.

  • Lynn

    Don’t get me wrong I support the efforts of healthier choices for our children and the ban is all good and well but is exclusive. The law prohibits restaurants in “unincorporated” parts of the county from giving away goodies unless the meals meet certain nutritional guidelines. What is the stigma about unincorporated areas? That we are poor, ignorant people who can’t make healthy choices? Is it because these areas are not part of the local municipality therefore we are forced to lead by example? Obesity is pandemic so why not put the ban in ALL areas of the county?

  • Anthro

    I didn’t read the White House comments the way you did, Marion; although I’m not sure my reading is correct. I took the Chef/Gardener to mean that precise organic standards (as in certification) are not what they are after, just healthy food grown in an environmentally friendly, generally “organic” way. I would think that they really don’t want to have an inspector out there and unless the patch they used was free of pesticides for three years (I think that’s the standard) it could not get certified anyway.

    I have no quarrel with the White House garden being used as an example to encourage people to grow healthy food whether or not it might meet the US govt. organic standard in every detail.

    My own garden is what I would call organic, but I do not hesitate to use whatever it takes to save my “crops” from something I can’t control any other way when that occasionally occurs. No “organic” market would want my wonderful eggs because my chickens eat meat–worm and bugs they find themselves. I hate it when I see those cartons at the Co-op saying “all vegetarian feed”. I realize they want people to know they aren’t feeding them animal by-products (ala mad cow), but chickens are meant to “scratch” for their food and you should see them run and jump and fight over a worm or two that I toss them while gardening! Don’t believe that your eggs are from a “free range” chicken when the carton also states that they are 100% vegetarian fed–unless you call thousands of chickens walking around in an enormous barn with no access to live food, “free range”.

    Sorry I got off onto chickens, but the point is that anyone trying to be more self-sufficient and doing things on a more human (and humane) scale, has my whole-hearted blessing regardless of pesticide use. I’d rather “know your farmer” and choose one who gives an antibiotic to a sick cow (rather than one who isolates her and gives her magic water) instead of buying milk at Whole Foods, where a lot of the milk comes from “big organic” who have been often called out for playing very loose with animal treatment standards. I’d rather have a White House growing vegetables that they eat and serve at state dinners (however they are growing them or referring to them) than one that doesn’t even mention health care or climate change for eight years. Well, they may have MENTIONED climate change……

  • Renee

    @Lynn –County governments can only make laws for unincorporated parts of the county. The rest falls under the various city governments that are in the county. So I don’t think they’re implying anything about the people who live in unincorporated areas, they just don’t have jurisdiction there.

    I love the idea of linking some basic nutritional standards like calories and fat content to the give-away-toys. I have a 9 year old daughter who still wants that toy in the happy meal if it’s a good one. If it’s not a fun toy, she’d prefer to eat something else.

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