by Marion Nestle

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Jan 20 2011

What are we to think about Walmart’s healthy food initiatives?

In a press conference attended by Michelle Obama, Walmart today said it will do five things:

  • Work with processed food suppliers to reduce sodium, sugars, and trans fat in hundreds of foods by 2015
  • Develop its own front-of-package seal to identify healthier products
  • Make healthier processed foods more affordable
  • Put a new, different kind of Walmart store in low-income “food deserts”
  • Increase charitable support for nutrition programs

I’ve been on the phone all day with interviewers, most of them totally focused on the first two.  Walmart has established its own nutrition criteria for judging its own products.  These seem generous and not particularly challenging, and this is just what Pepsi, Kraft, and other companies have been doing.  These criteria are only slightly better.

The idea that Walmart is going to do its own front-of-package label to identify those products is particularly annoying.  They are doing this just when the Institute of Medicine and FDA are trying to establish research-based criteria for front-of-package labels.  So here is one more company trying to preempt FDA regulations.

When I asked Walmart representatives about this, they told me that the FDA moves slowly and the public needs this information now.  Sorry.  I don’t buy that.

The next two initiatives are much more interesting and have much greater potential to do some good.  Walmart says it will price better-for-you processed foods lower than the regular versions and will develop its own supply chain as a means to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  This sounds good, but what about the downside?  Will this hurt small farmers?   Walmart didn’t provide many details and we will have to see how this one plays out.

And then there is the one about putting smaller Walmart stores into inner cities in order to solve the problem of “food deserts.”  This also sounds good—and it’s about time groceries moved into inner cities—but is this just a ploy to get Walmart stores into places where they haven’t been wanted?  Will the new stores drive mom-and-pop stores out of business?  Here too, Walmart is short on details.

None of the reporters seems to be connecting these initiatives with Walmart’s dismal history of low wages and poor working conditions.  Will these change for the better?

Walmart is not a social service agency.  It is a business and a hugely successful one.  It outsells the largest grocery chains in America by a factor of two.   Today’s New York Times says that 16% of U.S. sales of Kraft products are at Walmart stores.  PepsiCo admits to 10%.   These are huge numbers.

Walmart can get whatever it wants from suppliers—and even get Mrs. Obama to endorse its actions.  That’s power.

Whether these initiatives will do anything for health remains to be seen.  They will certainly put pressure on other suppliers and stores to tweak their products. I don’t think that’s good enough.

I’ll say it again: a better-for-you processed food is not necessarily a good choice.

That’s why I think the most important of these initiatives is the one to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  That could make a real difference.

Jan 19 2011

Surprise! Most “better-for-you” kids’ foods aren’t

The Oakland-based Prevention Institute has just released its new research report: Claiming Health: Front-of-Package Labeling of Children’s Food.  The report summarizes the Institute’s investigation of whether kids’ foods with “better-for-you” front-of-package labels meet dietary recommendations and nutrition standards.

Bottom line: they don’t.

Researchers bought 58 kids’ food products made by companies who have promised to meet certain nutritional criteria.  All had front-of-package labels that indicate healthier options.

The researchers measured the contents of these foods against a fairly standard—and quite generous—set of nutrient criteria.

The criteria allow products to have up to 25% of the calories from added sugars, up to 480 mg of sodium, and as little as 1.25 grams of fiber per serving.

Even so, the data show that:

  • 84% of the study products could not meet one or more of the nutrient criteria
  • 57% of the study products were high in sugar
  • 53% of the study products were low in fiber
  • 93% of cereals were high in sugar and 60% were low in fiber
  • 36% of prepared foods and meals were high in sodium, 24% were high in saturated fat, and 28% were low in fiber
  • 90% of snack foods were high in sugar, and 90% were low in fiber

Nutrient criteria make it easy to game the system, and front-of-package labels do exactly that.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) will soon release its second report on front-of-package labels, this one recommending what the FDA should do about them.  Let’s hope the IOM committee pays close attention to this report.

Claiming Health makes it clear that without rigorous nutrient standards, plenty of not-so-good-for-you foods will be labeled as better for children.

As I keep saying, alas, front-of-package labels, like health claims, are about marketing, not health.

Jan 18 2011

GAO takes on health claims. Yes!

Let’s hear it for the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency that has still managed to remain independent of the more corrupt aspects of Washington food politics.  In its most recent investigation, the GAO took a tough look at the inability of the FDA to hold health claims on food packages to reasonable scientific standards.

The new GAO report, Food Labeling: FDA Needs to Reassess Its Approach to Protecting Consumers from False or Misleading Claims, appeared on January 14.

The report reviews the history of health claims on food labels.  By law, these must be supported by “significant scientific agreement,” but court decisions in 2002 led the FDA to allow “qualified health claims.”  These claims have less—and, sometimes, no—scientific support.

Parke Wilde, who writes the U.S. Food Policy Blog, brilliantly parses the categories of health claims now allowed by the FDA:

  • Health claims — aka REAL health claims — which must have evidence that meets a standard called “significant scientific agreement”
  • Qualified health claims — aka WISHFUL health claims — which can meet a weaker standard of evidence, so long as the company admits the weaker evidence on the label.
  • Structure / function claims — aka STEALTHY health claims — which purport not to be health claims (for example, a high-fiber product that “keeps your bowels moving” without explicitly claiming to “treat constipation”; or a high-calcium product that “builds strong bones” without explicitly claiming to “prevent osteoporosis”)

The GAO reviews evidence that consumers can’t tell the difference between one kind of health claim and another (I could have told them that).

Food companies take advantage of this confusion and increasingly use the stealth structure/function claims, which the FDA pretty much ignores.

The FDA has to ignore them.  It doesn’t have much choice.  The FDA has no authority to require companies to submit evidence of scientific substantiation.  The FDA is permitted to ask for the information, but it has no legal authority to force companies to provide it.

GAO says this situation does not sufficiently protect the public from unscrupulous marketers.  It says the FDA should:

  • Ask Congress to grant it the authority to access companies’ evidence for the scientific support of potentially false or misleading structure/function claims on foods.
  • Provide guidance to industry on the evidence it needs to support such claims.
  • Provide direction to FDA inspectors to help identify claims for further review.

FDA: Do this, please, and right away.  Congress: Pay attention and act.

Imagine: health claims on food packages that actually have some science behind them.  What a concept!


Jan 16 2011

Furor about new breastfeeding study

A recent commentary in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) is causing a furor among breastfeeding advocates in Great Britain.

Titled Six months of exclusive breast feeding: how good is the evidence?, its authors argue that four months is probably just as good and less likely to cause harm.

The current British recommendation is for six months of exclusive breastfeeding—meaning no added solid foods.  This is based on a systematic analysis of research first published as a Cochrane review in 2002 and updated in 2006.  It compared the health of infants breastfed for six months to those breastfed for three-to-four months, and concluded that the science demonstrated significant advantages to the longer breastfeeding period.

That analysis was the basis of breastfeeding recommendations by United Nations agencies, such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF.  In Great Britain, UNICEF UK has issued its own statement defending the six-months recommendation.

Adding to the furor, the British Guardian titled its article about the new commentary, “Six months of breastmilk alone is too long and could harm babies, scientists now say.”  A second account in the Guardian provided a more cautious interpretation of the science.

I can understand why breastfeeding advocates are so upset about the BMJ paper.  They are worried about promotion of infant formulas as substitutes for breast milk, especially in developing countries.  Infant formulas can be adequate, if not perfect, substitutes for breast milk under conditions where they can be properly diluted and refrigerated.  When those conditions are impossible, as is the case in many low-income areas, formulas can become contaminated with harmful bacteria.  Use of infant formulas has a long history of association with infant illness and death (I wrote about this in Food Politics).

Formula companies did and continue to promote their products as convenient—and preferable—substitutes for breast feeding.

As it turns out, several of the authors of the BMJ commentary consult for formula companies.

Those authors vehemently deny that their ties to formula companies influence their opinions.  That may or may not be so, but such ties strongly correlate with research results and opinions favorable to the corporate ally.

In the United States, pediatricians strongly advocate breastfeeding, but flexibly.  In 1997, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)  policy statement said.

Exclusive breastfeeding is sufficient to support optimal growth and development for approximately the first 6 months of life and provides continuing protection against diarrhea and respiratory tract infection….Complementary foods rich in iron should be introduced gradually beginning around 6 months of age.

But the AAP noted,

Unique needs or feeding behaviors of individual infants may indicate a need for introduction of complementary foods as early as 4 months of age, whereas other infants may not be ready to accept other foods until approximately 8 months of age.

As any parent of more than one child can tell you, babies differ.  Some are happy with exclusive breastfeeding.  Others want solid foods the instant they learn how to swallow.

The new commentary isn’t wrong, exactly, although it says nothing new.

It just isn’t helpful.  And that’s reason enough to be upset about it.

Jan 14 2011

If I had a food safety magic wand…

 Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer in Seattle, is asking for responses to the question, “if you had a magic wand, how would you fix the food safety system?” 

I’ve been mulling over his question in light of the recent enactment of the food safety bill, as yet unfunded.  Magic wand in hand, here’s what I’d do:

Create a single food safety agency: the new law is designed to fix the FDA.  It does nothing to fix the USDA’s food safety functions.  These remain divided between the two agencies, with USDA responsible for the safety of meat and poultry, and FDA responsible for everything else.  This division pretends that animal wastes have nothing to do with the safety of fruits and vegetables which, alas, they do. 

Require safety control systems for all foods.  Everyone who produces food should do it safely using proven methods for identifying where hazards can occur, taking steps to prevent those hazards, monitoring to make sure the steps were taken, and—when appropriate— testing to make sure the system is working. 

Apply safety controls from farm to table.  The new law does this for FDA-regulated foods.  But USDA safety regulations begin at the slaughterhouse after animals have already been contaminated in feedlots or in transport.  Everyone involved in food production, even farmers large and small, should be actively engaged in food safety efforts.

Fund food safety through congressional health committees.  For irrational reasons of history, the FDA gets its funding through agricultural committees, not health—even though FDA is an agency of the Public Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services.   As a consequence, the FDA is at the mercy of appropriations committees whose mandate is to protect agricultural interests.  This anomaly explains why 80% of food safety funding goes to USDA, and only20% to FDA.  The new chair of the House agricultural appropriations committee has made it clear that he does not believe FDA needs any more funding.   Health appropriations committees might view FDA’s role in food safety in a more favorable light.

Fund food safety adequately.  To protect the domestic food supply—and to ensure the safety of imported foods—more money is needed to pay for inspection, testing, and research. 

Give the food agency cabinet-level status.  Everyone eats.  Food safety affects everyone.  Food has critically important economic and food security dimensions, domestically and internationally.   

Require election campaigns to be publicly funded, with no loopholes. This is the only way we will be able to remove corruption from our political system and elect officials who care more about public health than corporate health.

Require Wall Street to rate corporations on long-term sustainability.  Wall Street pressures on corporations to report growth every quarter are at the root of corner-cutting on food safety.  Food corporations should be valued for excellent food safety records and for maintaining high ethical standards in every aspect of their business.

Even a magic wand may not be enough to do this.  It will take more than a magic wand to do this, I fear.  Hey, I can dream.

Jan 13 2011

USDA proposes new standards for school meals

The USDA announced today that it is starting the interminable rulemaking process for new nutrition standards for school breakfasts and lunches.

The new standards are designed to add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk to school meals.

These are food-based standards.  The lengthy Federal Register notice specifies the number and size of servings of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and grains (table 3, page 2516).  This is a huge step forward and USDA deserves lots of support for doing this.

I am somewhat less enthusiastic about some of the other provisions, but perhaps they are the price to pay for progress:

Nutrient-based standards? The standards also are designed to limit levels of saturated fat, sodium, calories, and trans fats.  They specify a range of calories as well as maximum values for saturated fat and sodium (trans fats have to be zero).

Alas, the devil is in the details.

Nutrient-based standards force some questionable choices on menu planners.  This is evident from the menus comparing the old and new standards.  The old menus included “kids food”—food-like objects such as pizza sticks and breaded beef patties.

Happily, the new menus drop those and call for real foods.  Some of them—jicama, kiwi, and grape tomatoes, for example—are likely to seem exotic to kids accustomed to chicken fingers.  So far, so good.

But the foods are accompanied by strangely tasting miracles of food technology such as reduced-fat mayonnaise, low-fat salad dressings, and soft margarines.  Why?  To meet nutrient standards.

What about sugars? The standards don’t mention sugars except to say that if the others are followed, there isn’t much room allowed for sugary foods.  Canned fruits are to be low in sugar.  Use of highly fortified sugary foods is discouraged.

Chocolate and other flavored milk? The new standards allow skim “flavored” milk (translation: sugar-sweetened).  Otherwise, says USDA, kids might not drink milk and will not get enough calcium.  Sigh.  Milk, as I keep saying, is not an essential nutrient.  Chocolate or strawberry milk is a dessert.  Chalk this one up to dairy lobbying.

The USDA based the new standards on the report released in October 2009 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM): School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children. It looks to me as though the USDA actually followed the IOM recommendations, a miracle in itself.

If you want to comment on the new standards, you can do so until April 13 at  http://www.regulations.gov. Enjoy!

Jan 12 2011

Worldwatch issues report on nourishing the planet

The Worldwatch Institute, a group that conducts research on climate & energy, food & agriculture, and the green economy, has just released its 2011 State of the World Report, subtitled “Innovations that Nourish the Planet.”

By “innovations,” Worldwatch means agriculture-based methods that have been shown to prevent food waste, help resist climate change, and promote urban farming.  The report describes 15 such innovations, all of them environmentally sustainable.

As Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, writes in the introduction,

Increasing the production of food and eradicating hunger and malnutrition are two very different objectives—complementary perhaps, but not necessarily linked…Some clear conclusions are emerging from all this evidence.

We need to improve the resilience of countries—particularly poor, net food-importing countires—vis-à-vis increasingly high and volatile prices on the international markets.

We need to encourage modes of agricultural production that will be more resistant to climate change, which means that they will have to be more diversified and use more trees….

And we need to develop agriculture in ways that contribute to rural development by creating jobs both on farms and off them in the rural areas and by supporting decent revenues for farmers.

The report describes programs that do just those things.  Examples: breeding rice in Madagascar, trading grain in Zanzibar, using solar cookers in Senegal, and promoting safer wastewater irrigation in West Africa.

It’s always useful to have Worldwatch reports and this one is especially relevant to food, agriculture, and international development.

Jan 11 2011

Is GM alfalfa the new Cold War? USDA urges peaceful coexistence.

The USDA seems to be paving the way for approval of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa with pleas for coexistence and cooperation. These will be needed.  Organic alfalfa is the mainstay of organic animal feed.  Organic standards exclude GM.  But pollen from GM alfalfa transmits GM genes to organic alfalfa.

In releasing the Environmental Impact Statement on GM alfalfa, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack used Cold War rhetoric:

We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and non-genetically engineered sectors over the last several decades… While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country.

USDA is working hard on this one.  It held a stakeholders meeting to discuss the issues.  Secretary Vilsack also wrote an open letter to stakeholders pressing the need for coexistence:

The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GE products. This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.

Regrettably, what the criticism we have received on our GE alfalfa approach suggests, is how comfortable we have become with litigation – with one side winning and one side losing – and how difficult it is to pursue compromise. Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity.

By continuing to bring stakeholders together in an attempt to find common ground where the balanced interests of all sides could be advanced, we at USDA are striving to lead an effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation. If successful, this effort can ensure that all forms of agriculture thrive so that food can remain abundant, affordable, and safe.

The USDA is not going to back down on GM.  But I see real progress here.  At least—and at last—USDA recognizes the threat of GM agriculture to organic production.

We have an obligation to carefully consider…the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa – a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.

I’m guessing USDA will approve GM alfalfa.  Will approval include mandatory—and enforceable—safeguards to protect organic production?  Let’s hope.

Addition: Guess what.  Farm groups supporting GM alfalfa strongly object to Vilsack’s “coexistence” initiative.   In a  letter, the groups argue that the coexistence policy could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

Noting that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that RR alfalfa does not pose a plant pest risk, the groups accuse the Department of using motives beyond science to impose “unprecedented” conditions on alfalfa growers that they say may include isolation distances and geographic planting restrictions.

By “alfalfa growers,” they do not mean organic. Here’s who signed the letter:

  • American Farm Bureau Federation
  • American Soybean Association
  • National Cotton Council
  • National Association of Wheat Growers
  • National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
  • USA Rice Federation