by Marion Nestle

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Jun 23 2010

CSPI to McDonald’s: take toys out of Happy Meals, or else!

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has written a letter to McDonald’s threatening to sue if the company refuses to remove the toys from its Happy Meals.

This comes at a time of rapidly accumulating evidence for the effectiveness of toys, cartoons, and the like in encouraging even very young children to pester their parents for products, to prefer such products and to believe that branded products taste better.

Here is the press release announcing this action.  And here is CSPI director Michael Jacobson’s statement about it.

McDonald’s has 30 days to respond.  Can’t wait to see what it says.

Feb 10 2010

Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity: Applause!

I had best comment on this before anyone asks.   First Lady Michelle Obama wants to do something about childhood obesity and has gone into action.  She announced her “Let’s Move” initiatives accompanied by much fanfare.  Check out:

This is big news.  I see much to admire here.  The campaign focuses on kids.  It is sensitive to political realities (it’s called the uncontroversial “Let’s Move,” not the inflammatory “Let’s Eat Less” or “Let’s Eat Better”).  It’s brought a large number of groups on board (the New York Times account emphasizes this point).  It aims to do something useful about school food and food “deserts” (areas without grocery stores).  And it derives directly and explicitly from the White House garden.

I wasn’t able to watch the press conference but I hear that Will Allen was an invited speaker.  Allen is the charismatic and highly effective head of Growing Power, which runs urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago.  I’m told he said:

  • It’s a social justice issue.
  • Every child in this country should have access to good food.
  • We have to grow farmers.

Yes!

Before the announcement, Marian Burros wrote in Politico.com about the barriers this effort will face (I’m quoted in her article).   And the Los Angeles Times discussed the enormous and enormously successful lobbying effort undertaken by the soft drink industry against soda taxes.  It predicted that the First Lady would not mention soda taxes when she announced her obesity campaign.  Indeed, she did not.

But she did say:

The truth is our kids didn’t do this to themselves.  Our kids didn’t choose to make food products with tons of fat and sugar and supersize portions, and then to have those foods marketed to them wherever they turn.

So let’s call this campaign a good first step and give it a big round of applause.  I hoping everyone will give it a chance, help move it forward in every way possible, and keep fingers crossed that Mrs. Obama can pull it off.

Aug 10 2009

Do the food safety bills apply to pet foods?

A comment by Sophie on my post about the food safety bills needs an immediate response to set the record straight.  She says:

It’s my understanding that this [bill] excludes pet food manufacturers….our pets were the canaries in the coal mine in the 2007 pet food recalls; they helped bring huge awareness to the food safety issue especially when baby formula was tainted with the same melamine problem that pet food was…but yet our pets get left out of the food safety bill?  Something isn’t right here…

On this point, not to worry.  H.R. 2749 most definitely does include pet foods.  Here, for example, is Section 101 (C)(i):

The term ‘retail food establishment’ means an establishment that, as its primary function, sells food products (including those food products that it manufactures, processes, packs, or holds) directly to consumers (including by Internet or mail order).
‘(ii) Such term includes–
‘(I) grocery stores;
‘(II) convenience stores;
‘(III) vending machine locations; and
‘(IV) stores that sell bagged feed, pet food, and feed ingredients or additives over-the-counter directly to consumers and final purchasers for their own personal animals [my emphasis].

All sections of the bill, including recall authority, apply to  pet foods and animal feed, as well as to human foods.  As another example, see Section 420 (c):

Order to Cease Distribution- If the Secretary has reason to believe that the use or consumption of, or exposure to, an article of food may cause serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals, the Secretary shall have the authority to issue an order requiring any person who distributes such article to immediately cease distribution of such article [my emphasis again].

In this sense, the bill recognizes that we have only one (global) food supply and that this one (global) food supply feeds people, pets, and farm animals alike.

Jul 7 2009

Michael Taylor appointed to FDA: A good choice!

On Monday this week, Michael Taylor began his new job as special assistant to the FDA Commissioner for food safety.  He will be in charge of implementing whatever food safety laws Congress finally decides to pass.

I know that what I am about to say will surprise, if not shock, many of you, but I think he’s an excellent choice for this job. Yes, I know he worked for Monsanto, not only once (indirectly) but twice (directly). And yes, he’s the first person whose name is mentioned when anyone talks about the “revolving door” between the food industry and government. And yes, he signed off on the FDA’s consumer-unfriendly policies on labeling genetically modified foods.

But before you decide that I must have drunk the Kool Aid on this one, hear me out.  He really is a good choice for this job.  Why?  Because he managed to get USDA to institute HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) for meat and poultry against the full opposition of the meat industry — a truly heroic accomplishment.  His position on food safety has been strong and consistent for years.  He favors a single food agency, HACCP for all foods, and accountability and enforcement.  We need this for FDA-regulated foods (we also need enforcement for USDA-regulated foods, but he won’t be able to touch that unless Congress says so).  So he’s the person most likely to be able to get decent regulations in place and get them enforced.

I say this in full knowledge of his history.  In the 1990s, Mr. Taylor held positions in both FDA and USDA and his career in these agencies is complicated.  As I explained in my 2003 book, Safe Food  (see the endnotes for full documentation), Mr. Taylor began his career as a lawyer with the FDA. When he left the FDA, he went to work for King & Spalding, a law firm that represented Monsanto, the company that developed genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH), corn, and soybeans.

He revolved back to the FDA in 1991 as deputy commissioner for policy, and he held that position during the time the agency approved Monsanto’s BGH. At the time of the review, he had been with FDA for more than two years. This made him exempt from newly passed conflict-of-interest guidelines that applied only to the first year of federal employment.  He also was a coauthor of the FDA’s 1992 policy statement on genetically engineered plant foods, and he signed the Federal Register notice stating that milk from cows treated with BGH did not have to be labeled as such.

For whatever it is worth, a 1999 lawsuit and GAO report revealed considerable disagreement about these decisions within FDA. These also revealed that Mr. Taylor had recused himself from matters related to Monsanto’s BGH and had “never sought to influence the thrust or content” of the agency’s policies on Monsanto’s products.  I can’t tell whether there were ethical breaches here or not, but there is little question that his work at FDA gave the appearance of conflict of interest, if nothing more.

But wait! Watch what happened when he moved to USDA in 1994 as head of its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Just six weeks after taking the job, Mr. Taylor gave his first public speech to an annual convention of the American Meat Institute. There, he announced that USDA would now be driven by public health goals as much or more than by productivity concerns. The USDA would soon require science-based HACCP systems in every meat and poultry plant, would be testing raw ground beef, and would require contaminated meat to be destroyed or reprocessed. And because E. coli O157.H7 is infectious at very low doses, the USDA would consider any level of contamination of ground beef with these bacteria to be unsafe, adulterated, and subject to enforcement action.  Whew.  This took real courage.

The amazing thing is that he actually made this work.  Now, HACCP rules apply more to USDA-regulated products than to FDA-regulated products. This new appointment gives Mr. Taylor the chance to bring FDA’s policies in line with USDA’s and even more, to make sure they are monitored and enforced.

In Safe Food, I summarize Mr. Taylor’s position on food safety regulation from 2002. Then, he argued for, among other things:

  • A single agency accountable for providing consistent and coordinated oversight of food safety, from farm to table.
  • Institution of Pathogen Reduction: HACCP, with performance standards verified by pathogen testing, at every step of food production.
  • Recall authority, access to records, and penalties for lapses in safety procedures.
  • Standards for imported foods equivalent to those for domestic foods.
  • Food safety to take precedence over commercial considerations in trade disputes.

Yes, he revolved back to Monsanto after leaving FDA but he didn’t stay long. He left Monsanto for Resources for the Future, a think tank on policy issues.   In 2007, he went to academia and joined the food policy think tank (see his bio) at George Washington University.  There, he produced the excellent food safety report I mentioned in a previous post, which repeats these points. This is about as good a position on food safety as can be expected of any federal official.

I wish him all the luck in the world in getting the safety of FDA-regulated foods under control. For those of you who are still dubious, how about giving him a chance to show what he can do?  But do keep the pressure on – hold his feet to the fire – so he knows he has plenty of support for doing the right thing.

[Posted from Skagway, Alaska, en route to Fairbanks]

Apr 22 2009

The People’s Garden at USDA? Happy Earth Day!

It’s Earth Day and the USDA says it is going to turn the grounds of its Washington DC buildings into The People’s Garden –  a sustainable landscape that will “promote healthy food, people, and communities” across the country.

Yes!

And here’s where to see what it will look like.

I can’t wait!

Mar 20 2009

The Obama’s garden: happy news!

By this time everyone in the world must know that the Obama’s are planting a vegetable garden at the White House.  Today’s New York Times not only covered it, but on the front page yet.  Planting a garden is front-page news? Indeed it is.  What strikes me most about the reports is how excited everyone at the White House is about it.  The staff can’t wait to start planting and picking.

In the meantime, Slow Food and friends are in Atlanta talking to the CDC about the importance of agriculture to food, nutrition, and health, especially as it bears on school food.  This also could be a great sign.

And if you care what else the Obama’s are doing about food, check out Obama Foodorama, where bloggers cover what gets cooked, what gets eaten, and what’s important about food in deep, daily detail.

March 21 update: Another photo of the Obama garden project appears on the front page of today’s New York Times along with a lauditory editorial (this really is big news), and Eating Liberally’s kat has a comment on farming on 5th Avenue.

Mar 15 2009

FDA approves Salmonella! (or so says The Onion)

Thanks to Elinor, Eric, and Lisa for sending this news item from the Onion.  As The Onion points out, the easiest way to solve the pesky Salmonella problem is to make it legal.  I love the illustrations and will be plagiarizing that cereal box for powerpoint presentations.

Jan 2 2009

Happy new year: top anti-junk food marketing moments in 2008

The childhood obesity team at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sends along its new year’s greeting: “great anti-junk food marketing” moments in 2008.  These mostly focus on progress in industry self-regulation (voluntary) but also on congressional legislation to restrict marketing and put healthier foods in schools.  Food marketing to kids is the point of food industry vulnerability.  Food companies must stop marketing junk foods to kids.  Voluntary self-regulation is notoriously ineffective.  Legislative intervention is essential.  Maybe this will be possible under the new administration?  Fingers crossed.

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