Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 10 2022

The Ukraine War and food systems: items

The tragedy of the Ukraine War is beyond comprehension.  Like everything else, it affects food systems, and not just for the people caught up in it.

I’ve been collecting items, starting with Jose Andres @chefJoseAndres and World Central Kitchen @WCKitchen who are providing hundreds of thousands of meals to people fleeing from the Ukraine.

And then this one:

Why the silence?

  • “Unlike other chains, McDonald’s owns the vast majority of its 847 restaurants in Russia. According to a page for investors, Russia accounts for 9 percent of the company’s total revenues and 3 percent of its operating income.”
  • “Last year, Russia accounted for $3.4 billion, or more than 4 percent, of PepsiCo’s $79.4 billion in revenues.”

Other items are about what this war means for agricultural trade, food prices, and specific food businesses—especially pet food.

Here are the pet food items:

Mar 9 2022

Bees in agriculture: the USDA’s Infographic

I’ve just come across this USDA report on use of bees in agriculture.  It comes with an Infographic.

The report discusses the hazards of this kind of travel to honeybees.

Transporting commercial honey bees to pollination service and forage grounds often involves long-distance travel and variable environmental conditions that harm colony health…During travel, honey bees are unable to access foraging resources and are instead fed supplements such as sugar water or fondant. During the summer, overheating while in transit can become a problem if the hive boxes, often transported on a flat-bed truck, are not configured for proper ventilation.

The report does not discuss Colony Collapse Disorder, but other USDA reports do.

Also useful

Mar 8 2022

The Abbott infant formula recall: an update

I posted about this recall on February 22.

A quick review: The FDA is advising consumers not to use certain Abbott’s powdered formula products because they might be contaminated with  Cronobacter sakazakii or Salmonella Newport.

To date, one infant is ill with Salmonella Newport, and four ill with Cronobacter sakazakii with two deaths.

This is a shocking tragedy.  Formula-fed babies are entirely dependent on those products.  They are heavily regulated, or supposed to be.

The three powdered formula brands at issue are Similac, Alimentum, or EleCare.  The FDA says not to use them if:

  • the first two digits of the code are 22 through 37; and
  • the code on the container contains K8, SH or Z2; and
  • the expiration date is 4-1-2022 (APR 2022) or later.

Abbott’s recall announcement has more information about the specific products.

Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich is following this case closely.

She interviewed parents of children harmed, sometimes terribly, by consuming contaminated formula.

In an earlier report, she detailed the history of FDA’s inspections of the Abbott laboratory and the agency’s surprising delay in getting Abbott to do a “voluntary” recall.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler also has questions about the quality of production and FDA’s surprising lack of action.

Fortunately, House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro has called on the Department of Health and Human Services’ Inspector General to invesigate whether the FDA “took prompt, appropriate, and effective action” in this situation.

As for Abbott, its statement says:

The company said all of its finished products are tested for the pathogens before they’re released, and samples it retained tested negative for the infections related to the complaints.  “We value the trust parents place in us for high quality and safe nutrition and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep that trust and resolve this situation.”

I have my own question: Why isn’t there far more media attention to the formula recalls?  Babies’ lives are at stake.  Parents, understanably, are frantic.

What should they do?

  • Feed liquid formula.  It, at least, is sterile.
  • Scream for federal action (if enough people do, it might get some).
Mar 7 2022

Industry-funded study of the week: animal-source foods in health and sustainability

I was sent an email with this message:

Calling your attention to this newly released review article, Animal source foods in healthy, sustainable, and ethical diets – An argument against drastic limitation of livestock in the food system. It was published in the March 2022 edition of Animal and is well worth a read, as it makes a strong case for the role of animal source foods in healthy, environmentally sustainable and ethical diets. See below for “highlights” taken directly from the paper, with the full review attached.

–Animal source foods are seen by some as unhealthy, unsustainable, and unethical.

–Outcomes depend on practical specificities, not on the fact that animals are involved.

–As for any food, the challenge is to promote best practices and limit harm.

     –Well-managed animals contribute to food security, ecological function and livelihoods.

     –Heavy reduction of livestock may lead to a fragile food system and societal damage.

I happen to agree that food animals are essential components of regenerative agriculture systems but there was something about this that triggered my “who paid for this?” question.  Bingo!

Here is the paper’s financial support statement:

FL acknowledges financial support of the Research Council of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, including the SRP7 and IOF342 projects, and in particular, the Interdisciplinary Research Program “Tradition and naturalness of animal products within a societal context of change” (IRP11). PM acknowledges financial support of the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability (HELSUS) through the project “Understanding pastoralism sustainability through an interdisciplinary lens”. PG and FL acknowledge financial support of the project “Grazing for environmental and human health” funded by the New Zealand Royal Society’s Catalyst Seeding Fund. SvV acknowledges grant support from the North Dakota Beef Association to study the health effects of red meat in relation to diet quality. SvV reports additional grant support from USDA-NIFA-SARE (2020-38640-31521; 2021-67034-35118), the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture, the DixonFoundation, and the Greenacres Foundation for projects that link agricultural production systems (including livestock and crops) to the nutritional/metabolite composition of foods and human health.

Here are the authors’ conflict of interest declarations:

All authors follow omnivorous diets. FL is a non-remunerated board member of various academic non-profit organisations including the Belgian Association for Meat Science and Technology (president), the Belgian Society for Food Microbiology (secretary), and the Belgian Nutrition Society. On a non-remunerated basis, he also has a seat in the scientific committee of the Institute Danone Belgium, the World’s Farmers Organization, and the Advisory Commission for the “Protection of Geographical Denominations and Guaranteed Traditional Specialties for Agricultural Products and Foods” of the Ministry of the Brussels Capital Region. PM is a non-remunerated member of the Spanish Platform for Extensive Livestock and Pastoralism. SvV reports financial renumeration for academic talks, but does not accept honoraria, consulting fees, or other personal income from food industry groups/companies.

Comment: The authors say much more than is usual about their potential conflicts of interest, either via their personal diets or their professional financial links to the meat industry.  Still, those links exist, as I could predict from the paper’s title.  The role of food animals in health and sustainability is heavily disputed.  Because of its funding and the ties of some of the authors to the meat industry, this study appears less convincing than it might if funded independently and carried out by independed researchers.

Reference: For research on why and how industry sponsorship can influence study outcome, see Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.

Mar 4 2022

Weekend reading: Monsanto

Bartow J. Elmore.  Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future.  Norton, 2021.

I was interested to read this book for three reasons.

  • I was familiar with Elmore’s his excellent previous book, Citizen Coke, which I blogged about in 2014.
  • I ran into Bart Elmore in, of all places, the restaurant of an otherwise empty hotel in Brasilia while I was on book tour for the Portuguese edition of Unsavory Truth, and he was doing the research for this book.
  • I was particularly interested in what he had to say about the Monsanto events I described at length in the second half of Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.  Not much, as it turns out.

This is a history of the company from its beginnings in the early 1900s as a producer of saccharine; to its production of 2, 4-D, PCBs, and other toxic chemicals; to its development and dependence on glyphosate; to its purchase by Bayer just as courts were deciding in favor of plaintiffs arguing that glyphosate was responsible for their cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

From my reading, Elmore bends over backwards trying to be fair to the company but nevertheless paints a picture of a company that put profits over all other consideration, regardless of what its products were doing to human health.  It’s not a pretty story.

Elmore is an historian who seems to be trying to remain dispassionate.   He is disappointed that Monsanto lied when it claimed its products were safe and genetically modified foods would feed the world.   His book, he says,

reveal[s] that GE [genetically engineered] technology was erroneously deployed over the past two decades and was more about selling chemicals than investing in real solutions to our food problems, which has resulted in wasted opportunities and wasted resources [p. 277].

I think what he documents about this company’s history of profit-driven lack of ethics is chilling.  It deserves more than disappointment.  It calls for outrage.

Mar 3 2022

Infant formula marketing: an update

As the WHO/UNICEF report I posted yesterday makes clear, the marketing of infant formula—impossible for new mothers to avoid—interferes with breast feeding and, therefore, is a public health concern.

I posted about the Abbott Labs infant formula recall last week.

Here are some additional items I’ve collected on this topic.

I.  What the marketing looks like.

II.  Study finds no benefit of enriched infant formula on later academic performance: Children who are given nutrient or supplement enriched formula milk as babies do not appear to have higher exam scores as adolescents than those fed with standard formula, suggests a study published by The BMJ, leading researchers to argue renewed regulation is needed to better control infant formula promotional claims…. Read more

III.  IBFAN, the International Baby Foods Action Network, writes that it is:

launching a PETITION calling for an immediate halt to a new study  –  funded by the Gates Foundation and led by researchers from the University of California – that is randomly allocating infant formula to breastfeed in low-birth-weight babies in Uganda and Guinea-Bissau on assumption that this might prevent wasting and stunting.

The study, which has been cleared by ethics committees in the USA, Uganda and Guinea -Bissau – uses purchased ready-to-use infant formula made by Abbott, a US pharmaceutical corporation operating in 160 countries.  Abbott is a major violator of the International Code and is currently at the centre of a media storm in the USA because of contamination in its powdered formula. (NB. The formula used in the trial is liquid Ready-to-Feed).

IV.  IBFAN issued an earlier statement: The baby food industry’s destruction of an irreplaceable natural resource.

The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes was adopted forty years ago by the World Health Assembly, the world’s highest health policy setting body…Today 70% of countries have adopted laws based on the Code, however far too many are limited in scope and full of loopholes as a result of industry interference. As a consequence predatory marketing of baby food products continues throughout the world.  and the global Baby Food Drink Market is forecast to rise more than 30% in 5 years (from $68bn in 2020 to $91.5bn by 2026)….Aside from its crucial role in child survival (more than 800,000 children die each year because they are not breastfed and many more do not reach their full potential, ­­ breastfeeding is the most environmentally friendly way to feed an infant, resulting in zero waste, minimal greenhouse gases, and negligible water footprint. As a renewable natural food resource, mother’s milk makes an important contribution to local food and water security.the baby food industry lost no time in exploiting the fear and confusion during the pandemic: falsely claiming their products build immunity; that their  ‘donations’ are humanitarian; encouraging the needless separation of mothers and babies and pretending that they are essential ‘partners’ who are genuinely working to address the problems.

V.  The Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) assesses nine formula companies’ adherence to WHO recommendations.  Its report is here.

According to its press release,

Despite the World Health Assembly (WHA) adopting ‘The International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes’ forty years ago and passing 18 associated resolutions since (collectively referred to as ‘The Code’), the BMS/CF Marketing Index 2021 found that none of the companies it assessed fully abides by The Code’s recommendations and most fall well short.

The summary: 

  • Danone retained first place with a score of 68%, up from its 2018 score of 46%
  • Nestlé, the market leader in sales value, retained its second place with a score of 57% – also a substantial improvement on its score of 45% in 2018
  • KraftHeinz achieved the greatest improvement, ranking third, with a score of 38% compared to in 2018 when it didn’t score at all
  • Reckitt (previously RB) substantially improved its BMS Marketing policies which led to a big jump in its score from 10% in 2018 to 32% in 2021 and climbing one place to fourth in the ranking.

VI.  A study: Conflicts of interest are harming maternal and child health: time for scientific journals to end relationships with manufacturers of breast-milk substitutes.  Pereira-Kotze C, et al.  BMJ Global Health. 2022 Feb;7(2):e008002. doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2021-008002

The promotion and support of breastfeeding globally is thwarted by the USD $57 billion (and growing) formula industry that engages in overt and covert advertising and promotion as well as extensive political activity to foster policy environments conducive to market growth. This includes health professional financing and engagement through courses, e-learning platforms, sponsorship of conferences and health professional associations and advertising in medical/health journals…journal publishers may consciously, or unconsciously, favour corporations in ways that undermine scientific integrity and editorial independence—even perceived conflicts of interest may tarnish the reputation of scientists, organisations or corporations.  Such conflicts have plagued infant and young child nutrition science for decades.

Comment: As I mentioned yesterday, we now have more than enough evidence to put a stop to this.

Mar 2 2022

Marketing infant formula: an important report from WHO and UNICEF

WHO and UNICEF have issued a new report: “Examining the impact of formula milk marketing on infant feeding decisions and practices.”

The website summarizes the main message: “More than half of parents and pregnant women [are] exposed to aggressive formula milk marketing.

The report finds that industry marketing techniques include unregulated and invasive online targeting; sponsored advice networks and helplines; promotions and free gifts; and practices to influence training and recommendations among health workers. The messages that parents and health workers receive are often misleading, scientifically unsubstantiated, and violate the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (the Code) – a landmark public health agreement passed by the World Health Assembly in 1981 to protect mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry.

The press release explains:

The largest ever study of its kind, it draws on surveys with over 8 500 pregnant women and mothers of young children (aged 0-18 months) across eight countries, and more than 300 health professionals. The study…conducted in eight countries…exposes the aggressive marketing practices used by the formula milk industry, and highlights impacts on families’ decisions about how to feed their infants and young children.

The report begins with this prose poem:

The report’s main findings:

  1. Formula milk marketing is pervasive, personalized, and powerful.
  2. Formula milk companies use manipulative marketing tactics.
  3. Formula milk companies distort science and medicine.
  4. Industry systematically targets health professionals.
  5. Formula milk marketing undermines parents’ confidence in breastfeeding.
  6. Counter-measures can be effective.

Videos posted on Twitter.

  1.  Images of what you see
  2.  Misleading claims from the formula industry
For Infographics, scroll down on this link.
Comment: This is an important, timely report. Advocates have been complaining about the ways infant formula companies market their products for decades.  It’s way past time to intervene.
More on infant formula marketing tomorrow.
Mar 1 2022

It’s Tuesday: Where is Jane Brody?

Tuesday’s Science Times is missing something that’s been in it for 46 years: Jane Brody’s column on Personal Health.

Last week, without fanfare, introduction, drama, or even an explanation, Brody wrote her last column for the Times: Farewell, Readers, It’s Been a Remarkable Ride

A couple of days later, Tara Parker Pope wrote an ode to Brody’s retirement—Nudging Us to Be Better—which ended with statement:

For more than five decades, Jane’s wisdom, wit and writing have lifted us up, motivated us and nudged us to be just a little better than we were before.

Her article was illustrated with this wonderful portrait: I was a New York Times reader when I lived in Boston in the late 1960s.  Brody’s articles about nutrition got me interested in the topic and when the Brandeis Biology department, where I was teaching botany, zoology, and cell biology, offered me the chance to teach a nutrition class I jumped right in, changed careers, and never looked back.

While I was teaching at UCSF, I reviewed Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book for the San Francisco Chronicle.  But I didn’t meet her until I moved to New York University in the late 1980s.

By then, she had been writing the weekly Personal Health column since 1976.

I can’t fathom how she did it.  That’s more than 2000 columns over the years, on an enormous range of health topics.

I have some understanding of what’s involved because I wrote a monthly—not weekly—column for the San Francisco Chronicle from 2008 to 2013, more than 50 altogether.  It was never easy dreaming up topics to write about and the writing took me many hours to do.

How did she do it?  And at that level of breadth and quality?

Science Times has a big hole in it.  That column has been part of my life for decades.  I will miss it.