Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 17 2011

New books about food politics—the blurbables

I get sent a lot of manuscripts to review for possible endorsements (“blurbs”).  I read them and happily agree to blurb the ones I think worth special attention.  These were recently released:

Jennifer Clapp’s Food (Polity Press, 2012).  “The global food economy may seem remote from daily experience, but it affects every aspect of what we eat and, therefore, our health and welfare.  Jennifer Clapp explains what happens when food is no longer considered a mere source of nourishment or cultural element but is transformed into a fungible commodity.  Clapp unpacks and clarifies the mind-numbing complexities of transnational corporations, international trade, and financial markets.  Best of all, the book provides precisely the information and tools advocates need to redesign the global food economy to promote fair trade, food justice, and local sovereignity.”

Tanya Denckla Cobb’s Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement is Changing the Way We Eat (Storey, 2011).  I blurbed this one: “People constantly ask me what kinds of things they can do to get involved in the food movement and where to start.  Now I can just hand them this.  The projects it describes should inspire readers to get busy doing similar projects in their own communities.”

Didi Emmons’ Wild Flavors: One Chef’s Transformative Year Cooking from Eva’s Farm (Chelsea Green, 2011).  My blurb: If you are a city person, like me, with a secret yen to forage for wild greens Wild Flavors is an inspiration.  Read it, and you will want to harvest, share, and eat everything you find…Emmon’s recipes are lovely and easy to follow.

Joel Salatin’s Folks,This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People and a Better World (Center Street, 2011).  I blurbed this one too.  “Joel Salatin says it’s high time we stopped taking our industrialized food system as a given and instead consider local, sustainable food production as the norm.  Good plan.  Whether or not you agree with this contention that we would be better off if the government got out of food regulation, his ideas are compellingly written, fun to read, and well worth pondering.”

I wasn’t asked to do a blurb for this one, but it’s well worth a mention:

Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, illustrated by Maira Kalman (Penguin, 2011).  This is an updated version of Pollan’s best seller of a couple of years ago with some new rules and delightful paintings by the creator of the famous New Yorker newyorkistan cover.  The book is a quick read and the rules are short and to the point: “Compost!”  “Eat slowly!”  “Cook!”

Nov 16 2011

It’s official! Pizza is a vegetable!

The word is out.  Congress caved in under pressure from lobbyists on the school nutrition standards (see yesterday’s post).

Pizza is now officially a vegetable!

Here’s what the press is saying:

Cartoonists: get to work.

Additions, November 17

School meals are a high-profit market for major food corporations….Thus in the last year, powerful food companies, agriculture lobbies, and various coalitions of lawmakers have allied in battles over each food area that USDA sought to restrict. This has included the creation of slick PR campaigns.

For instance, ConAgra and the giant, privately held Schwans, which sell millions of processed school meals, including pizza, have funded the “Coalition for Sustainable School Meal Programs,” which includes a website with a campaign called “Fix the Reg,” asking parents and other “interested parties” to contact USDA and lawmakers to demand changes to the school nutrition rule.  This group was especially interested in keeping USDA’s current designation of tomato paste as a “vegetable” intact, something many nutritionists have argued makes poor sense.

Addition, November 18:  For even deeper background, see what Marian Burros has to say in Obamafoodorama.

Addition, November 22:  President Obama signed the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act into law.

SEC. 743. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement an interim final or final rule regarding nutrition programs under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.) and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (42 U.S.C. 1771 et seq.) that—

(1) requires crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume;

(2) implements a sodium reduction target beyond Target I, the 2-year target, specified in Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, ‘‘Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs’’ (FNS–2007–0038, RIN 0584–AD59) until the Secretary certifies that the Department has reviewed and evaluated relevant scientific studies and data relevant to the relationship of sodium reductions to human health; and

(3) establishes any whole grain requirement without defining ‘‘whole grain.’’

 

Nov 15 2011

Ketchup is a vegetable? Again?

Food Chemical News (FCN) reports today that the USDA has sent its final rules on nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts to the Office of Management and Budget for approval.  The final content of what got submitted is not known.

These rules, you may recall from previous posts, are based on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine in a 2009 report on School Meals.

Several of the USDA’s proposals for implementing these suggestions have elicited more than the usual level of fuss.  The most controversial:

  • Limits on starchy vegetables to two servings a week.  As I noted a few days ago, the Senate passed an amendment to the USDA’s appropriations bill to block any restrictions on potatoes.  Most observers think this means that unlimited potatoes will stay in the school meals.
  • Preventing tomato paste on pizza from counting as a vegetable.  According to FCN, language in the appropriations bill “also stipulates that tomato paste used to make pizzas can be counted toward the weekly total of vegetable servings.”

Does the Senate think this can pass the laugh test?

Historical note:  Remember when the Reagan administration proposed to allow ketchup to count as a vegetable in school meals:

An additional proposed change in crediting policy would allow vegetable and fruit concentrates to be credited on a single-strength reconstituted basis rather than on the basis of the actual volume as served.

For example, one tablespoon of tomato paste could be credited as 1/4 cup single-strength tomato juice.  Previously, it was only credited as 1 tablespoon, the volume as served (Federal Register 9-4-81).

Meaning ketchup!

The press had a field day.  The  ensuing bipartisan hilarity and what Nutrition Action (November 1981) called a “maelstorm of criticism from Congress, the press, and the public alike” induced the USDA to rescind the rules one month later.

  • The Washington Post (9-26-81) quoted the budget director’s comment that USDA “not only has egg on its face, but ketchup too.”
  • Republican Senator John Heinz (whose company owns Heinz ketchup) said “Ketchup is a condiment.  This is one of the most ridiculous regulations I ever heard of, and I suppose I need not add that I know something about ketchup and relish–or did at one time.”
  • The New York Times (9-28-81) noted that “Democrats are still chortling at what they hail as ‘the Emperor’s New Condiments’—the attempt to declare ketchup a school-lunch vegetable.”

Times have changed.  Senators used to have the health of American school children in mind.  Now, they undermine efforts by USDA to improve meals for kids.

The Senate’s action has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with political posturing and caving in to lobbyists.

The Senate should reconsider its actions.  The USDA should not back down on this one.

Additions, November 17: background documents and additional links

Nov 14 2011

Occupy Against Big Food: Rescheduled for November 19

For what this is about, see the charts on income inequality collected by Mother Jones.

Nov 11 2011

Oh no! USDA cutting back on research.

A couple of days ago, William Neuman wrote about an announcement by the USDA’s statistical research unit that under pressures to cut budget, it would eliminate or cut back on its ongoing research reports.

This is alarming.

As USDA explained:

The decision to eliminate or reduce these reports was not made lightly, but it was nevertheless necessary, given the funding situation. Because of the timing of the agency’s survey work during the coming year, these decisions are necessary now.

The affected reports include these, among others:

  • Annual Reports on Farm Numbers, Land in Farms and Livestock Operations – Eliminate
  • Catfish and Trout Reports – Eliminate all
  • Annual Floriculture Report – Eliminate
  • Chemical Use Reports – Reduce frequency of commodity coverage
  • Annual Bee and Honey Report – Eliminate
  • Fruit and Vegetable in-season forecast and estimates– Reduce from monthly and quarterly to annual report
  • Nursery Report – Eliminate

This decision, Neuman reports, “reflects a cold-blooded assessment of the economic usefulness”—translation: lack of political clout in the affected industry—of the 500 or so reports issued by the National Agriculture Statistics Service each year.  The reports will still be issued on the big commodities: corn, soybeans, cattle, and pigs, for example.

Why do I find this alarming?  If these reports can be eliminated, so can the ones that I personally care about and depend on for my research.

I am particularly worried about the invaluable data produced by USDA’s Economic Research Service on the composition of foods, their availability (production less exports plus imports), and per capita nutrient availability in the American diet.

I have plenty of reason to be worried.

For decades, USDA has converted information about food availability to nutrient availability in a continuous series dating back to 1909.  This is the data set I use to explain how calories in the food supply have increased to today’s 3,900 per person per day from 3200 in 1980—an increase of 700 calories per day exactly in parallel with rising rates of obesity.

USDA stopped this series in 2006.

I wrote USDA to ask whether more recent data were available.  Here is the response in its entirety:

Because of other project priorities the Food Supply project has been curtailed.  There are programming issues to which we haven’t been able to devote available resources.

Neuman quoted a former USDA official who argues that pressures to continue the statistical reports are an example of

how hard it was to eliminate a government program, no matter how small the constituency….These congressmen up on the Hill say, “$50,000 is not much, let’s give it to them.”   [The reports apparently cost about $50,000 to produce]

I have a different reaction.  Isn’t it a responsibility of government to produce research that nobody else has the resources to produce?   This argument reminds me of similar ones I hear that if a book hasn’t been taken out of a library in ten years, the library ought to dump it.

This is short-sighted.

Yes, $50,000 seems like a lot of money to you and me, but it is peanuts in comparison to the billions the USDA spends every year on support payments to people who aren’t even farmers.

Hence: alarming.

Nov 10 2011

Coca-Cola v. Grand Canyon: donations come with short strings

I’m always saying that food company donations and partnerships to health and environmental Good Causes end up doing more for the companies than the recipients.  Money always talks.  Accepting corporate donations comes with strings that create conflicts of interest.

The latest evidence for these assertions comes from the Grand Canyon’s efforts to get plastic water and soda bottles out of the park.  These account for a whopping 30% of its waste.

According to the account in today’s New York Times, Coca-Cola, one of the park’s big donors, convinced the National Park Service to block the bottle ban.

Stephen P. Martin, the architect of the plan and the top parks official at the Grand Canyon, said his superiors told him two weeks before its Jan. 1 start date that Coca-Cola, which distributes water under the Dasani brand and has donated more than $13 million to the parks, had registered its concerns about the bottle ban through the foundation, and that the project was being tabled.

The Times quotes Mr. Martin:

That was upsetting news because of what I felt were ethical issues surrounding the idea of being influenced unduly by business…It was even more of a concern because we had worked with all the people who would be truly affected in their sales and bottom line, and they accepted it.

It also quotes a Coca-Cola spokeswoman, Susan Stribling:

the company would rather help address the plastic litter problem by increasing the availability of recycling programs. “Banning anything is never the right answer…If you do that, you don’t necessarily address the problem…You’re not allowing people to decide what they want to eat and drink and consume.”

And throw plastic bottles into the park, I guess.

This sordid episode explains why Coke gives millions to the Grand Canyon.  In a word, greenwashing.

Oops.

Coke needs to change its position on this one.  And so does the Park Service.

 

Nov 9 2011

The food politics of–oysters?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a tough report on the FDA’s dispute with the Gulf Coast shellfish harvesting industry about oyster safety: Food Safety: FDA Needs to Reassess Its Approach to Reducing an Illness Caused by Eating Raw Oysters.

To better ensure oyster safety, says GAO, FDA should work with the oyster industry to (in my paraphrase):

  • Agree on a nationwide goal for reducing the number of illnesses caused by the consumption of Gulf Coast raw oysters
  • Develop strategies to achieve that goal
  • Recognize that consumer education and time-and-temperature controls have not worked
  • Recognize that the capacity to use postharvest processing methods does not currently exist.

As I explain in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, the FDA for more than a decade has been trying to prevent deaths caused by Vibrio vulnificus bacteria that contaminate raw oysters grown in the Gulf of Mexico.

These “flesh-eating” bacteria proliferate in warm months and are especially deadly; they kill half of the thirty or so people who develop infections from it each year.

In 2001, the oyster industry trade association, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), promised the FDA that this industry would substantially reduce Vibrio infections in oysters within seven years through a program of voluntary self-regulation and education aimed at high-risk groups.

If this program failed to reduce the infection rate, the ISSC agreed that the FDA could require oysters to be treated after harvesting to kill pathogenic Vibrio.

Postharvest processing involves techniques such as quick freezing, frozen storage, high hydrostatic pressure, mild heat, or low dose gamma irradiation, any of which reduces Vibrio vulnificus to undectable levels.

By most reports, the effect of treatment on the taste and texture of oysters is slight (although raw oyster aficionados might argue otherwise).

The California actions are instructive: In 2003, California refused to allow Gulf Coast oysters from entering the state unless they had undergone postharvest processing.  The result?  Sales of oysters remained the same but oyster-related deaths dropped to zero!

In contrast, states that did not require postharvest processing experienced no change in the number of deaths, meaning that the ISSC program had failed.

Late in 2009, the FDA announced that it intended to issue rules requiring postharvest processing of Gulf Coast oysters in summer months.

But less than a month later, the FDA backed off.  Under protest from Gulf Coast oyster harvesters, state officials, and elected representatives, the FDA agreed to postpone the oyster-processing rules indefinitely.

As the GAO understates the matter,

FDA and the ISSC do not agree on a common V. vulnificus illness reduction goal….If FDA and the ISSC are not in agreement on the illness reduction goal and strategies to achieve it, it will be difficult for the Gulf Coast states to move forward to significantly reduce the number of consumption-related V. vulnificus illnesses.

The GAO report further explains:

the ISSC continues to include California’s results in its illness rate reduction calculation along with Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. Doing so overstates the effectiveness of consumer education and time and temperature controls….

My translation: Despite years of warnings and promises that it has no intention of meeting, the Gulf oyster industry has been able to stave off FDA regulations for ten years at the expense of about 15 preventable deaths a year.

This is yet another example of political pressures blocking the FDA from carrying out its mandated food safety responsibilities.

Let’s hope the GAO report induces Congress to push this industry to get its act in order and the FDA to issue those regulations.

 

Nov 8 2011

Food politics semantics: the meaning of “natural”

Are you puzzled, annoyed, or irritated beyond belief by the word “natural” on food product labels?

FoodNavigator must think so.  It conducted an opinion survey on what to do about marketing foods as “natural”.

FoodNavigator asked: Do we [food companies] need a clearer definition of ‘natural’ for food marketing?

The response options:

  • Yes. The FDA should come up with a formal definition (63% checked this one)
  • Yes. The industry should develop voluntary guidance (20%)
  • No. The FDA’s 1993 guidance is sufficient (~1%)
  • No. The term is meaningless and manufacturers should stop using it (16%)

Hello FDA.  How about it?

The FDA has never defined “natural” for labeling purposes.  But it does have an answer to the question “what is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of a food,” one that requires self-cancelling nots (my emphasis):

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.

That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

By this non-definition, High Fructose Corn Syrup is “natural” even though to make it, corn refiners must extract the starch from corn, treat the starch with an enzyme to break it into glucose, and treat the glucose with another enzyme to turn about half of it into fructose.

This is “natural,” according to the FDA, because the enzymes are fixed to a column, do not actually mix with the starch, and HFCS does not contain added colors or flavors.

In contrast, the USDA is way ahead and has defined what “natural” means for meat and poultry products.  “Naturally raised” means  no growth promoters, antibiotics, animal by-products, or fish by-products.

The USDA says meat and poultry products can be labeled “natural” if they are only minimally processed and don’t have any artificial flavorings, colorings, preservatives, or other additives.

As I’ve discussed previously, Horizon Organics now has “natural” milk that does not meet standards for organic certification.  It must hope that consumers can’t tell the difference.

To do something about this confusing situation, FoodNavigator reports that  the Natural Products Association (NPA) is developing standards for use of the word “natural” in food marketing.  This will be similar to the NPA’s Natural Seal Certification for personal home-care products.  NPA is doing this to “give consumers confidence that foods featuring the seal adhere to clear set of standards.”

NPA has not yet worked out the details but says some ingredients are unlikely to qualify:  those extracted with organic solvents, modified starch, high fructose corn syrup, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Oops.  What about GMOs?  NPA hasn’t decided yet, mainly because it is so hard to find soy products that are not GMO.

This situation is a mess and runs the risk of undercutting organic standards.  And we hardly need another certification system.

It’s time for the FDA to step in and give the food industry—and the public—some guidance about what counts as “natural” and what does not.

Page 178 of 369« First...176177178179180...Last »