Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 8 2019

Weekend reading: The Perils of [Corporate] Partnership

Jonathan Marks.  The Perils of Partnership: Industry Influence, Institutional Integrity, and Public Health.  Oxford University Press, 2019.

I blurbed this one:

Jonathan Marks is the go-to expert on the hazards of public-private partnerships.  His account of the perils reads easily, is well referenced, is clear and to the point, and applies to partnerships with drug, food, and any other corporations.  Anyone who cares about the ethical implications of such partnerships for public health will find this book invaluable.

The book is about industry partnerships in general, but Marks uses food-company examples such as the American Beverage Association’s gift to the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania in what seemed to be a direct exchange for the city’s dropping a soda tax initiative, and the USDA’s promotion of cheese.

Marks concludes that

Public-private partnerships, multistakeholder initiatives, and other close relations with industry are premised on a positive conception of consensus, compromise, and collaboration.  But the “three C’s” are not inherently good.  On the contrary, tension between regulators and corporations is ordinarily necessary to protect public health.  And achieving common ground with industry may put off the table measures that might promote public health.  The default relation between industry and government should be arm’s lengths relations involving institutional tension, “struggle,” and direct conflict.

The point: the agenda of corporations is to promote profit, not public health.  This creates an inherent tension, not easily resolved.

Mar 7 2019

Plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy: a round up

I’ve been collecting items about plant-based “meat” and “dairy foods.”  These are a hot topic, with new announcements almost daily.

Here’s what FoodNavigator-USA.com has collected in a Special Edition

And here are a bunch I’ve picked up here and there:

I will be keeping an eye on this area, where a lot seems to be happening, and fast.

Mar 6 2019

Seafood fraud again and again

Seafood fraud, long a problem (I wrote about it in What to Eat), is still a problem.  The latest evidence comes from a report from the New York State Attorney General.

Investigators tested fish and found widespread mislabeling of just about every type of fish except striped bass.

I wish the figure displayed percentages instead of absolute numbers, but you get the idea.  Examples:

  • Lemon sole       87.5%
  • Red snapper     67.0%
  • “Wild” salmon  27.6% (in quotes because some was farmed)

Overall, the investigation found 27% of seafood purchases to be mislabeled.  Some conclusions:

  • Mislabeling was worse at some supermarkets more than others; for example, five chains had mislabeling rates of 50% or higher.
  • Some fish are mislabeled more than others, especially lemon sole, red snapper, and grouper.
  • Substitutes were cheaper, less desirable fish, sometimes with higher levels of mercury.
  • Mislabeling was common throughout the state, but the mislabeling rate for New York City was nearly 43%.

If ever there was a call for caveat emptor, this is it.

What to do?  Ask.  Complain. Demand regulation.

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Mar 5 2019

Food movement coalitions: Do you know of any?

I’ve been giving talks lately on how to strengthen the food movement and my two-word answer is this: build coalitions.

The food movement includes thousands of organizations working on food issues.  For real power, those organizations need to unite around common goals.

At a recent talk in Berkeley, I was asked if I could name some food movement coalitions.  I had trouble thinking of any, but the audience popped up with suggestions and I’ve added a couple more.

  • California Food and Farming Network is dedicated to advancing state policies that are rooted in communities, promote fairness and racial equity, secure financial prosperity and advance environmental sustainability.  It tracks legislation and publishes a scorecard.  50 member groups.
  • La Via Campesina: 182 organizations in 81 countries advocate for peasants’ rights, food sovereignty, and social justice and oppose corporate-driven agriculture that destroys social relations and nature.
  • National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity (NANA):  Its more than 500 organizations advocate for policies and programs to promote healthy eating and physical activity.
  • National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: Its 120 member groups advocate for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities by supporting small and mid-size family farms.
  • Rural coalition: “Our mission is to build an equitable and sustainable food system that is beneficial to people of color, small farmers, rural and tribal communities.”  50 member groups.

If you know of others, please let me know at marion.nestle@nyu.edu.  I will be tracking these.

The next step: a union of coalitions?

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Mar 4 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: artificial sweeteners and the microbiome

The study: Assessing the in vivo data on low/no-calorie sweeteners and the gut microbiota.  Alexandra R. Lobacha, Ashley Roberts, Ian R. Rowland. Food and Chemical Toxicology 124 (2019) 385–399.

Its conclusion: “The sum of the data provides clear evidence that changes in the diet unrelated to LNCS [low- and no-calorie sweeteners] consumption are likely the major determinants of change in gut microbiota numbers and phyla, confirming the viewpoint supported by all the major international food safety and health regulatory authorities that LNCS are safe at currently approved levels.”

Funding disclosures: Intertek Scientific & Regulatory Consultancy (A.R.L. and A.R.) received financial support from the Calorie Control Council to assist in the preparation of the manuscript. The Calorie Control Council did not contribute to the origination, planning, implementation, or interpretation of this work. The Calorie Control Council did review the content of the complete manuscript; however, A.R. maintained responsibility for the final content.

Comment: Artificial sweeteners are widely suspected on the basis of questionable evidence to be harmful in one way or another.  The industry that makes these sweeteners wants to prove them safe and effective.  This was a literature review commissioned by the Calorie Control Council, a trade association for the makers and users of artificial sweeteners, from Intertek Scientific & Regulatory Consultancy, a group that does this kind of work.  I would be more confident in conclusions like these if they had been arrived at independently.

Mar 1 2019

Weekend reading: Krimsky’s GMOs Decoded

Nestle M.  Foreword to Sheldon Krimsky.  GMOs Decoded: A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods.  MIT Press, 2019.

You might notice that I wrote the Foreword to this book.  Here’s what I said:

GMO’s Decoded is a gift to anyone confused about genetically modified foods.  In this latest addition to Sheldon Krimsky’s prolific output of books about how societies interact with new technologies, he takes on a formidable challenge–to examine the science of GMOs as a basis for dealing with the ferocious politics they incite.  I use “ferocious” advisedly.  Positions about GMOs appear polarized to the point of outright hostility.  Krimsky wants détente.   If we understood the science better, we might be able to achieve more nuanced views of the risks and benefits of GMOs and of the genetic techniques used to create them.

To anyone familiar with Krimsky’s previous and ongoing work, this book may come as a surprise.  Trained in physics and philosophy, Krimsky is a sharp critic of the role of technology in society with particular interests in the ethical implications of genetics and biotechnology and in risk communication.  I have long admired his work for its firm grounding in science and its clear delineation of the ways in which political, cultural, and other societal factors color perceptions of the safety and other risks of new technologies.

In GMO’s Decoded, Krimsky takes a deep dive into the science of food biotechnology on its own, separate from issues related to how the science is used by the companies producing and profiting from GMOs, or is interpreted by proponents, critics, or the general public.  An attempt to discuss the science of GMOs distinct from its politics may appear foolhardy, if not impossible, and Krimsky deserves much praise for taking this on.

I speak from experience.  My book about food biotechnology, Safe Food, first published in 2003, began with a reference to C.P. Snow’s two-culture problem—what Snow called the “gulf of incomprehension” between scientists and nonscientists over matters of technological risk.  To greatly oversimplify: scientists argue that if GMOs are safe, they are fully acceptable and no further criticism is justified.  But to nonscientists, safety is only one of many concerns about GMOs and not necessarily the most important.   Holders of this broader view argue that even if GMOs are safe, they still may not be acceptable for reasons of ethics, social desirability, unfair distribution, nontransparent marketing, or inequitable and undemocratic control of the food supply.

What I observed in discussing those issues, and continue to observe, is the discounting of anything other than safety by extreme proponents of GMOs who perceive even the slightest question about nonsafety issues as an attack on the entire industry.  This has forced critics of GMOs to focus on safety issues rather than the far less quantifiable issues of social desirability, pushing critics into positions that deny the possibility of any benefit of GMOs.  The result: Snow’s gulf of incomprehension.

Is the gulf bridgeable?  Krimsky argues yes.  From the perspective of the science, GMOs can either benefit or harm society.  It behooves us all to try to understand what the science is about as a basis for coming to more informed opinions about the uses, value, and risks of GMOs—the politics.

But before getting to what Krimsky does in this book, I want to make one point about GMO politics: the GMO industry brought the polarization on itself.  As I explained in Safe Food, the first GMO food, the FlavrSavr tomato, was intended to be marketed transparently as a triumph of American technological achievement (I still have itss label in my files).  British supermarkets sold tomato paste prominently labeled as genetically modified without opposition.  That changed under industry pressure for nondisclosure.  I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in 1994 when the agency ruled against labeling GMOs, despite evidence that trust requires transparency.  The GMO industry fought labeling then, and won, and continues to spend fortunes fighting labeling.

The industry also promised that food biotechnology would feed the world and create new foods that would solve problems for the developing world, such as those able to withstand poor soil conditions, excessive heat, and limited water.  But instead, the industry concentrated on far more profitable insect- and herbicide-resistant first-world crops, a strategy criticized for the effects on society of its monoculture, patented seeds, heavy use of herbicides, herbicide-resistant weeds, and destruction of beneficial insects.  The potential for foods with consumer benefits remains, but has been largely unrealized.  Trust requires fulfilled promises.

As readers of Krimsky’s previous books surely know, he cares about such issues and others related to the politics of GMOs and their societal impact.  But in this book, he wants readers to realize that the risks and benefits of GMOs depend on understanding the state of their science.  Here, he takes on the scientific questions, one by one, clearly and dispassionately.  This must have taken courage and a great deal of work.  The science of GMOs is complicated and occurs at the level of molecules–DNA, RNA, and protein, of course, but also a host of less familiar molecules responsible for making genetic modifications work.

Fortunately, Krimsky writes clearly and succinctly about such things, his descriptions are easy to follow, and he defines terms as they are needed.  He begins by asking whether GMOs differ from foods produced by traditional breeding and if they do, whether the differences matter.  He wants to know how GMOs affect health and the environment, whether they really are more productive than conventional crops, and whether they use fewer pesticides and herbicides.  He asks whether they GMOs have nutritional or other benefits for consumers, and whether and how they should be labeled.  He deals with these questions in short chapters, along with others, that examine methods and risk assessment, review what expert committees say about such matters, and use Golden Rice as a case in point.

Krimsky’s presentation of the divergent viewpoints about what the science means is exceptionally fair and even-handed.  He insists that:

“This book is not about taking sides.  My experience in studying scientific controversies that have public policy implications is that there are often truths, falsehoods, exaggerations, assumptions, fear-mongering, and uncertainties in the claims found on multiple sides of an issue.  This book will succeed if it…demystifies the science and shows where there is consensus, honest disagreement, or unresolved uncertainty. ”

I think it succeeds admirably.  Krimsky is straightforward about his own assessments.  For example–spoiler alert—he concludes that evidence supports a qualitative difference between traditional and molecular breeding of food plants.  On other questions, when he assesses the science as inconclusive, he says so.  He wants readers to understand the complexity of the scientific issues, to be skeptical of arguments from either extreme in the debates, and to adopt nuanced positions on GMOs.  Some aspects of GMOs may be worth opposing, but some may well be worth promoting.  We all need to know the difference.

Krimsky tells us that in researching this book, his own positions became less polarized and more nuanced.  Reading it, mine did too.  Now it’s your turn.

–Marion Nestle, New York, August 2018

Feb 27 2019

The tragedy of Brexit: not enough Pringles

At last, an explanation of the effects of Brexit on the British economy that I can understand: a Pringle shortage!

The New York Times helpfully reports

As Brexit looms, Kellogg Co and Mondelez International Inc are taking measures to protect Britons from a potential shortage of Pringles chips, BelVita biscuits and Milka chocolate.

With Britain at risk of leaving the European Union on March 29 without a divorce deal – known as a ‘hard’ Brexit – several big companies have begun to prepare for the disruption that could ensue.

Kellogg is opening new warehouses and stocking up on its snacks and cereals, hoping to mitigate damage from friction at the UK border and tariffs on imports, Chief Executive Steve Cahillane said in a recent interview…Cahillane said Kellogg’s supply chain left it exposed. For instance, Pringles, the UK’s No. 2 chips (crisps) brand after PepsiCo Inc’s Walkers, are made in Belgium.

I guess the British should have thought of that.  Alas.

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Feb 26 2019

At last: the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

Very late in the process, the USDA and HHS have finally announced the membership of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for 2020:

Today the Secretaries of USDA and HHS announced 20 nationally recognized experts who have been selected to serve on the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

The independent Advisory Committee will review the scientific evidence on topics from the Departments and provide a report to the Secretaries that, along with public and agency comments, will help inform USDA and HHS’s development of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

I know several of the members.  I served with Barbara Schneeman on the 1995 DGAC, for example.

Some members have financial ties to food companies with deep interests in the what the guidelines say.  This is despite the agencies’ statements that

The vetting process also included a background check by the USDA Office of the Secretary to determine if any of the candidates have a financial, ethical, legal, and/or criminal conflict of interest that would prohibit them from serving on the Committee…Each Committee member submitted a financial disclosure report prior to appointment and will continue to do so annually thereafter. Each report was reviewed by USDA ethics officials for financial conflicts of interest and compliance with Federal ethics rules.

Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich asked groups to say who they nominated to the committee.  What she found is here, but behind a paywall.  I’ve added the information from these lists in red.  She is still trying to find out who nominated the others.

  • Jamy Ard, MD – Wake Forest University
  • Regan Bailey, PhD, MPH, RD – Purdue University, Department of Nutrition Science Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
  • Lydia Bazzano, MD, PhD – Tulane University  Atkins Nutritional
  • Carol Boushey, PhD, MPH, RD – University of Hawaii  National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
  • Teresa Davis, PhD – Baylor College of Medicine
  • Kathryn Dewey, PhD – University of California, Davis
  • Sharon Donovan, PhD, RD – University of Illinois
  • Steven Heymsfield, MD – Louisiana State University American Beverage Association
  • Ronald Kleinman, MD – Harvard University
  • Heather Leidy, PhD – University of Texas National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
  • Richard Mattes, PhD, MPH, RD – Purdue University Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
  • Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD, RD – University of North Carolina
  • Timothy Naimi, MD – Boston University
  • Rachel Novotny, PhD, RDN, LD – University of Hawaii
  • Joan Sabaté, DrPH, MD – Loma Linda University
  • Barbara Schneeman, PhD – University of California, Davis  American Beverage Association
  • Linda Snetselaar, PhD, RD – University of Iowa Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
  • Jamie Stang, PhD – University of Minnesota, School of Public Health, Division of Epidemiology & Community Health Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
  • Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH – Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard Chan School of Public Health
  • Linda Van Horn, PhD, RDN, LD – Northwestern University

As for transparency:

Helena Bottemiller Evich (@hbottemiller) tweeted at 11:36 AM on Fri, Feb 22, 2019:
Everyone says they want a “more transparent” Dietary Guidelines process, but the minute I ask for who X group nominated to be on DGAC food/ag/health groups are like https://t.co/6J8GJnGpD7
(https://twitter.com/hbottemiller/status/1099030227009835008?s=03)

Overall, this looks to me like any other DGAC except that there are twice as many members as in the past.

Their job is to review the research and write a report.  The agencies write the guidelines.

I will be following all this with great interest, as always.