Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 2 2018

Big Soda strong-arms California: no more soda taxes for 12 years. Shame!

In 2017, Jennifer Pomeranz and Mark Pertschuck published an article in the American Journal of Public Health titled State Preemption: A Significant and Quiet Threat to Public Health in the United States.

How right they were.

Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law banning new soda tax initiatives in the state until 2030, thereby preempting local initiatives planned and in progress.

How did this happen?

Raw, overt power politics (my emphasis throughout).  The Sacramento Bee shows how it’s done.

The Hill explains that this bill was a compromise.

The measure was a last-minute compromise to stop an initiative circulated by the beverage industry that would make it more difficult to raise state and local taxes in California.  “Mayors from countless cities have called to voice their alarm and to strongly support the compromise which this bill represents,” Brown wrote in a signing message.

Big Soda’s tactic: use California’s ballot initiative process to put forth a measure requiring a two-thirds majority to pass any new tax legislation.  Brown and those mayors must have assumed it would pass (anything to prevent new taxes).  Brown said he would agree to a 12-year moratorium on new soda taxes if the soda industry would withdraw the measure.  It did, and he signed.

In explaining the so-called “compromise” (in quotes because this was blackmail), US News quotes state senator Scott Wiener (Dem-San Francisco):

This industry is aiming a nuclear weapon at government in California and saying, ‘If you don’t do what we want we are going to pull the trigger and you are not going to be able to fund basic government services.”

In other words, the beverage industry held the state hostage. Like the Sacramento Bee, I’d call this a shakedown.

The Sacramento Bee also called it extortion—a power play by the American Beverage Association that:

appears to be working as intended. As the deadline for signing the state budget approaches this week, a developing trailer bill attached to it would give Big Soda a 12-year ban on local soda taxes in exchange for dropping a ballot initiative that would threaten the finances of cities throughout California. Who says extortion doesn’t pay?

The New York Times explains the “stunning” preemption:

Now the beverage industry has a new approach. Instead of fighting the ordinances city by city, it is turning to states, trying to pass laws preventing any local governments from taxing their products.

The reactions have been fierce.

Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association says, “We’ve seen some cynical moves to protect profits, but this soda tax ban is a new low.”   The American Heart Association issued a statement:

The bill—a last-minute, backroom deal negotiated and written in secret by beverage industry lobbyists and their allies—is a significant step backwards in the ongoing effort to reduce overconsumption of sugary drinks.

“This is one of the worst pieces of legislation I have seen in more than 30 years spent fighting for better health for kids and families,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association. “We could not be more disappointed to see this bill, taken straight from the tobacco industry playbook, pass.”

The LA Times said “Shame on California lawmakers for caving in to the soda industry.”

Salon explains:

There’s a lot at stake for America’s biggest soda companies. Carbonated soft drinks – such as Coke, Fanta, Sprite, and Fresca – make up two-thirds of Coca-Cola’s production, and U.S. soda sales earned the company more than $10 billion in 2015. And PepsiCo’s soda sales – including Pepsi, 7Up, and Mountain Dew – still account for one-quarter of the company’s $38 billion in North American sales, despite a shift toward healthier products. But soda consumption fell to its lowest point in 31 years in the U.S. in 2016, according to Fortune, and Coca-Cola concedes that sweetened beverage taxes “are hurting Coke’s business.”

I’ll end with this quote from the New York Times:

Bill Monning, the Senate majority leader, was one of a handful of Democrats who voted against the bill. He called its passage “unprecedented” and said it would stop cities and counties “from being able to take steps to protect the health of their residents”…“It’s a sad day for democracy in California,” he said. “But ever the optimist I think that the outrage of Big Soda blackmailing the state legislature and the people of California is going to boomerang.”

Let’s make sure that happens.

And while we are at it, don’t let this happen in your state.  If the soda industry threatens to mess with state elections, tell your representatives and governor to resist.  California public health advocates: keep the pressure on.  Advocate for bans on sodas everywhere you can: schools, hospitals, workplaces, government offices.  Expose what the industry is doing to protect its profits at the expense of public health.  Don’t give up.  Courage!

For the record, here’s where to find out more about this shameful episode.

Jun 29 2018

Rebooting food: technological solutions to world hunger

Lots of people are worried about how we are going to feed people in the future and are thinking about possible solutions to problems of world hunger.  Hence: Rebooting Food from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

You can guess from the title that the report is about technological solutions.  It begins:

Banana trees that fit in a test tube. Burgers made without a cow in sight. Fish farmed in the desert. Robots picking fruit. Welcome to the brave new world of food, where scientists are battling a global time-bomb of climate change, water scarcity, population growth and soaring obesity rates to find new ways to feed the future.

I wish the report had said more about the social and political causes of world hunger, and the need for social and political action to reduce income and other inequalities.

But if you want a quick overview of current thinking on food technology, this report is a good introduction.

Jun 27 2018

Changing SNAP for the better: the politics

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank whose slogan is “Working to find actionable solutions to the nation’s key challenges,” did a study on SNAP: “Leading with Nutrition: Leveraging Federal Programs for Better Health.”

The report extends and updates the SNAP to Health report I was involved with in 2012.

Like that report, this one recommends making nutrition a priority.

  • Make diet quality a core SNAP objective.
  • Eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages from the list of items that can be purchased with SNAP benefits.
  • Support healthy purchases by continuing and strengthening incentives for purchasing fruits and vegetables.
  • Authorize funds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct a range of evidence-based pilots to improve SNAP participants’ diets.
  • Consolidate USDA authority over the agency’s nutrition standards and nutrition-education efforts.
  • Authorize the USDA to collect and share store-level data on all products purchased with SNAP funds. 7. Strengthen SNAP retailer standards to improve the food environment for all shoppers.

Two of these recommendations jump right into SNAP politics: collecting data and eliminating sugary drinks.

A recent article analyzes issues related to the quality of diets purchased by SNAP participants.  Consistent with previous studies, it finds that the diets consumed by SNAP participants are nutritionally worse than those of people of equivalent low income who are not enrolled in SNAP.   Some evidence suggests that SNAP encourages participants to buy junk food.  It would be good to have better data.

Another recent article explains the politics in no uncertain terms.  Making any change in what SNAP participants can buy with their benefits is blocked by:

  • America’s culture of personal (not social) responsibility
  • Corporate lobbying by the beverage and food retail industries
  • Liberal attitudes defending SNAP as income support for the poor
  • Institutional inertia within USDA and Congress.

These last three constitute what these authors call the “iron triangle” of resistance to changing SNAP for the healthier.  Their advice: try different approaches.

If the Bipartisan Policy Center wants its recommendations followed, it has a lot of work to do.

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Jun 26 2018

Confused about dietary fiber? No wonder.

I always thought fiber had a simple definition: complex carbohydrates in food plants impervious to enzymes in our digestive tract.

OK, bacterial enzymes complicate the definition a bit.   But the real complication comes from what food companies toss into products to increase their apparent fiber content on food labels.

Now the FDA has issued guidance to industry about what companies can use to boost their products’ fiber content.  In FDA-speak:

We intend to exercise enforcement discretion for the declaration of dietary fiber, pending completion of a rulemaking regarding revising our regulations, if the declaration includes one or more of the following eight isolated or synthetic non-digestible carbohydrates, when present in a food and included in the amount of dietary fiber declared on the Nutrition or Supplement Facts label:

  • mixed plant cell wall fibers
  • arabinoxylan
  • alginate
  • inulin and inulin-type fructans
  • high amylose starch (resistant starch)
  • galactooligosaccharide
  • polydextrose
  • resistant maltodextrin/dextrin

What this means is that food manufacturers can use these to count as fiber.

Here, for example, is a happy announcement from Sensus, a company that manufactures “Frutafit” and “Frutalose” chicory root fibers.  It

welcomes the announcement that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes inulin-type fructans derived from chicory root as dietary fiber for the new nutrition facts label. The recognition consolidates the fiber status of chicory root fiber in the US and supports further opportunities for healthy food applications in the US.

The Sensus announcement explains that this decision came about as a result of a “joint citizen petition,” one in which you can bet this company was involved.

This decision is about marketing.

If you want fiber in your diet, the best sources are still foods: fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts.

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Jun 25 2018

Trump’s government reorganization plan: really?

The Trump Administration announced its new plan to reorganize government.  Obviously, this affects the agencies dealing with agriculture, food, and nutrition issues—USDA, FDA, and FDA’s parent agency, HHS.  Here is my translation of the major shifts being proposed:

  • Move most of USDA’s nutrition programs—SNAP, WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program—to HHS.
  • Move FDA’s food safety oversight to USDA, putting USDA in charge of all food safety.
  • Downsize the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Congress would have to vote on all this so there’s no point in going too deeply into the weeds at this point, but I have just a few comments:

  • Putting all food safety oversight in one agency is a good idea, but not if it’s USDA.  USDA’s principal purpose to to support agribusiness.  Holding agribusiness responsible for food safety puts USDA in conflict of interest.
  • Moving SNAP and WIC into HHS (or whatever its new name will be) would make sense if HHS weren’t already overwhelmed by everything else it has to deal with (more than a trillion dollars in spending).
  • The proposal still leaves school breakfasts and lunches and commodity programs in USDA, meaning that food assistance programs will still be split between USDA and HHS.
  • Downsizing the Commissioned Corps doesn’t make much sense either.  Public health needs all the health it can get.

Whatever happens with this is unlikely to happen quickly.  USDA will not be happy about losing SNAP’s $80 billion a year or WIC’s $6 billion budget.

Many other agencies are also affected by these proposals.  My prediction: Congress will have a lot of trouble coming to agreement on these ideas.

Maybe this is just another attempt to distract us from more pressing matters.

Law Professor Timothy Lytton, an expert on food regulatory policy, has plenty to say about why moving food safety to USDA won’t work (in my paraphrasing):

  • Congressional committees are unlikely to support any reorganization that would reduce their power.
  • Industry associations are unlikely to support a reorganization that would disrupt their influence with existing agencies.
  • The two agencies are different in jurisdiction, powers and expertise; a merger would require a complete overhaul of federal food safety laws and regulations, a task of extraordinary legal and political complexity.
  • A merger might create new forms of fragmentation.
  • Reorganization is expensive and will take years.  The payoff is unclear.

As I’ve explained before, plans for a single food safety agency have been in the works for years, but have encountered many barriers.  The Food Safety Modernization Act was meant to be step #1 in a three-step process:

  1. Pass and implement rules governing FDA’s oversight of pretty much all foods except meat and poultry (this is now done).
  2. Fix USDA’s food safety rules governing meat and poultry so they are consistent with FDA’s (in the talking stage, hopefully).
  3. Merge the food safety responsibilities in one agency.

These proposals, alas, ignore step #2.  Good luck with that.

Jun 22 2018

Farewell Anthony Bourdain

I didn’t know him but I too am sad that he is no longer with us.  His memorial continues.

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Jun 21 2018

Salmonella in Honey Smacks cereal?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The latest source of Salmonella is a kids’ cereal, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks.  They may be a good source of vitamin D, but watch out!

This is no joke.  The CDC reports the damage: 73 cases in 31 states, with 24 hospitalizations.

The CDC says you should not eat this cereal.  Period.  You should especially not eat this if its used-by date ranges from June 14, 2018 to June 14, 2019.  Kellogg has recalled packages with this used-by date.

I took this photo on June 16 at Wegmans in Ithaca.  I was surprised to see them on the shelf, but their use-by date was May 19, 2019 so Wegmans must think they are OK.  Even if I habitually bought sugary kids cereals, I’d pick another one until this outbreak is over and gets an all-clear signal.

Recent Salmonella outbreaks have involved pre-cut melon, eggs, dried coconut, pre-made salads, and sprouts.  Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says don’t eat them either.

Outbreaks caused by contamination of commercial boxed products are rare.  Bacteria don’t grow well in dried foods.  The CDC doesn’t discuss how the Salmonella got into the package.

Could honey be the source?  Honey is not sterile, but bacteria don’t grow in it very well (not enough water).

This reminds me of the situation with dry pet foods and treats.  Canned pet foods have been cooked and are sterile until they are opened.

Dry foods are not sterile.  Although the extrusion process heats them enough to kill bacteria, flavors and other additives are sprayed on before they are packaged.  Contamination with Salmonella and other pathogens is a constant problem (Mal Nesheim and I discuss this in our book about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right).

I will be interested to see if Kellogg can find the source of the contamination.

Jun 20 2018

Not-so-smart snacks for kids

I am ever indebted to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, the Canadian obesity specialist, for keeping a sharp eye out for the more amazing ways food companies push junk foods.

Check out his Weighty Matters blog.  This particular post describes the “Smart Snacks” for kids endorsed by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the American Heart Association in partnership with the Clinton Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Check out Freedhoff’s selection of “Smart” items drawn from Amazon’s more complete list of Alliance-endorsed items.  Here is his first example (but don’t miss the others):

These are all junk foods tweaked to make them slightly less junky, thereby raising the questions I always like to ask in these situations: Is a slightly better-for-you product necessarily a good choice?

I’ve written about the Alliance’s partnerships previously.  As Freedhoff explains,

In case you’re not familiar with it, the Alliance For A Healthier Generations is the name given to the partnership program founded between the American Heart Association, The Clinton Foundation, and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with pretty what at first glance looks like pretty much every food industry corporation on earth…[this] is a partnership with the food industry whose job is to promote sales, not to protect health.

Freedhoff asks:

How is it possible that the American Heart Association, The Clinton Foundation, and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would describe a child washing down a bag of Doritos or a Pop-Tart with a can of Diet Coke as them consuming a Smart Snack?

The American Heart Association should not be a participant in this Alliance.  The “Smart Snacks” program’s endorsement by the Alliance covers these particular products but, by extension, the rest of those companies’ products—and the companies that make them.

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