Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
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.

Jun 22 2010

Enough about Alaska. What about Gulf seafood?

A reader, Lucas Pattan, writes:

I’m writing to ask if you could do a post over the next few weeks about what you expect the impact of the Gulf spill will be on America’s seafood industry.  GQ has an amazing piece about fishermen and rigmen affected by the Deepwater Horizon, and the information about the fishing industry is pretty frightening [for the GQ piece click here].

I don’t have a crystal ball about the impact of the BP disaster on the Gulf seafood industry, but I’m assuming its effects will cause problems similar to those that happened as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill—only worse.

The Exxon Valdez spill occurred in 1989 in cold Alaskan waters.  Fish and wildlife stocks have not fully recovered 21 years later and it will be years before they do.  According to the Wikipedia entry on this event:

Both the long- and short-term effects of the oil spill have been studied comprehensively….The effects of the spill continued to be felt for many years afterwards. Overall reductions in population have been seen in various ocean animals, including stunted growth in pink salmon populations….Almost 20 years after the spill, a team of scientists at the University of North Carolina found that the effects are lasting far longer than expected. The team estimates some shoreline Arctic habitats may take up to 30 years to recover.

The Wikipedia continues with a comment on corporate responsibility:

Exxon Mobil denies any concerns over this, stating that they anticipated a remaining fraction that they assert will not cause any long-term ecological impacts, according to the conclusions of 350 peer-reviewed studies. However, a study from scientists from the NOAA concluded that this contamination can produce chronic low-level exposure, discourage subsistence where the contamination is heavy, and decrease the “wilderness character” of the area.

It looks to me as though the ecological, economic, and corporate effects of this one will be even worse and longer lasting:

  • It’s a bigger and longer lasting spill.
  • The economy of the Gulf states have yet to recover from hurricane Katrina.
  • Oysters don’t swim.
  • Much of the Gulf was already a dead zone created by agricultural runoff and industrial pollution.
  • The waters are warmer and less rich in nutrients.
  • U.S. energy policy still focuses on oil.

At the moment, is seafood from the Gulf region safe to eat?  President Obama says it is.  I hope he’s right

The FDA is sampling oysters, crabs, and shrimp and doing more inspection of seafood processing plants, closing down waters that seem to be contaminated, and doing what it can to make sure that tainted seafood is not getting into the marketplace.

According to a report in Food Chemical News II (June 21), the FDA says it will not re-open oil-contaminated waters to fishing until:

oil from the spill is no longer observable and seafood samples from the area successfully pass both sensory analysis by trained screeners and chemical analysis to ensure there are no harmful oil products found in them.

Smelling the fish to see if it’s OK?  I don’t think so.

Jun 21 2010

Wild Alaskan salmon: food politics in action

On a tour arranged and paid for by the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute (see Note below),  I spent last week observing salmon fishing and processing in Anchorage and at remote places 600 miles to the southwest.

I could not help thinking about federal dietary guidelines.  The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has just filed its report.  It recommends consuming two 4-ounce servings of seafood per week, preferably fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Develop safe, effective, and sustainable practices to expand aquaculture and increase the availability of seafood to all segments of the population. Enhance access to… information that helps consumers make informed seafood choices.

This, among other fish, means salmon, particularly wild Alaskan salmon because they have higher levels of omega-3 fats than the farmed fish and because Alaska is working hard to maintain the sustainability of its wild fish.

Wild Alaskan salmon caught 6-19-10. Top to bottom: King (Chinook), Red (Sockeye), Chum (Keta), Pink

To be sustainable, fish have to remain in the sea and steams long enough to reproduce. This means controlling the number of people who are allowed to catch fish (through licenses and permits) as well as the number of fish they catch (through restrictions on fishing methods and times and places).

The Alaskan system for doing this works fairly well but is under constant pressure.  Commercial fishers want to be able to catch all the salmon they can with no restrictions. Communities that have always depended on salmon for sustenance want to be able to continue doing so, and do not want fish caught before they get to community spawning streams.  Hence: salmon politics.

Here are some thoughts about what I observed:

Labor conditions in the processing plants: workers were imported from the Philippines or Eastern Europe, and worked 12 to 16 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, for months at a time.

The amount of hand labor involved: Fishermen haul nets and sort fish by hand, and processing plant workers remove heads and guts, fillet fish, trip fillets, and debone by hand. In canneries, they weigh cans and clean the contents by hand. Some of this work is highly skilled and so meticulously done that it qualifies as artisanal. All of it is hard and repetitive

Peter Pan salmon cannery, King Cove, Alaska, 6-20-10

The huge numbers of fish that can be caught by commercial fishers: Alaska regulates how fish can be caught (boat size, types of nets), but even so a purse seine picks up thousands of pounds of fish at one time. It is hard to imagine how such fisheries can be sustainable, even when tightly regulated.

Purse seine bringing in the catch

The waste in the system: Some plants had arrangements to supply fish heads, guts, backbones, belly fat, skin, tails, and other parts to be used for pet food or fish meal, but some just ground up the leftovers and flushed them into the water system or back into the ocean. If the wrong fish get into nets, they get tossed back into the sea.

The cold chain (temperature controls): fish stay fresher longer if they are held temperatures just above freezing throughout every step of processing. The tenders (collecting boats) do “RSW,” hold fish in a tank filled with Refrigerated Sea Water. High quality fish are sampled at arrival at plants to make sure their flesh is below 35 degrees. Two of the three plants we visited were careful with temperature controls. The third, however, allowed fish to sit in holding tanks for days or to remain on stopped processing lines at room temperature while workers went to lunch.

The role of science: Geneticists are madly working on methods to identify salmon by stream of origin as a means to settle arguments about who gets to catch which fish. This, of course, could backfire if the salmon turn out to be from Russia or Canada.

The love of fishermen for what they do: The ones we met love their work and have been doing it for decades. They just wish they got treated better by processors and paid better for the fish they catch.

As fish eaters, we don’t need to consider where fish comes from or how it gets to us. I will be looking at fresh, frozen, and canned salmon in grocery stores and fish markets with new appreciation for what it takes to get them to us.

I haven’t said anything about methylmercury and PCBs, fish safety, international disputes over fishing rights, or issues about organic or farmed fish. For these topics, see the five chapters on fish in What to Eat.

If we want to continue to have fish to eat, we must pay attention to such issues, uncomfortable as they may be to contemplate.

Note: The Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute is a trade association supported by the seafood processing industry:

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) was created over twenty years ago as a cooperative partnership between the Alaska seafood industry and state government to advance the mutually beneficial goal of a stable seafood industry in Alaska. It is Alaska’s “official seafood marketing agency”, and is established under state law as a public corporation…[It] is divided into three distinct marketing programs: international, foodservice and retail. All three programs are designed to enhance the appeal and popularity of Alaska Seafood. The international program operates in the European Union, China, and Japan, while the retail and foodservice programs conduct their activities in the U.S.

Jun 20 2010

Wild Alaskan seafood: sustainability

One point of the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute’s invitation to visit remote fishing and processing operations was to publicize the state’s fish sustainability initiatives (see Note below).

Everyone wants to catch fish.  But who has the right to catch them?  Fish swim long distances and pay little attention to political borders.  The commercial fishing industry is highly efficient at using technology to catch fish (the fish hardly have a chance).  And cultural issues are involved, as well as economic issues.  Indigenous communities have long standing cultural traditions related to fish.

Fish stocks are not infinite.   Hence, the need for management.

In Alaska, fisheries management is so complex that it takes a chart to explain how it works.  The goal is to have enough seafood available so all the stakeholders in the fish system can make a living.  Salmon, groundfish, halibut, and crab each require a different agency to manage stock conservation, set policy (local, national, and international) for who is entitled to fish, and enforce the rules.

For example, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulates the amounts of fish that can be taken, the Alaska Board of Fisheries decides who gets permits to fish, and Alaska Wildlife Troopers make sure everyone follows the rules.

The main management tools limit the time and place where fishing is allowed, and limit the number of commercial groups allowed to fish.  Alaskan fisheries are closed unless the Department of Fish and Game says they are open.   Nobody can fish in a closed area.

The number of fishing permits is fixed and finite, making them a market-driven commodity.  They are often handed down from generation to generation, but also can be sold.   A king salmon permit, for example, might cost as much as half a million dollars.  Yes, this allows rich commercial fishers to work in Alaskan waters.  But fishing area controls are democratic.  A closed fishing area is closed to rich and poor alike.

This system creates some tricky situations.  On the day we observed fishing in action near Sand Point, the area was open to salmon fishing. But it was closed to cod fishing.

Catch from a purse seine, Shumagen Islands, Alaska, June 2010

The boat shown here was out salmon fishing.  It caught salmon, but also picked up an almost equal number of cod (we were told this was highly unusual).

The salmon would go to the cannery to be processed.  The best salmon would be processed with special care by Aleutia, an organization specializing in high quality Alaskan wild salmon getting high prices for fishermen.

The salmon were caught legally.  The cod, however, were by-catch.  They were not supposed to be caught in the salmon nets or, for that matter, at all that day.

What happened to the caught cod?  We ate one of them for dinner that night, prepared for us by Michael Cimarusti, chef owner of Providence (Los Angeles), who conveniently was a member of our group. It was worth the trip.

The others went for personal use or were thrown back into the sea to become food for crab or other seafood.  Under the rules, they could not be sold.

Does this complicated management system work?  It looked to me like it does the job pretty well.

  • Stocks of major Alaskan seafood—salmon, groundfish, halibut, and crab—are holding their own.
  • Everybody who fishes or depends on fish complains that they don’t get the chance to get enough of their fish.

Now, if only this system could go international, we might have a shot at keeping fish in the sea.

Tomorrow: Wild Alaskan salmon, from ocean to table.

Note: The Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute is a trade association for seafood processors::

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) was created over twenty years ago as a cooperative partnership between the Alaska seafood industry and state government to advance the mutually beneficial goal of a stable seafood industry in Alaska. It is Alaska’s “official seafood marketing agency”, and is established under state law as a public corporation…[It] is divided into three distinct marketing programs: international, foodservice and retail. All three programs are designed to enhance the appeal and popularity of Alaska Seafood. The international program operates in the European Union, China, and Japan, while the retail and foodservice programs conduct their activities in the U.S.

Jun 19 2010

Alaska fishing politics: fish processing

I’m writing this while on an Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute press trip (see note at end).  We are at Sand Point, Popof Island, Shumagin Islands, Alaska, about halfway out the mainland part of the Aleutian archipelago.  Sand Point is the largest town around, population 800 to 1000.

The town has a grocery store, coffee shop, bar, cafe, and a Chinese restaurant (the Aleut China), but centers around a seafood processing plant run by Seattle-based Trident Seafoods.

The fish arrive at the plant from “tenders,” fishing boats that collect fish caught by other boats, weigh the fish, and store them in ice cold sea water until they reach the plant.

Workers at the plant eviscerate the fish, clean them, and cut them into clean fillets.  These will go to Costco and Sams’ Clubs (Walmart) in the lower 48.

Trimming Halibut, Trident plant, Sand Point, AK, 6-18-10

The men and women doing this work are mostly seasonal workers from the Philippines.  They work 12 to 16 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week.

Several people who have lived here all their lives told us that when they were kids, they could hardly wait until they were 16 so they could work in the cannery.  They made good money.

When Trident came in, the company lowered the wages to minimum or just above, discouraged locals from working there, and outsourced the labor.

The company also reduced the price it paid for fish  from just over $2 per pound in the late 1980s to today’s just over $1.

If I remember correctly, wild Alaskan salmon costs nearly $30 per pound in New York City grocery stores.

The fishermen aren’t getting much of that.  The people who work in the processing plant aren’t either.

We met people here who are trying to help the fishers get more money for their work.  We haven’t met anyone lobbying for higher wages for workers in the processing plant.

The rationale?  Fish come in seasonally when they can be caught.  They have to be processed as soon as they come in.  If the workers were paid more, the wild fish would be so expensive that nobody could afford to buy them (and everyone would turn to farmed salmon).

I will be thinking about all this the next time I’m in a Costco or read about recommendations in the dietary guidelines to eat more fish.

I needed five chapters to talk about issues related to fish in What to Eat. I will have more to say about Alaskan fish politics in the next two posts.  Stay tuned.

Note: the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute is a trade association paid for by seafood processors::

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) was created over twenty years ago as a cooperative partnership between the Alaska seafood industry and state government to advance the mutually beneficial goal of a stable seafood industry in Alaska. It is Alaska’s “official seafood marketing agency”, and is established under state law as a public corporation…[It] is divided into three distinct marketing programs: international, foodservice and retail. All three programs are designed to enhance the appeal and popularity of Alaska Seafood. The international program operates in the European Union, China, and Japan, while the retail and foodservice programs conduct their activities in the U.S.

Jun 18 2010

Anti-hunger programs: recent research

The Government Accountability Office has analyzed the current status of food assistance programs in a recent report, “Domestic Food Assistance: Complex System Benefits Millions, but Additional Efforts Could Address Potential Inefficiency and Overlap among Smaller Programs” (GAO-10-346, April 15, 2010).

The GAO says that the prevalence of food insecurity rose to nearly 15 percent (or about 17 million households) in 2008, and that the federal government spent more than $62.5 billion on 18 different food and nutrition assistance programs that year.

Although the programs are poorly coordinated and often overlap, streamlining them is not easy and involves trade offs.  The GAO recommends that USDA:

identify and develop methods for addressing potential inefficiencies among food assistance programs and reducing unnecessary overlap among the smaller programs while ensuring that those who are eligible receive the assistance they need. Approaches may include conducting a study; convening a group of experts…considering which of the lesser-studied programs need further research; or piloting proposed changes.

More research needed!

Fortunately, we have some.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has studied the question of whether food insecurity is linked to obesity.  Past research suggested that it is.

Foundation researchers reviewed studies examining a possible relationship between food insecurity and obesity, and those examining links between federal nutrition assistance programs and an increased risk of obesity.

The report, “Food Insecurity and Risk for Obesity Among Children and Families: Is There a Relationship?, finds no evidence of a direct relationship between food insecurity and obesity.  It also does not find a direct relationship of use of food assistance to obesity.

Food insecurity is linked to a host of physical and mental health problems and it is difficult to distinguish the effects of lack of reliable food from those due to the lack of money, education, transportation, stable housing, and health care also common among low-income households.

Jun 16 2010

Bard College’s Prison Initiative: organic food politics!

Earlier this month, I went to New York State’s Woodbourne Correctional Facility to accept the John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service from Bard College and to deliver a brief commencement address to incarcerated graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative.

Bard’s program is one of the few privately supported prison education programs in the country (the New York Times recently discussed a similar program at Sing Sing).

Bard started the program after the government cut off funding for prison education programs in the mid-1990s.

Bard has awarded liberal arts associates’ and bachelors’ degrees to nearly 200 men and women inside three long-term maximum security prisons and two transitional, medium-security prisons (Woodbourne is medium security).

None of these graduates—not one—has returned to prison after being paroled.

Why me, why there, and why discuss it here?  Participants in this program started an organic garden and are growing food for the prison with the surplus going to local food banks.

In my speech, I said:

“John Dewey was a passionate champion of liberal democracy.”

“Dewey argued that education is good for individuals, but that it also has an important social purpose—that of encouraging students to become active and effective members of a democratic society….”

“In growing a garden and producing food for yourselves and for others under these particular and peculiar circumstances, you are carrying out John Dewey’s ideals better than he ever could have imagined.”

I was not kidding when I said that no award has ever meant so much to me.  It was a privilege to be there.

Jun 15 2010

Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee files report

Yesterday, I got a last-minute invitation to listen in on a USDA conference call announcing the release of the report of the joint USDA-DHHS Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (see www.dietaryguidelines.gov).

The call was remarkable for how little information it produced.  It was scheduled for half an hour, but started 12 minutes late.  Officials used most of the time to talk about how the committee was appointed, how the committee process worked, how transparent everything was, and how staff of USDA’s new Evidence-Based Nutrition Library (NEL) provided much of the research basis for the guidelines.  This left hardly any time for asking questions, and only five got asked.

From what I heard, the committee report says pretty much what previous accounts said it would (see my post on this).  If my notes on the call are correct, the committee report will recommend:

  • Maintain appropriate body weight through diet and physical activity
  • Shift to a more plant-based diet
  • Eat more seafood; eat more low-fat dairy products; limit meat intake
  • Eat less solid fats; eat less of added sugars
  • Reduce sodium; eat fewer refined grains
  • Follow physical activity guidelines

Is this news?  Isn’t this always what the dietary guidelines say?  Here, just for fun, are the first set of guidelines that came out in 1980.

The main difference seems to be the way the evidence was judged and in some of the details: the target for saturated fat is 7% and for sodium a gradual reduction to 1500 mg/day.

If so, that’s a lot of trouble to go through to get to basically the same place.  I summarized that place in What to Eat as “Eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food.”  Michael Pollen did it even more succinctly: “Eat food.  Mostly plants.  Not too much.”

So why would two federal agencies and 13 committee members go to all this trouble?

The quick answer is that the agencies have to.  Congress says they have to review the guidelines every five years.

The longer answer, which I discuss in Food Politics and What to Eat, is that every word of the dietary guidelines is fraught with politics.

According to Food Chemical News (June 14),

The document is frequently the source of much controversy in the food industry because of the way it is used to promote certain ingredients and eating habits…Observers expect some controversy this year over recommendations made with regard to salt, a subject discussed frequently in committee meetings, as well a possible suggestion to replace two servings of grain with two servings of vegetables.

Another controversy is brewing in regards to the information on which the report was based. On Friday, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association and the Grain Foods Foundation were among 23 groups that asked USDA and HHS to provide access to the Nutrition Evidence Library, which contains all the research used by the Dietary Guidelines committee when making their recommendations. “Without access to the data from which the DGAC drew its conclusions and recommendations, the public may not be able to provide meaningful comments,” the letter states.

Right. And now let’s see what the agencies do with this report (here’s the USDA press release on what happens next and how to comment).  This report is, after all, merely advisory. Now, the real politics begins!

Additions:

Here is all the information about the Advisory Committee’s report, and the report itself (but why didn’t they put it in one easy pdf file?).

And here is USA Today’s take on it: “Panel: obesity is century’s greatest public health threat.”

Further addition, June 16: Thanks to Daniel Green (Cornell) for putting the report together in one enormous (19MB) file.

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