Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 2 2011

Way to go GAO! A single food safety agency

Thanks to FoodSafetyNews for the heads up on the latest Government Accountability Office(GAO) attempt to get Congress to consolidate federal food safety functions on one agency.

The GAO’s latest 345-page report on how the federal government can save money lists its proposals in alphabetical order by area.  Agriculture comes first and, therefore, so does food safety.  You have to love the way GAO titles its sections: “Fragmented food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.”

GAO has been saying this for 20 years.  In 1990, for example, it published reports on who does what in the federal government about food safety and the inconsistencies in oversight.

As I wrote in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2010),

Today, an inventory of federal food safety activities reveals a system breathtaking in its irrationality: 35 separate laws administered by 12 agencies housed in six cabinet-level departments….

At best, a structure as fragmented as this one would require extraordinary efforts to achieve communication let alone coordination, and more than 50 interagency agreements govern such efforts.

Among the six agencies with the broadest mandates, all conduct inspections and collect and analyze samples, and at least three–though not necessarily the same ones–have something to do with regulating dairy products, eggs and egg products, fruits and vegetables, grains, and meat and poultry.

Until recently, the system had no mission statement (for whatever such statements are worth) and it still does not have consistent rules, clear lines of authority, a rational allocation of resources, or standards against which to measure success.

With such a system, some issues–such as use of animal manure to fertilize food crops—inevitably fall between the cracks and are governed by no rules whatsoever.

Not much has changed in the subsequent 20 years, as this new report attests.  As is inevitably the case, some of the areas of overlap are simply absurd:

The 2008 Farm Bill assigned USDA responsibility for catfish, thus splitting seafood oversight between USDA and FDA. In September 2009, GAO also identified gaps in food safety agencies’ enforcement and collaboration on imported food.

Specifically, the import screening system used by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not notify FDA’s or FSIS’s systems when imported food shipments arrive at U.S. ports.

But the worst is the situation with shell eggs, seemingly unfixable, given the 2010 recall of 500 million eggs:

FDA is generally responsible for ensuring that shell eggs, including eggs at farms such as those where the outbreak occurred, are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled and FSIS [USDA] is responsible for the safety of eggs processed into egg products.

In addition, while USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service sets quality and grade standards for the eggs, such as Grade A, it does not test the eggs for microbes such as Salmonella.

Further, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service helps ensure the health of the young chicks that are supplied to egg farms, but FDA oversees the safety of the feed they eat.

I repeat.  This is not a new issue.  The hope was that the food safety act passed in January would pave the way to establish a single food safety agency.  The GAO report, while urging its creation, doubts that it will cut costs.

But it might save lives.

Mar 1 2011

Oh those Brits: now breastmilk ice cream

FoodQualityNews reports that the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) is all upset about ice cream made from breast milk.

Eeks.  It might violate food safety standards!

The Baby Gaga breastmilk ice cream is sold by a London firm called The Icecreamists.  The company has been forced to withdraw Baby Gaga in response to complaints that it might not be safe for human consumption.

The milk comes from 15 moms.  It is screened prior to sale, in part because breast milk can pass on things like hepatitis.

But nowhere in this account does it say whether the milk was pasteurized or how the ice cream tastes.  I want to know!

Feb 28 2011

Should the FDA allow HFCS to be renamed “corn sugar”? I vote no.

A colleague pointed out to me today that I am listed nine times on the Corn Refiners Association website as supporting its petition to the FDA to change the name of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) to corn sugar.

When the idea first came up, I didn’t think it mattered much.  But as I had to add more and more postscripts to my post on the issue, and as I read the comments on it, I was persuaded otherwise.   On balance, the arguments against changing the name outweigh the idea that it doesn’t matter (it matters to the Corn Refiners of course).

The FDA is collecting comments on the name change on its website.  I filed this comment today:

The FDA should deny the Corn Refiners petition to change the name of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) to corn sugar.

I understand that the Corn Refiners Association uses my comments on its website to support its position. The website quotes comments I have made to the effect that HFCS is biochemically equivalent to sucrose. It is. But I do not believe that biochemical equivalence is a good reason for the FDA to agree to a name change at this point.

It is highly unlikely that public misunderstanding of nutritional biochemistry and the differential physiological effects of glucose vs. fructose will be addressed and corrected by changing the name of HFCS to corn sugar.

Therefore, the name change is not in the public interest. Its only purpose is to further the commercial interests of members of the Corn Refiners, and that is not one the FDA should be concerned about.

If you have thoughts about the petition, nothing could be easier than telling the FDA what you think:

1. Click on this link.

2. Look on the left side of the page “Results,” “Corn Refiners Association – Citizens Petition,” and on the right side a link that says “Submit a Comment.”

3. Click on “Submit a Comment.”  Fill out the form with your name and affiliation.  Type in your comment.  If a box comes up saying that you are taking too long, click OK and it will give you more time.

My understanding is that there is no particular deadline but rumors are that the FDA will consider all comments submitted by the end of this week.

1. Click on the following link:

http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;dct=O;rpp=10;so=DESC;sb=postedDate;po=0;s=FDA-2010-P-0491

2. You will see on the left side of the page “Results,” “Corn Refiners Association – Citizens Petition,” and on the right side a link that says “Submit a Comment.”

3. Just hit the “Submit a Comment” link, and then you just enter your name and affiliation, etc., type in your comment.

There is no formal comment deadline, but as usual, the sooner a comment is submitted, the more likely FDA will consider it. The best information I have is that FDA will consider all comments submitted by the end of this week.

1. Click on the following link:

http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;dct=O;rpp=10;so=DESC;sb=postedDate;po=0;s=FDA-2010-P-0491

2.  You will see on the left side of the page “Results,”  “Corn Refiners Association – Citizens Petition,” and on the right side a link that says “Submit a Comment.”

3.  Just hit the “Submit a Comment” link, and then you just enter your name and affiliation, etc., type in your comment.

There is no formal comment deadline, but as usual, the sooner a comment is submitted, the more likely FDA will consider it.  The best information I have is that FDA will consider all comments submitted by the end of this week.

1. Click on the following link:

http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;dct=O;rpp=10;so=DESC;sb=postedDate;po=0;s=FDA-2010-P-0491

2. You will see on the left side of the page “Results,” “Corn Refiners Association – Citizens Petition,” and on the right side a link that says “Submit a Comment.”

3. Just hit the “Submit a Comment” link, and then you just enter your name and affiliation, etc., type in your comment.

There is no formal comment deadline, but as usual, the sooner a comment is submitted, the more likely FDA will consider it. The best information I have is that FDA will consider all comments submitted by the end of this week.

Feb 26 2011

USDA recalculates distribution of food dollar

USDA has changed the way it reports the country’s annual expenditures on the food system.  It has just released the Economic Research Service’s new food dollar report. As the report explains, it is designed to answer the question “For what do our food dollars pay?”

The USDA has a nifty way of presenting this information.  The first illustration identifies the distribution of the U.S. food dollar between farm and marketing shares.  The farm share is what goes to the farmer.  The marketing share is everything else that happens to a food between harvest and consumption.

What surprised me about this was the 15.8% farm share.  For those of you who keep track of such things, it was 19% in 2006.

But the USDA changed the methods for computing this figure.  Using the new methods, 15.8% is a 4% increase since 2006.  However this is calculated, less than 20 cents of a dollar spent on food is for the food itself.

The second illustration explains the distribution of the food dollar among ten industry groups involved in the supply chain.

Looking at the actual data series this way, farm and agribusiness accounts for only 11.6% of the dollar.  The big sectors are food processing (18.6%) and food service (33.7%).

From a health and sustainability standpoint, isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

Feb 25 2011

UK health agency: limit red and processed meats to 3 ounces a day

The UK Department of Health issued a warning today to eat less red and processed meat.

  • Red meat means beef, lamb and pork as well as minced meat and offal from these animals.
  • Processed meat means ham, bacon, luncheon meat, corned beef, salami, pâté, sausages and burgers.

The warning is based on a new report from the independent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN).  Its report evaluated the effects of iron on health. Because red meat is a primary source of dietary iron, the committee looked at evidence on the links between red meat and processed meats and bowel cancer.

The report concludes that the link “probably” exists and that:

Adults with relatively high intakes of red and processed meat (around 90 g/day or more) should consider reducing their intakes. A reduction to the UK population average for adult consumers (70 g/day cooked weight) would have little impact on the proportion of the adult population with low iron intakes.

How much is 90 grams?  It is only three ounces of cooked meat.

The UK Health Department advises:

  • People who eat a lot of red or processed meat – around 90g or more of cooked weight per day – are at greater risk of getting bowel cancer;
  • Cutting down to the UK average of 70g a day can help reduce the risk; and
  • This can be achieved by eating smaller portions or by eating red and processed meat less often.

The Department points out that cooked meat weighs about 70% of its uncooked weight (it has less water). So 3 ounces of cooked meat is equivalent to about 4 ounces of uncooked meat.

Expect to hear lots of reactions like “red meat can still be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy balanced diet.”

And where are the US Dietary Guidelines on the subject of red and processed meats?  Buried in euphemisms, alas:

  • Choose lean meats
  • Choose seafood instead of some meat
  • Reduce calories from solid fats

No wonder Americans are confused about diet and health.

Feb 24 2011

Closure (?) on Salmonella Saintpaul

The New England Journal of Medicine has just published a CDC report bringing the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak of 2008 to an apologetic close (for a quick rundown on the history of this incident, see my previous posts).

The investigation of this outbreak first implicated tomatoes, with devastating effects on the tomato industry.  As the paper concludes:

Although an epidemiologic association with raw tomatoes was identified early in this investigation, subsequent epidemiologic and microbiologic evidence implicated jalapeño and serrano peppers. This outbreak highlights the importance of preventing raw-produce contamination.

Yes it does.   Jalapeño and serrano peppers turn up in salsas and guacamoles.  These are mixtures of many ingredients that are often eaten with chips or prepared foods.  People have a hard time remembering whether they ate peppers or not, particularly when the peppers are chopped fine.  As the investigators explained:

This outbreak investigation highlights the recurring challenges of epidemiologic identification of ingredients in foods that are commonly consumed, rapid identification and investigation of local clusters, the need to continue exploring hypotheses during an ongoing outbreak, and produce tracing in the supply chain.

Traceback issues such as commingling, repacking, varying degrees of product documentation throughout the supply chain, difficulty in linking incoming with outgoing shipments to the next level in the distribution chain, and the complexity of the distribution chain continue to hinder product-tracing efforts….

In addition, an understanding of the mechanisms and ecologies that can lead to contamination of produce on farms and the institution of additional control measures from the source throughout the supply chain are critical for preventing similar outbreaks in the future.

In other words, we badly need farm-to-table safety controls for all foods, no exceptions.

But, as the accompanying editorial by Michael Osterholm explains,

The new law has a major shortcoming: dollars. There was no appropriation approved by the Congress for the act or authorization in the bill for the FDA to assess fees on the companies that it inspects. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that implementing this legislation would require $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2015….

Recent reports in the media calling this act “historic legislation” must be tempered by the reality that without the necessary resources, requiring the FDA to carry out the law’s required activities will be like trying to get blood out of a rock.

Blood out of a rock?  The House just passed a bill that would CUT the FDA’s food safety budget by $241 million.

Of course the FDA doesn’t need the funds.  After all, only 21% of the 1,500 people known to have gotten sick with Salmonella Saintpaul had to be hospitalized, and only 2 died.  And Salmonella Saintpaul is in foods that real Americans don’t eat anyway, like peppers with funny foreign names and alfalfa sprouts.

I used to say that Congress would never move on food safety until a close relative of a senior Senator became seriously ill with food poisoning.   Now I have to include a senior House member.

Feb 22 2011

Why the White House is soft on Walmart: afterthoughts

Not everyone liked Sam Kass’s speech as much as I did (see previous post) and I’ve been asked to expand on the idea that we need to pressure the White House to do more.  Here’s how I see the situation.

We live in an era when corporations run government.  You don’t believe this?  Take a look at the appalling events in Wisconsin.  Consider the implications of last year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, allowing corporations virtually unlimited funding of congressional election campaigns.

Election campaign funding is the root source of corruption in American government.   If corporations were not allowed to fund election campaigns, we might be able to elect legislators who are more interested in public health than corporate health.

The First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign aims to reduce childhood obesity.  This, in itself, is fundamentally anti-corporate.  Why?  Because fixing obesity means eating less and eating better, and both are very, very bad for business.  And they are especially bad for the corporations that make highly profitable junk foods—snacks, sodas, and the like—and for retailers who display these products on supermarket shelves.

From the perspective of the White House, the food business is not going away.  If the Obama administration is not going to be perceived as anti-business, it has to work with corporations.  But what can food corporations really do to help kids eat more healthfully?

I worried about this question when I returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos a few years ago.  There, I met high-level executives of food corporations and realized that I needed a clear, unambiguous agenda for them.  But because I think people would be healthier if they ate mostly unprocessed foods, and I’m not much impressed by small nutritional tweakings of junk foods, I had a hard time thinking of positive things they could do.

The only agenda items I could think of were negatives: stop marketing junk food, stop marketing to kids,  stop marketing junk food as health food, stop attacking critics, etc.  Negatives won’t sell.

I think Mrs. Obama’s choice of childhood obesity as her First Lady’s Cause was a courageous decision.   In the current corporate context, the accomplishments listed by Mr. Kass add up to something meaningful.  The First Lady is doing what she can.  And let’s face it: nobody else in that position ever has.  Never have issues of food and nutrition been made so legitimate.  For that alone, she deserves thanks.

If the Obamas think they have to work with business, they have to work with Walmart—it’s the 800-pound food gorilla.  In theory, if Walmart tweaks food products, reduces the price of healthier food options, sources lower cost fruits and vegetables, and moves stores into inner cities, the net result will be healthier choices for Walmart customers.  In practice, we have to wait and see.

The White House must think these potential gains are worth the cost of the nose-holding they have to do about Walmart’s labor and business practices.  Nose-holding is the price of getting things done at that level.

I am in the privileged position of not having to make those kinds of compromises (thank you, NYU).

It is not an accident that Mr. Kass’s riff began with “parents told us.”  The First Lady cannot budge without substantial popular support and pressure.  If we think she is in a position to do any good at all for the movement to reverse childhood obesity and improve the food system, we have to let her know what we’d like her to try to do—loudly and repeatedly.

So maybe the First Lady’s—and Sam Kass’s—next speech will begin: “Everyone who cares about how our food is produced and consumed told us….”

Maybe I’m overly optimistic (it’s my nature), but I still see Mrs. Obama’s efforts as an opportunity.  We ought to be using it to push for what we think is right.

Feb 21 2011

Sam Kass’s speech to the International Association of Culinary Professionals

Sam Kass, White House chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives gave the keynote address to members of the The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) at its New York City Regional Conference on Friday.

The IACP is much more than an organization of cooks.  Every member I talked to is engaged in some incredible farming, gardening, school, or other kids’ project, each more exciting than the next.

Kass spoke to an audience of people who care deeply about food, cooking, health, and kids, and eager to hear what he had to say.  Me too.

The core of his speech was a review of the accomplishments of the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, which has just completed its first year.   These, in sum, are considerable:

Over this past year, we’ve seen the first signs of a fundamental shift in how we live and eat.

We’ve seen changes at every level of our society—from classrooms to boardrooms to the halls of Congress.

We have begun to see this change because people from all over the country, parents and teachers, doctors and small business owners, have started demanding change.

…Parents asked for more fresh, nutritious food in communities.  So we’re working to bring more grocery stores into underserved areas.

Parents wanted healthier, more affordable options on those grocery store shelves.  So we collaborated with food companies and retailers to provide healthier products….

Parents asked for more information about the food you buy for your kids.  And today, we’re seeing better, clearer labels on beverage cans….

Parents asked for better food in your kids’ schools—the kind of balanced meals they are trying to make at home.  So we’re working to put salad bars in 6,000 schools across the country.  Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, historic legislation that will provide healthier school meals to millions of American children.

Parents asked for healthier communities that can sustain healthy families.  And through Let’s Move Cities and Towns, 500 mayors have committed to tackling obesity in their communities….

Parents asked for practical, affordable, real-life advice to keep kids healthy.  So we launched a public service campaign and a website—letsmove.gov—with helpful tips on exercise and nutrition….

If we can do all this in the first year, just imagine what we’ll achieve next year and the year after that….

These kinds of changes will not come easily….There will certainly be many roadblocks and setbacks.  But we need to keep working to break through and work in a collaborative way.

Here’s the speech in its entirety. It may sound speech-written and not overwhelming, but consider the context:  This is the first time food, nutrition, and health have gotten anywhere near this kind of attention at that level of government (at least, food writer Laura Shapiro tells me, since the time of Eleanor Roosevelt).

For the First Lady to take on these issues is truly extraordinary.  Mrs. Obama has no legislated power whatsoever.   She only has the power of leadership and persuasion.

That the kind of changes she is trying to make will not come easily is a breathtaking understatement.  The roadblocks are formidable.   Mr. Kass made it abundantly clear that the White House is trying to do what it can, and then some.

His speech was moving and inspiring.  It’s up to us to cheer them on in every way we can, and also to keep the pressure on to do even more.

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