Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 4 2010

The latest on GM foods

My newly updated book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, is just out from University of California Press.  Half the book is about the politics of genetically modified (GM) foods.  Politics explains these latest developments:

1.  FDA awards GRAS status to Monsanto’s Vistive Gold soybeans:  These beans have been genetically modified to be lower in linolenic acid and, therefore, more stable to oxidation.  Does this refer to alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)?  If so, this is an omega-3 fatty acid that gets converted in the body to the longer chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA.  Don’t we want more linolenic acid in our foods, not less? Or am I missing something here?

2.  Friends of organics in Congress want USDA to continue the ban on Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa: The courts ruled that this alfalfa cannot be planted until USDA completes and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), is is required by law.  According to the USDA’s preliminary assessment of the impact, RR alfalfa will not adversely affect the environment. But more than 20,000 people wrote to say that they disagreed with the USDA’s benign view.

The letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack points out that alfalfa is a major forage for dairy cows.  If USDA allows GM alfalfa to be grown, it will contaminate conventional alfalfa grown organically (through pollen drift).  If organic dairy producers cannot get uncontaminated organic alfalfa to feed their cows, they will not be able to get their milk certified as organic.

3.  USDA says it will do an EIS for GM sugar beets: Last year, a judge ruled that GM sugar beets, which now comprise 90% or more of sugar beet plantings, could not be planted again until the USDA did an EIS.  Oops.  Somehow, the USDA forgot to do an EIS in 2005 when it allowed GM beets to be planted.

What are GM sugar beet producers supposed to do now? Apparently, a hearing to decide the main issues of a lawsuit (Center for Food Safety v. Schafer) has been scheduled for July 9.  At that hearing, the court is supposed to decide whether RR sugar beets should be banned until USDA does the EIS.  This is awkward because the EIS is expected to take 2 or 3 years.  Why?  Because it must consider:

  • Management practices for organic sugar beets, conventional sugar beets, and glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) sugar beets
  • Potential impacts on food and feed
  • Occurrence of common and serious weeds found in sugar beet systems and practices for controlling them
  • Potential for gene flow from Roundup resistant sugar beet to other plant species
  • Economic and social impacts on organic and conventional sugar beets, Swiss chard, and table beet farmers
  • Potential health impacts

4.  Most American consumers will accept GM wheat if it is produced sustainably, at least according to the results of a survey done by the International Food Information Council, a food industry group:

Although commercially available genetically modified (GM) wheat crops are likely to be at least a decade away, 80 percent of survey respondents said they would be likely to purchase bread, crackers, cookies, cereal, or pasta products containing GM wheat “if they were produced using sustainable practices to feed more people using fewer resources such as land and pesticides.” And consistent with the 2008 survey, 77 percent of respondents said they would buy foods produced through biotechnology if they helped cut pesticide use.

Now, if only they would!

Jun 3 2010

Kraft pushes aliens to sell Lunchables?

I don’t know how Michele Simon finds these things but she has just sent me this link to the latest video advertisement for Kraft’s Lunchables on YouTube’s Kids’ Channel.

As Melanie Warner points out,  Kraft has promised not to advertise its junk foods to kids under the age of 12.

Or maybe Kraft just means this to be advertising its “better-for-you” Lunchables?  The ones that are slightly lower in saturated fat, salt, and sugars?

What do you suppose an ad like this costs?

Jun 3 2010

Is aspartame “nasty”?

Oh those British libel laws.   According to FoodNavigator.com, a judge in Britain has just ruled that Asda, a grocery company in the UK, may not legally describe aspartame, the artificial sweetener, as “nasty.”

This decision is a reversal of a previous High Court ruling that “nasty” has only a vague meeting and does not constitute “malicious falsehood.”  The Court of Appeals reversed that ruling.

A spokeswoman for the maker of aspartame, Ajinomoto, said:Asda can no longer deny that describing aspartame as a ‘nasty’ denigrates a safe and beneficial food ingredient.” Ajinomoto will now proceed with its malicious falsehood case… We will continue to pursue our case and defend the reputation of aspartame.”

This parsing of the meaning of “nasty” would be deliciously academic if we didn’t have our own veggie libel laws to contend with.

And as FoodNavigator puts it:

The case could have wider implications for firms employing emotive rhetoric about additives in marketing materials, notably Pret A Manger, which last year urged shoppers to “avoid hairy chemicals”, which were defined as “obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives … the nasties we avoid at all costs”.

Jun 2 2010

Salt is under siege

In April, the Institute of Medicine published a study concluding that salt poses so serious a health hazard that the FDA should start regulating it as a food additive.

Last week, Mitchell Moss produced a lengthy piece in the New York Times, “The hard sell on salt,” detailing the food industry’s resistance to salt reduction:

The industry is working overtly and behind the scenes to fend off these attacks, using a shifting set of tactics that have defeated similar efforts for 30 years, records and interviews show. Industry insiders call the strategy “delay and divert” and say companies have a powerful incentive to fight back: they crave salt as a low-cost way to create tastes and textures. Doing without it risks losing customers, and replacing it with more expensive ingredients risks losing profits.

Now we have Judith Shulevitz’s piece in The New Republic, Is salt the new crack?”  She concludes:

We need to stop ingesting all these substances in ludicrous amounts…We need to be taught not just what’s in processed food, but how historically anomalous its manufacture and our consumption of it are. We need to understand the mechanisms that addict us to it. We need to relearn how to prepare real meals, and we need to start rethinking the social dynamics of that chore (it can’t just be up to wives and mothers anymore). It’s pretty hard to imagine the government conducting that education campaign, but, 20 years ago, it may have been just as hard to imagine the “truth campaign” that exposed the tobacco industry’s marketing techniques and the transformation of social norms that made it déclassé to smoke.

As I keep saying (see previous posts), the salt issue is one of personal choice.  If I want to eat less salt, I cannot eat processed foods or restaurant foods because that’s where 80% of the salt in American diets comes from.  As Moss explains, PepsiCo cannot make Cheetos without salt.  I can just say no to Cheetos, but eating out is a challenge.

No, salt is not the new crack, but I’m glad that changing food social norms is becoming part of the national conversation.

Jun 1 2010

Thinking about food safety

Food safety is in the news again.

Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich) is calling on the Senate to get busy and pass the food safety bill that it has been sitting on for the last ten months: “I urge my Senate colleagues to acknowledge this important threat and make legislation addressing it a priority. Until the Senate acts, American families will continue to be at risk.”

If this bill ever passes it will require food companies to develop food safety plans, authorize the FDA to order recalls, and give the FDA better access to company records.

But will it do any good?

Here is one view from Dennis Stearns, counsel in the Seattle law firm, Marler & Clark, which represents victims of foodborne illnesses.  In a piece in Food Safety News, “What the oil spill can teach us about food safety,” he notes the endlessly repetitive responses–all talk, no action–to food safety and other crises involving corporate irresponsibility.

He quotes USDA Secretary Vilsack saying, “You can’t have two [food safety] systems and be able to reassure people you’ve got the job covered…This [referring to the peanut recalls of last year] is a grand opportunity for us to take a step back and rethink our approach.'”

Stearns’ piece concludes with this comment on Vilsack’s remarks:

Sadly, this was not the first time that someone had pointed out the need for systemic revision to food safety regulation and inspection in the United States. And neither was it the first time that expressions of outrage over people dying from foodborne illness were followed by no real changes at all. And all I can say about that is: I’m shocked! No, really, I’m shocked!

In contrast, Jim Prevor,who writes as the Perishable Pundit, writes in the online New Atlantis: A Journal of Science and Technology that fixing the FDA will do little to address food safety problems.  Instead, he recommends:

  • Fix the liability system so retailers as well as producers are liable and make it legal negligence, not strict liability.
  • Root out bribery and corruption in food safety certification.
  • Invest in state testing laboratories.
  • Invest in food safety research.
  • Revitalize the Agricultural Extension Service.
  • Educate consumers.

I’m not sure about the legal liability issues, but most of the rest are really good ideas and would help a lot.  Of course consumers should follow food safety procedures but how about getting safe food to them in the first place?

None of this will happen without policy changes, which is why the food safety legislation matters so much.  It’s a national scandal that the Senate is still sitting on that bill.

May 31 2010

CSPI’s report card on food marketing policies (or the lack thereof)

I’m late in getting to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s report on food companies’ policies on marketing to children.  The report is in the form of a report card.  Most companies get very bad grades.  Mars gets the best (a B+) mainly because it has a policy.  Most don’t.

The report says nothing about whether the policies are working.  Based on past experience, I’d guess they are not.  But don’t they look great on paper?

Here’s the Chicago Tribune’s take on this.

May 29 2010

USDA’s latest collection of relevant reports

The USDA does terrific research on many useful topics.  Here is a sample of some just in.

STATE FACT SHEETS:  data on population, per-capita income, earnings per job, poverty rates, employment, unemployment, farm characteristics, farm financial characteristics, top agricultural and export commodities.

WIC PROGRAM: research, publications, and data related to WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). WIC served 9.1 million participants per month at a cost of $6.5 billion in 2009.

FEED GRAINS DATABASE: statistics on domestic corn, grain sorghum, barley, and oats; foreign grains plus rye, millet, and mixed grains. You can also get historical information through custom queries.

LIVESTOCK, DAIRY, AND POULTRY OUTLOOK:  current and forecast production, price, and trade statistics.

AGRICULTURAL OUTLOOK STATISTICAL INDICATORS: commodity and food prices, general economic indicators, government program expenditures, farm income estimates, and trade and export statistics.

ASPARAGUS STATISTICS: acreage, yield, production, price, crop value, and per capita use; also world area, production, and trade.

FOODBORNE ILLNESS COST CALCULATOR:   the cost of illness from specific foodborne pathogens, depending on the  annual number of cases, distribution of cases by severity,  use or costs of medical care, amount or value of time lost from work,  costs of premature death, and disutility costs for nonfatal cases.

ORGANIC FARMERS: explains why use of organic practices in U.S. lags behind other countries, differences and similarities between organic and conventional farmers, reduced consumer demand resulting from the weaker U.S. economy,  and potential competition from the “locally grown” label.

LOCAL FOOD SYSTEMS: defines local food,  market size and reach,  characteristics of local consumers and producers, and  economic and health impacts.  Addresses whether localization reduces energy use or greenhouse gas emissions (inconclusive).

BIOFUELS: Reaches 88 million gallons in 2010 as a result of one plant becoming commercially operational in 2010, using fat to produce diesel. Challenges include reducing high costs and overcoming the constraints of ethanol’s current 10-percent blending limit with gasoline.

Thanks to USDA for producing data that policy wonks like me just love to cite.

May 28 2010

Dismal reports on dietary supplements

Dietary supplements are in trouble these days.  For one thing, it’s really hard to demonstrate that they do any good.  For another, these products are poorly regulated.  Some recent examples:

  • Gingko biloba supplements don’t improve cognitive function in the elderly.
  • St. Johns Wort supplements don’t improve irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Most supplements do not improve mortality, except maybe glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate which are associated with a slight unexplained improvement in this particular review.
  • Most supplements are contaminated with toxic heavy metals says a GAO report with one of this agency’s typically inimitable titles: Herbal Dietary Supplements: Examples of Deceptive or Questionable Marketing Practices and Potentially Questionable Advice.

The New York Times account of the GAO report quotes Steve Mister, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the supplement industry trade association, unsurprised by this finding.  Heavy metals, he said, are routinely found in soil and plants: “I don’t think this should be of concern to consumers.”

Oh great.  Glad he thinks so.  I’d be happier if we had a bit more regulation of these products.

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