Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 26 2010

Peanut allergies on the increase

A survey report in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology says that peanut allergies have tripled in the last decade.  Why?  The authors don’t really know although they speculate that children aren’t exposed to as much dirt as they used to be.

Are we really that much cleaner than we were 10 years ago?  I doubt it.  But I would very much like to know why this is happening.

May 25 2010

The Slaughterhouse Problem: is a resolution in sight?

After years of hearing sad tales about the slaughterhouse problem, it looks like many people are trying to get it resolved.  A fix no longer seems impossible.

The slaughterhouse problem is what small, local meat producers have to contend with when their animals are ready to be killed. The USDA licenses so few slaughterhouses, and the rules for establishing them are so onerous, that humanely raised (if that is the correct term) animals have to be trucked hundreds of miles to considerably less humane commercial facilities to be killed (see added note below).  Furthermore, appointments for slaughter must be made many months or years in advance — whether the animals are ready or not.

Perhaps because the USDA has just announced guidelines for mobile slaughter units, lots of people are writing about this problem. Here, for example, is what I ran across just last week:

  • Joe Cloud, who works with Joel Salatin, writes about the need for small-scale slaughterhouses in The Atlantic.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle reports Joe Cloud’s concerns that USDA regulations will put small slaughterhouses out of business.
  • Carolyn Lockwood has a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the worries of operators of small slaughterhouses about safety requirements for microbial testing.
  • Christine Muhlke writes in the New York Times magazine about her experience observing a mobile slaughterhouse developed by Glynwood’s Mobile Harvest System.
  • Marissa Guggiana, president of Sonoma Direct Meats in Petaluma, CA, says in Edible Marin & Wine Country that “in Northern California, the lack of local slaughtering options is at a crisis point.”

If enough people complain about this problem, the USDA might get moving on it.  The guidelines are a good first step.

The guidelines, by the way, are up for public comment.  For comments (or attached files with lengthier comments), go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal.   Be sure to include the agency’s name, USDA, and docket number FSIS-2010-0004.  Comments must be filed within 60 days.

Added note: the USDA has a new study of “Slaughter availability to small livestock and poultry producers — maps” that tells the story at a glance.  Many large regions of the country have limited or no access to slaughterhouses small enough to handle animals from small producers.

May 23 2010

Michael Pollan writes about the food revolution

Michael Pollan has a long essay in the New York Review of Books based on a review of five books: “The Food Movement, Rising.”

Here’s my favorite quotation from it, for obvious reasons:

Beginning in 2001 with the publication of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, a surprise best-seller, and, the following year, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, the food journalism of the last decade has succeeded in making clear and telling connections between the methods of industrial food production, agricultural policy, food-borne illness, childhood obesity, the decline of the family meal as an institution, and, notably, the decline of family income beginning in the 1970s.

At the risk of reading too much into this, I think the fact that the New York Review of Books thinks the food revolution is worth writing about is an indication of how far this movement has come.

In an essay in the latest issue of Food, Culture, and Society, “Writing the Food Studies Movement,” I talk about the first class I ever taught about food and nutrition.  This was at Brandeis University in the fall semester, 1975.  In this class, I assigned two articles from the New York Review of Books:

  • Barraclough, Geoffrey.  I. The Great World CrisisNew York Review of Books, January 23, 1975.
  • Barraclough, Geoffrey.  II. Wealth and Power: The Politics of Food and Oil. New York Review of Books, August 7, 1975.

These astonishingly prescient essays – still well worth reading – addressed the ways money, energy, and food are inextricably linked to each other and to global power politics.

Then, nothing.  Thirty-five years later, the New York Review finally figured out that food politics is worth space in its pages.  Pollan’s article is a sign of how far the food movement has come.


May 22 2010

The source of E. coli 0145?

Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who represents victims of food poisonings, consistently urges federal food safety agencies to reveal what they know so consumers can protect themselves from unsafe food.

He is especially annoyed that the FDA has not revealed the name of the farm in Yuma, Arizona, linked to the bagged romaine lettuce that has sickened more than 30 people in several states so far with the unusual form of E. coli, 0145.

Marler knows how to get information (although not always accurate results, apparently – see update below).  He first offered $5,000–and later offered $10,000–as a reward to anyone who revealed the name of the farm before the FDA did (the money goes to charity).  He got two takers. Both identified a particular firm in California as the source.

Update, May 22:  I received a message today from Leslie Krasny, partner in the law firm of  Keller and Heckman, LLP, San Francisco, which represents the farm named by those sources.  She advises me that there is no evidence linking her client’s romaine lettuce to the outbreak and that her client is not even under investigation by the FDA.  She asks that I delete reference to her client, which I have done.  Mr. Marler also has done so.

May 20 2010

What is a small farm? Can it survive?

Many of us have been heartened to learn that the number of small farms in the U.S. is increasing for the first time in a century.  The latest Census of Agriculture reports more small farms in 2007 than in 2002.

But the USDA, which tracks such things in reports such as the recent Small Farms in the United States: Persistence Under Pressure, offers a less optimistic message.

According to the authors of that report, defining a small farm is not so easy to do.   As they explain:

USDA defines a small farm as an operation with gross cash farm income under $250,000. Within that group are commercial and noncommercial farms. The number of small commercial farms – with sales of $10,000 to $250,000 – actually fell between 2002 and 2007….

In fact, all of the growth occurred among farms under $1,000 in sales…Most of these operations are better described as rural residences; the households on these farms – and on many other small farms – rely heavily on off-farm income.

Although most (91%) of U.S. farms are small, farms earning $250,000 and above account for 85 percent of the market value of agricultural production.

I’m surprised by these figures and wonder whether the USDA data capture the young farmers I keep hearing about who are producing for farmers’ markets and CSAs.  The ones I meet tell me they are making a living.  If so, I hope that means they are doing better than $1000 per year.  If not, we need the USDA to work with them to make sure they do.  Small farms grow food, not feed.  We need more of them.

May 19 2010

Here’s a thought: bring back Home Ec

Harvard pediatrician David Ludwig and Tufts professor Alice Lichtenstein team up in a JAMA commentary with a novel idea.  How about re-introducing home economics into the school curriculum!

Girls and boys should be taught the basic principles they will need to feed themselves and their families within the current food environment: a version of hunting and gathering for the 21st century. Through a combination of pragmatic instruction, field trips, and demonstrations, this curriculum would aim to transform meal preparation from an intimidating chore into a manageable and rewarding pursuit.

…Obesity presently costs society almost $150 billion annually in increased health care expenditures. The personal and economic toll of this epidemic will only increase as this generation of adolescents develops weight-related complications such as type 2 diabetes earlier in life than ever before. From this perspective, providing a mandatory food preparation curriculum to students throughout the country may be among the best investments society could make.

May 17 2010

White House says 1.5 trillion calories to be cut from food supply?

I’m in California but fortunately was up early enough to participate in an unexpected White House conference call.  This was a preview of the press conference held this afternoon to announce food company pledges to reduce the calories in their products by 1.5 trillion by 2015.  As the press release explains, the 16 food company members of the  Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF)

are pledging to take actions aimed at reducing 1.5 trillion product calories by the end of 2015. As an interim step to this goal, HWCF will seek to reduce calories by 1 trillion in 2012.

The energy gap?  That’s the 1.5 trillion excess calories that Americans consume each year on average.  This number assumes that the American population consumes an excess of 100 calories a day (the kids’ gap is less).  This number comes from some unexplained manipulation of 100 calories x 365 days per year x 300 million Americans.

How will food companies do this?

Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation manufacturing companies will pursue their calorie reduction goals by growing and introducing lower-calorie options; changing product recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products; or reducing portion sizes of existing single-serve products. These changes will help Americans reduce their calorie intake, improve their overall nutrition and close the energy gap.

How will we know they will actually do this?

To assess the impact of the pledge, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) will support a rigorous, independent evaluation of how the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation’s efforts to reduce calories in the marketplace affect calories consumed by children and adolescents. RWJF will publicly report its findings.

What are we to make of all this?  Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt?*  History suggests the latter possibility.  Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products without doing anything, and every promise helps stave off regulation.

On the other hand, the RWJF evaluation sounds plenty serious, and top-notch people are involved in it.  If the companies fail to do as promised, this will be evident and evidence for the need for regulation.

As I explained to Jane Black of the Washington Post, the White House efforts to tackle childhood obesity have been consistent and relentless.  What the White House is doing is holding food companies to the fire for making kids fat. That’s awkward for the companies.  They don’t see it as good for business.  Hence the agreement to change.

What the White House has not been able to get are similar pledges about marketing to kids, but that – and front-of-package labeling – are clearly the next targets.

So let’s give Michelle Obama a big hand for taking this on.  I will be watching for the evaluation with great interest although I hate the idea that we have to wait until 2015 to see the results.

*Added comment: see Michele Simon’s considerably less optimistic post on this.  As she puts it, “who needs policy when you’ve got promises?”

Update May 18: FoodSafetyNews covered the event.  The Atlantic’s political editor is skeptical and notes the absence of a

Calorie Measuring Authority, and the science of counting calories is not as exact as one might think. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which helped to put together today’s event, spent $1 million in the first quarter of 2010 on lobbying, much of it for the maintenance of corn subsidies.

May 15 2010

Lobbying and farm subsidies

It’s hard for mere mortals to track the extent of food lobbying and its effects on, for example, farm subsidies.

Thanks to the Yale Rudd Center for setting up a lobbying data base where you can track who spends money on what.  It is searchable by year, issue, and sponsor.

And thanks to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for setting up a data base for tracking farm subsidies.  This, as I mentioned in an earlier post, linked subsidies to specific farms in specific locations.  Uh oh.  EWG can’t do that any more.  According to EWG:

Our 2007 database used previously unavailable records to uncover nearly 500,000 individuals who had never been identified as farm subsidy recipients. Many had been shielded by their involvement in byzantine mazes of co-ops and corporate entity shell games. For example, the database revealed that Florida real estate developer Maurice Wilder, reportedly worth $500 million, was pulling in almost $1 million a year in farm subsidies for corn farms he owns in several states.

Unfortunately for our 2010 update, the data that provided such a revelatory account of just who receives the billions paid out in the maze of federal farm subsidy programs is no longer available to us.

Why not?

That’s because Congress changed the wording of the 1614 provision in the 2008 farm bill from USDA “shall” release such data to USDA “may” release such data. USDA has since decided not to release the information. According to USDA officials, the database can cost as much as $6.7 million to produce, and Congress did not appropriate money to compile the database.

This, says EWG, makes the Obama administration less forthcoming than the Bush administration.  Amazing, the effects of one word change on EWG’s – and our – ability to see why farm subsidies are so corrupt.

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