Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
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.

May 14 2010

Food (un)safety update: E. coli 0145 in Arizona lettuce and more

It’s deja vu all over again with the recent recall of bagged romaine lettuce contaminated with a toxic form of E. coli.  The lettuce came from a central wash-and-bag facility that sent products out to food service companies in several states making about 30 people sick so far.

The one new development is the strain of E. coli: 0145, not O157:H7.  Despite decades of worry that other STECs (Shiga Toxin-producing strains of E. coli) cause serious human illness, state health departments don’t routinely test for 0145.  Clearly, they need to.

The FDA and CDC are both working on this case.

FoodSafetyNews.com has a complete report on the situation to date.  It examines the possible source of 0145 in a three-part series:

Meanwhile, the USDA issued compliance guidelines for reducing Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry.  That’s nice, but what about STECs?

And the GAO has just issued a new report, FDA Could Strengthen Oversight of Imported Food by Improving Enforcement and Seeking Additional Authorities (don’t you love those titles?).  The report focuses on weaknesses in FDA’s oversight of food imports.

FoodQualityNews.com has a short but tough summary:

There are about 189,000 registered foreign sites where food is made for sale in the United States, according to the report. Of those, the FDA inspected just 153 in 2008…Meanwhile, the amount of food imported into the United States is increasing, and now accounts for 15 percent of the total food supply, including 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood.

What more evidence do we need for the urgency of passing food safety legislation?  Reminder: the Senate has been sitting on a food safety bill since the House passed it last August.  Apparently, this Congress this food safety can wait.  Tell that to the people who got sick from eating bagged romaine lettuce.

May 13 2010

White House Task Force on Obesity reports in

This report, Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within A Generation, is a terrific summary of where we stand today on childhood obesity (“the challenge we face”) and what to do about it. The report wants to reduce rates of child obesity to where they were before all this started:

That means returning to a childhood obesity rate of just 5% by 2030. Achieving this goal will require “bending the curve” fairly quickly, so that by 2015, there will be a 2.5% reduction in each of the current rates of overweight and obese children, and by 2020, a 5% reduction.

This seems so modest that it might actually be achievable.

Like most such plans, this one has way too many recommendations, in this case, 70 (the summary table starts on page 89).  These are divided up in categories.  For example:

Recommendations for early childhood

  • Educate and help women conceive at a healthy weight and have a healthy weight gain during pregnancy
  • Encourage and support breastfeeding
  • Prioritize research into chemicals in the environment that may cause or worsen obesity
  • Educate and support parents in efforts to reduce kids’ TV and media time
  • Improve nutrition and physical activity practices in child nutrition programs.

For empowering parents and caregivers:

  • Government should work with local communities to promote the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the 2010 food pyramid.
  • USDA and FDA should work with the food and beverage industry to develop standard nutrition labels for packages.
  • Restaurants and vending machines should display calorie counts of all items offered.
  • The food and beverage industry should extend its voluntary self-regulation to restrict all forms of marketing to children. If this does not happen, federal regulation should be considered
  • Media and entertainment companies should limit licensing of popular characters to healthy food and beverage products
  • Insurance plans should cover services needed to help prevent, assess, and care for child obesity.

For healthier food in schools

  • Update federal standards for school meals and improve the nutritional quality of USDA foods provided to schools.
  • Increase funding for school meals.
  • Encourage schools to upgrade cafeteria equipment to support healthier foods. Example: Swap deep fryers for salad bars.
  • Connect school meal programs to local growers and encourage farm-to-school programs.
  • Improve nutritional education in schools and make it more available.
  • Increase the use of school gardens to educate about healthy eating.
  • Promote healthy behaviors in juvenile correction facilities.

For improving access to healthy foods

  • Launch a multi-agency “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” to make healthy foods more available in underserved urban and rural communities.
  • Encourage local governments to attract grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods
  • Encourage facilities that serve children (e.g., hospitals, recreation centers, and parks) to promote healthy foods and beverages.
  • Provide economic incentives to increase production of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Evaluate the effect of targeted subsidies on purchases of healthy foods through nutrition assistance programs.
  • Study the effects of state and local sales taxes on calorie-dense foods.

For increasing kids’ physical activity

  • School programs should stress physical activity as much as healthy nutrition.
  • State and local school programs should increase the quality and frequency of age-appropriate physical education taught by certified PE teachers.
  • Promote recess for elementary school students and activity breaks for older students.
  • Federal, state, and local agencies should partner with communities and businesses to extend the school day in order to offer physical activity programs.
  • The EPA should assist communities building new schools to place them on sites that encourage walking or biking to school.
  • Increase the number of safe playgrounds and parks, particularly in low-income communities.
  • Encourage entertainment and technology companies to continue developing new ways to engage kids in physical activity.

Good ideas, but there are some things I’m not so crazy about here.  The plan seems awfully voluntary and let’s be pals and all work together. Voluntary, as evidence demonstrates, does not work for the food industry.  Much leadership will be needed to make this plan work.  But these recommendations should give advocates plenty of inspiration to continue working on these issues.

The Washington Post has a particularly good summary of the key recommendations, and singles out the ones aimed at marketing to kids.

Jane Black of the Washington Post is cautiously optimistic.  Me too.

May 12 2010

IOM wants just as rigorous science for food claims as for drugs

Buried in an Institute of Medicine report released today on, of all things, “biomarkers and surrogate endpoints in chronic disease” are some truly astonishing recommendations:

Rec. 3: The FDA should use the same degree of scientific rigor for evaluation of biomarkers across regulatory areas, whether they’re proposed for use in the arenas of drugs, medical devices, biologics, or foods and dietary supplements.

Rec. 4: The FDA should take into account a nutrient’s or food’s source as well as any modifying effects of the food or supplement that serves as the delivery vehicle and the dietary patterns associated with consumption of the nutrient or food when reviewing health-related label claims and the safety of food and supplements.

Translation: The FDA should require the same level of scientific substantiation for health claims as for pharmaceutical drugs, and not assume that a supplement has the same health effect as a food or diet.

As the press release states:

The FDA should apply the same rigor to evaluating the science behind claims of foods’ and nutritional supplements’ health benefits as it devotes to assessing medication and medical technology approvals…There are no scientific grounds for using different standards of evidence when evaluating the health benefits of food ingredients and drugs given that both can have significant impacts on people’s well-being.

The committee set out to recommend scientific criteria for evaluating the types of scientific data that companies use to convince the FDA to allow health and safety claims.  Food claims got tossed into the mix. 

The impact of these recommendations could be considerable.  The IOM is saying that health claims need to have rigorous science to back them up, not least because the kinds of claims now used to market foods do not come close to meeting those criteria.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal has to say about this report (it quotes me).

How right they are, as witnessed by the health claims on chocolate-flavored, sugar-sweetened Enfagrow.

May 11 2010

Feed Your Pet Right: The “Book Tour”

Book tours are not what they used to be, even for people like me who ordinarily write for impoverished academic presses.  For this book, we do have a few things going on.  I summarize them here.  Times are local.  The public lectures are listed in more detail under Appearances.

WASHINGTON DC

May 12:  Diane Rehm Show, WAMU-FM, Washington, DC, 11:00 a.m.

May 12: The Animal House, WAMU-FM, Washington, DC, 3:00 p.m.

NEW YORK

May 13: Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, 11:40 a.m.

May 14  Good Morning America, ABC

SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA

May 15 CPS Salon 7:30 p.m.  Requires rsvp.  Go to cpslectures.com.  Click on “invite me.”

May 18 Holistic Hound, 1510 Walnut St. / Berkeley, CA, 6:30 p.m.

May 22  Omnivore Books, 3885a Cesar Chavez Street / San Francisco, CA, 3:00 p.m.

May 23  Point Reyes Books, 11315 State Route 1/ Point Reyes Station CA  3:00 p.m.

NEW YORK

May 25  Authors on Animals radio with Tracie Hotchner

May 27  NYU Fales Library/Bobst, 3rd floor, 70 Washington Square So, 4:00 p.m.

May 10 2010

Feed Your Pet Right: Out at last!

The book about pet food and the pet food industry that I wrote with Malden Nesheim – Feed Your Pet Right (Free Press/Simon & Schuster) – comes out tomorrow, May 11.  At last!

Why would two human nutritionists interested in food politics write a book about pet food?

  • Pets eat the same food we do, just different parts.
  • The five major companies that make pet food – Nestlé, Mars, Procter & Gamble (Iams), Colgate-Palmolive (Hill’s), and Del Monte – also make food for humans.
  • Pet food is a huge business that generates $18 billion in annual sales in the U.S. alone.
  • The marketing of pet foods is just like the marketing of human foods (health claims, production values).
  • The safety issues are identical.
  • And people do love their pets.

These are all reason enough to be interested in this segment of the food business, whether you do or do not own a cat or dog (which we do not, at the moment).

This book came about as an extension of what I wrote about in What to Eat.  I could see that pet foods took up a lot of supermarket real estate but I could not understand their labels.  But Mal, who taught animal nutrition for many years, knew exactly what they meant.  Hence: this book.

We signed on to write it in February 2007, three weeks before the melamine pet food recalls of 2007.  I intended my comments on the recalls to be an appendix to this book, but the writing got out of hand and ended up as Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine (University of California Press, 2008).

Feed Your Pet Right is out at last.  You can find out about it at Free Press/Simon and Schuster or Amazon or Borders or Barnes & Noble or IndieBound.

You can follow it on Facebook (Feed Your Pet Right), where we will deal with current issues about pet food, answer questions, and respond to comments.

Here’s what it covers:

1. Introduction

The origins of commercial pet foods

2. What pets ate

3. What pets need

4. Inventing commercial pet foods

5. Pet foods as an industry

What’s in those packages?

6. Pet foods: wet and dry

7. The ingredients

8. The rendered ingredients

9. Who sets pet food rules?

Commercial pet foods: the market

10. What’s on those labels?

11. The pet food marketplace: segments

12. Products at a premium

Special products for target markets

13. For young and old

14. For special health problems

15. For weight loss

The pet food extras

16. Snacks, treats, chews, and bottled waters

17. Dietary supplements

18. Do supplements work?

Alternatives to commercial pet feeding

19. Unconventional diets

20. The raw

21. The home cooked

Thinking about pet foods

22. Are commercial pet foods healthy for pets?

23. Do people eat pet food?

24. Do pet food companies influence veterinarians?

25. Is pet food research ethical?

26. Concluding thoughts

Acknowledgments

Appendix 1. The U.S. pet food industry: facts and figures

Appendix 2. Recent history of the pet food industry

Appendix 3. The history of pet food regulation

Appendix 4. Estimating pet food calories

Appendix 5. Food needs of Alaskan sled racing dogs

Appendix 6. Resources

List of Tables and Figures

Notes

Index

Enjoy!

Tomorrow: Where and when we will be speaking about the book.



1. Introduction

The origins of commercial pet foods

2. What pets ate

3. What pets need

4. Inventing commercial pet foods

5. Pet foods as an industry

What’s in those packages?

6. Pet foods: wet and dry

7. The ingredients

8. The rendered ingredients

9. Who sets pet food rules?

Commercial pet foods: the market

10. What’s on those labels?

11. The pet food marketplace: segments

12. Products at a premium

Special products for target markets

13. For young and old

14. For special health problems

15. For weight loss

The pet food extras

16. Snacks, treats, chews, and bottled waters

17. Dietary supplements

18. Do supplements work?

Alternatives to commercial pet feeding

19. Unconventional diets

20. The raw

21. The home cooked

Thinking about pet foods

22. Are commercial pet foods healthy for pets? 23. Do people eat pet food?

24. Do pet food companies influence veterinarians?

25. Is pet food research ethical?

26. Concluding thoughts

Appendix 1. The U.S. pet food industry: facts and figures

Appendix 2. Recent history of the pet food industry

Appendix 3. The history of pet food regulation

Appendix 4. Estimating pet food calories

Appendix 5. Food needs of Alaskan sled racing dogs

Appendix 6. Resources

List of Tables and Figures

Acknowledgments

May 9 2010

Food politics in the media: recent examples

I’ve collected a few video bits and other such things.  Can’t wait to share them:

Enjoy!  Happy Mother’s Day!

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