Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 15 2010

Genetically modified foods: good news, bad news

The National Research Council has a new study out evaluating the benefits of GM (Genetically Modified) foods: Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States.  The blurb about the book gives the good and bad news (which is which depends on how you interpret it):

Since genetically engineered (GE) crops were introduced in 1996, their use in the United States has grown rapidly, accounting for 80-90 percent of soybean, corn, and cotton acreage in 2009. To date, crops with traits that provide resistance to some herbicides and to specific insect pests have benefited adopting farmers by reducing crop losses to insect damage, by increasing flexibility in time management, and by facilitating the use of more environmentally friendly pesticides and tillage practices.

But then it continues:

However, excessive reliance on a single technology combined with a lack of diverse farming practices could undermine the economic and environmental gains from these GE crops.

I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet but I most certainly will.  I am curious to know how the report defines “sustainability” in relation to GM food crops.  In the meantime, the New York Times has weighed in on some clearly unsustainable aspects of this technology:

Use of Roundup, or its generic equivalent, glyphosate, has skyrocketed to the point that weeds are rapidly becoming resistant to the chemical. That is rendering the technology less useful, requiring farmers to start using additional herbicides, some of them more toxic than glyphosate…Shares of Monsanto [the manufacturer of Roundup], which have been falling since January, slipped nearly 2 percent Tuesday to $67.75.

When the FDA first approved GM food crops for planting in 1994, critics warned that overuse of Roundup would eventually promote the growth and proliferation of plants resistant to this chemical.    Well, yes.

As for the scope of planting, we have Louis Umerlik to thank for creating these nifty maps of use of GM crops in the U.S.  Start with this one (it gives references to sources of the information).  Then look at his maps of soybean, corn, and cotton plantings.  Enjoy (or not).

Apr 14 2010

The big push to reduce salt

The Institute of Medicine’s long awaited study,  Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States, will be released next week at a public briefing in Washington, DC.

According to study director Chris Taylor, the briefing will be held Wednesday, April 21, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. at the National Press Club, 529 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC.  Those who cannot attend can listed to a live audio Webcast at http://www.nationalacademies.org/.  Anyone who wants to attend should register at http://www.iom.edu/Activities/Nutrition/ReduceSodiumStrat.aspx.  For information, contact the news office at the National Academies, (202)-334-2138 or onpi@nas.edu.

In what can hardly be a coincidence, General Mills has announced that it will be reducing the sodium in several lines of its products by 20% between now and 2015.

The great majority, perhaps 80%, of the salt in U.S. diets comes from processed and pre-prepared foods.  If salt is to be lowered, the processed food and restaurant industries must do it.  Just about everyone agrees that salt reduction has to occur gradually and across the board.  It’s great that General Mills is signing on to this effort.

Apr 13 2010

The new KFC Double Down: not an April fool joke?

Several informants – and students in my NYU Food Ethics class – told me about KFC’s latest sandwich or sent me to stories about it: two slabs of breaded chicken, two slices of bacon, two melted slices of cheese, and sauce.  I checked the KFC website.  Apparently, it’s for real.  There is even a TV Commercial.

And here’s the nutrition information.  Practically a diet product (except for the sodium).  You can’t make up stuff like this.

Sandwich Calories Fat (g) Sodium (mg)
KFC Original Recipe® Double Down 540 32 1380
KFC Grilled Double Down 460 23 1430

Apr 12 2010

Eating Liberally: A vote for Jamie Oliver

In part in response to the outpouring of hate mail about Jamie Oliver’s “food revolution,” Kerry Trueman has tossed in another question from Eating Liberally:

KT: The last two episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution have yet to air, but folks are already assessing whether Oliver’s attempt to launch a culinary coup in the community of Huntington, West Virginia was a success or a failure. Jamie’s ‘people’ consulted you at the start of this project. Did they heed your advice? If it had been your show, how would you have gone in and done it?

Dr. Nestle: I don’t watch much TV (technophobe that I am, I have yet to figure out how to turn it on without resorting to instructions), but I would not miss the Jamie Oliver show. I first heard about it from students in my NYU Food Ethics class. They made it clear that the show was well worth watching by anyone who cares about how America eats.

I was dubious. When I met with Jamie Oliver’s staff in London last summer—an information session, not a consult—I thought the project sounded kind of arrogant but knowing nothing about reality television, I was curious to see how it would go.

Splendidly, I would say. What I hadn’t realized is how much fun this guy is, and how gutsy. OK, he has annoying Briticisms. OK, a lot of this is about him.

But he wants everyone to learn to cook healthy food and have fun doing it. He wants school lunches to be better. He wants people to be healthier. Along the way, he is exposing deep flaws in the federal school meal programs and in the kinds of foods that many people eat without giving what they eat much thought. Sounds good to me.

I’m kind of stunned by the hostility the programs have evoked among people I would have expected to support these goals. My teaching assistant, Maya Joseph, a doctoral student at the New School, categorized the criticisms for me:

• the wounded ego messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not mention MY work!!)

• the ugly foreigner message (how dare Jamie tell AMERICANS what to eat!)

• the outraged sensitivity messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not take account of X,Y, and Z when he so rudely ballooned into this town).

Maya adds: “I would have thought that it would be obvious…that this is (a) a TV show! and (b) great publicity for our food system tragedies.”

Me too. Or, as food consultant Kate Adamick points out in the first of  her ongoing reviews on the Atlantic Food Channel, “the revolution will be televised.”

This is reality TV aimed at an important public health problem. Is it theater, or is something bigger going on?

From the number of people I know who are watching it and talking about it, I’m voting for bigger. I think it’s useful for people to know that kids at school think it’s normal to eat pizza for breakfast, French fries for lunch, and nothing with a knife and fork. And they have no idea what a tomato or a potato looks like. People need to know that schools and USDA regulations allow these things to happen. They need to know that better food costs more.

From my observations of school food over the years, getting decent food into schools requires:

•  A principal who cares about what kids eat

•  Teachers who care about what kids eat

•  Parents who care about what kids eat

•  Food service personnel who not only care what the kids eat, but also know the kids’ names.

Jamie Oliver is trying to reach all of these people, and more.

I think the programs have much to teach about the reality of school food and what it will take to fix it. The New York Times reviewer, also dubious at first, ended his review with this comment:

One thing noticeably absent from the first two episodes is a discussion of any role the American food industry and its lobbyists might play in the makeup of school lunches and in the formulation of the guidelines set for them by the Agriculture Department. If Mr. Oliver wants a real food revolution, it can’t happen just in Huntington.

Yes! And these programs could help.

Finally, let me comment on the West Virginia University’s evaluation. This survey found that the kids didn’t like Oliver’s meals (but did try them). The staff didn’t like the increased work. Everything cost more.

Once again, this is TV, not a real school intervention. Real ones start at the beginning of a semester, not in the middle, and are about food, not entertainment. They also do not leave it up to the kids to decide what to eat.

As I said in one of my blog posts on these programs, I want to know what happens in schools and in the community after the TV crews are gone. If the programs are any indication, I think real changes will take place in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of at least some participants and viewers. Whether researchers can figure out how to capture those changes is another matter.

Watch them. And get your kids to watch with you.

Addition April 21: Jane Black of the Washington Post has done a thorough evaluation of the TV series accompanied by notes on her  personal interview with Jamie Oliver.   She thinks he did some good.  Me too.

Apr 10 2010

GAO on FDA and USDA: irradiation, food safety, and humane treatment of animals

It’s the weekend and I’m cleaning out my e-files.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency, has just released a bunch of reports complaining about the way the FDA and USDA do business:

Food Irradiation: FDA Could Improve Its Documentation and Communication of Key Decisions on Food Irradiation Petitions (GAO-10-309R, February 16, 2010, 23 pages).

labels on food products subject to FDA jurisdiction do not have to be reviewed and preapproved by FDA before marketing. Rather, the processor is responsible for properly labeling its products. In fact, FDA officials told us that they do not collect information on how irradiated foods are labeled and marketed. In contrast, USDA reviews and preapproves all labels before use on meat and poultry products and has denied label submissions that do not meet its requirements…FDA does not require the product’s ingredient list to disclose that a particular ingredient has been irradiated, while USDA generally does.

Food Safety: FDA Should Strengthen Its Oversight of Food Ingredients Determined to Be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) (GAO-10-246, February 3, 2010, 69 pages).

FDA only reviews those GRAS determinations that companies submit to the agency’s voluntary notification program…the agency has not systematically reconsidered GRAS substances since the 1980s… FDA has largely not responded to concerns about GRAS substances, such as salt and the trans fats in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, that individuals and consumer groups have raised through 11 citizen petitions submitted to the agency between 2004 and 2008…FDA’s approach to regulating nanotechnology allows engineered nanomaterials to enter the food supply as GRAS substances without FDA’s knowledge. In contrast to FDA’s approach, all food ingredients that incorporate engineered nanomaterials must be submitted to regulators in Canada and the European Union before they can be marketed.

Food safety note #1: This arrives in the middle of the latest set of FDA recalls, this time of nearly 100 products made with a flavor enhancer, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, contaminated with Salmonella.

Food safety note #2: the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University has estimated the cost of foodborne illness:  $152 billion annually, of which $39 billion is due to leafy greens and other vegetables.

Food and Drug Administration: Opportunities Exist to Better Address Management Challenges. (GAO-10-279, February 19, 2010, 54 pages).

Through reviewing reports…GAO determined that FDA’s management challenges include recruiting, retaining, and developing its workforce; modernizing its information systems; coordinating internally and externally; communicating with the public; and keeping up with scientific advances…While FDA has taken steps to align its activities and resources to strategic goals, these efforts in its centers and offices are not clear, making it difficult to connect the agency’s use of resources to the achievement of its goals.

If you feel gossipy (or want to interpret the raw data for yourself), you can read what FDA staff actually told GAO interviewers.

Humane Methods of Slaughter Act: Actions Are Needed to Strengthen Enforcement (GAO-10-203, February 19, 2010, 60 pages). [The actual survey responses are here.  And a shorter version given as testimony is here.]

The guidance does not clearly indicate when certain enforcement actions should be taken for an egregious act–one that is cruel to animals or a condition that is ignored and leads to the harming of animals. A noted humane handling expert has stated that FSIS inspectors need clear directives to improve consistency of HMSA enforcement. According to GAO’s survey, FSIS’s training may be insufficient.

This, one can only assume, is an understatement.

The GAO does important work, no?  Now if only government agencies would listen to it.

Apr 9 2010

Corporate social responsibility: real or oxymoron?

Food corporations are pushing corporate social responsibility (CSR) as hard as they can.  This seems like an oxymoron to me, but here’s what they say:

CSR #1: Nestlé (no relation) says it is creating shared value by “optimizing water use and productivity, Italy.”

In the Piacenza and Parma region of Italy, in recent years, water has become scarcer, especially during the summer. Nestlé Italia decided to engage more closely with its tomato suppliers, to secure its supply of tomatoes and significantly reduce the amount of fresh water used for irrigation.

The three-year project with Consorzio Interregionale Ortofrutticoli, a cooperative of tomato farmers, aims to maximise tomato production and optimise irrigation in 10 pilot farms with differing soil conditions, by using solar-powered CropSense Soil Moisture Monitoring technology. Data at root level is collected daily and used to provide the exact amount of water needed to optimise crop revenue and water use.

Data collection will continue into 2011, and additional farmers are already keen to join the project based on the initial results: yields have nearly doubled, the tomato quality (sugar content) increased by 15% and the water used to produce one tonne of tomatoes fell by 45%.

Watch Nestlé’s film: Optimising water use and productivity, Italy

Read more in Nestlé’s report, Creating Shared Value

Anti-CSR: For an antidote, try Corporate Accountability International’s campaign called “Think Outside the Bottle,” and watch the video of Annie Leonard’s Story of Bottled Water.

CSR #2: FoodNavigator has a new collection of commentaries on CSR:

Food industry well-respected for CSR efforts

The food industry is one of the most well-respected industries in terms of social responsibility, according to a new survey from research-based consultancy Penn Schoen Berland… Read

Top line responsibility messages from manufacturers

Corporate responsibility is now accepted as a major part of doing business, even when the economic climate is less than ideal. FoodNavigator.com rounds up the main messages of some of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies… Read

The ethical approach to research

Science is fundamental to the food industry, from supporting claims in the health and wellness sphere to tasting panels to evaluate a new product, but scientists can never forget the ethical implications of their experiments… Read

Unilever comes out top in corporate responsibility rating

A new ranking of major food and beverage companies by their corporate social responsibility is published today, with Unilever, Nestle and Danone occupying the top three spots… Read

Developing a sustainable food industry: The what, why and how

Developing a corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy offers huge scope for innovation and revenue-building – but there is no one-size-fits-all approach, according to a US supply chain management professor… Read

Apr 8 2010

Calorie labeling in the New England Journal

Yesterday, the New England Journal of Medicine published – online ahead of publication – my Perspective on “Health Care Reform in Action–Calorie Labeling Goes National.”

Never, in the more than 40 years since I published my first scientific paper (see note below), have I had an experience like this one.

Most of the time, academic publishing is a tortuous process, fraught with endless delays, rejections, nit-picking, and humiliation.

Not this time:

  • Friday, April 2: Perspective submitted
  • Monday, April 5: Perspective accepted, edited, set into page proofs, and queried
  • Tuesday, April 6: Queries dealt with and page proofs corrected
  • Wednesday, April 7: Figure added and Perspective published online and scheduled for print publication on May 27.

Whew!  Let’s hear it for electronic publishing.  I think I could get used to this.

Note: I know you are dying of curiosity about that first paper.  It appeared in 1968 when I was a budding (alas, never flowering) nucleic acid biochemist: Nestle M, Roberts WK.  Separation of ribonucleosides and ribonucleotides by a one-dimensional paper chromatographic system.  Analytical Biochemistry 1968;22:349-351.

Apr 7 2010

Eating Liberally: The Child Nutrition Act

I keep getting asked what I think about the Child Nutrition Act wending its way through Congress.  Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally posed this as a Q and A:

Let’s Ask Marion: Does The USDA Stand for Ultra Silly Dietary Agenda?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

KT: Monday’s New York Times had an editorial supporting the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, a bill that would give the US Agriculture Department “new powers to set nutritional standards for any food sold on school grounds, particularly junk foods that contribute to obesity.”

The current standards leave a lot to be desired, as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution has revealed. In the first episode, Jamie stood accused of shortchanging the kids on carbohydrates because he omitted the bread from a meal that already included rice.

Last Friday, in episode three, Jamie found himself charged with the violation of “insufficient vegetables,” despite the fact that his noodle-based entree featured seven different vegetables. The remedy? Add a bunch of french fries to the meal to meet the veggie quota.

How did the USDA’s school lunch standards ever get so nutritionally nutty? Would passage of the CNA support the wholesome, made-from-scratch meals that Jamie Oliver’s trying to bring back to our cafeterias?

Dr. Nestle: You are asking about the history of the USDA’s school lunch program? Nothing could be more complicated or arcane. Fortunately, two new books take this on: Susan Levine’s School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton, 2010), and Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (California, 2010).

I used Poppendieck’s book in my Food Ethics class at NYU this semester and reading it while watching Jamie Oliver’s programs was a lot of fun. Yes, Oliver is doing reality television but no, he’s not exaggerating. If you find this difficult to believe, read Poppendieck’s book or take a quick look at Kate Adamick’s review of Oliver’s Food Revolution on the Atlantic Food Channel.

As Levine and Poppendieck explain, and as I discussed in Food Politics (California, 2007), school lunches started out as a way to dispose of surplus agricultural commodities by feeding hungry kids. Over the years, it got caught up in a series of “wars”–first on poverty, hunger, and malnutrition and later on welfare and obesity.

The politics of school lunch, and of the CNA in particular, have always reflected the tension inherent in any welfare program, in this case feeding the poor vs. inducing dependency and overspending. In recent years, as obesity became much more of a public health problem than malnutrition, the politics came to reflect the tensions between commercial interests and those of nutrition reformers. Congress is always involved as it endlessly tinkers with the rules for “competitive foods”–the sodas and snacks sold in competition with federally supported school meals.

Competitive foods put schools in a dilemma and in conflict of interest. They make money from competitive foods to help support the school lunch program. But sodas and snacks undermine participation in school meals programs.

Poppendieck points out that the result is a mess that leaves financially strapped school districts with few choices. It’s not that the “lunch ladies” (you have to love Jamie Oliver’s term) don’t know how to make decent meals. It’s that they are up against inadequate funding and equipment, and impossible nutrition standards that can be met most easily by commercial products like Uncrustables that are designed to meet USDA standards. My favorite example contains 51 ingredients (my rule is “no more than five”).  See Note below.

Inadequate funding is a big consideration in the Child Nutrition Act. This act provides $4.5 billion over 10 years for school meals. Although this represents a 10-fold increase over previous (2004) funding, it works out to an additional measly six cents per meal–not nearly enough to solve school districts’ financial problems.

But–and this is a huge step forward–the act gives USDA the authority to set nutrition standards not only for foods sold in the cafeteria but also in vending machines and a la carte lines.

And the bill does a few other Very Good Things. It provides:

  • An estimated $1.2 billion over 10 years for meals at after-school programs, free meals to all students in schools with high poverty levels, and increased availability of meals during summer months.
  • An estimated $3.2 billion for establishing nutrition standards, strengthening local wellness policies, and increasing reimbursement rates.
  • Mandatory funding for schools to establish school gardens and buy foods from local sources.
  • Increased training for local food service personnel.
  • Automatic enrollment of foster children for free school meals.

As for the pesky nutrition standards: the bill expects the USDA to revise them according to the recent report of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), School Meals: Building Blocks for Health Children. This report recommended a conversion to food-based, rather than nutrient-based, standards along with increases in the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limits on calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

All of this makes the CNA well worth supporting. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it is a good first step to making big improvements eventually. In the meantime, plenty of schools are already doing great work and more are joining the food revolution one meal at a time. These deserve all the help we can give them.

*NOTE: the label of this particular Uncrustable was sent to me by Daniel of Ithaca, who works in an upstate New York school district:

BREAD; ENRICHED UNBLEACHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), WATER, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, YEAST, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL AND/OR SOYBEAN OIL, CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF: WHEAT GLUTEN, SALT, DOUGH CONDITIONERS (MAY CONTAIN ONE OR MORE OF: DIACETYL TARTARIC ACID ESTERS OF MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES [DATEM], MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, ETHOXYLATED MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, SODIUM STEAROYL LACTYLATE, CALCIUM PEROXIDE, ASCORBIC ACID, AZODICARBONAMIDE, L-CYSTEINE), YEAST NUTRIENTS (MAY CONTAIN ONE OR MORE OF: MONOCALCIUM PHOSPHATE, CALCIUM SULFATE, AMMONIUM SULFATE), CALCIUM PROPIONATE (MAINTAIN FRESHNESS), CORNSTARCH, ENZYMES (WITH WHEAT). PASTEURIZED PROCESS CHEESE SPREAD: CULTURED MILK AND SKIM MILK, WATER, WHEY (FROM MILK), SODIUM PHOSPHATE, SALT, CREAM (FROM MILK), CORN SYRUP, LACTIC ACID, SORBIC ACID (PRESERVATIVE), GUAR GUM, ARTIFICIAL COLOR, ENZYMES. BUTTER FLAVORED OIL: PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, SALT, SOY LECITHIN, NATURAL AND ARTIFICAL FLAVORS (WITH MILK), VITAMIN A PALMITATE, BETA CAROTENE ADDED FOR COLOR.

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