Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 15 2010

Nestlé’s 2009 report: Creating Shared Value

I’ve just gotten an announcement of Nestlé’s (no relation) latest corporate social responsibility activities.  It has released the 2009 version of its annual report: “Creating Shared Value.” By this, the company means that its activities that benefit society as well as its shareholders in three areas: water, nutrition, and rural development.

According to the report, Nestlé has achieved:

  • A 59% reduction of water withdrawal per ton of product since 2000.
  • More than 160,000 individual farmers and suppliers trained through capacity-building programs.
  • Significant improvements in greenhouse gas emissions, water use and creation of waste and by-products.
  • More than 7,200 products renovated for health considerations; over 3,300 now have reduced sugar, sodium, fats or artificial colors.

But wait.  Isn’t this the company that sold $102 billion worth of bottled water as well as chocolate candy, and ice cream last year?

Is Creating Shared Value a win-win?  Or is it an oxymoron?

Mar 14 2010

Join the home farming movement: Partner with Triscuits!

I like Triscuits (Nabisco/Kraft) and am especially fond of the “Hint of Salt” variety.  These only have three ingredients: whole grain soft white winter wheat, soybean oil, salt.  And the sodium is indeed relatively low – about 5 mg per cracker.

But I am always suspicious of corporate partnerships and alliances with advocacy groups.  So I am deeply disappointed not to find “Hint of Salt” Triscuits included in the Triscuit’s new “Home Farming” partnership:

JOIN THE MOVEMENT: From rural areas to urban communities, home farms are sprouting up all over the country. And it’s only just begun. Triscuit has created this site with help from Urban Farming, a non-profit organization, to help build a home farming community where both beginners and more seasoned gardeners can dialogue and gather information towards their common mission: to reap food that is deliciously fresh, penny-wise, healthier for themselves and the planet. It’s about home farming, and the everyday joy that grows out of it. So join us and let’s get farming!

OK.  So you can’t make this stuff up.

Apparently, only the saltier Original Triscuits qualify (whole wheat, soybean and/or palm oil, and three times as much salt) for home farming.  These “Original” boxes come embedded with basil seeds to get you started.  How come there aren’t any basil seeds in “Hint of Salt?”

MarketingDaily explains how this partnership with Urban Farming is promoting the creation of community farms, not to mention salty snacks.

Thanks to Michele Simon who posted on this.  Thanks also to Ellen Fried who wonders: “But how do home farmers grow Triscuits?”

Mar 13 2010

The fate of vitamins in vegetables, stored and cooked

Nothing about nutrition is simple.

I was intrigued by the Observatory column in the New York Times last week.  USDA researchers showed that supermarket spinach stored under continuous fluorescent light retained more vitamins than spinach stored in the dark for at least 9 days.  Their hypothesis: the light promotes continued photosynthesis and protects against degradation.

I was curious to know whether they measured vitamin C.  I checked the article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (February 2010, DOI: 10.1021/jf903596v).  Indeed they did.  This seems odd because this vitamin is well known to be degraded by light.  That is why orange juice is usually stored in opaque containers.  One explanation might be that orange juice is stored a lot longer than 9 days.

Cooking also destroys vitamin C.  While I was looking for that article I came across this one, which describes experiments looking at the effects of common cooking practices (boiling, microwaving, and steaming) on beneficial antioxidants and phytochemicals in Brussels sprouts.

Steaming increased phytochemicals in fresh and frozen sprouts.  Boiling did too, but only in the fresh vegetables.  Cooking reduced phytochemical content in frozen samples.  Microwaving was the best cooking method for retaining color and vitamin activity.  As expected, all cooking methods destroyed vitamin C.

So what to make of this?  Eat a mixture of cooked and uncooked vegetables and the vitamins will take care of themselves.  If you do cook, steaming is great and microwaving is better for preserving vitamin activity.  For vitamin C, raw wins every time.

Happy weekend!

Mar 12 2010

Disturbances on the GM front

If you want to know what’s really happening in the world of food and nutrition, the business pages are a good starting place.  Today’s New York Times business section documents the “stunning” rise in the price of soybean seeds (up 108% since 2001) and corn seeds (up 135%).

Why care?  Genetically modified (GM) varieties are now the majority – and increasingly the vast majority – of crops planted in the United States.   The seeds are patented.  Farmers cannot harvest and save them.  Farmers must buy new patented seeds every year.  And since one company – Monsanto – owns most of the patents, it gets to set the price.

USDA keeps track of the rise in use of GM crops.  Impressive, no?

The USDA does not track GM sugar beets on this chart, but should.  Monsanto also patents GM sugar beets.  The USDA approved Monsanto’s sugar beets in 2005.  By 2009, 95% of U.S. sugar beets were grown from Monsanto’s patented varieties.

Oops.  When it approved the beets, the USDA let them be planted without the required environmental impact statement (EIS).   Advocacy groups argued that the beets should not be planted without that assessment.  A judge agreed and blocked further plantings.  The judge is still sitting on the case.  Until he rules, no GM sugar beets can be planted.

We have a similar situation with GM alfalfa.  This crop was also approved in 2005 without an EIS and also was taken to court and banned.  But now the EIS is done and the USDA has found “no safety concerns.”  Perhaps GM alfalfa will be added to the chart next year?

What are we to make of this?  Is it a good idea for one company to own most of the seeds planted in the United States?  Especially when that company is permitted to enforce its own patent protection and to set its own prices?

The great promise of food biotechnology is that it will feed a hungry planet.  Is this the best way to met world food needs?  Whatever you think of GM foods, these questions are worth pondering.

Mar 11 2010

Does fighting obesity also mean fighting corporations? So it seems

Corporations go to a lot of trouble to neutralize potential critics.   Recent examples: two co-optations (McDonald’s alliance with Weight Watchers and PepsiCo’s with the Yale School of Medicine) and one aggression (Disney’s forced expulsion of the Center for Commercial-Free Childhood from Harvard).

Co-optation is the winning over or neutralization of opponents by bringing them into the fold.  It works well.

Let’s start with the new partnership between Weight Watchers and McDonald’s.  OK.  This is happening in New Zealand, not here, but it is still a good example.  McDonald’s New Zealand makes three meals that meet criteria for 6 Weight Watchers’ points.    Will Weight Watchers New Zealand suggest that its members cut down on fast food?  Not likely.

Next, Yale.  Yale Medical School proudly announces that PepsiCo has agreed to fund a new fellowship.  This fellowship, which creates a new position in the MD-PhD program, is for doctoral work in nutrition science.

Dr. Robert Alpern, dean and the Ensign Professor at Yale School of Medicine, says of this gift:

PepsiCo’s commitment to improving health through proper nutrition is of great importance to the well-being of people in this country and throughout the world. We are delighted that they are expanding their research in this area and that they have chosen Yale as a partner for this endeavor.

You can’t satirize something like this, but why am I guessing that recipients of this fellowship are unlikely to study the effects of food marketing on obesity or the effects of fructose on metabolism or to advise their overweight patients to cut down on soft drinks? (Thanks to Michele Simon who commented on it on her newly restored blog, Sunday, March 7).

And then there is yesterday’s ugly story in the New York Times about Disney’s retaliation against the Center for Commercial-Free Childhood which had successfully gotten the company to back off on its advertising for Baby Einstein videos.  By all reports, Disney pressured the Harvard unit that housed the Center to evict the Center under truly shameful circumstances.

The moral: if you want to do something to prevent childhood and adult obesity, you are working against the economic interests of corporations that profit from kids eating too much food or watching too much television.  And you must take great care to hold on to your independence.

Mar 10 2010

What’s up with the hydrolyzed vegetable protein recall?

Thanks to Carol for this question: “I am wondering if you are planning to write anything about the current Salmonella Tennessee in hydrolyzed vegetable protein..and how it just might be in “everything.”

I wasn’t planning to make a big deal of the recall of hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) – and the more than 100 products containing this flavor ingredient in the United States and in Canada – because the FDA seems on the job and nobody is getting sick (as far as we know).

But this one now looks like another food safety scandal.

To begin with, HVP is one of those fifth flavor, umami substances.  As the FDA explains,

HVP is a flavor enhancer used in a wide variety of processed food products, such as soups, sauces, chilis, stews, hot dogs, gravies, seasoned snack foods, dips, and dressings. It is often blended with other spices to make seasonings that are used in or on foods.

Translation: it is indeed in everything.

This scandal begins with a whistle-blowing customer of Basic Food Flavors, the manufacturer of HVP.  The customer ‘s company apparently tests its purchased ingredients for pathogens (what a concept!).  It found Salmonella in the HVP.  Sometime early in February, it notified the FDA.

The FDA inspected the Basic Food Flavors plant on February 12 and found Salmonella.   It also found records indicating that HVP tested positive for Salmonella on January 21.  What did the company do about the test?  Not a thing.  It continued to ship out products.

As the FDA described its findings:

After receiving the first private laboratory analytical results (Certificate of Analysis dated 1/21/2010) indicating the presence of Salmonella in your facility, you continued to distribute paste and powder products until 2/15/2010. Furthermore, from 1/21/2010 to 2/20/2010, you continued to manufacture HVP paste and powder products under the same processing conditions that did not minimize microbial contamination.

The FDA further explains [my emphasis]:

The FDA then began discussions with Basic Food Flavors regarding the firm’s intentions to conduct a voluntary recall of the HVP the company had made, in both powder and paste form, manufactured on or after Sept. 17. On Feb. 26, 2010, Basic Food Flavors began notifying its customers that it was recalling all of the HVP product in powder and paste form made since Sept. 17.

The FDA announced the recall on March 4.

This means that from January 21 until at least February 20, the company continued to ship HVP potentially contaminated with Salmonella.

Then, over the next six days, the FDA had to beg Basic Food Flavors to issue a recall.  The company may have started notifying customers on February 26 but the FDA did not announce the recall until March 4, weeks after the first findings of Salmonella.

Do we need more evidence that the FDA needs the authority to order recalls?  And when is Congress going to get around to passing the food safety bill?  The last I heard, they were talking about May, maybe.  At best, this would be nine months after the House passed the bill last August.

Undoubtedly, this situation is frustrating for the FDA.  But it is downright dangerous to us.   It’s time to scream at Congress to act.

Addendum: The fallout from the recall is just beginning.  Windsor Farms of Lampasas, Texas and Oakland, Mississippi is recalling 1.7 million pounds of ready-to-eat beef taquito and chicken quesadilla products+ containing HVP.   Procter & Gamble is recalling Pringles Restaurant Cravers Cheeseburger potato crisps and Family Faves Taco Night potato crisps.  And here are some more:

Mar 9 2010

Sugar politics: not so sweet

I got a comment this morning from Eric who asks whether I had seen the article in yesterday’s New York Times about Florida’s bailout of Big Sugar in the Everglades.  I could hardly miss it.  The story starts on the front page and continues over two full inside pages.

Titled “Deal to save Everglades may help sugar firm,” the article explains how Florida politicians engineered a taxpayer-supported buyout of United States Sugar for nearly $2 billion in 2008, ostensibly to restore a waterway through the Everglades.  Now, it seems, the restoration projects have stopped for lack of money and U.S. Sugar gets to keep using the land.

U.S. Sugar is or was the largest sugar producer in Florida.  Founded by Charles Stewart Mott in 1931, it owned mills and a railroad as well as land.

Sugar policy, as I explained in a post last September, is special.  Alone among commodities, it is supported by an arcane system of quotas and tariffs designed to ensure that domestic sugar producers get prices for their crops that are higher than values on the world market.  The result?  Taxpayers pay more for sugar than they should.

I suppose I could argue that higher prices for sugar are a good thing.  High prices discourage consumption.   Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), sugar prices are not high enough to do that.

So chalk this one up to politics in action, replete with lobbyists, lawyers, and corporate heads with cozy ties to government officials.   As is all too often the case, the corporation came out ahead.  Whether the Everglades will ever benefit remains to be seen.

Mar 8 2010

Beverage Association’s PR spin on bad news for sodas in schools

Just in time for the Albany conference on soda taxes (see previous post), the Beverage Association has issued a report on the great progress it is making in reducing calories from sodas sold in schools.

In fact, the Beverage Association is doing a terrific job on reducing soft drink consumption.  Sales of sodas are down by impressive percentages, but so are sales of all drinks sold in school vending machines, as illustrated by this chart from today’s Wall Street Journal.

Source: Wall Street Journal, 3-8-10

This is good news.  The next steps to improve school food?  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Get the vending machines out of schools altogether, those for snacks as well as sodas.
  • Get rid of “competitive” foods, those sold in competition with school meals.
  • Put some restrictions on the frequency and quantity of foods brought in for birthdays and other celebrations.
  • Institute universal school meals.

If kids don’t buy drinks from vending machines, the schools don’t need them, right?

Update March 9.  Thanks to Coca-Cola for sending a copy of the press release and the final progress report summary.

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