Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 28 2018

The NIH’s dubious partnership in industry-funded alcohol research

Last week, New York Times reporter Roni Rabin wrote how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) solicited funding from alcohol companies to fund—and, distressingly, participate in the design of—a study of the effects of moderate drinking on heart disease risk.

This is not the first time Ms. Rabin has written about this study.  In July, she described the study and its funding.

Since then, she has apparently been busy filing FOIA requests and conducting further interviews.  These reveal that the NIH actively solicited industry funding and input into this trial.

The [NIH] presentations gave the alcohol industry an opportunity to preview the trial design and vet the investigators. Indeed, the scientist leading the meetings was eventually chosen to head the huge clinical trial.

They also made the industry privy to pertinent details, including a list of clinical sites and investigators who were “already on board,” the size and length of the trial, approximate number of participants, and the fact that they could choose any beverage. By design, no form of alcohol — wine, liquor or beer — would be called out as better than another in the trial.

But it gets worse.  Boston University professor Michael Siegel tells his personal story of dealings with NIH’s National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

On January 16, 2015, I was called into the office of the Director of NIAAA and was essentially reprimanded for conducting NIAAA-funded research that was detrimental to the alcohol industry…At the meeting, I was told that I would never again be funded to conduct research on alcohol marketing, regardless of how highly my research proposal was scored by the scientific review panel.

Let me be clear: research ethics require funders to have no involvement in research design, conduct, or interpretation, lest they exert undue influence on the results.

Julia Belluz (Vox) put this study in context.  She describes how

The NIH is now investigating whether the researchers violated federal policy by soliciting donations, and they’re appointing outside experts to review the design of the study. We don’t yet know the full story, and there’s surely more to uncover.

Anheuser Busch InBev, Heineken, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Carlsberg helped pay $67.7 million of the $100 million government study, which is currently underway. And even more troubling is that if you were a patient looking to enroll in the trial through the online clinical trials registry, you’d have no way of knowing about the industry’s involvement because that funding is not disclosed there.

Although I do not have much to say about the alcohol industry in my forthcoming book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, I mention of this study as an example of how other industries skew research and also how pooling industry research funds is insufficient protection against conflicted interests (alcohol companies agreed to contribute 67.7% of the funding).

It’s good that the NIH has decided to investigate this dubious government-industry partnership, which so clearly seems aimed at marketing, not public health.

Mar 27 2018

NAFTA negotiations put front-of-package warning labels at risk

Last week, the New York Times published an article about how the US was inserting provisions in NAFTA negotiations to restrict the ability of Mexico to put warning labels—similar to those in Chile and other countries—on ultraprocessed “junk” foods.

Urged on by big American food and soft-drink companies, the Trump administration is using the trade talks with Mexico and Canada to try to limit the ability of the pact’s three members — including the United States — to warn consumers about the dangers of junk food, according to confidential documents outlining the American position.

The American stance reflects an intensifying battle among trade officials, the food industry and governments across the hemisphere. The administration’s position could help insulate American manufacturers from pressure to include more explicit labels on their products, both abroad and in the United States. But health officials worry that it would also impede international efforts to contain a growing health crisis.

In response to questions by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (Dem-Texas), US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer argues that front-of-package labels are a form of protectionism.

Really?

A more compelling reason is that food companies are worried about the possible spread of front-of-package warning labels like those in Chile, Ecuador, and other countries.

I have a long-standing interest in front-of-package labels and wrote about opposition to the warning-label movement recently in a commentary in the American Journal of Public Health.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued a statement:

More countries, and certainly the United States, Canada, and Mexico, should give consumers easy-to-read front-of-package labeling that quickly communicates the information they need to avoid diet-related diseases…This is not an “America First” policy; it is an “Industry First” policy, conducted at the expense of the health of consumers in the U.S. and abroad.

Julia Belluz (Vox) describes the effects of a provision like this on Canada’s front-of-package labeling proposals.

Mexico’s outstanding food advocacy coalition, the Nutritional Health Alliance, argues that this pro-industry effort to block warning labels poses a serious threat to consumer rights and public health.

It held a press conference last week on this issue and has produced background documents (in Spanish, but it’s always fun to try Google Translate):

Mar 26 2018

Selling dietary supplements in Latin America

This comes from one of those daily food-industry newsletters I subscribe to, in this case NutraIngredients.com.  It occasionally focuses on regions and I thought this collection of articles was of interest.  Do Latin Americans need dietary supplements?  Just asking.

Welcome to NutraIngredients’ first quarterly supplement focusing on the Latin American dietary supplements and functional food markets. In this edition, we look at the changing regulatory landscapes across the region, including a deep dive into how Brazil is creating a distinct category for supplements. We’ll also look at a supplement start-up and opportunities for omega-3s in LATAM.

Mar 23 2018

Get up and move. It’s good for you.

The Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee’s 2018 Scientific Report promotes physical activity as a “best buy” for public health.

  • Physically active individuals sleep better, feel better, and function better.
  • Some benefits happen immediately.
  • Physical activity reduces the risk of a large number of diseases and conditions.
  • The benefits of physical activity can be achieved in a variety of ways.

The report recommends 50 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity, but

  • Any is better than none
  • More is better than less
  • Any amount at any level or duration counts.

The good news is that huge benefits come with just being somewhat active.

The report recommends 50 to 300 minutes of at least moderate activity a week, and this can be done in increments.

A brisk walk around the office, anyone?

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Mar 22 2018

Food safety Europe: a roundup

The British newsletter, FoodManufacture.co.uk, also does special editions, collections of articles on specific topics, this one on food safety (you too can subscribe to this, here).

This is an easy way to keep up with current events related to food products.

Special Edition: Food Safety Newsletter

Welcome to the latest Food Safety Newsletter from the Food Manufacture Group. This month’s round-up leads with positive talks between Food Standards Scotland and the country’s meat industry following several cases of enforcement action. The newsletter also looks at the Food Standards Agency’s attempts to overhaul regulation, an Ikea confectionery recall and mutant rats.

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Mar 21 2018

Canada’s food guide: proposed revisions

Canada’s food guide has been around since 2007.

 

Bill Jeffery, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Health Science and Law (which publishes the Food for Life Report) has produced an annotated version of the food guide with proposals for fixing its major problems.

Critics viewed it as far too industry-friendly.

Here’s a graphic summary of the proposed revisions.

This is a great opportunity for Canada to produce a food guide that really does promote health.

Fingers crossed.

Mar 20 2018

USDA-sponsored “Checkoff” program urges more cheese on pizza

The daily newsletter, DairyReporter.com, sends this intriguing story: “Pizza Hut adds 25% more cheese to pan pizzas as part of dairy checkoff program.”

More than 6,000 Pizza Hut locations in the US are adding 25% more cheese to its pan pizzas, requiring an additional 150m lbs of milk annually to meet the change, Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) said.

You read that right: 150 million additional pounds of milk to make cheese for pizza.

Dairy Management Inc. runs the National Dairy Promotion & Research Board, a USDA-sponsored “checkoff” program.  Its purpose is to “build demand for dairy products.”

It does this by convincing fast food chains to add more dairy items to their menus.

As DairyReporter explains,

Pizza Hut’s increased milk demand could help chip away at an oversupply of milk causing a downward pressure on milk prices in the US. The USDA estimated that the US dairy industry will produce 21.8bn lbs of milk in 2018, while slightly lower than 2017 production, the supply still outweighs market demand causing milk prices to continue to drop.

I like cheese as much as anyone, but more cheese means more calories, if nothing else.

One ounce of mozzarella cheese provides 85 calories.  Two ounces = 170 calories, etc.

Enough said.

Addition: Thanks to Gerri French for telling me about Michael Moss’s video on this topic, based on his book Salt, Sugar, Fat.

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Mar 19 2018

Another note on the Japanese food scene

While I was in Japan last week, a colleague from Washington State asked if his local apples were on sale in Japanese supermarkets.  I looked.  They were not.

If Washington State apples, organic or not, are exported to Japan, they are invisible in supermarkets.

They certainly are invisible to me.  Japanese food labels are in Japanese, as is information about country of origin.

But I asked.  The apples I saw were grown in Japan.

The only imported fruit I could find were bananas—not labeled as to origin but Japan does not grow them—and blueberries from Mexico.

Imported fruit, it seems, is not available for local consumption because it would compete with fruit produced by local farmers.

Less expensive fruit is imported but used for food service; it is not easily available for home purchase.

This helps explain why the Japanese do not eat much fruit.  It is expensive even in local stores.  The prices I saw looked like those in Manhattan.

And this brings me to the uniquely Japanese use of fruit as a luxury gift item.  These melons (not my photo) cost more than $100 each (the exchange rate is about ¥100 to a dollar).  But  saw melons like these in specialty stores costing much more—$150 and up.

As for strawberries, these gift packs cost $20 each but more elegant packages go much higher.

These are part of a complicated culture of obligatory gifts.  To Westerners like me, the prices are shocking.

The fruit is locally grown, at least.

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