Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 29 2019

Weekend reading: Introduction to food sociology

Anne Murcott.  Introducing the Sociology of Food & Eating.  Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

I read an early draft of the manuscript of this book and recommended publication.  The publisher used my remarks as a blurb (with my permission, of course):

An interesting approach by a well-qualified and experienced author.  The book takes on controversial issues of great interest to students using an entertaining writing style.

This is a textbook that aims to teach critical thinking about current food issues.  By “interesting approach” I was referring to the way Murcott structures the chapters.

The chapter titles state some common idea about food—for example, “The family meal is in decline.”  The chapters examine what the issue is about, describe the methodological and other biases that led to such conclusions, and then go on to explain how sociologists think—theoretically and practically—about each issue, and how they approach studying such issues.

Murcott says she wrote the book to encourage readers to think differently about food issues with which they are already familiar, “and to continue thinking differently.”

This works well for that purpose.

Share |
Tags:
Mar 28 2019

Environmental Working Group: Pesticides in Produce

I am often asked about pesticides on fruits and vegetables, how serious a problem they are, and how to avoid them.  I don’t know how harmful they are; the research is too hard to do definitively.  But I generally favor the Precautionary Principle: while the science is pending, avoid them as much as you can.  Here’s how.

The Environmental Working Group has released its annual lists of the most and least pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables.

EWG’S DIRTY DOZEN FOR 2019

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes

The report emphasizes:

  • More than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and kale tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
  • Multiple samples of kale showed 18 different pesticides.
  • Kale and spinach samples had, on average, 1.1 to 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop.

EWG’S CLEAN FIFTEEN FOR 2019

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Frozen sweet peas
  5. Onions
  6. Papayas
  7. Eggplants
  8. Asparagus
  9. Kiwis
  10. Cabbages
  11. Cauliflower
  12. Cantaloupes
  13. Broccoli
  14. Mushrooms
  15. Honeydew melons

See the full list of fruits and vegetables.This results may sound cute, but this report comes with impressive supporting material:

Mar 27 2019

GAO’s 40-year plea for better oversight of food safety

Food safety seems very much on the agenda this week.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released its latest biennial High Risk list of programs “vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformation.”

Of interest is this listing: Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety. The report finds not much change from goals set two years ago; the goal for an action plan is still not met:

Without a government-wide performance plan for food safety, Congress, program managers, and other decision makers are hampered in their ability to identify agencies and programs addressing similar missions and to set priorities, allocate resources, and restructure federal efforts, as needed, to achieve long-term goals. Moreover, without a centralized collaborative mechanism—like the FSWG [Food Safety Working Group]—to address food safety, there is no forum for agencies to reach agreement on a set of broad-based food safety goals and objectives that could be articulated in a government-wide performance plan on food safety.

The GAO explains why inadequate federal oversight of food safety poses a high risk.  Safety issues, it says,

are governed by a highly complex system stemming from at least 30 federal laws that are collectively administered by 15 federal agencies. For more than four decades, we have reported on the fragmented federal food safety oversight system, which has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. We added federal oversight of food safety to the High-Risk List in 2007. In recent years, moreover, we have made recommendations aimed at helping to reduce fragmentation in federal food safety oversight. As of November 2018, two of three recommendations related to this high-risk area had not been implemented.

In 2017, I wrote about how the GAO has been calling for decades—more than 40 years—for better coordination of food-safety oversight, and my post lists a selection of GAO reports dating back to 1970.

The GAO is still at it.

We should not give up either.

Mar 26 2019

Pediatric Academy and Heart Association endorse soda taxes!

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)) and the American Heart Association (AHA) have issued a joint statement endorsing soda taxes along with other policies aimed at reducing risks for childhood obesity (the full statement is published in Pediatrics).

The AAP and AHA recommend:

  • Local, state and national policymakers should consider raising the price of sugary drinks, such as via an excise tax, along with an accompanying educational campaign. Tax revenues should go in part toward reducing health and socioeconomic disparities.
  • Federal and state governments should support efforts to decrease sugary drink marketing to children and teens.
  • Healthy drinks such as water and milk should be the default beverages on children’s menus and in vending machines, and federal nutrition assistance programs should ensure access to healthy food and beverages and discourage consumption of sugary drinks.
  • Children, adolescents, and their families should have ready access to credible nutrition information, including on nutrition labels, restaurant menus, and advertisements.
  • Hospitals should serve as a model and establish policies to limit or discourage purchase of sugary drinks.

Comment:  This action of the AAP is truly remarkable.  In 2015, this Academy was heavily criticized for taking funding from Coca-Cola and, surely not coincidentally, saying little about the need for children to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.  Once exposed, the AAP said it could no longer accept that funding. I did, however, hear an alternative story.  Coca-Cola officials told me that as a result of their transparency initiative, the company would no longer fund the Pediatric, Dietetic, and Family Practice Academies.  It is also hardly a coincidence that now that the AAP no longer takes money from Coke, it is free to promote soda taxes as a useful public health strategy.

Mar 25 2019

Industry-influenced study of the week: sugars v. calories

Unsavory Truth came out late last year, but I’m following up by posting recent examples of the issues it covers.  Here, for example, is a recent study that caught my eye:

The role of dietary sugars in health: molecular composition or just calories?  Philip Prinz. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2019).

A big argument in nutrition right now is whether the metabolic dysfunction that results from excessive consumption of sugars is due to the sugars themselves or to the calories they produce (or, I suppose, to both).

The author who attempted to answer this question conducted a lengthy and detailed review of research on the effects of sugars on obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic conditions .  His conclusion:

Current scientific evidence does not support the conclusion that dietary sugars themselves are detrimental to human health and the cause of obesity as well as NCDs [non-communicable— chronic—diseases]. Data from human studies clearly shows that it is the excess amount of calories, also consumed in form of dietary sugars, that promotes obesity and with that favors NCDs. For sucrose, further research is needed in order to evaluate the relevance of its molecular composition, especially in comparison with other macronutrients.

In other words, you don’t have to worry about sugars; just don’t overeat anything.

So, who paid for this?

The paper provides no disclosures of funding or conflicted interests.

But if you click on Philip Prinz, you will see that he is with the Department of Nutritional Sciences, German Sugar Association, Berlin, Germany

Comment

My interpretation of this literature generally favors calories (see my book with Malden Nesheim, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics).  As I see it, when it comes to weight gain, how much you eat matters more than what you eat, especially if your diet is reasonably healthy.

But I would be much more confident in conclusions like these if they came from a researcher whose salary did not depend on producing desirable results for a sugar association.

And everybody would be better off eating less sugar, for reasons of nutritional health, if not necessarily weight.

Mar 22 2019

Weekend reading: Gandhi’s dietary aspirations

Nico Slate.  Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind.  University of Washington Press, 2019.  

Image result for Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind

Let’s start with my blurb:

Nico Slate’s fascinating account reveals Gandhi as an evidence-based, self-experimenting nutrition guru who tried one diet after another—vegan, raw, calorie restriction–in his quest for physical and spiritual health.  Above all, Slate explains Gandhi’s use of fasting as a political means to inspire India to achieve independence.

Gandhi, it seems, was a food faddist well ahead of his time.  The author says:

As his commitment to vegetarianism deepened, Gandhi grappled with whether he should also forgo eggs and milk.  Ultimately, he became convinced that he should become vegan, and renounced all animal products.  Living without eggs was relatively easy.  Doing without milk, by contrast, proved to be one of the greatest challenges of his life.  He experimented with almond milk, peanut milk, and other vegan alternatives.  In 1914, he vowed to abstain from all dairy products.  But after contracting a serious illness, he decided that his pledge did not include goat’s milk. [p. 47]

The book explains how Gandhi’s dietary choices were tightly linked to his politics.

The social potential of a raw diet led Gandhi to explore the cheapest source of sustenance for the poor: wild food…The greatest ethical challenge stemmed from the limitations of wild food as a remedy for poverty.  If the goal was to end hunger, changes in diet would be insufficient if they were not linked to changes in land ownership and the distribution of wealth—change that seemed as impossible as eating ginger nonviolently. [ p. 97]

And one more:

In a world marred by inequality, charity could only do so much.  Ultimately, Gandhi did not want to help the poor; he wanted to end poverty.  Over time, he developed a deeper understanding of the link between famine and imperialism.  “India suffers from starvation because there is dearth not of grain,” he explained, “but of purchasing power.”  The absence of purchasing power was, in turn, a direct result of the economic structures of British rule…Recognizing famine as a result of empire inspired Gandhi to demand India’s freedom. [p.127]

Mar 21 2019

Supplements for pets: NutraIngredients-USA.com

NutraIngredients-USA.com has collected articles on this topic into a Special Edition: Supplements for pets

The market for supplements for pets is valued at around $2.6 billion, according to the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC).

Issues driving the market growth include an increasing market share of premium supplements positioned as natural and organic; the rise of obesity/weight management among the nation’s pets; and maintaining the health of older pets, which are living for longer.

In this special edition, we explore the key trends (including CBD!), opportunities, and a couple of brand success stories.

Malden Nesheim and I discuss pet supplements in our book, Feed Your Pet Right (which is actually an analysis of the pet food industry).  Just as with supplements for humans, little evidence exists to demonstrate that supplements do any good for pets.  But they make owners feel like they are doing something useful.  As for CBD for pets?  That may make owners feel better too.

Mar 20 2019

Another Romaine lettuce outbreak takes its toll

I occasionally write about disease outbreaks caused by food and am especially interested in those caused by romaine lettuce, because it’s so hard to trace back where it came from and how it got contaminated.

This post is about two outbreaks of toxic E. coli O157:H7 from Romaine lettuce.

Outbreak #1: This one pretty much ended in November 2018.  My post on it is here.  The CDC’s page on it  is here.

It was especially serious:

  • 210 reported illnesses from 36 states
  • 96 hospitalizations
  • 27 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)
  • 5 deaths

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler posted a slide show analyzing this outbreak on his website: “Thanks to FOIA, the CDC and FDA, the 2018 E. coli Romaine Outbreak becoming more Transparent.”  At least that.

Outbreak #2.  In February, the FDA published its “Investigation Summary: Factors Potentially Contributing to the Contamination of Romaine Lettuce Implicated in the Fall 2018 Multi-State Outbreak of E. coli O157:H7.”

The FDA’s web page on this outbreak is here, and the CDC’s is here.

Bill Marler, whose firm represents victims of these outbreaks, posted annotated comments on the announcement.  He titled his post: “The FDA to Leafy Green Growers – “Please voluntarily stop poisoning your customers.”

Despite finding that E. coli outbreaks spanning years likely came from the same are or farm and was most likely caused by the same factors enumerated above, the FDA only sets forth “recommendations” that growers of leafy greens assess their growing operations for compliance with applicable requirements of the FSMA Produce Safety Rule and GAPs, including (see my snide comments in bold).

I will just give one example of his comments:

FDA continues to recommend (suggest, plead, beg, whine) that leafy green growers, buyer/shippers, and retailers be able to trace product back to the specific source in real time and make information about the source, such as harvest date and standardized growing regions, readily available for consumers on either packaging, point of sale signs, or by other means.

Voluntary, alas, isn’t good enough.  The FDA needs authority to require, demand, insist on.  Now.

If you want to see what this is about, take a look at the documents:

  • FDA’s final guidance for leafy green growers is here.
  • FDA guidance documents for leafy green growers are posted here. There are lots of them.
  • FDA guidance documents for retailers selling leafy greens are posted here.