Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 17 2018

Unsavory Truth: How I deal with conflicts of interest

Coming October 30:  My new book about food company sponsorship of nutrition research and its effects on public health.  

To introduce the book, which describes the consequences of conflicts of interest generated by food industry research funding, I will be doing a series of posts about it over the next few weeks.

I begin this series with a discussion of how I manage my own financial relationships with food, beverage, or supplement companies.

As a nutrition professor, even one who is retired, I cannot avoid contacts with food companies, nor do I necessarily want to.  I need to know what they are doing.

I go to meetings sponsored by food companies, read journals sponsored by food companies, read newsletters they send me, and get frequent gifts of books, research materials, product samples, and swag ranging from small (jump drives, squeeze toys) to enormous (would you believe a room-size punching bag that looks like a cola can?).

I give talks to and occasionally consult for food companies.  At issue is how to do this without being influenced to change what I write or say—or appear to be so influenced.

If I were wealthier, I would just pay my own expenses and be done with it.  As it is, I figured out a management policy for dealing with food company gifts and payments.

  • I accept reimbursements for travel, hotels, meals, and meeting registrations (otherwise I would not be able to go).
  • I do not accept honoraria, consulting fees, or any other personal payment.
  • Instead, I ask the company to make an equivalent donation to the NYU Library’s Food Studies collection (which is named after me) or to my department’s fund for student travel.  If the checks come to me directly, I endorse them over to NYU.  I report all such income appropriately on tax forms.

I am well aware that this policy is not perfect.  Small gifts, meals, and travel reimbursements are thoroughly established to influence physicians’ prescription practices, and I derive reputational benefit from donations to NYU.

But this policy makes me think carefully about conflicted situations and I try to make it work as well as I can.

My conflict of interest declaration on journal articles reads as follows:

Marion Nestle’s retirement and research funds from New York University support her research, manuscript preparation, and website at foodpolitics.com.  She earns royalties from books, and honoraria and travel from lectures, about matters relevant to this publication.

A summary of this policy is posted on the About page on this site.

Sep 14 2018

Weekend reading: Food Justice Now!

Johsua Sbicca.  Food Justice Now!  Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle.  University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Image result for Food Justice Now! Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle

This book is about how to turn the “eat-better” food movement into a movement for social justice.  It directly addresses the complaint that the food movement has no real power.

Sbicca, a sociologist at Colorado State, bases his analysis on three case studies of food justice activism focused on creating reasonably paid work for former prisoners and low-wage workers, many of them of color or immigrants.

He tells the stories of three programs, Planting Justice in Oakland, California; the San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project; and programs run by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770.

In writing this book, he investigates

the tensions between maintaining an “us” in the food movement and a “them” needed to keep the food system running.  This informs the prospects of a food politics that is capable of overcoming ethnoracial and citizenship boundaries…The ethnoracial and class makeup of food workers pushes labor organizers to challenge the race-to-the-bottom practices of food corporations.

He ends the book by calling for what is needed to create true food justice: land, labor, community development, health, self-determination, and environmental sustainability—exactly what is called for in food system reform.

This is an academic book but well worth reading for anyone who cares about building a movement with power to change food systems.

 

Sep 13 2018

Beer: sustainable, THC-infused, from BeverageDaily.com

BeverageDaily.com does a monthly special collection of industry-focused articles on beer.  This one spotlights sustainability, but includes a couple of items about—really!—cannabis-infused beer, as well as tea, coffee, and water.  As readers of this blog know, I am following the politics of cannabis edibles.  It’s now time to add drinks to the list, or what is known in the trade, apparently, as the “THC-infused beverage space.”

And here are even more of its articles about the beer industry.  Be sure to check the one about how to personalize yours with 3D printing.

 

Sep 12 2018

South Africa’s record-setting (not in a good way) Listeria outbreak: an update

In April, I wrote about the deadly outbreak of Listeria-contaminated processed meat (“polony”) in South Africa.  Back then, the country’s Health Department explained what it was doing to try to stop the outbreak.  It’s now pretty much over, and the Health Department has issued an updated report on it.

  • Cases reported: 1060
  • Deaths: 216

Listeria is deadly.  For this outbreak, the death rate is 27% (216 of 806 cases in which the outcome is known).

As is typical of foodborne disease outbreaks, most cases occurred long before the products were recalled.

 

Of those cases interviewed after the recall

38/65 (58%) of ill people or their proxy reported consuming polony prior to their illness onset; brands manufactured by Enterprise Foods were most commonly reported to have been consumed where brand of polony was known.

The health department is doing a lot to try to understand what happened here.  But it faces challenges:

There are challenges regarding the turn-around time of testing of environmental swabs from facility inspections. Challenges are arising on account of the volume of specimens received during the last three weeks, machine failure and in some cases, challenges regarding test result interpretation. Each challenge is being addressed through appropriate interventions.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler offers advice to the CEO of Tiger Brands, and to any other CEO of a company selling a product that makes people ill, beginning with an explanation of “why it’s always a bad idea to poison your customers.”

His advice:

  1. Know your regulators.
  2. Stop making the implicated product and recall the ones at risk.
  3. Launch your own investigation.
  4. Be transparent.
  5. Admit fault.
  6. Do not blame your customers.
  7. Reach out to customers who have been harmed.
  8. Teach what you have learned.

Marler has put money behind this advice.  Let’s hope the CEO takes him up on it.

Sep 11 2018

Why food companies should not have a role in formulating obesity policy

I was interested to read FoodNavigator-Asia’s account of food industry comments on what to do about obesity is Australia.

By all reports, two-thirds of Australian adults meet definitions of overweight or obesity, along with a quarter of all children.  A Senate committee is collecting ideas about what to do about this, including those from the food industry.

Food-Navigator-Asia has taken a look at some of the submitted comments, particularly in light of comments from medical groups encouraging social, environmental, regulatory and medical interventions, and arguing that food companies should be kept out of formulating policies due to their inherent conflicts of interest.

The article quotes three companies.

Coca-Cola Amatil says taxes would be counterproductive because it is already reducing the sugar in its products.

Fonterra (a dairy company) says obesity is not the problem; instead, underconsumption of dairy products is the problem.

Nestlé [no relation] blames consumers; it is trying to reduce salt and sugar in its products but the public isn’t buying them.  It also blames government, which it says should do a better job of educating the public about diet and health.

Obesity poses a formidable problem for food companies making junk foods.  They have stockholders to please.  They cannot be expected to voluntarily act in the interest of public health if doing so affects profits.

That is why food companies should have no role whatsoever in developing policies to prevent or treat obesity.

Sep 10 2018

Call for nominations: 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (deadline Oct 6)

The USDA has issued a Call for Nominations for the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

The independent advisory committee will review the scientific evidence to help inform the next edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The deadline to submit nominations for the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is October 6, 2018, at 11:59 pm, Eastern Time.

Good luck with this. I don’t envy anyone serving on this committee.

The issues:

  • The late start. By law, the guidelines are supposed to be submitted in 2020. The committee will be under pressure to move quickly.
  • USDA’s dominance. The guidelines are supposed to be jointly produced by two agencies; the other is HHS. The absence of HHS from this announcement seems curious. USDA must be the lead this year and can be expected to allow politics to trump (pardon the expression) science.
  • Science politics. Questions—qualitative and quantitative—about fat v. carbohydrates are hotly debated and not easy to resolve.
  • Food industry influence. This is always a problem but this influence—on research and policy—is now under sharp scrutiny (my forthcoming book adds to the scrutiny, I hope).
  • Government interference. The committee writes an advisory report. Then USDA and HHS take over and do what they please with what the committee produces.  And we know, because USDA said so, that this administration intends to take a more active role in setting the agenda and in committee discussions.
  • Spotlight. Everything this committee does will be public and publicized on the front pages of newspapers and in social media.
  • Courage. It will take plenty.

Here’s what USDA says about factors to be considered in reviewing nominations:

  • Educational background – advanced degree in nutrition- or health-related field, including registered dietitians, nutrition scientists, physicians, and those with public health degrees
  • Professional experience – at least 10 years of experience as an academic, researcher, practitioner, or other health professional in a field related to one or more of the topics to be examined; consideration of leadership experience and participation on previous committees or panels
  • Demonstrated scientific expertise – expertise related to one or more of the topics to be examined by the committee as demonstrated by number and quality of peer-reviewed publications and presentations
  • Obligations under the Federal Advisory Committee Act – ensuring the Committee is balanced fairly in points of view and types of expertise
  • Requirements regarding a balanced membership – including, to the extent possible, individuals who are minorities, women, persons with disabilities, and representatives from different geographic areas and institutions

More information is available on DietaryGuidelines.gov:

Sep 7 2018

Weekend reading: Kosher and Halal market regulation

John Lever and Johan Fischer. Religion, Regulation, Consumption: Globalising Kosher and Halal Markets.  Manchester University Press, 2018.

Image result for religion, regulation, consumption

This book is a comparative study of how two countries—Denmark and Great Britain—regulate foods labeled Kosher or Halal.  I did a blurb for it:

Anyone curious about how kosher and halal work in today’s globalized, secularized market economies will want to read this comparative study of food practices in the UK and Denmark.

The big issues dealt with here is whether these dietary laws permit animals to be stunned before they are slaughtered, and how the religious requirements relate to the demands of the secular communities in an increasingly globalized marketplace.

It is clear that kosher and halal markets have globalised and been subjected to new forms of regulation within the last two decades or so.  However, no matter how regulated these markets have become they are still fundamentally expressions of religion as taboos dating back thousands of years…kosher and halal fuel a whole range of debates among rabbis/imams and between religious organisations more broadly over what religion is or ought to be in the modern world…Comparing the UK and Denmark, we can say that Judaism/kosher and Islam/halal are less state regulated in the UK and that this allows for slaughter without stunning, for example  This situation has made the UK one of the largest markets for kosher/halal food in the world….As these processes expand and questions over what kosher is or ought to be intensify in a globalising context so greater numbers of Jews are becoming more Orthodox and strict in terms of their kashrut and shechita requirements [pp. 169-170].

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Sep 6 2018

Corporate profits v. public health: Campbell’s as a case in point

Campbell’s has just announced that it will divest its portfolio of healthier foods: Bolthouse Farms carrots, organics, salsa, hummus and dips, fresh soups.
Why? Activist shareholder pressure to make more money, faster.
These healthier-for-you products only generated $2.1 billion in sales last year, not nearly enough apparently.
While waiting for someone to buy them, or the entire company, the company’s new CEO plans to concentrate on “operational discipline,” which I assume is a euphemism for firing lots of people.
The CEO plans to focus on the money-making “core” products: Campbell Soups, Prego, V8, SpaghettiOs, Kettle Chips, Mlano, Goldfish and other such things.

As I keep saying, food corporations cannot be expected to be agents of public health as long as Wall Street investors call the shots.

Remember when Jeffrey Dunn’s Bolthouse aimed to make carrots “cool?”  And kids would eat them if they were marketed like junk food?

I guess this strategy didn’t work, alas.