Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 19 2019

Trump budget double-speak: USDA/ERS budget cuts

The Trump administration released more details on its proposed budget, in language straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.

Framed as “savings and reform,” the proposal is to move the USDA’s Economic Research Service out of Washington DC.   Although this proposal says the purpose is to bring the ERS closer to rural America, its real purpose is to put the ERS out of business.

Why do I say this?  Because this proposal comes with a $26 million budget cut.   I also hear rumors that ERS research staff are being offered retirement options.

ERS is the jewel in USDA’s crown, nothing less than a national treasure, not only worth preserving but worth extolling for its truly important contributions to society.

I’ve long said that ERS was the best kept secret in government.  Its researchers worked tirelessly to provide real data on America’s food production and what it means for health.

Here, for example, is its latest report on how the U.S. food dollar is spent.

The best thing I can say about this budget is that it is unlikely to pass.  Members of Congress have been trying to put a stop to this move.  Let’s hope they succeed.

This may be a small piece of what’s happening, but in my field it is essential.

Please tell your congressional representatives to restore ERS’s budget and keep it in Washington, DC.

How?

Addition

The Office of Management and Budget’s analysis

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Mar 18 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: Eggs

Here’s another in my series of post-Unsavory Truth examples of studies whose funder can be predicted by their titles.

The consumption of 12 Eggs per week for 1 year does not alter fasting serum markers of cardiovascular disease in older adults with early macular degeneration Hassan Aljohia , Mindy Dopler-Nelson , Manuel Cifuentes , Thomas A. Wilson.  Journal of Nutrition & Intermediary Metabolism 2019;15:35-41.

Hypothesis: Egg consumption is associated with reduced risk of macular degeneration, but because eggs are so high in cholesterol, they might increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.

Conclusion: “This study suggests that the consumption of 12 eggs per week for 1 year does not significantly alter fasting serum lipids, lipoprotein cholesterol, or other biomarkers of CVD in older adults diagnosed with early macular degeneration” [the hypothesis is shown to be false].

Funding: “The authors would also like to thank the American Egg Board, Egg Nutrition Center, Washington, DC (T.A.W.) and the Massachusetts Lions Eye Research Fund Inc., New Bedford, MA (T.A.W.) for their funding support. The funding played no role in data collection, analyses, or interpretation.”

Comment: So the authors say, but industry influence is often unrecognized.    Independently funded studies sometimes come to quite different conclusions, as one in JAMA did last week.  Its conclusion: “Among US adults, higher consumption of dietary cholesterol or eggs was significantly associated with higher risk of incident CVD and all-cause mortality in a dose-response manner.”

Mar 15 2019

Weekend reading: The Grand Food Bargain

Kevin D. Walker.  The Grand Food Bargain and the Mindless Drive for More.  Island Press, 2019. 

I did a blurb for this one:

A former USDA insider’s account of what our Grand Food Bargain—a system focused on ever-increasing production of cheap food—actually costs Americans in poor health, environmental degradation, and loss of agrarian values and community.  Walker’s views are well worth reading for his insights into how our food system needs to be transformed

Some snippets:

  • Early farm bills, sold to the public by promising more food with less uncertainty, were designed to stabilize food prices and increase farm income.  Eight decades later, new farm bills are still being enacted despite average farm income long ago surpassing non-farm income and continuing food surplus.  Each new bill is an increasingly costly grab bag of subsidies and protections, which invariably attracts more interest groups and lobbying.  Other than loose connections to agriculture, no coherent policy direction exists (p. 91).
  • Narrow [scientific and technical] expertise alone, for example, does not address the connections among rising rates of obesity, exhaustion of fossil waters, escalating nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, noxious weeds immune to legacy pesticides, growing antibiotic resistance—all the result of how the modern food system operates and how society now lives (p. 114).
  • As sophisticated financial strategies are grafted onto the modern food system, more mergers and acquisitions by ever-larger multinational companies follow.  Food is no longer valued for its ability to sustain life, but only for its ability to generate profits.  Whether higher returns come from squeezing farmers under contract to grow pigs or poultry, creating a monopoly on seeds that can be doused with chemicals, or selling food laden with cheap calories makes no difference (p. 141).

Walker’s remedy?  Let food be our teacher.  It’s worth reading what he means by this.

Mar 14 2019

Do artificial sweeteners do any good?

A study by European investigators concluded that artificial (non-sugar) sweeteners [NSS] had no particular benefits for health.

Most health outcomes did not seem to have differences between the NSS exposed and unexposed groups. Of the few studies identified for each outcome, most had few participants, were of short duration, and their methodological and reporting quality was limited; therefore, confidence in the reported results is limited.

However, the accompanying editorial by Vasanti Malik concludes:

Based on existing evidence including long term cohort studies with repeated measurements and high quality trials with caloric comparators, use of NSS as a replacement for free sugars (particularly in sugar sweetened beverages) could be a helpful strategy to reduce cardiometabolic risk among heavy consumers, with the ultimate goal of switching to water or other healthy drinks.

On this basis, the Calorie Control Council, the trade group that represents the makers of artificial sweeteners issued a statement rebutting the study:

In alignment with the conclusions made by Dr. Malik, the Calorie Control Council agrees that the highest quality science supports that LNCS [low- and no-calorie sweeteners] can be consumed as part of a balanced diet and can assist with the reduction of cardiometabolic risk through the management of body weight and reduced caloric intake.

Given the proven safety and benefits of LNCS, consumers should continue to be confident in including these ingredients as part of a healthy diet.

Note the conditional “could” and “can.”  Artificial sweeteners might help, but you can’t count on them for miracles.

Mar 13 2019

FDA and USDA agree on how to regulate cell-based (“fake”?) meat

Last week, the USDA and FDA ended their turf battle and announced a joint framework for jointly regulating cell-based meat products.

Congress instructed them to do this in a statement related to the Appropriations Act:

Not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Commissioner of Food and Drugs shall enter into a formal agreement delineating the responsibilities of the two agencies for the regulation of cell-cultured food products derived from livestock and poultry. Such agreement shall be made public on the USDA and FDA websites within one day of the completion of the agreement.

These products, not yet on the market, are made from animal cells grown in tissue culture; no animals are killed in the process.

What to call these emerging products is a matter of some debate.  Proponents call them such things as in vitro, lab-based, vat-grown, or clean.

The meat industry wants them called artificial, synthetic, or fake.  It publishes a flier called “Fake Meat Facts.”

The proposed plan calls for the FDA to regulate the collection of animal cells, cell banks, and cell growth—the processes.  USDA will oversee production, as it does for live animals and poultry.

Much must be at stake.  The agencies’ framework is proactive; the products are not expected to be marketed for several years.

The meat industry is relieved that USDA is in charge.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Jennifer Houston said, “The formal agreement announced today solidifies USDA’s lead oversight role in the production and labeling of lab-grown fake meat products.”

“This is what NCBA has been asking for, and it is what consumers deserve,” Houston said.

The market for these products is expected to be huge, but questions remain:

We will be hearing a lot more about these products as they head to market.

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Mar 12 2019

RIP The Salt Institute

I never thought I would live to see this day, but the Salt Institute announced that it is ending operations at the end of this month.

I first learned about the Institute in the late 1980s when I was Senior Policy Advisor to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) editing the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health.  The Institute visited us regularly to try to discourage the report from advising “eat less salt.”

Since then, the Salt Institute has been relentless in following the industry playbook to:

  • Cast doubt on science linking high salt intake to disease risk
  • Argue that the current high levels of salt intake are just fine for health
  • Maintain that only a small portion of the population is salt-sensitive
  • Promote science arguing that low salt intake is harmful

The Institute has a lot to answer for.  It has been responsible for confusing the science and creating a most peculiar situation: noisy public debate about salt science while every expert committee examining the relationship of salt to health concludes that we should be consuming much less.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the most recent and most authoritative review of salt and health came out just a few days before the Institute’s announcement .  That review by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine reaffirmed what Dietary Guidelines have been saying for years: the upper recommended limit of sodium intake is 2300 milligrams per day, or about 6 grams of salt (a bit more than a teaspoon).

On average, Americans consume much more and, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has demonstrated for years, single restaurant meals easily exceed that much.

CSPI’s former director, Michael Jacobson, issued a statement.

It might seem the stuff of satire that there is a trade association devoted to defending the amount of salt in our food supply—which contributes to hypertension and cardiovascular disease—and on our roads.  Or at least there wasthe Salt Institute will close its doors at the end of this month. And it will not be missed.

Rest in peace.

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Mar 11 2019

Industry-funded research journal: potatoes

Since my book Unsavory Truth came out late last year, I am posting occasional recent examples of issues I discussed in it.  Today’s issue: industry funding of research on potatoes of all things.

I am well aware that the role of white potatoes in the U.S. diet is hotly contested.   The EAT-Lancet report I wrote about recently advises against eating potatoes:

Potatoes, although containing large concentrations of potassium and some other vitamins, provide a large amount of rapidly absorbed carbohydrate, or glycaemic load. Daily consumption has been associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and weight gain.

Obviously, the potato industry would like to counter advise like that.  Its Alliance for Potato Research & Education is devoted to precisely that cause.  The Alliance explains that it is “Dedicated to advancing the scientific understanding of the role potatoes play in promoting the health of all people.”  It issues grants for up to $200,000 for “nutrition research proposals that help to advance scientific knowledge on the role of potatoes in various health outcomes” (the 2019 deadline just passed).

But I’ve just learned that the potato industry publishes its very own research journal: the American Journal of Potato Research.   It s subtitle: The Official Journal of the Potato Association of America, described as “A Professional Society for Advancement of the Potato Industry.”

Surprisingly, the papers in this journal are behind a paywall.  If the industry wants its research to be read and digested (sorry), I would think its papers would be open access (I was able to get this through NYU’s library).

One paper in particular caught my eye:

Invited review: Potatoes, Nutrition and Health Katherine A. Beals.  American Journal of Potato Research, 2018.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s12230-018-09705-4

Conclusion:  Until we have better research, “dietary guidance should continue to stress the importance of healthy eating patterns that consist of a variety of vegetables, including nutrient dense potatoes.”

Author’s funding disclosure: none.

Comment:  Evidently, this journal does not require authors to disclose funding.  Or perhaps every paper in this journal is sponsored by the potato industry?  Dr. Beals’ c.v. discloses consulting for the Potato Board.

I enjoy eating potatoes and view their effects on health as depending on how they are prepared, how much is eaten, and how often.

The purpose of potato-sponsored research is to cast doubt on studies suggesting that eating less of them would be better for your health.  When you see studies of potatoes and health, be sure to ask who paid for them.

Mar 8 2019

Weekend reading: The Perils of [Corporate] Partnership

Jonathan Marks.  The Perils of Partnership: Industry Influence, Institutional Integrity, and Public Health.  Oxford University Press, 2019.

I blurbed this one:

Jonathan Marks is the go-to expert on the hazards of public-private partnerships.  His account of the perils reads easily, is well referenced, is clear and to the point, and applies to partnerships with drug, food, and any other corporations.  Anyone who cares about the ethical implications of such partnerships for public health will find this book invaluable.

The book is about industry partnerships in general, but Marks uses food-company examples such as the American Beverage Association’s gift to the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania in what seemed to be a direct exchange for the city’s dropping a soda tax initiative, and the USDA’s promotion of cheese.

Marks concludes that

Public-private partnerships, multistakeholder initiatives, and other close relations with industry are premised on a positive conception of consensus, compromise, and collaboration.  But the “three C’s” are not inherently good.  On the contrary, tension between regulators and corporations is ordinarily necessary to protect public health.  And achieving common ground with industry may put off the table measures that might promote public health.  The default relation between industry and government should be arm’s lengths relations involving institutional tension, “struggle,” and direct conflict.

The point: the agenda of corporations is to promote profit, not public health.  This creates an inherent tension, not easily resolved.