Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 11 2018

Tariffs induce trade retaliation. Ouch.

This administration’s tariffs on steel and other imports have induced the affected countries to retaliate, particularly by targeting agricultural products.

China has already targeted pork products (see previous post).

Canada has Here is this impressive list (scroll down to Table 3).

Mexico’s list includes port, cheeses, apples, sausages, frozen potatoes, frozen cranberries, orange juice and whiskey.

Fortune Magazine explains in one graph what’s at stake for U.S. agriculture:



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Jul 10 2018

Pork Barrel Politics: Trade and Other Issues

Pork.  I love the term.  It reeks of politics.

Pork’s Trade Problem

I’ve been following the pork industry’s problem with the Trump Administration’s trade policies with much interest.

We imposed tariffs on steel and other such things.  Countries are retaliating by imposing their own tariffs—with pork high on the list.

Japan, China, and Mexico are our biggest markets for pork.  Oops.  They are now looking to Europe as the source.

The USDA’s livestock, dairy and poultry outlook report predicts a big drop in hog prices.

Pork’s With-Friends-Like-These Problem

And then there’s IRep. Steve King (R-Iowa).  In a Breitbart News radio interview, he says he doesn’t want Somalis working in meat-packing plants: “I don’t want people doing my pork that won’t eat it, let alone hope I go to hell for eating pork chops,” he concluded.

This follows a tweet he sent recently.

I suspect there are less confrontational and more effective ways to defend his home-state’s industry.  I wish them luck.

Pork’s Price-Fixing Problem

A lawsuit alleges that Hormel and other pork companies colluded to raise pork prices.  It was the lawsuit filed last week that attracted plenty of headlines.  They did this using Agri Stats, an information system accused of rigging the poultry industry.

Hormel Foods issued a statement denying the allegations:

Hormel Foods is a 127-year-old global branded food company with a reputation as one of the most respected companies in the food industry…We are confident that any allegations such as these are completely without merit. We intend to vigorously defend this lawsuit.

Pork’s Environmental Legal Problem

The courts are beginning to rule against Big Pork in cases where communities are complaining about odor and environmental contamination.  Smithfield, now owned by China, just lost a case.

Expect more such cases to follow.

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Jul 9 2018

Beverage Daily’s roundup of articles about—Beer!

I hope you enjoyed the weekend.

Here’s Beverage Daily’s latest MONTHLY BEER SPECIAL:

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Jul 6 2018

Weekend Reading: Food Citizenship (I’m in it)

Ray Goldberg.  Food Citizenship: Food System Advocates in an Era of Distrust. Oxford University Press, 2018.

As should be obvious from this cover, I have a special interest in this book.  For more than 20 years, I’ve been attending an annual meeting of food industry executives, entrepreneurs, and a sprinkling of advocates, government officials, and academics brought together by its author, Ray Goldberg, to try to encourage mutual understanding if not agreement.

When the meeting started, Ray was an agribusiness professor at the Harvard Business School.  After his retirement, the meeting moved to the Kennedy School of Government.  It still continues.

This book consists of Ray’s interviews with dozens of people who have attended this meeting over the years.  Ray interviewed people with an enormous range of involvement in food as well as of opinion about what should be done to improve food systems.

If truth be told, I always felt like a spectator at this meeting, and I am enormously surprised and honored to see that my interview comes first in the book, and that Ray mentions it in his introduction and conclusion.

I think the book is worth reading.  Or, as it happens, watching.

Oxford has posted the videotaped interviews online.  Here’s mine.

Jul 4 2018

It’s July 4. What better time to participate in politics. Here’s how.

The New York Times has issued a splendid guide to how to use the political process (behind a paywall, alas) to get what our country needs.

The guide covers how to vote, lobby, get information, show up, talk to people about political issues, and even run for office.

If we want to change the world for the better, this is how it has to be done.

Read this (your local library must have access).  Organize, Act.

The Fourth of July is a great time to start.

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Jul 2 2018

Big Soda strong-arms California: no more soda taxes for 12 years. Shame!

In 2017, Jennifer Pomeranz and Mark Pertschuck published an article in the American Journal of Public Health titled State Preemption: A Significant and Quiet Threat to Public Health in the United States.

How right they were.

Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law banning new soda tax initiatives in the state until 2030, thereby preempting local initiatives planned and in progress.

How did this happen?

Raw, overt power politics (my emphasis throughout).  The Sacramento Bee shows how it’s done.

The Hill explains that this bill was a compromise.

The measure was a last-minute compromise to stop an initiative circulated by the beverage industry that would make it more difficult to raise state and local taxes in California.  “Mayors from countless cities have called to voice their alarm and to strongly support the compromise which this bill represents,” Brown wrote in a signing message.

Big Soda’s tactic: use California’s ballot initiative process to put forth a measure requiring a two-thirds majority to pass any new tax legislation.  Brown and those mayors must have assumed it would pass (anything to prevent new taxes).  Brown said he would agree to a 12-year moratorium on new soda taxes if the soda industry would withdraw the measure.  It did, and he signed.

In explaining the so-called “compromise” (in quotes because this was blackmail), US News quotes state senator Scott Wiener (Dem-San Francisco):

This industry is aiming a nuclear weapon at government in California and saying, ‘If you don’t do what we want we are going to pull the trigger and you are not going to be able to fund basic government services.”

In other words, the beverage industry held the state hostage. Like the Sacramento Bee, I’d call this a shakedown.

The Sacramento Bee also called it extortion—a power play by the American Beverage Association that:

appears to be working as intended. As the deadline for signing the state budget approaches this week, a developing trailer bill attached to it would give Big Soda a 12-year ban on local soda taxes in exchange for dropping a ballot initiative that would threaten the finances of cities throughout California. Who says extortion doesn’t pay?

The New York Times explains the “stunning” preemption:

Now the beverage industry has a new approach. Instead of fighting the ordinances city by city, it is turning to states, trying to pass laws preventing any local governments from taxing their products.

The reactions have been fierce.

Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association says, “We’ve seen some cynical moves to protect profits, but this soda tax ban is a new low.”   The American Heart Association issued a statement:

The bill—a last-minute, backroom deal negotiated and written in secret by beverage industry lobbyists and their allies—is a significant step backwards in the ongoing effort to reduce overconsumption of sugary drinks.

“This is one of the worst pieces of legislation I have seen in more than 30 years spent fighting for better health for kids and families,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association. “We could not be more disappointed to see this bill, taken straight from the tobacco industry playbook, pass.”

The LA Times said “Shame on California lawmakers for caving in to the soda industry.”

Salon explains:

There’s a lot at stake for America’s biggest soda companies. Carbonated soft drinks – such as Coke, Fanta, Sprite, and Fresca – make up two-thirds of Coca-Cola’s production, and U.S. soda sales earned the company more than $10 billion in 2015. And PepsiCo’s soda sales – including Pepsi, 7Up, and Mountain Dew – still account for one-quarter of the company’s $38 billion in North American sales, despite a shift toward healthier products. But soda consumption fell to its lowest point in 31 years in the U.S. in 2016, according to Fortune, and Coca-Cola concedes that sweetened beverage taxes “are hurting Coke’s business.”

I’ll end with this quote from the New York Times:

Bill Monning, the Senate majority leader, was one of a handful of Democrats who voted against the bill. He called its passage “unprecedented” and said it would stop cities and counties “from being able to take steps to protect the health of their residents”…“It’s a sad day for democracy in California,” he said. “But ever the optimist I think that the outrage of Big Soda blackmailing the state legislature and the people of California is going to boomerang.”

Let’s make sure that happens.

And while we are at it, don’t let this happen in your state.  If the soda industry threatens to mess with state elections, tell your representatives and governor to resist.  California public health advocates: keep the pressure on.  Advocate for bans on sodas everywhere you can: schools, hospitals, workplaces, government offices.  Expose what the industry is doing to protect its profits at the expense of public health.  Don’t give up.  Courage!

For the record, here’s where to find out more about this shameful episode.

Jun 29 2018

Rebooting food: technological solutions to world hunger

Lots of people are worried about how we are going to feed people in the future and are thinking about possible solutions to problems of world hunger.  Hence: Rebooting Food from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

You can guess from the title that the report is about technological solutions.  It begins:

Banana trees that fit in a test tube. Burgers made without a cow in sight. Fish farmed in the desert. Robots picking fruit. Welcome to the brave new world of food, where scientists are battling a global time-bomb of climate change, water scarcity, population growth and soaring obesity rates to find new ways to feed the future.

I wish the report had said more about the social and political causes of world hunger, and the need for social and political action to reduce income and other inequalities.

But if you want a quick overview of current thinking on food technology, this report is a good introduction.

Jun 27 2018

Changing SNAP for the better: the politics

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank whose slogan is “Working to find actionable solutions to the nation’s key challenges,” did a study on SNAP: “Leading with Nutrition: Leveraging Federal Programs for Better Health.”

The report extends and updates the SNAP to Health report I was involved with in 2012.

Like that report, this one recommends making nutrition a priority.

  • Make diet quality a core SNAP objective.
  • Eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages from the list of items that can be purchased with SNAP benefits.
  • Support healthy purchases by continuing and strengthening incentives for purchasing fruits and vegetables.
  • Authorize funds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct a range of evidence-based pilots to improve SNAP participants’ diets.
  • Consolidate USDA authority over the agency’s nutrition standards and nutrition-education efforts.
  • Authorize the USDA to collect and share store-level data on all products purchased with SNAP funds. 7. Strengthen SNAP retailer standards to improve the food environment for all shoppers.

Two of these recommendations jump right into SNAP politics: collecting data and eliminating sugary drinks.

A recent article analyzes issues related to the quality of diets purchased by SNAP participants.  Consistent with previous studies, it finds that the diets consumed by SNAP participants are nutritionally worse than those of people of equivalent low income who are not enrolled in SNAP.   Some evidence suggests that SNAP encourages participants to buy junk food.  It would be good to have better data.

Another recent article explains the politics in no uncertain terms.  Making any change in what SNAP participants can buy with their benefits is blocked by:

  • America’s culture of personal (not social) responsibility
  • Corporate lobbying by the beverage and food retail industries
  • Liberal attitudes defending SNAP as income support for the poor
  • Institutional inertia within USDA and Congress.

These last three constitute what these authors call the “iron triangle” of resistance to changing SNAP for the healthier.  Their advice: try different approaches.

If the Bipartisan Policy Center wants its recommendations followed, it has a lot of work to do.

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