Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 8 2018

Don’t eat romaine lettuce until this outbreak ends

I’ve been following the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak caused by eating romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona.

The CDC says the body count so far is:

  • Cases = 121
  • Hospitalizations = 52
  • Deaths = 1

Where the cases have been found:

Map of United States - People infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli, by state of residence, as of May 1, 2018


What the “epi curve” looks like:

Epi curve of people infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli, by date of illness onset, as of May 1, 2018

What’s happening with the FDA’s investigation:

The FDA has identified one farm [Harrison Farms of Yuma, Arizona] as the source of the whole-head romaine lettuce that sickened several people at a correctional facility in Alaska. However, the agency has not determined where in the supply chain the contamination occurred…All of the lettuce in question from this farm was harvested during March 5-16 and is past its 21-day shelf life. Because the growing season in the Yuma region is at its end, the farm is not growing any lettuce at this time.

Most of the illnesses in this outbreak are not linked to romaine lettuce from this farm, and are associated with chopped romaine lettuce. The agency is investigating dozens of other fields as potential sources of the chopped romaine lettuce and will share information as it becomes available.

Some interesting aspects of this and other leafy green outbreaks:

In the meantime, the CDC’s advice to you:

  • Do not eat or buy romaine lettuce unless you are sure it was not grown anywhere near Yuma.
  • Do not eat or buy romaine lettuce if you cannot tell where it was grown.
  • Do not eat salad mixes unless you are sure it is free of romaine lettuce.
  • This applies to romaine lettuce in any form: heads, hearts, chopped, baby, organic, in salads or salad mixes.

But Consumer Reports says to avoid romaine lettuce entirely.

Seems like good advice until this one gets figured out.

May 7 2018

Today: Menu labeling goes national

Remember menu labeling?  In 2010, Congress said fast food places should reveal calories on their menus (New York City required this in 2008).

Food companies fought the measure and got delays, but the eight-year delay is up.  Menu labeling goes national today.

In a blog post, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb explained FDA thinking about such matters: the agency is pro-consumer and pro-market.

Information about how healthy our food is gives us the chance to make better choices about our diets. This same information also inspires competition among producers to formulate food in ways that make it more healthful…. food producers should be able to compete on the ability to develop foods that are healthier, and make reliable, science-based claims about these attributes to consumers.  So at FDA, we’re reforming our policies to make it more efficient to develop these claims. This clarity may encourage more manufacturers to invest in making foods healthier.

Uh oh.  More health claims (these, I insist, are about marketing, not health).  So that’s the trade-off; we get menu labeling at the price of more and inevitably misleading health claims.

Gottlieb defended the measure on Fox News.

If you have information on menu labels, the average consumer will reduce their caloric intake to 30-50 calories a day,” Gottlieb said during the interview. “That turns out to be about 3 to 5 pounds per year that you can lose just by having better information.

This is correct in theory, if you assume that one pound of fat contains about 3500 calories (this estimate comes from multiplying 454 grams per pound by 9 calories per gram for fat and rounding off).  Then it will take 3500 divided by 50 = 70 days to lose one pound.

In practice, such small calorie deficits are hardly measurable.  Most estimates suggest that losing weight requires a deficit of 300 to 500 calories a day (My co-author and I discuss all this in our book, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics).

For an quick summary of the studies of menu labeling, JAMA has a useful review.

It’s great that Commissioner Gottlieb defended menu labeling on Fox News.  Looking at the calories on menu items is fun!

And it most definitely works for me.  If I see a muffin labeling at 700 calories, I share it with friends.

May 4 2018

Weekend reading (and cooking): Sam Kass’s Eat a Little Better

Sam Kass was, of course, the Obamas’ personal family chef and Michelle Obama’s policy person in charge of Let’s Move.  This is his first book, part memoir of his culinary background and time with the Obamas in Chicago and Washington (riveting), part food philosophy (even small steps toward eating count for a lot), and part recipes (delicious, easy, and my kind of food).

Also, the photographs of Sam, his family, and the food are gorgeous.  This is one stunningly produced cookbook (thanks to Clarkson Potter Publishers).

My cousin, theater director Robert Moss, took a look at it when staying at my apartment.  He ended his thank-you note with this comment:

P.S.  I loved the Sam Kass book–made me want to cook now!

Me too.


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May 3 2018

FoodNavigator-USA on fiber, probiotics, and digestive health

This is one of FoodNavigator’-USA’s ongoing series of collected articles on specific topics from a food-industry perspective, in this case, digestive health.

Special Edition: Digestive health

Digestive health used to revolve around roughage, but as understanding of the relationship between our gut and our overall health has grown, consumers are now exploring everything from prebiotic fibers and probiotics to a new wave of fermented foods or simply avoiding foods that make them feel bloated or lethargic. We explore how consumers are thinking about gut health and how manufacturers can tap into demand for foods that make our microbes happy.

May 2 2018

China’s “outward” (foreign) investments in food and agriculture

USDA’s Economic Research Service has a new report on China’s investment in agriculture and farmland.

China’s outward agricultural investments are growing rapidly.

The purchases are everywhere: Indonesia, New Zealand, Bulgaria, Jamaica, etc., but some is in the United States.

China owns Smithfield, for example (see previous post).

The report is worth a serious read.  If you aren’t up to that, take a look at the tables and figures.  I wanted to reproduce a lot more of them.


May 1 2018

Amazon and SNAP: a taxpayer-supported alliance

The Intercept published an account last week pointing out that:

  • Amazon will soon accept grocery orders from SNAP (food stamp) participants
  • One third of Amazon employees are paid so little that they depend on SNAP for food
  • Taxpayers also subsidize Amazon with tax breaks, subsidies, and infrastructure improvements

Amazon pays its employeesmedian (half above, half below) annual salary of $28,466.

The New York Times  points out that critics

have produced studies that say Amazon’s warehouses — which employ more than 125,000 full-time workers in the United States — don’t increase total local employment because of losses in other sectors. They also question the wisdom of subsidies to attract them. The American Booksellers Association, which represents independent bookstores, recently published a similar report on Amazon’s economic impact.

Amazon generated nearly $178 billion in online sales in 2017, its income grew by 27.8%, and it made $3 billion in profit.

Now we know why.

Apr 30 2018

The Smithfield Nuisance (Stench) Verdict: $50 million!

As anyone who has ever been within sniffing distance of an industrial pig farm can tell you, the stench is pervasive, gets into your clothes, and seems impossible to avoid or wash out.  It seems incomprehensible that pig producers could be permitted to cause such odors and impose the stench on neighbors.

When I was on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, the primary finding of our investigations was this: Laws existed to stop pollution but nobody enforced them.

But now neighbors of a North Carolina hog farm sued Smithfield—and won!

As Politico explained

The jury agreed with the 10 plaintiffs in the civil case, who contended that a contractor to Smithfield Foods created a situation where residents could no longer enjoy their property because of noxious smells. Waste from the hogs is stored in open-air lagoons and sprayed onto fields as fertilizer. Neighbors said manure particles traveled to their property located a few hundred feet from the farm, coating their homes, clothing and cars.

The judges instructions to the jury were simple.

The first question to the jury was whether Murphy-Brown had “substantially and unreasonably” interfered with the plaintiffs’ use and enjoyment of their property. For each of them, the jury answered “yes” and awarded them $75,000 in compensation.  As to whether the company was liable for punitive damages, the jury again answered yes, and awarded each the same amount – $5 million.

They won’t actually get this amount; North Carolina laws cap damage payments.

Nevertheless, the verdict opens the possibility for other such lawsuits and further damages.

Smithfield will appeal, of course.

These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms. These farmers are apparently not safe from attack even if they fully comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations. The lawsuits are a serious threat to a major industry, to North Carolina’s entire economy and to the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of North Carolinians.

Yes, but does Smithfield have the right to ruin the lives of people in the community and create vast amounts of stinking waste that is not treated—amounts larger than that produced by people in small cities.

We would not dream of leaving human waste exposed and untreated.  Pig waste is no different.

Let’s hope the verdict sticks and causes big changes in animal production methods.

Apr 27 2018

Weekend reading: Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has named about 50 Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS).

These recognize “the proudest traditions of human ingenuity in harnessing precious resources to provide food and livelihoods and protect unique ecosystems.”

They are:

Outstanding landscapes of aesthetic beauty that combine agricultural biodiversity, resilient ecosystems and a valuable cultural heritage.  Located in specific sites around the world, they sustainably provide multiple goods and services, food and livelihood security for millions of small-scale farmers.  Through a remarkable process of coevolution of humankind and nature, such sites have emerged over centuries of cultural and biological interactions and synergies, representing the accumulated experiences of rural people….

GIAHS sites are testimony to the inventiveness and ingenuity of people in their management of resources, biodiversity and ecosystem dynamics, and use of landscapes, codified in traditional but evolving knowledge, practices and technologies. These ancestral agricultural systems constitute the foundation for contemporary and future agricultural innovations and technologies. Their cultural, ecological and agricultural diversity is still evident in many parts of the world, maintained as unique systems of agriculture.

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