Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 25 2018

Trump’s government reorganization plan: really?

The Trump Administration announced its new plan to reorganize government.  Obviously, this affects the agencies dealing with agriculture, food, and nutrition issues—USDA, FDA, and FDA’s parent agency, HHS.  Here is my translation of the major shifts being proposed:

  • Move most of USDA’s nutrition programs—SNAP, WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program—to HHS.
  • Move FDA’s food safety oversight to USDA, putting USDA in charge of all food safety.
  • Downsize the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Congress would have to vote on all this so there’s no point in going too deeply into the weeds at this point, but I have just a few comments:

  • Putting all food safety oversight in one agency is a good idea, but not if it’s USDA.  USDA’s principal purpose to to support agribusiness.  Holding agribusiness responsible for food safety puts USDA in conflict of interest.
  • Moving SNAP and WIC into HHS (or whatever its new name will be) would make sense if HHS weren’t already overwhelmed by everything else it has to deal with (more than a trillion dollars in spending).
  • The proposal still leaves school breakfasts and lunches and commodity programs in USDA, meaning that food assistance programs will still be split between USDA and HHS.
  • Downsizing the Commissioned Corps doesn’t make much sense either.  Public health needs all the health it can get.

Whatever happens with this is unlikely to happen quickly.  USDA will not be happy about losing SNAP’s $80 billion a year or WIC’s $6 billion budget.

Many other agencies are also affected by these proposals.  My prediction: Congress will have a lot of trouble coming to agreement on these ideas.

Maybe this is just another attempt to distract us from more pressing matters.

Law Professor Timothy Lytton, an expert on food regulatory policy, has plenty to say about why moving food safety to USDA won’t work (in my paraphrasing):

  • Congressional committees are unlikely to support any reorganization that would reduce their power.
  • Industry associations are unlikely to support a reorganization that would disrupt their influence with existing agencies.
  • The two agencies are different in jurisdiction, powers and expertise; a merger would require a complete overhaul of federal food safety laws and regulations, a task of extraordinary legal and political complexity.
  • A merger might create new forms of fragmentation.
  • Reorganization is expensive and will take years.  The payoff is unclear.

As I’ve explained before, plans for a single food safety agency have been in the works for years, but have encountered many barriers.  The Food Safety Modernization Act was meant to be step #1 in a three-step process:

  1. Pass and implement rules governing FDA’s oversight of pretty much all foods except meat and poultry (this is now done).
  2. Fix USDA’s food safety rules governing meat and poultry so they are consistent with FDA’s (in the talking stage, hopefully).
  3. Merge the food safety responsibilities in one agency.

These proposals, alas, ignore step #2.  Good luck with that.

Jun 22 2018

Farewell Anthony Bourdain

I didn’t know him but I too am sad that he is no longer with us.  His memorial continues.

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Jun 21 2018

Salmonella in Honey Smacks cereal?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The latest source of Salmonella is a kids’ cereal, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks.  They may be a good source of vitamin D, but watch out!

This is no joke.  The CDC reports the damage: 73 cases in 31 states, with 24 hospitalizations.

The CDC says you should not eat this cereal.  Period.  You should especially not eat this if its used-by date ranges from June 14, 2018 to June 14, 2019.  Kellogg has recalled packages with this used-by date.

I took this photo on June 16 at Wegmans in Ithaca.  I was surprised to see them on the shelf, but their use-by date was May 19, 2019 so Wegmans must think they are OK.  Even if I habitually bought sugary kids cereals, I’d pick another one until this outbreak is over and gets an all-clear signal.

Recent Salmonella outbreaks have involved pre-cut melon, eggs, dried coconut, pre-made salads, and sprouts.  Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says don’t eat them either.

Outbreaks caused by contamination of commercial boxed products are rare.  Bacteria don’t grow well in dried foods.  The CDC doesn’t discuss how the Salmonella got into the package.

Could honey be the source?  Honey is not sterile, but bacteria don’t grow in it very well (not enough water).

This reminds me of the situation with dry pet foods and treats.  Canned pet foods have been cooked and are sterile until they are opened.

Dry foods are not sterile.  Although the extrusion process heats them enough to kill bacteria, flavors and other additives are sprayed on before they are packaged.  Contamination with Salmonella and other pathogens is a constant problem (Mal Nesheim and I discuss this in our book about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right).

I will be interested to see if Kellogg can find the source of the contamination.

Jun 20 2018

Not-so-smart snacks for kids

I am ever indebted to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, the Canadian obesity specialist, for keeping a sharp eye out for the more amazing ways food companies push junk foods.

Check out his Weighty Matters blog.  This particular post describes the “Smart Snacks” for kids endorsed by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the American Heart Association in partnership with the Clinton Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Check out Freedhoff’s selection of “Smart” items drawn from Amazon’s more complete list of Alliance-endorsed items.  Here is his first example (but don’t miss the others):

These are all junk foods tweaked to make them slightly less junky, thereby raising the questions I always like to ask in these situations: Is a slightly better-for-you product necessarily a good choice?

I’ve written about the Alliance’s partnerships previously.  As Freedhoff explains,

In case you’re not familiar with it, the Alliance For A Healthier Generations is the name given to the partnership program founded between the American Heart Association, The Clinton Foundation, and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with pretty what at first glance looks like pretty much every food industry corporation on earth…[this] is a partnership with the food industry whose job is to promote sales, not to protect health.

Freedhoff asks:

How is it possible that the American Heart Association, The Clinton Foundation, and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would describe a child washing down a bag of Doritos or a Pop-Tart with a can of Diet Coke as them consuming a Smart Snack?

The American Heart Association should not be a participant in this Alliance.  The “Smart Snacks” program’s endorsement by the Alliance covers these particular products but, by extension, the rest of those companies’ products—and the companies that make them.

Jun 19 2018

What’s up with the retracted Mediterranean diet study?

In a most unusual action, the New England Journal of Medicine has retracted a 2013 study of Mediterranean diets and published a new version of it at the same time.

The studies asked participants to consume one of three diets: (1) a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil, (2) a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts, and (3) a control diet with advice to reduce dietary fat.

The authors describe Mediterranean diets as containing a

high intake of olive oil, fruit, nuts, vegetables, and cereals; a moderate intake of fish and poultry; a low intake of dairy products, red meat, processed meats, and sweets; and wine in moderation, consumed with meals.

The conclusion of the original, widely publicized, but now retracted study:

In this study involving persons at high cardiovascular risk, the incidence of major cardiovascular events was lower among those assigned to a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts than among those assigned to a reduced-fat diet.

The conclusion of the newly analyzed version:

In this study involving persons at high cardiovascular risk, the incidence of major cardiovascular events was lower among those assigned to a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts than among those assigned to a reduced-fat diet.

Looks the same, no?

The most thorough analysis of the study that I have seen comes from Hilda Bastian at PLoS Blogs.

Even for the full group, there was no statistically significant difference on myocardial infarction or CVD mortality – just for stroke. And in the supplementary information, there wasn’t a difference in the Kaplan Meier analysis for stroke either.

What are we to make of all this?

Diet trials are notoriously difficult to conduct and interpret and the Mediterranean diet—largely vegetarian with olive oil as the principal fat—was associated with great health and longevity based on studies of people who lived on the island of Crete immediately after the Second World War; they did not have much food to eat and were highly physically active.

And then there’s the matter of who paid for the study.  The retracted study and its revision were funded independently.  But a study published on June 13 concludes:

Adults who are overweight or moderately obese may improve multiple cardiometabolic disease risk factors by adopting a Mediterranean-style eating pattern with or without reductions in red meat intake when red meats are lean and unprocessed.

The funder?  The Beef Checkoff and the National Pork Board.

Overall, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends Mediterranean dietary patterns for their health benefits, defines what goes into them in Table 1.2 (p. 35), and provides more details in Appendix 4 (starting on p. 83).

Mediterranean diets are delicious.  While the scientists are arguing about exactly how healthy they might be, enjoy!

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Jun 18 2018

Where are we on the farm bill?

Let’s start with FERN’s (Food and Agriculture Reporting Network) truly helpful, 7-minute video explaining what the Farm Bill is about.

And then there’s my overview from Politico.

With all that said, the House and Senate agriculture committees have each produced their own versions of the bill and we are waiting for the votes.  So these are preliminary, pending arguments, amendments, changes, and, eventually, reconciliation.

The big food movement issues are the SNAP and Horticulture (translation: fruit, vegetable, and organics) titles.  Browse around and see what Congress is and is not doing to link agricultural policy to health policy.

More to come when we see what gets passed.

Jun 15 2018

Keeping tabs on the food industry: Access to Nutrition Index

Access to Nutrition has just published its 2018 global report.  Its Global Index:

Measures companies’ contributions to good nutrition against international norms and standards and includes a separate ranking of the world´s leading manufacturers of breast-milk substitutes (BMS).

The report summarizes its findings:

The 2018 Index shows the world’s biggest F&B companies have stepped up their efforts to encourage better diets, mostly through new and updated nutrition strategies and policies, improved commitments on affordability and accessibility, better performance on nutrition labeling and health and nutrition claims, and more disclosure of information across categories. Nevertheless, ATNF has serious concerns about the healthiness of the world’s largest global F&B manufacturers’ product portfolios.

Access to Nutrition ranks the European companies, Nestlé, Unilever, and Danone, highest on its lists.

Its “serious concerns”?

  • Poorly defined reformulation targets
  • Unclear approaches to making healthy products for affordable and accessibe
  • Continued irresponsible marketing to children
  • Inadequate employee education programs
  • Inadequate support to breastfeeding mothers
  • Inadequate labeling
  • Inadequate support for public health measures

On this last one:

Indeed.

 

 

Jun 14 2018

Question for the day: Is Tofu processed?

With all of the talk these days about avoiding ultraprocessed foods, questions come up about what that means.  After I posted about the added colors involved in processing plant-based meats, I received a tweeted question:

This got me thinking about tofu. Is it highly processed? Love your thoughts on it!

Like everything else about nutrition, the answer depends—in this case about what you consider processing.  All foods are processed to some extent, if you count washing and cutting.

Ultraprocessing, however, refers to foods that look nothing like what they started out as, and are loaded with added sugars, salt, and artificial colors and flavors.

Commercial tofu is minimally processed; it is just soybeans and a coagulating agent.  Here is one recipe, for example:

  • Soak the soybeans: in water to soften them for 12 to 14 hours.
  • Process the beans to a slurry.
  • Boil the slurry to inactivate lectins and other undesirable soy compounds.
  • Extract the soy liquid (“milk”) with a roller press to separate it from the soybean pulp.
  • Mix a coagulating agent—calcium sulfate, magnesium chloride, or nigari.—into the soy milk.
  • Press the liquid out of the curds.

The tofu you might make at home seems minimally processed, as it is made from just commercial soymilk and lemon juice.  Commercial soymilk, however, contains far more than just soybean liquid:

INGREDIENTS: Soymilk (Filtered Water, Soybeans), Cane Sugar, Contains 2% or less of: Vitamin and Mineral Blend (Tricalcium Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2, Riboflavin [B2], Vitamin B12), Sea Salt, Natural Flavor, Gellan Gum.

I consider good-quality commercial tofu to be minimally processed.  Commercial soymilk is another matter.  Sugar is its second ingredient.  Gellan Gum is its last ingredient.

I wasn’t familiar with Gellan Gum, but I love the Wikipedia definition: “a water-soluble anionic polysaccharide produced by the bacterium Sphingomonas elodea (formerly Pseudomonas elodea),” that substitutes for agar and carrageenan.

A 1988 study of its effects on humans concluded that “the ingestion of gellan gum at a high level for 23 days caused no adverse dietary or physiological effects in any of the volunteers.”  No surprise here: Financial support for the study came from Kelco, Inc., a company that supplies Gellan Gum.

If you want your tofu unsweetened and minimally processed, buy a freshly made commercial variety.

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