Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 12 2022

Politico’s investigative report on the FDA: a must-read

Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich has produced a blockbuster exposé of the FDA.

If you’ve been worried that the FDA is not doing its job, you are not alone.  This is an astonishing piece of in-depth reporting on the current status of this agency, which in addition to regulating drugs is responsible for the safety and labeling of three-quarters of the food we eat.

I have long complained that the FDA has two structural handicaps:

  1. The FDA Commissioner is not even close to being a cabinet-level appointment; it is at least two steps down the reporting ladder, meaning lots of reporting requirements and authority.
  2. FDA gets its funding from congressional agriculture committees, even though it is an agency of the Public Health Service.  This result of history puts it secondary to USDA in committee funding priority.

I also have long believed that it would be better all the way around if the FDA strongly regulated the food industry.  Strong regulatory agencies are essential for:

  • Trust in science
  • Trust in government
  • Trust in the food supply
  • Establishing a level playing field for the food industry

Here’s what Bottemiller Evich found when she looked into FDA’s delays in getting regulations into place:

Many consumers would be surprised to learn this anemic, slow response is typical for an agency that oversees nearly 80 percent of the American food supply, but slow is what insiders in Washington have come to expect from FDA, regardless of administration.

A monthslong POLITICO investigation found that regulating food is simply not a high priority at the agency, where drugs and other medical products dominate, both in budget and bandwidth – a dynamic that’s only been exacerbated during the pandemic.

Over the years, the food side of FDA has been so ignored and grown so dysfunctional that even former FDA commissioners readily acknowledged problems in interviews.

Her investigation comes in five parts:

  1. “It’s a struture that’s designed to fail.” This part deals with leadership challenges.
  2. “A bit of a black hole.”   Why the FDA took so long to get out standards for regulating irrigation water, and weak ones at that.
  3. The rage of a million parents.  The FDA’s failure to take vigorous action to remove toxic metals from baby food and ensure the safety of infant formula.
  4. “Our food is making us sicker” Why the FDA has been so lax about getting sodium reduced in the food supply.
  5. “They ignore everyone.” The agency, which seems excessively responsive to industry, doesn’t consult its leaders adequately.

Bottemiller Evich says:

  • Read the four major findings from our investigation.
  • Have you complained to the FDA about the Similac recall or another infant formula problem? We want to hear from you.

Every bit of this is worth reading and pondering.  We need a strong, active FDA, unafraid to take unpopular stances to protect public health.

The FDA needs an overhaul.  I hope it comes soon.

Maybe this article will get everyone thinking about how best to get this?

Congressional reactions: Lawmakers demand answers from FDA after investigation on food failures

  • Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wa.), who leads the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, sent a strongly-worded letter to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf Monday afternoon seeking “immediate action to ensure the FDA is doing all it can to fulfill all aspects of its mission to protect the health and safety of the American people.”
  • Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, tweeted Monday that he is requesting a briefing from the agency.
  • House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) also tweeted criticism over the weekend: “The ‘F’ in FDA has come to mean ‘failure’ on food safety,” she wrote. “We must greatly intensify the pressure to get the FDA to do its job and to keep the American people safe and alive.

Bill Marler’s: FDA’s failures have consequences – real people – here is one story – there are countless others

The FDA’s?  The agency has not released a statement but by coincidence it is holding a webinar tomorrow on one aspect of Politico’s investigation.  An opportunity to ask questions?

Please join the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a webinaron April 13, 2022 at 2 p.m. on the Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan that the agency released in early December 2021.

Michael Taylor on the need for a separate food safety agency or better direction for food within FDA.

Apr 11 2022

Industry-funded study of the week: oats (another rare exception)

A reader in Australia, Anthony Power, sent me this one, which he noticed discussed in an article in the Australian The Conversation.

This one is not obviously funder takes all.  Indeed, it might need to be categorized as a rare example of an industry-funded study with results unfavorable to the sponsor’s interests.

The study: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials on the Effects of Oats and Oat Processing on Postprandial Blood Glucose and Insulin ResponsesKathy Musa-VelosoDaniel NooriCarolina Venditti Theresa Poon 1Jodee Johnson 2Laura S Harkness 2Marianne O’Shea 2YiFang Chu 2  J Nutr.  2021 Feb 1;151(2):341-351.  doi: 10.1093/jn/nxaa349.

Objectives: The study objective was to determine the effects of differently processed oats on the postprandial blood glucose and insulin responses relative to refined grains.

Conclusions: A disruption in the structural integrity of the oat kernel is likely associated with a loss in the glycemic benefits of oats.

Funding: The systematic review and meta-analysis, as well as the writing of the manuscript, were funded by PepsiCo, Inc.

Conflicts of interest: Author disclosures: KM-V, DN, CV, and TP are employees of Intertek Health   ciences Inc., which has provided consulting services to PepsiCo, Inc. JJ, MO, and YC are employees of PepsiCo, Inc., which manufactures oatmeal products under the brand name Quaker Oats and which funded this systematic review and meta-analysis. LSH is a former employee of PepsiCo, Inc. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of Intertek Health Sciences Inc. or PepsiCo, Inc.

Comment: Oats are good sources of soluble fiber which in some studies helps lower blood cholesterol levels.  PepsiCo owns Quaker Oats, which makes oatmeals of varying degree of integrity.  The least processed ones, according to this review, do the best job.  This means that quick oats have less of a beneficial effect than the longer-to-cook less processed varieties.  As the paper puts it: “The postprandial glycemic and insulin responses
with thin/instant/quick oats were not significantly different from those elicited by the refined grain control.”

PepsiCo currently extols the health benefits of oatmeal on its website, without making a distinction between the Instant and Need-to-be-Cooked-Longer varieties.  Will it change its website in response to this study?  We will see in due course.

Apr 8 2022

My forthcoming memoir is online: Slow-Cooked!

I’m thrilled to announce that information about my forthcoming book—out October 4—is now available on the University of California Press website

Preordering options

Here’s the official description:

Marion Nestle reflects on her late-in-life career as a world-renowned food politics expert, public health advocate, and a founder of the field of food studies after facing decades of low expectations.

In this engrossing memoir, Marion Nestle reflects on how she achieved late-in-life success as a leading advocate for healthier and more sustainable diets. Slow Cooked recounts of how she built an unparalleled career at a time when few women worked in the sciences, and how she came to recognize and reveal the enormous influence of the food industry on our dietary choices.

By the time Nestle obtained her doctorate in molecular biology, she had been married since the age of nineteen, dropped out of college, worked as a lab technician, divorced, and become a stay-at-home mom with two children. That’s when she got started. Slow Cooked charts her astonishing rise from bench scientist to the pinnacles of academia, as she overcame the barriers and biases facing women of her generation and found her life’s purpose after age fifty. Slow Cooked tells her personal story—one that is deeply relevant to everyone who eats, and anyone who thinks it’s too late to follow a passion.

And here are the amazing back-cover blurbs (for which I am deeply grateful):

  • “Marion Nestle is one of my heroes. After reading her riveting memoir, I admire her more than ever. She is one of the most important voices in the food world, and in this book she gets personal for the first time.”—Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet Magazine 
  • “Marion Nestle is a national treasure, and now you can learn how she came to be. Just like Nestle herself, this beautiful memoir is thoughtful, generous, unstinting, and deeply committed to learning from the past to build a better world.”—Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System 
  • “I have always had such admiration for Marion Nestle: she is one of our nation’s shrewdest thinkers and has transformed the way all of us think about public health, the industrial food industry, nutrition, and the future of food. With this extraordinary book, I see for the first time how she became the clear-eyed, indefatigable warrior that she is. Her radical self-reflection and honesty is deeply moving—and in telling her life’’s story, Marion is forging a path for the next generation of food activists.”—Alice Waters, chef, author, food activist, and founder of Chez Panisse restaurant 
  • “Marion Nestle is a brilliant, courageous champion of healthy food, social justice, and scientific integrity. This poignant and inspiring book tells us how she came to be that way.”—Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal 
  • “Extraordinary! Nestle’s story moves me, heart and soul. I have long admired her leadership in awakening us to the crisis of our corporate-corrupted food system. In this work, however, she offers hope in the capacity of humans to transform obstacles and denigration into opportunity and dignity. She shares a gripping, very personal story that will help us discover our own courage. Just what’s needed now more than ever.”—Frances Moore Lappé, cofounder of Small Planet Institute
Apr 7 2022

Plastics in agrifood systems: a big problem, getting worse

This is not just about plastic particles in soil and in the ocean.  It’s about microplastics in us.

See:  Discovery and quantification of plastic particle pollution in human blood. 

Plastic particles are ubiquitous pollutants in the living environment and food chain but no study to date has reported on the internal exposure of plastic particles in human blood. …In this study of a small set of donors, the mean of the sum quantifiable concentration of plastic particles in blood was 1.6 µg/ml, showing a first measurement of the mass concentration of the polymeric component of plastic in human blood.

As for plastics in the environment, a news release from the FAO announced a new report: “Assessment of agricultural plastics and their sustainability: a call for action.

According to data collated by the agency’s experts, agricultural value chains each year use 12.5 million tonnes of plastic products. A further 37.3 million tonnes are used in food packaging. The crop production and livestock sectors were found to be the largest users, accounting for 10.2 million tonnes per year collectively, followed by fisheries and aquaculture with 2.1 million tonnes, and forestry with 0.2 million tonnes.

According to the report, the benefits of plantics are enormous—and that’s a big part of the problem.

In agriculture, plastic products greatly help productivity. Mulch films, for instance, are used to cover the soil to reduce weed growth, the need for pesticides, fertilizer and irrigation; tunnel and greenhouse films and nets protect and boost plant growth, extend cropping seasons and increase yields; coatings on fertilizers, pesticides and seeds control the rate of release of chemicals or improve germination; tree guards protect young seedlings and saplings against damage by animals and provide a microclimate that enhances growth.

Moreover, plastic products help reduce food losses and waste, and maintain its nutritional qualities throughout a myriad of value chains, thereby improving food security and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

OK, but how do you get rid of them?

The effects of large plastic items on marine fauna have been well documented. However, as these plastics begin to disintegrate and degrade, their impacts begin to be exerted at the cellular level, affecting not only individual organisms but also, potentially, entire ecosystems.

Microplastics (plastics less than 5 mm in size) are thought to present specific risks to animal health, but recent studies have detected traces of microplastic particles in human faeces and placentas. There is also evidence of mother-to-foetus transmission of much smaller nanoplastics in rats.

The report recommends the 6R model (Refuse, Redesign, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Recover).  Good luck with that one.


Apr 6 2022

The FDA says it’s working on “healthy”—symbol and rules

The FDA is issuing yet another notice about consumer research on a symbol for “healthy.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is issuing a 30-day procedural notice on the preliminary quantitative consumer research it plans to conduct on voluntary symbols that could be used in the future to convey the nutrient content claim “healthy”…while at the same time developing a proposed rule that would update when manufacturers may use the “healthy” nutrient content claim on food packages.

It’s déjà vu all over again.

I went right back to what I wrote on  January 1, 2016.

**** Here’s what I said back then:

FDA: What is happening with front-of-package labels?

The FDA issued its final rules for the Nutrition Facts panels, but now I want to know: What ever happened to its front-of-package (FOP) initiatives?

The New York Times editorial on the new food label raised this very question.

But the labels, which most food companies will have to use by July 2018, still have serious limitations. They require busy shoppers to absorb a lot of facts, not all of which are equally important, and then do the math themselves while standing in the grocery aisle. And the labels are on the back of the package, where only the most motivated shoppers will look.

The editorial refers to the FDA’s front-of-package initiatives early in the Obama administration.  These involved two reports from the Institute of Medicine.  The first, released in 2010, examined about 20 existing front-of-package schemes cluttering up the labels of processed foods and evaluated their strengths and weaknesses.  It recommended that FOP labels deal only with calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.  My question at the time: why not sugars?  The committee’s answer: calories took care of it.

But the IOM’s second report in 2011 included sugars and recommended a point system for evaluating the amounts of it and those nutrients in processed foods.  Packages would get zero stars if their saturated and trans fat, sodium, or sugars exceeded certain cut points.

The Times editorial explained what happened next:

the Grocery Manufacturers Association [GMA] called the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation “untested” and “interpretive.” Along with the Food Marketing Institute, it developed its own front-of-package labeling system, which includes some useful information, but is more complex and less helpful than the institute’s version.

As I stated at the time, the FDA let the GMA get away with this and has said not one more word about front-of-package labels.

According to the Times, the FDA is still studying the matter.

it’s not clear when or if the agency will require front-of-package labels. The food industry, of course, wants to make its products appear as healthy as possible. The F.D.A. would serve consumers best by taking the Institute of Medicine’s good advice and putting clear and concise nutrition labels right where most shoppers will see them.

It certainly would.  It’s time to take those IOM reports out of the drawer and get busy writing rules for them.

****So here we are six years later:

I can’t wait to see what this symbol is going to look like.  The mind boggles.

Apr 5 2022

Good news: Another White House Conference on Food

If you are plenty old, or up on your history of US nutrition policy, you might remember the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health.

Tufts held a 50th anniversary conference at which I spoke (videos of the talks are here–I was on Panel 3 starting at about 17 minutes in).

In early December 1969, President Richard M. Nixon convened the first and only White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health to “put an end to hunger in America for all time” and improve the nutritional well-being of all Americans at a time when malnutrition was of urgent national concern. The agenda of the Conference was to draft recommendations that could be implemented by a bipartisan coalition into national nutrition policy.

The conference was notable for Nixon’s amazing speech kicking off the conference.

We see, then, that the problem of hunger and malnutrition is, really, two separate problems. One is to insure that everyone is able to obtain an adequate diet. The second is to insure that people actually are properly fed, where they have the ability to obtain the adequate diet.

On the one hand, we are dealing with problems of income distribution. On the other hand, with problems of education, habit, taste, behavior, personal preferences-the whole complex of things that lead people to act the way they do, to make the choices they do.

Look at what Nixon was proposing:

For the first time–Mr. Moynihan [Counsellor to the President] please notice–for the first time, this new family assistance plan would give every American family a basic income, wherever in America that family may live. For the first time, it would put cash into the hands of families because they are poor, rather than because they fit certain categories. When enacted, this measure alone will either supplement the incomes or provide the basis for the incomes of 25 million American men, women, and children.

The conference was also notable for its hundreds of recommendations—among them, free food stamps, cash income supports, transfer of food assistance out of the USDA.  We didn’t get the Universal Basic Income but we did get food stamps (now SNAP), school meals,and other useful policies.

The Tufts program kicked off demands for another White House Conference, and it looks like we may actually get that.

Congress allotted $2.5 million for a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, Health, and Hunger in the FY22 omnibus spending package (see page 112), as part of efforts to end hunger.

The conference should be developed using a whole-of-government approach- in partnership with the Executive Office of the President, the Department of Agriculture, and other Federal agencies-and in consultation with State, territories, local, and Tribal officials, and a diverse group of interested parties from across the country, including anti-hunger, nutrition, and health experts; the private sector; and people with lived experience of hunger and nutrition insecurity. The conference should examine why hunger and nutrition insecurity persist and how they affect health, including their role in the high prevalence of chronic disease. It should also review existing and crossdepartmental strategies and consider new approaches to improve health by eliminating hunger, reducing the prevalence of chronic disease, and improving access to and consumption of nutritious foods in accordance with Dietary
Guidelines for Americans.

The conference was called for in bills S. 3064 sponsored by Senator Cory Booker (D, NJ) and Mike Braun (R, IN) and H.R. 5724 sponsored by House Rules Chair Jim McGovern (D, MA) and Jackie Walorski (R, IN).

HHS is to work with other federal agencies to “report initial findings” to the Hill about conference plans probably by late July.

This is great news.  Can’t wait to see how this develops.

Apr 4 2022

Industry-funded study of the week: prunes, if you can believe it

Thanks to Georgene Grover for sending this one, with this comment: “What about this? Ten prunes a day seems excessive!”

The study:  The Role of Prunes in Modulating Inflammatory Pathways to Improve Bone Health in Postmenopausal Women.  Janhavi J Damani, Mary Jane De Souza, Hannah L VanEvery, Nicole CA Strock, and Connie J Rogers. Adv Nutr 2022;00:1–17.

Purpose:  Prunes (dried plums; Prunus domestica L.) have been studied as a potential whole-food dietary intervention to mitigate bone loss in preclinical models of osteoporosis and in osteopenic postmenopausal women.

Method: This is a review of previous studies.  It summarizes findings from preclinical and clinical studies that have assessed the effect of prunes on oxidative stress, inflammatory mediators, and bone outcomes. Most of the studies that reported effects required 100 grams per day of prunes (about 10 per day).

Conclusion: Overall, evidence from in vitro, preclinical studies, and limited clinical studies suggests the potential role of prunes in ameliorating bone loss.

Funding and COI: Supported by the California Prune Board provided funding to MJDS and CJR. Publication funds came from the Hershey Company endowment, Department of Nutritional Sciences, Penn State University. California Dried Plum Board (grant no. 100804). Author disclosures: CJR is member of the Nutrition Advisory Panel for the California Dried Plum Board. The other authors report no conflicts of interest.

Comment: This is a standard industry-funded paper with a predictable outcome.  As far as I can tell, every food trade association is funding research that can help with marketing.  Even prunes.

Prunes are fine, but studies of one food don’t really tell you anything about diets as a whole.  Eat prunes if you like them.  Ten prunes means ten plums.  Seems like a lot, no?

Apr 1 2022

Weekend reading: agriculture and climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its 6th report.  

The news gets worse with each successive report.

Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world, despite efforts to reduce the risks. People and ecosystems least able to cope are being hardest hit…The world faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards over the next two decades with global warming of 1.5°C (2.7°F). Even temporarily exceeding this warming level will result in additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible. Risks for society will increase, including to infrastructure and low-lying coastal settlements.

One paragraph (C.2.2) deals with the effects of agriculture on climate change, and the strength of the associations.

  • Effective adaptation options, together with supportive public policies enhance food availability and stability and reduce climate risk for food systems while increasing their sustainability (medium confidence).
  • Effective options include cultivar improvements, agroforestry, community-based adaptation, farm and landscape diversification, and urban agriculture (high confidence).
  • Institutional feasibility, adaptation limits of crops and cost effectiveness also influence the effectiveness of the adaptation options (limited evidence, medium agreement).
  • Agroecological principles and practices, ecosystem-based management in fisheries and aquaculture, and other approaches that work with natural processes support food security, nutrition, health and well-being, livelihoods and biodiversity, sustainability and ecosystem services (high confidence).
  • These services include pest control, pollination, buffering of temperature extremes, and carbon sequestration and storage (high confidence).
  • Trade-offs and barriers associated with such approaches include costs of establishment, access to inputs and viable markets, new knowledge and management (high confidence) and their potential effectiveness varies by socioeconomic context, ecosystem zone, species combinations and institutional support (medium confidence).
  • Integrated, multi-sectoral solutions that address social inequities and differentiate responses based on climate risk and local situation will enhance food security and nutrition (high confidence).
  • Adaptation strategies which reduce food loss and waste or support balanced diets (as described in the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land) contribute to nutrition, health, biodiversity and other environmental benefits (high confidence).

Here are the documents:

The previous IPCC reports