by Marion Nestle

Search results: revolving door

Oct 20 2014

Food professionals’ relationships with food companies: a Q and A

In the past few weeks, I’ve been sent several questions asking my opinion of food professionals’ relationships with food companies.   I thought I would deal with them at one time (all are edited for succinctness and clarity):

Q.  I am a food science student looking into career options in the food industry. I love food science and truly believe that processing food is a good idea that can positively impact the planet and its people.  I want to do something worthwhile,, but I still need to eat.  Can’t the food industry be changed from the inside? Can’t you advise good companies, people, or places where I could start my search? 

A.  I have met social entrepreneurs who strongly believe that businesses can be ethical, do good, and still make heaps of money.  Maybe so.  If you are going to try that route, I think it essential that the company be family or cooperatively owned, and not publicly traded.  You might take a look at food companies incorporated as Benefit Corporations. These are now authorized in about half the states to consider the interests of all stakeholders, not just shareholders, when making decisions.  They are different from B corporations certifying companies that meet certain sustainability criteria.

Many companies work hard to reduce their environmental impact.  But the real question is what they are doing about health impact.  Are they going overboard on health claims?  Are they marketing to children?  These are questions I’d want to ask.  In your shoes, I’d start by looking at companies making products that you like, feel good about, and would be proud to be associated with.   And then take a closer look at how the companies operate.   Working for food companies is always a good learning experience, but if you really want to change the world, you might be better off with a nonprofit agency.

Q.  I’m a graduate student in nutrition and I would like to know what recommendations you may have for students to navigate conflicts of interest with food companies when beginning a career.  I intend to pursue an academic career but am concerned that my credibility as a scientist could be compromised by my participation in industry-funded publications and research. 

A.  It’s great that you are asking such questions. From the standpoint of ethics, that’s an important first step.  You should most definitely publish your research, no matter how it is funded.  Be sure to disclose potential sources of funding bias and conflicts of interest.  While you are doing your research, you can take special care to control for potential biases—conscious and unconscious—in your study design, conduct, and interpretation to ensure that they are not influenced by the funder.  In searching for jobs, you might consider those in academia, government, and NGOs that are less likely to require you to compromise principles.  Finding such jobs may not be easy, but you will be OK if you are always ethically transparent and as straightforward about biases as it is possible to be.

Q.  Do you believe that relationships between the food industry and nutrition professional organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the Association for Nutritional Science (ASN) are problematic? Why?

A.  Sponsorship by food product makers puts nutrition professionals in conflict of interest.   Nutritionists ought to be advising clients and the public about what to eat to stay healthy and prevent chronic disease.  This necessarily means promoting consumption of some foods but discouraging consumption of others.  Nutritionists cannot speak truth to clients and protect corporate sponsorship at the same time.  If nothing else, food industry sponsorship gives the appearance of conflict of interest and makes AND and ASN appear as arms of food company marketers.  But it also affects—or appears to affect–AND ’s and ASN’s positions on key issues in nutrition and health.  Overall, financial relationships between these organizations and their food industry sponsors undermines the credibility of their positions on food issues.

Q.  What sort of changes do you think the Academy needs to make in order to make food industry relationships more beneficial to its members and the public overall?

A.  Nutrition and food professional organizations need to establish a firewall between corporate sponsorship and content or opinion.  This requires setting up rigorous guidelines for what food companies can and cannot expect from their donations.  They should not, for example, be permitted to sponsor content sessions at meetings, not least because opinions expressed at sponsored sessions rarely appear objective.  The organizations should have complete control over how and where corporate donations and company logos are used.

Q.  How can relationships between health professionals and the food industry be beneficial for public health overall?

A.  The role of health professionals is to give the best advice possible about diet and health.  The role of food companies is to provide profits to shareholders.  These goals are not the same and are only rarely compatible.  In my experience, people who want to work for food companies to change corporate culture from within do so from good motives, but soon discover that corporate imperatives take precedence over health goals. If health professional organizations want their advice to be taken seriously, they must establish and adhere to rules and guidelines designed expressly to protect their integrity.

Q.  I read your post on the revolving door,  It seems to me that your underlying premise is the notion that any company that makes food is indicted as part of the big evil food conspiracy. Surely, you can’t really believe that. 

A.  Of course I don’t. But food companies are not social service agencies.   Their job—their legal responsibility—is to continuously expand sales and distribute ever-increasing profits to shareholders.   If they can do this and promote health at the same time, more power to them.  But people would be healthier eating food, not food products.  In our present system, products are far more profitable and the focus on them is rarely works in the interest of public health.

Food and nutrition professionals need to make a living.  Unfortunately, jobs in industry pay better–and sometimes a lot better–than jobs in government or NGOs.  That’s the real dilemma that underlies all of these questions.

Sep 11 2013

Why the public still distrusts GMOs: Nature Biotechnology gives the reasons

Nature Biotechnology, a research journal for biotechnology academics, has the most enlightened explanation I’ve seen recently about why genetically modified (GM) foods don’t go over well with the public (I discussed suchN reasons in detail in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).Its editorial states that despite years of evidence for the safety of eating GM foods,

Consumers are concerned about the close (some might say cushy) relationships between regulators and companies. They are concerned about food safety data being difficult to obtain from regulatory agencies. The revolving door between agribusiness and regulatory agencies and the amounts spent on political lobbying also raise red flags. Even academics have fallen in the public’s esteem, especially if there’s a whiff of a company association or industry funding for research.

Of course, the public’s misgivings about GM food go beyond just the risk to health. Corporate control of the food supply, disenfranchisement of smallholder farmers, the potential adverse effects of GM varieties on indigenous flora and fauna, and the ‘contamination’ of crops grown on non-GM or organic farms all play into negative perceptions. And for better or worse, GM food is now inextricably linked in the public consciousness with Monsanto, which has seemingly vied with big tobacco as the poster child for corporate greed and evil.

What are industry and academic scientists to do about such attitudes?

 Changing them will require a concerted and long-term effort to develop GM foods that clearly provide convincing benefits to consumers—something that seed companies have conspicuously failed to do over the past decade.

Well, yes.  This was the situation in 2003 when I first wrote Safe Food, and nothing had changed by the second edition in 2010.  Or by now, apparently.

This industry still depends on Golden Rice to save its reputation.  Maybe it ought to start working on some of the other issues mentioned in this editorial.

 

Apr 11 2012

The legacy of LFTB (a.k.a “pink slime”): power politics in action

The noise about lean finely textured beef (LFTB), commonly known as “pink slime,” is bringing attention to some of the more unsavory aspects of the U.S. political system—public relations spin, the revolving door, and other aspects of power politics.  Here are some recent examples:

According to the Sioux City Journal:

Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday called for a congressional investigation into the source of what he called a “smear campaign” meant to discredit the Lean, Finely Textured Beef made by a Siouxland company.

“Clearly, this is a safe product, it is a lean product, it helps reduce obesity, and there is a spurious attack being levied against it by some groups who are against it…And you can suspect who they might be — people who don’t like meat.”

Helena Bottemiller of Food Safety News reports that Branstad’s colleague, Steve King (Rep-Iowa) explains how the hearings will work:

Witnesses would be under oath and they’re of course obligated by law to tell the truth, those who have been the ones who have perpetrated this smear campaign against one of the stellar companies in the country…I think they’ll have an obligation then to explain themselves why they could not base their allegations on facts and what they’ve done to damage an industry.

Perhaps King will call on Representative Chellie Pingree (Dem-Maine) who has submitted a bill calling for labeling of LFTB. The the Sioux City Journa quotes Branstad’s comments about her:

Pingree is guilty of spreading “bogus misinformation” about lean, finely textured beef along with celebrity chefs and “media elites.”

Pingree should have no trouble explaining why she wrote the bill:

Consumers have made it pretty clear they don’t want this stuff in their food…If a product contains connective tissue and beef scraps and has been treated with ammonia, you ought to be able to know that when you pick it up in the grocery store.

Calling people up before congressional committees is harassment, given how rude congressional committee members typically are to witnesses.

On a lesser scale, Bettina Siegel, the school lunch advocate who initially wrote the USDA to stop using LFTB, has been so harassed by nasty comments on her blog that she has had to set up a filtering system (I’m considering doing the same).

The Concord Monitor reports that USDA undersecretary Joann Smith, the official who approved LFTB for use in school hamburger, was an appointee of President George H.W. Bush and formerly a beef industry advocate.

When Smith left government, she was appointed to the board of directors of Beef Products Inc., the maker of LFTB, which paid her $1.2 million over 17 years [actually, she was on the board of IBP, a supplier of BPI].

Republic Report says that Beef Products Inc. retains a team of lobbyists from the firm Olsson, Frank & Weeda. One lobbyist employed by the firm is Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former congresswoman from South Dakota and leader of the “Blue Dog Caucus” of pro-corporate Democrats.

It’s enough to make anyone start buying organics.

Addition, April 16: Food Safety News has published an excellent timeline on the history of the “pink slime” crisis.

Addition, May 10: Legal scholars weigh in on whether pink slime should be labeled.  No, they say, requiring labeling would violate the First Amendment.

Feb 17 2012

Some thoughts on the “fire Mike Taylor” petitions

USA Today has picked up the various Internet petitions—SignOn, FoodDemocracyNow, CredoAction, etc— to fire Mike Taylor, the head food safety person at the FDA. 

When the FDA hired Mike Taylor nearly three years ago, I wrote a long post reviewing his complicated employment history: Monsanto, FDA, USDA, Monsanto, private sector, university, FDA—a classic example of the “revolving door.”.    

He was at FDA, although recused, when the agency approved GM foods and denied labeling. 

But at USDA, he was a public health hero to food safety advocates.  He was responsible for installing food safety oversight systems that have greatly reduced contamination outbreaks from meat and poultry.

 He was hired at FDA to do the same thing, which is why I thought his appointment made sense at the time.  I thought he ought to be given a chance.

 He has now become the flashpoint for public anger at FDA over issues that include GM foods but go well beyond them:

  • Failure to require labeling of GM foods
  • Failure to recognize the scaled-down safety needs of small farmers
  • Failure to enforce and punish food safety violations by large producers
  • Unfair enforcement of food safety procedures against small producers
  • Clamping down on raw milk producers

As I explained to USA Today, I’m a big fan of MoveOn and grass-roots political action, and I’ve been advocating for GM labeling since I was on the FDA Food Advisory Committee in 1994 (if only they had listened to me).

But I don’t exactly get where the “fire Monsanto Mike” movement is coming from nearly three years after he was hired.   Why make the political so personal?

As I told USA Today,

What would firing Mike Taylor do? It would show the muscle of the anti-corporate food movement, says Nestle, “and there’s much to be said for that.” However, she questions whether Taylor leaving would do anything to advance the goals of this loose coalition of activists. “Will it make the FDA listen more carefully to demands that it keep its priorities where the most serious food safety problems are? I don’t know.”

All of the issues mentioned in the petitions are important.  All are complicated.  All deserve serious thought and attention to political goals.  Will firing Mike Taylor advance those goals? 

I don’t see how.

What am I missing here?

 

Jan 14 2010

On the food safety front…

Cookie dough: Nestlé reports that it has again found E. coli O157:H7 in its cookie dough and will now be heating the flour before using (see, the New York Times account, and the report from FoodProductionDaily.com.

This is odd.  How do they know that the flour is the carrier?   As I discussed in previous posts, the source of the contaminating bacteria has either not been found or not announced.  This action implies that the company must think the flour is at fault.  Let’s hope so.  We certainly don’t want the chocolate bits to be the carrier.

FDA news: The FDA announced yesterday that it has appointed Michael Taylor as Deputy Commissioner for Foods.  This is a new office at FDA which, if Congress ever gets around to passing it, will be responsible for implementing the preventive control provisions of the food safety bill.  Peventive control, I’ve just learned, is the new euphemism for HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point).

As I describe in a previous post, Mr. Taylor’s appointment is not without controversy but his expertise in food safety runs deep.  I think this is a good move for FDA.

Update January 15: And here is what the Washington Post and the New York Times have to say about Taylor’s appointment.  I’m quoted in the Post story.

He is the quintessential revolving door,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Taylor’s support for BGH and Monsanto’s other genetically modified products at the FDA was “questionable,” she said. “On the other hand, when he went to USDA, what he did there was absolutely heroic. He’s been very strong on food safety.

Sep 22 2009

Interview with FoodSafetyNews.com

I did a Q and A with Helena Bottemiller of the new food safety website, FoodSafetyNews.com about the politics of food safety.  It’s online at the site.  Here’s the text of the interview (absent the blurb and photograph):

Q: There has been a lot of rhetoric coming from Administration-appointed officials on food policy this year–on encouraging fruits and veggies, on promoting local food, on strengthening food safety. Do you think these ideas will make a big impact on the current food system, or are the institutional and political barriers to change too great?

A: It’s not one or the other; it’s both. Yes, federal support will encourage small farmers and organic production and these sectors will grow as a result, and that’s a good thing. But they still account for, and will continue to account for, only a tiny fraction of food production. I expect growth in alternative agriculture with big percentage jumps, but the base will be small for a long time. I think the question is whether the growth in alternative systems will place pressure on industrial agriculture to improve its practices. I hope so.

Q: You’ve written before about the “revolving door” at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture–where regulators have close ties to the sector that they regulate from moving between roles in government and industry. I know you’ve been supportive of Michael Taylor, a top advisor to FDA Commissioner Hamburg, despite his former ties to industry, because of his policy positions. Are we seeing a better revolving door?
A: Of course it persists and always will, and is a huge problem for governmental integrity. The Michael Taylor situation is not so simple. In some circles, his appointment is a deal-breaker; anti-GMO groups will never forgive him for his role in FDA approval and non-labeling of GM foods. Whether FDA will revisit the labeling issue, I have no idea–I wish it would–but Taylor has a long and consistently solid record in the food safety area. He performed food safety miracles at USDA in the mid-1990s and that makes him a good choice for food safety initiatives that I hope are coming at FDA. I think he needs to be given a chance.
Q: Do you think the Senate will address food safety this fall, and are you supportive of the bills? What do you think about the push back from small and sustainable agriculture folks?
A: I hope the Senate acts, and soon. If it doesn’t, FDA’s hands are tied and we can expect massive outbreaks of foodborne illness to continue unabated. Even so, Congress is not doing what everyone agrees needs to be done: create a single food safety agency with responsibility, authority, and resources to require safe food production from farm to table. Food safety is just like health care. Everyone knows what is needed but Congress is too corrupt to act.
As for small farmers: I think everyone producing food–no exceptions–should be using science-based food safety procedures with testing. Congress needs to make it possible for small-scale producers to do this. While getting local testing facilities in place, Congress also ought to provide for local slaughter. Both would make a big difference.
Q: In your opinion, what are the top five ways we could create a safer food supply?
A: 1. Require HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) with test-and-hold pathogens for all producers from farm to table.
2. Create a single food safety agency to monitor and enforce regulations, with adequate resources to do so.
3. Ban the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture for non-therapeutic purposes.
4. Do a major national education campaign for hand washing (and require restaurants to provide hot water, soap and towels for that purpose).
5. Reform election campaign laws so elected representatives can focus on public health rather than corporate health.
Jul 7 2009

Michael Taylor appointed to FDA: A good choice!

On Monday this week, Michael Taylor began his new job as special assistant to the FDA Commissioner for food safety.  He will be in charge of implementing whatever food safety laws Congress finally decides to pass.

I know that what I am about to say will surprise, if not shock, many of you, but I think he’s an excellent choice for this job. Yes, I know he worked for Monsanto, not only once (indirectly) but twice (directly). And yes, he’s the first person whose name is mentioned when anyone talks about the “revolving door” between the food industry and government. And yes, he signed off on the FDA’s consumer-unfriendly policies on labeling genetically modified foods.

But before you decide that I must have drunk the Kool Aid on this one, hear me out.  He really is a good choice for this job.  Why?  Because he managed to get USDA to institute HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) for meat and poultry against the full opposition of the meat industry — a truly heroic accomplishment.  His position on food safety has been strong and consistent for years.  He favors a single food agency, HACCP for all foods, and accountability and enforcement.  We need this for FDA-regulated foods (we also need enforcement for USDA-regulated foods, but he won’t be able to touch that unless Congress says so).  So he’s the person most likely to be able to get decent regulations in place and get them enforced.

I say this in full knowledge of his history.  In the 1990s, Mr. Taylor held positions in both FDA and USDA and his career in these agencies is complicated.  As I explained in my 2003 book, Safe Food  (see the endnotes for full documentation), Mr. Taylor began his career as a lawyer with the FDA. When he left the FDA, he went to work for King & Spalding, a law firm that represented Monsanto, the company that developed genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH), corn, and soybeans.

He revolved back to the FDA in 1991 as deputy commissioner for policy, and he held that position during the time the agency approved Monsanto’s BGH. At the time of the review, he had been with FDA for more than two years. This made him exempt from newly passed conflict-of-interest guidelines that applied only to the first year of federal employment.  He also was a coauthor of the FDA’s 1992 policy statement on genetically engineered plant foods, and he signed the Federal Register notice stating that milk from cows treated with BGH did not have to be labeled as such.

For whatever it is worth, a 1999 lawsuit and GAO report revealed considerable disagreement about these decisions within FDA. These also revealed that Mr. Taylor had recused himself from matters related to Monsanto’s BGH and had “never sought to influence the thrust or content” of the agency’s policies on Monsanto’s products.  I can’t tell whether there were ethical breaches here or not, but there is little question that his work at FDA gave the appearance of conflict of interest, if nothing more.

But wait! Watch what happened when he moved to USDA in 1994 as head of its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Just six weeks after taking the job, Mr. Taylor gave his first public speech to an annual convention of the American Meat Institute. There, he announced that USDA would now be driven by public health goals as much or more than by productivity concerns. The USDA would soon require science-based HACCP systems in every meat and poultry plant, would be testing raw ground beef, and would require contaminated meat to be destroyed or reprocessed. And because E. coli O157.H7 is infectious at very low doses, the USDA would consider any level of contamination of ground beef with these bacteria to be unsafe, adulterated, and subject to enforcement action.  Whew.  This took real courage.

The amazing thing is that he actually made this work.  Now, HACCP rules apply more to USDA-regulated products than to FDA-regulated products. This new appointment gives Mr. Taylor the chance to bring FDA’s policies in line with USDA’s and even more, to make sure they are monitored and enforced.

In Safe Food, I summarize Mr. Taylor’s position on food safety regulation from 2002. Then, he argued for, among other things:

  • A single agency accountable for providing consistent and coordinated oversight of food safety, from farm to table.
  • Institution of Pathogen Reduction: HACCP, with performance standards verified by pathogen testing, at every step of food production.
  • Recall authority, access to records, and penalties for lapses in safety procedures.
  • Standards for imported foods equivalent to those for domestic foods.
  • Food safety to take precedence over commercial considerations in trade disputes.

Yes, he revolved back to Monsanto after leaving FDA but he didn’t stay long. He left Monsanto for Resources for the Future, a think tank on policy issues.   In 2007, he went to academia and joined the food policy think tank (see his bio) at George Washington University.  There, he produced the excellent food safety report I mentioned in a previous post, which repeats these points. This is about as good a position on food safety as can be expected of any federal official.

I wish him all the luck in the world in getting the safety of FDA-regulated foods under control. For those of you who are still dubious, how about giving him a chance to show what he can do?  But do keep the pressure on – hold his feet to the fire – so he knows he has plenty of support for doing the right thing.

[Posted from Skagway, Alaska, en route to Fairbanks]

Aug 31 2007

Formula Industry Lobbies Against Breast Feeding

Thanks to Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally for pointing out the investigative report in today’s Washington Post revealing how lobbyists for the infant formula industry induced the Department of Health and Human Services to tone down ads describing health risks to babies that are not breast-fed. These anti-public health lobbying efforts emerged in the wake of Congressional Hearings demonstrating widespread political interference with statements of health officials that might adversely affect some company’s products or the Bush administration’s ideology. The Post article links to two letters from a lobbyist, Clayton Yeutter, who in classic “Revolving Door” action used to be Secretary of the USDA under George Bush I. My favorite statement in his April 21, 2004 letter: “For our government to give all those mothers [those who cannot breast-feed] a guilt trip would just be appalling.” He goes on to explain that the proposed campaign would “send a risk-oriented message to [women in the WIC program]…that most of them will find incompatible with what they’re being told by USDA, and will at best confuse them, at worst frighten them.” Those of us who have followed lobbying efforts by infant formula companies (I describe the resulting boycott of Nestle formulas in Food Politics and more recent lobbying activities in the baby food chapter of What to Eat), will not be surprised. Breast feeding may be good for babies, but it is not good for formula companies–and they know it.