by Marion Nestle

Search results: the corporation not me

Nov 18 2022

Weekend reading: Commercial Determinants of Health

From Oxford University Press:

I was happy to be asked to contribute to this book: 

My thanks to Eric Crosbie, who did the heavy lifting on the chapter and also co-authored two other chapters (on trade and investment and on teaching commercial determinants of health.

This book brings together multiple authors and perspectives on how corporations selling unhealthful commodities—tobacco, alcohol, and junk food, for example—act to protect sales and marketing, regardless of effects on individual and collective health.

Chapters cover the policies and politics, the ways commercial interessts have taken over culture, how companies influence science, research, and marketing, examples of such influence, analyses of the legal issues, and recommendations for countering corporate actions.

The chapters are so informative and so well referenced that it’s hard to select specific examples.  But here’s one from George Annas’ chapter on “Corporations as Irresponsible Artificial People.”

The public health goal is to make the social responsibility of corporations a reality rather than just a feel-good marketing slogan.  This will require transforming the corporation from an instrument designed and run to make money while indifferent to polluting the planet and destroying the health of humans to an entity whose money-making must be consistent with preserving the health of the planet and its inhabitants.  Central to this objecti8ve is to replace the currfent post-2008 system in which profits are kept by the owners of capital, and losses are socialized by being paid for by governments, most notably for corporations that are “too big to fail.”  Any sustainable system requires that both gains and losses are shared by corporations and governments.  Sharing gains and lossers will require a restructuring of corporate tax, including a minimum tax for all corporations, but domestic and multinational.

Amen.  Everyone needs to understand that food corporations are not social service or public health agencies.  They are businesses stuck with responding to the shareholder value movement, which forces them to make profits their first and only priority.

This system needs to change.  This book provides the evidence.

Note: I discussed many of these same issues in Unsavorty Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.  

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Oct 25 2022

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Captured by Food Corporations

The advocacy group, U.S. Right to Know, sent out a press release to announce publication of an article in the British journal, Public Health Nutrition: The corporate capture of the nutrition profession in the USA: the case of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics [AND, formerly the American Dietetic Association] accepted millions of dollars from food, pharmaceutical and agribusiness companies, had policies to provide favors in return, and invested in ultra-processed food company stocks, according to a study published today in Public Health Nutrition…The study was produced by public health scholars and U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative public health group that obtained tens of thousands of pages of internal Academy documents through state public records requests.

I’ve been writing about corporate capture of AND (formerly the American Dietetic Association) for years (see below), but this study shocked even me, for two reasons.

  • AND holds stock in food companies making ultra-processed foods.

The documents show that the Academy and its foundation invested funds in ultra-processed food companies. The Academy’s investment portfolio in January 2015 included $244,036 in stock holdings in Nestle S.A. and $139,545 in PepsiCo. The Academy foundation’s investment portfolio in June 2013 included $209,472 in stock holdings in Nestle S.A and $125,682 in PepsiCo.

  • The list of food companies donating to AND is extraordinarily long; it goes on for pages.

The Academy accepted more than $15 million from corporate and organizational contributors in the years 2011 and 2013-2017. The Academy’s top contributors in 2011 and 2013-2017 were:

  • National Dairy Council $1,496,912
  • Conagra Inc. $1,414,058
  • Abbott Nutrition $1,246,389
  • Abbott Laboratories $824,110
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation: $801,261
  • PepsiCo Inc. $486,335
  • Coca-Cola Co. $477,577
  • Hershey Co. $368,032
  • General Mills Inc. $309,733
  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality $296,495
  • Aramark Co. $293,051
  • Unilever Best Foods $276,791
  • Kellogg USA $273,272

The Academy’s response: Inaccuracies in U.S. Right to Know Article

The report is disjointed, mostly opinion, emails taken out of context, picking and choosing items based on words out of Board reports, etc.

The Academy lists facts

  • One of the authors has strong financial ties to CrossFit, a staunch opponent to RDN licensure.
  • Less than 9% (12 out of 149) of named scholarships, awards and named research grants were established through industry. The funds that are established have input into scholarship criteria, which are approved by the Foundation’s Board. An independent review committee then reviews applications and selects recipients.
  • Less than 2% (32 out of 2,812) of donors to the Academy’s Second Century were industry donors.

Additional Academy facts

  • Fact: The Academy is NOT influenced by sponsorship money
  • Fact: Less than 3% of the Academy’s and the Foundation’s investments are in food companies.
  • Fact: The Academy has never changed a position at the request of sponsors.
  • Fact: Less than 9% of Academy funding comes from sponsorship.
  • Fact: The Foundation’s Fellows program allows participants to serve as catalysts for change and advancement in emerging areas of need for the evolving nutrition and dietetics profession.
  • Fact: The Academy and Foundation have always been committed to accountability through transparency and fiduciary responsibility.

Comment

I have been writing about the Academy’s ties with food companies for years.  See, for example,

In my book, I document how food companies exert influence through sponsorship of research and professional societies.  Typically, recipients of industry funding do not recognize the influence of sponsorship and deny it, as we see here.

If AND wants to be taken seriously as an organization devoted to public health, it needs to set strong guidelines for conflicts of interest and adhere to them.  At the moment, this organization gives the appearance of a public relations arm of the food industry.

The same can be said of the American Society of Nutrition, but that’s another story.

Resources

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For 30% off, go to www.ucpress.edu/9780520384156.  Use code 21W2240 at checkout.

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 21 2022

Weekend thinking: holding food corporations accountable (or trying to)

The Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) has released its latest Index report on the progress of the 11 largest U.S. food and beverage companies on their commitments to make, market and sell healthy food and drinks.

The report’s dismal conclusion:

While all companies have placed a greater focus on nutrition in their corporate strategies since the first index was released in 2018, their actual products have not become healthier, and they are not making sufficient efforts to safeguard children from the marketing of unhealthy products.

Collectively, these copanies have sales of about $170 billion annually and account for nearly 30% of all U.S. food and beverage sales.

The report’s overall findings (the Index is a composite on a scale of 10):

Specific findings:

  • Only 30% of their products meet criteria for “healthy,” 70% do not. This is only marginally better than in 2018 (see link to my post on this below).
  • Companies say they have a greater focus on nutrition and health, but are not doing much about it.
  • Only four companies are trying to improve the affordability of their healthier products.
  • Companies say they are trying to protect children from the harmful effects of marketing unhealthy products, but they are not doing much about it.

ATNI recommends that companies fix these problems and that the government “support such changes by introducing more effective and enforceable standards and legislation that prevent the marketing of unhealthy products and push companies to apply reformulation strategies on their products.

I like this recommendation, despite its being couched as “encourage,” rather than as a demand:

Companies are encouraged to actively support (and commit to not lobby against) public policy measures in the US to benefit public health and address obesity as enshrined in the National Strategy on food, hunger, nutrition, and health

Comment: Results liket these come as no surprise.  To repeat: food companies are not social service or public health agencies; they are businesses with stockholders who demand returns on investment as the first priority.

Expecting companies to change products to make them less attractive or to stop marketing to children means asking them to go against their business interests.

Until companies are rewarded for focusing on social values, public health, and environmental sustainability, ATNI’s evaluations are unlikely to have much of an impact on corporate behavior.

Documents

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For 30% off, go to www.ucpress.edu/9780520384156.  Use code 21W2240 at checkout.

 

 

Feb 23 2022

The plight of small dairy farmers: a difficult dilemma

Lorraine Lewandrowski, a dairy farmer and lawyer who works with small dairies in Herkimer County, NY, is a frequent correspondent.  I am always happy to hear from her because I learn a lot from her and respect her knowledge about small dairies and passion for doing something to help them.  With her permission, here is what she wrote me.

Is there really any hope for the region’s dairy farmers for the future?  It seems that each day we read of NYC officials condemning us and the food we produce, fresh milk, yogurt, soft cheeses, hard cheeses as “ruining the planet” and “bad for health.”  With Mayor Adams having literally  called for a shut down of NY’s dairy farms when he was Brooklyn Borough President, and now calls for VEGAN food as “saving the planet,” why should many of us even go on?

I am working with farmers who are considering suicide, young farmers who tried to farm, but are now locked into a lifetime of debt to pay off the failed farm, and this now….the steady stream of hate directed at us emanating from the city.  Speakers who talk  only “plant based” while trashing all animal ag without any nuance.

Should I just plain tell the people who struggle to live up here on the millions of acres of Upstate grasslands to forget it. Sell it out and go work somewhere.  Or, if you are working a second job to support the farmland taxes as so many do, just sell the land for sprawl or move to another state as several farmers I know have done.

Is it even worth it to try when I don’t see even one urban group standing up for the regional dairy farms?  I’m a lawyer for scores of farmers and hearing the same message from all of them. Why go on?  Personally, I will NEVER work to organize trailers of free milk into NYC again.  Our reward for trying to feed people was a resounding slap in the face from the City and those urban food groups who I had thought supported us upstate.

Lorraine sent the same message to Nevin Cohen, Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute at the CUNY School of Public Health.  His response to her is also worth reading (also reproduced with permission):

Thanks so much for writing about the challenges facing dairy farmers in NYS. As the descendent of a Catskill dairy farmer – my grandfather owned a small dairy farm in White Lake, NY, and my dad milked cows until he left home for the Army – I empathize with the struggles of today’s dairy farmers.

New York’s farmers, and other farmers throughout the region, have tried to remain profitable in the face of competition from agribusiness, insufficient transportation, processing, and distribution infrastructure, and federal policies that have essentially subsidized large producers. This is particularly true for dairy, a sector that is facing overproduction nationally, consolidation by large corporations operating massive feedlots, and outdated federal policies like the Federal Milk Marketing Order not providing support for small dairies. I understand the enormous financial and emotional strain this places on farmers, and why so many choose to sell their land.

In my opinion, though, the battle is with big ag and USDA, not vegans. Corporate power and an inadequate federal response, combined with development pressures within the region, are far more to blame for falling profits and the pressure farmers face to sell their land than movements to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables. Eric Adams’ rhetoric about veganism may appeal to some (though likely an even smaller number since he was “caught” enjoying a fish dinner the other week), but it isn’t the most important factor driving the drop in US milk consumption or over-production by the massive CAFOs out west. A recent USDA study, for example, found that the growth in nut and soy “milks” over the past decades has been much smaller than the decrease in milk consumption. The perceived health halo around non-milk beverages may drive some consumers but other factors, including competition from beverage manufacturers and demographic changes, are at play.

Dairy farmers in the Catskill provide enormous benefits to New York City and the region, not the least of which is protecting our unfiltered drinking water supply from development and providing high quality fresh, local food. We clearly need to focus more on policies to make dairy farming profitable and to make the point that regenerative agriculture with livestock and produce is healthy and resilient. I would be interested in your thoughts about Sen. Gillibrand’s legislation to require changes to the federal milk marketing order, or whether you have other ideas for policy change. The CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute has monthly forums to address important issues like this. We would be interested in hosting a panel to raise awareness of the obstacles farmers face and identify policies that NYC groups can advocate for.

Lorraine Lewandrowski’s response to Nevin Cohen:

In 1939, it was possible to organize upstate dairy farmers to fight the big-3 milk companies that had a stranglehold on the NYC milk market. Today the battle is in Washington and also against multinational companies like Danone, which just last summer terminated its contracts with organic dairy farmers throughout the NY region…Today, Mayor Adams, talks veganism.

In his Daily News Op Ed two years ago, he called for a shut down of our state’s dairy farms, citing a farmer in CA who plowed up the pastures to plant almond groves.  He urged us to “go plant based.”   Over time, I have come to recoil from the word, “VEGAN.”  Vegans have called my office telling my secretary that my throat should be slit.  At the last in-person conference that a group of us farmers attended, vegans defaced and trashed our table, leaving photos of almond milk plastered on our handouts.  It’s even acceptable for leadership to simply call for death to our farms.  A new member of the NYS Senate Agriculture Committee, Jabari Brisport, led a rally in the City calling for Death to Dairy.  No one says a word and he gets a coveted spot on the Senate Ag Committee.

Senator Hinchey tried to talk “equity” to Mayor Adams last week concerning the watershed farmers, but I don’t think he grasped what she was saying when he said he would direct his departments to look at purchasing more “healthy” food from Upstate.  Is one person the arbiter now?

Lastly, Nevin, as to your question on Senator Gillibrand.  For years, farmers have asked for hearings on the milk price formula, but it never happened.  We are at the point where you can drive for miles up here and see nothing but emptied out farms, a bleak landscape.   There will likely be a new look at the formula. Secretary Vilsack has stated that the farm groups need to come up with a unified proposal.  The small scale farms of the Northeast generally feel that the proposal will be crafted for the larger farms of other regions, as we see now with environmental incentives (digesters for the big guys).  But, we are doing our best to input.

My comment on this exchange:

I too am concerned about the plight of upstate New York dairy farmers (and small dairies in general) and about Danone’s abandonment of them.  But when it comes to vegans, I’m with Nevin Cohen: “the battle is with big ag and USDA, not vegans.”

Vegan and vegetarian diets are healthy and I’m all for them if that’s what people want to do.  Personally, I like and eat dairy foods and think they have a place in healthy diets.  I also think small dairies have a place in healthy environments and that it’s the government’s role to make sure they survive in the face of Big Dairy and its discontents.

No question, dairying can be done in ways that are better for cows and better for the environment.  That’s where we need to focus—on policies that will allow farmers to use better practices and to make a living doing so.

I thank Lorraine and Nevin for raising these issues.  I hope this conversation stimulates serious thinking about how policies can best promote healthful diets and protect the environment.

Jan 11 2022

President Biden addresses the meat industry’s lack of competition

On January 3, the White House issued a press release to announce “The Biden-⁠Harris Action Plan for a Fairer, More Competitive, and More Resilient Meat and Poultry Supply Chain.

This came with a Fact Sheet explaining the plan and its rationale.

Even as farmers’ share of profits have dwindled, American consumers are paying more—with meat and poultry prices now the single largest contributor to the rising cost of food people consume at home.

The plan provides $1 billion to increase independent processing capacity: For example, 50 beef slaughter plants owned by just a handful of companies currently process nearly all the cattle in the United States.

  • Independent processing plants–$375 million
  • Financing for independent producers: $275 million
  • Back private lenders to independent processors–$100 million
  • Worker development–$100 million
  • Technical assistance–$50 million
  • Inspection support for small producers–$100 million

How this happened

Let’s start with a report from the White House Competition Council, which sets the tone by beginning with this quote from President Biden:

Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism; it’s exploitation.  Without healthy competition, big players can change and charge whatever they want and treat you however they want.

The Council’s goal for reducing competition in agriculture: Lowering food prices for consumers and increasing earnings for farmers and ranchers.

The 2021 timeline

July 9  President Biden issues Executive order on promoting competition in the American economy

Robust competition is critical to preserving America’s role as the world’s leading economy. Yet over the last several decades, as industries have consolidated, competition has weakened in too many markets, denying Americans the benefits of an open economy and widening racial, income, and wealth inequality…Consolidation has increased the power of corporate employers, making it harder for workers to bargain for higher wages and better work conditions…Consolidation in the agricultural industry is making it too hard for small family farms to survive.

July 9  The White House presents a Fact sheet on the Executive order

The markets for seeds, equipment, feed, and fertilizer are now dominated by just a few large companies, meaning family farmers and ranchers now have to pay more for these inputs. For example, just four companies control most of the world’s seeds, and corn seed prices have gone up as much as 30% annually.

September 8  The White House issues a report Addressing Concentration in the Meat-Processing Industry to Lower Food Prices for American Families  [Note: this contains many useful charts]

December 10  The White House finds Recent Data Show Dominant Meat Processing Companies Are Taking Advantage of Market Power to Raise Prices and Grow Profit Margins  [Note: I did a blog post on this one]

The meat-processors are generating record profits during the pandemic, at the expense of consumers, farmers, and ranchers…the prices the processors pay to ranchers aren’t increasing, but the prices collected by processors from retailers are going up…At the same time, we have seen some of the top firms in this industry generate record gross profits and their highest gross margins in years.

The Reactions

The North American Meat Institute: Government Intervention in Markets Will Not Help Consumers, Producers 

For the third time in six months, President Joe Biden and his Administration announced the same plans to spend $1 billion to fund government intervention in the market in an attempt to increase prices livestock producers receive while blaming inflation on private industry…The Biden Administration continues to ignore the number one challenge to meat and poultry production: labor shortages.

Washington Post Opinion: Why President Biden is suddenly talking about meat

Now that President Biden has unveiled a plan to combat monopolistic practices in the meat industry, much of the media coverage is treating this effort as little more than an attempt to mitigate the political fallout of inflation by blaming large corporations for it…But the truth is that the White House plan only makes passing mention of inflation. Its primary focus is on the power dynamics of an industry that puts small faWilrmers and ranchers at the mercy of large meatpacking corporations, and the role this plays in causing higher prices and creating other problems.

The Counter: Can $1 billion really fix a meat industry dominated by just four companies?

The Biden administration’s newly announced investment in small, independent processors is intended to level the playing field. But without addressing the root causes [larger plants, union busting] of market concentration, critics fear it may have limited impact.

The Meatrix: the 2.5-minute trailer provides an excellent summary of the issues.  It also comes with a Take Action page

The Hagstrom Report’s list of links

Comment: Will any of this do any good in reducing the monopolistic power of Big Meat?  This depends on anti-trust legislation, and for that we must wait and see.  And where is Big Chicken in all of this?  Most of the attention here is on beef production, but the unfair practices of chicken companies need just as much attention.

Dec 21 2021

The White House: meat companies have too much power

I was amazed to see this announcement from the White House, of all places: “Recent Data Show Dominant Meat Processing Companies Are Taking Advantage of Market Power to Raise Prices and Grow Profit Margins.”

In September, we explained that meat prices are the biggest contributor to the rising cost of groceries, in part because just a few large corporations dominate meat processing. The November Consumer Price Index data released this morning demonstrates that meat prices are still the single largest contributor to the rising cost of food people consume at home. Beef, pork, and poultry price increases make up a quarter of the overall increase in food-at-home prices last month.

The big concern is consolidation—monopoly power—in the meat industry.

Four large conglomerates control approximately 55-85% of the market for pork, beef, and poultry, and these middlemen were using their market power to increase prices and underpay farmers, while taking more and more for themselves…their gross profits have collectively increased by more than 120% since before the pandemic, and their net income has surged by 500%. They have also recently announced over a billion dollars in new dividends and stock buybacks, on top of the more than $3 billion they paid out to shareholders since the pandemic began.

The bottom line?

The meat price increases we are seeing are not just the natural consequences of supply and demand in a free market—they are also the result of corporate decisions to take advantage of their market power in an uncompetitive market, to the detriment of consumers, farmers and ranchers, and our economy [bold face in original].

Will the Biden Administration be able to do anything about this level of monopoly power?  Stay tuned.

Nov 2 2021

Congressional staff report: Covid 3X harder on meatpacking workers

The majority staff of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has issued a scathing report: “Coronavirus Infections and Deaths Among Meatpacking Workers Were Nearly Three Times Higher than Previous Estimates.”

Newly obtained documents from five of the largest meatpacking conglomerates, which represent over 80 percent of the market for beef and over 60 percent of the market for pork in the United States—JBS USA Food Company (JBS), Tyson Foods, Inc. (Tyson), Smithfield Foods (Smithfield), Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation (Cargill), and National Beef Packing Company, LLC (National Beef)—reveal that coronavirus infections and deaths among their meatpacking workers were substantially higher than previously estimated.

The report’s main findings:

  • Certain meatpacking plants saw particularly high rates of coronavirus infections during the first year of the pandemic. For example, 54.1 percent of the workforce at JBS’ Hyrum, Utah plant contracted the coronavirus between March 2020 and February 2021.
  • Across companies, Tyson saw 29,462 employee infections and 151 employee deaths, and JBS saw 12,859 employee infections and 62 employee deaths.
  • Coronavirus Outbreaks in Meatpacking Plants Disproportionately Impacted Minority Workers
  • The full extent of coronavirus infections and deaths at these meatpacking companies was likely much worse than these figures suggest.
  • OSHA made a political decision not to issue regulatory standards that might require meatpacking companies to take actions to protect workers.

Recall that meatpacking workers were among the first to get sick from Covid-19, causing

The report confirms that Covid-19 in meatpacking workers was and is a national tragedy and scandal, a direct result of corporate consolidation and capture of government.

The report’s recommendations to meatpacking plants, government agencies, and Congress can’t come soon enough.

May 5 2021

Food companies should join the B Corporation movement

I read in DairyReporter.com that Danone reports an increased score in it B-Corporation certification.

I am interested in the B-Corporation phenomenon.

B Corporations are required to include social values—along with the usual profit motives—as established goals.

Society’s most challenging problems cannot be solved by government and nonprofits alone. The B Corp community works toward reduced inequality, lower levels of poverty, a healthier environment, stronger communities, and the creation of more high quality jobs with dignity and purpose. By harnessing the power of business, B Corps use profits and growth as a means to a greater end: positive impact for their employees, communities, and the environment.

What is that one unifying goal?  “We envision a global economy that uses business as a force for good.”

Certified B Corporations are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. This is a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good.

B Corporations promise:

  • That we must be the change we seek in the world.
  • That all business ought to be conducted as if people and place mattered.
  • That, through their products, practices, and profits, businesses should aspire to do no harm and benefit all.
  • To do so requires that we act with the understanding that we are each dependent upon another and thus responsible for each other and future generations.

Companies are assessed and rated on social value criteria.  They must achieve 80 of 200 points to be certified.

Food companies are among those certified as B corps

I’m not sure how this plays out in practice, but this certainly appears to be a step in the right direction.

If we want to encourage this effort:

  • Support food companies that sign up to be B corps.
  • Urge other food companies to join.
  • Hold them all accountable.