by Marion Nestle

Search results: the corporation not me

Aug 28 2013

Proponents of food biotechnology are still talking about Golden Rice? Sigh.

Yes, they are, as witnessed by the article in the New York Times last Sunday and the editorial about food biotechnology in the September food  issue of Scientific American.

Nicholas Kristof, also of the New York Times, summed up the arguments in favor of Golden Rice in a tweet: “Leftist hostility to Golden Rice is so frustrating! It wld reduce # of kids dying of Vit A deficiency.”

How I wish nutrition interventions were this easy.

If I sound weary of the defense of Golden Rice as the solution to the vitamin A-deficiency problem, it’s because I wrote about the science and politics of Golden Rice extensively a decade ago in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety. 

In 2010, I did a second edition.  Here, in its entirety, is all I could find to say:

Golden Rice (Chapter 5) is the most prominent example of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology but ten years later its promise was still unfulfilled.  Field trials began in 2008 and the rice might be in production by 2011 [Oops.  It’s still not in production].  In the interim, researchers re-engineered the rice to contain higher levels of beta-carotene and showed that people who ate it could, as expected, convert beta-carotene to vitamin A.   Supporters of Golden Rice continued to complain about the impossible demands of regulators and anti-biotechnology advocates.   Advocates continued to argue that GM crops are unnecessary and threaten indigenous food security.  The Gates Foundation remains the major funder of GM projects involving nutrient-enriched indigenous crops. Such technological approaches, advocates maintain, are doomed to fail unless they also address underlying social issues.

In the original text of Safe Food, I wrote:

Much of the promise of food biotechnology depends on its science, but the realities depend on social as well as scientific factors…The lack of vitamin A is the single most important cause of blindness among children in developing countries and a major contributor to deaths among malnourished children and adults….[but] Golden Rice is unlikely to have much commercial potential in developing countries. Its public relations value, however, is enormous.

I quoted Greenpeace, then the leading anti-biotechnology advocacy group:

Golden Rice obscures fundamental issues of societal values—in this case, poverty and control over resources—and is a techno-fix imposed by corporations and scientists without consulting recipients about whether they want it or not….the true purpose of Golden Rice is to convince people to accept genetically modified foods….

I went on to explain that a common theme of biotechnology proponents is that “Golden Rice holds so much promise that no questioning of its value is justified.”  But:

The companies may be donating the technology to create the rice, but farmers will still have to sell it, and people will still have to pay for it. Moreover, in many countries where vitamin A deficiency is common, food sources of beta-carotene are plentiful, but people believe the foods inappropriate for young children, do not cook them enough to make them digestible, or do not consume enough fat to permit much in the way of absorption. It remains to be seen whether the beta-carotene in Golden Rice will fare better under such circumstances. Overall, vitamin A deficiency is a complicated health problem affected by cultural and societal factors as well as dietary factors. In this situation, the genetic engineering of a single nutrient or two into a food, while attractive in theory, raises many questions about its benefits in practice.

I then explain what happened when I sent a letter outlining some of these nutritional issues to a professional journal.  The letter went viral.  One of the responses said:

It would seem to me that the simplest way to find out if vitamin A rice [sic] works as a vitamin supplement is to try it out. If it doesn’t then what has been lost except a lot of hot air and propaganda; on the other hand if it does work and your letter has delayed its introduction, could you face the children who remain blind for life as a consequence?

The sic is because it’s beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, but never mind.   As I commented,

The writer seemed to be suggesting that even if beta-carotene contributes just a little to alleviating vitamin A deficiency, no questioning of the theoretical premise of Golden Rice—and, by implication, food biotechnology—is acceptable… What I find most striking about such views is their implication that complex societal problems—in this case, malnutrition—are more easily solved by private-sector, commercially driven science than by societal decisions and political actions.

As for what to do about vitamin A deficiency?

Taken together, the many nutritional, physiological, and cultural factors that affect vitamin A status suggest that the addition of a single nutrient to food will have limited effectiveness. Instead, a combination of supplementation, fortification, and dietary approaches is likely to be needed—approaches such as promoting the production and consumption of fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene, educating people about how to use such foods, and improving the quantity and variety of foods in the diet (so beta-carotene can be better absorbed). Perhaps most helpful would be basic public health measures such as providing adequate supplies of clean water (to prevent transmission of diarrheal and parasitic diseases).

Today, I would add sustainable agriculture to that list but even with that addition, none of these social solutions is likely to contribute to corporate profits.

My conclusion:

Can genetic engineering usefully contribute to such efforts? Possibly, but that question cannot yet be answered. In the meantime, the industry’s public relations campaign continues.

Jul 12 2013

Congressional posturing: House Republicans (No Democrats) pass farm bill without food stamps

Ordinarily, writing about bills introduced and passed in either the House or the Senate isn’t worth the trouble because they are so likely to be changed later on in the legislative process.

But this one is over the top.  House Republicans, joined by not one Democrat, passed H.R. 2642 — New Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 — its version of the farm bill yesterday.  The shocker?  For the first time since the 1970’s, the farm bill is not linked to food stamps (SNAP), thereby breaking the deal between urban and rural America.

This bill now has to be reconciled with the one passed by the Senate last year, which does include food stamps.  This seems unlikely.  The President has already said he won’t sign it (see the Obama administration’s statement of policy on H.R. 2642).

So this is about politics, not governing the country.

The House bill:

  • Repeals the 1938 and 1949 permanent farm laws
  • Makes Title I — the commodity title — permanent law, if the bill can make it through conference and get President Barack Obama’s signature.
  • Allows virtually unlimited crop insurance subsidies and price guarantees.
  • Maintains the highly unpopular (with sugar users) sugar tariff program.
  • Authorizes about $200 billion to pay for all this over ten years.
  • Saves $12 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate (much less than the House claims).
  • Expands subsidies for crop insurance to cotton, rice, peanuts, and vegetables (well, at least that)
  • And, according to the New York Times, requires additional economic and scientific analyses before putting food safety laws into effect.

House Republicans know this bill isn’t going any further.  Hence: politics.  Their purpose?  Leaving food stamps vulnerable to severe restrictions and budget cutting.

Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger issued this statement:

Today’s vote is the latest smoking gun that the House Majority isn’t truly interested in deficit reduction, they’re interested in supporting special interest groups over hungry Americans. The Farm Bill passed by the House of Representatives today is a disgrace and an embarrassment to the American people…Recent Farm Bills have represented the worst of American politics. It’s time to pass a Farm Bill that represents the best.

Good luck with that.

Addition, July 13: Gail Collins’ column in the Times on this fiasco is the best I’ve seen.

So the farm bill got divided…As Ron Nixon reported in The Times, the rate of error and fraud in the agricultural crop insurance program is significantly higher than in the food stamp program. Also, the agriculture part has a lot of eyebrow-raising provisions, like the $147 million a year in reparations we send to Brazil to make up for the fact that it won a World Trade Organization complaint about the market-distorting effects of our cotton subsidies.

And while food stamps go to poor people, most of the farm aid goes to wealthy corporations.

Addition, July 16: I forgot to post the New York Times editorial on the topic.

Now that coalition has been sundered, and the future of food stamps is threatened. If the program is not returned to the five-year farm bill, it will have to be financed through annual appropriations, which puts it at the mercy of the Republicans’ usual debt-ceiling stunts and government shutdown threats. House leaders said they would submit a food stamp bill “later,” but that will probably include the right wing’s savage cuts andunprecedented incentives for states to shut out poor families. Neither will get past the Senate or the White House.

Apr 23 2013

Marketing foods and drinks to kids in school goes on and on

I’ve just been sent a new report on the current status of marketing foods and beverages to children at school: Promoting Consumption at School: Health Threats Associated with Schoolhouse Commercialism.

This reportfrom the National Education Policy Center at University of Colorado, Boulder,  makes sobering reading.

As the press release explains,

In their quest for additional funding, many schools and school districts have allowed corporations to promote the consumption of sweetened beverages and foods of little or no nutritional value in school and in conjunction with school projects…corporations can seem philanthropic when they provide sponsored educational materials…to schools and teachers. These materials can be colorful and engaging, and may align with state and now Common Core standards, but they also present a worldview consistent with that of the sponsor.

If you think that the food companies are making good on their pledges to reduce marketing to kids, this report will make you think again.

Here are a few snippets:

  • Available data suggest that the total amount of money spent on advertising food and beverages to children, both in and out of schools, has decreased over the past few years.  However, any reduction in spending reflects at least in part a shift to less expensive, but more effective, alternative media advertising.
  • Food and beverage companies advertise in schools in multiple ways: (1) appropriation of space on school property, (2) exclusive agreements, (3) sponsorship of school programs, (4) sponsorship of supplementary educational materials, (5) digital marketing, (6) sponsorship of incentive programs, and (7) fundraising.
  • Teaching materials may not mention the sponsor but reflect the sponsor’s views, such as that all beverages count toward hydration.
  • Digital marketing to school kids is a deliberate strategy, as explained by a Coca-Cola executive:  “We’re especially targeting a teen or young adult audience. They’re always on their mobile phones and they spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet.”
  • Health and wellness initiatives designed to promote physical activity and movement may appear to meet federal guidelines but “are problematic in that they shift the onus for obesity from the corporation’s responsibility to market healthy food to the consumer’s responsibility for making healthy choices.”

The report is a terrific summary of what’s happening with food marketing in schools, loaded with facts, figures, and references.  

In light of the evidence it provides, the report’s recommendation seems grossly understated:

Policymakers should prohibit advertising in schools unless the school provides compelling evidence that their intended advertising program causes no harm to children.

What’s missing from this report is a blueprint for action.

For that, you must go elsewhere, for example, to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Berkeley Media Studies Group, or the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Do you know of other good sources for taking action on marketing in schools?  Do tell.

Feb 25 2013

New books on how the food industry hooks us on junk food

Two new books out on the same day, both looking at similar topics but from different angles, both well worth reading.  I did blurbs for both.

Melanie Warner, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, Scribner, 2013.

Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal

Warner used to cover the food business beat for the New York Times.  She knows what she’s talking about.

My blurb:

In Pandora’s Lunchbox, Melanie Warner has produced an engaging account of how today’s “food processing industrial complex” replaced real foods with the inventions of food science.  Her history of how this happened and who benefits from these inventions should be enough to inspire everyone to get back into the kitchen and start cooking.

And here is Warner in the weekend’s Wall Street Journal on the liquification of chicken nuggets (white slime, anyone?).

 

Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.  Random House, 2013.

Moss wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning article for the New York Times on failures in our food safety system.  His article based on his new book appeared in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

My blurb:

Salt Sugar Fat is a breathtaking feat of reporting.  Michael Moss was able to get executives of the world’s largest food companies to admit that they have only one job—to maximize sales and profits—and to reveal how they deliberately entice customers by stuffing their products with salt, sugar, and fat.  Anyone reading this truly important book will understand why food corporations cannot be trusted to value health over profits and why all of us need to recognize and resist food marketing every time we grocery shop or vote.

And here’s the Wall Street Journal’s review of both (which is what happens when books on the same topic are published on the same day).

Jan 22 2013

New study: Big Food’s ties to Registered Dietitians

Michele Simon, president of Eat, Drink, Politics, an industry watchdog consulting group, has just published an exposé of the close financial relationships between food and beverage companies and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, formerly the American Dietetic Association).

Her hard-hitting report, And Now a Word from Our Sponsors: Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food? provides ample evidence that partnerships and alliances with Big Food make it impossible for AND members to convey clear and accurate messages about nutrition and health.

When she talks about nutrition professionals, she doesn’t mean me.  I have a PhD (in molecular biology, although long lapsed) and a master’s in Public Health Nutrition.  She means AND members.  AND represents more than 70,000 individuals who mostly hold credentials as Registered Dietitians (RDs).

To qualify, they had to complete a bachelor’s degree that included a specified set of courses and a 6-month clinical internship.  I once tried to get credentialed as an RD after I completed a qualifying internship but I had never had a practical course in food service management.  That lack was a deal breaker.

Never mind.  Here’s what Simon’s report is about:

And here are a small selection of her observations and conclusions:

  • AND collected $1.85 million in sponsorship funds in 2011, a relatively small percentage of its $34 million income.
  • Companies such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, Nestlé, and PepsiCo offer approved continuing education courses to AND members.
  • Two of the messages conveyed by one of Coca-Cola’s courses: sugar is not harmful to children, and federal nutrition standards for school meals are too restrictive.
  • More than 20% of speakers at AND’s annual meeting have financial ties to Big Food companies, although most were not disclosed.
  • A survey found 80% of members to believe that sponsorship implies an AND endorsement of the sponsor’s products.
  • A majority of AND members believe that three current sponsors are unacceptable: Coca-Cola, Mars, and PepsiCo.

If you want to see how sponsorship plays out in practice, take a look at her photographs of the exhibit hall at the 2012 AND annual meeting.  She also provides photos taken elsewhere at the meeting.  And here’s the New York Times’ take on it.

As a trade association for Registered Dietitians, AND—as I discussed in Food Politics—has as its primary goal to position RDs as the leading source of nutrition information for patients, clients, and the public.

As you might imagine, I’ve always had a bit of trouble with that goal.

For one thing, nutritionists with master’s and doctoral degrees are likely to know more than RDs about nutrition science and to think more critically about it.

For another, that self-interested goal creates an image problem.  RDs might be accepted as more credible sources if their primary goal was to improve the nutritional health of the American people.

Their advice also would be more credible if AND were not so heavily linked to food and beverage corporations, especially those whose products contribute to poor health.

Let’s hope this new report gets AND members talking about how to change some current AND policies.

Jan 21 2013

Energy drinks: the new frontier for food advocacy?

I am an avid follower of NutraIngredients-USA.com, a daily newsletter for the food industry.  Today, it collects its recent articles on energy drinks in one place.

The makers of energy drinks have managed to get away with positioning these products as healthier alternatives to regular soft drinks.

They also have gotten away with being able to add vitamins and minerals to them that the FDA would not permit in regular Coke or Pepsi.

Unfortunately for them, some manufacturers upped the caffeine to the point where it might be making people sick.  Illnesses among energy drink users have focused attention on these products.

Are energy drinks the new frontier for food advocacy?  I think so, and I’m guessing NutraIngredients-USA does too.

Nov 3 2012

Tuesday’s election: Food politics at issue

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the implication of Tuesday’s election for food politics.

Q: Neither of the presidential candidates is saying much about food issues. Do you think the election will make any difference to Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve children’s health?

A: Of course it will. For anyone concerned about the health consequences of our current food system, the upcoming election raises an overriding issue: Given food industry marketing practices, should government use its regulatory powers to promote public health or leave it up to individuals to take responsibility for dealing with such practices?

Republicans generally oppose federal intervention in public health matters – witness debates over health care reform – whereas Democrats appear more amenable to an active federal role.

The Democratic platform states: “With prevention and treatment initiatives on obesity and public health, Democrats are leading the way on supporting healthier, more physically active families and healthy children.”

Policy or lifestyle?

In contrast, the Republican platform states: “When approximately 80 percent of health care costs are related to lifestyle – smoking, obesity, substance abuse – far greater emphasis has to be put upon personal responsibility for health maintenance.”

At issue is the disproportionate influence of food and beverage corporations over policies designed to address obesity and its consequences. Sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, for short) are a good example of how the interests of food and beverage corporations dominate American politics.

Because regular consumption of sodas is associated with increased health risks, an obvious public health strategy is to discourage overconsumption. The job of soda companies, however, is to sell more soda, not less. As a federal health official explained last year, policies to reduce consumption of any food are “fraught with political challenges not associated with clinical interventions that focus on individuals.”

Corporate spending

One such challenge is corporate spending on contributions to election campaigns. Although soda political action committees tend to donate to incumbent candidates from both parties, soda company executives overwhelmingly favor the election of Mitt Romney.

As reported in the Oct. 12 issue of the newsletter Beverage Digest, soda executives view the re-election of President Obama as a “headwind” that could lead to greater regulation of advertising and product claims, aggressive safety inspections and characterizations of sodas as contributors to obesity. In contrast, they think a win by Mitt Romney likely to usher in “more beneficial regulatory and tax policies.”

As for lobbying, what concerns soda companies is revealed by disclosure forms filed with the Senate Public Records Office. Coca-Cola reports lobbying on, among other issues, agriculture, climate change, health and wellness, and competitive foods sold in schools. PepsiCo reports lobbying on marketing and advertising to children. Their opinions on such issues can be surmised.

But Coca-Cola also says it lobbies to “oppose programs and legislation that discriminate against specific foods and beverages” and to “promote programs that allow customers to make informed choices about the beverages they buy.”

Lobbyists

Soda companies have lobbied actively against public health interventions recommended by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity in 2010 and adopted as goals of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

Implementation of several interventions – more informative food labels, restrictions on misleading health claims, limits on sodas and snacks sold in schools, menu-labeling in fast-food restaurants, and food safety standards – has been delayed, reportedly to prevent nanny-state public health measures from becoming campaign issues.

To counter New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 16-ounce cap on soda sales, the industry invested heavily in advertisements, a new website and more, all focused on “freedom of choice” – in my mind, a euphemism for protecting sales.

Soda tax

Although the obesity task force suggested that taxing sodas was worth studying, the American Beverage Association lobbied to “oppose proposals to tax sugary beverages” at the federal level. The soda industry reports spending more than $2 million to defeat Richmond’s soda tax ballot initiative Measure N, outspending tax advocates by 87 to 1.

In opposing measures to reduce obesity, the soda industry is promoting corporate health over public health and personal responsibility over public health.

Supporters of public health have real choices on Tuesday. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Let’s Move will get another chance.

Apr 26 2012

Walmart’s embarrassing bribery case

On April 22, the New York Times published an unusually lengthy account (front page plus three full pages) of how Walmart executives in Mexico bribed officials to allow the company to open stores in many locations in record time.

I was struck by the simplicity of the rationale for the illegal behavior (I’ve italicized the key points):

But The Times’s examination uncovered a prolonged struggle at the highest levels of Wal-Mart, a struggle that pitted the company’s much publicized commitment to the highest moral and ethical standards against its relentless pursuit of growth.

Under fire from labor critics, worried about press leaks and facing a sagging stock price, Wal-Mart’s leaders recognized that the allegations could have devastating consequences, documents and interviews show.

Wal-Mart de Mexico was the company’s brightest success story, pitched to investors as a model for future growth. (Today, one in five Wal-Mart stores is in Mexico.) Confronted with evidence of corruption in Mexico, top Wal-Mart executives focused more on damage control than on rooting out wrongdoing.

As I keep saying, Wall Street pressures on corporations not only to make profits, but to grow profits every quarter, are the root cause of much food company corruption and corner-cutting.