by Marion Nestle

Search results: the corporation not me

Mar 15 2013

Drug corporations 1, Bees 0

Everybody is, or should be, worried about the health of bees.  Without them, we don’t have pollinated agriculture.

Bees, the New York Times tells us in an astonishing statistic, “pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food.”

Bees are not doing well, and nobody really knows why.  Could colonies be collapsing because of a virus?  Mites?  Stress?  Or, as in the case of a leading hypothesis, insecticides used on crops?

Europeans worried about a particular class of highly effective insecticides widely used in production agriculture—neonicotinoids—proposed to restrict their use in flowering crops for two years.

But the European Union voted today to allow use of neonicotinoids to continue, even though the European Food Safety Authority recommended against this.

Also as discussed in the New York Times,

Companies that produce neonicotinoid-based pesticides, including the German giant Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, the big Swiss biochemical company, have lobbied strenuously against the moratorium. Monsanto incorporates the chemical into some of the seeds it produces; in the United States, neonicotinoids are heavily used on the country’s huge corn crop.

Some nations in Europe already restrict use of these insecticides, but not all.

The Times quotes officials of companies that make neonicotinoid insecticides, Bayer and Syngenta.  The officials say:

  • The science is uncertain.
  • Banning them would jeopardize agricultural competitiveness.
  • Prices of food, feed, fiber and renewable raw materials would rise.
  • 50,000 jobs would be lost.

This comes right out of the standard industry playbook.  Anything that harms bees in the short term has long term consequences.  Shouldn’t officials be looking at long-term strategies for protecting bees.  Bees need help!  And so will we, if we don”t help them now.

Dec 19 2012

Walmart’s embarrassing bribery case: a reprise and then some

Yesterday’s New York Times contained an enormous—three full pages—investigative report on Walmart’s use of bribes to circumvent zoning restrictions in Mexico.

The article pulls no punches:

The Times’s examination reveals that Wal-Mart de Mexico was not the reluctant victim of a corrupt culture that insisted on bribes as the cost of doing business. Nor did it pay bribes merely to speed up routine approvals. Rather, Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance — public votes, open debates, transparent procedures. It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.

This is not the first time the Times has written about Walmart’s bribery in Mexico.  As I wrote at the time,

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.

But this report takes the investigations to another level. It documents how Walmart officials deliberately undermined efforts by the Mexican government to keep the historic area around the Teotihuacán pyramids free of commercial use.

It comes with:

Among other things, Walmart is the world’s largest supermarket chain. Its 10,000 stores in 27 countries sold $443.9 billion worth of goods—more than half from grocery sales—for net earnings of $15.8 billion in 2012.

As the Times’ article makes clear, the company resorted to whatever seemed necessary to get what it wanted.  This particular case may be an anomaly but it  could not have happened without a corporate culture deeply devoted to maintaining sales and profits.

A cautionary tale?

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Nov 1 2012

Energy drinks: Why deregulation is not such a good idea

Concerns that highly caffeinated Monster Energy drinks might be responsible for the recent deaths of at least five young adults are, as I see it, a direct result of deregulation of food oversight.

Here’s my version of the history leading up to the present situation:

  • In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which in essence deregulated dietary supplements, permitted them to be labeled and regulated as supplements, not foods, and removed much of FDA’s authority over their contents and health claims.
  • The dietary supplement industry, as I explain in Food Politics, wrote much of the key language of this law.
  • When the FDA tried to enforce its food rules for supplements, the courts ruled in favor of manufacturers on First Amendment grounds.
  • Because rules for supplements are less restrictive than those for foods, some manufacturers prefer labeling their products as supplements.
  • Monster Energy drinks are labeled as supplements, removing them from much of FDA’s authority.

The results of DSHEA, in this case, are explained by the New York Times:

But while the F.D.A. regularly makes adverse event reports about drugs and medical devices publicly available, it does not do so for dietary supplements like energy drinks. Because of that policy, consumers had no way of knowing of the complaints about Monster Energy drinks before incident reports were released by the F.D.A. in response to a formal Freedom of Information Act request.

Also, while supplement makers have been required since late 2007 to alert the F.D.A. to possible product-related deaths and injuries, Monster Beverage submitted just one such report to the agency over the last four years, agency officials said.

Most likely because of their high caffeine content, sales of energy drinks are rising rapidly, as shown in this graphic from the Times:

Booming sales means booming profits, and the makers of energy drinks are under pressure to cash in.  That sometimes means cutting corners or not always matching contents to labels.

For example, a Consumer Reports investigation of the caffeine content of energy drinks identified some discrepancies.

Caffeine levels per serving ranged from about 6 milligrams to 242 milligrams per serving—and some containers have more than one serving. The highest level was in 5-hour Energy Extra Strength; the lowest in the seemingly oxymoronic 5-hour Energy Decaf…By comparison, an 8-ounce cup of coffee has about 100 milligrams; a 16-ounce Starbucks Grande, 330 milligrams.

Five of the 16 products that list a specific amount of caffeine…had more than 20 percent above their labeled amount on average in the samples we tested. On the other hand, one…had caffeine about 70 percent below the labeled amount.

Consumer Reports noted one other key point: the FDA considers caffeine as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) and does not require amounts to be listed on labels.

A representative of the Monster Beverage Corporation explained that his company does not list caffeine levels “because there is no legal or commercial business requirement to do so, and also because our products are completely safe, and the actual numbers are not meaningful to most consumers.”

Consumer Reports points out that Monster drinks—like those of 16 other products—warn against use by children, pregnant or nursing women, and people sensitive to caffeine, and recommend a daily limit.

Whether the Monster Energy drinks are really responsible for the reported deaths will not be easy to establish.  One victim, age 14, is said to have consumed two 24-ounce Monster drinks containing 240 mg caffeine each within a day or two.

That energy drinks are labeled as supplements ties the FDA’s hands in dealing with such products.

Here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Label energy drinks with standard Nutrition Facts panels.
  • Require amounts of caffeine to be stated on the label.
  • Limit the amount of caffeine that can be included in soft drinks.

Two Senators (Durban and Blumenthal)—not for the first time—are pushing the FDA to investigate.  Good idea.  I can only speculate about why the FDA isn’t responding, but I’m guessing that this issue, like so many others, is too controversial to take up during an election campaign.

Soon, please.

Jun 21 2012

The Senate roll-call votes on farm bill amendments

In the vote-a-rama of the last couple of days, the Senate passed these farm bill amendments with roll-call votes (other amendments were passed or rejected by voice votes):

  • No. 2439; To limit the amount of premium subsidy provided by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation on behalf of any person or legal entity with an average adjusted gross income in excess of $750,000 with a delayed application of the limitation until completion of a study on the effects of the limitation.
  • No. 2438; To establish highly erodible land and wetland conservation compliance requirements for the Federal crop insurance program.
  • No. 2363 As Modified; To ensure that extras in film and television who bring personal, common domesticated household pets do not face unnecessary regulations and to prohibit attendance at an animal fighting venture.
  • No. 2295; To increase the amounts authorized to be appropriated for the designation of treatment areas.
  •  No. 2454; To prohibit assistance to North Korea under title II of the Food for Peace Act unless the President issues a national interest waiver.
  •  No. 2293; To limit subsidies for millionaires.
  • No. 2382; To require the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation to provide crop insurance for organic crops under similar terms and conditions to crop insurance provided for other crops.
  • No. 2309; To require a study into the feasibility of an insurance product that covers food safety recalls. No. 2238; To require more frequent dairy reporting.
  • No. 2370; To encourage the purchase of pulse crop products for school meals programs.
  • No. 2445; To strengthen rural communities and foster the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
  • No. 2167; To provide payment limitations for marketing loan gains and loan deficiency payments.
  • No. 2190 As Modified; To require Federal milk marketing order reform.

I won’t go through all of the rejected amendments, but did notice this one:

  • No. 2289; To reduce funding for the market access program and to prohibit the use of funds for reality television shows, wine tastings, animal spa products, and cat or dog food.

Now why would the Senate vote to retain market access program funds for such things?   Taxpayer support of promotion of cat and dog food?  How did we miss that one when when my co-author and I were writing Feed Your Pet Right, our analysis of the pet food industry.

And wine tastings, anyone?

But to get to a more important rejection: Senator Gillibrand’s amendment to protect SNAP from budget cuts:

  • No. 2156 As Modified; To strike a reduction in the supplemental nutrition assistance program and increase funding for the fresh fruit and vegetable program, with an offset that limits crop insurance reimbursements to providers.

The rejection of this proposal gets us into issues related to the cozy arrangement between anti-hunger advocates and pro-commodity advocates to vote for each other’s funding (translation: logrolling).   Does this rejection mean that the arrangement is breaking down under budget-cutting pressures?  Or does it simply reflect an agreement that a reduction in SNAP is the quid pro quo for removing direct payments and setting some caps on commodity benefits?

Senator Ron Johnson (Rep-Wisconsin) has an interesting take on the logrolling questions.  He filed a motion to send the farm bill back to committee to divide it into two separate bills, one for food assistance and the other for farm supports.

When Congress debates legislation to spend nearly $1 trillion, we need to be honest with the American people about what we’re doing. This isn’t a farm bill. It’s a welfare bill…We should be clear about how much we are spending and why we are spending it – and we ought to give Senators the opportunity for a straight up or down vote on two different proposals that have little in common.

…If Senators want to spend $800 billion on Food Stamps, or nearly $200 billion on farm programs, let them say so with a clean vote – rather than combining them into an all-or-nothing package that passes with a minimum of debate and scrutiny.

Want to take bets on how far his motion gets? [Not far: the Senate rejected the motion this morning, 59 to 40]

The Senate is voting on more amendments today.  More to come.

Feb 9 2012

Should the First Amendment protect the marketing of junk foods to kids?

For some time now, I’ve been arguing that legal scholars ought to be challenging the contention of food corporations that the First Amendment gives them the right to market foods any way they like, even to kids.

I simply cannot believe that the Founding Fathers of the United States intended the First Amendment for this purpose.

In December 2010, I urged public interest lawyers to examine current food marketing practices in the light of the First Amendment.  I am pleased to see that they are now doing so.

Samantha Graff of the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN) forwards two co-authored articles published this month:

Health AffairsGovernment Can Regulate Food Advertising to Children Because Cognitive Research Shows It Is Inherently Misleading, by Samantha Graff, Dale Kunkel, and Seth E. Mermin.

The childhood obesity crisis has prompted repeated calls for government action to curb the marketing of unhealthy food to children. Food and entertainment industry groups have asserted that the First Amendment prohibits such regulation.

However, case law establishes that the First Amendment does not protect “inherently misleading” commercial speech. Cognitive research indicates that young children cannot effectively recognize the persuasive intent of advertising or apply the critical evaluation required to comprehend commercial messages.

Given this combination—that government can prohibit “inherently misleading” advertising and that children cannot adequately understand commercial messages—advertising to children younger than age twelve should be considered beyond the scope of constitutional protection.

American Journal of Public Health: Protecting Young People from Junk Food Advertising: Implications of Psychological Research for First Amendment Law, by Jennifer L. Harris and Samantha K. Graff.

In the United States, one third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, yet food and beverage companies continue to target them with advertising for products that contribute to this obesity crisis.

When government restrictions on such advertising are proposed, the constitutional commercial speech doctrine is often invoked as a barrier to action. We explore incongruities between the legal justifications for the commercial speech doctrine and the psychological research on how food advertising affects young people.

These papers are a great start to the conversation, as was a previous contribution from these authors: A Legal Primer for the Obesity Prevention Movement, American Journal of Public Health, 2009.

First Amendment scholars: weigh in, please.

And while pondering these questions, take a look at Raj Patel’s piece in The Atlantic, “Abolish the food industry.”  In his view, the First Amendment issue is a no brainer:

I side with the American Psychological Association in thinking that advertising to children is unconscionable. Rather than dwell on the First Amendment issue, which strikes me as an easy case to make, I think it’s worth addressing a deeper question underlying the San Francisco cigarette-in-pharmacy ban: Why allow an industry that profits from the sale of unhealthy food at all?

Additions, February 14: Michele Simon sends links to additional information about this issue:

http://events.lls.edu/past/food-marketing-lr.html

http://www.appetiteforprofit.com/2011/01/27/why-the-happy-meal-is-already-illegal/

http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/law/FTCFoodMarketingTV_JLME_3.10.pdf

 

Dec 12 2011

Food companies expand sales in emerging markets

Publicly traded companies cannot simply make a profit.  They must grow profits and report growth to Wall Street every 90 days.  This requirement is tough on all corporations, but especially tough on those selling food.  People can only eat so much.

To expand sales, food companies desperately seek new markets.  Last week, The Guardian and the Wall Street Journal described how food corporations are marketing processed foods to the poorest inhabitants of developing countries.

According to The Guardian,

Nestlé is using a floating supermarket to take its products to remote communities in the Amazon. Unilever has a small army of door-to-door vendors selling to low-income villages in India and west and east Africa. The brewer SABMiller has developed cheap beers in some African countries as part of a “price ladder” to its premium lager brands, and, as a leading Coca-Cola bottler and distributor, is aiming to double fizzy drinks sales in South African townships.

Last year 39% of acquisition deals by consumer goods companies were in emerging markets, compared with just 1% in 2008, according to the Grocer’s OC&C Global 50 league table.

The Wall Street Journal follows a salesman in South Africa who is “digging for his gold” in poor neighborhoods:

While Nestlé’s usual sales staff focus on filling shelves of big supermarkets, Mr. Mugwambane and 80 other salespeople like him hunt for tiny shops across South Africa that will buy such Nestlé products as baby food and nondairy creamers, often in single-serving packages that appeal to Africa’s price-sensitive customers.

…Nestlé says it expects 45% of its sales to come from emerging markets by 2020, up from roughly 30% now.

From the standpoint of food companies, says The Guardian, this is about “finding innovative ways to give isolated people the kind of choices the rich have enjoyed for years and are providing valuable jobs and incomes to some of the most marginalised.”

Baby food and nondairy creamers?

Maybe selling items like these brings jobs to some people, but it also brings nutrient-poor diets, obesity, and the resulting chronic diseases to those populations.

The ultimate costs will be high.

Sep 8 2011

No Surprise: Corporate responsibility works better for corporations than public health

A new report just out from the Children’s Food Campaign of Sustain, a food advocacy group in the UK, says that its government’s Responsibility Deal with the food industry about marketing practices is good for food companies but not so effective for public health.

 

The report finds that the UK government’s Responsibility Deal is “likely to fail because industry commitments are weak, voluntary, and ignored by numerous big food companies.”

The UK Coalition Government launched its Public Health Responsibility Deal in March 2011. This covered five areas—food, alcohol, physical activity, health in the workplace, and behavior change.

The core of the Deal is voluntary partnership with industry.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley promised industry that the Deal would be “built on social responsibility, not state regulation.”   Instead, government would promote personal responsibility for health choices and voluntary agreements with companies.

Predictably, the report lists 33 national food companies that have failed to commit to one or more voluntary pledges on:

  • ‘out of home’ calorie labelling (including Costa, Pizza Express and Subway)
  • salt reduction (including Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Wimpy)
  • artificial trans fat removal (including Harvester, Wetherspoons and Sodexo)

It also lists 13 well known companies, including Birds Eye, Budgens, Domino’s Pizza and Nandos that failed to sign up to any health pledges at all.

The campaign concludes: “food pledges are underwhelming.”

So much for voluntary partnerships and alliances.  Nobody should be surprised.

 

May 5 2011

Future of Food: the food movement goes mainstream

I’m just back from yesterday’s Future of Food conference in Washington DC.  The event, designed by WashingtonPostLive to “advance the conversation” about sustainable food, featured a glittering array of speakers from many aspects of the food movement. (You can watch the conference on video here, and the Washington Post will have a special section on it next Wednesday, May 11.)

The keynote speaker was none other than the Prince of Wales, fresh from his son’s wedding, who gave a serious and inspriring talk that touched on a great range of pressing issues related to agriculture, health, and the state of the world.

Anyone who has been involved in food issues for any length of time had heard these opinions before and most of the speakers were talking to an audience of a few hundred of the converted.

Nevertheless, I think there’s a story here, and not just because I was on one of the panels.

The story is that the event happened.  The food movement has gone mainstream.

The conference—sponsored by the Washington Post no less—brought in heavy hitters.  These included the Prince of Wales, of course, but also the President of Georgetown University, where the event was held, Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, and officials of the FDA and White House.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack came, gave thoughtful remarks, and responded with equally thoughtful answers to not-always-friendly comments from the audience.  This was the first time I’d seem him in person and I was impressed by how carefully he has thought through the issues he has to deal with.   Even when I viewed the issues differently,  it seemed clear that his were the result of much intelligent thought and weighing of alternatives.

Montana Senator Jon Tester, of the Tester amendment to the food safety bill, gave closing remarks.

The speakers, young and old, famous and not, made it clear that concerns about the relationship of agriculture to the health of people and the planet were major and were getting focused attention at very high levels.

The food movement can no longer be considered fringe.  It’s mainstream.  Speakers provided much evidence for that from their own points of view.

They said, it’s now time to take the movement to the next step, and that means doing what it takes to become even more powerful.

For example, see if you can find the remarks of Robert Ross, President of the California Endowment and listen to the opening remarks of his speech about the analogy with tobacco and the need to counter the power of food corporations.

My slightly facetious suggestion: if Congress is for sale, let’s buy our own.

Perhaps you have other ideas for expanding the movement and making it more powerful?  Do tell.