by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Coronavirus

Oct 27 2020

Vitamin D and Coronavirus: Panacea or sign of good health?

Evidence is pouring in that people with adequate vitamin D status seem to be better protected against harmful effects of Covid-19.

This is not surprising; people who practice healthful lifestyles—eating well, being active, getting out in the fresh air, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, not drinking too much—generally survive this infection more easily.

Vitamin D, I must remind you, is not really a vitamin.  It is a hormone induced by the effects of sunlight on skin.

Sunlight is by far the most effective way to get it.   Foods provide much less.

As for supplements, it’s hard to say.  They are under investigation.

I’ve been collecting items:

  • An account of a clinical trial in Italy published in Medium: “Among the 26 hospitalized people who received standard care alone, fully half went on to the intensive care unit (ICU) because their disease had worsened. Two of them died. But among the 50 people who received the vitamin D treatment on top of standard care, only one person ended up in the ICU. None died.”  The study itself concludes: “…administration of a high dose of Calcifediol or 25-hydroxyvitamin D…significantly reduced the need for ICU treatment of patients requiring hospitalization due to proven COVID-19. Calcifediol seems to be able to reduce severity of the disease, but larger trials with groups properly matched will be required to show a definitive answer.”
  • Medium’s discussion of what is known about Vitamin D supplements and Covid-19: “If we ask the question “Does vitamin D prevent/treat COVID-19?” the only real answer is “How could you possibly know?””
  • Consumer Reports on whether you should be taking vitamin D supplements: its not-particularly-helpful conclusion: “Ultimately, whether to get tested or take a supplement and how to do it comes down to having a discussion with your doctor.”

As always with supplements, a market is involved.  This one is not trivial, even in the UK.

An obesity newsletter I subscribe to—Obesity and Energetics Offerings—provides items suggesting that conflicts of interest may be involved.

  • Vitamin D deficiency linked to 54% higher SARS-CoV-2 positivity rate: Study: The associations between vitamin D status and COVID-19 risk continue to strengthen, with new data from Quest Diagnostics and Boston University indicating that people with deficiency in the sunshine vitamin may have a significantly higher positivity rate for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
  • The study in question, Evidence That Vitamin D Supplementation Could Reduce Risk of Influenza and COVID-19 Infections and Deaths, reports conflicted interests: “W.B.G receives funding from Bio-Tech Pharmacal, Inc. (Fayetteville, AR). H.L. sells vitamin D supplements. GrassrootsHealth works with various supplement suppliers to test the efficacy of their products in various custom projects. These suppliers may be listed as sponsors of GrassrootsHealth.”   Basically, it’s industry-funded.
  • One letter in response to the study points out that “the efficacy of high-dose supplementation of vitamin D3 in reducing risk of COVID-19 infection is mere extrapolation of currently available evidence, which is often conflicting, on the effectiveness of vitamin D3 in reducing risk of other respiratory tract infections.”
  • To this, the authors have a lengthy rebuttal.

My bottom line at the moment: the science is still unfolding.  What to do while waiting for further research?  I like these Considerations for Obesity, Vitamin D, and Physical Activity Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic:

Until further breakthroughs emerge, we should remember that modifiable lifestyle factors such as diet and physical activity should not be marginalized. Decades of empirical evidence have supported both as key factors promoting health and wellness. In times of crisis, whether it be real or perceived, there is something to be said about the benefits of empowering people to actively preserve their own health.

Get outside, move around, expose some skin to sunlight.  Even in winter.

 

Oct 12 2020

Good news #1: Extension of universal school meals

Readers have written me to point out that my posts rarely cover good news, and that they badly need to hear some.

Point taken: I devote this week’s blog to good news items.

Let’s start with Friday’s announcement that the USDA will extend universal school meals through June 30, 2021 (you can read the entire announcement here).

Is this an election-year ploy?  Maybe, but it’s the first thing Trump’s USDA has done that I think is worth doing.

It must have happened as a result of strong advocacy pressure.  I say this because, as The Counter’s Jessica Fu reported in August, the USDA was determined not to extend free meals to school children, arguing that it did not have the authority to do so.

“While we want to provide as much flexibility as local school districts need during this pandemic, the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue wrote in a letter last Thursday explaining the decision.

But a week later, the USDA did extend the universal meals program through the end of December this year.

Now it has extended that extension through the end of this school year.

Yes!

This means, as the announcement says, USDA will:

  • Allow…meals to be served in all areas and at no cost;
  • Permit meals to be served outside of the typically required group settings and meal times;
  • Waive meal pattern requirements, as necessary; and
  • Allow parents and guardians to pick-up meals for their children.

Universal school meals:

  • Ensure food justice for children
  • Make sure all children are fed
  • Avoid stigma
  • Avoid expensive and cumbersome exclusionary paperwork

So this is good news, but there’s more work yet to do.

  • Make sure those meals are healthy and do adhere to nutrition standards.
  • Make universal school meals permanent.

My go-to reference on this topic:

Paperback Free for All : Fixing School Food in America Book

Sep 22 2020

Corporate capture in action: e-mails illustrate the meat industry’s role in keeping plants open despite Covid-19

I’ve written previously (see this one, for example) about the meat industry’s role in keeping plants open despite worker illnesses, but much about the industry’s pressures on government has been based on conjecture.  No more.

In another example of the value of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), two groups have obtained e-mails documenting these pressures.

FROM PRO PUBLICA, September 14, 2020: “Emails Show the Meatpacking Industry Drafted an Executive Order to Keep Plants Open: Hundreds of emails offer a rare look at the meat industry’s influence and access to the highest levels of government. The draft was submitted a week before Trump’s executive order, which bore striking similarities.”

The e-mails indicate that the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the trade association for the meat industry, essentially wrote President Trump’s executive order invoking the Defense Production Act, which forced plants to stay open and workers to continue working under unsafe and highly virus-transmissable conditions.

For example (and look on the site for #6, which does a longer and even more compelling comparison):

FROM PUBLIC CITIZEN, September 15, 2020: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the meatpacking industry worked together to downplay and disregard risks to worker health during the pandemic, as shown in documents uncovered by Public Citizen and American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.”

The documents show that:

  • The executive order signed by President Donald Trump regarding meatpacking plants, ostensibly invoking the Defense Production Act, was the result of lobbying by the North American Meat Institute, a meat-packing trade association, which prepared what appears to be the first draft of what would become the executive order;
  • The North American Meat Institute repeatedly requested that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue discourage workers who were afraid to return to work from staying home;
  • Meatpacking plants asked the USDA to intervene on multiple occasions when state and local governments either shut them down over health and safety concerns or sought to impose worker health and safety standards; and
  • Smithfield Foods repeatedly requested that the USDA “order” it to reopen its meat processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. – despite no legal basis for such an order.

WHAT’S AT STAKE HERE?

Check out Leah Douglas’s ongoing count of Covid-19 cases among meatpacking workers.  Her figures as of September 18, include at least:

  • 804 meatpacking and food processing plants (496 meatpacking and 308 food processing) and 106 farms and production facilities have had confirmed cases of Covid-19.
  • 59,430 workers (42,606 meatpacking workers, 9,571 food processing workers, and 7,253 farmworkers) have tested positive for Covid-19.
  • 254 workers (203 meatpacking workers, 35 food processing workers, and 16 farmworkers) have died.

To state the obvious: corporate capture of government agencies and the presidency is not good for public health or American democracy.

Sep 17 2020

Food companies’ exploitation of Covid-19 for marketing purposes: new report

The NCD [Non-Communicable Disease] Alliance has issued a press release for its latest report, Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm – Unhealthy Commodity Industries and COVID-19

As the press release explains, the

new report details hundreds of examples of unhealthy commodity industries, led by Big Alcohol, Big Food, and Big Soda, leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic for commercial gain. This report raises concerns of corporate capture during the pandemic by the very industries that are fuelling the burden of NCDs worldwide and putting people at greater risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.

The Alliance released the report in conjunction with the  Global Week for Action on NCDs and the theme of accountability.

The report includes hundreds of case studies submitted from more than 90 countries of business responses to Covid-19, in these categories.

The report illustrates dozens of examples, and it’s hard to choose the most egregious from among so many possibilities.  I particularly appreciated this one.

This report is well worth a close look.  I found it highly instructive.

Sep 10 2020

Annals of international food marketing: Lithuanian instant noodles

I often get messages from PR people representing one food product or another.  This one, from Greta Skridailaitė of the Blue Oceans public relations firm, caught my eye.

Hello Marion​,

In order to satisfy the rising need for instant food in the European FMCG retail market KG Group – one of the biggest agriculture and food groups in the Baltic States – is launching a modern instant noodle production facility in Alytus city, Lithuania, having attracted 20M EUR investment.

Global Instant Noodle market is growing despite the Covid-19 turmoil and is predicted to reach USD 32.1 Billion by 2027. Until recently, most of the instant food has been produced and imported from different Asian countries.

Exclusive reliance on Asian suppliers has shown its drawbacks as supply chains were cut or unreliable during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, many companies began exploring local production options, seeking to alter their supply chains and be less dependent on Asia, especially China.

Below, please find a press release with comments from the Chairman of the Board of KG Group, Tautvydas Barštys.

Please advise if you have additional questions for the KG Group representatives – we’d be happy to help facilitate an interview.

Kind regards,

Greta

Really?

  • Rising need for instant food?
  • 20 million Euro investment?
  • $32.1 billion in instant noodles by 2027?
  • Fears of not being able to get them from China?

I live on an entirely different food planet, alas, but I particularly loved this one because my grandparents came to the US from Lithuania in the early 1900s.

Sep 7 2020

Enjoy a thoughtful, safe, and delicious Labor Day

This is the day to honor the farm, meatpacking, slaughterhouse, grocery,  and other low-wage food system workers deemed essential during the Covid-19 pandemic.

And this seems like good advice.

Enjoy the day!

 

Aug 26 2020

Fox guarding chickens: OSHA’s worker-safety partnership with the meat industry

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has formed an alliance with the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) to

provide NAMI’s members, workplace safety and health professionals, the meatpacking and processing workforce, and the public with information, guidance, and access to training resources that will help them protect workers by reducing and preventing exposure to Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19), and understand the rights of workers and the responsibilities of employers under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

NAMI’s motto is “One unified voice for meat and poultry companies, large and small.”  Its members are listed here.

OSHA’s stated mission

With the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

  • Do we see a potential conflict of interest here?  Indeed, we do.

Basically, the Alliance aims to

  • Share information…regarding potential exposure to COVID-19 and the challenges for exposure control in meat packing and processing facilities.
  • Develop information on the recognition of COVID-19 transmission risks and best practices.
  • Conduct outreach through joint forums, roundtable discussions, stakeholder meetings, webinars, or other formats on OSHA guidance and NAMI’s good practices.
  • Speak, exhibit, or appear at OSHA and NAMI conferences…regarding good practices.
  • Encourage NAMI members…to utilize OSHA’s On-Site Consultation Program to improve health and safety and prevent COVID-19 transmission.

This looks like meat industry propaganda to me.

As quoted by Food Dive, Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, called the deal “an outrage.” His statement:

Throughout the pandemic, employers have continued to keep workers and the general public in the dark about illness in the plants while trying to shield themselves from any liability for the role they played in the loss of life. It is shocking that the Department of Labor is now giving the meat industry even more power to police itself on worker safety.

He’s not kidding.  The Food and Environment Reporting Network is tracking cases.  As of August 17, its figures show confirmed cases of Covid-19 in

  • 474 meatpacking plants among 40,708 meatpacking work (189 deaths)
  • 269 food processing plants among 8658 food processing workers (34 deaths)

No surprisae, workers have filed thousands of complaints with OSHA.

What has OSHA done for them?  It co-issued (with CDC) guidance on what companies ought to be doing about distancing and masking. 

Are companies following this guidelines?  Not with much conviction.

That is why workers have had to resort to filing lawsuits against Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods—and OSHA—as summarized by ProPublica.

According to Politico (behind a paywall, unfortunately), the lawsuits reveal that OSHA admits that it is unable to police its own safety guidelines.

Although an inspector from OSHA’s Wilkes-Barre Area Office witnessed employees working “2 to 3 feet” apart without physical barriers — which goes against the Centers for Disease Control and OSHA’s safety recommendations — the agency concluded there was no “imminent danger” at the plant, the inspector testified during a July 31 hearing.

As always, it’s hard to make up stuff like this.

Aug 25 2020

Food insecurity is rising, especially among kids

The Wall Street Journal reports “More Americans Go Hungry Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Census Shows.

As of late last month, about 12.1% of adults lived in households that didn’t have enough to eat at some point in the previous week, up from 9.8% in early May, Census figures show. And almost 20% of Americans with kids at home couldn’t afford to give their children enough food, up from almost 17% in early June.

The most shocking revelation?  Try this.

What’s going on here?

If ever there was a need for policy, this is it.