by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Coronavirus

Jan 7 2021

What Covid-19 is doing to meatpacking workers and communities

A scientific report in Proceedings of the National Academies titled Livestock plants and COVID-19 transmission,” demonstrates the impact of Covid-19 on workers in meat and poultry processing plants.

Our study suggests that, among essential industries, livestock processing poses a particular public health risk extending far beyond meatpacking companies and their employees. We estimate livestock plants to be associated with 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases (6 to 8% of total) and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths (3 to 4% of total) as of July 21….This study shows that meat and poultry slaughter plants were in fact vectors of the disease…Researchers found that poultry plants showed a significant relationship with COVID-19 cases, with pork plants showing the strongest relationship. Beef plants showed the strongest relationship with deaths from the illness.

The USDA has done its own analysis: “The share of all COVID-19 cases in nonmetro [rural] areas has been growing since late March, increasing from 3.6 percent on April 1 to 15.6 percent on December 7.”

Among nonmetro counties, the highest COVID-19 case rates are found in farming-dependent and manufacturing-dependent counties. The high prevalence of COVID-19 in manufacturing-dependent counties is due partly to higher COVID-19 case rates in meatpacking-dependent counties (those in which 20 percent or more of employment is in the meatpacking industry), almost all of which are manufacturing-dependent counties.

But another USDA report, specifically about the meatpacking industry, looks to me as though it is hiding what is happening in those plants.  It includes a chart indicating no special increase in cases among meatpacking workers.  No surprise, if meatpacking plants are epicenters that spread the infection to the local community (but the report doesn’t say that).

What it does say is this:

The two-week moving average number of new daily cases rose in meatpacking-dependent counties through the remainder of April, reaching a peak of nearly 50 cases per 100,000 by the end of the month. This two-week moving average was more than 10 times the prevalence seen in other rural counties. Even though cases in meatpacking-dependent counties started to decline in the month of May, they remained significantly higher compared to other rural counties, falling to just under seven times the number of average daily cases by the end of May.​…Even though meatpacking-dependent counties are dealing with a second wave, the surge in rural new cases does not appear to be driven by new outbreaks in the meatpacking industry. Meatpacking-dependent counties have maintained an almost identical pattern to other rural counties for a fifth straight month.

Confused?  Me too.  This looks like a whitewash.

Is this one result of the USDA’s moving the Economic Research Service out of Washington DC to Kansas City, a move clearly meant to—successfully—decimate the agency?

Politico asks: can the ERS move be reversed?  Not easily, alas.

It’s a good thing independent scientists and investigators are keeping an eye on this situation.

Leah Douglas of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) deserves much praise for tracking infections and deaths among farm and meatpacking workers.

Dec 24 2020

Using the pandemic as a business opportunity, European version

Food Safety News reports that the European Commission is getting increasingly upset about fraudulent claims that specific food and supplement products will boost immunity and help protect against Covid-19 or even cure it.

Alas, they will not.

The EC is worried about online advertisements.  Food Safety News reported more than 350 cases of such claims in June.  Now there are even more.

In the US, we mostly see this sort of thing—websites from the supplement industry telling you to take supplements.  Here  is what this one claims, with my comments in red.

Supplements can help you address nutrient insufficiencies or deficiencies in your diet—but can they help you fight COVID-19? Not as far as anyone knows.

While there hasn’t been specifically-targeted research to determine which—if any—nutrients should be FDA-approved to ward off the virus, [Indeed] supplements are an ideal way to keep your body and your immune system functioning at optimal levels. No, they are not.  Food works much better.

As a result, many physicians and other health and wellness experts recommend beginning a simple supplement routine to ensure your body has the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.  Many others do not, and neither do I.…The supplements you take during the COVID-19 pandemic may not be specifically developed to ward off the coronavirus. Right.  So don’t expect them to work.

Still, research has shown that they all play an important role in boosting the immune system, preventing respiratory damage, strengthening the body against viral infections, reducing inflammation—or all of the above.  This is true, but largely in experimental studies likely to have been funded by the supplement industry.

Obviously, I am not a fan of supplements.  There just isn’t much evidence that they do anything useful for healthy people, and healthy people are the ones most likely to be taking them.

With respect to Covid-19, the best preventive strategy is avoidance (masks, distancing, etc).

The best immune-boosting strategy is to eat a healthy diet–largely (but not necessarily exclusively) plant-based, balanced in calories, and with minimal amounts of ultra-processed junk foods.

And let’s all hope the vaccination comes soon and works like a charm.

Happy holidays.

Dec 17 2020

Soft drink marketing in the Coronavirus era

A few more items about what soft drink companies are up to these days.

1.  Pepsi is releasing spa kits to ease your home-bound stress (this one was sent to me by Nancy Fink, who is keeping track of this sort of thing for the Center for Science in the Public Interest).

The kits include an exfoliating cola-scented Pepsi sugar scrub, a Pepsi Blue face mask and a Pepsi cola-scented bath bomb, according to the company’s email. With its latest branded merchandise, Pepsi can tap into trends around self-care that have emerged during a chaotic year.

What do you have to do to get one?  You have to help market Pepsi, of course

The company launched a sweepstakes on Wednesday to let consumers enter for a chance to win a limited edition Pepsi Spa Kit. To participate, consumers must tweet #PepsiSpa and #Sweepstakes and tag one of their friends, the company said.

2.  Coca-Cola sought to shift blame for obesity by funding public health conferences, study reports

The Coca-Cola Company worked with its sponsored researchers on topics to present at major international public health conferences in order to shift blame for rising obesity and diet related diseases away from its products onto physical activity and individual choice, according to a new report.

Academics in Australia and the US worked with US Right to Know, which lobbies for transparency in the food industry, to obtain and analyse emails between Coke and public health figures about events run by the International Society for Physical Activity and Health (ISPAH).

They analysed 36 931 pages of documents to identify exchanges referencing Coke’s sponsorship of the International Congresses on Physical Activity and Public Health (ICPAPH) held in Sydney in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2014 [The study is here].

3.  Coke and Pepsi join Nestlé (no relation) as “Plastic Polluters of the Year

This is the third year in a row they have won this title from Break Free From Plastic. which demands corporate accountability for plastic pollution.  It’s always good to keep this in mind, along with soda companies opposition to bottle recycling laws.

Dec 14 2020

Food industry marketing ploy of the week: exploiting Covid-19

I am indebted to BeverageDaily.com, for this item(and to Lisa Young for sending it to me).

Coca-Cola says:

In a year defined by a global pandemic, Coca-Cola’s Share a Coke campaign is dedicated to ‘holiday heroes’ – those who have gone the extra mile by dedicating time, energy and attention to their friends, families and communities…For 100 years, Coca-Cola has been known for bringing magic and cheer to the Christmas holiday…Now, alongside its iconic Santa and polar bears, Coca-Cola is celebrating the season by putting the spotlight on everyday heroes. Coca-Cola wants to help people feel connected, and to celebrate friends, family and people in the community who deserve an extra special gift of things, especially in an unprecedented year.

This, recall, is about marketing a sugary beverage strongly associated with poor diets, obesity, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease, all well established as risk factor for poor outcomes of Covid-19.

Here’s what MarketingDive says the campaign is about.

Comment: Educators, doctors, and caregivers ought to be advising everyone they deal with to do what they can to consume sugary beverages infreuently, and in extremely small amounts, if at all.   And that’s good advice for everyone in this holiday seaseon.

Dec 1 2020

How retailers exploit Covid-19: high profits from low pay and food assistance for workers

Brookings has a new report: Windfall profits and deadly risks: How the biggest retail companies are compensating essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We find that while top retail companies’ profits have soared during the pandemic, pay for their frontline workers—in most cases—has not. In total, the top retail companies in our analysis earned on average an extra $16.9 billion in profit this year compared to last—a stunning 39% increase—while stock prices are up an average of 33%. And with few exceptions, frontline retail workers have seen little of this windfall. The 13 companies we studied raised pay for their frontline workers by an average of just $1.11 per hour since the pandemic began—a 10% increase on top of wages that are often too low to meet a family’s basic needs. On average, it has been 133 days since the retail workers in our analysis last received any hazard pay.

In a blog about this reportJudd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria summarize its findings in these headlines:

  • Bezos gets $73 billion; Amazon workers get 95 cents per hour
  • CVS profits increase 27%; CVS workers get 2% raise
  • Walton family adds $45 billion to its wealth; Walmart workers get 63 cents per hour
  • Kroger cancels “hero pay,” authorizes $1 billion stock repurchases

How are these workers getting by?  Federal food assistanc.  A new government report has the data.

The report is titled “FEDERAL SOCIAL SAFETY NET PROGRAMS: Millions of Full-Time Workers Rely on Federal Health Care and Food Assistance Programs.”

It finds that roughly half of Medicaid and SNAP enrollees work at least 35 hours a week, but make so little money that they qualify for these programs.

The employers of low-wage workers who get federal benefits are companies like Walmart, McDonald’s, Waffle House, Kroger, Burger King, and Wendy’s.

What this means is that taxpayers are making up the shortfall in wages, and that use of Medicaid and SNAP are externalized costs of these businesses, as these reports make clear.

Nov 30 2020

Industry-funded nutrition-and-Covid advice: take our supplements!

I’m always interested in how food, beverage, and supplement companies are taking advantage of fears of Covid-19 to sell their products.

The supplement company. Nutricia, has produced a report, Learnings from a Global Pandemic: The Role of Nutrition in COVID-19 Recovery and the Ongoing Pursuit of Healthy Aging 

The logic of this report goes:

  • Covid-19 disproportionally affects older adults.
  • Healthy immune systems help prevent bad outcomes.
  • Nutrition is important for a healthy immune system.

No argument there.  At issue is how to have a healthy immune system.

A wealth of mechanistic and clinical data21 show that beyond protein and energy, vitamins (including A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and folate) and trace elements (zinc, iron, selenium, magnesium, and copper) and omega-3 fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) play important and complementary roles in supporting the immune system. Inadequate intake of these nutrients can lead to a decrease in resistance to infections and as a consequence an increase in disease burden.

Therefore, the question is how to get these nutrients.  I vote for food.  Nutricia, no surprise, has another suggestion, especially for hospitalized patients:

Treatment should continue after hospital discharge with ONS [oral nutritional supplements] and individualized nutritional plans.

Nutricia is owned by Danone.  Danone announced this week that  it is cutting 2000 jobs to save more than a billion dollars.

As the pandemic continues to surge, the yogurt and beverage giant has been impacted by the closure of restaurants and other venues that reduced demand for its water, a reduction of SKUs [stock keeping units] offered by its retail partners and a drop in the number of births that has curtailed consumption of its baby formula products.

One solution: sell more supplements, and use Covid-19 to do so.

Will supplements protect against catching Covid-19 or experiencing its worst symptoms?  I’m waiting for the data.

I still think it’s healthier to get nutrients from foods.

Nov 19 2020

Retailers should promote health eating: Here’s how.

I was sent a press release announcing a set of research papers on retail strategies to improve healthy eating.  Most people buy food at supermarkets, but supermarkets are not public health agencies.  They are businesses with one purpose: to make money for owners and stockholders.  As I discussed in my book, What to Eat, they are designed to keepyou in the store as long as possible so you will have plenty of time to impulse-buy.  These papers in the  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health discuss ways retail food stores could help diets get healthier.

They come with a new report outlining a research agenda for retailers.  All of this was funded by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in partnership with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and The Food Trust.

The full issue of the journal is here.

Special issue: Retail Strategies to Support Healthy Eating

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.