by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-industry

Jun 20 2024

Weekend reading: WHO on Commercial Determinants of NCDs

This is a report from the WHO Regional Office for Europe: Commercial determinants of noncommunicable diseases in the WHO European Region.  

This report describes how i”7500 deaths per day in the Region are attributed to commercial determinants, such as tobacco, alcohol, processed food, fossil fuels and occupational practices. These commercial products and practices contribute to 25% of all deaths in the Region.

These industries, says WHO, “glamourize and normalize the use of harmful products, including harmful ones often targeting children and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups and others.”

Overall, it documents how these industries use their market power to:

  • Maintain monopolistic positions, extend product lines into new sectors, and manipulate pricing
  • Engage in political practices to prevent, weaken, and delay public health regulations
  • Influence scientific research and public understanding of health issues to favour their commercial interests
  • Use CSR [corporate social responsibility] initiatives to improve their public image and gain influence
  • Avoid taxes, shift profits to tax havens
  • Use financial strategies to deprive governments of revenues needed to fund public health.
  • Use laws to oppose policies aimed at addressing the NCD burden
  • exploit crises and emergencies to advance their commercial interests

In other words, this report describes how industries use the “playbook” to advance their interests.

While specific to Europe, its findings and recommendations are widely generalizable.

And the report gives plenty of references for everything it reports and recommends.

May 15 2024

Ozempic: a food marketing opportunity

I was thrilled to be invited to be on Oprah last week to discuss the influence of the food environment on obesity.  Alas, I was disinvited when the topic switched to fat shaming.

While recovering from the disappointment, I ran across this article in FoodDive: The Ozempic effect is real: Study zeroes in on GLP-1 users’ food needs.

A study found people taking anti-obesity medications such as Ozempic, Wegovy and Zepbound to be looking for:

  • Foods packed with protein
  • Smaller portions
  • Foods that help quell nausea
  • Foods that help reduce gastrointestinal side effects

The potential size of this market is impressive:

Manufacturers looking to create products that cater to this growing market segment – which according to recent research from Goldman Sachs could be as much as 15 million people, or 13% of the U.S. population, by 2030 – should focus on creating products that meet their new needs.

The research group used “its proprietary AI to generate food concepts that it had panel participants evaluate and several were appealing including:

  • Pre-portioned grilled chicken strips
  • 2-ounce portions of Greek yogurt in pouches
  • Electrolyte-enhanced fruit popsicles
  • Mini meal cups

Hey—this is a win-win.  First the food industry makes products that people can’t resist eating and make them gain weight.  Then the industry creates products that help them take drugs more easily.

A marketing opportunity for all

Apr 19 2024

Weekend reading: Eric Schlosser on our cartel food system

In the Atlantic (to which I subscribe), Eric Schlosser writes: Do We Really Want a Food Cartel? 

Mergers and acquisitions have created food oligopolies that are inefficient, barely regulated, unfair, and even dangerous.

He begins with the Federal Trade Commission’s report on what happened to the US food supply during the COVID-19 pandemic: Feeding America in a Time of Crisis: FTC Staff Report on The United States Grocery Supply Chain and the COVID-19 Pandemic.  This report focuses on the hazards of corporate consolidation for workers and consumers.

We see the effects in the grocery store.  Prices are up and executive compensation even more so.

As Schlosser puts it,

When four companies gain a combined market share that is greater than 40 percent, an oligopoly has formed. The prices offered to suppliers, the prices charged to consumers, and the wages paid to workers are no longer determined mainly by market forces. Further, the power these corporations exert within their industries and the economy as a whole leads to a well-documented dynamic: Effective government regulation becomes difficult, whether because state and federal agencies are “captive” or because they are outmatched in terms of resources and personnel.

This brings us back to my post this week about the FDA.  Schlosser describes the agency as “Poorly managed and notoriously reluctant to confront major food companies,” as shown by its inability to get on top of infant formula shortages.

Read his piece and see if he makes the case for his conclusion:

the fight against oligopolies and monopolies won’t be easy. A small number of corporations have tremendous political influence, expensive attorneys, and great skill at rigging markets in ways the public just can’t see.

We all need to pay close attention.

Mar 22 2024

Weekend reading: family monopolies over food

Austin Frerick.  Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry.  Island Press, 2024.  With an Introduction by Eric Schlosser.

Wow.  This is one important book.

Frerick’s thesis is that a small number of individuals or families have been allowed to accumulate unconscionable levels of wealth by exploiting or getting around laws (mostly legally but sometimes with bribes), pressuring government to collude, and doing everything possible to enrich themselves at the expense of community and worker welfare—all in the name of low food prices for consumers whether or not they are the reality.

Frerick takes on family enterprises in pigs, grain, coffee, dairy, berries, animal slaughter, and groceries.

This is one tough book.  Frerick structures the chapters to describe the rise of the families’ fortunes, how they exploited rules and customs, and how that got government to collude in giving these companies so much market share and power.

I learned a lot from every chapter, so much that I found myself checking references—-these are extensive—constantly to find our where he had gotten information I’d never seen before.

.About Walmart’s payment of low wages to employees, for example,  Frerick writes,

These low wages also obscure a generous hidden subsidy that the company receives from taxpayers. Many Walmart employees depend on government public assistance programs such as Medicaid (health care), Earned Income Tax Credit (a low-wage tax subsidy), Section 8 vouchers (housing assistance), LIOHEAP (energy assistance), and SNAP (food assistance), among others. In 2013, one estimate by congressional House Democrats found that taxpayers subsidized Walmart to the tune of more than $5000 per employee each year….In effect, instead of paying a living wage to these employees, the Walton family shifts the burden to taxpayers.

Not only that, but SNAP users spend a lot of their benefits at Walmart.

With some back-of-the-envelope math, I came up with a rough estimate that Walmart now receives somewhere around $26.8 billion each year from SNAP.

The chapter on JBS, the Brazilian company now one of four companies controlling 85 percent of meat slaughtering, is particularly worth reading for its documentation of the company’s use of bribery to achieve its ends.

If you want to know how corporations control the food supply, start here.

Mar 13 2024

An update on Nutri-Score: despite food industry opposition, it’s doing well

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post explains why the FDA should establish front-of-package nutrition labeling here and now: These countries are doing nutrition labels the right way

Christina Roberto, Alyssa Moran, and Kelly Brownell contrast the “stop signs you’ll see in Mexico, the Nutri-Score system used in France, or the Health Star Ratings in New Zealand” with the current lack of a system like those in the United States.

The only thing standing in the way: the food industry. It favors a label that displays grams or milligrams of key nutrients along with percent Daily Values — much like the Nutrition Facts Labelcurrently on the back or side of packages. ..By using symbols, colors and simple language, front-of-package labels adopted by other countries have educated people about what’s in their food, helped them make healthier choices and even encouraged companies to reduce salt and sugar in their products.

And here’s Fortune on the same topic, especially Nutri-Score.

This makes me think it’s time to review what’s happening in Europe with Nutri-Score.  I’ve written about this system previously, most recently here and about Its founder, Serge Hercberg’s, fights with the food industry here.

As a reminder, Nutri-Score accounts for nutrients but also sugar, salt, and saturated fat, in a composite grade A (eat) to E (avoid).

The food industry hates it.  For example, an article by authors with ties to industry argues that there is no independent evidence to support the value of Nutri-Score.  This induced Hercberg et al to rebut those points.

In response to some of these criticisms, the Nutri-Score team is updating its algorithm to respond to concerns about ultra-processing, among other matters.  See: Nutri-Score 2023 Update in Nature Food.

And despite the arguments, support for Nutri-Score is growing.  Authors not connected to Nutri-Score recommend it over other types of labeling for adoption by 27 EU nations.  See: Establishing an EU-wide front-of-pack nutrition label: Review of options and model-based evaluation.  Obesity Reviews, 07 February 2024.

Nutri-Score is currently used in seven European countries.  It is backed by the European Public Health Association and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The food industry can complain all it wants, I’m guessing Nutri-Score is here to stay.  It may not capture all ultra-processed foods, but it comes close and revising the design like this should help solve that problem.

Jan 3 2024

Senator Bernie Sanders vs. Big Food

Just before the Christmas holidays, Senator Bernie Sanders (Ind-VT), who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee , held a hearing: What is Fueling the Diabetes Epidemic? 

The Senator’s Tweet:

Some of the quotes from the Senator’s remarks are amazing.  They need to be said, loud and clear:

  • Why is the number of children in America today who have Type 2 diabetes estimated to skyrocket by nearly 700% over the next four decades?
  • For decades, in my view, we have allowed large corporations in the food and beverage industry to entice children to eat foods and beverages loaded up with sugar, salt, and saturated fat, purposely designed to be over-eaten,
  • The situation has gotten so bad that most of what children in America eat today consists of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods that doctors have told us lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • While diabetes and obesity rates in America soar, the food and beverage industry spends billions on advertising to get consumers, including young children, hooked on their unhealthy products.
  • This has got to stop. A good place to start? Banning junk food ads targeted at kids.
  • This is not a radical idea.
  • We must have the courage to take on the greed of the food and beverage industry which, every day, is undermining the health and well-being of our children by pushing extremely unhealthy products which far too often cause obesity and type-2 diabetes.

The hearing began with:

Witness testimony

Senator Sanders also wrote an op-ed in USA Today: “We can’t allow the food and beverage industry to destroy our kids’ health.

Helena Bottemiller Evich, writing in Food Fix “Bernie Sanders vs. Big Food,” asks why Sanders is doing this now?  She has no answer, but I think its fabulous that he is taking this on and joining Senator Cory Booker in this endeavor.

Diet-related chronic diseases are a big problem for kids as well as adults.

It’s way past time to take on the food industry’s manipulative marketing practices.

Cheers to Senators Sanders and Booker.  We need more of you in Congress.

Dec 18 2023

Should food companies—and the Gates Foundation—sponsor nutrition conferences? In India?

I saw this posted on X (the site formerl known as Twtter, which I still find to be a useful source of information I would not otherwise know about).

I also saw a post from Joes Spicer, head of Nutrition International, announcing its withdrawal of funding for the conference  because of the food industry sponsors.

And then Tim Schwab, whose book, “The Bill Gates Problem,” I cannot wait to get to, sent this:

In India last week, a minor furor erupted over the Nutrition Society of India’s annual conference being so brazenly sponsored by companies like Coca-Cola.  But Coke is only a “gold” sponsor.  The “platinum” sponsor? The Gates Foundation.

For two decades, Gates has partnered closely with corporate interests—from Coca-Cola to Pfizer—and presented them to the world as humanitarian partners. Because the foundation is such an admired and celebrated charitable body, Gates has had a powerful effect on normalizing, institutionalizing and legitimizing corporate partnerships and conflicts of interest throughout science and policy making.

Food and drug companies love to sponsor nutrition conferences.  What better way to convince influential professional researchers and teachers that your products are good for health and nothing should be said about restricting or regulating them.

The role of the Gates Foundation is much less obvious and much more important because of its money and interntional power.  Schwab’s book promises to address such matters.  I will have more to say about it when I’ve had a chance to read it.

In the meantime, nutriton societies oin the U.S. and India too would be more credible if they avoided taking food industry sponsorship.  If they take Gates Foundation money, it had best come with no strings and no implied endorsements.

If F0undatios were really altruistic, they would provide donations anonymously and not expect a quid pro quo.  When they expect a quid pro quo, it’s best to find out exactly what it is.

Oct 24 2023

Who knew? I. Bribery in food supply chains

This week, I’m posting some items that surprised me.  Here’s the first: How to deal with bribery in your supply chain.

Really?  This is an international problem?  Apparently so, at least for the U.K.

We have approximately 160 coudntries from all over the world contributing to our food supply and this can lead to vulnerabilities in respect of fraud and financial crime.

The vulnerabilities:

  • Bribery and corruption
  • Food fraud such as adulteration and mislabeling
  • Dealing with entities on international fraud and sanction lists
  • “Dealing with individuals or entities that do not share your own approach to issues such as sustainability and modern slavery.”

This particular article deals with bribery.  A few excerpts from this discussion:

  • It is not necessary to show the payment was made with a corrupt motive or intention to persuade or influence the agent; the payment is presumed to have been corrupt if the principal was unaware.
  • There is also no need to show the principal suffered a loss as a result of the agent being bribed.
  • Given the serious consequences which can flow from bribery (corporate criminal conviction, fines, reputational damage) and the cost of carrying out your own investigation, prevention is clearly better than cure.
  • In the food industry, supply chains can be particularly long and complex, with suppliers involved from all over the world; therefore, it is crucial that businesses invest time in getting to know their suppliers.
  • The key message is to keep the risk of bribery in mind at all stages of dealing with suppliers and ensure that all counterparties are aware of your organisation’s understanding of how the civil law of bribery can protect and help scrutinise suppliers, so to maintain a robust supply chain with in-built deterrents for rogue parties.

One more thing to worry about if you are in the food business.