by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-policy

Dec 10 2010

Food is political? Indeed it is.

Every now and then, I enjoy answering questions posed by Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman.  Here’s one for today.

Let’s Ask Marion: How Did Junk Food and Obesity Become a Red State/Blue State Debate?

(With a click of her mouse, Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):

kat: The “agri-culture war” that’s long been simmering is coming to a boil now, as recently noted in The Washington Post, The Daily Dish, and elsewhere in the blogosphere.

The Palin/Beck/Limbaugh axis of egos is vigorously defending junk food, lamenting the passage of the food safety bill, and decrying all efforts to address our obesity epidemic, even as David Frum, a rare voice of reason (sometimes) on the right, tells CNN that obesity poses a greater threat to our national security than, say, openly gay soldiers.

You yourself are under fire yet again (sigh) from those uber-astroturfers at the Center For Consumer Freedom for having the audacity to question whether our cherished principle of free speech entitles Big Food to emblazon the labels of its edible food-like substances with Big Lies (i.e. dubious, unproven health claims).

Why do you think that the issues of junk food and obesity have become so incredibly politicized?

Dr. Nestle: Politicized? Of course they are politicized. Junk food and obesity are key indicators of political divisions in our society. For starters, junk food is cheap and obesity is more common among low-income populations. So right away we are into divisive issues of income inequality and class and, therefore, who pays for what and which sectors of society get government handouts.

The minute we start talking about small farms, organic production, local food, and sustainable agriculture, we are really talking about changing our food system to accommodate a broader range of players and to become more democratic. Just think of who wins and who loses if $20 billion in annual agricultural subsidies go to small, organic vegetable producers who are part of their communities rather than to large agricultural producers who do not live anywhere near their corn and soybeans.

The issue at stake is who gets to decide how food is grown and what people eat. For as long as I can remember, big agriculture and big food were in control, in close partnership with congressional agricultural committees and the USDA. Today, the food movement–democracy in action, if you will–is challenging their authority and power. No wonder defenders of the status quo don’t like the challenge. It is only to be expected that they are fighting back.

I see the intensity of the debate (and, alas, the personal attacks) as a clear sign that the movement is making headway. The system is clearly changing. It has to change if we are to address obesity, climate change, and the other unsustainable aspects of our present ways of doing food business.

Anyone who is working to reduce income inequity and to make healthier food available to every American has to expect to encounter the methods corporations always use to fight critics: personal attacks, claims of junk science, invocation of personal responsibility, cooptation, and plenty of behind-the-scenes lobbying.

Telling truth to power has never been popular. But I’m convinced it’s worth doing.

Nov 14 2010

No joke: Food industry to write U.K. policy on diet and health

I had a good laugh when Dick Jackson, who chairs the Environmental Health Sciences department at UCLA’s School of Public Health, forwarded this article: “McDonald’s and PepsiCo to help write UK health policy.”

I assumed this was another priceless piece from The Onion, whose recent article on the effects of the U.S. Farm Bill on soybean production is equally hilarious.

But no such luck.  The British food writer, Felicity Lawrence, has three investigative reports in the November 12 issue of The Guardian (U.K.).  You want to see food politics in action?  Watch what is happening in Britain since the conservative government of David Cameron took over (I have commented on this previously).

Lawrence writes that the U.K. Department of Health has invited companies such as McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars, and Diageo to form “food networks” to write policies to address public health problems such as obesity, alcohol, and diet-related disease.  I have highlighted some of the critical issues in red.

The food network to tackle diet and health problems includes processed food manufacturers, fast food companies, and Compass, the catering company famously pilloried by Jamie Oliver for its school menus of turkey twizzlers. The food deal’s sub-group on calories is chaired by PepsiCo, owner of Walkers crisps.

The leading supermarkets are an equally strong presence, while the responsibility [for the] deal’s physical activity group is chaired by the Fitness Industry Association, which is the lobby group for private gyms and personal trainers.

In early meetings, these commercial partners have been invited to draft priorities and identify barriers, such as EU legislation, that they would like removed. They have been assured by Lansley [the health secretary] that he wants to explore voluntary not regulatory approaches…Using the pricing of food or alcohol to change consumption has been ruled out. One group was told that the health department did not want to lead, but rather hear from its members what should be done.

As for what this means:

Jeanette Longfield, head of the food campaign group Sustain, said: “This is the equivalent of putting the tobacco industry in charge of smoke-free spaces. We know this ‘let’s all get round the table approach’ doesn’t work, because we’ve all tried it before, including the last Conservative government. This isn’t ‘big society’, it’s big business.”

Lawrence has two additional articles on the background of this move.  “First goal of David Cameron’s ‘nudge unit’ is to encourage healthy living” explains that the focus of these efforts will be on food and alcohol choices:

The idea is that individuals can be persuaded – “nudged” – into making better choices for themselves without force or regulation. The coalition agreement talks about “finding intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves.”

Her second background piece, “Who is the government’s health deal with big business really good for?”, explains how this happened.

It must have felt like a new dawn for the food and drinks industries. After more than four years of determined and co-ordinated lobbying, they were about to achieve the corporate PR agency dream: being invited to write the policy themselves. And, if the Conservatives won the election, in Lansley they would have a health secretary who understood them.

He not only subscribed to the libertarian view that public health should be more a matter of personal responsibility than government action; he bought in to the whole pro-business PR view of the world….Lansley had already adopted several of the industry’s favoured approaches to the food, drink and health crises, promising that “government and FSA promotion of traffic light labelling will stop”; that there would be no mandatory extension of advertising restrictions; and that alcohol strategy would focus on the responsible drinking messages and improved labelling the industry preferred to regulation.

Lansley also committed to avoiding a narrow focus on “fear of junk foods” that might demonise individual manufacturers’ products, and to talking instead in terms of diets as a whole, of the balance of energy in and energy out, and of portion size. He had said the government and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) would “highlight the continuing contribution made by business to improving diet by reformulating its products“.

Yeah, right.  Even The Onion could not make this up.

Could this happen here?  Grass-roots democracy, anyone?

Sep 10 2010

International food politics: UK food industry wants more regulation!

In a move that surprises British commentators, the U.K.’s The Food and Drink Federation is calling for more government regulation.

This call is based on a report commissioned by the Federation, Future Scenarios for the UK Food and Drink Industry, which summarizes interviews with food manufacturers, policy makers, civil society representatives, farmers, and retailers, about their visions for the future of the industry.

While the most desirable future was one where sufficient resources were available and consumer behaviours had responded to global pressures, manufacturers and retailers surprisingly preferred a situation where more government intervention was necessary.

What’s going on here?  “It’s about putting in place the right structures and frameworks that give industry the kind of coherence to make investment decisions.”

However, all participants recognised that resource demand would most likely outstrip supply unless action was taken. Even more disastrous would be the scenario where there was insufficient government control and a lack of engagement by people; a severe supply-demand gap, resulting in social unrest.

Oh.  Investment decisions.  And preventing social unrest, of course.

The report concludes that “there is a need for a shared vision for the future of the UK’s food industry based on strong evidence, consistent regulation and consumer engagement.”

Consistent regulation?  This from an industry that successfully lobbied for removing regulatory power from the Food Standards Agency?

As in the U.S., the British food industry wants regulations when they protect industry interests, but strongly opposes those that favor consumer interests.

Sep 7 2010

International food politics: Carving up the UK’s Food Standards Agency

FoodProductionDaily.com has done an analysis of who does what under the new UK scheme for dividing food responsibilities and taking power away from the pesky Food Standards Agency, which had the nerve to actually try to regulate the food industry.

At a time when it is increasingly obvious that food regulations would be better served if under the authority of a single food agency, the UK is doing just the opposite.

Here in America, we have enough problems with food regulations divided between FDA and USDA.  The UK has done us one better.    It now has three agencies in charge.  See if you can make sense of any of these new responsibilities:

The Food Standards Agency

  • Scientific advice on the food safety aspects of date marking
  • Assessment and labeling of ingredients/foods with food safety implications (e.g. allergens, glycols, high caffeine, high glycyrrhizinic acid)
  • Food safety aspects of organic food and of foods controlled by compositional standards
  • Treatments and conditions of use with food safety implications (e.g. quick frozen foods, raw drinking milk and pasteurization, food contact materials)
  • GM and novel foods (including use of nanotechnology)
  • EU General Food Law regulation, including traceability of food
  • Codex Committees on Food Hygiene, Methods of Analysis and Sampling, Food Additives, Contaminants in Foods

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (a mix of our FDA, USDA, and EPA)

  • General lead on food labeling legislation and relevant EU negotiations
  • Lead on the EU Food Information proposal
  • Country of origin labeling
  • Food composition standards and labeling such as fruit juice and fruit nectars, jams and bottled water
  • Technical advice on compositional standards for food without specific legislation, such as soft drinks and cereal products
  • Fish labeling
  • Use of marketing terms e.g. natural, fresh, clear labeling, vegan and vegetarian labeling
  • Food authenticity program
  • Codex Committees for: Food Labeling, Processed Fruits and Vegetables, Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, Fats and Oils, Fish and Fishery Products, Europe, General Principles
  • Lead on Codex Alimentarius Commission, General Principles and Coordinating Committee for Europe

Department of Health

  • Nutrition related aspects of the EU food information regulation
  • Front of pack labeling
  • Food for particular nutritional uses (PARNUTS)
  • Infant formula and follow on formula
  • Health and nutrition claims
  • Food supplements
  • Calorie information in catering establishments
  • Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses

This sounds to me like an ironclad guarantee that nothing will ever get accomplished.  But that, of course, was very point of taking so many responsibilities away from the Food Standards Agency.  That agency, alas, was actually trying to regulate the food industry, something no conservative government is willing to tolerate.

Let’s hope our FDA pays no attention.

Apr 7 2010

Eating Liberally: The Child Nutrition Act

I keep getting asked what I think about the Child Nutrition Act wending its way through Congress.  Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally posed this as a Q and A:

Let’s Ask Marion: Does The USDA Stand for Ultra Silly Dietary Agenda?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

KT: Monday’s New York Times had an editorial supporting the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, a bill that would give the US Agriculture Department “new powers to set nutritional standards for any food sold on school grounds, particularly junk foods that contribute to obesity.”

The current standards leave a lot to be desired, as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution has revealed. In the first episode, Jamie stood accused of shortchanging the kids on carbohydrates because he omitted the bread from a meal that already included rice.

Last Friday, in episode three, Jamie found himself charged with the violation of “insufficient vegetables,” despite the fact that his noodle-based entree featured seven different vegetables. The remedy? Add a bunch of french fries to the meal to meet the veggie quota.

How did the USDA’s school lunch standards ever get so nutritionally nutty? Would passage of the CNA support the wholesome, made-from-scratch meals that Jamie Oliver’s trying to bring back to our cafeterias?

Dr. Nestle: You are asking about the history of the USDA’s school lunch program? Nothing could be more complicated or arcane. Fortunately, two new books take this on: Susan Levine’s School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton, 2010), and Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (California, 2010).

I used Poppendieck’s book in my Food Ethics class at NYU this semester and reading it while watching Jamie Oliver’s programs was a lot of fun. Yes, Oliver is doing reality television but no, he’s not exaggerating. If you find this difficult to believe, read Poppendieck’s book or take a quick look at Kate Adamick’s review of Oliver’s Food Revolution on the Atlantic Food Channel.

As Levine and Poppendieck explain, and as I discussed in Food Politics (California, 2007), school lunches started out as a way to dispose of surplus agricultural commodities by feeding hungry kids. Over the years, it got caught up in a series of “wars”–first on poverty, hunger, and malnutrition and later on welfare and obesity.

The politics of school lunch, and of the CNA in particular, have always reflected the tension inherent in any welfare program, in this case feeding the poor vs. inducing dependency and overspending. In recent years, as obesity became much more of a public health problem than malnutrition, the politics came to reflect the tensions between commercial interests and those of nutrition reformers. Congress is always involved as it endlessly tinkers with the rules for “competitive foods”–the sodas and snacks sold in competition with federally supported school meals.

Competitive foods put schools in a dilemma and in conflict of interest. They make money from competitive foods to help support the school lunch program. But sodas and snacks undermine participation in school meals programs.

Poppendieck points out that the result is a mess that leaves financially strapped school districts with few choices. It’s not that the “lunch ladies” (you have to love Jamie Oliver’s term) don’t know how to make decent meals. It’s that they are up against inadequate funding and equipment, and impossible nutrition standards that can be met most easily by commercial products like Uncrustables that are designed to meet USDA standards. My favorite example contains 51 ingredients (my rule is “no more than five”).  See Note below.

Inadequate funding is a big consideration in the Child Nutrition Act. This act provides $4.5 billion over 10 years for school meals. Although this represents a 10-fold increase over previous (2004) funding, it works out to an additional measly six cents per meal–not nearly enough to solve school districts’ financial problems.

But–and this is a huge step forward–the act gives USDA the authority to set nutrition standards not only for foods sold in the cafeteria but also in vending machines and a la carte lines.

And the bill does a few other Very Good Things. It provides:

  • An estimated $1.2 billion over 10 years for meals at after-school programs, free meals to all students in schools with high poverty levels, and increased availability of meals during summer months.
  • An estimated $3.2 billion for establishing nutrition standards, strengthening local wellness policies, and increasing reimbursement rates.
  • Mandatory funding for schools to establish school gardens and buy foods from local sources.
  • Increased training for local food service personnel.
  • Automatic enrollment of foster children for free school meals.

As for the pesky nutrition standards: the bill expects the USDA to revise them according to the recent report of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), School Meals: Building Blocks for Health Children. This report recommended a conversion to food-based, rather than nutrient-based, standards along with increases in the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limits on calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

All of this makes the CNA well worth supporting. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it is a good first step to making big improvements eventually. In the meantime, plenty of schools are already doing great work and more are joining the food revolution one meal at a time. These deserve all the help we can give them.

*NOTE: the label of this particular Uncrustable was sent to me by Daniel of Ithaca, who works in an upstate New York school district:

BREAD; ENRICHED UNBLEACHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), WATER, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, YEAST, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL AND/OR SOYBEAN OIL, CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF: WHEAT GLUTEN, SALT, DOUGH CONDITIONERS (MAY CONTAIN ONE OR MORE OF: DIACETYL TARTARIC ACID ESTERS OF MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES [DATEM], MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, ETHOXYLATED MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, SODIUM STEAROYL LACTYLATE, CALCIUM PEROXIDE, ASCORBIC ACID, AZODICARBONAMIDE, L-CYSTEINE), YEAST NUTRIENTS (MAY CONTAIN ONE OR MORE OF: MONOCALCIUM PHOSPHATE, CALCIUM SULFATE, AMMONIUM SULFATE), CALCIUM PROPIONATE (MAINTAIN FRESHNESS), CORNSTARCH, ENZYMES (WITH WHEAT). PASTEURIZED PROCESS CHEESE SPREAD: CULTURED MILK AND SKIM MILK, WATER, WHEY (FROM MILK), SODIUM PHOSPHATE, SALT, CREAM (FROM MILK), CORN SYRUP, LACTIC ACID, SORBIC ACID (PRESERVATIVE), GUAR GUM, ARTIFICIAL COLOR, ENZYMES. BUTTER FLAVORED OIL: PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, SALT, SOY LECITHIN, NATURAL AND ARTIFICAL FLAVORS (WITH MILK), VITAMIN A PALMITATE, BETA CAROTENE ADDED FOR COLOR.

Feb 22 2010

Food systems affect public health: research!

I’m catching up on my reading and have just gotten to the special 2009 issue of the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition on food systems and public health.  If you – like most public health people – don’t usually think of agriculture as a major factor in health status, the papers in this journal will come as a revelation.  They demonstrate tight links between agriculture and public health issuees such as childhood obesity, food safety, and environmental health.    Best, they are downloadable at no cost, which means they can be easily shared with students.  I will use them in my food policy class next fall.

Feb 1 2010

The Supreme Court and food politics: update

I commented earlier on the Supreme Court’s decision to allow unlimited corporate spending on election campaigns on the grounds of free speech.  If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, try this (I wish I knew its source):

Update February 2: Thanks for Dan M. for posting this site as the source: “The Future in History.”

Jan 22 2010

The Supreme Court and food politics

What is likely to be the effect of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on food politics?  Nothing good.

The decision to overturn limits on corporate campaign contributions will affect every aspect of society, food included.  I have long argued that campaign contributions are one of two major sources of corruption in government (the other is the way Wall Street requires corporations to report growth every 90 days).

If we want our congressional representatives to make decisions in the public interest, their election campaigns must be publicly funded.  When corporations fund campaigns, representatives make decisions in the corporate interest.   It’s that simple.

Those of us who care about creating a good, clean, fair, and sustainable food system will have to work harder now.  But I can’t think of any more important work to do to protect our democratic institutions.

Addition: here’s my interview with Helena Bottemiller of Food Safety News on the topic.