by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Obama

Jan 4 2011

Obama signs food safety bill today, at last

I listened in on yesterday’s White House conference call announcing that President Obama would sign the Food Safety Modernization Act today.

Speakers said the new bill will give the FDA the tools and authority it needs to help prevent the CDC’s new estimates of the annual burden of foodborne illness: 48 million cases,  180,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths.

But they barely mentioned the elephant in the room: funding.  The estimated cost of the new provisions is $1.4 billion, which will certainly require new appropriations at a time when Republican lawmakers balk at the mere thought.

Fortunately, reporters pressed hard on this issue.  Where, asked Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times, is the money coming from?

The FDA’s not-quite-satisfactory answer: the agency already has resources available from increased funding over the last several years and it “will work closely with industry in partnership.”

As reporters for the Washington Post explain today:

Rep. Jack Kingston, who hopes to become chairman of the agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said that “our food supply is 99.999 percent safe”….He questioned giving the agency more money.

“I think we’ll look very carefully at the funding before we support $1.4 billion,” he told The Associated Press in an interview Monday, speaking of Republicans who will control the House when Congress comes back into session Wednesday.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post noted that Republicans say we already have the safest food supply in the world and don’t need more money.  What, she asked, can FDA do without additional funds?  And when?

But nobody talked about the timing.  New laws require the FDA to engage in interminable rulemaking procedures: writing rules, opening them for public comment, commenting on the comments, re-writing rules, opening them for public comment, and, eventually, arriving at final rules.

What is FDA supposed to do in the meantime?  It can move more quickly by issuing “guidance” or “interim final rules.”

I’m hoping that the FDA is ready for this and will issue such things soon.

Dec 14 2010

President signs healthy, hunger-free kids act, at last!

Yesterday, President Obama signed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (how do they name these things?)

White House, Pete Souza

The fact sheet on the bill lists what it will do with the additional $4.5 billion in funding (over 10 years), among other actions:

  • Gives USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, the “a la carte” lunch lines, and school stores.
  • Provides additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for federally-subsidized lunches [this is the six cents per meal increase].
  • Helps communities establish local farm to school networks, create school gardens, and ensures that more local foods are used in the school setting.
  • Expands access to drinking water in schools, particularly during meal times.
  • Sets basic standards for school wellness policies including goals for nutrition promotion and education and physical activity.
  • Increases the number of eligible children enrolled in school meal programs by approximately 115,000 students…Helps certify an average additional 4,500 students per year to receive school meals.
  • Allows more universal meal access for eligible students in high poverty communities.

The sticking point is the funding.  It is to be “borrowed” from an authorized increase in funding for SNAP (food stamps).   As I discussed yesterday, enrollment in SNAP is rising rapidly, and so are its costs so the loss of this increase will hurt.

In his signing speech, President Obama explained:

It’s also important to note that while this bill is fully paid for, it won’t add a dime to the deficit, some of the funding comes from rolling back a temporary increase in food stamp benefits –- or SNAP as it’s now called -– starting in the fall of 2013.  I know a number of members of Congress have expressed concerns about this offset being included in the bill, and I’m committed to working with them to restore these funds in the future.

He also said:

Not only am I very proud of the bill, but had I not been able to get this passed, I would be sleeping on the couch.

Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign inspired this bill and her leadership had much to do with its enactment.  Cheers for this, at last!

Nov 5 2010

Obama’s food tasters in India: Uh oh

I am indebted to FoodSafetyNews for a curious item about President Obama’s food tasting problem in India.  I can understand why the White House would be concerned.  It is easy for Americans unused to the local bacteria to get food poisoning while traveling anywhere, and such things happen in India (I have some personal experience with this problem, alas).

The Indian government has recruited twelve somewhat reluctant doctors at a hospital in Mumbai to join the tasting staff that usually travels with the President.  [Aside: I wonder how one gets a job like this.  It could be a lot of fun].  The Indian doctors’ view, however:

This job is often annoying because we are not professionals and are used as guinea pigs. However, it is exciting to work for Obama,” one anonymous doctor told the Mirror. “We have already started doing our homework on what he will be eating. We will be meeting the hotel chefs tomorrow.”

“We taste samples and also store some for the cops,” explained one doctor on the assignment. “If anything goes wrong, we can use these samples for investigation.”

These physicians live in India and must have built up some immunity to the local flora.

And I can’t figure out how the tasting would work.  It often takes some hours after eating before the effects of food poisoning to show up.  Just because a food is safe early in the day does not necessarily mean it would still be safe after sitting around for some hours.

I’m guessing the President has to follow the same food safety rules as the rest of us when traveling in tropical countries with questionable water supplies:

  • Do not drink tap water and do not use it to brush your teeth.
  • Do not drink bottled water if the seal on the bottle has been broken.
  • Do not use ice unless you’re sure it’s made from purified water.
  • Do not drink milk or eat dairy products that have not been pasteurized (heated to a temperature that kills all germs).
  • Do not eat raw fruits or vegetables unless they can be peeled and you are the one who peels them.
  • Do not eat cut-up fruit salad.
  • Do not eat lettuce or other leafy raw vegetables (such as spinach).
  • Do not eat raw or rare (slightly cooked) meat or fish.
  • Do not eat food from people who sell it on the street.

I hope he enjoys his trip.  The food is likely to be supremely delicious—as soon as it cools down enough to enjoy.

May 17 2010

White House says 1.5 trillion calories to be cut from food supply?

I’m in California but fortunately was up early enough to participate in an unexpected White House conference call.  This was a preview of the press conference held this afternoon to announce food company pledges to reduce the calories in their products by 1.5 trillion by 2015.  As the press release explains, the 16 food company members of the  Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF)

are pledging to take actions aimed at reducing 1.5 trillion product calories by the end of 2015. As an interim step to this goal, HWCF will seek to reduce calories by 1 trillion in 2012.

The energy gap?  That’s the 1.5 trillion excess calories that Americans consume each year on average.  This number assumes that the American population consumes an excess of 100 calories a day (the kids’ gap is less).  This number comes from some unexplained manipulation of 100 calories x 365 days per year x 300 million Americans.

How will food companies do this?

Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation manufacturing companies will pursue their calorie reduction goals by growing and introducing lower-calorie options; changing product recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products; or reducing portion sizes of existing single-serve products. These changes will help Americans reduce their calorie intake, improve their overall nutrition and close the energy gap.

How will we know they will actually do this?

To assess the impact of the pledge, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) will support a rigorous, independent evaluation of how the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation’s efforts to reduce calories in the marketplace affect calories consumed by children and adolescents. RWJF will publicly report its findings.

What are we to make of all this?  Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt?*  History suggests the latter possibility.  Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products without doing anything, and every promise helps stave off regulation.

On the other hand, the RWJF evaluation sounds plenty serious, and top-notch people are involved in it.  If the companies fail to do as promised, this will be evident and evidence for the need for regulation.

As I explained to Jane Black of the Washington Post, the White House efforts to tackle childhood obesity have been consistent and relentless.  What the White House is doing is holding food companies to the fire for making kids fat. That’s awkward for the companies.  They don’t see it as good for business.  Hence the agreement to change.

What the White House has not been able to get are similar pledges about marketing to kids, but that – and front-of-package labeling – are clearly the next targets.

So let’s give Michelle Obama a big hand for taking this on.  I will be watching for the evaluation with great interest although I hate the idea that we have to wait until 2015 to see the results.

*Added comment: see Michele Simon’s considerably less optimistic post on this.  As she puts it, “who needs policy when you’ve got promises?”

Update May 18: FoodSafetyNews covered the event.  The Atlantic’s political editor is skeptical and notes the absence of a

Calorie Measuring Authority, and the science of counting calories is not as exact as one might think. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which helped to put together today’s event, spent $1 million in the first quarter of 2010 on lobbying, much of it for the maintenance of corn subsidies.

Apr 4 2010

Mrs. Obama’s anti-obesity campaign

Today is Easter Sunday and my monthly San Francisco Chronicle column appears today.  It deals with Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity.  Enjoy!

Kudos for first lady’s anti-obesity campaign

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this monthly column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Q: What do you think of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity? It doesn’t say much about junk food or food marketing. Isn’t this a cop-out?

A: Skeptic that I usually am, I have nothing but applause for Michelle Obama’s decision to adopt childhood obesity as the first lady’s official cause. Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy is the flowers that bloom throughout the nation’s capital. Obama must want hers to be the flowering of better health for our nation’s children.

Yes, Obama is sensitive to political realities. She calls her campaign “Let’s Move” rather than “Let’s Eat Less Junk Food.” But its goals are crystal clear. Her campaign aims to improve food in schools and eliminate “food desert” areas without access to healthier foods.

The White House organic garden is an integral part of this effort. It is no accident that Will Allen, the charismatic head of Growing Power, the group that runs urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago, spoke at the campaign news conference. Good food, he said, is about social justice. Every child should have access to good food.

This campaign reveals real leadership on a desperately important issue. Obama brings diverse groups to this table. She presses government agencies to take action. She exacts promises from Congress to make it easier for kids to eat low-cost meals in schools. She got her husband to create a task force to tackle ways to prevent childhood obesity.

In addition, she is asking professional and business groups to do more to help kids eat better. I’m particularly impressed by her speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the makers of processed foods and beverages.

With masterful tact, Obama nonetheless insisted that the association “entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.” We parents, she said, want assurance that food companies will stop “teaching kids that it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day.”

Yes, she avoids saying anything about soda taxes or other measures that might make it easier for kids and parents to make better food choices, but she is bringing childhood obesity to public attention in a fresh, new way.

Consider what her campaign is up against. Preventing obesity means eating less, often a lot less, of processed fast-food, snacks and sodas. This puts the makers of such foods in an impossible bind. Eating less is not good for business.

Short of going out of business, what can such companies do to help? They can reformulate their products to make them a little healthier. They can stop marketing their products directly to children. But this, too, is bad for business – unless it can be used for public relations.

Indeed, food and beverage companies are falling all over themselves – with much fanfare – to reformulate and to promise to restrict marketing that targets kids.

PepsiCo, the maker of soft drinks and Frito-Lay snacks, says it will stop pushing sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012. The new policy is voluntary, encourages rather than mandates, and assures school districts in the United States and abroad that the company will not tell them what to supply.

It keeps vending machines in schools and allows for continued sales of branded sugary drinks such as Gatorade, juice drinks, and sweetened milk.

Kraft Foods says it will reduce the sodium in its foods by 10 percent, also by 2012. This sounds good, but has a long way to go. Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese (the SpongeBob package) contains 580 mg sodium per serving and two servings per package. A 10 percent reduction takes 1,160 mg sodium down to 1,050 mg. Salt is 40 percent sodium, so this brings salt down to 2.6 grams – about half a day’s upper limit for adults.

Still, these are steps in the right direction. Are they meaningful? You decide.

In the meantime, the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group focused on the effect of money on public policy, says soda companies have increased by ten-fold the amount of money they spend on lobbying – no doubt to counter the threat of soda taxes.

What are we to make of these responses? They raise my favorite philosophical question: “Is a slightly better-for-you processed food necessarily a good choice?”

What would be better for preventing childhood obesity would be to make eating real foods the default. These, as defined by Oakland’s Prevention Institute, are relatively unprocessed foods that contain nothing artificial. And they are produced in ways that are good for farmworkers, farm animals and the environment, and are available and affordable to all.

Getting to that point requires policy as well as voluntary actions. Perhaps I’m reading too much into Obama’s campaign, but that’s how I interpret it. I’m supporting it. How about you?

Mar 18 2010

What are food companies doing about childhood obesity?

Food companies interested in doing something meaningful to prevent childhood obesity are in a bind.  Preventing obesity usually means staying active; eating real, not processed, foods; and reserving soft drinks and juice drinks for special occasions.  None of this is good for the processed food business.  At best, food and beverage companies can make their products a bit less junky and back off from marketing to children.  In return, they can use the small changes they make for marketing purposes.

Perhaps as a result of Michelle Obama’s campaign (see yesterday’s post), companies are falling all over themselves – and with much fanfare – to tweak their products.

GROCERY MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION (GMA):  By all reports, GMA members applauded Mrs. Obama’s remarks.  GMA says its member companies are already doing what she asked.

Parke Wilde, a professor at the Tufts School of Nutrition (and food policy blogger), gave a talk at that meeting in a session dismissingly titled,  “The New Foodism.”  His comment:

I enjoyed hearing Michelle Obama’s talk, which was well written and delivered and fairly forceful in places. In my afternoon panel, I said grocery manufacturers would find some threatening themes in books and documentaries promoting local and organic and sustainable food, but that there is also much of substance and value. Then, Susan Borra [Edelman Public Relations] and Sally Squires [Powell Tate Public Relations] in the next session said that grocery manufacturers are frequent subjects of unfair criticism and have nothing to apologize for.

Take that, you new foodists!

MARS must think it knows more than the FDA about how to label food packages.  It is developing its own version of front-of-package labels. It volunteered to put calories on the front of its candies; its multi-pack candies ay 210 calories per serving on the front.  That number, however, remains on the back of the small candy store packs.  Mars’ new labeling plans use the complex scheme used in Europe.  I’m guessing this is a bold attempt to head off what it thinks the FDA might do – traffic lights.

KRAFT announces that it is voluntarily reducing the sodium in its foods by 10% by 2012.  Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese (SpongeBob package) has 580 mg sodium per serving and there are two servings in one of those small boxes: 1160 in total.  A 10% reduction will bring it down to 1050 mg within two years.  The upper recommended limit for an adult is 2300 mg/day.

PEPSICO announced “a voluntary policy to stop sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012.”  In a press statement, the Yale Rudd Center quotes Kelly Brownell saying that “tobacco companies were notorious for counteracting declining sales in the U.S. with exploitation of markets elsewhere, particularly in developing countries:”

it will be important to monitor whether the mere presence of beverage companies in schools increases demand for sugared beverages through branding, even if full-sugar beverages themselves are unavailable…This appears to be a good faith effort from a progressive company and I hope other beverage companies follow their lead…this announcement definitely represents progress [Note: see clarification at end of post].

According to PepsiCo, this new policy brings its international actions in line with what it is already doing in the U.S.  The policy itself is voluntary, uses words like “encourage,” assures schools that the company is not telling them what to do, and won’t be fully implemented until 2010.  It keeps vending machines in schools and still allows for plenty of branded sugary drinks: Gatorade, juice drinks, and sweetened milk for example.

Could any of this have anything to do with Kelly Brownell’s forceful endorsement of soda taxes?

LOBBYING: The Center for Responsive Politics says food companies spent big money on lobbying last year, and notes an enormous increase in the amount spent by the American Beverage Association (soda taxes, anyone?).  For example:

American Beverage Assn $18,850,000
Coca-Cola Co $9,390,000
PepsiCo Inc $9,159,500
Coca-Cola Enterprises $3,020,000
National Restaurant Assn $2,917,000
Mars Inc $1,655,000

How to view all this?  I see the company promises as useful first steps.  But how about the basic philosophical question we “new foodists” love to ask: “is a better-for-you junk food a good choice?”

OK.  We have the Public Relations.  Now let’s see what these companies really will do.

Addendum: I received a note clarifying Kelly Brownell’s role in the PepsiCo press release from Rebecca Gertsmark Oren,Communications Director,The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity,Yale University:

The Rudd Center did not work with PepsiCo on their initiative to stop sales of full-sugar beverages in schools worldwide, nor did we jointly issue a press release. A statement released by Kelly Brownell in response to PepsiCo’s announcement was simply intended to commend what appears to be a step in the right direction. As Kelly’s statement also mentioned, there is still plenty of work to be done. It’s also worth noting that the Rudd Center does not take funding from industry.

Mar 17 2010

Michelle Obama to Grocery Manufacturers: Let’s Move!

The First Lady spoke to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) yesterday about her campaign to prevent childhood obesity.  According to one witness, Marian Burros, she scolded them – politely and with humor – but told them in no uncertain terms “to stop fattening our children.”

The GMA is a tough audience for messages about childhood obesity.  It represents the makers of processed foods and beverages who have much to lose from efforts to get kids to eat less of their products.

The speech itself is a masterpiece of tact, but Mrs. Obama clearly gets the issues loud and clear.  Here are some excerpts:

  • we need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.
  • this needs to be a serious industry-wide commitment to providing the healthier foods parents are looking for at prices they can afford.
  • what it doesn’t mean is taking out one problematic ingredient, only to replace it with another. While decreasing fat is certainly a good thing, replacing it with sugar and salt isn’t.
  • it doesn’t mean compensating for high amounts of problematic ingredients with small amounts of beneficial ones — for example, adding a little bit of Vitamin C to a product with lots of sugar, or a gram of fiber to a product with tons of fat doesn’t suddenly make those products good for our kids.
  • This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy.
  • Parents are working hard to provide a healthy diet and to teach healthy habits — and we’d like to know that our efforts won’t be undermined every time our children turn on the TV or see a flashy display in a store.
  • what does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at their kids?
  • what are these ads teaching kids about food and nutrition? That it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day — breakfast, lunch, and dinner? That dessert is an everyday food? That it’s okay to eat unhealthy foods because they’re endorsed by the cartoon characters our children love and the celebrities our teenagers look up to?
  • if there is anyone here who can sell food to our kids, it’s you. You know what gets their attention. You know what makes that lasting impression. You know what gets them to drive their parents crazy in the grocery store.

Well done, Mrs. O.

Apparently, GMA members applauded her speech.  Let’s hope they act on it.

(Actually, they claim they are already fixing these problems.  More on that tomorrow).

As a mom, I know it is my responsibility — and no one else’s — to raise my kids.  But what does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at their kids?  And what are these ads teaching kids about food and nutrition?  That it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day — breakfast, lunch, and dinner?  That dessert is an everyday food? That it’s okay to eat unhealthy foods because they’re endorsed by the cartoon characters our children love and the celebrities our teenagers look up to?

Feb 11 2010

What Mrs. Obama’s campaign does not do: food marketing to kids

Mrs. Obama’s campaign to prevent childhood obesity did not mention food marketing to kids.  But check the latest research.

Researchers at UCLA took a careful look at the correlation between watching commercials on TV and childhood obesity (Their paper is in the February 2010 American Journal of Public Health).  Kids who watch commercials on TV are more likely to be obese than kids who watch non-commercial TV.  Commercials, of course, are largely for junk food and kids see a lot of them.  The authors conclude:

steering children away from commercial television may have a meaningful effect in reducing childhood obesity…The existence of many high-quality, enjoyable, and educational programs available on DVD for all ages should make it relatively easy for health educators and care providers to nudge children’s viewing toward less obesogenic television content [my emphasis].

Relatively easy?  They have to be kidding.  Food commercials are ubiquitous in kids’ lives.

For example, Lisa Sutherland and her colleagues at Dartmouth took a look at the prevalence of food brands (mostly junk foods) in movies from 1996 to 2005 (Pediatrics, February 2010).  There are loads of such placements, and movies aimed at younger kids tend to have the most.

As for industry self-regulation, Kelly Brownell and his colleagues at Yale have plenty to say about how it’s not working and what would be needed to make it work (also in the February American Journal of Public Health).

Michelle Obama may not be able to touch this one, but Congress can.  And it should.