This post first appeared on Food Politics.
Some investment analysts have annointed Monsanto, the 800-pound gorilla of the food biotechnology industry, as the worst stock of the year.  Whether or not the company is really doing that badly, it is not having a good year. For starters, its income  fell by half since its last fiscal year. That’s bad news, but there’s more.  Just in the last few weeks:
  • Monsanto’s SmartStax corn which has been bioengineered to contain eight inserted genes turns out to produce yields that are no higher than those from the less expensive GM corn containing only three inserted genes.
  • Sales of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide are way down since it went off patent.  Farmers prefer to buy the cheaper Chinese generics.
  • More and more weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup.  To kill them, farmers have to buy other, more toxic herbicides, defeating the whole point of using this herbicide.
  • The Justice Department has Monsanto under investigation for possible antitrust violations.
It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the company. Maybe Monsanto could take the present crisis as a sign that it’s time to make some real effort to elicit public support.  How about petitioning the FDA to allow GM foods to be labeled, for starters? Hey, I can dream.
This post first appeared on Food Politics.
I can’t quite get my head around this one.  According to USA Today (October 5), some makers of alcohol drinks have joined the “pink” campaigns to raise awareness of breast cancer and more research.
Chambord’s website notes that its Pink Your Drink campaign has raised more than $50,000 in donations for the Breast Cancer Network of Strength and other patient groups. Mike’s Hard Lemonade has given $500,000 over the past two years to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, company President Phil O’Neil says. The company was inspired by the loss of an employee named Jacqueline who died after a long battle with breast cancer.
But alcohol is clearly implicated as a cause of breast cancer.  USA Today discusses that connection—to imbibe or not—in another article in the same issue. Alcohol raises complicated public health issues for women.  On the one hand, moderate drinking reduces the risk of heart disease.  On the other, it raises the risk of breast cancer. That is why dietary guidelines suggest no more than one drink a day for women, with a drink defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, and 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. But alcohol companies using donations to pink causes as marketing?  Could we expect breast cancer research sponsored by alcohol companies to focus on the relationship of alcohol to breast cancer?  Is this any different than cigarette companies paying for lung cancer research? Ethics, anyone?
This post first appeared on Food Politics.
OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), a group of 33 countries “committed to democracy and the market economy,” has just released a major report on obesity. Its main conclusion?  The United States population has the highest percentage of overweight and obesity in the democratic, market-economy world. The report’s conclusion?
Individual interventions have a relatively limited impact; therefore, comprehensive strategies involving multiple interventions to address a range of determinants are required to reach a “critical mass” – one that can have a meaningful impact on the obesity epidemic by generating fundamental changes in social norms. The development of comprehensive prevention strategies against obesity needs to focus on how social norms are defined and how they change; on the influence of education and information on obesity but also on the potential for government regulation to affect behaviours; and on the role of individual choice and values. A sensible prevention strategy against obesity would combine population and individual (high-risk) approaches.
Buried in this paragraph are some important concepts: societies need to change social norms as well as individual behavior, and governments need to intervene to make the social environment more conducive to healthier practices. Nancy Hellmich of USA Today attempted a translation of some of the recommendations for individuals:
  • Individual lifestyle counseling by family doctors and dietitians may be the most effective to increase the life expectancy and quality of life for people who are obese or at risk of becoming so.
  • Individual counseling should be supplemented with health-promotion campaigns, compulsory food labeling and cooperation between industry and government in the regulation of food advertising to kids.
The report breaks down data by country.  Here are ours.
This story first appeared on Food Politics.
I get asked all the time what food has to do with politics.  My answer: everything.  Take food safety, for example. No wonder meat producers hate bad press.  According to Illinois Farm Gate, when consumers read scary things about meat, they stop buying it.
When media attention is given to animal welfare issues, regardless of the production practices involved, consumer demand softens not only for that particular meat, but for all meats. Over the past decade, pork and poultry demand would be higher, were it not for media attention to livestock production issues. Such attention causes consumers to eat less meat and show preference to spend their food dollar on non-meat items for as long as 6 months after the media report.
This week’s bad press is about the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in industrial pig farming.
Dispensing antibiotics to healthy animals is routine on the large, concentrated farms that now dominate American agriculture. But the practice is increasingly condemned by medical experts who say it contributes to a growing scourge of modern medicine: the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including dangerous E. coli strains that account for millions of bladder infections each year, as well as resistant types of salmonella and other microbes.
Dr. James R. Johnson, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Minnesota explains what this is about:
For those of us in the public health community, the evidence is unambiguously clear….Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.
Will reports like this discourage consumers from buying pork and other meats?  Consumers are not stupid.  They just might. As for our profoundly dysfunctional Senate: it seems increasingly unlikely to pass food safety legislation before the midterm election cycle.  All of a sudden, food safety is too expensive? Tell that to industries producing food that nobody will buy out of fear of becoming sick. That’s food politics in action for you. Last year at about this time, Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who represents victims of food poisonings, sent every senator a tee shirt with this logo on it.  I suppose it’s naive to hope that maybe he will get his wish by this thanksgiving, but I am everlastingly optimistic that reason occasionally prevails. Footnote 1: China is considering the death penalty for perpetrators of food safety crimes: “Officials who are involved in food safety crimes should not be given a reprieve or be exempt from criminal punishment.” Mind you, I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but I do think we need a safety system that holds food producers accountable. Footnote 2: And then there is the half billion”incredible” egg recall.  Slow Food USA has a nifty video on the alternatives: “USDA and FDA.  Make eggs edible.  Now that would be incredible.”
The post first appeared on Food Politics.
This month’s San Francisco Chronicle column evolved in answer to a question from a former colleague at the UCSF School of Medicine. Q: What do you think doctors should be telling patients about how best to care for themselves and their families, nutritionally? A: I had my chance when, long ago, I ran a nutrition education program for medical and other health professions students and practitioners at UCSF. Then, as now, it was obvious that just about every patient who landed in the hospital needed nutrition intervention. Practically everyone who visited the outpatient clinic either wanted or needed nutrition advice. Then, as now, few doctors were taught anything about nutrition, let alone the details of what they needed to know to help patients address dietary concerns. In today’s health care environment, even doctors with advanced nutrition training do not have time to use it. Blame this on how our health care system systematically rewards doctors for treatment of disease, not its prevention. What doctors need to tell patients about nutrition depends on who the patients are. If people are sick, doctors need to talk to them about how dietary changes and improvements will help them recover and prevent further illness. But I’m guessing that your question refers to healthy patients who want to stay that way. With these people, what doctors do and say can have profound effects. Doctors are authority figures and their advice is taken seriously. As a standard part of patient care, doctors routinely ask about drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. Even if they only have a minute, adding one more question about diet can do much good. If nothing else, it conveys that diet matters to health. Given the reality of time constraints, my wish list for what to do next is necessarily short. Tell patients that healthy eating simply means three things: variety, minimal processing and moderation. Variety means choosing many different kinds of foods from the various food groups: meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables, grains. It counts because foods vary in nutrient content. Varying foods within and among food groups takes care of needs for nutrients without having to think about them. People who consume adequate amounts of varied diets rarely exhibit nutrient deficiencies. It’s the most restrictive diets that are likely to be deficient in one or another nutrient. Minimal processing means that the foods should be as close as possible to how they came from the animal or plant. The greater the level of processing, the less the foods resemble their origins, the less nutritious they may be, and the more salt, sugar and calories get added to disguise the changes. Minimal processing excludes foods high in salt and sugars and low in fiber, as well as sugary sodas and juice drinks, those popularly known as junk foods. My definition of minimal processing is only slightly facetious: Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients or an ingredient you can’t pronounce. Moderation is about balancing calorie intake with expenditure and maintaining a healthy weight through food choices and physical activity. These are general principles. Beyond them, nutrition advice must be personalized to the particular individual or family. To do that quickly:
  • Ask patients what they and their children eat. You can start with a waiting-room questionnaire that probes typical intake of foods and supplements.
  • Screen the responses for variety, minimal processing, moderation and excessive or unusual supplement use. Note whether body weights are within healthy ranges.
  • Reassure patients whose diets are varied, minimally balanced and moderate that they are doing wonderful things for their health and should keep doing what they are doing.
  • Refer observations that need further discussion to a nutritionist.
Doctors: You don’t have to do it all. Making it clear that diet matters is often enough to encourage patients to make better dietary choices. Use the services of a nutritionist. Nutritionists are professionally trained to answer patients’ questions about diet and health and to counsel them on dietary interventions. Patients (meaning everybody): Tell your doctors that you want their advice about diet and health and expect them to know something about it.
Cross-posted from Food Politics.
Saturday's print edition of the New York Times carried a front-page story on the egg recalls: “U.S. ties farm to Salmonella; town is tense.”  The reporter, Monica Davey, wrote from Clarion, Iowa, the town where the tainted eggs came from. Her story reminded me of Eric Schlosser’s movie, Fast Food Nation.  The film was intended as fiction, but much of what we are hearing about these egg operations makes it seem like fact. Here’s what struck me most about her article.
  • So far, nearly 1,500 illnesses have been linked to these eggs, a record.
  • The FDA found matching strains of Salmonella in samples taken from bone meal and barns owned by the DeCoster family.
  • The DeCosters produce 2.3 million dozen eggs per week from their Iowa operations.
  • Iowa is expected to produce 15 billion eggs from 60 million hens this year.
  • The DeCosters have a long history of violations of health and safety laws at their operations.
  • The DeCosters contribute generously to the Clarion community.
  • The plant workers are Mexican.
It’s hard to know where to begin, but the take home lessons seem obvious:
  • Industrial egg operations have gotten out of hand in size, waste, and lack of safety.
  • Immigration issues are very much involved.  If places like this are going to hire immigrants to work in them, we need to protect the rights of those workers.
  • The Senate needs to pass the food safety bill and enable the FDA to do more inspecting.  The accompanying New York Times editorial emphasizes that point.
Today’s New York Times editorial says it all again:
It wasn’t simply that the operation is out of scale with the Iowa landscape. It is out of scale with any landscape, except perhaps the industrial districts of Los Angeles County. What shocked me most was the thought that this is where the logic of industrial farming gets us. Instead of people on the land, committed to the welfare of the agricultural enterprise and the resources that make it possible, there was this horror — a place where millions of chickens are crowded in tiny cages and hundreds of laborers work in dire conditions.
I’m hoping some good will come of all this.  Maybe this is our version of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking book that got Congress to act immediately to pass the Food and Drug Act that governs our food safety system to this day.   The Senate has been sitting on S.510 for more than a year.   For shame! Addition, August 30: Michele’s Simon’s list of favorite articles on the egg recalls.
Cross-posted from Food Politics. Yes, the Senate needs to pass S.510 but that is only the first step.  As the inimitable Carol Tucker Foreman puts it in today’s New York Times story on the latest egg recalls:
You have to treat eggs with the assumption that they’re contaminated with salmonella…We may all object to the fact that we have to treat food like toxic waste, but if we don’t want to get sick, and especially if you have someone in your house that’s immune-suppressed, you have to handle things carefully and demand that the standards be set higher.
If you are still unconvinced, take a look at the recalls announced by the FDA just since August 13 (I’ve deleted the ones that do not involve microbial contaminants): The FDA has a lot to say about Salmonella risk, but it’s useful to note that all these recalls are voluntary. Hence the need for S.510. S.510 won’t solve the problem but it is a necessary first step in getting to a food safety system that does a better job of protecting the public against this sort of thing.
Cross-posted from Food Politics. Judging from the number of interview requests today, everyone has figured out that the egg recall is not only awful for the people who got sick but also has something to do with our hopelessly inadequate food safety system and dysfunctional Congress. The CDC has updated its statistics on the number of illnesses.  Here’s what this epidemic looks like: About 2,000 cases have been reported but the CDC does not yet know whether these are all related to this particular outbreak. Here’s what’s special about this particular recall:
  • Salmonella in eggs never used to be a problem until we had industrial egg production that puts hundreds of thousands of hens in close (very close) proximity.
  • The company producing these particular eggs has a long history of rule violations.
  • The company was not required to follow standard food safety plans.  Whatever it had to do was voluntary.
  • The FDA started writing rules for safe egg production more than 10 years ago.  These were quashed. It finally got them done last July.
  • The new safety rules for eggs went into effect this July 9, too late to prevent this outbreak.
  • The FDA’s hands are tied by inadequate legislation and resources.
  • The House passed legislation last August—one year ago—to give the FDA more authority and more resources.  The Senate has been sitting on S.510 ever since.
The moral?  Voluntary doesn’t work.  We need mandatory food safety rules. And sooner rather than later, no?
Cross-posted from Food Politics. You have to pity the poor supplement industry.  It is taking a real beating these days. First, the Government Accountability Office told a Senate committee that the dietary supplement industry routinely uses “questionable and deceptive” marketing practices and gives potentially dangerous advice. USA Today agreed.  In an editorial, it noted that:
Industry spokesmen have gotten away for years with minimizing all this as just the work of a handful of bad apples. Lobbyists say responsible makers and distributors should not be burdened with more government oversight. But the problem is big enough that another GAO study last year found nearly 1,000 reports in a 10-month period of specific health problems linked to supplements, including nine deaths, 64 life-threatening illnesses and 234 hospitalizations. Nobody knows how many other incidents never got reported.
In defense, an industry spokesman blamed the FDA:
As FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein acknowledged last week, DSHEA strikes the right balance, but FDA needs to do more to maintain that equilibrium. FDA must use the tools it was given under the law to address the issues that hurt the credibility of responsible companies and undermine consumer confidence.
And now, the September issue of Consumer Reports list the “Dirty Dozen” supplements that research links to nasty problems such as cancer, coma, heart problems, kidney damage, liver damage, or death: aconite, bitter orange, chaparral, colloidal silver, coltsfoot, comfrey, country mallow, germanium, greater celandine, kava, lobelia, and yohimbe.  The FDA has been warning about the ones shown in red for years.  But these and the others are still on the market. Among other suggestions, Consumer Reports advises:
Beware of these categories. Supplements for weight loss, sexual enhancement, and bodybuilding have been problematic, the FDA said, because some contain steroids and prescription drugs. Don’t assume more is better. It’s possible to overdose even on beneficial vitamins and minerals. Avoid any product that claims to contain “megadoses.” Report problems. Let your doctor know if you experience any symptoms after you start taking a supplement…do it yourself at www.fda.gov/medwatch or by calling 800-332-1088.
Research in the right places. Be skeptical about claims made for supplements in ads, on TV and by sales staff. If a claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Consumer Reports provides online links for assessing supplements at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org. Yes, I know half the U.S. adult population takes supplements and nearly everyone who takes them claims to feel better as a result.  The science, however, consistently produces reasons for skepticism, if not caution. I discuss this discrepancy in Food Politics. Take a look and decide for yourself!
Cross-posted from Food Politics. The New York Times reports:
The Obama administration has replaced immigration raids at factories and farms with a quieter enforcement strategy: sending federal agents to scour companies’ records for illegal immigrant workers. ..the “silent raids,” as employers call the audits, usually result in the workers being fired, but in many cases they are not deported.
What does this have to do with food politics?
Employers say the Obama administration is leaving them short of labor for some low-wage work, conducting silent raids but offering no new legal immigrant laborers in occupations, like farm work, that Americans continue to shun despite the recession. Federal labor officials estimate that more than 60 percent of farm workers in the United States are illegal immigrants.
In my visit to Alaskan seafood processing plants this summer, I saw cannery workers imported from the Philippines or Eastern Europe to work 16 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, for the minimum wage or close to it. Residents of one remote cannery town said they all worked in canneries as teenagers for good wages.  But when the large cannery moved into town, it reduced wages, increased hours, halved the amount paid to fishermen, and imported the Philippine workers.  The canneries, they said, made it clear that they did not want locals working in the plants. The result: near-poverty life for community residents and near-slavery conditions for the imported workers. Our immigration system needs a fix to allow workers to come and go without fear of random arrests, firings, or deportations.  Farm working conditions need a fix.  Reexamining the minimum wage might be a good starting point. Your thoughts?