EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FOOD (Part 1 of ∞)

OK. So. My excuse for not blogging over the last two weeks is that TOO MANY THINGS. Lame excuse, I know. But for real, I have a 40 pg. document in Word of links to articles that probably only I think are interesting. Has anyone charted what the first 6 months of blogging looks like? I am just going to assume that this stage of wanting to write about everything and getting overwhelmed and going into hiding to watch my favorite Jamie Oliver clips on YouTube was totally normal and now over.

Among the many things I had hoped to share and didn’t get around to were some details on the Consumer Federation of America’s National Food Policy Conference, which I attended in Washington, DC. CFA works to advance pro-consumer policies at the Federal and state level and their annual NFPC brings consumer advocates, food industry and government together in one room to talk about agriculture, food and nutrition policy. The panels tackled so many meaty (ha!) issues —including immigration reform, food waste, and FDA regulation—that I couldn’t come up with any opinions about anything because I was too busy absorbing everything about everything. I learned a lot and want to pass some of the highlight along to you, because what’s the point of having a conference if the juiciest bits never make it out of the Capital Hilton?

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For starters, the top sponsors: Cargill, Inc., International Dairy foods Association, Nestlé USA, General Mills, Kraft Foods Group, and Wal-mart.

The conference opened up with Mike Taylor, Deputy Commissioner at the FDA, who, instead of getting to give a boring keynote speech which I think is what he had signed up for, instead got grilled by Helena Bottemiller, an awesome young spunky reporter from Food Safety News in an informal question and answer session. Among the hard-hitting questions: his conflict on interest given his past involvement with Monsanto and what is taking the FDA so long to come out with its really overdue rule-making on menu labeling, food labeling, serving sizes, sodium limits, GMOs, and finalizing the Food and Safety Modernization Act. To his credit, the Deputy Commissioner stuttered through the answer to the first question—saying he has gone on public record and written a number of papers on GMOs that don’t always align with Monsanto’s interests—and pointed to the Office of Management and Budget by way of answering the second. (Want to find out why OMB is behind so many delays in regulation, particularly food regulation? I recommend this great post by my coworker over on Food Day’s blog.)

During the Q&A it also came up that the FDA is pushing to levy inspection fees on the food industry, given the cash crunch from the simultaneous increase in mandate from the Food and Safety Modernization Act and the Federal budget cuts. Industry obviously doesn’t want these fees to happen and has gone on record as saying that “imposing new fees on food facilities would represent a food safety tax on consumers,” since they plan on immediately passing inspection fees along to consumers. This is annoying. E. coli free meat doesn’t grow on trees people! It costs money to keep our nation’s food supply safe, why shouldn’t industries have to shoulder some (all) of that cost? Because, shareholders, quarterly earnings, etc., etc., & blah blah blah. Whatever, I am annoyed.

Another issue on FDA’s table is Front of Pack labeling. If you don’t already know, front of pack labeling refers to any summary of the nutrition fact’s panel on the front of a food product. Here is an example:

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Basically it is the new way for companies to mislead consumers about the healthfulness of the foods inside. The only part of a food label that is subject to stringent regulation is the nutrition facts panel. Everything outside of that little white and black box is in food labeling wilderness. You would think the FDA has to sign off on what goes on food labels, both in and out of the nutrition facts panel, before they hit the market, but they don’t. They only really police the market retroactively and no one is actually checking every box of Cocoa Krispies to make sure they aren’t making bogus immunity claims, for example.

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The industry has figured out that consumers don’t know this and assume that anything that looks vaguely official looking was approved by the FDA. This is not to say that the front of pack labels are factually incorrect, but they are misleading. The official formatting, green check-marks and selective highlighting of ingredients and nutrition facts are carefully designed to make consumers think a serving size is larger than it actually is, doesn’t contain an unhealthy number of calories or amount of added sugar and that the highlighted fiber or potassium content distracts from the not so nutritious ingredients also lurking inside. The FDA has been slow to catch on, but they finally have, and Mike Taylor came as close as a Federal government employee can to promising that we should expect those regulations to come out within a year. Great quote, paraphrased, from Taylor: “We would like to regulate this kind of labeling so that consumers can find a portion of the front of pack labeling that is actually true.”

After the interview there was a panel on the “Future of Food Shopping and How Consumers are Changing.” An optimistic highlight: one of the panelists explained how over the last 50 years we have gone from shopping at Mom and Pop shops to grocers to supermarkets to hypermarkets (think Target or Wal-Mart) and predicted that the next step will be a return to the Mom and Pop shop. Fingers crossed. To cheer you up even more, here are two examples of exciting initiatives that consumer advocates are working on to make shopping easier for consumers:

  • The Food Trust, pretty much the coolest cat in non-profit nutrition advocacy, has launched a program that labels foods with three different stickers. Red stickers for “less often foods” like soda, orange for “sometimes foods” like juice, and green stickers for “always foods,” like water and low fat milk. That is some front of pack labeling I can get behind.
  • Rudd Center at Yale, which conducts indispensable research on obesity and marketing to children, is pushing a recommendation for supermarkets to offer a “family friendly” aisle in the stores. The aisle would basically have no crap in it, especially not at a children’s eye level. Imagine: a tantrum free shopping experience could be in our future.

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During the breakout panels I got to hear about food waste. Man. Reduce, reuse, recycle. We hear the most about that third one, but as eaters and cookers, we really ought to put some thought into the first two. I will put a post about reusing and reducing food on the to-do list. This panel made me think the most about my habits as a consumer and what I can personally do about the food that ends up in my trash at the end of the week. Daunting, but here are some things to be optimistic about:

  • Feeding America has started partnering with farmers and food processing factories to reduce food waste before it ever gets to the supermarket. For example, they recently worked with Del Monte to can the tops and bottoms of their peaches for donation, because these parts of the fruit are usually discarded because they don’t have the same uniform shape as the rest of the peach.
  • No matter how on top of it farmers and shippers and supermarkets are, there is a certain amount of food, called shrink, that will be too damaged to sell at the supermarket. Supermarkets try to offset the costs of these losses by using this damaged produce in creative ways. An apple a little too beat up for the display case goes into the Safeway salad bar and those fancy stuffed chicken breasts at the Whole Foods meat display would have otherwise been trashed. Some people might be worried about food safety issues, but if I would trust anyone to know when to draw the line with perishable foods, it would be the people in the business of buying, stocking and reselling them. I think this reusing of food is brilliant and something the stores should brag more about. Take away lesson? If you can introduce a cost incentive for eliminating food waste, the industry will get creative fast.

And here is a tip for what you can do in your own home:

-‘Sell by’ dates versus ‘best by’ dates. Maybe you know this already, but a refresher won’t hurt, because apparently 60% of Americans are getting it wrong. The ‘best by’ date is not for consumers. It is a message from the producer to the seller (i.e., Kraft’s to Wal-Mart, or Campbell’s to Harris Teeter), promising them that the product will meet the standards of the brand up until that date. Things like crunchiness, color and flavor, which differentiate Kraft’s or Campbell’s from the knockoffs. It is in the best interest of these companies that their products are only sold when they meet these standards to protect their brand’s identity. The ‘best by’ date does not speak to food safety standards, which are what the ‘sell by’ dates indicate (although these aren’t standardized). In the UK, to reduce consumer confusion, they have started hiding the ‘best by’ dates, incorporating the information into the bar code. So if you see a ‘best by’ date, ignore it. As for the ‘sell by’ date, use your best judgment. Please don’t sue me if you get food poisoning, but just give that juice an extra sniff before chucking it down the sink next time, OK?

And then there was lunch. Lunch was ridiculous. I guess it was to be expected because what would a DC conference be without corporate doublespeak? Here is what happened: instead of the hotel catering the way they always do at these kinds of conferences, Nestlé, one of the biggest corporate sponsors, rolled out a four-course meal made up entirely of their frozen dinner lines, Lean Cuisine and Stouffer’s. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except that while we were eating, we had to listen to this pseudo-French chef from Nestlé gargle on and on about how they use the freshest ingredients, have cutting edge culinary advancements, and how together, we can change the way Americans cook and eat. Calling bullshit wasn’t an option, so I started counting the ingredients in these oh-so-fresh-and-healthy convenience foods on the boxes Nestlé has kindly left displayed at each of the tables. Between the Thai spring rolls (minus the salsa); southwest grilled chicken salad (minus the SALAD); coconut-crusted salmon filet with ginger-lemongrass sauce, grilled pineapple and mango; and the Harvest apples I counted 139 ingredients. 139. The salad (again, minus the actual lettuce) had the most ingredients at 53.

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I was so grumpy from the lame food and patronizing corporate nonsense that I spent the next panel doodling on one of Nestlé’s stupid brochures for their new “balance your plate” initiative.

Image  I am sorry Nestlé, but you guys can’t be in on the conversation about a healthier America because your food has no place on a balanced plate. I’m not going to take you seriously, no matter what you do and no matter what you say, unless it’s the truth. Just be honest. You are the world’s largest food and drinks maker, in 2012 you posted 11.55 billion in profits, you are in the business of unhealthy food, and if it means you get to feed Lean Cuisine to a captive audience of a couple hundred and talk about your initiatives for 40 minutes, sponsoring these kinds of conferences pays for itself.

After lunch, there was an incredible panel about immigration reform and its impact on our food landscape. A lot to cover here, and I still need to do my homework on the background, so I am going to save the heart of the conversation for another post. One thing I will mention, because it came up both on this panel and a panel on the impact of natural disasters on our food supply was the following: when you buy a $10 six-pack of beer, 6 cents goes back to the farmer. The rest goes to marketing, packaging, and all the fancy additives and processing techniques that go into most modern foods before they make it to your table. Because this isn’t just about beer—over all, very little profit made from food and beverage sales in this country go back to the farmer. Even for milk, which you would think ends up on your table largely thanks to the farmer, only about 25% of the profits make it back to the farm, since most farmers have to pay to get the milk to the processing plant.

This is, on one hand, bullshit for the farmer. Their services are worth more, and it makes it awfully hard to convince Americans that farming is a viable career when food profits never make it back to the farm. And we need more farmers. A move away from a reliance on industrialized agriculture and a return to smaller, diversified farms will benefit farmers, our health, and the environment. On the other hand, all that marketing, packaging and additives protect consumers from volatile food prices. If the price of wheat doubles because of drought, or a late spring or wet fall, the price of your beer won’t double if only 6 cents was tied to the price of the wheat in the first place. Instead, the price will only go up by a few cents. Now I’m pretty shaky on matters of national finance and I don’t know what this tradeoff means from a policy perspective, so if there are any econ dorks (sorry, scholars) reading this who want to weigh in, by all means.

The conference also included a debate on sugar sweetened beverages. Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of CSPI, was on the panel along with a professor from the Food and Environment program at Tufts University, and my new favorite shit-stirrer, Harold Goldstein, Executive Director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (favorite quote: metaphor equating the oil BP dumped into the Gulf Coast with the sugar the soda industry is ‘dumping’ into the American market place). And somehow, someone managed to get Susan Neely, President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Beverage Association on this panel of liberal public health advocates and academics. OK, I’m super biased against the soda industry and was unlikely to like anyone the ABA sent. Also, being outnumbered 3 to 1 on a panel is going to make anyone look bad. But seriously, you would think that the President and CEO of the ABA would be an eloquent and powerful advocate for the soda industry. Instead, she was crazy-pants, very antagonistic and very unconvincing. She played the mom card HARD, which is unnecessary when no one in the room is in any way suggesting that being a mom and keeping your family healthy is easy. When asked why vending machines exist in schools, she stuttered, saying the schools benefit financially and it’s entirely up to schools to decide what they sell. The valid point was made that arguing that schools benefit financially from soda sales makes no sense, because the money is coming from the kids, so they might as well just pass around a hat for collections.

The last panel covered “Food Issues in the Age of Social Media.” Take away: industry is scared of millennials. Don’t underestimate the power of your tweet or Facebook post, these large corporations are finally listening and recognize that we as a demographic have no patience for misleading messaging or the withholding of important information.

Finally, Senator Mark Pryor, Chairman of the subcommittee on agriculture, rural development, FDA and related agencies, showed up for 15 minutes and used words like “stakeholder,” “bipartisan compromise,” and “community collaboration,” and was very successful in actually saying absolutely nothing.

After the conference ended I went out to lunch with a vegetarian and a vegan to this place called Lincoln (slogan: Food for the people by the people), a farm to seasonal-small-plate restaurant and had a salmon burger and some Brussels spouts. WHAT IS MY LIFE. And then a week later, that is to say, two days ago, I met Michael Pollan and we made eye contact and it was magical and I will tell you about it in my next post.

Phew.

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