Special Report on Food Policy Conference

Last week I spoke at the Consumer Federation of America’s 29th Annual National Food Policy Conference. Each year, the meeting brings together government, advocates, and industry. The event was co-sponsored by the Food Products Association, along with such Big Food favorites as Kraft and Coca-Cola. Despite the presence of industry, the panels were remarkably balanced and the atmosphere was such that hard questions could be asked. Topics covered ranged from agricultural policy, to marketing to children, to nanotechnology.

New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle (author of Food Politics and more recently, What to Eat) gave the keynote address and pulled no punches in describing how the food industry is responding to criticism. She talked about how companies such as Kraft and PepsiCo are claiming to now make healthier products. Curiously though, each company is focused more on marketing its standard products. For example, despite Kraft gaining much positive PR for its “sugar free” Alpha-Bits cereal, Nestle said she wasn’t able to purchase the product anywhere in Manhattan.

State Legislation to Improve School Food

I was asked to speak on state legislation on school food for a panel called “Improving Child Nutrition State by State.” I explained that while there was a lot of activity to pass bills to get soda and junk food out of schools, the results were very mixed, thanks in large part to industry lobbying stymieing the effort. (Ironically, Coca-Cola has sponsored the break just before my session.)

I explained that, thus far, according to a report from Trust for America’s Health:

• 11 states have school meal requirements that exceed USDA’s

• 16 states set nutrition standards on competitive foods (e.g., vending)

• 20 states set time and place restrictions on competitive food sales

• 7 states have passed bills to require BMI screening in schools

Also, according to another report from Center for Science in the Public Interest, while 22 states limit the sale of sugary drinks at some grade level, only 10 states have set competitive food and beverage standards that apply at all times, everywhere throughout the school and at all grades. I also mentioned other types of legislative efforts, for example, to provide “farm-to-school” programs and the increasing trend (7 states so far) to require BMI testing in schools.

I summarized my talk with the following take-away messages:

1) There is a lot of activity in state legislatures related to soda/junk food, where the issue has become a political battlefield.

2) It takes a long time, often several years, to get any bill passed.

3) The results so far are a patchwork quilt of compromised policies.

4) The potential impact remains to be seen, especially due to looming questions related to implementation and enforceability.

Finally I raised the following questions:

• Can state legislation result in improved school nutrition?

• How will wellness policies impact state legislative efforts?

• What if anything will happen at the federal level?

• Are there better alternative policy approaches?

If you have any thoughts or feedback about efforts to pass state legislation to improve school food in your state, email me at: Michele@informedeating.org.

Debate Over Farm Subsidy Program

Other interesting panels included a lively debate over commodity subsidies. With the Farm Bill coming up for renewal in 2007, the special interests are wasting no time lining up. A whopping $25 billion a year of our tax dollars goes to support only 30 percent of farmers to grow five crops, most of which supports America’s cheap and unhealthy diet of meat, dairy, and processed foods. Defending the program was Tom Buis, president of the National Farmer’s Union.

Interestingly, giving a compelling argument for doing away with the program was Cal Dooley, president of the Food Products Association, a major lobbing organization. (Dooley is formerly a member of the House of Representatives, furthering evidence of the revolving door syndrome.) While I applaud Dooley’s position, when I asked him if his high-powered trade group was prepared to lobby against commodity subsidies (and join other environmental and health groups in doing so), he was non-committal, explaining that they would have to figure out an alternative first.

FDA Put on the Spot to Explain E. Coli Outbreak

Coincidentally, news of the spinach E. coli outbreak that resulted in one death and dozens of illnesses hit the same day. So acting Food and Drug Administration Andrew von Eschenbach was asked to explain why the FDA waited 23 days to inform the American public about the risk. He said that the cases started sporadically and then spiked. However, he also said that “bacteria was among us; it occurs in nature.” What he failed to explain was the SOURCE of most E. coli on farms, which is from water runoff contaminated with feces from factory-farmed animals. It’s ironic that people are scared away from eating more vegetables due to the intense production of meat and dairy products. A reporter from Fox News approached the acting commissioner on his way out of the room and I overheard him decline to be interviewed on camera. Isn’t it nice how government officials are so available to the media? For the real scoop on the E. coli outbreak, see this excellent release from the Cornucopia Institute.

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