Friday, November 13, 2015

Is the Center for Consumer Freedom no longer working on soda?

The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) is a classic industry-funded front group, secretive about its funding sources and utterly mercenary in its writing.

I once enjoyed debating soda policy in New York City with J. Justin Wilson from CCF in Episode 1 of a series of roundtables organized by the Museum of Food and Drink.

The Center was on my mind recently, after watching the the excellent 2014 documentary Merchants of Doubt on Netflix. There is a related book by the same title.

The Center's once-lively website now seems moribund. Here is a chart of its number of Headlines posts in the past year. The remaining activity seems focused only on attacking animal welfare organizations, not on other old favorite topics such as defending soda.

The last mention of sugar sweetened beverages that I could find was almost a year ago, covering some trivial beverage industry victory in Howard County, Maryland.

From the topic coverage, we can guess who the CCF's current funders are. Perhaps, with increased scrutiny, other industries have been providing less funding to CCF. One imagines that this organization operates on a strictly "pay to play" basis. It is hard to picture CCF continuing to cover a topic based merely on principle.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Marion Nestle's Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)

Marion Nestle's new book is Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) (Oxford University Press, 2015).

The book is thorough, balanced, hard-hitting, and motivating. It covers health effects, industry structure, marketing to adults, marketing to children, marketing overseas, policy responses, and advocacy movements.

The writing is clear, unassuming, and terse.

The coverage of health effects is persuasive. Nestle discusses cutting edge concerns without overstatement or exaggeration (additives and cancer, particular properties of fructose). She more strongly emphasizes the main established links with even-handed and authoritative force (tooth decay, liquid calories, links to overweight and obesity, and type II diabetes).

Nestle avoids many possible pitfalls in such a book. Though she quotes industry propaganda that paints her as a shrill critic of the modern food system, her own writing shows her to be a careful listener and reader of diverse perspectives. She calls out what is wrong, yet never demonizes opponents. Her chapter on Derek Yach, one-time World Health Organization public health champion and later PepsiCo vice president, is insightful and understanding.

Some radical authors of critical books on a particular industry seem ready not just to reform that industry, but perhaps to do away with all other such industries. One gets the sense that the author is using one industry as a vehicle for more broadly condemning the modern global capitalist economy, but the implied alternative remains blurry.

Other more mainstream authors of critical books find themselves lost for something sensible and upbeat to say in the final chapter. I most dislike it when these final chapters resort to empty hopes that well-meaning people in the industry will just see the light and change their ways.

With Nestle, instead, the reader can picture just what would happen if her book becomes influential: leading health organizations would wean themselves from soda industry money, public opinion would become more demanding, state and local advocates would win new policies on marketing, taxation, and school environments, soda consumption would follow tobacco's downward path, and the United States would enjoy lower rates of obesity and chronic disease.

This will mostly happen because of actions outside of the soda companies.
Like businesses in general, food businesses -- even the most socially conscious -- must put profits first. To be effective, advocates must understand that soda and other food corporations are willing to spend fortunes to influence political processes. Without anywhere near that kind of funding, it becomes necessary to find smarter methods for using the political process to counter soda industry marketing.
Nestle delivers a steady stream of advocacy-related diagnosis and suggestions in short well-organized paragraphs at the end of chapters throughout the book. The final chapter then seamlessly provides conclusions that feel consistent with the whole work.

The book is above all informative. For those readers who share Nestle's critical perspective on the food industry, it is obvious that this book would be informative. But here is the greater surprise: this solid book is by far the best source on this topic for any reader, with any perspective on economics or politics.

If I worked for a trade association, or an industry front group, or an esteemed professional association that relies on soda industry funding, or the House Agriculture Committee, or a sugar manufacturer, or a high-powered corporate law firm, I might store this book in my desk drawer rather than my book shelf ... yet I would read it word for word.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Faculty searches at Tufts in (a) food industry marketing and management and (b) food policy implementation and evaluation

The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston is hiring at the associate professor and full professor level in (a) food industry marketing and management and (2) food policy implementation and evaluation, among other areas. Applicants may include researchers in business, economics, psychology and law, as well as public health and nutrition. The Friedman School brings together biomedical, social, behavioral, public health, economics, and food systems scientists to conduct work that improves the nutritional health and well-being of populations throughout the world.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Not yet resurrecting Malthus

In Health Affairs this week, I review The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World (W. W. Norton, 2015), by agronomist and journalist Joel K. Bourne Jr.

In an amusing passage, Bourne visits Bath Abbey in England and looks for the grave of 19th Century economist and minister Thomas Robert Malthus, who was famously pessimistic that food supplies would suffice to feed an overpopulated world.
Indeed, Malthus has been a central figure in this book as Bourne travels the globe, witnessing bread riots in Egypt, interviewing a pesticide-poisoned woman suffering from breast cancer in the Punjab, asking about the environmental sustainability of an industrial-scale pork facility in China, inspecting depleted irrigation systems in the American Southwest, and drinking vodka with farm employees in Ukraine as they reflect on the collapse of the agricultural infrastructure there. Bourne paraphrases the account by the Cornell University economist Chris Barrett of the long-term imbalance between global production and consumption this way: “In other words, the world is running out of food.”

Yet such pessimism is balanced in The End of Plenty by thoughtful attention to promising technological advances and social changes.
Bourne never did find Malthus' grave, which he later heard had been hidden under a pew. After reading this book, one may be concerned about the world food prospect, but perhaps not yet ready to resurrect Malthus.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Nanotechnology will revolutionize the food system (and other familiar sentences)

There appears to be a large literature using the same words to say that "nanotechnology" is an "enabling" technology that will "revolutionize the food system".

A 2008 book by Ajit Kumar Roy and Niranjan Sarangi says:
Nanotechnology, as a new enabling technology, has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems....
The first sentence of Norman Scott's chapter in a 2006 book says:
Nanotechnology, as a new enabling technology, has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems in the United States and the World.
The second sentence of a chapter by B. Singh, S. K. Gautam, M. S. Chauhan, and S. K. Singla in a 2005 book says:
Nanotechnology is an enabling technology that has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems.
In a 2012 book, M.E. Popa and A. Popa write:
As an enabling technology, nanotechnology has vast potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems.
A twist on the typical wording is the idiosyncratic use of the word "enable" instead of "enabling." The first sentence of the abstract for a 2010 article by Q. Huang, H. Yu, and Q. Ru in Journal of Food Science is:
Nanotechnology is an enable technology that has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems.
And that was presumably the source for the first sentence of the abstract for a new 2015 article in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, by Harleen Kour, Anisa Malik, Naseer Ahmad, Towseef Wani, Raj Kaul, and Anju Bhat.
Nanotechnology is an enable technology that has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems.
Before we judge too harshly, I should acknowledge that I make little effort to develop novel language for routine background information. It would not shock me if a sentence akin to the following appeared in more than one publication: "The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation's leading anti-hunger program and an important part of the social safety net." But that is a different issue from reusing language for the main point of an article.

The final sentence of the abstract of the 2015 Kour et al. article in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition is:
In fact, nanotechnology introduces new chances for innovation in the food industry at immense speed, but uncertainty and health concerns are also emerging.
This is the same as the abstract for a 2010 article by Sekhon in Nanotechnology Science Applications:
In fact, nanotechnology introduces new chances for innovation in the food industry at immense speed, but uncertainty and health concerns are also emerging.
For the 2015 Kour et al. article in particular, the indebtedness has risen sufficiently high that the good journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition should probably look into the similarities.

More generally, does there seem to be too large a literature parroting the same not-too-skeptical claims about nanotechnology?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson is asked about his endorsement of dubious Mannatech supplement company

Presidential candidate Ben Carson was asked during debate this week about his ties to Mannatech, maker of a dubious nutrition supplement based on "glycoscience."

Carson responded:
I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda, and this is what happens in our society. Total propaganda. I did a couple of speeches for them, I do speeches for other people.
Jim Geraghty, who thoroughly covered these ties already last January in the National Review, yesterday pointed out that Carson's response appears to be untrue, or in Geraghty's words, "bald-faced lies." Geraghty explains how the paid speeches were compensated highly enough that reasonable people will recognize this as a paid sponsorship arrangement.

Indeed, that point becomes obvious with even a brief look at Carson's video about Mannatech, in which he praises the company for "trying to find a way to restore the natural diet as a medicine, as a mechanism for maintaining health." Carson says:
The wonderful thing about a company like Mannatech is that they recognize that when God made us, he gave us the right fuel, and that fuel was the right kind of healthy food.
Geraghty describes the company's "long, checkered past" in the National Review.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Yelp experiments with warning labels for restaurants that have low health inspection scores

A 2014 post in this blog noted that food safety problems are fundamentally about lack of public information.
If consumers had magic sunglasses that displayed the presence of Salmonella on chicken in the grocery store, there would be no need for government regulation. Immediately, faced with market consequences for distributing chicken with Salmonella, the companies would clean up their product.
The Washington Post's Wonkblog this week reports on Yelp's San Francisco restaurant review site, which is conducting an experiment with the online equivalent of these magic sunglasses.
Yelp, the popular Web site that lets consumers review everything from bistros to body shops to yoga studios, quietly began running an experiment in San Francisco over the past week. The pages for a small fraction of the city's restaurants on the site now bear a new consumer alert.
The warnings are shown for the review pages of restaurants that received very low scores from health inspectors. One feels bad for the restaurants, but this idea is intriguing. The National Restaurant Association mentioned concerns. Yet, if the inspections use standards that all restaurants really can satisfy, this ought to help consumers get access to safer and cleaner restaurants without doing the restaurants much lasting harm.