President, Strategic Communications, LLC

Friday, July 27, 2012

When the Circus Came to NYC

This week the New York City Board of Health conducted a public hearing on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed so-called “soda ban." To paraphrase one of the more famous lines from Casablanca, the Mayor's office went out and "rounded up the usual suspects." A handful of consumers spoke. Mostly it was a spattering of elected officials and lobbyists on both sides of the issues. You know the ones - the media ego maniac, the sky is falling, Michael Jacobson and the ivory tower sky is following, but we do not need more study because we have no idea whether this will actually reduce total caloric intake, Kelly Brownell. There message was simple, "Don't confuse me with the facts because my mind is already made up.

Ladies and gentleman, children of all ages, let me direct your attention to the center ring where we are going to conduct the greatest show on earth -- a public hearing about the role of soft drinks in the diet in the nation's largest city with many "experts" and very few public participants.

Only 100 people attended, most of them reporters, who after making the trek to Long Island City, felt obliged to file a no news story.

No new information or evidence was presented. Each side rehashed the same old arguments. The hearing will not likely change the expected approval of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal, which will limit the size of non-alcoholic beverages sold at restaurants, movie theaters, delis, stadiums, arenas and mobile food cars to 16 ounces. The Board of Health — 11 physicians, public health experts and scientists and the health commissioner — are all mayoral appointees.

One pro-industry group said something to the effect that the deck was stacked which reminded me of Captain Renault's famous quote, again from Casablanca, that :" I'm shocked to find that gambling is going on in here [Rick's Cafe]!" -  after receiving his share of the evenings earnings. Shocked indeed.

In politics, there is a golden rule -- he who has the gold makes the rules. And this was the Mayor's sandbox. The board will formally vote on the plan in September. If approved, it will take effect in March 2013.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Will the Luddites Win on GMO Food?

Luddite - Lud-dite (noun) - an opponent of technological or industrial change.

Just about very leap forward in food science and food safety during the last century has been opposed for some reason or the other, mostly from fear of the unknown, some from not so enlightened self-interest and others from ignorance, so it comes as no surprise that genetically modified (GM) foods are under attack.

Let's look at some examples of other "new" food technologies, because early opposition to these technologies raised the same issues we are debating today and they share a common conclusion, they were wrong.


When the Civil War broke out America was mainly an agrarian society. The Union army quickly turned to the food industry for help in feeding the troops. The results were mixed. As the saying goes, "Swift and Armour (the two giant Chicago meat packing companies) killed more Union soldiers than all the Confederates." The Union forces died from rotten meat packed in cans sealed with lead. If the bacteria filled meat did not kill the soldiers, many died a slow and painful death from lead poisoning.

The unsanitary conditions persisted into the 1900s until publication of The Jungle which prompted an outraged President Theodore Roosevelt to move with sweeping reform legislation.

In the 1880s something as simple as pasteurization was vehemently opposed. Pasteur did not discover microorganisms. He made the immensely important observation that they were not a consequence of disease, decay, and putrefaction—as was the common scientific opinion at the time—but were, in fact,
he causes of these problems, and that eliminating them could eliminate the problem. This knowledge led to revolutionary changes in medicine and food preservation, not the least of which was the understanding that relatively mild heating kills microorganisms and substantially improves the safety and quality of foods without destroying desirable nutritional and sensory characteristics.

As a good Frenchman, he applied his discovery to the preservation of that most important beverage: wine. In order to “prove” the effectiveness of his process, Pasteur shipped a cargo of pasteurized wine around the world in 1868 on the French frigate, La Sybile, “without spoilage of a single bottle.”

Nevertheless, It took almost 30 more years for pasteurization to become the norm in food processing.

Frozen Foods
Ever since man began to throw meat into the snow from the cave in order to preserve it, we have been using frozen foods. However, beginning in 1929, Clarence Birdseye, a well-known taxidermist, offered his quick-frozen foods to the public. Birdseye got the idea during fur-trapping expeditions to Labrador in 1912 and 1916, where he saw the natives use freezing to preserve foods. Modern attempts at refrigeration began in the early 20th century in the meat packing industry. The first quick-frozen vegetables, fruits, sea foods, and meat were sold to the public for the first time in 1930 in Springfield, Massachusetts, under the trade name Birds Eye Frosted Foods®. Other experiments, involving orange juice, ice cream and vegetables were conducted by the military near the end of World War II.

Eighty-three years after Birdseye first introduced product into the consumer marketplace, critics still complain about the quality, composition and nutrition of frozen foods but the public has spoken and industry has responded with ever changing products produced from from Fortune 50 food companies to the all organic crowd.


Fear is the powerful motivator and the verbal and minds- eye image of "Frankenfood," certainly gives one reason to pause and hope that all the right people are asking all the right questions about the introduction of this technology into the marketplace in forms that go beyond major crops such as corn and soybeans.

Labeling is a hot-button issue. Currently, there's no federal requirement to label, because FDA has declared the GM foods identical, in nutrition and safety, to their non-GMO cousins. FDA argues reasonably there is no need to label a safe product.

Opponents point out that consumers increasingly feel they have a right to know what is in the food they eat-particularly when it comes to GMO. In a 2012 survey by the consumer research company The Mellman Group, 91 percent favored labeling.

The industry has polled consumers intensively on labeling issues since the Nutrition Facts Box first appeared. This vast body of research tells us that consumers, when asked, want every imaginable type of information on front panel packaging, from country of origin to multiple breakdowns of fat. Whether consumers understand what they are asking for is another question. Most consumers cannot tell the difference of a poly unsaturated fat to an omega 3 product, much less the complexities of grams and percent of daily values of the current Nutrition Facts Box. Most consumers cannot tell you a potato is a vegetable, much less one that is loaded with potassium and dietary fiber, two "nutrients of concern," according to top federal health policy makers. Just ask your nearest Registered Dietitian.

Today, About 80 percent of the major crops come from GM seeds, so a warning on just about every food that contains this genetic material equals a warning about nothing, especially when one cannot distinguish the GM product from the natural product.

The risk avoidance FDA has taken forever, as it usually does, to review GM foods in the scientific pipeline such as a GM salmon. We are going to have to wait longer for a decision. It's an election year and the Obama Administration does not want a GM decision clouding its presidential messaging. There are no votes for the Obama Administration if it approves a GM fish this year.

On the merits of the science, in mid July, the American Medical Association announced in a statement that they saw no health purpose for labeling genetically modified foods -- those made with GMOs (or genetically modified organisms) -- as such.

AMA underscored, "There is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods, as a class, and that voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education. . .We also urge the FDA to remain alert to new data on the health consequences of bioengineered foods," AMA board member Dr. Patrice Harris.

However, the AMA, inserted a "poison pill" into its statement. The organization went on to recommend mandatory pre-market safety testing with the FDA for any modified food. No other issue, except the freedom to advertise its products to the public, is nearer to the heart of the food industry. In the past, it has "gone to the mattresses" to avoid pre-market approval of foods. Currently, companies "consult" with the FDA since no one wants the Agency to issue a warning letter about their product after they have spent tens of millions to produce and launch it.

In 2006 the American Dietetic Association, now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, issued a policy statement that agricultural and food biotechnology techniques can enhance the quality, safety, nutritional value, and variety of food available for human consumption and increase the efficiency of food production, food processing, food distribution, and environmental and waste management. The American Dietetic Association "encourages the government, food manufacturers, food commodity groups, and qualified food and nutrition professionals to work together to inform consumers about this new technology and encourage the availability of these products in the marketplace." Great.

Nearly a decade ago, in 2004 an investigation from the National Academy of Sciences into the relative regulation and safety testing of genetically modified and conventional foods found that either method can result in problems like food allergens and pathogens. “All foods, whether or not they are genetically engineered, carry potentially hazardous substances or pathogenic microbes and must be properly and prudently assessed to ensure a reasonable degree of safety," read the report.
What's Next?
So what do we do? Do we wait, like Pasteur, for thirty years to pass before accepting GM foods into our homes?

California, which likes to set its own food and environmental policies and then force the FDA and the food industry to meet its standards since it has the largest consumer market in the country, may go its own way. There is a Proposition on the November ballot that would require labeling of GM foods.

Obviously the industry is spending a fortune to defeat the measure, but as in so many food controversies since 1986, as California goes, so goes the nation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who Has the Ugliest Food Politics of All?

No worries, Evil Queen. The answer is obvious, the farm bill, despite the fact that each aisle of the supermarket has a symbiotic relationship with lawyers, lobbyists, pr flacks, science spokespeople, activists, demagogues and congressional allies, based on home state or congressional district interest.

The House Farm Bill
 Every five years Congress takes up this political "hot potato," which is neither high in dietary fiber or potassium. Usually a compromise is reached, agricultural members win over the support of the Black Caucus and urban members with enough food and hunger programs to garner enough votes to pass the House of Representatives, even if some of the other major policy items in the legislation make no economic sense. This year it might be different.

Compromise, the mother's milk of politics, is not in the vernacular of the Tea Party. These modern day Luddites want to topple federal programs by starving them to death, much like what the Tea Party in the House proposes to do to millions of hungry school children whose only warm meal of the day may come from federal feeding programs.

According to a July 9 press release from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, an estimated 3.8 million California adults — particularly those in households with children, as well as low-income Latinos — could not afford to put adequate food on the table during the recent recession. The House Agriculture Committee's answer - slash $16 billion in more spending from food insecurity programs and reward millionaire farmers with more federal subsidies.

Democratic reaction was swift and predictable. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) issued a scathing statement after the bill’s release that called it immoral and inhumane.“This bill increases subsidies to millionaires... This is a bill that robs the poor to pay the rich...No farmer is being cut back. They are being made whole...The people are getting screwed in this process are the people who can least afford it,” she said.

Part of this is all political posturing. The House GOP and Democratic Leaderships know the Senate will never accept these mean spirited cuts. Democratic House Leader Pelosi even hinted publicly something to the effect that "we can fix this bill in conference." Why should she, especially in an election year?

The whole polticial process stinks. Someone needs to teach the bullies in the House a lesson. It's like Sean Connery's famous line from the movie The Untouchables, "You wanna get Capone? Here's how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way. And that's how you get Capone!" And that is how the Democrats should get the Tea Party.

The House of Representatives needs to understand that a great nation is judged by how it treats its most impoverished citizens. On that basis alone the House bill should be rejected. The legislation is as dysfunctional as the process that produced it.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who has the Ugliest Food Politics of All?