At a talk I gave for CQ Roll Call in Washington, DC last week, an audience member asked about the definition of “natural.” I thought I had said everything there was to say about it (see post from August). Wrong.
Another member of the audience sent me the definition of “natural” produced by, of all things, the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Three federal agencies deal with “natural.”
In answer to the question, “What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?,” the FDA says:
From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.
The USDA discusses “natural” in the context of organic foods, in order to distinguish “natural” from organic:
Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.
This agency is in charge of regulating alcoholic beverages, largely for tax-collection purposes. Its “ATF Ruling 85-4″ does not actually define the term “natural,” but instead says when ATF takes no exception to its use.
(1) Any grape fruit, citrus or agricultural wine may be designated “natural” if it is made without added alcohol or brandy…No other type of wine may be designated as “natural.”
(2) A distilled spirit may be designated as “natural” if is solely the result of distillation, with or without mingling of the same class and type of spirits or simple filtration which does not alter the class or type of the product.
(3) A malt beverage may be designated “natural” if it is made without adjuncts (additives) other than those additives which do not remain in the finished product, either by precipitating out or by combining with other components of the product and the resulting compound precipitates or is filtered out.
I am not making this up.
Addition: Michele Simon, who blogs at Eat, Drink, Politics, writes (she’s not making this up either):
In fact, ATF is how housed within the Department of Justice.
Historically, ATF had all jurisdiction over alcohol (and was within Treasury), which is where that rule must have come from.
ATF still maintains jurisdiction over criminal activity, but now, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau oversees labeling. That’s housed within Treasury.
This explains the split in 2002 (click here).
Clear as mud? So maybe you can add a fourth agency to your list!
As we head into the holiday season, I’m going to catch up on books that might make welcome gifts for the people in your life who think that food is about more than just eating. Here’s one for food-worried parents:Dina Rose. It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating. Perigree, 2014
I blurbed this one:
I am constantly hearing from parents that they have no idea what their kids are supposed to eat or whether their kids are eating ‘right.’ [It's Not About the Broccoli] provides just what parents need to feed kids properly, stop worrying, and start enjoying mealtimes with kids. Dina Rose looks at feeding kids from a sociologist’s perspective. When the feeding behavior goes well, kids will get all the nutrients they need. This book ought to reassure parents that following a few simple principles will get their kids fed just fine.
Thanks to Politico for alerting us to Monsanto’s sudden discovery: it has just recognized—can you believe this?—that it has a public image problem.
In recent months the company has shaken up its senior public relations staff, upped its relationship with one of the nation’s largest public relations firms and helped launch a website designed to combat the fallacies surrounding genetically modified organisms.
Monsanto revealed its public image worries in its annual filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC requires companies to list societal factors that create risk to its profitability. Monsanto’s first three:
1. Threats to patent rights
Efforts to protect our intellectual property rights and to defend claims against us can increase our costs and will not always succeed; any failures could adversely affect sales and profitability or restrict our ability to do business.
Intellectual property rights are crucial to our business, particularly our Seeds and Genomics segment. We endeavor to obtain and protect our intellectual property rights in jurisdictions in which our products are produced or used and in jurisdictions into which our products are imported.
2. Too much regulation
We are subject to extensive regulation affecting our seed biotechnology and agricultural products and our research and manufacturing processes, which affects our sales and profitability.
Regulatory and legislative requirements affect the development, manufacture and distribution of our products, including the testing and planting of seeds containing our biotechnology traits and the import of crops grown from those seeds, and non-compliance can harm our sales and profitability.
3. Bad public relations
The degree of public acceptance or perceived public acceptance of our biotechnology products can affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, regulatory requirements and customer purchase decisions.
Some opponents of our technology actively raise public concern about the potential for adverse effects of our products on human or animal health, other plants and the environment. .. Public concern can affect the timing of, and whether we are able to obtain, government approvals.
Even after approvals are granted, public concern may lead to increased regulation or legislation or litigation…which could affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, and may adversely affect sales of our products to farmers, due to their concerns about available markets for the sale of crops or other products derived from biotechnology.
Maybe if the company was less aggressive about defending itself against risks #1 and #2, public relations would be less of an issue.
Do the close calls on labeling initiatives in California and Washington worry Monsanto? Of course they do. They should.
I was on the FDA food advisory committee in 1994 and witnessed Monsanto’s aggressive opposition to labeling.
If public image is a problem for the company, it has nobody to blame but itself.
The only surprise: Why did public demands for labeling take so long?
I’m in Washington, DC this week on a bit of book tour for Eat, Drink, Vote (see Appearances for schedule).
At my Politics & Prose bookstore event last night, I got asked why I think the food environment matters so much in dietary choice. Isn’t food choice a matter of personal responsibility?
It is, of course, but the food environment greatly influences personal choice.
Large portions: just about anyone presented with a large portion of food with eat more from it, take in more calories (larger portions have more calories!), and underestimate the calories consumed by a much greater proportion than from a smaller amount.
Salt intake: Because 80% or so of salt in the American diet comes from processed and restaurant foods, people eating in restaurants have no control over the amount of salt they take in.
To make it easier for people to take in fewer calories and less salt requires changes in the food environment: serve smaller portions and reduce the salt in restaurant foods.
FDA: Get to work!
The Séralini paper claimed that feeding genetically modified corn to female rats, with or without added Roundup, caused them to develop more mammary tumors than rats that were not fed GMO corn.
As I discussed in a post at the time, I had my doubts about the scientific quality of the Séralini study. The findings were based on a small number of animals, were not dose-dependent and failed to exclude the possibility that they could have occurred by chance.
In response to readers’ queries about my critique of the science, I added a clarification:
I very much favor research on this difficult question. There are enough questions about this study to suggest the need for repeating it, or something like it, under carefully controlled conditions.
In science, repeating someone else’s study is common practice. Retracting a published paper is not. The editors of Food and Chemical Technology say they are retracting the paper because its findings are inconclusive.
The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer-review decision ultimately weighed that the work still had merit despite this limitation. A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups.
Hello. Where were they during the peer review process? Editors decide whether papers get published. The editors chose to publish the study, even though they had just published a meta-analysis coming to the opposite conclusion: “GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.”
Now, in response to a barrage of criticism (see letters accompanying the online version of the Séralini study), the editors have given its authors an ultimatum: withdraw the paper (which Séralini says he will not do), or they will retract it.
But the editor wrote Séralini:
Unequivocally, the Editor-in-Chief found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.
Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if:
The Séralini paper may be unreliable, but that should have been obvious to the peer reviewers and the journal’s editors. Otherwise, the paper does not fit any of the established criteria for retraction.
The anti-GMO group, GM Watch, points out that Food and Chemical Technology is a member of COPE. On this basis, it says the journal’s retraction of the study is ”illicit, unscientific, and unethical.” It has a point.
This is a mess, with the journal’s editors clearly at fault. At this point, they should:
About the documentation:
The entire episode, including the oddly worded retraction statement…a black eye for the beleaguered journal and Elsevier [the publisher].”
I’m repeating this post from last week because, evidently, I’m confused about dates. Today is the first Sunday in December; last Sunday was not.Here’s what I said last week. It’s still true.
It’s the first Sunday in December and normally I would be posting my San Francisco Chronicle Food Matters column. But I am leaving the Chronicle—after five and a half years and nearly 70 columns. I will write one more for the end of the year, but that will be the last.
My timing turned out to be prescient. My column appeared in the Chronicle’s free-standing, prize-winning food section. The Chronicle is now ending that separate section.
I started writing the column in the spring of 2008 at the invitation of Michael Bauer. I thought it would be a splendid opportunity—a public platform for my ideas about food and nutrition—and the chance to work with writers whose work I respected.
Indeed it was.
But I also knew that the paper was having financial difficulties and did not expect it to survive for much longer. I agreed to take on the column under the assumption that the paper would not last more than a year or so.
At first I wrote a column every three weeks. When that proved too much—I do have a full-time job at NYU, after all—I asked to have the schedule reduced to once a month. Even that proved difficult.
My editor at the Chronicle has always been the terrific Miriam Morgan, who convincingly discouraged my occasional attempts to give up the column.
But now I’m working on a demanding book manuscript and the column is too much of an interruption.
I will miss having the column, but I won’t miss the deadlines.
My column’s time has come. But when Miriam Morgan told me that the paper would be making some changes in the food section, I had no idea that this meant the end of the food section as well.
But all may not be lost. Want to help save the Chronicle food section? Click here.
I’ve just been given a copy of this quirky book written by a guy who spent eight summers hanging out in Antarctica as support staff for the American scientific expeditions. It’s a treasure.
It never would have occurred to me to wonder what people in Antarctica are eating. Locally grown, sustainable food? Not a chance.
As author Jason Anthony puts it,
Is there really such a thing as a venerable Antarctic cuisine? In a word, no….What visitors to the Antarctic—and we are all visitors—sit down to are imported meals. There is no Antarctic terroir.
With that said, Anthony offers a food-focused history of the famously disastrous Antarctic expeditions as well as the modern-day ”syrup of American comfort.”
Hoosh, he says, is a stew of pemmican and water which, in its current Antarctic version, is commercial beef and beef fat that arrives in tightly compacted blocks. Hoosh, you will want to know, is
a cognate of hooch, itself a corruption of the Tlingit hoochinoo, meaning both a Native American tribe on Admiralty Island, Alaska, and the European-style rotgut liquor that they made.
The book is replete with photographs and recipes that you won’t want to miss, among them Savoury Seal Brains on Toast, Escallops of Penguin Breasts, and your choice of biscuits from Scott’s Terra Nova expedition or Amundsen’s Fram.
Hooch is an instant food-studies classic.
I’m not the only one to discover it. Here’s the review in this Sunday’s New York Times.
New York City’s Coalition Against Hunger has issued a new report on the city’s Superstorm of Hunger.
It comes with an Infographic summarizing the principal action points:
And Circa provides an illustrated, interactive (check the links!) account of an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation of how lobbyists and tax dollars affect the cost of your thanksgiving dinner.
The bottom line: Agribusiness spent $71 million on campaign contributions and $95 million on lobbying in 2012. For example:
The National Turkey Federation — a member of an agricultural businesses coalition —has given $1.37 million in campaign contributions since 1989, focused mainly on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. The group has also spent $3.58 million on lobbying during that time, taking aim at laws for turkey exports and antibiotic rules.
Enjoy your dinner!
My post yesterday about the politics of catfish inspection inspired comments that I need to better appreciate the superiority of USDA’s import safety program, which requires this checklist for steps that must be taken by importers of meat, poultry, or processed egg products:
It’s not surprising if USDA’s import safety system is better than the FDA’s. USDA gets $14 million a year to run its currently non-operating catfish inspection system. The FDA gets $700,000 and, according to the Government Accountability Office, has managed pretty well with it (see yesterday’s post).
Definition is also an issue. USDA rules apply to all catfish species. But to protect American catfish producers, the FDA defined catfish as the North American species. But Vietnam produces different species, which makes catfish inspection even weirder.
Although FDA has had some problems with seafood inspection, it is generally responsible for dealing with fish safety and has had seafood HACCP requirements in place since the mid-1990s. The USDA does not have authority over fish; it is responsible for the safety of meat and poultry.
Why should catfish be an exception?
Why are we even talking about which agency should be in charge of inspecting catfish?
If the politic fuss over catfish inspection reveals anything, it is why we so badly need a single food safety agency—one that combines and integrates the food safety functions of USDA and FDA—to ensure the safety of the American food supply.
Addition, November 28: Members of Congress urge repeal of the USDA’s catfish inspection program.