Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Book Review: Food Politics

Leaving the realm of traditional environmentalism for a minute to quickly discuss Food Politics by Marion Nestle, a professor from NYU and an adviser to/member of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration.

SIDE NOTE: She also keeps a blog, appropriately titled Food Politics, dedicated to giving consumers/readers up-to-date information about food in the news.

This book was particularly interesting to me, since I have a particular affinity for the relationship between food and the environment. It may be a bit too in depth for some likings, but it is very (as the title alludes to) political.

For example, the FDA is powerless to recall many products, particularly beef. Following the mad cow disease breakout, Oprah Winfrey had a guest from the Humane Society on her show, where they discussed the fact that cows are fed to other cows. (Gross.) She replies, "It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!"

As a result, she got sued by the beef industry under veggie-libel laws, i.e. for inciting fear in consumers. She went to trial in January 1998 and ultimately won, but the legal fees were astronomical - and certainly enough to quiet any regular consumer.

(Nestle also discusses "McLibel," which I won't get into here but I found fascinating. It was a group of poor activists who distributed "libelous" pamphlets about McDonalds in the UK and were sued by McDonalds. They won.)

At the heart of this book, is the fact that some foods are good for you and some are bad for you. This goes against what food providers want you to think - since if you believe that every food can be good for you, then you can't write their food off.

Nestle discusses how companies/lobbying firms can seem bigger than governments - at least in terms of the amount they have to spend on advertising/lawsuits. The connections between food lobbies and members of Congress seem pretty indicative to me that there's a lack of impartiality going on.

This book also provides certain insights into how government agencies work regarding food. Nestle devotes a large section to supplements, which are in limbo regarding regulation - not food, not quite medicine. They essentially have free reign over how they market their product.

Most disturbing is the fact that the FDA is powerless to carry out many of the actions that it is meant to do. The FDA has not banned any supplements following the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, although there have certainly been harmful products, because of budget deficiencies.

Nestle also discusses food fortification (which she calls "techno-foods"), which has many flaws. Conceptually, it fails because foods like fruits or vegetables are so intricate that isolating one chemical or one vitamin is not the equivalent of eating the entity. Though in some circumstances, it has worked - see: salt and iodine. However, industrialized countries consume much more iodine than they need.

At the end of her book, she briefly discusses "food ethics," which she describes as eating food that is close to its source and local - foods which are good for you and the earth.

1 comment:

  1. I found the section on the evolution of the food pyramid to be fascinating...and depressing.