Archive for August, 2010

Must-read aricles on egg recall that I did not write

In case you missed it, either because you don’t watch the news, don’t eat eggs, or like me, both, about 1,500 people have so far been sickened by an outbreak of Salmonella in eggs. A massive recall of half a billion eggs from two Iowa factory farms ensued. I was planning to write my own blog post on this when I realized that others have already done such a good job saying what needed to be said. So instead, I am offering up my list of favorite articles by people I already knew or have just come to admire. Continue reading →

Video of my MSNBC interview on egg recall

Today I was interviewed on the Dylan Ratigan Show about the massive egg recall this week, now at more than half a billion eggs, with at least 1,000 people made ill and counting. The host understood that the root cause of the problem is our industrialized, factory farm food system. The segment starts about a minute into the video clip.

Will schools follow new PepsiCo beverage guidelines even if students want Mountain Dew?

This past March, soft drink giant PepsiCo announced with much fanfare a new global school policy. The specific guidelines, to take effect by 2012, limit the types of beverages that are to be sold in schools. According to the press release, the policy will “stop sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools.”

That’s why the announcement last week that Union County High School in Indiana was signing on to a brand new five-year contract with Pepsi (thereby ending its exclusive contract with Coca-Cola) came as a surprise. Not the contract itself, but what one school official had to say about it. From the news article:

The new contract is expected to earn the high school and middle school and booster groups $20,000 more over five years, Union County Middle School Assistant Principal Mark Detweiler said. Prices for soft drinks will remain $1.25, but school officials expect sales to increase with Pepsi products. “Students drink Mountain Dew,” Detweiler said.

They sure do, only problem is, PepsiCo says those products aren’t for sale. Or are they?

I asked Derek Yach, director of Global Health Policy at PepsiCo for an explanation and he told me that the vending machines have not been put into place. He also said:

Our intent from the outset has been that the contract be 100 percent compliant with the American Beverage Association / Alliance for a Health Generation guidelines and other relevant PepsiCo policies. Our local teams in Indiana are well aware of this and will work closely with local school officials to ensure compliance.

Yach was referring to yet another voluntary policy announced by the soft drink industry back in 2006.

Someone should have probably clued in the school officials in Indiana at the time they signed the new contract. Were they even made aware of the PepsiCo policy not to sell the worst products, even if they are the most popular?

This raises many questions about how PepsiCo’s school policy will play out in each school district. Indeed, the language of the policy is pretty vague on implementation and enforcement:

PepsiCo will encourage our bottlers, vending companies and third-party distributors to work closely with parents, community leaders and school officials to ensure that only products that meet the following guidelines are offered…

“Encourage?” “Work closely?” And while it’s nice to mention them, what do parents and community leaders have to do with school contracts?

Here’s what New York University Professor Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics has to say about the Indiana contract:

In my experience, you have to see for yourself, which is why I love visiting schools when I get the chance. With school officials in tow, you can watch kids using the vending machines during the lunch hour with nobody saying a word. The incentive here is to sell MORE product, not less, and that’s the problem.

Right. And here we have the odd situation where the vendors will essentially be telling its customers: Sorry, but we can’t sell you Pepsi and Mountain Dew, those products that the kids love best and that will bring you all that extra cash you need to run your programs.

Let’s see how well that works.

Court not buying Coke’s defense of its deceptive marketing of vitaminwater as lawsuit proceeds

My friends at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently scored an important court victory in its lawsuit against Coca-Cola for deceptive marketing of its product vitaminwater. (In case you missed it, the soft drink giant purchased Glaceau, maker of vitaminwater, back in 2007 for a cool $4.2 billion in cash.)
The class action, filed in January 2009 in federal court in New York, alleges that Coca-Cola’s claims about vitaminwater’s heath benefits are false, misleading, deceptive, and unfair. As CSPI’s press release explained:

Vitaminwater’s website, marketing copy, and labels claim that vitaminwater is healthy, claiming, for example, that “balance cran-grapefruit” has “bioactive components” that promote “healthy, pain-free functioning of joints, structural integrity of joints and bones” and that the nutrients in “power-c dragonfruit” “enable the body to exert physical power by contributing to the structural integrity of the musculoskeletal system.”

If those claims sound like they belong on a pharmaceutical product, you’re right. As CSPI notes, they go way beyond anything the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows “and cross the line into outright fraud.” Then there’s the sugar. According to CSPI, “the 33 grams of sugar in each bottle of vitaminwater do more to promote obesity, diabetes, and other health problems than the vitamins in the drinks do to perform the advertised benefits listed on the bottles.”

An important hurdle in a lawsuit like this is surviving what’s called a motion to dismiss. That’s what Coca-Cola’s lawyers filed to ask the judge to throw out the case before it can even get to trial. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson denied Coke’s motion on almost all grounds, a huge victory for the plaintiffs.

In even more good news, the judge’s language in his order was very favorable to CSPI. You can read why on Public Citizen’s Consumer Law and Policy Blog, in a post by CSPI’s litigation director Steve Gardner. 

Here are a few highlights. The court said: “Because vitaminwater does not meet minimum nutrition requirements [of FDA law], any health claim about the product is contrary to FDA regulation.” This is important because of what is known as the “jelly bean rule.” As the court explains:

The FDA regulations restricting health claims (or implied claims of “healthiness”) to foods which meet certain minimum nutrient levels, colloquially termed “the jelly bean rule,” were developed in order to prevent food producers from encouraging the consumption of “junk foods” by fortifying them with nutrients.

In other words, FDA developed this rule precisely with the type of marketing being deployed by vitaminwater in mind: promoting sugary soft drinks under the guise of good health and nutrition.

And then there’s this:

The fact that the actual sugar content of vitaminwater was accurately stated in an FDA-mandated label on the product does not eliminate the possibility that reasonable consumers may be misled.

This is important because defendants often try to hide behind the federal nutrition labeling law to avoid being held liable under state consumer deception statutes. But the court rejected this argument. In doing so, the judge cited to an earlier decision in a lawsuit over Gerber’s “Fruit Juice Snacks” that nicely captures the reasoning:

We do not think that the FDA requires an ingredient list so that manufacturers can mislead consumers and then rely on the ingredient list to correct those misinterpretations and provide a shield for liability for the deception. Instead, reasonable consumers expect that the ingredient list contains more detailed information about the product that confirms other representations on the packaging.
Translation: Front-of-package marketing should match what’s in the nutrition facts on back. Imagine! (My colleague Marion Nestle has long called on FDA to fix the problems associated with front-of-package labeling – see her recent commentary in JAMA on this very topic.)

Last week, author John Robbins wrote on Huffington Post about the “staggering feat of twisted logic” by lawyers for Coca-Cola by asserting that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage.” He wonders:

Does this mean that you’d have to be an unreasonable person to think that a product named “vitaminwater,” a product that has been heavily and aggressively marketed as a healthy beverage, actually had health benefits? Or does it mean that it’s okay for a corporation to lie about its products, as long as they can then turn around and claim that no one actually believes their lies?

Excellent questions. At least one judge isn’t buying Coke’s silly defense. And apparently this case has touched a nerve, as least with HuffPo readers. According to the site’s stats, Robbins’ article is the most popular this week, with close to 600,000 views. Also, so far the article has more than 1,000 comments, with over 13,000 Facebook shares and over 22,000 posts to Twitter. I asked John Robbins what he makes of this response and here’s what he told me:
I am grateful to the 35,000 or so people who have posted the article I wrote about the dark side of vitaminwater to their Facebook pages and/or tweeted about it. Coca-Cola would like us to believe that it’s a responsible corporate citizen, but the truth is decidedly otherwise. In fact, the company constantly lies to the public. What’s even more insulting, Coke then has the audacity to turn around and say, in court, that a product they have marketed as healthy actually isn’t, and the public would  have to be stupid to think otherwise.

This case should put all food companies on notice that they can’t dress up junk food and nurtitionally-deficient beverages with healthy-sounding names or over-the-top marketing claims. 

Often once a case survives a motion to dismiss, the defendant is more likely to negotiate a settlement and change its marketing practices to avoid expensive and embarrassing litigation. Stay tuned.

My latest article on AlterNet – how PepsiCo is buying up top-notch health experts

My latest article on AlterNet is entitled: “How Junk Food Giant PepsiCo Is Buying Up High-Ranking Experts to Look Like a Leader in Health and Nutrition.”

And the subhead is just as fun: “Pepsi’s strategy: Create a research environment so scientists and public health experts don’t feel out of place at the corporate HQ of sugar, salt and fat.”

You can read it there and add your comments.

Yale Alumni Magazine covers PepsiCo / Yale School of Medicine partnership controversy

This past March, I blogged about how soda and snack food giant PepsiCo formed a partnership with the Yale School of Medicine, where I earned my public health degree. The grant included $250,000 for a 5-year research fellowship to be awarded to an MD/PhD student.

That post apparently set off a chain reaction of coverage of the deal, first in the Yale Daily News (“Critics fizz over Pepsi gift”), followed by the Wall Street Journal (“Boola Moolah! Food Fight at Yale”) and on the San Francisco Chronicle health blog.

Now, in the current issue of Yale Alumni Magazine, fellow alum Carole Bass pens “Critics question Pepsi partnership,” quoting me and others on the wisdom of Yale linking arms with the nation’s largest promoter of sugar, salt, and fat. Adding to the irony, Yale is already home to the Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity, which is headed up by Kelly Brownell, a frequent critic of Big Food.

And anyway, what sort of research could possibly come of this largesse that didn’t benefit PespiCo? Playing defense in the article is Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern: “There are numerous safeguards in place to protect the integrity of our research.”

It’s probably a bad sign when you have to use the word “safeguard” to defend taking money. Safeguards are usually for doing risky things, like skateboarding and skydiving, not philanthropy.

Alpern also responds to those who worry that the medical school’s scientific principles may have been sacrificed in the name of Cheetos and Mountain Dew. Not so, Alpern assures my fellow alumni: “PepsiCo will have no involvement in who is chosen for the fellowship or the project to which the student is assigned.” I for one am not assured.

The article ends aptly with a quote from Professor Jerome Kassirer, expert in conflicts of interest at Tufts School of Medicine: (Could the author find no such expert at Yale?)

The problem is that it’s impossible to know whether the money given to the school can in some way have an influence on what people in the [nutrition] department might say about PepsiCo products.

And that’s just for starters.

Back in April I posted the lame response I got from Yale’s public affairs office upon signing a petition started on, which now has more than 1,000 signatures. But let’s keep the pressure on. You can either sign the petition or email Dean Alpern directly.

And thanks to reporter Carole Bass for a job well done.

Bangkok Post covers release of Appetite for Profit in Thailand as problem spreads there

OK, so is not one my usual blog posts, but I can’t help sharing my excitement. As I wrote about previously, my book has been translated into Thai, with 1,000 copies already distributed.

The translation and distribution of Appetite for Profit was commissioned by the Chulalongkorn University-based Health Consumer Protection Project, which is now releasing more copies, as was reported yesterday by the Bangkok Post. The article (“Taking a bite of out fast food: An expose details the industry’s attack on food”) includes graphics with pull-out quotes from the book.

If you’re wondering why folks in Thailand would be interested in a book that is admittedly pretty America-centric, it seems there are warning signs that the problem is spreading there. For example, a survey conducted by the Thai Office of the Basic Education Commission found that sodas are available at 20 percent of the 20,000 schools in the country.

And this will sound familiar. Another study found some schools had agreed to allow a beverage giant to sell soda on school property in exchange for the company providing a van.

Here is how Siriwat Tiptaradol, Public Health Ministry deputy permanent secretary and the editor of the Thai version of the book explains it: “The influence of the food industry isn’t limited to the US, but extends all over the world.” The article also makes the case for policy change:

Developing countries like Thailand should be alert about this transnational issue and work with authorities, academics, and the public and private sectors to come up with policies to safeguard people from conditions that result from poor diet such as diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes. Otherwise, these problems will end up costing billions of baht in health care spending every year, Tiptaradol said.

A wise call for prevention before its too late.

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