Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, which she chaired from 1988-2003. She also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. Her degrees include a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, both from the University of California, Berkeley. She has held faculty positions at Brandeis University and the UCSF School of Medicine. From 1986-88, she was senior nutrition policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services and managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health . Her research examines scientific, economic, and social influences on food choice. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002, revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003, revised edition, 2010), and What to Eat (2006). Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine , was published in 2008 and in paperback in 2010. Her book with Dr. Malden Nesheim, Feed Your Pet Right, came out in 2010. She is currently working with Dr. Nesheim on a book about calories for University of California Press. She writes a monthly Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle, and blogs daily (almost) at www.foodpolitics.com and at The Atlantic / Life. She also twitters @marionnestle.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Thank you for joining me today. We always talk about food on this show and how our food choices affect our health, the environment, and the treatment of animals. You can comment at any time during this show by sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call in at 1-888-874-4888.
Great. So, one of the things that we really don’t think about too much when it comes to food and how food can affect us is the politics behind food and how the politics impacts the safety of our food. And we have probably the foremost expert on this subject as a guest today. Dr. Marian Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, which she chaired from 1988 – 2003.
She also holds appointments as professor of sociology at NYU, and visiting professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell. Her degrees include a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.Ph. in public health nutrition, both from the University of California Berkeley. She has held faculty positions at Brandeis University, and the UCSF School of Medicine from 1986-88. She was senior nutrition policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services, and managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on nutrition and health. Her research examines scientific, economic and social influences on food choice. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health; Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety; and What to Eat. In addition, she’s also the author of Pet Food Politics and co-authored a book called Feed Your Pet Right, which came out last year.
She is currently working with Dr. Nesheim on a book about calories for the University of California Press, and she writes a monthly food matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle and blogs regularly at FoodPolitics.com. Dr. Nestle, thank you for joining us today.
Dr. Marion Nestle: It’s a pleasure.
Caryn Hartglass: So, we have an hour, yet you’ve written books and books, and revised your books on this subject of food politics. It’s something that I don’t think people really consider when they’re thinking about how healthy their food is. There’s a lot of hidden information, a lot of information that we’re rather confused about. So, we’ll probably jump around a bit in this hour. Maybe we can start talking about some of the research that’s done with food, to show that whether it’s healthy or not. How confident can we be in the research that we hear about healthy food?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, first of all it’s hard to do these studies. Nobody should underestimate the difficulty of doing research on human nutrition. Any time that you’re, I mean, I’m not sure what you mean about “healthy.” Food is food, and real foods are a part of the diet. You wouldn’t think there would be anything wrong with them, so I’m not exactly sure what you’re–
Caryn Hartglass: Well, you know, that’s a really good point. And so, we have a lot of processed foods now, a lot of packaged foods, foods we get in restaurants, and then we hear sound bites on the television telling what to eat and not to eat, and it can really be overwhelming.
Dr. Marion Nestle: It is overwhelming, and it’s because everybody loves sound bites about the latest research study. But actual basic dietary advice hasn’t changed for as long as I’ve been in this game, and that’s been 35 years. And you can trace back dietary advice going back to the 1950s. It hasn’t changed in any important way at all. The advice has always been, if you’re worried about obesity, to eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food. It’s really as simple as that. The rest of it is all in the details. But if you’re eating a diet that has food, and you’re eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and you’re not gaining weight, and you’re not eating a lot of junk food, you’re doing just fine. Relax! Enjoy your food.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I definitely believe in relaxing while eating. Because I know a lot of people when they eat, they say to themselves, this isn’t healthy for me, I shouldn’t be eating it.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh, it makes me so sad when people are afraid of food.
Caryn Hartglass: But, it is hard for so many people. Let’s just talk, for example, about salt. Salt recently got a lot of press in New York, with the Health Department coming out and saying 79 percent of New Yorkers have some degree of hypertension. How can that be?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, people lead stressful lives, but the real issue is that there’s a lot of salt in the diet. It isn’t the salt that people are putting on their food at the table that’s causing the problem. It’s salt that’s already in food before anybody buys it. The food industry loves salt because it makes food heavier and it’s sold by weight. It makes people want to drink more, so that sells more drinks. And people get used to tasting a lot of salt in their food, and if there isn’t a lot of salt, food starts to taste bad. So, for somebody like me, for example, who’s on a relatively low-salt diet, I don’t like the taste of salt very much. So I tend to not salt foods. I find most food in restaurants to be way over-salted.
Caryn Hartglass: I agree with you.
Dr. Marion Nestle: And yet, if I talk to the chef about it, the chef is so used to a high level of salt in the food, that it just doesn’t taste good to the chef if there isn’t a lot of it. Salt is funny that way if you’re on a low-salt diet, you get used to it after just a few weeks, and then anything with salt in it either tastes really good or tastes salty. Whereas if you’re on a regular salt diet and you’re just eating what’s natural for the food supply, then if it isn’t heavily salted, they it doesn’t taste right.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, such a simple thing like salt. Like all ingredients, or most ingredients, they’re invisible to the eye. I’ve talked to so many people — and I’m sure you have, too — that they say, “I’m on a healthy diet,” and yet they’re eating in restaurants all the time and they don’t realize how much salt they’re getting.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, not only how much salt, but how many calories they’re getting. I mean, that’s one of the things about restaurant foods that’s complicated. You have no idea what’s in them because you’re not there in the kitchen watching the chef cook. And restaurant food has far more calories in it than people are used to eating or would eat at home, and it also has a lot more salt in it. That’s just how they cook, how they learned to cook.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, are there any regulations that are involved with the use of salt, the quantity of salt in our foods?
Dr. Marion Nestle: No. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., has been trying for years to get the FDA to regulate salt as a food additive. As more and more evidence comes out on the relationship of salt to hypertension, high blood pressure, the FDA gets more and more interested in that. But the FDA has a lot to do these days, and I don’t know whether they’ll get to it or not. It’s controversial, because neither the food industry or the salt industry wants anything done about salt. Or the drink industry, of any kind.
Caryn Hartglass: So, that leads to another invisible ingredient, and that’s sugar. We have a lot of attention drawn to sugar lately, with Mayor Bloomberg in New York City. And we have this campaign against sugary beverages.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, the campaign makes a lot of sense to me because there is so much evidence now that kids, for example, who drink soft drinks are heavier and taking in more calories and have worst diets than kids who don’t, and kids drink a lot of soft drinks. It’s become normal for kids to drink soft drinks all day long. Nobody thinks of those calories, and there they are. Also, they’re sugar calories, which means there are no nutrients with them. These days, there’s a lot of concern about the fructose that’s in sugar. There’s plenty of fructose. So, it’s probably not such a good idea for kids to be drinking sugary drinks. If I talk to parents of kids who are overweight, the first thing I tell them is, get your kids off sodas.
Caryn Hartglass: And this isn’t regular either.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh, no.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s too much money involved in it.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Much too much. I mean, let me just say about that, that the American Beverage Association — Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola — are pouring millions and millions of dollars into making sure that no state or locality passes a soda tax. Or that nobody says anything bad about sodas. I mean, they’re really hard at work at that.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, well, we saw that happen in New York.
Dr. Marion Nestle: We did.
Caryn Hartglass: Unfortunately.
Dr. Marion Nestle: We did.
Caryn Hartglass: Ok, now there’s also a lot of marketing involved, too, that affects all ages, all people, that for the most part, encourages us to eat and consume things that aren’t healthy for us.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, that’s certainly true, and billions of dollars a year goes, I mean, every food company is advertising its products. The purpose — it’s not that food companies want to make people fat. It’s that they are obliged as part of their corporate obligations to make more money and to make more money every quarter. If they’re not doing that, their stockholders get very annoyed. So, they’re trying to look for new markets for their products and looking for different ways to sell, and everybody is kind of bored with the standard advertising. So, they’re moving more and more into electronic media, social marketing, and that kind of thing. But their job is to sell more products. And the public health implications of that are simply not part of the corporate equation.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, you said the FDA has a lot to do and probably won’t get to regulating things like salt. What is the FDA doing with regard to our food and making sure that it’s safe to eat?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, the FDA is responsible for food safety, and it’s responsible for everything that goes on package labels, and that sort of thing. That turns out to be a really, really big job, and Congress has, in January, passed a new food safety bill that gives the FDA much more regulatory authority than it has ever had before over the safety of the foods that are under FDA’s jurisdiction. But, it has not appropriated any money for the FDA to do that yet. And in fact, the legislators who are responsible for the appropriation have said they’re not going to give the FDA any more money to follow its mandate. One of the interesting things about FDA funding is that, for historical reasons, it gets its funding from agriculture appropriations committees. FDA — decades, half a century ago — was part of the Department of Agriculture. And so its funding stuck, even though it’s now in the Department of Health and Human Services. It ought be getting its money from health committees because food safety is a health function. But it gets its money from Agriculture committees that couldn’t care less about what the FDA does.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s almost a conflict of interest.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh, I think so. Definitely. Definitely.
Caryn Hartglass: OK, so the FDA, if they had the funding that they needed, they have more ability now to regulate. Do you think if they got the funding they needed, they would be doing a good job?
Dr. Marion Nestle: I think they would, I think they certainly would like to. They certainly worked long and hard to get that legislation through. And it gives them the authority to order recalls. I mean, one of the bizarre facts about our food safety system was the FDA couldn’t order a recall about an unsafe product. It had to beg the company to do it, and if the company didn’t want to, the FDA had no recourse except to bring the company to court. And you know how long that takes!
Caryn Hartglass: I didn’t realize that.
Dr. Marion Nestle: So, that was why this legislation was so important. It gives the FDA the right to inspect, it covers the food supply from farm to table. That’s also an enormous step forward before this bill passed, the FDA really could only deal with foods once they were produced. Now it can go to farms and look and see how foods are being produced on farms.
Caryn Hartglass: Ah, so they couldn’t do that before.
Dr. Marion Nestle: They couldn’t do that before.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, that’s really interesting, because certainly we’ve got this nightmare going on. Does that include factory farms as well?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh no, that’s USDA. Because the way that the food safety system works, is that the Department of Agriculture is responsible for meat and poultry and dairy, and the FDA is responsible for pretty much everything else, with eggs falling someplace in between. Which is complicated enough. And that’s why the Government Accountability Office — which is the watchdog arm of Congress — has been saying for at least 20 years, that we need a food safety agency that governs the entire food supply, without this artificial separation between animal foods and vegetable foods. As if animal wastes don’t get on vegetables, to be disgusting about it.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, yes, and that’s a big problem.
Dr. Marion Nestle: It’s a big problem.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I want to say so many different things at the same time! I want to get back to that animal waste thing in a minute. But, with the FDA, they have been involved with regulating genetically-modified foods in the past, have they not?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Or not regulating them, I think would be a better way of putting it!
Caryn Hartglass: What did you say?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Or not regulating them.
Caryn Hartglass: But now, I mean, has this new regulation given them more power with genetically-modified foods?
Dr. Marion Nestle: No. It’s a non-issue. It’s not part of that. From the FDA’s standpoint, genetically-modified foods are exactly the same as any other kind.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, that’s an interesting thing where they talk out of two corners of their mouth. Where it’s exactly the same thing but it provides us with all kinds of benefits that the conventional foods don’t.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh, I’m not sure the FDA says that.
Caryn Hartglass: Ok.
Dr. Marion Nestle: It just says that it regulates that the way it regulates any other food, because they don’t see any difference.
Caryn Hartglass: Where are we today — 2011 — with genetically-modified foods and how safe they are?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, the safety issue is the way it always has been. There is very little evidence for harm to human health. If there is harm to human health, it’s not documented, it’s not recorded and there’s no evidence for it. Genetically-modified foods — crops, in particular, corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets — are grown on 80-95 percent of the acres devoted to those crops, so the farmers who farm those crops, those commodities, have adopted genetically-modified varieties almost to the tune of 80-100 percent. And that’s because genetically-modified crops allow farmers to grow them without having to use many applications of pesticides. That seems to be the main reason. And the pesticides that are used are less harmful than the ones on conventional crops. So, that’s on the commodities side, and those foods show up in processed foods. Any processed food that has corn or soybeans, that does not say it’s organic, you have to assume that it’s genetically modified, because the percentages are so high.
Caryn Hartglass: Have we seen that these genetically-modified foods are really using less pesticides?
Dr. Marion Nestle: No, they use different kinds of pesticides.
Caryn Hartglass: Just different.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah, it’s a different kind, and possibly, I don’t want to say this too strongly because I think the evidence is quite mixed, but it’s a pesticide that may not be as toxic as some of the others.
Caryn Hartglass: Ok.
Dr. Marion Nestle: But they’re using as much or more of it.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Now what about the organic foods, soy and corn? How are they being affected?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, they’re very concerned, because pollen drifts, and so if you’re growing corn and soybeans some place near genetically modified corn and soybeans, it’s quite possible for that pollen to fertilize your crops, and then you’ll have genetically modified genes. I’m going to have excuse myself for a minute.
Caryn Hartglass: Sure, let’s take a quick break. Let’s take a quick break and we’ll be right back in a few minutes.
Caryn Hartglass: Hi, I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. I’m here with Dr. Marion Nestle, and we’re talking about food safety and food politics. Dr. Nestle, we’ve talked at the beginning of the show about eating healthy food and how really simple it is, but there’s something that isn’t so simple, and that’s when there are food-borne illnesses, those mysterious things that even when we think we’re eating healthy food, sometimes the food might be contaminated. Where does some of that contamination come from?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, it comes from animal manure is the ultimate source. Vegetables grow in dirt, and if animal manure has been in that dirt, then those bacteria can get on the vegetables. When we have animals that are raised in industrial feedlots, if one of them gets sick with some disease, then those bacteria will spread throughout the herd. Or, actually what makes things even more difficult, is that the bacteria that make us sick don’t necessarily make cows sick, so they may not show signs of illness and yet be carrying bacteria that are harmful to us.
Caryn Hartglass: Is this waste treated or regulated in any way?
Dr. Marion Nestle: No, one of the astonishing things about industrial farm animal production is that the wastes are governed by Environmental Protection Agency rules, but they’re not enforced.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, that’s good.
Dr. Marion Nestle: So, you can have something like a pig farm that has thousands of pigs on it, and it will produce the amount of waste that’s equivalent to a small city, and we would never think of allowing a small city to produce waste that wasn’t treated, but it’s ok for farm animals to do that.
Caryn Hartglass: I’ve seen some pictures where the piles, the lagoon piles look like ski slopes.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh yeah, they look like mountains. There are places, there are industrial farm animal production facilities, CAFOs they’re called, that compost their waste and do a really, really good job of that. But those are few and far between.
Caryn Hartglass: Now you said the EPA has rules, but they don’t carry them out, or they don’t—
Dr. Marion Nestle: They don’t enforce them.
Caryn Hartglass: How does that happen? What’s the point of having rules if they’re not enforced?
Dr. Marion Nestle: People don’t like having those rules enforced, so the way the political system works is that the companies that are producing these animals under these conditions will argue that jobs will lost, that’s always the first thing. Jobs will be lost, and the price of food will go up. You know, yes we can do it better, but then your food is going to cost more. So, the politicians cave in, and also these companies are funding their election campaigns, and they cave in. But I was on the Pugh Commission on industrial farm animal production, and that was one of the main conclusions of the investigation that that Commission did, which was to discover that those rules were in place, they just weren’t being enforced, and so the first recommendation was enforce the rules.
Caryn Hartglass: Do we need another committee on top of the EPA to make sure they’re enforcing their own rules?
Dr. Marion Nestle: I think that this is where the legal system comes into play.
Caryn Hartglass: What can we do as consumers?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Scream bloody murder, write your congressman, complain to officials. As consumers it’s bad enough, but if you think about the people who live within some number of miles of those operations, you just feel so sorry for them. Their quality of life is horrible. I went to, I gave a lecture at a college in Indiana this year, and we were driving, it was night, we were driving to the campus from the airport, and I said, “What’s that?” I was just stunned, we were in a closed car with air conditioning on—
Caryn Hartglass: And you had a smell? You smelled something?
Dr. Marion Nestle: I said, “Holy smokes! What is that?” And they said, “Oh, a pig farm.” As if it were completely normal and you just wouldn’t think anything of it. But I don’t think the people who live around there should be subjected to that!
Caryn Hartglass: No. And I think many of them don’t want to be subjected to it.
Dr. Marion Nestle: No, and if they are living there, they’re living there because they’re poor and they don’t have any options. I don’t think that’s right either.
Caryn Hartglass: Part of the problem is, many of us are really busy and we have full lives, and we want to believe that our government is protecting us, and there are regulations in place, and we believe that things are being taken care of, and it’s hard to believe that they’re not, and it’s hard to break away from our convenient lifestyle to fight for these things.
Dr. Marion Nestle: It’s very hard, but I think it’s absolutely necessary. And there are lots of ways for fighting for these things that don’t take a lot of time. One is to join a group that’s working on issues that are of concern. There are lots of groups working on them in lots of places. The more people who get involved in it, the better. The other is you can always vote with your fork. When you go to a grocery store, you ask the grocery store questions about where the food comes from and how the animals were raised, and after a while everybody gets the idea that this a big concern to consumers, and then things happen. And then you can always buy at farmers’ markets where you know your farmer.
Caryn Hartglass: Ok, so there’s all of this waste, and it’s not regulated, and it’s filled with all kinds of bacteria, and somehow, through fertilizers or whatever it contaminates some of our food. You were saying before that the FDA doesn’t have the power to make a recall, they do now but they don’t have the funds.
Dr. Marion Nestle: It does now.
Caryn Hartglass: So, beforehand we were only hearing voluntary recalls from companies?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh yeah, the FDA asked for voluntary recalls. “Please? Pretty please, could you recall your unhealthy products?”
Caryn Hartglass: Are there recalls we just don’t hear about?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: Because I imaging there are just so many.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Yes, and there are refused recalls that we don’t hear about.
Caryn Hartglass: Ha, that’s good. Ok. So, what’s the best way to avoid contaminated food? Know your farmer, going to food—
Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah, I mean buying from a small farmer is not a guarantee that food won’t be contaminated, but it’s going to do a lot less damage, then if it’s a big industrial operation. So you can do that, you can grow your own, that’s always a nice thing to do, even in little bits and pieces, that’s opting out of the food system. Or you can buy from a food company that is extremely proud of its efforts to try to do something about food safety, and tells you what they do. I’ve visited, I don’t know if you remember the spinach recalls in 2007, where the spinach was recalled for reasons of e-coli, and they never really did find out how the e-coli got on that field. But the company that packed it was an organic vegetable producer, and they were determined that this was never going to happen again. They hired a microbiologist, and set up a whole new procedure for washing and testing vegetables, and they come into the plant, going through their washing procedures, testing them again before they’re shipped out, and it’s a very, very impressive procedure. When I went and went through the plant to see how they were doing it, I was very impressed, and I said, “This must be really expensive, how do you justify the cost, and what does this cost you?” And they said, “Well, our volume is so great that it has increased the cost of our vegetables by a penny a crate.” A penny a crate? I think people can afford that. And I think most people would be willing to pay a penny more if they thought the food was going to be safe.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. I didn’t even realize this, so right now, food suppliers are not required to do these kinds of inspections?
Dr. Marion Nestle: No, or testing. They’re not required to do that kind of testing. Now, under the new rules, the producer of every food will need to have in place a system for what they’re calling preventive controls. It used to be called HACCP—Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, a mouthful to say. All that means is that you look at the way your production system works, and you look at the places where contamination could occur, and you take steps to prevent contamination at those stages. Then you test to make sure that the system is working. And that’s now required for everybody.
Caryn Hartglass: Well that’s good, and enforced?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well we don’t know about enforcement, there’s no money.
Caryn Hartglass: Now what about the small food suppliers, small farmers, small organic farmers? I know certainly with the organic certification, there are some small farmers that choose not to get the certification because it’s too complicated and too much red tape and processing paperwork. So I imagine with testing as well for the smaller suppliers that it might be too expensive for them.
Dr. Marion Nestle: It might, but I think there are ways of getting around that if there were a will. I think that small producers need to produce food safely too, just as much as large producers, and that those who are committed to doing a good job on this can find ways to do this that aren’t going to kill them financially. There are some burdensome aspects of it, and I think that the FDA has to deal with small producers about ways to give them a little relief for that, and in fact the bill did give small producers some relief for some of it. Whether it’s enough or not, I don’t know, we’ll have to see how it plays out.
Caryn Hartglass: Now the other problem with food-borne illnesses, with the way our system is set up, it’s really next to impossible I would think, to pinpoint where a lot of these contaminations come from.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh yeah, it’s brilliant epidemiology if they can figure out where it happened.
Caryn Hartglass: Really brilliant.
Dr. Marion Nestle: The spinach thing, for example, because the people who got this particular kind of e-coli were scattered all over the country in multiple states, they had to interview them to figure out what it was that they had eaten, and it was just a stroke of luck that there were people who had bags of that spinach remaining in their refrigerator. Because usually by the time they figure out what happened, the whole thing is over because everyone has either eaten it and gotten sick, or cooked it and didn’t get sick.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s just an interesting thing, we talk about how we’ve really evolved in terms of hygiene and things in the 20th century, now the 21st century, technology has really helped us clean up our water and increased our food supply, and yet it’s also—are we moving steps forward or steps back? In terms of what progress has offered us for our food?
Dr. Marion Nestle: I think if these rules go into effect and the FDA is actually able to do what it’s supposed to do, that will be a big step forward. The idea was, that this would be the first step, and then Congress would fix the USDA rules to be like those of the FDA, and then they would finally start working on a single food safety agency that would govern the whole thing. So I’m still hopeful that that will happen, we’re in a, we have a very difficult congressional situation right now.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, they want to cut budget costs everywhere.
Dr. Marion Nestle: And it remains to be seen whether that’s what the people in this country want.
Caryn Hartglass: Ok, so that’s just the everyday thing with our food, and our safety, and contamination, but when we have global environmental disasters, like the one that just happened in Japan, how is that going to affect the food here in the United States?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, it’s going to make it more expensive, because our cheap source of Asian whatever we get isn’t going to be so cheap anymore. Because the Japanese have announced that they have, in an effort to try to keep these nuclear reactors from blowing up and spewing and having another Chernobyl where radioactive waste gets into the atmosphere forever, they’ve started releasing some of the water in the reactors into the ocean. Oh great, terrific. Well, ocean currents move.
Caryn Hartglass: What are they going to do with it? It’s just a nightmare over there.
Dr. Marion Nestle: There’s nothing else they can do, I guess, but this puts the whole world in danger and at risk, so the first thing you hope is that the radioactive waste will be diluted so much, that it will be at such a low level, that it won’t make very much difference. I don’t think there’s a level low enough at which it makes no difference whatsoever, but it won’t make much of a difference if it’s at a really low level, so that’s fine. But in the meantime, the FDA is testing seafood that’s coming in from the Far East. The New York Times announced this morning that high-end restaurants in New York have all bought Geiger counters to screen the fish and make sure they’re not feeding their customers radioactive fish.
Caryn Hartglass: And is this an appropriate way to test the fish?
Dr. Marion Nestle: It would be funny if it weren’t so horrendous!
Caryn Hartglass: Can the restaurants actually tell from these tools?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh sure. The fish will emit radioactive signals and it will make the Geiger counter go “Beep beep beep beep beep!” These things work, they absolutely work. The hope is that this terrifying situation will be contained, and that everything will be diluted enough so that the levels will be so low that they won’t make any difference. But in the meantime, you’ve got this stuff coming into the food chain, because little fish are filtering this water and incorporating these radioactive elements into their tissues, and then big fish eat little fish, and so forth and so on. I mean, this will take a while, but I think that if this is something you are concerned about, you want to put a Geiger counter up against it, because all of the officials are saying, “There’s no problem here.”
Caryn Hartglass: I think it’s time to buy stock in Geiger counter testing equipment.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Officials are saying, “There’s no problem here,” right?
Caryn Hartglass: That was my next question, what are they telling us and is it credible?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well they’re saying one after another after another that there isn’t enough of this to make any difference. Now, this requires trust. And consumers have learned not to trust officials when it comes to things in the food supply, because there have been enough instances where they have been misled that there’s a lot of concern about it. How concerned should we be? I don’t have the faintest idea. But I’m happy to have a Geiger counter put up against this stuff. I think it’s a really good idea.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you know, Chernobyl happened in the late-70’s, do you know what the impact was on our food supply?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah, nobody lives there. Nobody lives within, I can’t remember the exact number of miles, but I think it’s around 50. Nobody lives within 50 miles of it because it’s so heavily contaminated that it’s dangerous to go there. They send people in in Hazmat suits to check things and make sure that everything’s ok, but there’s a lot of radioactivity there, lots.
Caryn Hartglass: Are there places that we can go on the internet to get good information about the radioactivity in food, or food contamination?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well the FDA is actually making an enormous effort to be transparent about these things. They’re testing, I believe that they’re posting the testing results, I’m not absolutely sure about that, but it’s quite possible. Their website has a lot of information on it, about these kinds of things, and I think they have something up on it. And then it becomes a question of whether you trust the FDA or not. On this, I do, I don’t think they’re making the numbers up.
Caryn Hartglass: Ok, let’s move to pets. You’ve put out all these great books for human food interests, and then you moved on to pet food. What was the motivation behind that?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well mostly, it was a personal issue, because my partner in life is an animal nutritionist, and I knew we could write together, and I thought it would be wonderful fun to write a book together with him, so we did, and it was.
Caryn Hartglass: I haven’t read the book, but my understanding of a lot of pet food out there is that we have all these issues with human food, and whatever doesn’t meet spec, kind of all the garbage and remains go into pet food.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, it’s sort of like that, it’s not quite like that. There are parts of animals that we can’t eat. If you look at a cow for example, about half of the weight of the cow is suitable for human food, and the other half is not. And so, the question comes up, what do you do with that other half? These are the organs and the bones and the parts of animals that we don’t eat, but they’re perfectly nutritious, there’s nothing wrong with them. And so, what do you do with them? Do you burn them? Do you bury them? Do you turn them into pet food? And it seems to me that turning them into pet food is the most ecologically useful thing to do, and I can’t think of anything wrong with that, I really can’t. In fact, I think it performs an enormous public service to use the parts of animals, that would otherwise be thrown away, burned, or do something that wouldn’t be good for the environment, to be used for pet food. Dogs and cats don’t care.
Caryn Hartglass: And it doesn’t have any unhealthful side effects?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, it shouldn’t. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it. If you think about it, we don’t eat the hearts, we don’t eat the kidneys, but those are perfectly good organs. To the extent that, those are called by-products, and to the extent that those by-products are in pet food, I don’t see anything wrong with it, I really don’t. Where people get concerned is when those by-products are rendered, and rendered with other kinds of materials, and you’re not sure about what those rendered products are unless they’re being tested for toxic wastes and so forth, they could be harmful in some way. From what I could see of pet food companies, most of them were not trying to kill pets. They were trying to save money, but they weren’t trying to save money, but they weren’t trying to kill pets.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s good. Well, that really wouldn’t be good for their business.
Dr. Marion Nestle: You wouldn’t think so.
Caryn Hartglass: So what is the Chihuahua in the coal mine?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh, that was Pet Food Politics. That was a case study of the melamine recall in pet food in 2007, when—
Caryn Hartglass: The Chinese weren’t trying to kill our pets?
Dr. Marion Nestle: No, they were just trying to make money. There’s an ingredient in pet food called wheat gluten, which is the same as seitan, and it’s just a wheat protein, it’s wheat that has had all the starch washed out of it, and all that’s left is the protein. It’s an ingredient that’s used as a binder in pet food, but it’s quite nutritious. It’s protein, it’s good. It turned out that the Chinese were substituting melamine in regular wheat flour for this wheat protein, and calling it wheat protein, because they could use melamine, which is an industrial chemical used to make plastic dinnerware. It has a lot of nitrogen in it, and it fools the test for protein into thinking that it’s protein, because that test only tests for nitrogen, it doesn’t test for protein itself. So, they were able to put melamine in this, and get wheat gluten prices for it, and they got greedy. I think they had probably been doing it for decades, and they got greedy and put in a lot, and that pet food that had that ingredient in it, the melamine itself isn’t toxic, but it has a by-product that it forms crystals with, and those crystals blocks the kidneys of dogs and cats and killed them. The big shocker there was that one company in Canada was responsible for making 95 brands of pet food that had this particular chemical in it, and those pet foods ranged from the cheapest to the most expensive, and yet they all had the same ingredient and they were all made in a factory owned by this one company. That was a big shock.
Caryn Hartglass: Were there a lot of pets that were killed as a result?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Nobody knows. The FDA says that a very, very small number, under 20. And yet, 6,000 people filed, or joined a class action suit, and there were thousands and thousands of people who didn’t join the class action suit, whose pets died. It’s very, very hard to know because there’s no surveillance system for pets in the United States.
Caryn Hartglass: Do pets have food allergies? You mentioned wheat gluten, do they have allergies with wheat, like humans do?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Some do, yeah, they do. And then you have to find something else to feed them. There’s a big argument among some pet owners that you shouldn’t be feeding grains do pets at all, but a lot of pets do fine on them. And 90% of the pets in America are fed commercial pet foods, and many of them do fine, some of them don’t.
Caryn Hartglass: What about, do you have thoughts on feeding dogs a vegetarian diet? I know lots of people that do that.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, one of the interesting things about pet food is that it’s kind of like infant formula. It’s for, the complete and balanced pet foods are formulated to meet a pet’s complete nutritional needs. So the things that are missing, that would be present in animal foods, are added to these vegetarian diets. A lot of people feel very strongly that pets should not be fed vegetarian diets, but it is possible to have a pet food that meets nutritional requirements using only vegetarian ingredients and those products are on the market. By the way, there’s no research that compares pets fed on one kind of complete and balanced food to another. That research simply does not exist.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, we barely have enough research on humans testing all these different diets.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Right, well pet owners really care about this, they really care a lot. And I think it would be terrific if there were research that compared one kind of pet feeding to another, so that you had a better handle on what works. As it is, everybody’s on their own to try and figure out what works best for their pets. And a lot of people cook for their pets, because they think that works best.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you cook for your pets?
Dr. Marion Nestle: I don’t have pets.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, you don’t have any? But I thought you wrote the book because you—
Dr. Marion Nestle: I had pets. I travel too much.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, they take up a lot of time.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, only if you do it right.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, exactly. You mentioned that one of the things in pet foods that could be a problem is this rendering of other animal products into the food. Something I haven’t heard about in a long time is mad cow disease. Do you know where we are with that?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Yeah, we’re at a place where it’s pretty much gone from the radar, it’s been taken care of because rules were put in place and those rules were actually followed, and the problem went away after a while. We’re now testing a certain number of cows to make sure that they don’t have it, there are rules about how old a cow can be before, after which it’s not allowed in the food supply, and while there are occasional lapses, in general those rules are being followed, and they’re just not seeing any problems in this country.
Caryn Hartglass: Ok, well that’s good news.
Dr. Marion Nestle: And that comes in at the same—there’s a lot of concern, there’s a book about pet feeding out that is very, very alarmist about how rendered pets are put into pet food because they get into these rendered ingredients, and I think that actually did happen in the past, but we could find no evidence whatsoever that it was happening now.
Caryn Hartglass: So, where do you get your food from, and where—
Dr. Marion Nestle: I live in New York City! I do the best I can. I am very fortunate, I live right next to a farmers’ market, and I buy most of my foods at the farmers’ market to the extent that I can. When I’m upstate, I grow my own. And I grow salad on my terrace.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh great, I have a terrace too, and I like to grow some foods there. I think there’s something inborn about us where we’re meant to grow food and we get excited about it.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, I certainly do.
Caryn Hartglass: When spring comes along and those first green leaves come out of my planters that I have done nothing with, it is quite a miracle.
Dr. Marion Nestle: It is, I have blueberries on my terrace and the leaves are just coming out.
Caryn Hartglass: Blueberries?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Blueberries.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow! I’ve got to get some of those.
Dr. Marion Nestle: They’re doing very well.
Caryn Hartglass: Ok, I just wondered, what are some of your favorite foods?
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh I happen to be a fruit and vegetable lover, so for me my advice is really easy to follow.
Caryn Hartglass: And I’ve seen some great pictures of you on the internet with all these great, colorful vegetables.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Surrounded by gorgeously colored fruits and vegetables, yes. So I think the mark of a really great chef is somebody who can make fruits and vegetables really sing.
Caryn Hartglass: We just have a few more minutes, and I’m just wondering, are there some things that people should be concerned about with their food that we haven’t talked about, or things that they should be focusing on to know that they’re getting the best or the most wholesome, or the safest–
Dr. Marion Nestle: I think the closer you are to the food, the better it is. That’s why I encourage people to grow their own, even if it’s a little bit, and support farmer’s markets. Join a community-supported agriculture group where you’re paying a farmer, and understand that food is political and try to fix the political system so that the food system is safer and better for everybody.
Caryn Hartglass: So definitely writing letters to our congress, representatives is a good thing.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Absolutely. This is about democracy, use it!
Caryn Hartglass: And the school systems too, we haven’t really talked about them, but they get a lot of their food and are regulated by the USDA and these school lunch programs, and there is some, there is a positive progression going on.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Absolutely, there’s schools all over the country that are performing miracles.
Caryn Hartglass: Performing miracles!
Dr. Marion Nestle: I think so.
Caryn Hartglass: And I think, I would like to think we will find that the methods that are the healthiest for us will ultimately be cost-effective.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Oh, I don’t think there is any question about that. For one thing, it will save on health care costs later on.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, we haven’t even talked about health care costs. Ok, so what book is coming out next?
Dr. Marion Nestle: I’m working on a book about calories with my partner, Mal Nesheim. We had such a good time with the pet food book that we’ve gone back to human food, and we’re writing a book called Calories: From Science to Politics with the University of California Press. It will come out in a year.
Caryn Hartglass: Is that going to tell us what we should and shouldn’t be eating, in terms of calories?
Dr. Marion Nestle: I think it’s going to try to explain what calories are, and what you do about them, in a way that I hope will make sense.
Caryn Hartglass: The good calories, the bad calories, the calories that come with nutrients and those that don’t.
Dr. Marion Nestle: That’s right, all that.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, you have a wonderful website with a blog: foodpolitics.com, I love everything that you write there, and I know a lot of people do too, because I think a lot of your stuff gets stolen, and other people write about it in their blogs.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Well, you know what? I think that’s just fine. I consider my blog to be completely open source, it’s really nice if people cite the source, but mostly I just want to get the word out. I also Twitter @MarionNestle. I was just thrilled beyond belief to have my Twitter, of all things, ranked by Time Magazine as one of the Top Ten in Health and Science. I thought that was fabulous!
Caryn Hartglass: It is fabulous, and it’s one of the few places where we know that the information is going to be credible.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Thank you for that.
Caryn Hartglass: The last thing I want to say, is that I like the humor or the sarcasm that comes with your entries too.
Dr. Marion Nestle: Thank you!
Caryn Hartglass: It’s so important, because all the things that are going on in this world, it could be very easy to fall into a dark place, and then we don’t really get anywhere.
Dr. Marion Nestle: That’s right. I think you have to have a sense of humor about it, and remain optimistic at all times, and that’s what I try to do.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you, thank you so much for this hour, thank you for your books, Safe Food and Safe Politics, and your website, foodpolitics.com. Be well! Thank you so much, I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. Have a very delicious week!
Transcribed by Sarah Gumz, 2/6/2014