PEOPLE – Interview with Marion Nestle

15 Mar 2004

Marion Nestle is a Slow Food USA Board member and Professor and Chair of Nutrition and Food Studies at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University.

Many members may already be familiar with Marion through her published works: Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology and Bioterrorism (2003), Food Politics: How The Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002), and Nutrition in Clinical Practice (1985). Her degrees include a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, both from the University of California at Berkeley.

As Slow Food members are well aware, the announcement of the USA’s first ‘mad cow’ has vaulted issues of food safety and traceability onto the nation’s newspapers’ front pages. With a January 24th Op-Ed piece in the New York Times concerning sugar and a recent appearance on an ABC News special with Peter Jennings discussing obesity, Marion’s views have been center stage in the national discussion on food, nutrition and food safety. With this recent media exposure, we thought this would be a perfect moment to see what was percolating within Marion’s brain regarding these issues and the specter of the ‘mad cow’ threat.

Q: In your view, what is the single most important issue to come out of the recent detection of ‘mad cow’ within the United States?
A: The lack of commitment of beef producers to producing safe food and of the government in making sure they do. What happened with mad cow is no different than what has happened with meat contaminated with bacteria. The beef industry prizes cost cutting against all other issues and the public goes along with it because food safety problems are just the price of having a cheap food supply. The mad cow crisis points to the need to produce safe food as well as cheap food.

Q: When the downer cow in Washington state was first announced to have tested positive for BSE, the first reaction of many Americans was “how could this have happened here?” Well, Marion, how DID this happen?

A; The big surprise is not that it happened, but that it didn’t happen sooner. The British have been saying for years that the only reason we haven’t had a case of mad cow disease in this country is that we haven’t looked for it. Other cases are sure to follow. We think the affected cow must have eaten feed made from the leftover parts of cows with the disease before the ban went into effect in 1997. Maybe. But the beef industry has a problem–what to do with the leftover parts of cows after slaughter. We slaughter nearly 40 million cows in the U.S. every year. Let’s make the optimistic assumption that 60% goes to meat. The other 40%, or the equivalent of 16 million cows, has to go someplace. It’s tempting to turn it into feed for other animals. We may not be feeding cow parts to cows anymore, but we still feed them to pigs, chickens, and pets.

Q: What precautionary measures– or BSE responses– undertaken by other countries do you hope the USA will emulate?

A: After a week of telling us that our food supply was safe, the USDA took some obvious steps–a ban on downer cows (those that can’t walk to slaughter) in the food supply, a ban on mechanically removed meat that might have nervous system tissue in it, a requirement for testing high-risk cows, and creation of a system for tracing cows and herds. Better late than never. We need a broader testing program, a system for tracing meat once it’s off the cow, and recall authority for the USDA. The USDA is still trying to trace all the cows in the herd this one came from and to find the meat made from her. It’s troubling that her meat was mixed with meat from 19 other cows and sent to Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and a bunch of states. Most of it was eaten by the time the test results came back.”

Q: As a Slow Food member, what can I do to directly impact the current mad cow controversy?

A: Understand that this is a political problem that requires political action: complaining to Congress, writing letters to federal agencies and the president, and voting with forks. For example, if lots of people stopped eating commercially produced hamburger, it might be a wake-up call to the beef industry to clean up its act.

Q: This BSE discovery may be the springboard event that will not only bring word like traceability into the national consciousness, it may also offer the possibility of transforming the U.S. beef industry into a better, safer system. What else do you see as the silver lining of this frightening announcement?

A: Just that. The USDA started out by saying that it already was doing everything necessary to protect the food supply. One week later, after 40 or so countries refused to buy our beef, it discovered some measures to take. These may be too little too late, but at least they are a start.

Q: In your view, what is the primary misconception that the United States is under regarding the safety of our food?

A: That the government is minding the store. In fact, government safety rules are mired in laws passed in 1906 long before current hazards came into existence. Every time some government agency tries to update the laws, the industry screams bloody murder and nothing much gets done. The U.S. General Accounting Office has advocated for years for creation of a single food agency independent of industry and vested interests. After 9/11, lots of people called for such a thing but instead we got the Office of Homeland Security which is so complicated that it makes things worse, not better.

Q: What would Slow Food members be interested in knowing about the “WHO Sugar Flap”?

A: Only that certain food trade associations will stop at nothing to protect the products they represent, regardless of effects on health. In this case, lobbyists for sugars and corn sweeteners argued that WHO’s suggestion to limit added sugars to 10% of calories or less—an amount equivalent to about 2 ounces a day—was so restrictive that the U.S. should withdraw funding from WHO in protest. The WHO level is exactly the same as what our USDA proposes in the familiar Food Guide Pyramid, so there’s nothing new here. The industry is afraid that its international markets will decrease. They argue that the 10% figure has no basis in science but sales are what the argument really is about.

Q: What has happened since Peter Jennings covered the obesity issue on ABC? What has been the aftermath? Have there been any positive changes put into effect, as a direct result?

A: I was giving a talk that night and missed the program, but I had more than 200 e-mails the next day so it must have gotten plenty of attention. I understand that it’s being shown in lots of schools, which seems like a great use for it. The Center for Consumer Freedom complained, but they always do—they are lobbyists for the most conservative branch of the restaurant industry—and complain about anything that might dip into restaurant profits. Whenever they complain about something, I assume it must be having a good effect.

Allison Radecki works at Slow Food USA, NYC.

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