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Marion Nestle's Fight For Food safety

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By Malcolm Jolley

Marion Nestle has been fighting for better food for decades, but in the last five years she's published five books and galvanised academic and popular opinion around (better) food politics, to borrow from the title of one of her works. Mark Bittman is clear to cite her as a principal influence in food Matters which is steadily climbing the bestseller lists. And there can be no doubt that her advice to 'eat less, move more, and eat lots of fruit and vegetables' influenced Michael Pollan's creed 'eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables' in In Defence of Food. Serious food writers pay attention to Marion Nestle, and so do a whole lot readers.

Nestle was in Toronto recently to lecture at Hart House at the University of Toronto. I went to see her speak to a sold out crowd of shabby chic young professors, grad students and serious looking third and fourth year liberal arts majors. And before her talk I managed to wrangle my way into joining her and a small group of U of T academics and  related food activists for dinner beforehand. Nestle was calm, war, full of humour but also deadly serious. She sees an educated consumer as an essential component to ensuring food safety. Her 2006 book, What To Eat was determined effort to get people to consider what they put into their mouths. "It's really about how to think about food," she explains, and she marvels at the sort of confessional stories she receives from readers who by simply turning to relatively well balanced diet have lost weight,  improved their health and transformed their lives. Nestle is clearly pleased to have made an affect on what she calls the "personal responsibility" approach to nutrition and food issues. But as she says,  "You don't have to be a genius to know what to have for dinner." In fact, Her life's work, her passion and the subject of her latest book, Pet Food Politics, is what she calls the "social approach". Marion Nestle wants to change the way we (citizenry, government, business, agriculture - everyone) produce food as much as how we consume it. And she fights tirelessly for food safety.

As a nutritionist and an academic who submits to rigorous peer review,  Nestle knows that food safety in North America means two things: 1) the steady growth of excess calorie consumption and the industrial diseases that come with it (Type 2 diabetes being most prominent), and 2) the absence of proper controls, safety standards and traceability that allows E. coli from animal waste to contaminate spinach form California, peanut butter from Georgia or dog food from Ontario. The Menu Foods dog food crisis hit Nestle hard and spurred her to write Pet Food Politics because she saw it as "The Chihuahua in The Coalmine" since the global production system that saw Chinese plastics used to bolster protein test results in dog food additives is exactly the same for people food. In China her suspicions were tragically proved true as Chinese infants were made sick,  sometimes fatally, by melamine contaminated formula. "Never have I been so sorry to be so right, " she says.

Decades of advocacy work and lobbying the American government have left Nestle wary. She is cautiously optimistic that the Obama administration will address food safety and food system policies. Key appointment like the heads of the Food and Drug Agency or the Center for Disease Control have yet to be made. As salmonella outbreaks spread across the continent, she worries if the only way for real change in food production standards may only come around if a senior politician is personally affected - she is quick to make clear this is not something she wishes.

What is both frustrating and hopeful about Nestle's message is it's simplicity. For all the complexity of the global economy and biological science she studies, the solutions are pretty straight forward. Regain "parental authority" at the dinner table by re-instating pre-Reagan era rules about advertising to children. Regionalise food systems. Review farm policies that encourage dumping excess calories on the market. But most importantly enforce existing safety standards and keep the regulatory systems separate independent from the industries they monitor. Incidentally, Nestle has a lot of sympathy for big food companies who, she points out, are squeezed and pressured by Wall Street, Government, Advocates like her, picky consumers - she knows it can't be easy and understands why they make deceptive health claims on their packages. All the more reason to make the rules firm and evenly enforced. Likewise, she is not a protectionist: "I am happy to support Chilean farmers, when it's seasonally appropriate." She is not, in other words, a fundamentalist. "Food safety is an easy problem," she says with a smile, "we know how to achieve it."


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