Category Archives: Food Issues

How oreos work like cocaine

Now you know why you can’t stop!

Research made national news this week that the cookies are more addictive than psychoactive drugs. That claim may be exaggerated, but the neuroscience of junk food addiction is nonetheless fascinating and relevant—mentally, physically, and socially.
OCT 17 2013
Joseph Schroeder and student Lauren Cameron, in Schroeder’s lab (Bob MacDonnell/Connecticut College)

“Nothing gets me high as that sandwich cookie does. But I love the filling most. I rub it on my roast, mix it in with my coffee, and spread it on my toast. I love the white stuff, baby. In the middle of an Oreo.”

—Al Yankovic, “The White Stuff,” 1992


The rat stands in a plastic maze. At the end are two rooms, each decorated in its own unmistakably unique, gaudy fashion. The rat knows them both. Inside one room, he has received injections of morphine or cocaine. In the other, he’s gotten injections of a saline placebo. The rat has learned to prefer the drug room.

He even chooses to lounge in the drug room after the injection supplies have dried up. It’s kind of like how you might hang out in the parking lot outside of an old high school, remembering the glory days; or at the apartment of an ex-lover, befriending the new tenants. Your ex-lover is dead, but it still feels good.

This is a paradigm called conditioned place preference. It’s a standard behavioral model used to study the Pavlovian rewarding and aversive effects of drugs. Dr. Joseph Schroeder’s rats are not pioneers.

Schroeder is an associate professor of psychology and director of the behavioral neuroscience program at Connecticut College. Last year, Jamie Honohan was a senior student researcher in Schroeder’s lab and scholar in the college’s Holleran Center, which focuses on social justice issues, public policy, and community action. Honohan was interested in the obesity epidemic—specifically, why there is more obesity in urban, low-socioeconomic-status populations, and the role of a lack of nutritious food.

So Honohan came to Schroeder with an idea for some research based on the rat conditioning model. What’s a thing that both rats and humans like? Sewers, tunneling, hammocks, … Oreos. That’s it. Oreos are also cheap calories, widely available, and contribute to the obesity epidemic. Would feeding Oreos to the rats in this model have the same conditioning effect as giving them drugs?  Continue reading


‘The global food system is causing a public health disaster’

By , The Guardian,9 March 2012

The UN rapporteur on the right to food says governments in rich and poor countries must bring in tough measures to combat the unhealthy products being marketed.

More than 1.3 billion people around the world are overweight or obese

More than 1.3 billion people around the world are overweight or obese. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

The global food system is making people sick in both rich and poor countries, the UN expert on food warned on Tuesday, as he called for a range of dramatic measures to overhaul it and tackle what he described as an international “public health disaster”.

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, presenting his latest report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, called for governments to bring in tough measures. He wants to see taxes on unhealthy products, including fizzy drinks; much stricter regulation of junk processed foods that are high in saturated fats, salt and sugar; a global crackdown on advertising and marketing of junk foods; an overhaul of the subsidy regimes in the EU and US that make the commodity crops that form the basis of junk food diets cheap while leaving healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables expensive; and a redirecting of support to local food production that allows farmers around the world to earn a decent living and consumers to afford nutritious food.

The report marks a significant increase in pressure on agribusiness. As rapporteur on the right to food, De Schutter has previously highlighted the way the system of global food trade – dominated by a small number of transnational traders, manufacturers and retailers – marginalises farmers in developing countries and threatens food security. But it is the first time he has produced a full report on the burden of disease the system also inflicts on western consumers.

His analysis echoes that made by NGOs and campaigners in recent years, from Professor Tim Lang in Food Wars to Raj Patel in Stuffed and Starved, and my own books Not on the Label, and Eat Your Heart Out. The policy pursued postwar, and in particular since the 1970s Soviet grain crisis, of going for maximum production of cheap calories over quality of diet has served neither affluent countries nor developing ones. One in seven people remain undernourished today, with many more suffering from serious micronutrient deficiencies, while at the same time more than 1.3 billion people around the world are overweight or obese.

The solutions offered by agribusiness of more hi-tech or fortified foods cannot solve the problems, which are systemic, according to De Schutter.

But since this view is in effect an attack on the major economic interests of the west, the question is how the rapporteur thinks change can be brought about. For De Schutter, the UN agencies that have influence over policy in the area of food and health are where they were with tobacco in the 1980s. At the UN high-level summit on non-communicable disease in New York last September, the US blocked tougher wording on goals to combat the epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in order to protect their agrifood companies.

But now his report is presented, governments will have to come clean on their individual positions. As with tobacco, it will be a long haul – but the scale and cost of diet-related disease will also concentrate governments’ minds. In Mexico, for example, 70% of the adult population is overweight or obese and the average adult requires medical treatment for 18 years for related diseases such as diabetes. China too has reached a tipping point, where 10% of the population is overweight or obese, matching for the first time of numbers of its citizens who are undernourished.

Key to changing the food system is addressing the excessive concentrations of power in the chain. Another report (pdf) from the Centre for Economic Policy Research highlights how cartels in global agrifood have contributed to food price spikes in recent years that have threatened the food security of millions around the world. The report, Trade, Competition and the Pricing of Commodities, records 36 international cartels involving food that distorted prices in the 2000s.

Ending world hunger is possible – so why hasn’t it been done?

By Duncan Green, The Guardian, February 2012

Some 850 million people go to bed hungry. If the right decisions are made now, we can feed the world and address inequality

Malnourished children in Malawi

Malnourished children in Malawi. Photograph: Martin Godwin

Save the Children is to be applauded for reminding us all of one of the most extraordinary and humiliating aspects of living in the modern world: child hunger. Drawing a parallel with the fight to abolish slavery, the Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah recently asked what future generations will condemn us for. One sure candidate is the needless human carnage wrought by hunger. Some 850 million people(one in eight of the world’s population) go to bed hungry every night. Many of them are children, for whom early hunger leaves a lifelong legacy of cognitive and physical impairment. The human and economic waste is horrifying.

Such hunger is not due to a shortage of food – globally there is enough to go round and if (a big if) we make the right decisions now, we can continue to feed the world despite population growth and climate change. By some estimates, stopping the waste of food after harvest due to poor storage or transport infrastructure, and then in our own kitchens, could free up half of all food grown. The number of overweight and obese people in the world, suffering their own health problems, including a sharp rise in heart disease and diabetes, is roughly equal to the number of hungry people. That highlights one of the underlying causes of hunger – extreme levels of inequality, both within and between countries.

Ending hunger is entirely feasible (indeed, once achieved, the only question will be why it took us so long). It requires action at several different levels. At a national level, progressive governments in Brazil and Ghana have shown how to cut hunger sharply, through cash transfers to poor people, raising the minimum wage and investing in smallholder farmers (especially women), who both produce food, and are some of the poorest and hungriest people in the Alice in Wonderland world of a brutally unfair farming system.

That focus on national decisions and national politics highlights how fast the world is changing. In many cases, aid is no longer the main story – countries like India, growing at 8% a year and with a mushrooming middle class, need to take responsibility for their hungry masses, introducing proper taxation and effective social services to end hunger and malnutrition. Oxfam is working with people’s organisations within the country to bring that about. Elsewhere, though, international food aid remains essential, but should be improved, for example by ending the waste and delay of transporting food thousands of miles from donor countries and giving cash instead.

Beyond supporting aid for food and agricultural investment, what else can we in the well-fed countries do? Start by putting our own house in order. The rich countries are part of both the solution and the problem. Europe and America’s push to reduce their dependence on imported oil and gas has led them to introduce targets and subsidies for biofuels, but these compete directly with food production, forcing up prices for poor people. Rich country greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change at a pace that outstrips even the most pessimistic projections of the climate modellers, and there are few signs of governments agreeing (still less achieving) the kinds of reductions needed to avoid catastrophic temperature rises that will particularly harm tropical agriculture. We urgently need an international effort to find a way to feed the planet’s growing population without destroying its ecosystems, yet current investments are feeble.

Hunger is both a cause and a symptom of poverty. Damaged bodies and brains are a moral scandal and a tragic waste of economic potential. That hunger exists at all shows the urgency of redistributing income and assets to achieve a fairer world. Providing the additional calories needed by the 13% of the world’s population facing hunger would require just 1% of the current global food supply. That that redistribution has not already taken place is truly something to be ashamed of.

Flawed global good system

By , The Guardian, 30 January 2012

MDG : Food crisis in Sahael : Malnutrition in Niger
A child suffering from malnutrition in Mirriyah, Niger. Flaws in the global food system demand greater attention. Photograph: Sia Kambou/European Commission

Drought and famine are not extreme events. They are not anomalies. They are merely the sharp end of a global food system that is built on inequality, imbalances and – ultimately – fragility. And they are the regular upshot of a climate that is increasingly hostile and problematic for food production across huge swathes of the developing world.

For the third time in seven years, the Sahel region of west Africa is facing a toxic combination of drought, poor harvests and soaring food prices. In Niger, 6m people are now significantly at risk, together with 2.9m in Mali and 700,000 in Mauritania.

An immediate response is needed in order to avert a devastating food and nutrition crisis. In responding, however, we must also redefine the vocabulary of food crisis. It is our global food system that is in crisis. Last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa, and the current woes in the Sahel, are the surface cracks of a broken system. These regional outbreaks of hunger are not, as such, extreme events.

Beyond semantics, this is a crucial distinction. In viewing these events as extreme and unexpected, we fail to acknowledge the regularity and predictability of hunger. This flaw is fatal, for it means failing to acknowledge that the food system itself is broken. It means failing to build readiness for persistent famine into international development and humanitarian policy. And it means waiting until people starve before doing anything.

The worst hunger crisis in a century hit Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti last year, affecting 13 million people and taking thousands of lives. International aid came thick and fast from mid-2011 onwards, by which point mass displacement, malnutrition and death had already taken hold.

Yet, according to a damning report from Oxfam and Save the Children, early warning systems flagged up the crisis as early as August 2010. A full response came only after decision-makers could see evidence on the ground of the failed harvests and starvation that had been accurately predicted.

Poor local governance is part of the story. Governments in the Horn of Africa – with the help of international relief and development agencies – should have set up comprehensive anti-drought plans in advance, and should have sounded the alarm earlier. Signs are already more promising in the Sahel. Aside from Senegal and Burkina Faso, all affected governments have been quick to declare an emergency, devise plans, and call in international aid.

But the international community must also ensure that its crisis response tools are fit for purpose. Food aid is often counter-cyclical: donors are more generous when prices are low due to significant harvests, which tends to be when needs are lower. So standing regional food reserves should be set up to enhance access to affordable stocks as soon as needs begin to rise. This would allow emergency stocks to be pre-positioned in risk-prone regions, so that – when local purchases are not possible – humanitarian agencies have access to food stocks below the market rate.

The problem is not just about governance shortcomings in Africa, and it is not just about the modalities of delivering food aid. It is also a problem of principle. For decades, we have taken the wrong approach to feeding the world. In many poor countries, investment in agriculture has focused on a limited range of export crops. Too little has been done to support smallholders, who produce food for their local communities. Yet, by supporting these poor farmers, we could enable them to move out of poverty, and enable local food production to meet local needs.

Diverse farming systems, agroforestry and reservoirs to capture rainfall are sorely needed in drought-prone areas such as the Sahel. This requires a real commitment to local food systems, and an acknowledgement that trade and aid cannot provide all the answers, especially when international grain prices are so high.

The solution is therefore twofold: we must plan adequately for the food crises that emerge within our broken food system, and we must finally acknowledge how broken it is. Only when we are honest about hunger will the world’s most vulnerable populations receive the short-term aid and long-term support that they need.

UN- Famine has ended but crisis is not over

Ben Curtis/Associated Press/Feb 13 2012

Children lined up in January at a food center in Mogadishu, Somalia. The United Nations helped raise more than $1 billion for relief efforts in the region.

GENEINA, Sudan — The United Nations said on Friday that the famine that has killed tens of thousands of people in Somalia this past year has ended, thanks to a bumper harvest and a surge in emergency food deliveries.

But conditions are still precarious, United Nations officials warned, with many Somalis dying of hunger and more than two million still needing emergency rations to survive.

“The crisis is not over,” said José Graziano da Silva, director general of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, who just returned from Somalia.

Somalia has lurched from disaster to disaster in the past 21 years, since the central government basically collapsed. Year after year it is ranked as one of the poorest, most violent countries, plagued by warring militias, bandits, warlords and pirates.

Last year, a punishing drought killed livestock and turned once-fertile farms into fields of dust. Malnutrition and death rates soared, and hundreds of thousands of impoverished Somalis embarked on desperate treks across the desert, seeking help. Some starving mothers arrived at refugee camps in Kenya with dead children strapped to their backs. The few working hospitals in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, were soon so besieged with dying people that they resembled morgues.

The United Nations is careful about using the word famine, and in the past 20 years, only a few humanitarian emergencies have qualified, including in Sudan in 1998, Ethiopia in 2001 and Niger in 2005.

But in July, the United Nations declared a famine in Somalia, based on malnutrition and death rates, and said that the country was suffering its worst drought in more than 60 years. By early fall, the United Nations calculated that tens of thousands of people, mostly children, had starved to death or succumbed to malnutrition-related illnesses like measles.

The Shabab militant group made matters even worse. A vehemently anti-Western Islamist militia that controls large parts of southern Somalia, the Shabab banned most Western aid agencies from entering their territory and blocked starving villagers from fleeing famine zones. Shabab gunmen also warehoused sick people in their own refugee camps, which were visited by emissaries from Al Qaeda.

Still, aid agencies did not give up. The United Nations helped raise more than $1 billion for relief efforts across the region, and aid workers increased deliveries to areas controlled by Somalia’s weak transitional government and its allies. On top of that, heavy rains later in the fall replenished desiccated hinterlands, leading to a bountiful harvest. By November, famine conditions began to ease in some parts of the country.

Aid organizations are now focusing on recovery efforts, such as distributing seeds and digging irrigation canals.

“We can’t avoid droughts, but we can put measures in place to try to prevent them from becoming a famine,” Mr. Graziano da Silva said.

Heavy fighting, though, continues to roil much of the country. Thousands of Kenyan and Ethiopian soldiers recently poured into Somalia, ostensibly to fight the Shabab, though many analysts fear the Kenyans and Ethiopians are simply trying to carve out buffer zones to serve their own commercial interests.

At the same time, African Union troops are battling the Shabab on Mogadishu’s outskirts, and relentless shelling continues to kill civilians.

“The situation in Somalia is still in the throes of its worst humanitarian crisis in decades,” said Senait Gebregziabher, the head of operations in Somalia for Oxfam, an international aid organization. “The gains made so far could be reversed if the conflict worsens.”

“The world shouldn’t turn its back on Somalia,” she added, “solely because statistics say there is no longer a famine.”

International Cooperation is Key to Reversing the Global Obesity Epidemic

By , The Huffington Post, 10/25/11

Since 1980, the prevalence of overweight and obesity has more than doubled worldwide. The statistics are staggering: in 2008, 1.5 billion adults were overweight and nearly 1 in 10 were obese. The health consequences are enormous — obesity is a leading cause of global mortality. More than 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. In all, 44 percent of the world’s diabetes burden, 23 percent of the death and disability from cardiovascular disease and between 7 and 41 percent of certain cancers are attributable to overweight and obesity. As a result, 65 percent of the world’s population lives in a country where overweight and obesity kill more people than hunger and under-nutrition. [1] Although once considered conditions of affluence, overweight and obesity are now on the rise in low- and middle-income countries. As a result, these nations are now facing the double burden of infectious and chronic diseases.

In 2010, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), of the world’s 43 million overweight children, almost 35 million live in developing countries, compared to 8 million in developed countries. [2] This is particularly alarming, given that childhood obesity is associated with a host of health consequences, including Type II diabetes, respiratory conditions such as asthma, hypertension and mental health concerns. In addition, obese and overweight children face an elevated risk for premature death and disability when they reach adulthood. Even in countries with relatively low adult obesity rates, childhood obesity is rising dramatically. For example, Italy, where 42.9 percent of the adult population is overweight (among the thinnest adults in the industrialized world), 35.9 percent of children ages 8-9, are overweight — among the highest rates in the world based on available data (see Boxes 1 and 2). [3]

What is causing this alarming surge in global obesity? Worldwide, there has been a decline in physical activity due to more sedentary jobs and modes of transportation. Moreover, the intake of energy-dense foods high in fat, salt and sugar, and low in nutrients has accelerated rapidly with increased global trade and development. These societal changes in diet and physical activity are in turn exacerbated by agricultural trade policies, food marketing and a lack of urban planning and transportation that foster healthy lifestyles.

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Will a fat tax make Denmark healthier?

Posted by , The Washington Post , 10/04/2011

(Larry Kobelka for The Washington Post) Over the weekend, Denmark became the first country to tax saturated fats.

The tax — 16 Danish kroner per kilogram of saturated fat in a food – works out to about $6.27 per pound of saturated fat. It hits all foods with a saturated fat content above 2.3 percent. Danesreportedly began hoarding butter and other fatty products before the new regulation kicked in.

Denmark’s tax is the first of its kind in other ways. “This is a major development for two reasons: It’s an entire country, and they’ve taken on a particular part of the food supply,” says Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center on Food Policy, who is widely credited with introducing the idea of a soda tax in the 1990s.

The Danish government implemented the tax because it wanted Danes, who lag behind European life expectancy numbers, to get healthier. Will they? The research on “fat taxes” is sparse, but there’s good reason to be skeptical about the potential public health gains.

One thing we do know about food taxes is that they have to be really high to change behavior. Brownell and Tom Frieden, now director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote in a 2009 New England Journal of Medicine article that the 5 percent taxes on unhealthy foods that states tend to pass just don’t cut it. Brownell’s research has found it takes a 1-cent-per-ounce tax to change behavior; anything lower, will do great at bringing in revenue but likely won’t lower soda consumption.

In reducing fat consumption, the bar may prove to be even higher: While soda isn’t generally thought of as a meal, solid foods are a different ballgame, what people eat when they sit down to dinner or lunch. And what little research we have on fat taxes bears this out. A 2007 study form the Forum for Health Economics and Policy modeled the impact of a 10 percent fat tax on dairy products and found unimpressive results.

“Such a tax results in less than a 1 percent reduction in average fat consumption,” the authors found. “To have a substantial effect, the tax rate would have to be quite high. For example, a 50 percent tax only lowers fat intake by 3 percent.”

Moreover, the authors worried that a fat tax would be quite regressive, hitting lower-income families much harder than higher earners. “The welfare loss to a family earning $20,000 is nearly double that of a family earning $100,000,” they found.

Since the Danish tax covers foods with higher fat content at a greater rate, its impact could be all over the board. It may reduce the consumption of really high-fat foods, but not those with a fat content. Denmark’s Confederation of Industries calculated that the tax adds 12 cents to a bag of chips, 39 cents to a small package of butter and 40 cents to the price of a hamburger.

Denmark’s tax is, in Brownell’s view, an important “bellwether:” He believes it will test both whether the policy works, as well as the political appetite for such levying such fines.

“If foods with saturated fats now cost more, you don’t know what people will eat in their place. The hope is they’ll eat healthier things.”

As we watch the effect of Denmark’s new tax, we’re about to find out

Altered Food, GMOs, Genetically Modified Food

By Jennifer Ackerman, Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine

Food: How Altered?

Photo: Apple plant in jar

Behold the future of the apple: If the gene inserted into this apple plantlet makes it resistant to the fire blight bacterium, it could help save apple growers tens of millions of dollars a year. Researchers are also working on an apple that could vaccinate children against a virus that is the leading cause of pneumonia.

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Scientists continue to find new ways to insert genes for specific traits into plant and animal DNA. A field of promise—and a subject of debate—genetic engineering is changing the food we eat and the world we live in.

In the brave new world of genetic engineering, Dean DellaPenna envisions this cornucopia: tomatoes and broccoli bursting with cancer-fighting chemicals and vitamin-enhanced crops of rice, sweet potatoes, and cassava to help nourish the poor. He sees wheat, soy, and peanuts free of allergens; bananas that deliver vaccines; and vegetable oils so loaded with therapeutic ingredients that doctors “prescribe” them for patients at risk for cancer and heart disease. A plant biochemist at Michigan State University, DellaPenna believes that genetically engineered foods are the key to the next wave of advances in agriculture and health.

While DellaPenna and many others see great potential in the products of this new biotechnology, some see uncertainty, even danger. Critics fear that genetically engineered products are being rushed to market before their effects are fully understood. Anxiety has been fueled by reports of taco shells contaminated with genetically engineered corn not approved for human consumption; the potential spread of noxious “superweeds” spawned by genes picked up from engineered crops; and possible harmful effects of biotech corn pollen on monarch butterflies.

In North America and Europe the value and impact of genetically engineered food crops have become subjects of intense debate, provoking reactions from unbridled optimism to fervent political opposition.

Just what are genetically engineered foods, and who is eating them? What do we know about their benefits—and their risks? What effect might engineered plants have on the environment and on agricultural practices around the world? Can they help feed and preserve the health of the Earth’s burgeoning population?

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Can Big Food Regulate Itself? Fat Chance

By MARK BITTMAN, The New York Times, August 2, 2011

Life would be so much easier if we could only set our own guidelines. You could define the average weight as 10 pounds higher than your own and, voilà, no more obesity! You could raise the speed limit to 90 miles per hour and never worry about a ticket. You could call a cholesterol level of 250 “normal” and celebrate with a bag of fried pork rinds. (You could even claim that cutting government spending would increase employment, but that might be going too far.) You could certainly turn junk food into something “healthy.”

That’s what the food industry is doing.

Back in May I wrote about the voluntary guidelines for marketing junk food to kids developed by an interagency group headed by the Federal Trade Commission. These non-binding suggestions ask that the industry market real food to kids instead of the junk they so famously favor selling. But the industry argues that the recommendations are effectively mandatory because non-compliance would lead to retaliation and eliminate all food advertising to adolescents, as well as 74,000 jobs.

On the phone last week, Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut,  told me that even though the guidelines are “without teeth,” the pushback from the industry has been formidable: “We have seen political showmanship, misinformation about the impact of these voluntary guidelines, insistence that the industry has been successful in self-regulation and that these efforts would violate the First Amendment.”

That voluntary guidelines could curb the right to free speech is absurd, but not as wacky as letting the industry set its own standards. Yet that’s what has happened: The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a group of food manufacturers that includes McDonald’s, Burger King, PepsiCo and Kraft Foods came up with its own guidelines defining foods healthy enough to market to kids. (It’s worth mentioning another group, too — if just to admire its name,  The Sensible Food Policy Coalition — led by PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, General Mills and other big companies,  evidently created solely to prevent the voluntary guidelines from gaining a foothold.)

CFBAI is a champion of “self-regulation,” which means repeating a series of mantras that include “facts” like “there is no such thing as good food and bad food,” or that Cookie Crisp cereal (or dozens of others) “can be a part of a balanced diet,” all the while micro-adjusting hyper-processed food so that “more fiber” and “less sugar” aren’t outright lies, even though the food itself can hardly be claimed to be “less junky.” With self-regulation, even Kraft Singlescan be considered “part of a balanced diet.”

And guess what? In general, the companies fare well in meeting their own standards (which, pathetically, the F.T.C. sees as a “significant advance”): two-thirds of the products they advertise are A-O.K., with the remainder requiring just modest adjustments. See? Mission accomplished! Corn Pops are now healthy!

Another example: last week, McDonald’s promised a minor tweak of its Happy Meal, (which, of course, “can be part of a well-balanced diet for kids”) adding a few apple slices, removing a few French fries and making milk — chocolate or regular — a more prominent option. It still comes with a toy, and soda will remain a choice. (I’m not sure anyone is claiming soda is part of a healthy diet, but stay tuned.) The move received widespread praise, with Michelle Obama leading the cheers.

But despite the seal of approval of our first lady/self-appointed nutrition expert, a Happy Meal with a piece of apple is still a box of branded, overpriced junk food sold not by its value but by its marketing scheme. (Forty percent of McDonald’s advertising budget is spent on marketing to kids.)

This is not “progress,” but a public relations victory along with — as Michele Simon points out in her blog — an attempt to short-circuit regulations and laws that have some guts, like the one in San Francisco that forbids the inclusion of toys in meals that don’t meet reasonable nutrition standards. The last thing McDonald’s or any like corporation wants to see is a strong, activist government protecting consumers, whether or not they’re  capable of adult judgment or are habituated (a harsher word is “addicted”) to self-destructive products.

Self-regulation may be immediate, non-threatening and magical, but it doesn’t work. A study published earlier this week in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine by Dr. Lisa Powell and other researchers at  the University of Illinois at Chicago tracked changes in exposure for all food, beverage and restaurant TV ads seen by kids from 2 to 11 years old, from 2003 to 2009. It found that, overall, daily exposure to the ads declined but the percentage among companies that had pledged to self-regulate was higher than those that didn’t. And in 2009, 86 percent of these ads still featured unhealthy foods.

What’s worse? Self-serving self-regulation or toothless guidelines set by an agency that appears to be complicit in maintaining the status quo? Hard to say. What’s better is having grass roots movements that drive agencies toward real regulation.

Food Crisis in Somalia Is a Famine, U.N. Says

By , The New York Times, July 20, 2011

Roberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Farhiya, center, held his 7-year-old sister, Suladan, as they followed their mother at a camp near the Ethiopia-Somalia border.

MOMBASA, Kenya — The United Nations on Wednesday officially declared Somalia’s food crisis a famine in several parts of the country, with millions of people on the brink of starvation and aid deliveries complicated by the fact that Islamist militants aligned with Al Qaeda control the famine zones.

The combination of one of East Africa’s worst droughts in 60 years and Somalia’s relentless conflict has depleted the country’s food supplies, and tens of thousands of Somalis have died of malnutrition-related causes in the past few months, the United Nations said.

“If we don’t act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia,” said Mark Bowden, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. “Every day of delay in assistance is literally a matter of life or death.”

Speaking at the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that nearly half of Somalia’s population — 3.7 million people— were now in crisis. A total of $1.6 billion was needed to help, he added, with about $300 million of it required in the next two months to mount an “adequate response.”

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