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Marion Nestle (Part 1): Raw Milk, School Food & What To Feed Your Pets

Earth Eats recently spoke with Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University, blogger at and author of a number of books on food policy, health and nutrition, including: Food Politics, Safe Food, What To Eat, Pet Food Politics, and, most recently, Feed Your Pet Right.

We talked about everything from the raw milk debate to pet food safety to food labeling. This is the first part of the interview, you can also read part 2.

Raw Milk And Food Freedom

Annie Corrigan (Earth Eats): Wisconsin has introduced a bill that would allow dairy farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers. How do you feel about food freedom as it applies to raw milk?

Marion Nestle: I think people have a right to consume raw milk. I don't think it's any healthier than pasteurized milk, and I just don't see any evidence for that. But if you want to consume raw milk, I think that's fine.

I do believe that the producers of that milk should be following very, very seriously designed food safety plans, and should not only be required to follow those plans, but should be monitored to make sure that they do just like everybody else.

I know that lots and lots of people believe that pasteurization and homogenization do terrible things to milk. But I'm just not aware of studies that I would have confidence in that show that.

On the other hand, it certainly tastes different and raw milk tastes a lot better to someone like me who's interested in those kinds of tastes. But I want to know who's producing it, and I want to know that they're producing it safely because raw milk carries a slightly higher risk.

There have been plenty of examples of outbreaks and illnesses – sometimes very severe – caused by raw milk. There are also outbreaks caused by pasteurized milk, but those are different kinds of accidents.

School Food

AC: Let's talk about The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Schools that adopt the new nutrition standards would get a 6-cent increase per meal added to their federal reimbursement. That's still under $3 per meal. Can we provide healthy meals to kids for under $3?

MN: Well, it depends on who you talk to. If you talk to people in some school districts, they just tear their hair out because they're so strapped for funds.

If you talk to some very sophisticated consultants who are working with schools, they say there's so much waste in the school lunch system that they can go into schools and immediately find places to save tons of money.

And the best example I can think of for that is that the Department of Agriculture practically gives away chicken breasts, but suggests strongly that the schools have those chicken breasts processed into chicken fingers and chicken nuggets. And that increases the cost if the schools are doing their own cooking and are dealing with whole chicken – it's much cheaper.

AC: talking about money, can farm-to-school programs be financially sustainable in the long-term?

MN: I don't see why not. If you set up some kind of marketing situation in which you have a reliable source of food and you've got economies of scale and everything else you need in order to be able to control costs, I don't see why it can't be done. What it requires is a great deal of commitment from the people who are involved with it. And that's often hard to get.

AC: We just spoke with Janet Poppendieck. She's an advocate for universal free school lunch. How do you feel about that, and is there a way we can serve ALL kids instead of creating divisions by (socioeconomic) class?

MN: My position is very similar to hers. She's written this absolutely terrific book called "Free For All" that I think should be required reading for everybody interested in school lunch programs, in which she documents the enormous amount of waste in the system just in paperwork in keeping kids from eating breakfast and lunch.

I think all kids should get breakfast and lunch in school, and she's got evidence that's shows it'll save money in the long run because of the way the meals are reimbursed. It's crazy not to do it, and it's cruel and unusual punishment.

In New York City, for example, the schools have decided that they will give free school lunch and breakfast to any child who asks for it whether or not the parents have filled out the necessary paperwork. And then the New York City school system has to pay for that in some way. But, there are so many people who will refuse to do the documentation because they're afraid of the government, maybe they're illegal immigrants – who knows the reasons.

But I don't think we should second-guess that when it comes to kids. It's not the kids' fault.

I think it could be done a lot better. One of the big problems is that there are three different categories of school lunches. There are lunches for kids who can pay full price, lunches for kids who are partially subsidized, and those who get free lunches. There's supposed to be a system set up so nobody can tell which is which, but it doesn't always work that way.

If all kids ate the same food and if that food was good to eat, you wouldn't have those kinds of things, which is another reason for universal school meals.

Feed Your Pet Right

AC: In researching this book, you weren't allowed into some pet food facilities (Purina and Proctor and Gamble). Should we assume this is an admission of guilt on their part?

MN: It's hard to know, because the places that did let us in seemed to be run just fine. You get suspicious in those situations, and we have some understanding of why companies don't want people wandering around. They're terribly afraid of animal rights activists.

In our case, my co-author and I, they practically accused us of doing industrial espionage. They said they have clients to protect and wouldn't let us in because they didn't want us to get trade secrets or something like that.

We thought it was just crazy and have no idea where that came from, because some very big companies – Hills, for example, and Mars – let us into their factory and into their research facilities, whereas Proctor & Gamble and Purina would not, even though we had connections at both places we couldn't penetrate the system at all.

I went to the Mars research facility in England and it looked like summer camp for dogs and cats, it was pretty fabulous.

People are hired to come in and play with the animals during the day – in fact, animals are housed neat offices so people can take a breaks by giving a dog a pat. They're exercised, they're fed very well. They're trained to participate in the experimental work, so they don't seem to mind it very much. I thought it was really top of the line.

Of course, Britain has a long history of being very concerned about animal welfare, and it looked to me like Mars was doing a great job of meeting those kinds of standards. If there was something evil going on, we certainly didn't see any signs of it.

AC: What are some non-commercial options for feeding your pet?

MN: You can cook for your pet yourself with no problem at all. You can feed alternative products that are designed specifically to appeal to people who have concerns about standard commercial pet food.

You can feed raw diets, you can feed kosher diets, you can feed vegetarian diets, there's a product for anyone who wants to do anything. So, you can feed your pets according to your own lifestyle and according to the way they respond to what they're eating.

AC: Talk about pet food recalls and their relation to food safety regulation for humans?

MN: I wrote a book about that called "Pet Food Politics" that came out in 2008, and it was an investigative report on the pet food recalls of 2007, which if you remember, were due to melamine being substituted for wheat gluten in the pet food formulas.

Melamine was put into the false wheat gluten in China. So, it was an ingredient that came from China, shipped to the United States, and then shipped to factories that made pet food to 95 different brands. That was a big shock to everybody.

Melamine, when it is eaten by dogs and cats in large enough amounts, forms crystals with one of its bi-products and clogs the kidneys and that was what happened.

My reaction to that when that event happened was, "Uh oh, this is an enormous breech of food safety, regulations and food safety practices, and if this could be happening in pet food, it could happen in human food, too, because many of the human food ingredients in our products come from China.

They're not going to distinguish between pet food and any other kind of food. It was clear that melamine had been used in animal feed in China for many, many years. And of course that totally predicted what happened with Chinese infant formula just a few months later.

Pet food companies immediately started taking much more care in where they were getting their ingredients. And a lot of people switched to American ingredients, which of course are much more expensive, and also began testing for melamine. And the FDA tested for melamine in food products that came from China and found melamine in quite a number of them and sent them back.

The Chinese had an enormous reaction and tried to fix its food safety system. They put a lot of people out of business and punished the heads of the companies that made this infant formula, and there were actually some executions.

But China has some really serious problems with its food safety because 80% of its food is produced in small backyard facilities, and there are an awful lot of them and it's hard to regulate those.

They're kind of where we were before 1906 when we got our first food safety regulations – they're kind of back there.

Read More: Part 2 of our interview with Marion Nestle

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