Monday, April 13, 2009

The Obamas Get A Puppy And Policy Issues Get Unleashed: Marion Nestle On The First Dog And Food Politics

President Obama's election night Puppy Promise to Malia and Sasha was fulfilled yesterday when it was officially announced that the First Fluff is a six-month-old Portuguese Water Dog named Bo. Prior to his arrival, just the idea of a First Dog had already generated a pooper scooper-load of various controversies, but the tail- and tongue wagging has only just begun, if yesterday's media swampage is any indication. So Ob Fo consulted pre-eminent food writer and activist Marion Nestle to discuss some of the very political food issues that might arise, concerning Bo. (Photo: The Obama family with Bo)

Currently the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health as well as Professor of Sociology at New York University, Nestle is a world-renowned expert on food safety, sustainable food systems, and nutrition, as well as the sociological implications of each She's the author of five books on food and food politics, which are must-reads, including Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism and Food Politics: How The Food Industry Influences Nutrition And Health. Nestle's most recent book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in The Coal Mine, was published to much acclaim last year. Nestle could single handedly advise the Obamas about everything from their garden to Sasha's peanut butter eating, but today she answers questions about the Bo-dacious impact of a First Puppy. (Above: Nestle with a pal)

Obama Foodorama: The Obamas have been urged to use the White House kitchen as a "bully pulpit" to guide America's eating habits. What;s your opinion of the Bull (Doggy) Pulpit? Should America be privy to Bo details?
Marion Nestle: The
Obamas made an enormously important symbolic statement about the importance of sustainable food production when they started planting an organic garden at the White House. It would be great if they carried these same values over to pet food. Remember: We just have one food supply. And we want that food supply to promote the health of people, pets, and farm animals as well as the health of the planet...However if the Obamas do start talking about how they are feeding their puppy, they will be asking for big trouble—more than trouble about what they are doing about the economy, Afghanistan, or climate change. Nobody is more passionate about food choice than a dog lover.

Fo: The First Family has all kinds of security techniques in place for their own personal food supply. Should these protocols go on with the First Fluff, too?
Marion Nestle: I love the idea that the Secret Service would have to recruit a secret pack of dogs as tasters. Somehow, I don’t think this will be necessary.

Ob Fo: Given the recent fairly poor food safety history in commercial pet foods, should the Obamas feed the First Pup a commercial pet chow product?
Marion Nestle: I don’t see anything wrong with feeding commercial pet food to the First Dog. If the Obamas want to open a can or scoop out some kibble, they will be doing what 90% of American dog owners do every day. All commercial dog foods are required to meet certain nutrition standards and for the most part they seem to. The canned ones are less likely to be contaminated than the kibbles but the overall risk is low. It’s just that when something bad happens, it’s truly awful.

Fo: If a commercial pet food is chosen, should the Obama girls be allowed to feed Bo themselves, given the fact that humans have recently contracted salmonella from handling contaminated dog kibble?
Marion Nestle: The
Obamas are trying to bring up real children under impossible circumstances. A dog should help. It’s good for kids to learn how to take care of animals and this is one chore that is well rewarded. Of course the Obama daughters should be responsible for feeding their dog. They just need to learn to wash their hands before and after, just as they do when they feed themselves.

Ob Fo: It seems as if the pet illnesses and deaths associated with melamine contamination in 2006 caused more of a public outcry than the most recent human food contamination poisonings.
Marion Nestle: Actually, I don’t think the melamine recalls caused enough outrage, as I explained in Pet Food Politics. If they had, officials might have taken actions to prevent the melamine contamination of infant formula that sickened 300,000 Chinese babies and killed a few. And no, the bills don’t specify pet foods but here’s something to consider: We only have ONE food supply. Pets eat the same animals and plants we do, just different parts. So protecting the safety of pet food protects our food as well. And rules that govern our food, govern pet foods. That was the point of my subtitle: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine. If we make sure pet foods are safe, our food will be a lot safer too.

Ob Fo: Is there a food safety Bill that you feel particularly strong about?
Marion Nestle: I feel very strongly about food safety. I think we need a major overhaul of our food safety system which right now is piecemeal. We need a system that requires food companies to
use science-based safety procedures for all foods, from farm to table. Now the system is split between USDA and FDA, two agencies that don’t talk to each other much and compete for the same funds. And we only require science-based procedures for a few foods, and these rules aren’t enforced very well.

Ob Fo:
Is it just absurd that pet foods aren't regulated the same way as human food? What are a few changes that would make a huge difference for pet owners?
Marion Nestle: As I mentioned earlier, we only have one food system and one food supply. This means that pet food and human foods are intermingled. We saw this during the pet food recalls when surplus pet food and ingredients were fed to pigs, chickens, and fish. At FDA, separate agencies regulate animal and pet food (Center for Veterinary Medicine) and human food (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition). This really doesn’t make any sense any more. The labels on pet food resemble those on animal feed. This also doesn’t make any sense. Pet owners need to be able to read pet food labels. I’d like to see Pet Food Facts labels that look just like Nutrition Facts labels. (Bo, pictured)

Ob Fo: Are you aware of any organic/sustainable brand of pet chow(s)? Would you recommend a particular brand?
Marion Nestle
: Plenty of commercial dog foods contain organic ingredients. Organic standards for pet foods are not really established so you don’t see many that are Certified Organic. And plenty of dog foods claim to have natural ingredients produced sustainably. These will cost more just as organic and natural foods for humans cost more, but those values are important to lots of people, including me. I would rather not recommend a specific brand, but foods made with natural and organic ingredients are easy to find at just about any pet food store or online.

Ob Fo: Would choosing a dog food that's 100% American sourced make any kind of difference in terms of food safety concerns?
Marion Nestle: It might. I like to know where the ingredients in my food come from and pet owners ought to care just as much about where pet food ingredients come from. After the recalls, some pet food companies became much more diligent and transparent about ingredient sources. I prefer to buy from such companies.

Fo: Would it be better if White House chef Sam Kass, the new "Food Initiative Coordinator," cooked the food for the First Puppy?
Marion Nestle: This depends on what he is cooking. It’s perfectly okay to cook for a dog but it helps to know what you are doing. It warms my heart to think of all those White House chefs put to work baking dog biscuits. Dogs can do well on pretty much any kind of feeding regiment that meets their nutrient needs—commercial foods, home cooked foods, raw diets (but watch out for food safety!), kosher diets, and even vegetarian diets. You just have to know what you are doing to make sure nutrient needs are met and, in the case of raw diets, that the foods are not contaminated.

Much thanks to Ms. Nestle for being a howlingly good sport and giving her expert opinion on the First Pup!

*Read Ms. Nestle's excellent blog Food Politics for the most current issues in food. Her books are available at Amazon or directly from publishers; a full listing is here.

*All the First Dog info you could possibly need is at The Obama Dog Blog. It's a terrific site!