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Berkeley’s Soda Tax: Turning the Tides on Big Soda

victory yes on d cover photoIn case you missed it last week (and in the Bay Area, you would have to be living under a rock to miss it), Berkeley’s soda tax passed (Measure D) with a whopping 75% of the vote. A HUGE victory for the public health world, and helping the City of Berkeley continue to pursue a healthier community. Thanks to the Berkeley vs. Big Soda team for being an amazing group of colleagues to work with.

I wrote two blog posts – a before and after, if you will – for JSI’s blog, The Pump. Read them at the links below:

“In California, a tax on sugary drinks is the first step in the fight against obesity” (11/3/14)

“Berkeley Passes the Nation’s First Soda Tax” (11/5/14)

Thanks for reading!

Food Policy News: Week of March 27

  • The USDA recently conducted a study of SNAP-based incentive programs, those which increase the value of SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets through matching funds or another mechanism. The goal of the Farmers Market Incentive Provider Study was to explore who is funding, operating, and supporting these programs in communities across the US. Wholesome Wave provided a nice summary of the findings, largely from a series of interviews, demonstrating that these programs rely heavily on steady funding streams and partnerships with community organizations to sustain them. [USDA Economic Research Service]
  • Early evidence suggests that Mexicans are drinking less sugary drinks in the wake of the country’s recent soda tax, which took effect in January. In response to the peso-per-liter tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, beverage companies like Coca-Cola have passed the tax burden down to consumers by raising prices. Beverage sales are predicted to fall by 6-7 percent as a result. [Bloomberg]
  • A recent community poll in Berkeley, CA demonstrated community support for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages – 66% of voters surveyed would support a penny-per-ounce tax if revenue went into the city’s general fund, and 64% would support a tax if the funding were devoted to nutrition and other community programs. The UC Berkeley student government also recently passed a tax on sugary drinks on campus to raise revenue for the student health center. [Berkeleyside]
  • The country of Denmark was able to eliminate salmonella in raw chicken by taking an upstream approach to food safety and adopting a “zero tolerance” policy. Human illness from salmonella is a huge problem in the United States, but taking a similar approach to Denmark isn’t feasible given the sheer size of our poultry industry (we processed 8.5 billion chickens in 2013), and the fractured nature of our food safety and inspection systems. A food safety overhaul in the U.S. is long overdue – but, in the meantime, I’d steer clear of chicken. [Food Safety News, Food Politics]

Food Policy News: Week of March 14th, 2014


  • The American Beverage Association’s anti-soda-tax coalition in San Francisco, the Coalition for an Affordable City, has started their ridiculous marketing campaign leading up to the November vote, playing off of increasing concerns over affordability of living in the city. They argue that SFers already pay so much to live in the city, that another “big” tax – which is only 2 cents per ounce, hardly “big” in my opinion – places an unfair burden on consumers.  I was pleased to see that their Twitter feed, @NoSFBevTax, is not getting much of a positive response. [48 Hills]
  • Many states are using a clever “loophole” to avoid enduring cuts to SNAP in the most recent Farm Bill, angering Republicans. States are opting into the “heat and eat” program, which provides enhanced access to SNAP benefits through fuel assistance programs. See how each state will be affected by the cuts in this interactive map. [NPR]
  • The Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), which handles private sector donations to Let’s Move!, released its 2013 Annual Report detailing $330 million in partner commitments. Commitments include things like increasing access to grocery stores in under-served areas and reducing calorie and sugar content in food products. [Obama Foodorama]
  • On March 4th, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a ban on the sale of bottled water (single-use bottles, or anything smaller than 21 ounces) on city property in an effort to reduce plastic waste. The ban also encourages installation of more water fountains. The ordinance still needs mayoral approval, but would be effective October 1st if passed. [SFGate]

Food Policy News: Week of February 28th, 2014

Source: Food and Drug Administration
  • New research from the Berkeley Media Studies Group implicates in Big Soda in coloring media coverage of recent (failed) soda tax proposals in Richmond and El Monte, California. Their research found that the soda industry actively recruited community members – including pastors, business owners, and local politicians – to speak out against the taxes, making it appear as if opposition came from the community. Their ties to the soda industry (in some cases, these people were paid) were not disclosed. [Berkeley Media Studies Group]
  • The latest obesity rates were just released in a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) report and show that obesity is decreasing in the youngest age group, children aged 2-5, according to 2011-2012 NHANES data. Although the NYT emphasizes the 43% reduction in obesity among this small age group, the more important takeaway is that obesity rates appear to be leveling off (although increases were shown in some groups) and are still alarmingly high. [New York Times]
  • The FDA revealed the first image of redesigned food labels, the first major redesign since they were implemented nearly 25 years ago. The redesign is long overdue and there have been several other efforts to promote a more informative label, including front-of-pack labels (e.g. herehere, and here). In response to growing portion sizes, misinformation, and consumer concern about certain nutritional content (e.g. added sugar), the new labels will make a few small tweaks that will hopefully provide consumers will easy-to-interpret nutrition information. Importantly, serving sizes will not be the suggested size, but will represent the amount that consumers typically eat – e.g. 1 cup of ice cream, rather than 1/2 cup. Nutrition expert Marion Nestle supports the new design. However, some are skeptical that the changes will improve consumers’ ability to choose healthier foods, given that only a small fraction actually use the labels. [New York Times]

Food Policy in the new year – 2014!


  • After two years of struggle, a compromise Farm Bill passed in the House last week. Some of the major changes include $8 billion in cuts to SNAP Benefits, elimination of direct payments to farmers, and a bump in crop insurance payments, among other things. The bill also includes incentives for nutrition incentive programs and farmers’ market programs. [NY Times, NPR]

Update as of Tuesday 2/4/14 at 12:04pm PT – The Farm Bill just passed 68-32 in the Senate. 

  • San Francisco is preparing to put a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages on the ballot in November. Supporters held a kickoff meeting in SF this past weekend as they prepare for what will likely be a tough battle against the beverage industry, aka Big Soda. The finalized language for the ballot measure is expected to be released on Tuesday and will impose the tax on distributors (as opposed to a sales tax). On the other side of the Bay, the city of Berkeley is also considering a similar tax that will be a penny-per-ounce on sugary drinks. [SF Examiner]
  • The Navajo Nation recently passed a 2% sales tax on junk food, including sugary drinks. Navajos, as well as other Native Americans, are at particularly high risk for diabetes and obesity. The tax affects sales of junk foods on their reservation, which spans a large area across Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Importantly, the legislation also eliminates the sales tax for healthy foods as a way to incentivize purchases. [Food Safety News]
  • Drought conditions in California are hitting fruit & vegetable farmers hard. This marks the third dry year in a row, and the state has declared it will not be allocating water to farmers during the drought emergency. The drought conditions have been compounded by the lack of a Farm Bill, which would normally provide funds for disaster relief. [SFGate]

*image via Newseum

Nutrition & Health News, week of June 15

  • New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg is again attempting to combat obesity with a proposed ban on large sugary drinks. The ban would prohibit the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g. soda, sweetened iced tea, etc.) larger than 16oz in any food-service establishment (e.g. restaurants, movie theaters). Diet sodas, fruit juices, dairy drinks, and alcoholic beverages would be excluded from the ban. The proposal is not without its critics, with many people arguing that the mayor should not be telling them how much soda to drink. Proponents of the ban argue that this is one way to induce behavior change in individuals. The proposal was submitted to the NYC Health Board on Tuesday – stay tuned! [New York Times]
  • The FDA rejected a request from the Corn Refiner’s Association to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to corn sugar. The CRA has been promoting their effort through commercials which claim HFCS is processed the same way in the body as regular sugar, attempting to erase HFCS’s bad reputation. The FDA, however, rightly believes that changing the name would confuse consumers and potentially mislead them into believing sugar and HFCS are equals. [Food Politics]
  • A 9-year-old student in Scotland, who called herself Veg, had been documenting her school’s lunches on a blog called Never Seconds. The blog received over 2 million hits and was recognized by chef Jamie Oliver as an important effort in raising awareness about the need for improving school lunches. Yesterday, the school prohibited her from bringing a camera to school and claimed that she “abused and attacked” the catering staff – effectively, shutting down her blog. Within 48 hours, due largely to outrage in social media outlets, the school council removed the ban and has committed to hosting a School Meals Summit this summer. Go Veg! [Wired]

Nutrition & Health News, week of May 25

  • Ending a long-running trial, a federal judge ruled that POM Wonderful’s advertising that likens pomegranate juice to an anti-cancer drug is misleading. POM’s ads grossly over-exaggerated the effect of their product to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, and erectile dysfunction, without substantial scientific evidence. Some ads went as far as portraying POM as a superhero or life support (see above). POM managed to put a positive spin on the ruling by reciting the FDA and FTC’s standard rules, which they should have been following in the first place, and noting that their ads are not subject to pre-approval by the FDA. In practice, this means that POM can put out new misleading ads until the FDA and FTC take them back to court. [New York Times] Update: Marion Nestle shares her thoughts on POM’s advertising.
  • A USDA study reported that healthier foods are not necessarily more expensive than junk food. Calorie for calorie, fruits and vegetables are more expensive than processed foods because they are low in calories. But, when measured in terms of serving size, “grains, vegetables, fruit, and dairy foods are less expensive than most protein foods and foods high in saturated fat, added sugars, and/or sodium.” The measurement issue is the key to determining affordability, and the study has important implications for food policies that attempt to increase affordability of healthy foods. [Economic Research Service]
  • Results of a survey by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation show that Americans are supportive of local farmers. The random survey of 800 Americans asked questions about their attitudes towards fresh produce as well as support for local farmers, SNAP programs, and fair wages for farmers. Check out the infographic or the full survey. [Washington Post]
  • Research by Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell and author of Mindless Eating, demonstrated that visual cues could stop people from overeating junk food. In the study, college students were given either regular Pringles or Pringles that contained red cue chips to delineate serving size. Students who received the cue chips ate less chips overall and could more accurately estimate the number of chips they’d eaten compared to their peers who received regular Pringles. [The Atlantic]

Nutrition & Health News, week of March 30

Catching up on news this week after a relaxing Spring Break!
  • A recent survey by the Just Label It! campaign shows 91% of Americans support the labeling of genetically modified foods. Although consumers support a labeling effort, the food industry believes labeling will hurt sales by claiming labels imply GMOs are bad. Public pressure to label GMOs is mounting, but will the FDA respond? [NPR The Salt]
  • The FDA is taking steps to remove several common antibiotics from use in factory farms after a court order. Antibiotic use in livestock is rampant, but rarely used to treat active disease – the overuse of antibiotics as a preventive measure is likely to increase bacteria strains that are antibiotic-resistant in both animals and humans. [The Atlantic]
  • After the controversy over the use of so-called “pink slime” in school lunches last week, New York City public schools has banned the meat product from school cafeterias. Citing health and safety concerns, NYC is choosing to find an alternative to the cheap beef. [NY Daily News]
  • Organic purveyor Whole Foods Market announced that they will stop selling fish that are not caught in sustainable ways beginning on April 15. Whole Foods currently employs a rating system for seafood that tells customers how sustainable their purchases are, but this effort furthers the company’s goal to have “fully sustainable seafood departments” by preventing overfishing and ecological damage. [USA Today]
  • You probably saw a number of news reports this week making the claim that “eating chocolate makes you thinner” based on recent research in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Although the study linked frequent chocolate consumption to lower BMI, the implications are not as simple as “eat more chocolate, stay thin.” According to an obesity specialist from Canada,the study lacked scientific rigor, was not a randomized trial (meaning causation cannot be attributed), and there were a lot of unknowns. [Commonhealth]

*image via Just Label It!

Nutrition & Health News, week of March 16th

  • The USDA had planned to purchase tons of “pink slime” to put into school lunches but, after a storm of criticism in the media, has reversed their decision. “Pink slime” is a term for fatty beef trimmings that are used as a filler in ground beef – it looks as gross as it sounds and is not required to be labeled on beef products. This is the same pink slime that McDonald’s and other fast food chains recently decided to stop using – leaving the USDA to pick up the extra for the federal school lunch program. However, after several senators called for a ban of the product in schools entirely, the USDA decided to allow schools a choice of whether or not to use the goop in meals. [Obama Foodorama, The Salt]
  • A new website, the Leanwashing Index, alerts consumers to advertising and marketing ploys that mislead parents and kids into believing junk foods are healthy. The site calls out ads guilty of “leanwashing” by giving them a score based on the degree to which their claims of health benefits are truthful or not. Not surprisingly, some of the worst offenders are sugary cereals and other foods marketed at kids. Check out the site to learn more. [via Marion Nestle]
  • New research* from Harvard links red meat consumption to higher risk of death and cardiovascular disease. The prospective research study, in which participants were followed over a 25 year period, assessed intake of processed and unprocessed red meat and its effects on health. Fear not, meat eaters – the participants at increased risk of death were those eating at least one serving of red meat every single day. Not surprisingly, these same participants were more likely to have unhealthy diets overall.
  • The CDC recently began a national media campaign warning against the dangers of smoking. The ads, in an effort to  get away from spewing statistics on smoking-related deaths, show real people who are living with the devastating health effects of smoking. Preview one of the ads here, and watch out for the campaign starting on March 19th. [Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Blog]

*email me if you would like a copy of this article

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