News bites, March 2005

This article was originally published in March 2005

Advertising food to kids

Some countries have banned advertising and marketing food products to children, but there are no such federal restrictions in the United States. In the last 10 years, the amount of money spent marketing food to children in the U.S. has more than doubled to $15 billion a year, more than it would cost to provide health insurance for all uninsured children.

In Ireland, TV commercials for fast food and candy are banned entirely. Sweden, Norway, Austria and Luxembourg have banned all TV advertising to children. In Belgium, France, Portugal and Vietnam, all marketing is banned in schools. (New York Times, Children’s Defense Fund)

Charging for bags

In San Francisco, the Commission on the Environment has voted to approve a plan to charge shoppers 17 cents for each new paper or plastic bag used from grocery stores.

If approved by the city’s Board of Supervisors and mayor, which could take six months, the fee would be the first of its kind in the country. Proponents of the bag tax say plastic bags waste oil and trees, harm marine mammals, litter the city, and are major contaminants in recycling and composting programs.

Opponents of the tax include the American Plastics Council and the California Grocers Association. (San Francisco Chronicle)

False and deceptive sweetener?

The maker of Equal and NutraSweet has filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of a rival sugar substitute, saying the advertising for Splenda is false and deceptive. The company that makes Splenda markets it as “made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.” But the lawsuit says there’s no sugar in Splenda and its taste does not come from sugar.

Data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows Splenda is a synthetic compound in which some atoms in a sugar molecule are replaced with chlorine atoms. The suit also says the process involves phosgene, described as a poisonous gas. (Chicago Sun Times, U.S. Federal Register, April 3, 1998, pp. 16417-16433)

Atrazine ban?

Atrazine, a common weed killer used by corn, sorghum and sugarcane farmers, is under attack. Several state lawmakers in Minnesota want to ban or restrict atrazine because scientists have linked it to reproductive deformities. Even at low levels, atrazine causes male frogs to develop female reproductive organs. Other research links it to reduced sperm quality and counts in humans.

Meanwhile, a review of disclosure forms shows the maker of atrazine spent $260,000 to lobby government officials after the research began to emerge. The Associated Press says the Syngenta corporation enlisted former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to lobby the White House, the Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Congress to ensure re-registration of the herbicide. The chairman of the EPA panel reviewing atrazine also was on Syngenta’s payroll and running the lab that did Syngenta’s work. (Minnesota Public Radio, Associated Press)

Need for bees

California’s almond growers are facing a bee shortage, which made it tougher to get their crop pollinated in February. Half the bees needed usually come from Northwest beekeepers, but there’s been some severe die-off in the hives. Beekeepers have lost as much as 75 to 90 percent of their hives due to mites. The mites apparently are developing resistance to the pesticides used to control them. The average price for a hive used to be about $50, but has jumped to $75 to $85. One Montana bee farmer reported getting $150 per hive. (Capital Press)

Organic airline food?

Hain Celestial Group, the nation’s largest natural and organic food producer, is in discussions with “multiple airlines” to bring its natural and organic food products on board. Hain sells more than 30 brands of natural, organic and specialty food products, including Celestial Seasonings, Terra Chips, Earth’s Best and Imagine Foods brands. Hain is expanding its business with airlines, including JetBlue Airways, the low-cost carrier. (Newsday, FMI)

Seed supply consolidation

Monsanto has agreed to purchase Seminis, the world’s largest producer of fruit and vegetable seeds, for $1 billion. Seminis is the world’s largest vegetable seed company and sells more than 3,500 vegetable and fruit seed varieties to farmers under the Seminis, Asgrow, Petoseed and Royal Sluis brand names. It has 16,000 customers in 150 countries. Seminis also owns the world’s largest fruit and vegetable seed bank, which is used to crossbreed plants for new strains.

Critics of genetically engineered foods believe the buyout is a strategic move to gain broader acceptance of biotech crops and that it opens the door to aggressive marketing of biotech foods. Some on Wall Street responded cautiously. Credit Suisse First Boston analyst William Young said in a research note, “We find it hard to conceive that earnings growth from vegetable seeds can exceed that of Monsanto’s current lineup of genetically modified crops.” He rated the shares “under perform.” (Agribusiness Examiner)

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