CAMP 2013: What you need to know about food policy

Nancy Watzman of Sunlight Foundation. Photo by @StereoGab
Nancy Watzman of Sunlight Foundation. Photo by @StereoGab

By 2013 JAWS Fellow Arielle Stevenson

Food policy affects the daily lives of everyone everywhere. From the massive federal farm bill to food stamps, child obesity, state regulations and crop modification, the power of food policy simply can’t be underestimated.

Discussion moderator Carol Guensburg, editor for Scripps Howard News Service and cofounder of gave JAWS the rundown on covering food policy at the first panel discussion of JAWS 2013.

The most important factor in covering the food policy beat isn’t unlike any other policy-concentrated topic.

“Who has the money and what jurisdiction does it fall under?” Guensberg asked.

In the subsequent panel on food writing, speakers Lisa Gosselin and Molly Stevens discussed the controversy surrounding the popular pomegranate juice company POM Wonderful’s health claims. More than $28 million went into research and studies showing that POM had incredible health benefits. Some food writers jumped on the story. But eight years later, the FDA and FTC lodged complaints against POM, stating those claims were deceptive and misleading.

When covering food policy, especially where health claims are involved, Guensberg said it’s important to follow the money.

“You need to understand who commissioned the study, who funded it, and who is actually behind the organization,” Guensburg said. “Who funded the study may not be enough information, find out who is behind it and who validates that information.”

When it comes to covering stories such as the movement to label GMOs (genetically modified organisms), Guensburg said it’s important to find context. She referenced the 1990s story on the Bovine Growth Hormone. Labeling laws were enforced on the milk produced by cows given BGH.

“How were sales influenced after labels were implemented?” Guensburg said. “What affect did that have?”

Also important to investigate, said Guensburg, is the public comment period following a major food study.

“See who is commenting and who’s saying what,” she said. “Are the comments fair and even-handed? Who are the stakeholders here?”

Examples of panel members’ work on this topic include an article on a spinach scare by Nancy Watzman of Sunlight Foundation and hunting in New Jersey from Guensburg.