Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 25 2017

What’s the fuss about GIPSA rules?

The USDA has just agreed to delay its controversial GIPSA rules which were supposed to go into effect this week but are now delayed until October.

GIPSA stands for USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration.

USDA calls them “Farmer Fair Practices Rules.”

But the meat industry calls them “disaster rules.”

Like everything else having to do with agricultural policy, the rules are next-to-impossible for outsiders to understand.  I’m using the USDA’s lengthy Q and A as a starting point.

The rules are designed to protect poultry producers who work under contract with highly concentrated chicken and turkey processors who monopolize the market.

As the USDA puts it, “processors can often wield market power over the growers, treating them unfairly, suppressing how much they are paid, and pitting them against each other.”

Furthermore, processors retaliate against growers who object to these unfair practices.

The GIPSA rules are supposed to

  • Strengthen enforcement of existing fair-to-farmer regulations
  • Establish criteria for determining if practices are unfair

Former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack explained:

“You shouldn’t have to show if you’ve been treated unfairly or in a discriminatory way, that somehow what’s happened to you harms competition to the entire industry,” Vilsack told reporters as the rules were released. “That’s just an unreasonably high burden for anyone to have to meet.”  Industry groups are, for the most part, not pleased.

That last is an understatement.  The meat industry hates the rules..

The National Chicken Council, a trade association, says the GIPSA rules are “draconian” and “would inflict billions of dollars of economic harm to American agriculture.”

We are particularly troubled that the interim final rule and proposed rules appear designed to increase uncertainty and costly litigation—GIPSA even admits  that substantial litigation will ensue—with no quantifiable benefits…Throughout the rules, GIPSA consistently substitutes government fiat for private, market-based decision making.

This looks like contract chicken growers vs. Big Chicken to me, with Big Chicken calling the tune.

Or do I misunderstand?

Apr 24 2017

USDA asks Maine for more information–lot more–about its SNAP waiver request

In recent years, the USDA has received requests from several cities and states to allow pilot projects to remove sodas from items that can be purchased with SNAP benefit cards.

The agency has always found reasons to deny the requests, as it did for one from New York City in 2011.

The latest “denial” is to a request from the state of Maine for a pilot project to eliminate soft drinks and candy.  I put denial in quotes because it’s not actually a denial.   It’s a request for more information.  USDA wants to know:

  • Whether Maine’s previous responses to previous queries still apply.
  • What would happen without this restriction?
  • Whether there will be a pre- and post-implementation data collection on purchases before and after the pilot.
  • How Maine will correct for biases due to self-reporting of purchase data.
  • Why Maine isn’t planning to get agreement from retailers to provide data.
  • If Maine plans to provide a reasonable and legal time frame.
  • Whether Maine plans to submit a new request for a waiver to cover use of SNAP-ED funds.
  • What the evidence base is for using SNAP-ED funds as Maine plans.
  • The full costs of this effort.

If Maine is serious about wanting to do this, it will have a lot more work to do.  USDA might as well have issued another denial.

Apr 21 2017

Weekend reading: Andy Fisher’s Big Hunger

Andrew Fisher.  Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups.  MIT Press, 2017.

 

This book has a big theme, and I was happy to do a blurb for it:

If you don’t understand why anti-hunger groups hardly ever advocate for higher wages or public health nutrition measures for low-income Americans, see Andy Fisher’s analysis: they owe too much to their food-company donors.  Big Hunger is a call to action, one well worth heeding.

Here’s his interview today in Civil Eats.

Apr 20 2017

Berkeley soda tax continues to produce benefits

Evaluation of the effect of the Berkeley soda tax continues.  The latest results, published in PLoS Medicine, say that one year after implementation of the tax,

Prices of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages (SSBs) increased in many, but not all, settings

  • Sugary beverage sales declined by 9.6% in Berkeley stores
  • Untaxed beverages sales increased by 3.5% driven by bottled water (up 15.6%)
  • Average grocery bills did not increase
  • Store revenue did not fall more compared to control cities
  • Post-tax self-reported SSB intake did not change significantly compared to baseline

The evaluation was funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies with support from the University of North Carolina’s Population Center and its National grant from the NIH.

The University sent out its own press release.

It also did a short video explaining what the tax is about and its effects.

Michael Jacobson of CSPI says

For Berkeley, Calif., to reduce soda sales by 10 percent—and to raise water sales by 16 percent—is a huge public-health victory.  It shows that the soda tax enacted in Berkeley is working as intended.  And rather than costing the city, the soda tax represents a brand-new revenue stream, which Berkeley is using for important health programs.  We hope voters and policymakers elsewhere in the country will review the findings published in PLoS Medicine and press for soda taxes in their communities.

This study won’t stop Big Soda from claiming that taxes don’t work.  But if soda taxes didn’t make a significant dent in soda consumption, the industry wouldn’t be fighting taxes so hard.

Helena Bottemiller Evich at Politico reports on the response to this study from the American Beverage Association (ABA), which I cannot find online.  The ABA:

pointed out that the reduction in sales of sugar-sweetened beverages in Berkeley yielded a reduction of only 6.4 calories per person, per day. The study also revealed, the group added, that the tax’s first year produced an increase of about 31 calories per person, per day from untaxed beverages. The study’s authors noted the increase appeared to be largely attributable to increased intake of milk and “other” beverages, like yogurt smoothies and milkshakes.

The ABA also argued that Berkeley — a relatively small city with a high median income that wasn’t a soda-consumption hotbed to begin with — is “a challenging place to determine the true impact of a beverage tax, unlike Philadelphia, where the tax has led to significant job losses and economic hardship for working families.”

“This study does, however, confirm that sales of taxed beverages inside the city declined while sales of those same beverages outside the city increased, which is also what is happening in Philadelphia,” the ABA said.

“America’s beverage companies know we must play a role in improving public health, which is why we are taking aggressive actions to help people reduce the sugar and calories they get from beverages,” the group continued, noting the industry has pledged to cut calories from its products across the board — with a special focus on reducing calorie consumption in a few places that have extremely high rates of obesity, including communities in Los Angeles, the Mississippi Delta and rural Alabama.

The soda tax story continues.  It is not over yet.  Stay tuned.

Here are some reports:

Apr 19 2017

PubMed to include funding and conflict-of-interest statements with scientific abstracts

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) has quietly announced that it will henceforth include funding and conflict-of-interest statements on the abstracts published on PubMed, its searchable site for scientific publications.

This happened because of a petition organized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which I signed, and which called for this method of disclosure.  CSPI sent a formal request to the NLM on March 30, 2016.  The NLM announcement came one year later.

CSPI issued a press release:

Hundreds of millions of searches are conducted on PubMed annually by people around the globe.  In a March 2016 letter to NIH and NLM, CSPI and other supporters cited studies published in Cochrane Collaboration, PLoS Medicine, and elsewhere that found that outcomes of studies on drugs, medical devices, and nutrition were often favorable to funders’ interests.

“Adding disclosures about researchers’ financial relationships with drug, food, chemical, and other industries makes PubMed search results even more useful than they already are,” said CSPI president Michael F. Jacobson.  “We thank the National Library of Medicine for adding this feature and hope journalists who rely on PubMed make consistent use of it when reporting on studies related to nutrition and health.”

The press release quotes me:

New York University nutrition scientist Marion Nestle tracked 168 industry-funded studies on her blog, foodpolitics.com.  By her count, 156 of those reported studies favorable to the sponsors’ interests.

“These required extensive library searches to find the disclosure statements,” said Nestle.  “I only looked for papers that seemed industry-funded from their titles, and undoubtedly missed many with both positive and negative results.  This new policy will make this kind of research much easier and more accurate.”

Amen to that.

Apr 17 2017

Alas, farewell Dana Woldow

Bettina Siegel writes with sad news: Dana Woldow died last week.

I will miss her.  Dana was my go-to person for information about school meal funding, a fierce advocate for getting more funding for school food service.  If you wanted to understand school food politics, her columns at Beyond Chron were essential reading.  The last one was posted September 19, 2016 with good and bad news about San Francisco’s school meals.

I often referred to her columns in this blog.  Here are some examples dating back to 2008:

  • Feb 20, 2008: Thanks to Dana Woldow of the San Francisco Unified School District for sending this link to resources for making school meals healthier. Check out the salad bar video (way down at the bottom of the list of links). The city now has salad bars in 25 schools.
  • Aug 25, 2008: And here’s a commentary in the San Francsico Chronicle from some folks on the front line of school lunches in the San Francisco Bay area.  Even a little more money would go a long way.
  • Sept 5, 2009: Dana Woldow’s terrific 3-minute video detailing the situation in San Francisco’s public schools – as seen by kids in that system.  As the kids put it, “We need better school food!”
  • May 24, 2013: Fortunately, Dana Woldow, also a long time food advocate, has just posted an interview with Ms. Siegel on just those points.
  • Nov 5, 2014: Dana Woldow, who has covered these elections closely on the website Beyond Chron, has this to say about the Berkeley win.
  • Feb 17, 2015: As to what all this [the fight over school food] is about, see Dana Woldow’s explanation in Beyond Chron.  As she bluntly puts the matter, “It would be comforting to think that SNA members are making those decisions based on what is most nutritious and healthy for growing kids, but unfortunately they are just as likely to be influenced by the recommendations of Big Food companies peddling processed crap.”
  • March 9, 2015: Dana Woldow argues that the school food scene would be much easier if schools actually got enough money to pay for what they serve and for decent wages to school food service workers.
  • July 21, 2015: Dana Woldow explains what’s really happening with schools that drop out of the meal programs ostensibly on the grounds that the new standards cost too much.

Dana: I will miss your tough, on-the-ground analysis of school food politics.  You always called it as you saw it.  And you saw plenty.

May others take up your cause.  Now.

Apr 14 2017

Weekend reading: Consumer Goods Forum progress report

The Consumer Goods Forum works with manufacturers and retailers to improve practices that benefit consumers such as food safety and health.

It has just released its latest Health & Wellness Progress report based on a survey it conducted in 2016.  The report is based on responses from 102 food, beverage, and retail companies.

The Forum encourages food companies to address health and wellness challenges: healthier products, the health of employees, consumer information, and responsible marketing.

I was particularly interested in seeing the results on product reformulation:

Here’s what’s being reformulated:

Will product reformulation make a difference to health?

Or, as some say, is it just another corporate political strategy, one aimed at diverting policies from moving towards mandatory approaches.

Product reformulation has been praised as a rare example of a “win-win” for the food and beverage industry and public health efforts to reduce obesity and NCDs [noncommunicable diseases], and has been described as a “pragmatic” nutrition policy…However [there are]…numerous reasons to suggest that voluntary reformulation also plays a role in the industry’s strategy to avoid unfavorable regulatory conditions, and this finding warrants significant consideration.

Apr 13 2017

Soda taxes are a movement!

The latest is Connecticut.

Here’s my list of taxes passed (!) and pending (?).  Have I missed any?  Please inform.

  • Navajo Nation (!)
  • Berkeley (!)
  • Albany, CA (!)
  • Oakland (!)
  • San Francisco (!)
  • Philadelphia (!!!) (sorry about forgetting it)
  • Boulder (!)
  • Chicago (!)
  • Santa Fe (?)
  • West Virginia (?)
  • Seattle (?)
  • Portland (?)

Healthy Food America has a handy map.

Addition: Bloomberg News has its own roundup

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