Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 7 2014

USDA’s enthusiastic (?) support of organic production

The USDA, whose job is to promote industrial agriculture, is usually an  uncomfortable home for the National Organic Program, but occasionally says something nice about it.

A couple of weeks ago, the USDA announced how much the organic industry has grown and how much the agency is doing to promote it.

The organic industry, says USDA:

Comprises more than 25,000 certified organic operations in more than 120 countries.

Includes 18,513 certified organic farms and businesses in the United States alone, representing a 245 percent increase since 2002 (see list of certified USDA organic operations).

Enabled 763 producers to become certified organic in just 2013, an increase of 4.2 percent from the previous year.

Generated $35 billion in retail sales last year (this sounds like a lot but the food industry generates more than a trillion dollars in annual sales).

Here’s what the USDA says it’s doing to help organic farmers.

  • Providing access to conservation programs
  • Providing access to loans and grants
  • Funding organic research and education
  • Helping to mitigate pest emergencies.

And here’s what the farm bill is doing for organics:

  • $20 million annually for dedicated organic research, agricultural extension programs, and education.
  • $5 million to fund data collection on organic agriculture. t
  • Expanded options for organic crop insurance.
  • Expanded exemptions for organic producers who are paying into commodity “check off” programs.
  • Improved enforcement authority for the National Organic Program.
  • $5 million for a technology upgrade of the National Organic Program
  • $11.5 million annually for certification cost-share assistance to cover 75 percent of certification costs up to $750 per year.

Adds up to more than $40 million and sounds good, no?  Industrial agriculture gets $20 billion a year.

Organics are still a tiny fraction of the U.S. food supply and all too easy for USDA—and Congress—to ignore and not take seriously.

Upping sales would help.  A lot.

 

Apr 4 2014

Government policies to reduce obesity: suggestions for action

Thanks to all who commented on my April 1 (not a joke) post on inadvertant government policies that promote obesity.

Thanks in particular to Joshua De Voto who forwarded a link to the Sean Faircloth article that kicked off this discussion.

What’s remarkable about the list of items is that they constitute a policy agenda for health promotion.  Just turn them around:

  • Subsidize development of trails and sidewalks in cities and communities.
  • Pass zoning laws that encourage foot and bicycle traffic.
  • Provide nutrition information in fast food and other restaurants (fingers crossed that the FDA will eventually get on this).
  • Require physical education, nutrition, and cooking classes in schools.
  • Ban marketing of junk foods to children.
  • Ban marketing of junk foods in schools (USDA is trying to do this).
  • Subsidize production of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Subsidize healthy foods in programs for poor people.
  • Eliminate corporate tax deductions for marketing.
  • Permit lawsuits against food companies.

I can think of other policies well worth promoting.

Please add to the list!

Apr 3 2014

Raw milk: coming soon to a state near you?

I haven’t said much about raw milk in a while, but not because nothing is happening with it.

Tarini Parti writes in Politico that a bipartisan coalition of House members wants to end the long-standing ban on interstate marketing of raw milk.

Raw milk, Parti says, is “bringing together some of the most anti-government libertarians and left-leaning liberals.”

Politics makes strange bedfellows!

What unites them?  Freedom of choice, of course.

“It’s nice to see that people are now advocating for their right rather than science,” said Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal, a group that describes itself as “the first nationwide membership organization devoted to food freedom—the right of every American to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of their own choosing.”

In a statement on his two bills, Massie [Rep-KY], too, highlighted the right to choose argument. “Today, many people are paying more attention to the food they eat, what it contains, and how it is processed. Raw milk, which has been with us for thousands of years, is making a comeback among these discerning consumers,” he said. “Personal choices as basic as ‘what we feed our families’ should not be limited by the federal government.”

As for the pesky matter of science, take a look at Bill Marler’s website, Real Raw Milk Facts, where he collects:

As a reality check, take a look at the answer to the question, How many people get sick from raw milk compared to pasteurized milk?

But never mind all that.  ProPolitico’s Morning Agriculture report (behind the paywall, alas) listed states that are working on bills to make it easier to get raw milk.

– California: AB 2505 was introduced Feb 21 and would allow dairies to sell or share raw milk from cows on that facility directly to consumers. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture March 13: http://bit.ly/1e16K5u

– Georgia: HB 718 would set requirements for the sale of “ungraded milk” to consumers as long as it is labeled: http://1.usa.gov/1af433N

– Hawaii: HB 1987 and its companion S 2562 would allow the distribution of raw milk as part of a cow share, goat share or sheep share program. The measure was approved by the House Agriculture Committee, Jan. 27, but the House Committee on Health, the next hurdle for the legislation, has deferred on taking up the bill. S 2562 has yet to see any committee action: http://1.usa.gov/1djbG47

– Iowa: SF 61 was carried over from 2013, and would put a moratorium on the enforcement of all state rules governing the sale of raw products, including produce, honey, nuts eggs and milk: http://bit.ly/1cJOujV. SF 2306, meanwhile, would allow for the sale of cheese produced from raw milk and details labeling requirements for the product: http://bit.ly/1mCTtbr.

Louisiana:  HB 247 seeks to allow the sale of raw milk and unpasteurized cheese on the farm where it has been produced, though it would require the milk be clearly labeled as raw and deny liability by the state or farm in the case of illnesses from consumption. The bill, filed Feb 20, also would prohibit advertising: http://1.usa.gov/1mkdPDj

– Maryland: SB 1092 was introduced Feb. 28 and would require producers of raw milk to have a written contract with consumers of the product and set up testing, safety and labeling requirements. It also would require producers to register with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene: http://1.usa.gov/1ptnqtf. However, HB 3, which would have allowed for the distribution of raw milk to a cow share or Community Supported Agriculture agreement member, was withdrawn March 24 after an unfavorable report by the Health and Government Operations Committee: http://1.usa.gov/1djegqR

– Massachusetts: HB 3857 would allow for the home delivery of raw milk to members of a cow share or a CSA agreement, and allow for farmers to sell raw milk from farm stands that are not on the site of where the milk is produced: http://1.usa.gov/1aSLUta

– Michigan: HB 5336 would prohibit federal regulation of any food, including raw milk, that is produced and then sold in the state: http://1.usa.gov/1fCGgaQ

– New Jersey: AB 543 would create a permitting program to allow farmers to sell raw milk, though only on the property where the milk is produced. The bill also seeks to set up testing requirement, storage temperature requirements and would mandate warning labels: http://bit.ly/1fmdbRv

– New Jersey: S 1285 would permit the sale of raw milk and milk products to individuals and retail stores and sets inspection and testing standards, in addition to requiring that producers do not use growth hormones on the cows: http://bit.ly/1pEsMjO

– Oklahoma: HB 2595 would amend the state’s Milk and Milk Products Act to ensure it does not prohibit the sale of raw milk. The measure would take effect Nov. 1, 2014: http://bit.ly/1oeBgTo

– Rhode Island: S 2224 would require the state’s milk commission to establish rules for the sale of raw milk, but the Senate Health and Human Services Committee recommended the bill be held for further study on March 11: http://bit.ly/1fAIQk2

– South Dakota: SB 126 would have created an exemption from state laws governing dairy products for raw milk that is packaged on the farm where it is produced and sold by the farmer, but the measure was tabled Feb. 21 by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee in a 5-1 vote: http://1.usa.gov/1bhvrt4

– West Virginia: HB4274 would have permitted the sale of raw milk in the state as of Jan. 1, 2015, and HB 4273 would have allowed for participants in cow share programs to receive raw milk. However, the bills did not make it to a vote before the West Virginia legislative session ended, March 14: http://bit.ly/1lunSck and here: http://bit.ly/1bQGUQj

How’s that for an impressive list.

 

Apr 1 2014

Call for ideas: Do government policies promote obesity? How?

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently devoted a column to an analysis of who really gets welfare in the United States.  He listed policies that favor not only the wealthy, but the fabulously wealthy:

  • Subsidies for private airplanes via tax write-offs and deductions
  • Tax deductions for private yachts
  • Tax deductions for hedge funds and private equity
  • Bank rescues
  • Incentives to operate locally

His column reminded me of one written in 2005 by Sean Faircloth, then a Maine State representative, “Six ways government promotes obesity and what to do about it.”

No government, Faircloth said, could have devised more effective policies for reducing physical activity and promoting junk food.  Taxpayers, he pointed out:

  • Subsidize oil companies and cars to the detriment of trails and sidewalks.
  • Make it impractical to get basic information in foods and restaurants (menu labeling regulations: where are you?).
  • Give large corporations free reign to market to children.
  • Allow soda and snack-food companies to market products in schools (USDA is trying to change this).
  • Direct billions in subsidies toward processed foods while neglecting fresh produce.
  • Promote high-calorie foods in programs for poor people.

I thought this was an interesting way of thinking about obesity policy and over the years have added these:

  • Allowing marketing costs to be deducted from taxes as business expenses
  • Bans on lawsuits against food companies
  • Ambiguous and obfuscating dietary guidelines (e.g. SoFAS in the 2010 edition)

No doubt there are others.

Can you think of any others?  Thanks.

Mar 31 2014

New book: Childhood Obesity

Kristin Voigt, Stuart G. Nicholls, Garrath Williams.  Childhood Obesity: Ethical and Policy Issues.  Oxford University Press, 2014.

 

 

I gave this one a blurb:

A well-researched, highly critical, but carefully balanced examination of everyday assumptions about childhood obesity and its prevention from an intensely moral perspective.  Although the authors demonstrate that no intervention is without ethical complications or effective entirely on its own, they call for immediate actions to reduce the stigma of childhood obesity, support parents, and create food environments healthier for children, adults, and the environment.    

Mar 28 2014

Salmonella is NOT an inherent part of chicken, proves Denmark

Yesterday, Food Safety News republished the last of a four-part series in the Portland Oregonian about how Denmark was able to get rid of Salmonella in chickens, but we can’t. 

This one explains why.

[USDA] announced a plan last year to stem Salmonella. Its goal is to reduce illnesses by 25 percent by 2020. The plan, which is still being rolled out, includes a controversial overhaul of inspections, enhanced testing and a first-ever limit on allowed Salmonella in cut-up chicken.

Denmark opted for a more comprehensive approach, attacking Salmonella in flocks, poultry barns, animal feed and slaughterhouses.

Why can’t we do that too?

  • The U.S. chicken industry is too big.
  • Reforms would cost too much.
  • Chicken prices would rise.
  • Chicken would cost more than beef.
  • Nobody–industry, regulators or retailers—wants to bother.
  • The U.S. food safety system is too fractured; no federal agency has the authority to mandate such reforms.
  • USDA food safety authority only starts at the slaughterhouse, not the farm.

An impressive number of excuses, no?

Better make sure you handle chicken as if it were radioactive and cook it thoroughly.

This series is well worth a read if you want to understand what’s wrong with our food safety system.

 

Mar 27 2014

Is Walmart the biggest SNAP beneficiary?

Here’s are some things I’d really like to know:

  • How much food assistance money gets spent at Walmart?
  • How many Walmart “associates” get SNAP benefits?

The USDA does not collect data on how SNAP recipients spend their benefits but I’ve been interested in these questions since reading Michele Simon’s report, “Follow the Money: Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans?”

Our research found that at least three powerful industry sectors benefit from SNAP:

1) major food manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Mars;

2) leading food retailers such as Walmart and Kroger; and

3) large banks, such as J.P. Morgan Chase, which contract with states to help administer SNAP benefits.

Now the Los Angeles Times is asking the same questions.  It points out that Walmart’s annual filing with the Security and Exchange Commission, which is required to list potential risks to profits, includes this mention among many others:

changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, (and) changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.

Translation: if Congress cuts SNAP and makes it harder for poor people to get benefits, Walmart loses money.  Three reasons:

  • People on food assistance spend a lot of their benefits in Walmart.
  • Walmart employees qualify for food assistance benefits.
  • Its business model will lose its taxpayer-supported subsidies.

The L.A. Times refers to other stories on the same topic

Maybe Congress would be kinder to SNAP benefits if it understood that big corporations benefit so much from them.

Walmart, by the way, sold $466 billion worth of goods in 2013, of which roughly half comes from groceries.

Mar 25 2014

Food companies want to hang onto trans fats

Good try FDA.

ProPolitico Morning Agriculture has a story today that surprises me.  Food companies are opposing the FDA’s proposal to revoke the GRAS status of trans fats (see previous post).

Why am I surprised?  I thought we were done with this one.  I didn’t think it was all that difficult to find substitutes for partially hydrogenated oils.  When trans fats went on food labels, most companies didn’t take long to go trans-fat free.

Now food companies are complaining that the FDA has gone too far, needs to allow companies to keep small amounts in foods, and doesn’t really have the authority to revoke GRAS status.

Among the 1600 comments received by the FDA are these:

Writing in favor of the revocation are:

As a reminder of what this is about, here’s a taste of what I said about trans fats in What to Eat:

Trans fats are not normal.   Hydrogenation causes some of the hydrogens in unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids to flip abnormally from the same side of the carbon chain (in Latin, “cis”) to the opposite side (“trans”).   The normal cis unsaturated fatty acids are flexible, which is why they are liquid; they bend and flow around each other.   But the change to trans causes unsaturated fatty acids to stiffen.  They behave a lot like saturated fatty acids in the body, where they can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

Mind you, this is not new information.   My trans fat file has papers on heart disease risk dating back to the mid-1970s.   In 1975, for example, British scientists suggested that one reason poor people in England had higher rates of heart disease was that they so often ate fish-and-chips fried in partially hydrogenated oils.   Since then, researchers have consistently found trans fats to be just as bad–or worse–than saturated fats from the standpoint of heart disease risk.

The recent meta-analysis says much the same thing.

Let’s get rid of trans fats once and for all and be done with them.  I hope the FDA holds firm on this one.

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