Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 11 2009

National Organic Program to be audited!

On August 4, the Washington Post ran a story about requests from the organic community to clean up inconsistencies and omissions in the National Organic Program (NOP) and bring its practices in line with more stringent international organic standards.  The House and Senate approved an expenditure of $500,000 to conduct an independent audit of the program and its certifying agencies.

The USDA has now announced the audit.  Why is this needed?  As the new USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan puts it, this step is part of department efforts “to strengthen the integrity of the NOP and to build the organic community’s trust in the program.”

Distrust, as we learned when the British Food Standards Agency released its report on the nutritional equivalence of organic and conventionally grown crops, is rampant (see previous post).  The public deeply distrusts the integrity of the organic standards, the honesty of the inspection process, and the claims made for the benefits of organic foods.

When I reviewed the organic program in preparation for writing What to Eat, I was impressed by how everyone connected with organics thought the system worked well and was honest.  That’s not what I’m hearing these days.

This audit is badly needed.  Let’s hope the Commerce Department auditors hold the NOP to the highest possible standards.

Aug 10 2009

Do the food safety bills apply to pet foods?

A comment by Sophie on my post about the food safety bills needs an immediate response to set the record straight.  She says:

It’s my understanding that this [bill] excludes pet food manufacturers….our pets were the canaries in the coal mine in the 2007 pet food recalls; they helped bring huge awareness to the food safety issue especially when baby formula was tainted with the same melamine problem that pet food was…but yet our pets get left out of the food safety bill?  Something isn’t right here…

On this point, not to worry.  H.R. 2749 most definitely does include pet foods.  Here, for example, is Section 101 (C)(i):

The term ‘retail food establishment’ means an establishment that, as its primary function, sells food products (including those food products that it manufactures, processes, packs, or holds) directly to consumers (including by Internet or mail order).
‘(ii) Such term includes–
‘(I) grocery stores;
‘(II) convenience stores;
‘(III) vending machine locations; and
‘(IV) stores that sell bagged feed, pet food, and feed ingredients or additives over-the-counter directly to consumers and final purchasers for their own personal animals [my emphasis].

All sections of the bill, including recall authority, apply to  pet foods and animal feed, as well as to human foods.  As another example, see Section 420 (c):

Order to Cease Distribution- If the Secretary has reason to believe that the use or consumption of, or exposure to, an article of food may cause serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals, the Secretary shall have the authority to issue an order requiring any person who distributes such article to immediately cease distribution of such article [my emphasis again].

In this sense, the bill recognizes that we have only one (global) food supply and that this one (global) food supply feeds people, pets, and farm animals alike.

Aug 7 2009

Organic nutrients: the debates continue

The Food Standards agency has issued a statement in response to the outpouring of outrage over its study demonstrating that the nutritional value of organic foods is, on average, equivalent to that of conventional foods.  In defense of the study results, the CEO of the agency says:

Irresponsible interpretation of the review by some has resulted in misleading claims being made concerning higher levels of some nutrients found in organic food.  The review…focused on nutrients where statistically significant differences were seen. Arbitrary quotes or selective use of the data from the other papers which were of less robust scientific quality should be treated with caution. The important message from this report is not that people should avoid organic food but that they should eat a healthy balanced diet and, in terms of nutrition, it doesn’t matter if this is made up of organic or conventionally produced food.

I have long argued that functional foods (in which nutrients are added over and above those that are already present in the foods) are not about improving health; they are about improving marketing.  Evaluating foods on the basis of their content of one or another nutrient is what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism.”  Nutritionism is about marketing, not health.

I am a great supporter of organic foods because their production reduces the use of unnecessary chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, and favors more sustainable production practices.  Yes, some organic foods will be higher in some nutrients than some conventional foods.  But so what?  Customers who can afford to buy organic foods are unlikely to be nutrient deficient.  What’s at stake in the furor over this issue is market share.  What should be at stake is the need to produce food – all food – more sustainably.

Aug 6 2009

The food safety bills in Congress

I don’t track legislation very carefully because bills change so much between the time they are proposed and actually pass.  But I keep getting asked about the bills that seem to have the best chance this year,  H.R. 2749 (which has just been passed by the House) and its equivalent in the Senate, S. 510 (still in the works).  The bills are quite similar.  Both aim to fix the FDA.   Neither aims to fix the system, so forget about combining the food safety functions of USDA and FDA into one agency.  The bills bring the FDA’s rules closer to those of USDA, as they propose science-based food safety standards (much like HACCP) from farm to table.  Best, they give the FDA recall authority as well as a few other goodies.

The bills themselves are miserable to read and it is hard to believe that anyone in government does.  That is why the Congressional Research Service (CRS) does summaries that even legislators can understand.  CRS researchers have now produced blessedly short and hopefully accurate summaries of the House bill as well as the Senate bill.

As my contribution to the cause of clarity, I have done a quick edit of the CRS summaries, with comments in Italics.  The links above are to the original bills so you can plow your way through them to see if this does them justice.   Enjoy!

THE HOUSE BILL, H.R. 2749, requires each food facility to:

(1) Conduct a hazard analysis, (2) Implement preventive controls, and (3) Implement a food safety plan. [This sounds like HACCP, although they aren’t calling it that. I vote yes]

Requires FDA to:

(1) Issue science-based performance standards to minimize the hazards from foodborne contaminants [this means HACCP or its equivalent, and about time too],

(2) Establish science-based standards for raw agricultural commodities [this means some version of farm-t0-table HACCP, long awaited],

(3) Inspect facilities at a frequency determined pursuant to a risk-based schedule [this is an admission that the FDA can’t handle the work load; it will focus on products most likely to be contaminated]

(4) Establish a food tracing system [this will help identify where foods come from]

(5) Assess fees relating to food facility reinspection and food recall [make companies pay for all this, I hope in a way that avoids conflicts of interest],

(6) Establish a program for accreditation of laboratories that perform analytical testing of food for import or export [can’t believe we don’t already have this, but that’s why we need this legislation].

Authorizes FDA to:

(1) Order an immediate cessation of distribution, or a recall, of food [recall authority at last!]

(2) Establish an importer verification program [accountability for importers, at last!]

(3) Quarantine food in any geographic area within the United States [they can’t do this now?].

Defines the term “color additive” to include carbon monoxide that may affect the color of fresh meat, poultry products, or seafood [this will have to meet food additive regulations].

Requires country of origin labeling on food, and annual registration of importers [Yes!].

Provides for unique identifiers for food facilities and food importers [so FDA actually knows who they are].

Deems a food to be adulterated if an inspection is delayed or refused [Yes!].

Requires FDA to establish a corps of inspectors dedicated to inspections of foreign food facilities [Amazing that we don’t already have this].

Reorganizes the FDA field laboratories and district offices [Could this possibly be a euphemism for closing some?].

Gives the FDA Commissioner subpoena authority [Yes!].

Establishes whistleblower protections [OK].

THE SENATE BILL, S. 510, is pretty much the same except that it addresses food bioterrorism [fortunately, a rare event so far]. In addition to most of what is in the House bill, it requires HHS and USDA to prepare the National Agriculture and Food Defense Strategy [If this is done right, it ought to promote the safety of domestic foods and imports].

It also requires FDA to:

(1) Identify preventive programs and practices to promote the safety and security of food [worries about food bioterrorism again];

(2) Promulgate regulations on sanitary food transportation practices [good idea];

(3) Develop a policy to manage the risk of food allergy and anaphylaxis in schools and early childhood education programs [I’m not sure how this got in here]

Requires FDA and CDC to enhance foodborne illness surveillance systems [Good idea].

Requires EPA to assist state, local, and tribal governments in preparing for, assessing, decontaminating, and recovering from an agriculture or food emergency [in the military sense of food security].

There is much, much more in these bills.  Bill Marler, who has actually read the bills, has produced his own summary, which includes definitions and more.  If you are wondering what implementation of these bills might cost, the Congressional Budget Office has done an analysis: a mere $2 billion.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take all this until we see what Congress actually does when it gets back to work.  Stay tuned.

Aug 5 2009

What We Eat in America: Latest Info

I’ve long argued that finding out what people eat is the most intellectually challenging aspect of nutrition research.  To put it bluntly, everybody lies. OK.  We don’t lie.  We just can’t remember or estimate portion sizes accurately.  For years, government agencies have gone to great trouble and done the best they can to get some reasonable idea of what Americans actually eat.  They report the results as “What We Eat in America.”  The data may not be perfect (they almost certainly underestimate actual intake), but they are the best we have and always of great interest.

I always like to know what is going on with calories.  The USDA’s most recent data are from 2005-2006.  These show that women on average consume 1785 calories a day, men 2638, and together 2157.  These figures are based on intake reported for 24 hours and almost certainly underestimate real calorie intake by one-third or more.  Compare these figures to calorie production, which is now 4000 per capita per day! (See Table 1).   The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in between and all we can do is make good guesses.

USDA files its dietary intake reports under Products & Services.   Its latest looks at intake of four nutrients: calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, and magnesium.  In comparison to dietary reference intakes (DRIs), Americans eat pretty well.  The low magnesium intake makes me wonder if the  DRI for that nutrient is too high, but I tend to be skeptical about such things.

Everything about these reports requires much careful interpretation, since every element of obtaining dietary intake information is fraught with error.   Better methods would help a lot.  If only we could figure out how to do this better.  A challenge, indeed.

Aug 4 2009

USDA carrot stats

The USDA does wonderful reports on arcane agricultural matters (maybe specialized is a better word than arcane?).  Whatever.  This one is about carrots.  Anything you want to know about carrot production and use?  Here it is.

Aug 2 2009

Recent events on the obesity front

Good news (sort of): Overall obesity rates in children seem to be stabilizing.  Rates rose from 1998-2003 but did not change much from 2003-2007, with one exception: rates are still rising among American Indian/Alaskan Native children.  Here’s a map of childhood obesity rates by state (thanks to the Wall Street Journal).  Rates are decreasing in a few states!  Oregon has the lowest rates (less than 10%).  Mississippi has the highest (21%).

Overweight children are more influenced by advertisements for branded products than are average weight children, according to a pilot (preliminary) study in Appetite.  Evidence for restrictions on advertising?  I think so.

The CDC has produced a policy-wonkish list of 22 Recommended Community Strategies and Measurements to Prevent Obesity in the United States.  These are suggestions for what communities should do to make it easier for people to eat less (or better) and move more.  Examples: “Communities Should Provide Incentives to Food Retailers to Locate in and/or Offer Healthier Food and Beverage Choices in Underserved Areas,” and “Communities Should Improve Availability of Mechanisms for Purchasing Foods from Farms.”  These are all good “shoulds.”   The report gives ideas for measuring the success of such initiatives but does not discuss how to implement them, alas.

[Posted from New Delhi]

Jul 31 2009

More about organic nutrients

British newspapers are unfailingly interesting.  This morning’s Daily Telegraph carries a commentary by Rose Prince about the benefits of organics.  She provides an interesting take on the politics of this report (see previous post) and of the organic movement in general, along with this thought:

It is a pity that the focus has been on nutrition. All food is nutritious; having no food is what kills. The wider benefits of organic foods are still worth pursuing. It is what food does not contain and the effects that it does not have that really matter.

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