Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 7 2011

USDA seeks method to compensate farmers for GM contamination

I am a long-time reader of Food Chemical News, a weekly newsletter covering a huge range of food issues and invaluable for someone like me who lives outside the Beltway and does not have access to the ins and outs of Washington DC politics.

An item in the August 30 issue caught my attention:  USDA secretary Tom Vilsack’s instructions to his department’s new Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

Get this: Vilsack told AC21 to come up with a plan for compensating organic or conventional farmers whose crops become contaminated by GM genes through pollen drift.

According to Food Chemical News, Vilsack gave a three-part charge to the panel:

  1. What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate?
  2. What would be necessary to implement such mechanisms?
  3. What other actions would be appropriate to bolster or facilitate coexistence among different agricultural production systems in the United States?

Vilsack urged the committee to address the questions in order and not yield to temptation to address the third question first.

“This is a very specific charge,” Vilsack stressed. He also told the AC21 not to worry if their proposed solutions would require an act of Congress or new regulations. “Don’t worry about the mechanism. We’ll figure out how to make it happen.”

Why is Vilsack doing this?

“What motivates me is an opportunity to revitalize the rural economy,” the agriculture secretary declared. “I have no favorite [type of agriculture] here. I don’t have that luxury. I just want to find consensus. I believe that people who are smart and reasonable can find a solution.”

Responding to a question from panel member, Vilsack said the AC21’s failure to come up with solutions would result in “continuation of what we have today….If we want to revitalize rural America, we can’t do it while we’re fighting each other.”

Deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan cited the recent droughts and flooding as an “overwhelming time for agriculture.”

I wonder how we are going to prevent the loss of more farmers and encourage young people to take up farming….you have to come up with scenarios where there’s lack of data.  You don’t have to figure out the politics.  That’s my job and the secretary’s.  Just answer the questions [in the charge] and let us carry the water.

Interesting, no?

Could this possibly mean that instead of Monsanto suing organic or conventional farmers whose crops get intermingled with patented GM varieties, Monsanto might now have to pay the farmers for the damage caused by the contamination?

I can’t wait to see what AC21 comes up with.

Sep 6 2011

The food industry vs. nutrition standards: a First Amendment issue?

I just received a message from Samantha Graff, the director of legal research at Public Health Law & Policy, an advocacy group in Oakland, California.

This morning, she writes, 36 legal scholars—including several experts on the First Amendment—weighed in on the food industry’s fight against proposed nutrition standards for foods and beverages marketed directly to children.  This is the very issue I wrote about in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle column and have discussed in previous posts.

In a letter sent this morning to federal agencies, the legal scholars point out that because food and beverage companies are free to ignore the nutrition recommendations, the draft principles “do not restrain or compel anyone’s speech. They are not, in fact, government regulations at all.”

A key industry strategy has been to recruit lawyers to write white papers charging that the proposed nutrition standards violate First Amendment rights to free speech.

Recall that Congress asked the FTC to join with the FDA, CDC, and USDA to recommend standards for food products marketed to kids.  These agencies, collectively known as the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG), issued Preliminary Proposed Nutrition Principles to Guide Industry Self-Regulatory Efforts.   This report outlines proposed voluntary standards that have been open for public comment.

My initial reaction: the standards were much too generous.  But that’s not how the food industry sees them.  Food companies realized that the standards exclude large proportions of the junk foods they currently market to kids.

They created a new lobbying group, “Sensible Food Policy Coalition” (shades of George Orwell’s 1984).   This group is doing everything it can to block the proposed standards.   Its website links to white papers opposing the recommendations on First Amendment grounds.

David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, responded to some of these claims in a recent blog post, in which he emphasizes the voluntary nature of the proposals.

I’ve said it before and repeat: I am not a legal scholar but intention seems to matter in legal decisions.  The intent of the First Amendment was to protect political and religious speech. I cannot believe that the intent of the First Amendment was to protect the right of food companies to market junk foods to kids.

Marketing to children is unethical.  It should be stopped.  And it’s the government’s responsibility to do it.

Sep 4 2011

New school nutrition law takes youths’ health to heart

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: My kids are heading back to school, and I’m braced for another year of fighting about what they get for lunch. The school says there is a new law that makes things better. Will it? 

A: There is indeed a new law. Getting it implemented, however, will take some doing. With much fanfare, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. But unless your children attend one of the 1,250 schools that applied for and won an award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge, they might graduate before seeing its benefits.

 That’s because the law has to be turned into regulations, an interminable process that has barely begun.

 Significant changes

But never mind the law’s odd title. It is meant to do good things. It increases school meal eligibility for low-income children. It encourages local farm-to-school networks and school gardens. It expands access to free drinking water in schools (yes, this is necessary in some places).

Most important, the law gives the USDA the right to set food standards for school meals.

Now the USDA can specify numbers and sizes of food servings, rather than nutrient percentages. This should make it easier for schools to serve foods, not food products, and offer more and larger servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The USDA can also apply these standards to all foods sold during school hours – breakfasts and lunches, but also “competitive” foods sold in vending machines, a la carte lunch lines and school stores. California is already doing this, but the new law takes it national.

As always, the devil is in the details. The USDA’s proposed rules for implementing the law take up 78 pages of microscopic type in the Federal Register. Because the USDA worried about the effects of the new rules on meal acceptance, participation rates, practicality and cost, it made some compromises.

Its standard for added salt seems generous, and it did not set one for added sugars. The USDA assumed that if other standards were followed, there would not be much room for sugary foods.

Except for milk. The USDA standards require milk to be low-fat but allow it to be flavored (translation: sugar-sweetened). Otherwise, the USDA says, children might not drink milk and will not get enough calcium.

Chalk this up to dairy lobbying. Schools account for more than 7 percent of total milk sales in the United States, but more than half of all flavored milk.

Lobbyists in motion

The proposed standards have set other lobbies in motion, too. One proposal is to encourage children to try new vegetables by restricting starchy vegetables – white potatoes, corn, green peas and lima beans – to one cup per week.

Makers of french fries and produce lobbying groups went to work, and 40 members of Congress have demanded reconsideration. The beef and poultry industries want the proposals to place more emphasis on high-quality, nutrient-rich proteins that offer all essential amino acids in a serving (neither protein nor amino acids are lacking in American diets).

The USDA’s proposals elicited more than 130,000 letters of comment, and the agency now has to deal with them. Officials say they have not even started on the rules for competitive foods.

The USDA must issue final rules by December 2013 and will undoubtedly give schools even more time to implement them. This gives lobbyists plenty of opportunity to create mischief.

Congress might backtrack. Under pressure to cut spending, the House of Representatives added a rider to its agriculture spending bill urging the USDA to scrap the proposals. The House must think the additional 6 cents per meal authorized by last year’s bill was overly generous.

Much is at stake here. School food matters because schools set an example. Schools that offer poor-quality food because it is cheaper are telling children that what they eat is not important. If a school promotes sales of sodas and snacks, it reinforces the idea that children are supposed to be eating junk foods.

Effects on learning

I have much sympathy for what school food professionals are up against, financially and bureaucratically. Nevertheless, I’ve visited plenty of schools – even in low-income communities – where children are served grown-up food, eat it happily and are eager try new tastes.

Successful school food makes the political personal. The cooks cook. They know the students’ names. They make it clear that they care about what the kids eat. They are invariably backed up by a principal committed to the belief that what kids eat affects their health and learning.

The USDA is trying to make it easier for schools to serve healthier meals. Write your congressional representatives to support the proposed school food standards.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books, and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail comments to food@sfchronicle.com.  This article appeared on page G – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle, September 4, 2011.

Sep 3 2011

Once again: policy on comments

In response to readers’ requests, I have been monitoring comments and deleting those in three categories: (a) pornographic, (b) vulgar, and (c) personal rather than focused on the issues under discussion.

To expand on (c): I welcome comments on any aspect of issues related to food politics, regardless of whether I do or do not agree with the positions expressed.

I am deleting comments that focus exclusively on the personal.  

For example,  I am deleting comments like “she only posts comments that agree with her position.”  Comments like this are not only false, but add nothing to the discussion of the issues.

I very much regret having to do this.

Sep 2 2011

Sneak preview: the (forthcoming) calorie book has a cover!

Here’s what it’s likely to look like, courtesy of the designer, Lia Tjandra, and University of California Press.

 

 

Publication is still  a long way off—it’s scheduled for March 2012.  I will post occasional progress reports.  Stay tuned! 

Sep 1 2011

Obesity research and commentary: today’s roundup

My mailbox is overflowing with new reports and commentary about obesity.  Here are some examples:

State medical expenses: The journal, Obesity, has an analysis of the cost of obesity to states.  Obesity costs states an additional 7 to 11% in medical expenses. Between 22% (Virginia) and 55% (Rhode Island) of state costs of obesity are paid by taxpayers through Medicare and Medicaid.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation series on preventing childhood obesity: 

From the Campaign to End Obesity:

Obesity Rates Projected to Soar, ABC News, 8.25.11Will half the U.S. population be obese by 2030? The current trajectory would see 65 million more obese adults, raising the national total to 164 million. Roughly one-third of the U.S. population is currently obese.

In U.S., Obesity Rates Remain Higher Than 20% in All States, Gallup, 8.25.11: Colorado continues to be the state with the lowest obesity rate in the country, at 20.1% in the first half of 2011. West Virginia has the highest obesity rate in January through June 2011, at 34.3%, which is also the highest Gallup has measured for any state since it began tracking obesity rates in 2008.

Reversing the obesity epidemic will take time, LA Times, 8.26.11The old rule that cutting out or burning 500 calories a day will result in a steady, 1-pound-per-week weight loss doesn’t reflect real people, researchers say. For the typical overweight adult, every 10-calorie-per-day reduction will result in the loss of about 1 pound over three years.

I’ve commented on some of these in previous posts.  If you find the avalanche of studies overwhelming, you are in good company.  I do too, but will summarize my take on the literature in my forthcoming book with Malden Nesheim, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, due out from University of California Press in March 2012.  Stay tuned.

Aug 31 2011

Food companies lagging in encouraging healthy diets? GMA says not at all

A few days ago I noted that an evaluation of food companies’ efforts to promote healthy diets to children came to gentle conclusions.  It praised the industry for what I thought were minimal actions.

No so says the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an industry trade group.  According to FoodNavigator, the GMA sent out an e-mailed press release saying:

The health and wellness of our consumers has always been a top priority, and we have significantly accelerated our effort to help consumers build healthier lifestyles in recent years.

…When it comes to responsible marketing practices, GMA and its member companies have taken the lead in voluntarily adopting and adhering to strict advertising criteria.

…The industry has extended its nutrition standards for marketing to children to include social media, mobile device advertising and video games.

Voluntary restrictions on food and beverage advertising are another important example of how our industry is doing its part….”

Hello?  The GMA’s statements are precisely why the restrictions need to be mandatory.

 

Aug 30 2011

Don’t like bothering with food safety rules? Sue the FDA!

In an astonishing display of what can only be described as chutzpah* Del Monte sued the FDA for insisting on a recall last March of its cantaloupes likely to be contaminated with a toxic form of Salmonella Panama. Now Del Monte is also suing the State of Oregon.

On what grounds?

Notably, “[t]he FDA investigation ultimately found no connection between Del Monte Fresh cantaloupes and any cases of Salmonella Panama, including in Oregon,” the company says. “FDA issued a notice ending the recall on July 29, 2011.”

The CDC thinks otherwise.  Its investigations pointed to imported Del Monte cantaloupes as the source of an outbreak that affected 20 people in several states:

Twelve of 16 ill people reported eating cantaloupe in the week before illness. Eleven of these 12 ill people ate cantaloupes purchased at eight different locations of a national warehouse club. Information gathered with patient permission from membership card records helped determine that ill persons purchased cantaloupes sourced from a single farm. Product traceback information indicated these cantaloupes were harvested from single farm in Guatemala.

FoodSafetyNews reviews the history of this particular recall.  It agrees with Del Monte that tests performed in April on cantaloupe samples from the Guatemala farm came out negative for Salmonella and that the FDA has now ended the recall.  But:

Del Monte had announced the recall in March, after the suspect melons had passed their shelf-life date. It is not clear whether any of the cantaloupes tested were actually the suspect melons. In foodborne illness investigations, samples of the food from the same batch eaten may no longer available by the time the connection to an outbreak is made. Epidemiology, rather than a contaminated sample, is the evidence that points to a likely source.

For these reasons, attorney Bill Marler terms the lawsuit “frivolous.”  He is suing Del Monte on behalf of a sick client.

Public health agencies doing their jobs to protect the public now have to defend against lawsuits like this?  Putative cause is no longer enough to order recalls?

U.S. courts are not famous for understanding epidemiology or other aspects of public health and I’m wondering what effect this suit will have on public protection against foodborne illness.  What standard of proof will the courts require?

Lawsuits are chilling.  Congress has just granted the FDA the authority to order recalls.  Food producers were not happy about that provision.  This is one way to get around Congress and the FDA.

It is worth asking who gains and who loses from lawsuits like this.

*Hence: chutzpah, which if you aren’t familiar with the term, is the Yiddish word for outrageous audacity.

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