Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 21 2009

Colbert Report: The sugar crisis!

Colbert Report, August 19: I was interviewed on the Colbert Report about sugar policy, of all things.  U.S. sugar policy is so absurd that I did not think it could be satirized, but Colbert managed just fine.  Here’s what I would have said if I hadn’t been completely disconcerted by his dousing himself with five pounds of sugar:

The sugar “crisis”: On August 5, several groups representing makers of processed foods wrote a letter asking the USDA to raise the quota on imported sugar because stocks are lower than they have been in years.  Why?  Because domestic sugar production is thoroughly governed by quotas, imported sugar is thoroughly controlled by quotas and tariffs, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is increasingly diverted to ethanol.  Got that?

Reminder about definitions: “Sugar” usually refers just to sucrose made from sugar cane and sugar beets; it is glucose and fructose stuck together.  The other major sweetener is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  It is also made of glucose and fructose, but separated.   Sucrose and HFCS work the same way in the body and are hardly distinguishable physiologically.   For the purposes of this discussion, I use sugar to refer to the sweetener refined from sugar beets and sugar cane, and HFCS for the sweetener made from corn.

Sugar protection policies: Even though it amounts to only 1% of agricultural production, U.S. sugar is the single most heavily protected agricultural commodity.  No matter what the price on the world market, U.S. sugar producers and processors get paid a high price.  Historically, this price has been two to three times higher than world market prices.   Although this has for decades cost American consumers $2 billion to $3 billion a year in higher sugar prices, nobody much noticed because it “only” amounted to about $10 per year per person over and above what you would pay for sugar anyway.  Today, the gap between domestic and world market prices has gotten much smaller, mainly because there isn’t as much HFCS around (more on this later).

Quotas and tariffs: These are amazing, really.  U.S. producers are allowed to grow a certain amount of cane and beets each year for which they are guaranteed a price set by USDA.    Beets get 55% of the total quota allotment and cane gets 45%. This works like a closed shop.  If you want to start growing beets or cane for domestic sugar production, too bad.  Catch 22: You only get to have a quota if you already have a quota.  As for tariffs:  The 2008 Farm Bill says that 85% of total sugar in the U.S. must be produced domestically, and only 15% can be imported.  That 15% comes in through quotas distributed among about 20 countries.   Any other sugar they want to send us is subject to high tariffs, except from Mexico.  Under NAFTA, Mexico can export as much sugar to us as it wants to at the favored price.  But imported sugar is never supposed to exceed 15%.

International issues: Our agreement with the World Trade Organization (Uruguay Round) says we have to take a certain amount of world market sugar.  But the 2008 Farm Bill restricts imports.  Oops.  The contradictions in these policies still have to be resolved.  The processed food people think the USDA can raise the percentage.  Can it?  Hmmm.  We don’t know this yet.

Who benefits: A few thousand beet producers in about 15 states and a few hundred cane producers, and the sugar processors.  They get paid amounts that are higher than world market prices.   The countries that have sugar quotas also get higher prices for their sugar quotas.  Producers of sugar cane and beets love this system.   Florida cane producers defend it this way: “U.S. sugar policy ensures that jobs in rural America are not sent overseas, and that American consumers are not held captive by unreliable foreign suppliers of subsidized sugar.”  Like American-owned sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic, for example?

Who loses: According to the Government Accountability Office, everyone in America pays higher prices for sugar than we need to.  This amounts to a transfer of wealth from 350 million of us to a few thousand sugar producers and processors.   International sugar-producing countries that do not have quotas, those in Africa, for example, are also out of luck.

How this happened: The system started out in the Great Depression with the best of intentions.  Despite endless attempts to get rid of sugar supports and let prices fluctuate according to the world market, Congress continues this elaborate and expensive system to protect sugar producers and processors.  These groups have banded together in cooperatives so they avoid anti-trust laws.   Even the New York Times thinks we should get rid of sugar protections.  These groups, of course, are among the most generous and powerful contributors to congressional election campaigns.  Even more, they are equal opportunity contributors: they give to both Democrats and Republicans.  The Fanjul family in Florida is especially influential.  In the best known example, Mr. Fanjul was able to get President Bill Clinton to take his call on a federal holiday when Clinton was in the midst of a tryst with Monica Lewinsky (source: the Starr report).

What about HFCS: The public now puts HFCS in the same category as trans fats: poison (it’s not; it’s just sugars).   In response, makers of processed foods and beverages are starting to replace it with cane and beet sugar.   As explained in the current Advertising Age, sugar is now at war with HFCS.  HFCS used to be a lot cheaper than sugar, but its cost has gone up as more of it is used for ethanol.  Supply is down; costs are up.

Other issues: As if all this wasn’t complicated enough, sugar beets are largely genetically modified, leading more than 70 companies to say they won’t use that sugar.  Sugar cane production in the Southern states pollutes the Everglades, leading to billions of dollars in clean up costs.  And the labor practices of sugar cane plantations have long been the subject of much investigative reporting.  And what about relations with Cuba?  Until the Castro revolution, we got nearly all of our imported sugar from our Caribbean neighbor.  If relations with Cuba improve, will that country have a quota?

So what’s really going on? Food processors want cheap ingredients.   Cheap sugar makes for relatively cheap junk foods and high profits for manufacturers.  Current sugar policies make no sense in today’s global marketplace and we all ought to be eating less sugar anyway.  On average, we have about 70 pounds of sugar and another 70 of HFCS available per year for every man, woman, and child in the country along with a few pounds of other caloric sweeteners to boot.  That’s close to half a pound of sugary calories per day.   Less of all of them would be better, no? 

A final happy thought:  Maybe the processed food makers’ request – which is entirely self-interested – might lead to improvements in U.S. farm policy as well as relations with sugar-producing countries in the Caribbean and Africa.

Aug 20 2009

Time magazine: America’s food crisis

This week’s must read: Time Magazine on what’s wrong with industrial food production systems and all the good things lots of people are doing to make it better.

August 26 update:  The American Meat Institute didn’t like the article much:

It’s dumbfounding that Time magazine would take one of the great American success stories — the efficient agricultural production of an abundant variety of healthy, safe and affordable foods for consumers in the U.S. and throughout the world — and turn it into an unrecognizable story of exploitation, manipulation and greed.

Aug 18 2009

In memorium: Mark Hegsted, 1914-2009

Mark Hegsted, who headed the USDA’s now-defunct Center for Human Nutrition in the Carter Administration, died in June at the age of 95.  He was one great guy.  Before USDA, he was on the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health, where he was famous for studies on how different types of fats affected blood cholesterol levels (the Hegsted equation) and on the epidemiology of calcium and osteoporosis.  These, counter-intuitively, showed that populations with the highest intakes of calcium and dairy products had the highest rates of osteoporosis.  At USDA, he dealt with now historical documents in nutrition history: the 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States and the 1980 Dietary Guidelines.  When President Reagan came into office in 1980, he was immediately fired from his director’s position and relegated to an office in USDA”s version of Siberia.

The New York Times published an obituary, and Harvard University sent out a press release.

I learned about his death from his son, who wrote on June 21:

Dear Friends,

My Dad, David Mark Hegsted, passed away on Tuesday, June 16, 2009 in Westwood, MA, after a brief illness.  He was 95.

For those of you who did not know him, he was born in Rexburg, Idaho in 1914, studied at the University of Idaho and received his Doctorate in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  He was one of the first two Professors of Nutrition appointed in 1942 at the Harvard School of Public Health and had a long and distinguished career there.  He authored dozens of scientific papers, traveled all over the world and received many awards from colleagues in his field.  During the Carter administration he headed the U.S. government’s newly created Center for Human Nutrition in Washington, DC and published the first “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”.

More importantly, he was a good and gracious man who will be remembered fondly by all who knew him.  In his later years he especially enjoyed playing bridge and working in his garden at Fox Hill and was a faithful follower of the Boston Red Sox.  He is survived by my family in the Yukon, and his granddaughter Camilla Franck and great-granddaughter Sarah Hespe of New York City.  My mother, Maxine, and my sister, Christina, predeceased him.

It was great for both of us that I could be with him so much during this last phase of his life.  Please take a moment to remember this special man.

Best,
Eric

About five years ago, I went to visit Mark Hegsted in his retirement home outside Boston.  I brought along a tape recorder.  Here is the transcript of our interview.

Henry Blackburn at the University of Minnesota has been collecting historical documents about the history of heart disease prevention.  This includes Mark Hegsted’s personal accountMark Hegsted’s personal account of the history of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  For anyone interested in the history of nutrition in the United States, this is invaluable information.

I’m glad I got to know him, even so late.

Aug 15 2009

Let the school-meals revolution begin!

My latest Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle is about school food.  As always, the column is a Q and A

Q: School is starting soon. Is there any hope that school food will ever improve?

A: Yes, there is. The food revolution is upon us. Go into any school that has joined the revolution – many have – and you will see kids eating recognizable foods, helping themselves from salad bars, finishing what they take, all within the typical 30-minute lunch period. And nary a chicken nugget or soda in sight. Teachers in such places swear that the kids behave and learn better, do not bounce off the walls after lunch, and show fewer signs of eating disorders.

From what I’ve seen, this miracle requires a committed principal, a dedicated school food service director, and at least a few teachers and parents who care what kids are eating. If the food service people know the kids’ names, it’s an especially good sign. With such elements in place, the food will be real and taste good enough for the kids to want to eat it.

But the school food revolution can do more. It can turn the cafeteria into a teachable moment. I discovered that on my first teaching job when I saw how easy it was to teach biology through nutrition. Everyone eats.

Schools can use what’s served for lunch to teach the chemical composition of food and its biological effects. They can use recipes to teach mathematics, food choice to teach political science, and the entire eating experience to teach literature, English or foreign languages. Kids can be taught about food plants and animals, how they are produced, and the associated monetary, labor and environmental costs.

Individuals like you can make this happen. The national model, of course, is Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. If your dream is to have your school connect food production to eating, take a look at Berkeley’s Center for Ecoliteracy’s how-to guide, “Big Ideas: Linking Food, Culture, Health, and the Environment.” (Go to ecoliteracy.org.)

Although many schools are not equipped to grow or cook food, they can still produce healthy meals that kids want to eat. I’ve just met with some of the people who work with the British chef, Jamie Oliver, on his school dinner campaigns. Oliver used his cooking skills and celebrity status to produce revolutionary changes in English school meals which, if anything, were worse than ours. I like his ideas because they sound much like mine, and I especially enjoy the British way he puts them:

  • Ban the junk. Please, let’s. It’s time we got rid of vending machines, a la carte service and everything else that competes with federally funded school meals. If we did that, we wouldn’t have to have all those nutrient-based arguments about what’s allowed in vending machines. Kids need water? How about fixing the drinking fountains or supplying tappable containers of filtered water as I’ve seen done in the Berkeley schools.
  • Big love to dinner ladies. This is Oliver’s way of calling for better support – financial, material and emotional – to the school food service people. I vote yes.
  • Teach kids about food. Teach kids to grow, cook and taste food, and they will never look at fast food or food “just for kids” the same way again.
  • Half a quid a kid! Translation: School meal programs need and deserve more money. In American schools, the federal lunch program is required to be self-supporting while everything else is subsidized. Education officials in San Francisco tell me they know how to produce healthy, tasty meals for kids but they desperately need more money to do it right. Slow Food USA is sponsoring a Time for Lunch campaign aimed at getting legislators to better support school meals. Join it. The program kicks off with an Eat-In on Sept. 7. (Go to slowfoodusa.org for more information.)

These are great ideas, but I don’t think Oliver takes them quite far enough. I want another action that I think is essential for American school meal programs:

  • Make school meals universal. Our present system requires a hugely expensive local and national bureaucracy expressly devoted to preventing kids who are deemed ineligible from getting free or reduced-price meals in schools. This ugly system stigmatizes poor kids and makes the kids of illegal immigrants go hungry.

Why not just say that we think all kids should be fed breakfast and lunch while they are in school? Doing this would allow all that bureaucratic waste to be applied to the meals themselves, making it easier for the “dinner ladies” to obtain better food and be paid decent wages.

The school year begins soon. Here’s your opportunity.

[Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” “Safe Food” and “What to Eat,” and is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. E-mail her at food@sfchronicle.com and read her previous columns at sfgate.com/food.  This article appeared on page K – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle. © 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.]

Aug 14 2009

Labeling GM foods: if the U.K. can do it, we can too!

You will recall that the FDA’s 1994 stance on labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods was that labeling foods as GM or non-GM would be misleading  because the foods are no different.  Despite overwhelming evidence that the public wants to know whether foods are GM or not, GM foods do not have to be labeled.  Worse, those that are labeled non-GM have to include a disclaimer that this makes no difference (I explain how all this happened in Safe Food).

At present, there is no way to know whether GM foods that have been approved by FDA (such as potatoes, tomatoes, squash, papayas) are actually in the produce section of supermarkets.  When I was writing What to Eat, I paid to have some papayas tested.  Most were not GM.  But you have no way of knowing that.

The GM industry (translation: Monsanto) has opposed labeling from the very beginning, no doubt because of fears that people will reject GM foods.  The makers of processed foods object to labeling because practically everything they make contains GM ingredients: about 90% of the soybeans and 50% of the corn grown in America is GM.  Ingredients made from these foods – corn and soy oils, proteins, and sweeteners – are widely used in processed foods.

The Europeans are faced with the same problem but insist on labeling GM.  Guess what?  No problem.  Hershey’s Reese’s NutRageous candy bars in the U.K. disclose the GM ingredients in exactly the way our products disclose allergens: “Contains: Peanuts, Genetically Modified Sugar, Soya and Corn.”

Here’s the label (borrowed from Mike Grenville at flickr.com/photos):

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Hershey is an American company.  If labeling in the U.K. is this simple, we ought to be able to do this here, no?  Here’s a chance for the FDA to fix an old mistake and give consumers a real choice.

Aug 13 2009

Increasing concentration in agriculture: a problem?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which does research in response to questions from members of Congress (in this case, Charles Grassley, Rep-Iowa),  has just released a report on agricultural concentration and food prices.  Concentration, for this purpose, has a specific meaning: the share of sales held by the four largest companies.

Grassley wanted to know: is increasing concentration in the food sector responsible for the recent rise in food prices.  The GAO says no, but check out its findings about what’s happening in the food industry.  Examples:

  • Less than 2% of farms accounted for 50% of farm sales in 2007 (See Table on page 10).
  • The top four concentration in grocery chains more than doubled from 1982 to 2005, from 16% to 36% (page 12).
  • The concentration in meat also has nearly doubled.  Beef concentration went from 41% to 79%, pork went from 36% to 63%, and poultry went from 27% to 57% (page 18).

Only two sectors have become less concentrated: Wet corn milling (translation: high fructose corn syrup) from 74% to 69%, and breakfast cereals (86% to 78%).  No wonder the Big Four Breakfast Cereals (General Mills, Kellogg, Post, Quaker) are so desperately pushing their wares these days.

And do take a look at the figure on page 19, which illustrates the steady decline since 1980 of the proportion of the food dollar that goes to the farmer (from 30% to less than 20%), and the steady increase in the proportion going to food marketing (from 70% to more than 80%).

The USDA must be really worried about all this.  Thanks to Maya for telling me that USDA has teamed up with the Justice Department to take a look at legal ramifications of increasing agricultural concentration.  Why?  America does best with “a fair and competitive marketplace that benefits agriculture, rural economies and American consumers,” says the USDA Secretary.

The Justice Department has its own interests in this matter: the anti-trust implications of food sector concentration.

I’m guessing that Senator Grassley wanted GAO to demonstrate that agricultural concentration does not affect prices and, therefore, is good for consumers.  Instead, the GAO report focuses attention on just how concentrated agriculture had become.  Let’s keep a close eye on this one.

Aug 12 2009

What the FDA is doing while waiting for Congress to get busy

The FDA must be in a bit of a quandary as it waits to see what Congress orders it to do about food safety (see previous post).  But it is not sitting around doing nothing.  Instead, it seems to be unblocking regulations that have been in the works for a long time.

On July 9, the FDA announced a final rule for prevention of Salmonella Enteriditis contamination of shell eggs during production, storage, and transportation.  This might seem unremarkable except for two points: (1) it requires science-based food safety procedures – with pathogen testing – from farm to table (an all-time first), and (2) it was first proposed in 2004 and has been stuck ever since (that’s politics for you).

On July 31, the FDA proposed safety guidance for melons, tomatoes, and leafy greens that would apply to everyone involved in the supply chains for these foods – growers, packers, processors, transporters, retailers, and others.  Guidance, alas, is just that: voluntary.  But this puts the producers of such foods on alert that the guidance could swiftly turn into rules  if Congress gets busy and does what it ought to be doing about food safety.  The guidance is open for comment but it is designed to be implemented within two years.  This is quick in FDA regulatory time.

And now the FDA announces that it is speeding up its system for issuing warning notices to companies in violation of safety regulations.  This is a good step, although it falls far short of recall authority.  For that, Congress must act.

Applaud the FDA and keep fingers crossed that no new outbreaks occur while Congress takes its own sweet time to act.

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.

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