I forgot to post the link to Eating Liberally’s last question (and my answer) about how agribusiness is influencing the current crisis over rising food prices. Here it is.
Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle has the best article I’ve ever read on the farm bill, which is now making its way out of conference committees (see previous posts). Here’s how reporter Carolyn Lochhead starts out: “It is the rarest of moments. President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are on a collision course over a giant farm bill, but it is Bush who is broadly aligned with liberal Bay Area activists pushing for reform, while the San Francisco Democrat is protecting billions of dollars in subsidies to the richest farmers.” The interest groups slated to get pieces of this $300 billion chunk of taxpayer dollars dare not complain about it, out of fear that a more rational public policy would be worse for them. That’s politics for you, at its most raw.
I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area giving a bunch of talks. An agricultural engineer who works for USDA – and must have sneaked off work to come to one of them yesterday – tells me that if you look up the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) schedule, you get a message from Nestlé’s Nesquik “inviting all BART riders to take the Chocolate Line to their own Happy Place on Sunday, May 4, 2008.” Cartoon characters! Free rides for kids! Yummy marketing!
The Oakland Institute has issued a short and useful policy brief on the social and political impact of rising food prices. I’m on the road this week and regularly reading USA Today delivered to hotel rooms. Its story yesterday about bread shortages in Egypt is surely an indication of the need for deep policy analysis followed up by immediate policy action.
So the judge says the New York City Health Department’s calorie labeling requirement can go into effect right now, even while the appeals are still in progress. Restaurants have until July 18 to comply; if they don’t, fines will kick in. In the meantime, the legal wrangling continues. The next court date is scheduled for June 9. The Restaurant Association lawyers are keeping busy. Will this saga never end?
The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, of which I was a member, released its report today: Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. This was a two-year investigation of the effects of our current system of intensive animal production on the environment, communities, human health, and the animals themselves. For me, this was an opportunity to visit huge dairy farms, feedlots, pig farms, and facilities housing 1.2 million chickens. The big issues? Antibiotics and waste. The big surprise? Laws exist; they just aren’t being enforced. This was quite an education.
Let’s see if I can explain what the latest food fight is about. The potato industry is talking about a lawsuit against the USDA to allow white potatoes to be purchased with WIC vouchers. WIC is the federal food assistance program for women, infants, and children; the program gives mothers vouchers for certain foods. This WIC “package” includes only one fresh vegetable – carrots. The USDA is proposing to expand the WIC food package to include other fresh fruits and vegetables–but not white potatoes. I suspect that the rationale for this exclusion is that French fries made with white potatoes are already among the top three vegetables eaten in the U.S. and that nobody needs more of them.
Here’s what a representative of the white potato industry has to say: “The problem with it is there is no scientific justification for excluding potatoes from the program…potatoes are an excellent source of magnesium, potassium and calcium. In fact, they are bigger sources of those nutrients than spinach, broccoli and carrots, respectively.” Maybe, but it’s how white potatoes are eaten – loaded with fat, salt, and calories – that turns them into junk foods. The potato lobbyists are hard at work. Stay tuned.
I live in a high-density fast food area of Manhattan and went out today to see how calorie labeling is coming along. Pretty well, I’d say, although not at McDonald’s. My local franchise must be waiting for the final court ruling. The delightful manager at Cold Stone handed me a calorie list and says the info will be up on menu boards as soon as the folks at headquarters in Arizona get to it. Brace yourself: the smallest serving is about 400 calories, and that’s before the extras. Calories are on the menu boards at Subway but they are for the 6-inch sandwiches. For just $2.00 you can upgrade to a 12-inch and double the calories. Chipotle is already posting calories, and why not? It lists ranges: a burrito is 420 to 918, and a burrito bowl is 130 to 628. Not helpful. But Cosi wins my prize for the biggest surprise. How about a tuna melt for 1012 calories or small, medium, and large blueberry-pomegranate fruit smoothies at 544, 725, and 1087, respectively? Will anyone pay attention to this? It’s going to be hard to tell, given that people are eating out less these days anyway, in this era of higher food costs.