Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 9 2015

Annals of the nutrition transition: KFC in Myanmar

The nutrition transition is the term used to describe a population’s rapid shift from widespread undernutrition to even more widespread overnutrition and its health consequences.

Here is an example of how that happens.

Thanks to Catherine Normile, currently working in Myanmar, for this report.

The first KFC, and the first major American fast food chain for that matter, opened in Yangon yesterday. I didn’t go inside but I scoped it out, I thought you may be interested to see the incredible crowd outside, and how unfortunate a contribution this is to Yangon’s downtown. It’s on a main road directly across the street from Bogyoke Market, the busiest market in Yangon. My favorite quote comes from this Jakarta Post article: “It is internationally famous, so I think it must be healthy.” Said by a man who queued for 3 hours to get chicken.

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Note the waiting crowd.

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There were long lines to get in.

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The Burmese diet is changing.  Catherine’s previous report was on the influx of Coca-Cola.

I’ll ask again: is anyone tracking changes in health statistics in that country?

Jul 8 2015

Chartwells and DC schools

Sadie Barr, who writes about school food problems in Washington, DC, wants me and readers to know about the recent $19.4 million settlement paid to the DC school district by its food service provider, Chartwells.

For what?  Overcharging the schools for its meals.

In an e-mail to me, she writes:

The issue of school food fraud isn’t new, and isn’t unique to DC. It happened in New York in 2010 and in 2012, and is probably occurring within the quarter of school districts nationwide that outsource their food service. It was written about in the New York Times in 2011 and in an investigative report published in 2009. This fraud represents millions (if not billions) of public funds going toward a company’s profits, instead of education.

How does this work?  Food service companies buy foods from manufacturers who give them kickbacks, but do not pass the savings along to the schools.

She points out that this scam affects quality of school food, posing a special burden to the more than 50% of students nationwide (it’s more than 70% in DC) who qualify for free and reduced priced meals.

The lawyers negotiating the settlement were from Phillips & Cohen LLP, a firm that specializes in representing whistleblowers.  In this case, the whistleblower was Jeffrey Mills, director of food services for the DC public schools from 2010 to 2013.

The Phillips & Cohen press release quotes Mills as complaining that Chartwells overcharged the school district and also caused circumstances when “food was delivered late, the number of meals was insufficient or the food was of poor quality or spoiled.”

Mills said that his goal had always been to improve food programs for DC’s school children: “District funds should be used to feed students the best quality food at the lowest cost.”

This is not the first time Chartwells got caught doing something like this.

In 2012, Chartwells’ parent company, Compass Group USA, paid $18 million to settle allegations by the New York Office of the Attorney General that the company wrongfully retained rebates on purchases of food and non-food commodities made under contracts with 39 school districts in that state.

Phillips & Cohen also say:

The allegations made in the District’s complaint and Mr. Mills’ complaints are allegations only.   The allegations against Chartwells have not been adjudicated.  Chartwells denies liability for the allegations.

Maybe so, but the company agreed to the $19.4 million of the DC case.

If you are having trouble understanding the fights over the USDA’s school nutrition standards, the Chartwells’ case should help.

For food service companies and the companies that supply food products, there is lots of money to be made on school meals.

Addition, July 9: DC, it seems, is renewing its contract with Chartwells, according to the Washington City paper’s story on Jeff Mills.

Addition, July 10:  The Washington City paper explains the politics of Chartwells in DC.

Jul 6 2015

Food availability and marketing in Cuba: a quick look

When I was in Cuba in 1992, the only food available to tourists was at the hotels: no restaurants, no street carts, no corner groceries, no family garden plots, no urban agriculture (for FAO information on Cuban food security, see this link).

On this Food First sovereignty trip, the big surprise was that restaurants were everywhere.  An outdoor restaurant in Old Havana’s cathedral square!

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Plenty of restaurants serve terrific food.

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Some chefs, like Alejandro Robaina, at La Casa Restaurante (on the left), seem poised for a wildly successful TV career.

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Cuban food invariably comes accompanied by lively music.

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We saw farmers’ markets throughout Havana.

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These are explained as part of the revolution.

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We saw specialty food shops in Old Havana.

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Street sellers peddle food from carts.

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But Cuba doesn’t have much in the way of food manufacturing.  Small bodegas and even the large suburban Supermercado do not sell many products.  What they do have is mostly imported.  I saw some Cuban mayonnaise but couldn’t find Cuban coffee anywhere except at the airport.2015-06-19 15.47.45

Even this Supermercado sells only one kind of item.  The oil is soy, bottled in Cuba from U.S. soybeans.

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Many of the shelves are empty because of the U.S. embargo and for general lack of money.2015-06-19 15.49.11

A couple of anecdotes about how the Cuban economy is changing:

The revolution made everyone equally poor, although with excellent free education, health care, and a basic food ration (the libreta) that kept everyone from total starvation, even during the worst of the 1990s.  This created a relatively classless society.

First change: Remittances.  Many families who left Cuba to get away from the Castro regime did well and sent money (“remittances”) to their relatives back home.  We were told that these amounted to $2 billion last year in total and that the money is transmitted via Western Union and couriers (“mules”).

The average Cuban salary and pension is $20 per month.  A remittance of $100 a month makes that person rich.

Second change: Deregulation of real estate.  One of our speakers told us that when private ownership of housing was first permitted a decade ago, he bought a house for the equivalent of $650.  As soon as the rules changed and allowed market rates, he sold it last year for $150,000.

Cuba’s contradictions are interesting to observe.  Go see them while you can.

Jul 3 2015

Weekend reading: Joel Bourne’s The End of Plenty

While celebrating the Fourth of July, why not take time for some thoughtful reading?

Joel K. Bourne, Jr.  The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World.  WW Norton, 2015.

Here’s my blurb for this one:

The End of Plenty takes a thoroughly researched and exceptionally thoughtful and balanced look at the consequences of industrial farming.  Joel Bourne’s courageous conclusion: to feed the world’s burgeoning population, agriculture must change and population increase must stop.  His book should convince every reader of the compelling need to address world food problems through more skillful and sustainable agronomy, but also through education, especially of women, and universal family planning.

Jul 2 2015

Urban farms in Havana: a brief report on my brief visit

Because transportation from rural areas is expensive and trucks are few and far between (one result of the U.S. embargo), the Cuban government is promoting urban agriculture.  Our Food First tour group went to a small organic farm and store (Organopónico) in Havana:

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The farm grows a wide variety of vegetable crops, some outdoors but some under mesh.  The sun is hot.

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The farm sells produce to local residents.  I watched a steady procession of people coming to shop, only to be disappointed at the scarcity of items available.  It’s too hot to grow much this time of year.

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The board lists prices in pesos (indicated by $)—$4 to $10 a pound.

Another of the many Cuban contradictions: Cuba has two currencies, pesos and CUCs (Cuban Convertables).  A CUC is roughly equivalent to one dollar, or 24 pesos.  Salaries are paid in pesos.  Markets sell in CUCs or, recently, both.  This system, designed to take advantage of tourist dollars, is slated to end soon.

To put vegetable prices in context: the average Cuban salary is about 470 pesos a month, or $20 (but note that Cubans are given free food rations, education, and health care).

We also visited the much larger 25-acre farm in Havana’s Alamar neighborhood.

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You can see the surrounding apartments in this photo, but not the next one.

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With no money for gas or tractors, plowing gets done with oxen.

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This farm also has a store.

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I waited on a long line to buy a glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.

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This was incredibly delicious and totally worth the wait.

How much sugar is in this?  I searched for, but cannot find reliable Nutrition Facts for fresh cane juice.  If you happen to know where to find this, please send.*

On Monday, I’ll file the last of these Cuba posts, this one on food availability.

Note: the resumption of diplomatic relations and agreement to reopen embassies yesterday should make travel much easier.

*Answer to query: Thanks to Andy Bellatti and Cara Wilking for sending this link to a Nutrition Facts label for cane juice.  No wonder it was so good: 30 grams of sugar in 8 ounces!

Jul 1 2015

Small farms in Cuba: a brief report on my visit

As noted in an earlier post, I was offline from from June 13-20 on a visit to Cuba with a Food First group visiting small organic farms, rural and urban.

This was my third trip to Cuba.  I came with other groups in 1990 and 1992 at the beginning of what Cubans refer to as the “Special Period,” the economic disaster caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of its support for the 1959 Castro revolution, and the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba.

The embargo also required countries that trade with the U.S. to stop trading with Cuba.  For tourists like me, the lingering effects of the embargo are the travel restrictions, the failure of U.S. cell phones to work, and the scarce and slow Internet access.  Hence: Offline.

But change is imminent.  I heard many Cubans mention December 17, the day of President Obama’s 2014 announcement of resumption of relations with Cuba, as if it ought to be celebrated as a national holiday.

Our group traveled by charter flight from Miami.  My first surprise: We were not alone: The Miami airport devotes two entire concourses exclusively to Cuban charter flights.  As many as 20 flights every day are packed with people who have families in Cuba, business people, and tourists of one kind or another.

2015-06-13 06.05.39Our group was interested in Cuban agriculture and food systems.  This post deals with rural agricultural production.  In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about urban farming and what the Cuban food scene looks like.

The USDA provides useful background information and statistics on Cuban agriculture.

The 2015 report has this interesting tidbit: US agricultural exports to Cuba rose from $139.2 million in 1956-58 to $365.3 million in 2012-14.

This, however, does not break the embargo; it is classified as sales, not trade.  The Cubans buy agricultural products from us, mostly frozen chicken for people, and soybeans and soybean meal for animal feed.

We did not see much agriculture on this trip.  There is plenty of land, but gas, transportation, and tractors are extremely limited.  The highway between Havana and Pinar del Rio is well maintained but we saw few cars on it.  Horse-drawn carts, yes; cars and trucks, no.  And lots of land not in production.

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The reasons for this go beyond the embargo.  We heard repeatedly that Cubans don’t like doing agricultural labor: the population is highly educated, is 80% urban, the climate is hot and humid, and Cuban culture does not value that kind of work.

Much of Cuban food is imported.  How much?  Estimates range from 35% to 85% depending on whether whoever is doing the estimating is for or against the Cuban revolution.

An official of the agriculture ministry told us that Cuba is self-sufficient or nearly so in eggs, mangos, sugar, and tobacco.  I took this photo of mangos grown on the remarkable farm in Pinar del Rio established as a model for sustainability by Fernando Funes-Monzote.

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At present, food is grown in Cuba on large farms owned by the state or held by family-owned cooperatives of one kind or another, or on smaller farms that are owned by private individuals or families.  Only 70% or so of arable land is in production.  The state still has a million hectares to distribute, but has a hard time getting anyone to farm it.

Most production is organic, but not by choice.  The embargo makes agricultural inputs unavailable or prohibitively expensive. See, for example, Modern Farmer’s photo-essay on Cuban farming.  Rice and potatoes, however, are not organically grown, and neither is most tobacco.   We heard from farmers in the exceptionally beautiful Viñales region that tobacco is beginning to be grown organically.

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They are proud of their tobacco.  It is used for high-quality cigars and is a major cash crop.

The agricultural situation in Cuba, like much else about the country, is full of contradictions.

Tomorrow: urban farming.

Jun 30 2015

The FDA’s latest move on trans fats

I’m still catching up on what happened during the week I was offline in Cuba (more on that later this week).

One big event was the FDA’s announcement that it no longer considers artificial trans fat as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for human consumption, meaning that processed food manufacturers need to get rid of it.  They get three years to do so.

Here are the relevant documents:

Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has petitioned the FDA to get rid of trans fats for decades, describes this move as a “huge advance.”

As for complications:

  • The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is worried about the half-gram loophole:  “FDA memos show…80 percent of these uses [of partially hydrogenated oils containing trans fat] don’t require disclosure of the presence of trans fat because of the half-gram loophole.”
  • Politico Pro reports that “food industry lawyers are already scouring the document in hopes of finding some way to shield them from legal action” and that a ban on trans fat will increase demand for palm oil causing widespread deforestation across Indonesia and Malaysia.
  • Politico Pro also reports on a lawsuit filed immediately against Heinz for using trans fat in its frozen microwave french fries and tater tots while marketing its products as trans fat free.

I vote for the FDA’s move as a long-awaited step in the right direction.  Progress!

Addition, July 5:  The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board has a somewhat different view.  Trans fats are already gone, thanks to consumers, and all the FDA has done is to set up a basis for class-action suits.

 

Jun 29 2015

Bird flu poses big-time challenges for egg producers

This is a roundup of recent items on the effects of bird flu on egg producers: (1) the toll of the epidemic, (2) the politics, (3) the effects on restaurants, (4) the potential for a vaccine, and (5) a Food-Navigator-USA special edition.

1.  The toll: According to the USDA’s Chicken and Eggs report, the number of chickens laying table eggs declined by 33.5 million since April 1, a loss of 11%, and the number of eggs is down by 5%.  In May alone, 31.4 million layers were “rendered, died, destroyed, composted or disappeared,” four times the usual mortality rate.  No surprise, but egg prices went up by 46 cents in the last couple of weeks and now average $2.05 a dozen for Large white eggs Grade A or better (see USDA’s National Retail Report).  Since December, USDA says there have been 223 outbreaks of bird flu that have affected 48.1 million chickens and turkeys.

2.  The politics: According to an article in Fortune magazine, the flu epidemic is a consequence of industrial egg production, in which many thousands of birds are packed together.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the crisis is its implications for the viability of industrial-scale farming. The egg industry’s huge “layer operations”…are designed to protect birds from contamination, says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota at the University of Minnesota. The animals’ environment is tightly controlled…But when a virus pierces such defenses, or when defenses lapse, having all of one’s eggs in one basket (so to speak) can make the impact more devastating.

3.  Restaurants: The Des Moines Register reports that restaurants will be raising prices as a result of the egg shortage.

4.  Bird Flu Vaccine: According to PoliticoPro Morning Agriculture, a small company in Iowa says it’s got a vaccine that needs USDA approval before it can be used.  But people in the poultry industry think it might be “a non-starter for foreign buyers of U.S. poultry products.”

5.  Food Navigator-USA’s Special Edition is called Avian flu in focus: Navigating the egg shortage crisis.  As Food Navigator explains, “manufacturers that rely on egg products face some big challenges in the weeks and months ahead.”

 

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