From Brian McFadden’s “The Strip,” New York Times, November 20.
Enjoy the holiday, family, and friends!
From Brian McFadden’s “The Strip,” New York Times, November 20.
Enjoy the holiday, family, and friends!
As of this morning, it looks like the SuperCommittee process has failed. This committee was supposed to recommend specific budget cuts by tonight. If it fails, automatic budget cuts, half to the military, go into effect in January 2013—after the 2012 election.
What does this mean for the farm bill?
The chairs and vice-chairs of the House and Senate agriculture committee have been meeting in secret—from the rest of the agriculture committee members as well as from the public—to recommend how to cut $23 billion from agriculture appropriations.
These recommendations, rumored to be not quite final, were to go to the SuperCommittee today. Now what?
I’m guessing the farm bill is up for grabs and will now have to go through the usual legislative processes. This could be good or bad, depending on the politics.
In the meantime, I counted 97 recommendations in the secret committee’s report. A few of the most interesting:
“Specialty” crops (translation: fruits and vegetables)
As in the past, SNAP takes up about 80% of the total farm bill budget, with the remainder going mainly to commodity support and insurance programs.
As always, large agricultural producers get most of the support money—$ billions—but this plan throws a handful of small benefits ($ millions) to help fruit-and-vegetable growers.
How any of this might work in practice is unclear, as is what happens next. A whole new opportunity for lobbying, perhaps. Stay tuned.
Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) launched Food Day yesterday with a splendid lunch right in the middle of Times Square. I got to be one of the lucky eaters.
The purpose of Food Day is to promote discussion of critical issues in agriculture, food, nutrition, and health. Its goals:
For half an hour, it got big-time billboard coverage.
The lunch was nutritionally correct and quite delicious, thanks to Ellie Krieger who did the menus and is posed here with Mario Batali.
Tom Farley, director of New York City’s Health Department, gave the opening speech with updates on his department’s new “cut down on sodas” campaign. For example: One soda a day translates to 50 pounds of sugar a year, and you have to walk three miles to burn off the calories in one 20-ounce soda! He’s here with Michael Jacobson who has directed CSPI since the early 1970s.
Tom Chapin sang from his album for kids, “give peas a chance.”
It was all anyone needed to be inspired to join the food movement and sign up for the food day campaign!
Later addition: Mike Jacobson sent this one with Morgan Spurlock.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the United Nations General Assembly met this month to consider resolutions about doing something to address rising rates of “non-communicable” diseases (i.e., chronic as opposed to infectious diseases such as obesity-related coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancers).
The Declaration adopted by the Assembly disappointed a consortium of 140 non-profit public health advocacy groups who issued a statement noting the conflicts of interest that occur when international agencies “partner” with companies that make products that contribute to an increase in disease risks.”
The consortium suggested actions that they hoped the U.N. would recommend, such as:
The group also said that the U.N. should still work on:
Food companies and trade associations are actively involved in lobbying the U.N. not to do any of these things. This consortium has much work to do.
My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column is in answer to a question about the deeper meaning of the fuss over McDonald’s “healthier” Happy Meals.
Q: Wouldn’t it be the best form of activism to encourage people to buy McDonald’s slightly-less-bad-for-you Happy Meals? If the new formulation flops, do you really think McDonald’s will take more baby steps in the same direction? Aren’t you letting perfect be the enemy of the good?
A: The question, for those of you ignoring national media, refers to McDonald’s announcement that it plans to restructure its Happy Meals for kids by adding fruit, downsizing the fries and reducing calories by 20 percent and sodium by 15 percent.
Skeptic that I am, I took a look at McDonald’s lengthy press release. The company does not claim to be making healthier changes. It says it is offering customers improved nutrition choices. This is something quite different.
At issue is the default meal – the one that gets handed to you without your having to ask for anything. Plenty of research shows that although customers can request other options, most take the default. So the default is what counts.
McDonald’s says its new default will include a quarter cup of apple slices (how many slices can that be?), less sodium and 1 ounce less of french fries (thereby reducing calories and fat). These are steps in the right direction, but tiny baby steps.
The rest is up to you: hamburger, cheeseburger or McNuggets.
As for beverage, the press release says, “McDonald’s will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.”
This sounds great. “Automatically” makes me think the default Happy Meal will come with low-fat milk. No such luck. It’s up to you to choose from soda or low-fat chocolate or plain milk.
Want something healthy? You have to ask for it. And the meal still comes with a toy, although the meal isn’t healthy enough to qualify for a toy under the San Francisco’s nutrition standards, which are scheduled to go into effect in December.
The McNuggets meal meets the San Francisco standard for sodium, overall calories and for saturated fat – if you choose low-fat white milk. It fails the other criteria. Fat provides about 40 percent of the calories (the standard is 35 percent), and fruit misses the mark by 50 percent. The hamburger and cheeseburger meals fare worse. And even if french fries count as a vegetable, they don’t reach the three-quarter-cup standard. Sodas, of course, have too much sugar.
No toy for you, San Francisco kids.
So let’s get back to the underlying question: Isn’t perfect the enemy of the good? Aren’t baby steps like these in the right direction and, therefore, deserving of support?
I don’t think so. McDonald’s proposed changes are a reason to ask a different question: Is a better-for-you Happy Meal a good choice? Wouldn’t your child be better off eating something healthy, not just slightly healthier?
Couldn’t McDonald’s, the largest fast-food maker in the world, come up with something genuinely healthy that also tastes good?
“Better for you” is a marketing ploy, and McDonald’s must need help. Although its annual sales are $24 billion from its 14,000 outlets in the United States, Happy Meals have not been doing well.
Business analysts attribute declining sales since 2003 to the unsophisticated toys. Toys are the only reason kids want Happy Meals, but more parents are ordering adult meals and splitting them with the kids. But what if Happy Meals appear healthier?
Let’s be clear: McDonald’s is not a social service agency. It is a business. Its business interests come first. This means selling more food to more people more often, viewing food choice exclusively as a matter of personal responsibility and pretending that the company’s $1.3 billion annual marketing expenditure has no effect on consumer choice.
I suspect McDonald’s actions are attempts to appease Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign and perhaps to attract health-minded families to its outlets.
But surely the changes are also part of a calculated public relations effort to discourage other communities from enacting nutrition standards like those in San Francisco.
What McDonald’s actions make clear is the need for federal action to make it easier for people to make healthier choices for their kids. This means putting some curbs on marketing below-standard foods to kids and insisting that default kids menus be healthy.
If McDonald’s were serious about promoting kids’ health, it would offer default Happy Meals that meet San Francisco’s nutrition standards and advertise them to the hilt. Until the company does that, I’m reserving applause.
Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” among other books, and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail her at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page G – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle
McDonald’s sent out a press release yesterday to announce “healthier” changes to its Happy Meals.
Healthier? Not quite. The company is announcing a “Commitment to Offer Improved Nutrition Choices” [my emphasis].
The comprehensive plan aims to help customers — especially families and children — make nutrition-minded choices whether visiting McDonald’s or eating elsewhere.
Menu changes underway include the addition of more nutritionally-balanced choices that meet McDonald’s reputation for great taste and affordability, along with an increased focus on providing nutrition information that enable customers and employees to make simple, informed menu decisions.
McDonald’s says that by the end of this year it will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal. It will:
I emphasize “automatically” because it means the default. If you order a Happy Meal, that’s what you get. Research shows that most people stick with the default. If the default is a healthy meal, kids have a better chance of getting one.
Everything else is your choice:
The press release says: “McDonald’s will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.”
Doesn’t that sound like the Happy Meal will come with low-fat milk?
The meal comes with a choice of a soda or low-fat chocolate or white milk. Soda remains an option. And the meal still comes with a toy.
So all the fuss—and McDonald’s has gotten huge press over this—is about 3 or 4 small slices of apples, one ounce less of French fries, and less sodium.
These may be steps in the right direction, but I’d call them tiny baby steps.
So what’s going on here? Much of this is about responding to Michelle Obama’s call for action on childhood obesity.
But according to the Wall Street Journal, business matters may also be at stake. Happy Meals account for less than 10% of McDonald’s U.S. sales, but sales have been declining since 2003 for a funny reason: “gadgets for children have become more sophisticated and the toys less desirable.” Of course the only reason kids want Happy Meals is for the toys.
But kids have to eat. Instead of Happy Meals, parents have been
ordering adult-size items off the ‘dollar menu’ and splitting them between two children rather than buying two kids’ meals.
Kids’ meal orders at fast-food restaurants have declined 15% since 2006 to just under a billion, while dollar-menu items ordered by or for kids have increased 29% in the last five years.
The Wall Street Journal quotes a restaurant consultant who comments that
Making [apples] a forced decision is a pretty unusual thing for a restaurant to do…If they can get to a place where parents associate them with healthy offerings in a world of increasing fast casual options that are perceived as healthier, that will be good for them.
But will it? McDonald’s tested healthier meals with disappointing results. So this has to be about McDonald’s trying to appear to do something to promote kids’ health. In reality, it can’t. McDonald’s is a business and its business interests come first.
If McDonald’s were serious, it could offer a truly healthier Happy Meal as the default and back it up with marketing dollars. When the company does that, I’ll cheer. Until then, as I told the Times, “I’m not impressed.”
This last one warms my heart. Six or seven years ago, I was invited to speak to a small group of owners of restaurant chains, Applebee’s, Darden’s, and the like. I went with a three-point agenda:
The response? Ballistic. “What are you trying to do, put us out of business?”
Well, times have changed. Some of those chains are actually doing some of these things. And now the First Lady is urging them to do the first two points on my agenda, at least.
Mrs. Obama has no legislated power. She only has the power of leadership and persuasion. I’m glad she’s using it to promote action on childhood obesity, challenging as that is.
In an action long expected, the USDA approved commercial production of genetically modified alfalfa.
The announcement makes it clear that USDA did not do this lightly. The agency was well aware of the concerns of organic farmers that GM alfalfa could—and will—contaminate their fields.
Secretary Vilsack said:
After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa…All of the alfalfa production stakeholders involved in this issue have stressed their willingness to work together to find solutions.
…USDA brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss feasible strategies for coexistence between genetically engineered (GE), organic, and other non-GE stakeholders.
…In response to the request for support from its stakeholders, USDA is taking a number of steps, including:
- Reestablishing two important USDA advisory committees – Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee.
- Conducting research into areas such as ensuring the genetic integrity, production and preservation of alfalfa seeds entrusted to the germplasm system;
- Refining and extending current models of gene flow in alfalfa;
- Requesting proposals through the Small Business Innovation Research program to improve handling of forage seeds and detection of transgenes in alfalfa seeds and hay; and,
- Providing voluntary, third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives.
USDA seems to think it has brokered “peaceful coexistence” (see previous post). Skeptics, take note.