Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 26 2012

USDA supports Meatless Monday? Not a chance.

I was asked by a reporter yesterday for comment on the press release issued by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) in response to USDA’s announced support of the Meatless Monday campaign.  

What? 

My immediate reaction: It’s pretty unbelievable that USDA would support Meatless Monday. Where’s the USDA statement? [see addition below]

The NCBA press release said:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recent announcement that the agency embraces the “Meatless Monday” concept calls into question USDA’s commitment to U.S. farmers and ranchers. USDA stated “one simple way to reduce our environmental impact while dining at our cafeteria is to participate in the “Meatless Monday” initiative.”

NCBA said Meatless Monday “is an animal rights extremist campaign to ultimately end meat consumption” and “NCBA will not remain silent as USDA turns its back on cattlemen and consumers.”

Without having seen what USDA said, I told the reporter:

If USDA is really supporting Meatless Monday, that’s big news. Historically, the USDA has worked hand in glove with the meat industry and has firmly resisted suggestions that it would be healthier for people and the planet to eat less meat.

The meat industry complained that the 2010 dietary guidelines pushed seafood and that meat got lost in protein in MyPlate, so they are supersensitive to this issue. Anyone who has ever been to a feedlot or industrial pig farm knows that the environmental issues are huge. You can smell them from miles away.

And what did the USDA actually say?  Oops.  Mistake.

According to the Boston Globe:

The Agriculture Department says a statement on its website encouraging its employees not to eat meat on Mondays was made without proper clearance.

The posting earlier this week was part of an internal newsletter that discusses how staff can reduce their environmental impact while dining at the agency’s cafeteria.

….USDA spokeswoman Cortney Rowe says the department does not endorse the “Meatless Monday” initiative, which is part of a global public health campaign.

Apparently, the USDA pulled the statement within minutes after the NCBA statement went out. 

How did USDA announce this to the public?  On Twitter!

USDA MT @usdapress: USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday. Statement on USDA site posted w/o proper clearance. It has been removed // @FarmBureau

 Food politics in action!

Addition, June 27: Here’s the original USDA Newsletter that caused all this fuss.  Scroll to page 3.

Jul 25 2012

Yesterday’s hearing on Big Soda ban

I’m out of town but learned about the hearing by e-mail and twitter (thanks to senders), and I’ve read the coverage in Huffington Post,  the Christian Science Monitor, and the Toronto Star.

One picture says it all:

Jul 24 2012

The Bloomberg soda initiative: soda companies fight back, overtly and covertly

The hearing on Bloomberg’s soda volume limit takes place today.  I’m traveling and sorry to miss it (I filed comments).

I shouldn’t be surprised but I am stunned by the intensity and depth of soda industry pushback on this, most of it going on and on about the virtues of personal choice, as if container size has nothing to do with the amount people eat.  It does (see below).

In addition to what reporters have been reporting, here’s what I’ve seen personally:

  • A phony “grassroots”petition campaign paid for by the soda industry with campaigners paid $30 per hour to collect signatures
  • A mailing to my home asking me to protest
  • Handout cards
  • Subway posters
  • Tee shirts
  • And highly visible ads on trucks.

And then there’s yesterday’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from Seth Goldman, the “TEA-EO” of Honest Tea:

I challenge the mayor and the New York City Board of Health to seriously consider the impediments that entrepreneurs already face in our efforts to offer lower-calorie drinks. Starting a business and building a challenger brand with modest resources is already a daunting task. The proposed ban would create additional barriers to beverage innovation.

Only one thing wrong with this.  Mr. Goldman must have forgotten to mention that since March 2011, Honest Tea has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Coca-Cola.

Yes, I know the petition has gathered 75,000 signatures or so.  The campaigners and signers should all know better.  See this, for example:

Jul 23 2012

New data on calories reported as consumed

USDA has just released the latest figures on nutrient intakes among Americans.  These amounts are reported by a statistically determined sample of people interviewed as part of the What We Eat in America NHANES—the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Having just published Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, I’m interested in calories.

The survey results from 2009-2010 for calories per day for adults over the age of 20:

  •  Men          2512
  • Women     1778

How many of those calories are consumed away from home?

  • Men         35%
  • Women   30%

How are daily calories distributed?

No, the percentages do not add up to 100%.  That’s because of snacks.  What percent of calories is consumed as snacks?

  • Men       24%
  • Women 23%

No surprises here, but the figures are fun to play with.

Compared to the figures reported in Why Calories Count for 2008, the figures for daily intake are not significantly changed.

Note: These are reported figures, and remain well below the 3000 calories a day for men and 2400 for women observed in studies that actually measure calorie balance.

Jul 20 2012

SNAP to Health: A Fresh Approach to Strengthening SNAP

I’m on the advisory committee for SNAP to Health, a project of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, chaired by Dr. Susan Blumenthal.

The Commission released its report on Wednesday in Washington DC at a congressional briefing at which I (and several others) spoke.

The report, Snap to Health, is online at this link.  Its recommendations are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The major points made at the briefing:

  • SNAP funding must be preserved; the program is a lifeline for 46 million Americans, half of them children.
  • SNAP, as Rep. Ron Wyden (Dem-OR) put it, “is a conveyor belt for calories.”  It would be better if the calories came from healthier foods.
  • The prevalence of obesity is high among low-income Americans and some evidence suggests that rates may be higher among SNAP participants.
  • Buying healthier foods with SNAP benefits is not easy.  There are problems with access, cost, and relentless marketing of junk foods to low-income groups in general and to EBT users in particular.

As I discussed in my remarks (which are also supposed to be posted on SnapToHealth.org soon), food companies and retailers specifically target marketing efforts to low-income groups and to SNAP participants.  No such efforts market healthier foods to EBT users.

Michele Simon’s recent report documents the extensive lobbying efforts of food companies to make sure that SNAP recipients can use EBT cards to buy their products.

The Snap to Health report is meant to start a national conversation about helping this program to address twenty-first century health challenges.

Let the conversation begin!

Jul 19 2012

What’s holding up the new food safety regulations?

A full-page ad in Tuesday’s New York Times (July 17) alerts readers to the astonishing 18-month delay in issuing food safety rules authorized by the Food Safety Modernization Act passed by Congress at the end of 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sponsor of the ad, Make Our Food Safe, is a coalition of highly respected public health and advocacy groups working on food safety issues.

According to the New York Times report, they are baffled by the delay.

But the F.D.A. rules that are needed to carry out the law have been under review by the Office of Management and Budget in the White House since December, and consumer health advocates say there has been no explanation for what they describe as a lengthy delay.

….Before the rules become official, the F.D.A. still has to circulate them for public comment, adding more months to the process. The rules for importers were expected in January and for domestic food processors in July, advocates said.

Could the delay be due to election-year politics?  Advocates wonder if

Democrats may want to avoid the impression that government regulation is growing, a popular cause for attacks by Republicans.

The Office of Management and Budget denies this.

Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said that the agency coordinates suggestions from many institutions across the federal government, and that it is not unusual for the review process to take months. A regulation last year on dangerous snakes, for example, took about 10 months to clear, she said.

Oh come on.  These rules are about protecting the public from dangerous microbes.  They need to move.

The Make Our Food Safe website makes it easy to write President Obama to release the FDA’s proposed rules.    Add your voice!

Jul 17 2012

Summer reading: reports on diet and health

It’s the (relatively) quiet season and I’m getting caught up on reports coming in.   Here are two.

1.  The Bipartisan Policy Center, a group founded by former cabinet secretaries, has come up with a plan to improve the health of Americans: Lots to Lose: How America’s Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens our Economic Future.   The Executive Summary is online, but the website is difficult to navigate and you have to log into Facebook to read the entire report.

The report calls on the public and private sectors to collaborate in creating healthy families, schools, workplaces and communities. Some of the recommendations are aimed at the food environment, rather than individuals, which is good.  And they are addressed to families, schools, workplaces, communities, and farm policy.  But like most such reports this one does not explain how any of its recommendations might be achieved.

2.  The Rudd Center at Yale has produced Cereal Facts, a study showing that cereal companies:

Increased media spending on child-targeted cereals by 34% from 2008 to 2011, mainly on the least nutritious products.

  • More than doubled spending in Spanish-language media.
  • Improved overall nutritional quality of 13 of 14 brands advertised to children by 10 percent on average.
  • Sponsor TV ads that typically promote products containing one spoonful of sugar for every three spoonfuls of cereal.

Two more findings of interest:

  • In 2011, the average 6- to 11-year-old saw more than 700 TV ads for cereals.
  • Although General Mills and Kellogg do make nutritious products that are marketed to parents, they do not advertise those products to children.

Watch the video!

Jul 16 2012

The House version of the farm bill: dysfunction or posturing?

Is this the way to make law?

After a 13-hour mark-up session that lasted past midnight last week, the House Agriculture Committee approved, 35-11, its version of the 2012 Farm Bill.

The bill is so flawed that USDA Tom Vilsack felt compelled to issue a critical statement:

Americans deserve a farm and jobs bill that reforms the safety net for producers in times of need, promotes the bio-based economy, conserves our natural resources, strengthens rural communities,  promotes job growth in rural America, and supports food assistance to low-income families. 

Unfortunately, the bill produced by the House Agriculture Committee contains deep cuts in SNAP, including a provision that will deny much-needed food assistance to 3 million Americans, mostly low-income working families with children as well as seniors. The proposed cuts…wouldn’t just leave Americans hungry – they would stunt economic growth.  The bill also makes misguided reductions to critical energy and conservation program efforts.

For the politics of what the House Ag Committee is doing, Politico has a good summary.  According to its analysis, the problems with the bill are so enormous that it is unlikely that the House will ever get to it. 

The reality is that GOP leaders are worried about a messy floor fight over divisive regional policies months before voters head to the ballot boxes. Odd couples could abound: The far left and far right would likely vote against the bill on the floor, the former thinking the bill cuts too much from food stamps, the latter insisting cuts aren’t deep enough.

There’s also division over how much the government should be subsidizing the farm industry and whether it should control commodity prices. Arguing complex farm policy on the House floor in this political climate gives many Republican members pause.

If the House can’t pass a bill, then it would go into negotiations with the Senate with a weak negotiating stance.

…Now, they’ll likely have to grit their teeth and vote to extend current policy. And that will come only after rural lawmakers go home for all of August and face questions about why the bill hasn’t been debated on the House floor.

The Environmental Working Group gives ten reasons to reject the House bill:

  • Cuts Nutrition Assistance
  • Gives Big Farmers a Big Raise
  • Expands Crop Insurance by $9.5 billion
  • Cuts Conservation Programs by $6 billion
  • Lacks Protections for Prairies
  • Includes Anti-Environmental Riders
  • Has Few Incentives for Healthy Diets
  • Weakens Regulation of GMO Crops
  • Guts State Food and Farm Standards
  • Repeals Organic Certification Program

Fixing the farm bill is a formidable challenge. 

But aren’t lawmakers supposed to take on such challenges as part of what we elected them to do?

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