Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 3 2015

Obama’s budget calls for a single food safety agency!

Starting on page 82 of President Obama’s 150-page, $4 trillion 2016 federal budget is a section on food safety calling for creation of a single food safety agency.

The Budget proposes to consolidate the FSIS [the Food Safety and Inspection Service of USDA] and the food safety related components of the FDA to create a single new agency within HHS…A single Federal food safety agency would provide focused, centralized leadership, a primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards, and clear lines of responsibility and accountability that will enhance both prevention of and responses to outbreaks of food borne illnesses.  It would rationalize the food safety regulatory regime and allow the Federal government to better allocate resources and responsibilities.

Wow!  Food safety advocates in and out of government have been pushing for something like this since the early 1990s.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says:

The budget proposes an additional $301 million for the FDA to implement that law, though part of the money would come from user fees imposed on the food industry.

Where do I apply?

Is this a good idea?  It sure could be but the devil is in the details.

Does it have a chance in this Congress?  I’m not holding my breath.

Feb 2 2015

Food Politics 101: The School Nutrition Association vs. Fruits & Vegetables

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is the organization that ostensibly represents the interests of school food service personnel.

I say ostensibly because the SNA has moved in a quite different direction.  It now fully represents the interests of its corporate food industry donors.

In the recent past, it supported federal efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school meals.  Now it fights all efforts to do so.

Recent events illustrate these points.

1.  Nancy Huehnergarth reports on the SNA meeting in Phoenix:

The annual conference, which this year ran from January 11 through 13, is “where school nutrition directors and industry representatives [came] together to build successful partnerships to better serve the nation’s children,” according to the SNA’s website. But a review of the conference agenda, speakers, educational sessions and sponsors paint a far different picture — one of an overwhelmingly industry-driven event heavy on the promotion of food and beverage offerings from major processed food corporations.

2.  The SNA has just issued a Position Paper on school meals.

It calls for more funding for school meals (good idea).

But then it insists on some very bad ideas:

  • Stop requiring fruits and vegetables to be served with every meal.
  • Don’t require so much whole grain.
  • Back off on lower sodium.
  • Allow any junk food to be part of the reimbursable meal.
  • Allow any junk food to be sold in competition with school meals.

In other words, return to the junk food school environment that flourished before the Institute of Medicine wrote two reports on improving the nutritional quality of school meals, Michelle Obama instituted Let’s Move!, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorizing USDA to set nutritional standards, USDA wrote those standards, and most schools in the United States went right ahead and implemented them.

The ostensible reason for the pushback?  Prevent waste.

3.  The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) did an analysis of trends in student participation in school meals.

This  research firmly counters the idea that students are turning away from school meals in droves in order to avoid having to eat fruits and vegetables.  It cites the recession and the increased price of the lunches as the reasons for the decline in participation.

Writing in Politico, Helena Bottemiller Evich points to the politics:

Student rejection of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products and declining participation has been a key part of the political debate over the push to relax some of the new standards. The move has sparked a battle that is expected to intensify this year as Congress looks to reauthorize the law governing school nutrition programs.

4.  Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh Produce Association issued a response to SNA.

While we agree with many recommendations in the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) 2015 Position Paper, we are deeply disappointed that SNA has chosen to continue its ill-advised fight against serving kids more fruits and vegetables in schools. The requirement that kids receive one-half cup of fruits or vegetables in school meals is being successfully met by tens of thousands of schools across the country. This is a modest step for the health of our children, especially in these critical learning years. When health classes teach students to make Half Their Plate consist of fruits and vegetables, it would be unconscionable for the school cafeteria to undercut that message by not serving at least one-half cup in school meals.

With friends like the SNA, school food advocates don’t need enemies.

Chalk this one up to food industry divide-and-conquer strategies.  Food companies pay SNA’s bills.  They get what they pay for.

The SNA ought to be the strongest advocate for healthier school meals.  It’s a tragedy that this organization has become the leading defender of junk food.

Jan 30 2015

USDA’s farm “typology” report: defines small, midsize, large

The USDA has just posted its enormous—more than 700 pages—2012 Census of Agriculture (Farm Typology) report.

Its definitions and results are impressive.  Definitions are based on a metric called Gross Case Farm Income (GCFI):

  • Small             <$350,000
  • Midsize          >$350,000 but less than $1 million
  • Large              >$1 million but less than $5 million
  • Very large     >$5 million

Another metric: average number of acres per category (one square mile is 640 acres):

  • Small:  GCFI between $150,000 and $350,000:   961 acres
  • Midsize:             1582 acres
  • Large:                 2926 acres
  • Very large:       4673 acres

And some basic facts:

  • 88% of farms are Small (GCFI <$350,000).
  • 12% are Midsize and Large, but they account of 80% of agriculture sales.

That’s US agriculture in a snapshot.

Jan 29 2015

A single food agency? Again? Really? Yes!

I don’t generally reproduce press releases but I can hardly improve on this one.  

[WASHINGTON, DC] – U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) today introduced the Safe Food Act of 2015,, which would create a single, independent food safety agency. Currently food safety oversight is split up among 15 different agencies, resulting in a patchwork where no single voice guides industry, retailers and consumers. Durbin and DeLauro introduced similar legislation in 1999, 2004, 2005 and 2007.

Let’s give them credit for persistence in the face of adversity.

The Safe Food Act would:

  • Transfer and consolidate food safety authorities for inspections, enforcement and labeling into a single food safety agency
  • Provide authority to require the recall of unsafe food
  • Require risk assessments and preventive control plans to reduce adulteration
  • Authorize enforcement actions to strengthen contaminant performance standards
  • Improve foreign food import inspections
  • Require full food traceability to better identify sources of outbreaks

The Government Accountability Office has been pressing for a single food agency for decades, mainly because food safety authority is largely split between FDA and USDA in ways that make no sense at all.

It’s terrific that DeLauro and Durbin are taking the matter up again and writing op-eds to encourage support.

They deserve all the support they can get!

Jan 28 2015

WHO versus noncommunicable (chronic) disease: where’s the sugar target?

The World Health Organization (WHO) released two reports within the last week aimed at preventing noncommunicable diseases.  Although the second is all about reducing sugar intake, the first report is about everything but.

1.  The Global Status Report on Noncommunicable Diseases, 2014.* 

The WHO press release points out that the report calls for:

more action to be taken to curb the epidemic, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, where deaths due to NCDs are overtaking those from infectious diseases. Almost three quarters of all NCD deaths (28 million), and 82% of the 16 million premature deaths, occur in low- and middle-income countries.

How?  By working to achieve 9 targets:

  • Target 1: A 25% relative reduction in risk of premature mortality from CVDs, cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases.
  • Target 2: At least 10% relative reduction in the harmful use of alcohol, as appropriate, within the national context.
  • Target 3: A 10% relative reduction in prevalence of insufficient physical activity.
  • Target 4: A 30% relative reduction in mean population intake of salt/sodium.
  • Target 5: A 30% relative reduction in prevalence of current tobacco use in persons aged 15+ years.
  • Target 6: A 25% relative reduction in the prevalence of raised blood pressure or contain the prevalence of raised blood pressure, according to national circumstances.
  • Target 7: Halt the rise in diabetes and obesity.
  • Target 8: At least 50% of eligible people receive drug therapy and counselling (including glycaemic control) to prevent heart attacks and strokes.
  • Target 9: An 80% availability of the affordable basic technologies and essential medicines, including generics, required to treat major NCDs in both public and private facilities.

Don’t dietary sugars have something to do with diabetes and obesity?  How come no specific target?  This is especially odd in light of the second report.

2. Guideline: Sugars Intake for Adults and Children [see updated, revised publication released March 2015]

The WHO makes three recommendations about intake of added (“free”) sugars:

  • A reduced intake of free sugars throughout the lifecourse (strong recommendation).
  • Reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake (strong recommendation).
  • A further reduction of the intake of free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake (conditional recommendation)

Why no target for sugar reduction to 10% of energy  in the first report?

The omission is glaring.  Could politics be involved?  It’s hard to think of any other explanation.

WHO needs to speak with one voice on NCD targets, guidelines, and recommendations.

* Along with the NCD target report, WHO also released:

**Thanks to Dr. Karen Sokal-Gutierrez for alerting me to the lack of a sugar target.

Jan 27 2015

Reading for a snowbound day: Noodle Narratives

Frederick Errington, Tatsuro Fujikura, and Deborah Gewertz.  The Noodle Narratives: The Global Rise of an Industrial Food into the Twenty-First Century.  University of California Press, 2013.

New Picture

 

How did it happen that lots of people subsist on instant noodles?  As the anthropologist authors explain, Ramen noodles are ubiquitous, quotidian, tasty, convenient, cheap, and shelf stable.  The industrial (cheap) versions are loaded with MSG and palm oil.   But then, there’s the David Chang Momofuko version, “cosmopolitan and classy,” requiring pounds of meat and taking hours to prepare (not cheap).  This book is about the commodification of instant noodles, starting from small Japanese markets and ending up as the world’s most widespread industrial food: “a capitalist provision that provisions capitalism.”  But will they feed the world?  “Our hope is that the future will provide at least a modest mosaic of choices—a mosaic in which competing orientations toward food, with an emphasis either on security or sovereighty, will continue to challenge one another in a socially and environmentally productive way.

Jan 26 2015

Some thoughts about the Revolving Door

Joel Leftwich has left his job as senior director for PepsiCo’s public policy and government affairs team (since March 2013) to become staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee now led by Pat Roberts (R-Kansas).

In some ways, it’s a perfectly logical appointment.  Before joining PepsiCo, Leftwich worked for Roberts as a legislative aide from 2005 to 2010 and as deputy staff director for the Ag Committee from 2011 to 2013.

But his connection to PepsiCo raises concerns.  The Ag committee will be dealing with several issues involving sodas and snack foods opposed by some members of Congress:

  • Reauthorization of WIC, the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (its requirements for healthy foods are always under pressure).
  • Preservation of the school nutrition standards authorized by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (under attack by the food industry and its friends in Congress).
  • SNAP nutrition standards (there is a movement to make sodas ineligible for SNAP-EBT purchases).
  • Issuance of the 2015 dietary guidelines, always under pressure not to say anything direct about not drinking sodas.
  • Issuance of the new food labels.  The soda industry opposes putting in “added sugars.”   While this is FDA’s purview, not USDA’s, the Ag Appropriations Committee governs FDA’s appropriations.

And on the state level, it’s worth taking a look at what the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture is up to, courtesy of Bettina Siegel’s The Lunch Tray: “cupcake amnesty.”

Clearly, agricultural policies affect public health in highly prominent ways.

That’s why we need to do a much better job of connecting food policy to health policy.

And that’s why having a leading PepsiCo lobbyist in charge of agricultural committee staff raises serious concerns about conflict of interest.

Jan 23 2015

Weekend reading: Liz Carlilisle’s Lentil Underground

Liz Carlisle.  Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America.  Gotham Books, 2015.

 

I did a blurb for this one:

What does it take to farm sustainably—and make a living?  Liz Carlisle tells the engrossing story of the “audacity rich, but capital poor” Montana farmers who thought lentils were the answer and stuck with them until proved right.  Anyone who dreams of starting a farm or wants to know how organic farmers can overcome the obstacles they face will be inspired by this book.

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