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May 9 2012

FDA’s Global Engagement

The FDA has just released a classy new report on Global Engagement, summarizing its efforts to deal with issues raised by the globalization of drugs, medical devices, and foods.

This is a big deal.  In 2009, 300,000 foreign facilities in more than 150 countries exported $2 trillion worth of FDA-regulated products to the United States.

Given these numbers alone, the FDA has some challenges.

In 2011, one out of every six FDA-regulated food products in the U.S. came from abroad.  Imports of fresh fruits, vegeta­bles, coffee, tea, and cocoa have more than doubled since 2000.

We import:

  • 80 percent of seafood
  • ~50 percent of fresh fruit
  • ~20 percent of fresh vegetables

As the report explains,

  • Many products entering the United States are made or grown in countries that lack the necessary regulatory over­sight to ensure their quality and safety.
  • Greater numbers of suppliers, more complex products, and intricate multinational supply chains introduce risks to product safety and quality, including more oppor­tunities for economic adulteration and the spread of contaminated products.
  • FDA can only realistically inspect a small percent­age (less than 3 percent) of the enormous volume of food products arriving at U.S. ports of entry, making it crucial that the Agency focus on ensuring that food products meet U.S. standards before they reach the United States.

To deal with this problem, the FDA has opened offices in:

  • China: Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou
  • India: New Delhi and Mumbai
  • Latin America: San Jose, Costa Rica; Santiago, Chile; and Mexico City, Mexico
  • Europe: Brussels, Belgium; London, United Kingdom; and Parma, Italy
  • Asia-Pacific: FDA headquarters
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: Pretoria, South Africa
  • Middle East and North Africa: Amman, Jordan

The FDA seems seriously concerned about its global initiatives and the safety problems posed by our globalized food supply.

The volume seems impossible to manage.  Let’s hope the FDA’s efforts do some good.

Jan 12 2012

Some thoughts on high rates of child malnutrition in India

The New York Times reported a shocking statistic yesterday: about 42% of children under age 5 living in India suffer from malnutrition and are “wasted” (low weight for height). 

The figure comes from the Hungama survey of 73,000 Indian households conducted by the Naandi Foundation.  It reports an even more troubling statistic: nearly 59% of Indian children under age 5 are “stunted” (low height for age).

The Hangama report holds one hopeful note.  Rates of childhood malnutrition in India fell by 20% during the past 7 years.

But have they? 

According to a more detailed analysis in today’s New York Times

Despite the recent boom years of the 1990s and 2000s, there has been little improvement in overall nutrition in India, according to United Nations data. About 20 percent of India’s over 1 billion population remained “undernourished” during that time, meaning their “food intake regularly provides less than their minimum energy requirements.” The most recent”Global Hunger Index” shows that two-thirds of the 122 developing countries studied had reduced hunger levels in recent years, but that hunger levels in India have increased.

Ending malnutrition is a matter of political will.  If India wanted to address childhood malnutrition in any serious way, it could. 

How?  Feeding programs are emergency measures.  Long-term solutions require institution of social programs:

  • Promote breastfeeding,
  • Educate and empower women
  • Build toilets
  • Clean up water supplies
  • Eradicate worms
  • Reduce income inequality    

Two recent books summarize the research behind these ideas and explain what causes widespread hunger and what to do about it.  They make it clear that eradicating childhood malnutrition should be a first priority for any government:

  • Olivier De Schutter and Kaitlin Cordes, editors: Accounting for Hunger: The Right to Food in the Era of Globalisation (Studies in International Law), Hart, 2011.
  • Per Pinstrup-Anderson P and Derrill D. Watson II: Food Policy for Development Countries: The Role of Government in Global, National, and Local Food Systems, Cornell University Press, 2011.  
Jun 16 2008

Indian Medical Association endorses Pepsi?

Rumors are that the Indian Medical Association (IMA) has formally endorsed Pepsi’s Tropicana fruit juices and Quaker cereals as part of a “partnership for health.” Can Indian consumers distinguish one Pepsi product from another. As I mentioned last year (see posts under “India”), I saw Pepsi products everywhere I went in India, even in the most remote villages, and these were not fruit juices or cereals; they were chips. The IMA denies that it is doing this for money. Maybe so, but rumors suggest otherwise and it is difficult to imagine why else the group would do such a thing. Perhaps it is just a matter of solidarity with Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s India-born CEO.

May 14 2008

Rising food prices: who is at fault?

The New York Times writes today that India’s politicians, economists, and academics are responding to the charge that increasing prosperity in their country is responsible for the global rise in food prices. No way, they say. Like Vandana Shiva (see previous post), they cite other reasons: the West’s diversion of crop land to produce biofuels, agricultural subsidies that undermine agriculture in developing countries, trade barriers that do the same, high consumption of beef and oil resources, and high degree of food waste, along with the decline in the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar. Time for some leadership on all sides, I’d say.

May 6 2008

The current food crisis: two views worth reading

The rise in food prices is blamed on a perfect storm of three factors: high oil prices, food grown for biofuels, and rising demand for meat in developing countries, particularly India and China. Vandana Shiva takes exception to this last accusation. The “crisis” is one of the least attractive result of globalization and corporate control of the food supply, she argues. The Washington Post has been running an excellent series of articles. The Post adds a fourth factor: the serious drought in Australia caused by global warming. If you were wondering what was meant by “global food system,” here it is.

Nov 30 2007

India’s grocery transition

The Wall Street Journal offers a terrific window on India’s food transition. Take a look at the slideshow comparing India’s vegetable markets now to what they will look like once the German retailing company, Metro, gets established.

Oct 6 2007

Passage to India

I am back from India and still trying to make sense of the experience. India, of course, is a mass of contradictions, one of which is its state of technological development. My hotel room, for example, had an excellent Wi-Fi signal but it was not possible to access it. It was secured and had to be paid for but the hotel had not figured out how to collect the money. Result: no Internet access (they said they were working on it).

Here are just a few snapshots of what I saw of the food-and-health scene in India:

  • From the International Herald Tribune, September 27: “Food is going to be like oil, a product that gets more expensive as China and India get richer…There is a growing population that is improving its standard of living and wants to eat more.”
  • From the New Delhi Express, September 30: the percentage of extremely poor people in India (those earning up to 7 rupees—17 cents!–per day) fell from 26.1% in 2000 to 21.8% in 2005, but the proportion of the population that earns less than $2 per day rose to 77%–meaning 836 million people. This means that India’s new prosperity is doing some good for the rest of the population, which means 350 million people.
  • If you want food in small villages on the road from Delhi to Jaipur, or anywhere else in rural areas around Delhi, the easiest option is to buy it at small stands, of which there are many, everywhere. All of them sell 3-ounce bags of Frito-Lay chips for 20 rupees (50 cents). Frito-Lay is owned by PepsiCo; its ability to distribute products to the remotest areas is truly astounding. Pringles are also ubiquitous in this part of India, but they are very expensive–65 or 70 rupees a tube, an amount close to the average daily income of 2/3 of India’s vast population.
  • From a medical doctor who works in a mobile clinic: “We expected to be treating infections but instead we are overwhelmed with type 2 diabetes and hypertension.”
  • Newspapers reported that the municipal water authority in Hyderabad has been selling water to Coca-Cola at one quarter of the price it charges community residents.
  • Regulation of genetically modified foods is under dispute; the environment ministry is refusing to deal with the health and safety concerns even though his ministry is supposed to. Cornell University scientists are conducting tests in India of GM eggplants.
  • New Delhi is a sprawling city of small, low buildings and hundreds of thousands of tiny shops–but for how much longer? Its finance minister says India must open its $330 billion retail market to foreign investors, but doing so “will require convincing mom-and-pop stores across the country that the entry of big players would not affect their jobs.” This may be a hard sell. Wal-Mart is first in line. As the Wall Street Journal put it last month, “International expansion is critical for Wal-Mart…A typical store will stand between 50,000 and 100,000 square feet and sell a wide range of fruits and vegetables.” In Delhi, fruits and vegetables are sold from street stands. There are no large supermarkets in this city of 14 million people. Small (very small by our standards) supermarkets are just coming in. They mostly sell packaged foods. Most people in Delhi buy fruits and vegetables at street stands or mini farmers’ markets, of which there are many.
  • Small grocery stores in Delhi sell Kellogg Chocos (the equivalent of Cocoa Puffs) cereal with a cartoon of a young Krishna on the package. When I bought it, the clerk handed me a free Krishna game CD. The back of the box says: “Being a mother is difficult, more so in the mornings.” The solution? Chocos! As it explains, “1 serving of Kellogg’s Chocos = Fibre of 2 chapattis + Calcium of 2 glasses of milk.” On the side panel: Chocos “provides adequate energy and nutrients for the body and brain, helps improve school performance, helps keep weight under control, and helps you feel full.” Marketing to children has arrived! I showed photographs of this box in the lecture I gave on Gandhi’s birthday.
  • McDonald’s restaurants are all over Delhi. They serve hamburgers (20 rupees) but in this largely vegetarian country mostly sell things like Chicken Maharajah Macs, Wrap Paneer Salsas, and Shahi Paneer McCurry Pans (55 to 65 rupees).
  • I thought I knew Indian food. Wrong. I did a sampling one night at Dilli Haat, a state-run market that has food stalls (and gorgeous handicrafts) from the major regions of India. The cuisines are different, each more glorious than the next.
Oct 6 2007

The Navdanya Movement

I was able to go to Dehradun, a 6-hour train ride north of Delhi, to visit Bija Vidjapeeth, the Navdanya (“nine seeds”) center where Vandana Shiva and her colleagues run an experimental organic farm, a seed bank, and an educational facility to teach farmers how to grow “biodiverse” crops (they also run courses for visitors).

Most farmers in India have less than an acre of land. By biodiversity, they mean growing multiple crops—grains, legumes, vegetables that complement each other–on the small plot, rather than one cash crop like rice or some other grain. One of these plots planted in rice might bring a farmer 5000 rupees ($125) per year, but out of this he will have to buy seeds, fertilizer, and food for his family. Planted in multiple crops, a farmer can sell the higher value items, feed his family, and triple his income to 15,000 rupees ($375) per year, enough to bring the family out of dire poverty and send the kids to school.

Navdanya gives seeds to farmers and teaches them how to use them; farmers are expected to return the seeds the following year or give seeds to two other farmers. Its programs are in 17 Indian states and Navdanya seeds have gone to about 100,000 farmers so far.

Half of the 20-acre farm is trust land planted in mango trees. The rest is experimental plots, the garden, and the buildings for lectures and dormitories. It is in a valley at the foot of the Himalayas, and beautiful country in sharp contrast to Delhi’s sprawl.

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