by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Potatoes

Sep 1 2015

GM potato approved for production

On Friday, the USDA announced that it approved production of “Innate” potatoes, genetically modified by the Simplot company to

  • Resist blight
  • Store longer at cold temperatures
  • Not turn brown when cooked
  • Produce less acrylamide

The official Federal Register notice is published here.

Earlier this year, the FDA “completed its consultation” with Simplot:

Simplot’s varieties of Ranger Russet, Russet Burbank and Atlantic potatoes are collectively known by the trade name “Innate” and are genetically engineered to reduce the formation of black spot bruises by lowering the levels of certain enzymes in the potatoes.

In addition, they are engineered to produce less acrylamide by lowering the levels of an amino acid called asparagine and by lowering the levels of reducing-sugars. Acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods during high-temperature cooking, such as frying, and has been found to be carcinogenic in rodents.

These sound like useful traits.  According to the Simplot video (worth watching), the company is proud of having produced a “better, more sustainable potato.”


  • Will Simplot voluntarily label its potatoes as genetically modified with enhanced characteristics?  There is precedent for doing so.  In the early 1990s, Calgene intended to do just that with its GM tomatoes (but the tomatoes failed in production and Monsanto bought the company).
  • Will McDonald’s use Innate potatoes for its French Fries?
  • Will supermarkets carry them?

I will be watching this one with great interest.

Feb 5 2015

Food politics in action: Potatoes!

The National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) has just recommended that white potatoes be included in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.*

This recommendation contradicts previous policy, which excluded white potatoes from the WIC package on the grounds that starchy vegetables are not lacking in the diets of WIC recipients and it would be better to use WIC to encourage consumption of a broader range of vegetables.

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, the potato lobby objected, insisted that white potatoes were just as healthy as other starchy vegetables, and that women weren’t eating enough of them.  It got Congress to overturn USDA’s restrictions on the number of times white potatoes (usually fried) could be served in the school lunch program.

And it got Congress to order USDA  to put potatoes back into WIC—unless it conducted a study demonstrating that potatoes should be excluded.  The USDA gave up and told state agencies to allow potatoes to be purchased by WIC recipients starting next summer.

In deciding in favor of potatoes, the committee said it is concerned that “”Current consumption of starchy vegetables does not meet 2010 DGA [Dietary Guidelines for Americans] recommendations for this food group.”

Really?  I have a hard time believing that WIC recipients are suffering from lack of potatoes in their diets.  Potatoes are fine foods, but highly caloric when prepared in the usual ways.  Encouraging WIC recipients to choose leafy greens and other vegetables seems like a good idea.

But the IOM committee took the 2010 Dietary Guidelines at face value and says this is what the rules are until changed.  So they effectively tossed this hot potato into lap of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines committee.

While waiting to see that committee’s report—expected soon—the take-home lesson is clear: lobbying works.

*The USDA has a new report out on WIC: The WIC Program: Background, Trends, and Economic Issues, 2015 Edition.

Dec 11 2014

Congress again micromanages nutrition standards

Congress, in its infinite wisdom, is again using the appropriations process to micromanage nutrition standards for school meals and the WIC program, against the advice of the Institute of Medicine and other health experts.

The new appropriations bill includes several provisions relevant to issues I discuss frequently here.  By all reports, this is the best that can be expected, given the makeup of this Congress.

  • Section 751 grants exemptions to states from the whole grain requirements for school meals “Provided, That school food authorities demonstrate hardship…in procuring specific whole grain products which are acceptable to the students and compliant with the whole grain-rich requirements (my translation: forget whole grains and recommendations by health experts.  They are way too much trouble).
  • Section 752 says that no federal funds may be used to pay the salaries of people doing work “that would require a reduction in the quantity of sodium contained in federally reimbursed meals, foods, and snacks sold in schools…until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children (We know more about the effects of salt on health than do health professionals and expert committees).
  • Section 753 says Congress won’t pay the salaries of anybody who tries to “exclude or restrict, he eligibility of any variety of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables (except for vegetables with added sugars, fats, or oils) from being provided under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (no, you can’t keep white potatoes out of the WIC program).

Chalk these up to effective lobbying by the School Nutrition Association, makers of salty snacks, and the potato lobby.

The good news, such as it is:

  • Congress did not roll back most of the USDA’s food standards for school meals.
  • It only cut SNAP by $400 million.
  • It only cut WIC by $93 million.

These must be considered enormous victories, given the circumstances.

Addition, December 12:  The Hagstrom Report quotes USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack:

On the provision to require the availability of white potatoes in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Vilsack said, “With all due respect to the politicians who make the law, I have more confidence in pediatricians and more confidence in medical science than in political science.” 



May 16 2014

One more on saving nutrition standards, this time WIC

This plea comes from the American Public Health Association (APHA):

APHA is partnering with the National WIC Association and other public health organizations to gather signatures on a letter urging Congress to reject any congressional intervention through the appropriations process to determine the composition of the WIC food packages.

The appropriate way to ensure that the WIC food package remains science-based is for USDA to engage the Institute of Medicine to conduct another review of the latest nutrition science, including consumption data.

…The potato industry remains unhappy about the potato’s exclusion from the WIC food packages, particularly in light of the release of the final food package rule. We fully expect members of both the House and Senate to propose amendments to the agriculture appropriations bills in their respective chambers mandating potatoes into the WIC food packages.

This would set a bad precedent that jeopardizes the scientific integrity of the WIC food packages.

Sign our sign-on letter to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

Please share the link with  colleagues and friends!

May 6 2014

Hot potato: congress micromanages WIC package

You would think that excluding white potatoes in the WIC package (because evidence shows that WIC participants already eat plenty of white potatoes) would be small potatoes, but not to the Maine potato lobby.

It has induced Congress to intervene on behalf of Maine potatoes.  And, according to Politico it seems to have the votes.

As I’ve said in a couple of earlier posts, this looks to me like Congressional unraveling of nutritional gains for the WIC program.

Rumors say that Republican congressional staff have told WIC officials that Congress intends to go after the program just as it went after SNAP, and that this time WIC “won’t get off easy.”

WIC is demonstrably successful in improving the nutritional status of participating women, infants, and children.

The WIC package—the foods that are eligible to be purchased with WIC vouchers—is based on science-based recommendations of the Institute of Medicine.

Politico quotes Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities:

Members of Congress often say they want poverty programs to be more effective…Here, they are taking what’s widely agreed to be one of the most effective programs and making it less effective in order to serve parochial interests…If Congress begins mandating what foods to include and exclude in WIC irrespective of the scientific findings…the floodgates will be open in the years ahead for other legislators to demand inclusion of other products that their states produce and that may generate substantial campaign contributions.

How about writing your congressional representatives and telling them to maintain the integrity of the WIC program.  If your representatives heard from enough constituents about this issue, they might not vote for it.

Even a quick e-mail would help.

Addition: Here’s the letter from senators to USDA Secretary Vilsack.

Mar 3 2014

Let’s Move! scores one more: No white potatoes in the WIC package

On Friday afternoon (that slow news moment), Let’s Move! and the USDA announced the release of the long-awaited Final Rules governing foods eligible for purchase by participants in WIC–The Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

These are the first such revisions since 1980.  The rules:

  • Increase the dollar amount for purchases of fruits and vegetables.
  • Expand whole grain options.
  • Allow for yogurt as a partial milk substitute.
  • Allow parents of older infants to buy fresh produce instead of jarred infant food
  • Give states and local WIC agencies more flexibility in meeting the nutritional and cultural needs of WIC participants.

These are good moves but the big news is that the USDA stood up to lobbyists for the potato industry who have pushed the White House and Congress to allow participants to buy white potatoes with their WIC funds.

As I noted in an earlier post, the exclusion of white potatoes follows recommendations of the Institute of Medicine based on observations that WIC mothers already buy plenty of them.

Potato lobbyists got Congress to insert language in the 2014 Agriculture Appropriations bill urging the USDA to allow white potatoes in the package.

The USDA responded by asking the Institute of Medicine to reexamine the WIC food package in time for reauthorization of child nutrition programs in 2015.  This is now underway.

Although WIC is a small program relative to SNAP, it still provides about $7 billion a year for its nearly 9 million participants.

Food companies fight fiercely to ensure that their products are eligible to be purchased with WIC funds.  The potato lobbyists got Congress to intervene in USDA rules on school meals.

They must have thought they could win this one too.

It’s encouraging when public health wins out over industry lobbying.

But this one is small potatoes.  How about a few wins against Big Food?

Jan 27 2014

The fight over white potatoes in WIC

Once again, Congress—under pressure from lobbyists—is micromanaging USDA’s food assistance programs.

This time it’s the WIC program (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children).

The lobbying is coming from the National Potato Council, which wants—no surprise—white potatoes to be included the list of foods approved for purchase with WIC benefits (the “WIC Package”).

I love potatoes but they don’t need to be in WIC.

Here’s what this is about.

The WIC Food Package

This is designed to meet the special nutritional needs of at-risk low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants and children up to five years of age.  Rules published in the Federal Register in 2007 aimed to promote long-term breastfeeding by providing WIC participants with a wider variety of foods including fruits and vegetables and whole grains (see summary here).

Although the rules allow states considerable flexibility, they specifically exclude white potatoes.

The New York State WIC package, for example, allows any variety of fresh vegetables and fruits except white potatoes (sweet potatoes and yams are allowed).

These rules are the result of an Institute of Medicine study released in 2005.  This study found that WIC participants already ate plenty of white potatoes.  The report said it would be better for WIC to encourage consumption of a wider variety of vegetables.

Potato industry lobbying

For the last five years, the potato industry has been lobbying to include white potatoes in the WIC package.

Potato lobbyists are active these days.

For example, the Maine potato lobby succeeded in getting Congress to tell the USDA that it could not set any limits on the number of times per week that white potatoes could be served in school lunches.  That ploy worked and this one may work too.

The National Potato Council lobbyists induced Congress to add a clause to the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill.  When President Obama signed that bill on January 17, he directed the USDA to allow all varieties of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables to be included.  Translation: white potatoes, and French fries at that.

If the USDA fails to comply, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack must submit a report to Congress explaining why not.

The National Potato Council makes this statement: “This action sends a clear message to USDA that it is obligated to base its nutritional policy on the latest nutritional science, which calls for an increase in starchy vegetable consumption for all Americans, including WIC mothers and children.”

It does?  I’m not aware of such science.

The Institute of Medicine is currently reviewing the WIC package and I seriously doubt that it will find a deficiency of starchy vegetables in American diets.

This is about getting potato growers a chunk of taxpayer money spent for the WIC program.

Why should anyone care?

If Congress caves in on white potatoes, it will open a Pandora’s box of pressures from lobbyists representing every food product currently excluded from the WIC package.

If lobbyists for white potatoes succeed, can those for “fruit”-flavored cereals and sports drinks be far behind?

The WIC program has always focused on encouraging recipients to consume foods that will best promote their own health and that of their children.

It would be better for WIC recipients—and a lot better for American democracy—if the potato industry stopped manipulating Congress and interfering with USDA nutrition programs.

Aug 23 2013

Annals of food and culture: The potato museum, Munich

Thanks to reader Doire for alerting me to Munich’s Kartoffelmuseum.

The tiny museum is based on the private, obsessive collection of Otto Eckart, the CEO of the Pfanni company.  I was not familiar with this company so I looked up its Wikipedia entry.  Here is what Google translator says it says:

The Pfanni GmbH & Co. OHG is a German food company based in Stavenhagen , the kitchen in the production of finished potato products is specialized. She is since 1993 a subsidiary of Unilever Germany gr.

Worth the trip are the gorgeous old drawings and etchings of potato planters and harvesters, and the astonishing collection of old books on potato history and cooking.  

And then this:


Of this case, the catalog says:

A special jewel of the museum is the “collection of rare objects.” Here the visitor finds curiosities, precious things, unusual and strange exhibits.  It is a combination of art and rubbish.

The prize: a photo of Marilyn Monroe dressed in an Idaho Potato sack.  I also loved the potato Christmas tree ornaments hanging at the top of the case.

Art or rubbish?  You decide.

I thought it was definitely worth the visit.

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