by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Oct 8 2014

Some thoughts on military might: obesity, candy, and the USDA’s arms race

Mission: Readiness versus obesity

As I noted in an earlier post, Mission: Readiness, an organization of former high-ranking military officials concerned about obesity and other health problems in military recruits and personnel, has issued a hard-hitting defense of USDA’s school nutrition standards.

New Picture (1)

But the military loves giving candy to kids

Dr. Karen Sokal-Gutierrez, who is engaged in international programs to reduce sugar-induced tooth decay among children, sends the results of her Google search for “US Military give children candy.”

Halloween candy buy back: To prevent tooth decay in US children, this program is having us send our candy to servicemen. Do they eat it themselves, or do they give it to local children where they serve?

A historical perspective on generations of military candy practices

US troops endanger Afghan children by giving them with candy

Images for US soldiers giving children candy

Dr. Sokal-Gutierrez notes that it’s not just the military that give children in developing countries candy—it’s also tourists and aid workers in developing countries and refugee camps.

She understands why it feels good to do this, but points out that the children might not have toothbrushes or dental treatment.  Candy, she emphasizes, contributes to severe tooth decay, mouth pain, malnutrition, problems in school, etc.

Why is the USDA Buying Submachine Guns?

Another reader, Kris Gilbertson, asks this question based on an article in Modern Farmer.

According to a USDA press rep, the guns are necessary for self-protection.

“OIG [USDA's Office of the Inspector General] Special Agents regularly conduct undercover operations and surveillance. The types of investigations conducted by OIG Special Agents include criminal activities such as fraud in farm programs; significant thefts of Government property or funds; bribery and extortion; smuggling; and assaults and threats of violence against USDA employees engaged in their official duties,” wrote a USDA spokesperson.

One can only resort to cliche: food for thought.

Aug 29 2014

Global Nutrition Report: How US Citizens Can Hold Government Accountable for Preventing Malnutrition

Lawrence Haddad, senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), invited me to comment on how to strengthen accountability in the fight against malnutrition in the United States.

This is a contribution to the Global Nutrition Report, a project chaired by the Governments of Malawi and the UK as an outcome of the 2013 Nutrition for Growth Summit in London.

My comments are in response to this specific question:

Q.  How can citizens of the United States hold their government accountable for preventing and reversing malnutrition?

A.  This question has no easy answer.  To begin with, we see practically no cases of severe undernutrition among U.S. citizens, in the sense that it occurs in the developing world.  Only rarely, do adults or children exhibit overt clinical signs of vitamin or mineral deficiency, let along acute malnutrition.  Instead, in America we talk about “food insecurity,” defined by government agencies as consistent, dependable, legal access to enough food on a daily basis to support active healthy living.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors the extent of food insecurity among the population in two ways.  It counts the number of individuals who apply and qualify for participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps), and it collects data from surveys and publishes the results in annual reports on Household Food Security.  By both measures, nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population is judged to be food insecure—one out of every six adults.  Nearly six percent of the population is considered to be severely food insecure and, therefore, at risk of malnutrition but not necessarily displaying clinical signs.

Americans who qualify as food insecure are more likely than average to be poor, single parents, African-American or Hispanic, and living either in large cities or in rural areas.  They also, paradoxically, are more likely to be overweight or obese.  An explanation for the lack of clinical signs of malnutrition and of overweight is that nearly 60 percent of those considered food insecure participate in one or more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs (SNAP, the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC, and National School Lunch Program.  An unspecified percentage also obtains free food from privately run charitable food banks or soup kitchens. As the USDA likes to explain, its 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs “form a nutritional safety net for millions of children and low-income adults” and account for more than 70 percent of USDA’s annual budget.

What the USDA says less about is the quality of that food.  SNAP has minimal limitations on what can be purchased with benefits, and retailers lobby hard to make sure program participants can continue to buy cheap, high-calorie foods and beverages.  WIC, in contrast, permits purchase of a limited number of foods meeting certain nutrition standards.  Recently, school meals have been required to meet nutrition standards, but these too are under lobbying pressure by food companies.

Because of the high cost of these programs—SNAP alone costs taxpayers $80 billion a year—arguments about what to do about food insecurity come down to matters of money.  They only rarely focus on ways to ensure that even the poorest Americans get enough food to eat, let alone healthy food.  Accountability, therefore, must confront the views of many congressional representatives that assistance programs represent “nanny-state” government and induce dependence among recipients.

Given this situation, American anti-hunger advocates are limited in what they can expect to accomplish in the current political era.  As one sympathetic Congressman, Jim McGovern (Dem-MA) once explained, hunger does not resonate with Congress.  Because the government already monitors food insecurity, the next steps must aim to get it to do something about the problem.  This means reducing poverty and income inequities (which in part means reducing educational inequities, providing a stronger safety net for single parents and those living in cities and rural areas, and reaching out to the 40 percent of people who qualify as food insecure but receive no federal food or nutrition assistance benefits.  It also means bringing anti-hunger and anti-obesity together to support healthier food options for low-income Americans.

All of this will cost money at a time when the interest of Congress in food assistance is only as a means to cut benefits.  This, in turn, means that the only way to fix the hunger problem in the United States is to change election campaign laws so that individuals who care about such issues have a chance of being elected.   Recent decisions of the Supreme Court in Citizens United and in McCutcheon make it clear that it favors no or insignificant limits on campaign contributions for corporations or wealthy individuals.    The one bright spot is the national movement that has emerged to obtain a raise the minimum wage, especially for restaurant and farm workers.  Most recipients of federal food assistance are employed, but at wages too low to bring them out of poverty.  Paying living wages would solve most problems of food insecurity in America.

 

Aug 12 2014

Oops. USDA is NOT requiring poultry packers to test for Salmonella and Campylobacter

Christopher Waldrop, who directs the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America writes to correct something  I said in a post last week about USDA’s poultry rule.  He says:

USDA will actually NOT be requiring plants to test for Salmonella or Campylobacter. Their press release makes it sound like they will, but if you read the final rule, USDA actually allows the plant to decide for itself what to test. It could be pathogens like Salmonella or Campy, OR it could be indicator organisms like generic E. coli. USDA does require testing at 2 points along the line – pre-chill and post-chill and will require a minimum testing frequency, but plants are not obligated to test for the pathogens that make people sick.

He explained this problem to Food Safety News and in a press release.

He points out that what the USDA really said is on page 229 of its statement of policy in the section on Indicator Organisms and Baseline:

Comment: Several consumer advocacy organizations argued that instead of allowing establishments to choose which organism to test for, FSIS should require that establishments test for Salmonella and Campylobacter. The comments said that these are the two pathogens of greatest public health concern in the products affected by the proposed rule and together account for nearly half of all poultry-related outbreaks in the United States…Response: As discussed above, the purpose of the proposed new testing requirements is to ensure that establishments are effectively monitoring process control on an ongoing basis. FSIS has determined that this can be achieved by sampling pre-and post-chill for enteric pathogens, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, or for an appropriate indicator organism…The cost to analyze samples for Salmonella and Campylobacter is much greater than that to analyze for indicator organisms…FSIS has concluded that such costs would not be justifiable when measurements of indicator organisms are as effective for monitoring process control as measurements of pathogens.

Here’s what USDA says in its press release:

  • Poultry companies will have to meet new requirements to control Salmonella and Campylobacter.
  • FSIS will now require that all poultry companies take measures to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination.
  • All poultry facilities will be required to perform their own microbiological testing at two points in their production process to show that they are controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter.

I can see why I misunderstood this as announcing a requirement for testing at two points for Salmonella and Campylobacter.

But the USDA is leaving it to the production plants to demonstrate that cheaper testing for an indicator organism like nonpathogenic forms of E. coli will adequately demonstrate that chickens are free of pathogenic Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Fingers crossed that it works.

Addition, September 11:  Food and Water Watch has filed suit against the USDA to block the new poultry inspection system on the grounds that it privatizes inspection responsibility, at great hazard to the public.

Aug 11 2014

Dan Glickman heads board of Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research

Former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman has just been named chairman of the board of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR).

Research on agriculture has long been the underfunded stepchild of the federal research enterprise.  The 2014 budget gave USDA under $3 billion in total to fund all of its in-house research units and their granting operations: Agricultural Research Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Economic Research Service, and Agricultural Statistics Service.

This may seem like a lot, but NIH gets $30 billion a year.

The 2014 farm bill contained a provision aimed at raising money for agricultural research.  It provided $200 million (peanuts in federal dollars) to establish FFAR, which will operate as a non-profit corporation to obtain matching funds from private industry.

The members of the board were announced a couple of weeks ago.

It should be no surprise that many of the board members represent industry.  Industry nominated 7 of the members.  The other 8 were selected from a list provided by the National Academy of Sciences.

Now the board has to raise at least $200 million from industry, presumably with no strings attached.

Here’s the foundation’s dilemma: if industry funding has no strings—earmarks for certain research projects, for example—why would industry want to contribute?  But if the contributions do come with strings, they create conflicts of interest.

This will be fun to watch.  Stay tuned.

Aug 4 2014

USDA’s new poultry inspection system, complicated but voluntary

I thought it might be time for a summary of why USDA’s new requirements for poultry inspection are so controversial.  Some groups think they are a big step forward; others most definitely do not.

The USDA says its new rules, which are largely based on research published in 2011:

  • Will place new requirements on the poultry industry.
  • Will prevent 5000 illnesses a year from Salmonella and Campylobacter
  • Puts trained USDA inspectors where they will do the most good.
  • Require poultry facilities to test for Salmonella and Campylobacter at two points during production (USDA will continue to do its own testing).
  • Giving poultry producers the option of doing their own inspections.
  • Caps the maximum line speed at 140 birds per minute (rather than the 175 the industry wanted).
  • Estimates the public health benefit at $79 million.

It also says

More inspectors will now be available to more frequently remove birds from the evisceration line for close food safety examinations, take samples for testing, check plant sanitation, verify compliance with food safety plans, observe live birds for signs of disease or mistreatment, and ensuring plants are meeting all applicable regulations.

To read the Federal Register notice (when it’s ready), click here.

The main issues

Line speed:  this refers to the evisceration line and is the speed at which workers must deal with the chickens.  The current speed is 140 birds per minute.  This means 2.33 birds per second.   It’s hard to imagine that any worker could manage that—or any inspector could see anything—at that speed.

The National Council of La Raza wrote USDA  in 2012 that raising the line speed posed a hazard to worker safety and “would recklessly threaten the health and safety of poultry workers.”  USDA listened.  The NCLR must be pleased.

The poultry industry is not pleased.  The National Chicken Council complains that “politics have trumped sound science, 15 years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute.”

Politico ProAg points out that the new system will cost the poultry industry $259 million—what it would have gained if line speeds increased to 175 per minute.

Privatization of inspectors.  The new rules shift responsibility for inspecting chickens, no matter how impossible, to company employees—the fox guarding the chickens, as it were. Food and Water Watch argues that this poses a conflict of interest since it’s in the managers’ interest to keep the lines moving as fast as possible and not to find anything wrong.   Food and Water Watch says the new system “will transfer most poultry inspection from government inspectors to the companies so they can police themselves.” Several members of Congress have also complained.   The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report noting that USDA doesn’t really have data on which to base this change.

Change in function of USDA inspectors.  Up to 1,500 USDA phased out of poultry production may have to relocate or retire.  USDA estimates it will save $90 million over the next three years from this reduction.

Turkeys.  The new system allows turkey plants to raise line speeds to 55 per minute, up from 51 birds per minute.  The National Turkey Federation says most turkey plants will comply.

Waivers.  The Washington Post says the new system “provides a waiver to 20 plants that are already in a pilot program, letting them operate at 175 birds per minute.”

Voluntary.  The program is voluntary.  Plants can continue doing things the way they are.  

What to make of all this?  The testing requirements are a huge step forward.  The inspection changes seem mixed. It’s hard to believe that line inspection is useful even at 140 birds per minute.  

I’d rather have USDA inspectors making sure prevention controls are in place and adhered to, the testing is done honestly, and keeping an eye out for unsafe worker conditions (which, alas, is not their job).  

Let’s give it a try and see how it works in practice.

In the meantime, here’s what else is happening on the poultry safety front:

Other related news

Salmonella is not an adulterant, says USDA.  If it were, anything contaminated with it could not be sold.  USDA denied the petition from Center for Science in the Public Interest to have four antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella declared as as adulterants in ground meat and poultry products.

After thoroughly reviewing the available data, FSIS has concluded that the data does not support giving the four strains of [antibiotic-resistant] salmonella identified in the petition a different status as an adulterant in raw ground meat and raw ground poultry than salmonella strains susceptible to antibiotics.

The Foster Farms Salmonella outbreak is over, says the CDC.

The CDC announced today a total of 634 persons infected with seven outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg were reported from 29 states and Puerto Rico from March 1, 2013 to July 11, 2014.

Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback investigations conducted by local, state, and federal officials indicated that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken was the source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections.

38% of ill persons were hospitalized, but no deaths were reported.

Most ill persons (77%) were reported from California, but cases were reported in other states as well.

And that’s why all of this matters so much.

Jun 6 2014

Why would school nutritionists oppose healthier meals?

Understanding why school nutritionists want to scrap the USDA’s nutrition standards takes some effort.

The question: Why is the School Nutrition Association (SNA)—the organization that represents the interests of “lunch ladies”—supporting Republican attempts to derail the nutrition standards?

The SNA has a long and honorable history of fighting for better nutrition for children, and it supported the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act—the one that gave USDA the authority to mandate healthier meals.

Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the daily Hagstrom Report, took a stab at explaining why SNA shifted position:

When the school-lunch program started, most schools cooked their own food. As the number of children participating in the school-lunch program grew, the need to provide more food led the schools to buy prepackaged, processed food, which led to the companies making those foods becoming big players within SNA.

Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico adds to the explanation:

The story behind the school lunch flip-flop is a complicated web of lobbying change-ups, industry influence and partisan posturing inside the Beltway…Interviews with more than a dozen former and current SNA officials reveal a dramatic shift in SNA’s policy platform, and even more so, its approach: choosing to wage war on Capitol Hill — pitting the association against [Michelle] Obama and her team — instead of trying to win more concessions directly from the Department of Agriculture…[This] has sparked a civil war within the nutrition community and the association itself. Nineteen former SNA presidents wrote to appropriators last week urging them to reject calls for a waiver — a break in ranks that was painful but necessary, signers said.

She adds this critical piece of information:

Several former presidents of the organization said they are worried that food companies have influenced the group’s agenda over concerns that the nutrition standards for the $11 billion program will take a big bite out of sales of popular items like pizza and salty snacks…About half of the group’s $10 million operating budget comes from food industry members.

Kevin Concannon, USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, told Jerry Hagstrom that the SNA’s current leadership is making a “serious mistake” is supporting members of Congress who want to block USDA’s standards.  If the SNA lobbies for permanent blockage of the standards, he thinks they will be “playing with fire.”  SNA, he said, is isolated on the issue.   “The stakes are really high for the future of the country,” he said. “It is a battle worth waging.”

Is SNA isolated?  Indeed it is.  Here’s the list of organizations that support the new standards, compiled by the American Public Health Association.

Jun 3 2014

Dietary Guidelines Committee under attack for caring about how food is produced

I received an e-mail from the communications director of the Independent Women’s Forum, a group whose mission is to “improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty.”

Interesting.

The group and its friends have just sent a letter to USDA and HHS complaining that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is exceeding its mandate.

Among our most acute concerns is the “mission creep” of the Committee, which has expanded to include non-dietary factors such as “carbon footprints,” “climate change,” “urban agriculture,” and “green cleaning and pest control practices.”

This likely reflects the composition of the Committee, which is nearly all epidemiologists from elite academic institutions with no direct experience in the practical realities of how food is produced and what average Americans may choose to eat.

We need only consider the strongly negative reaction to recent changes to the school lunch rules to understand what is at risk if this Committee attempts to dictate over-reaching changes to the American diet.

This would be funny if it weren’t part of the Republican agenda to roll back improvements in nutrition advice and practice aimed at preventing obesity and its related chronic diseases.

What the IWF is saying is that its members know better about what’s good for health than all those elite epidemiologists, scientists, and other experts on the committee who are worried about what climate change will do to our food supply.

Let’s hope the agencies ignore this letter.

May 20 2014

Update on Congress vs. school nutrition standards

The Associated Press reported that First Lady Michelle Obama rallied supporters of the USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals in an off-the-record telephone call “with advocacy groups to discuss ongoing efforts around school nutrition and the significant advancements we have made to make it easier for families to raise healthy kids.”

Screenshot 2014-05-19 21.58.14

Today the House Committee on Appropriations is doing its markup on the agricultural appropriations bill.  This is likely to overturn nutrition standards established by scientific experts in order to:

  • Reverse USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals.
  • Reverse the exclusion of white potatoes from the WIC package.

As Politico puts it,

In the case of WIC and white potatoes, the provision follows on strong lobbying by the industry which is hoping to win similar language Thursday when the full Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to consider its own version of the same agriculture bill.

…For the industry, concerned that younger women have moved away from potatoes, gaining access to WIC is an important marketing tool.

Just as strongly, critics worry that the end result will be to open the door to other special interests and wreck a long-standing commitment by Congress to let independent scientists decide what foods are most needed.

As I see it, the food industry couldn’t get its way through the usual rulemaking processes, so it did an end run and got Congress to overturn the work of no less than three committees of the Institute of Medicine.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack explains what’s at stake:

The House bill would undermine the effort to provide kids with more nutritious food and would be a major step backwards for the health of American children, just at the time childhood obesity rates are finally starting to level off. School nutrition standards are developed by independent experts, over 90% of schools report that they are successfully implementing them, and studies show they are working to help kids be healthier. USDA has continued to show flexibility in implementing these new standards, and Congress should focus on partnering with USDA, states, schools, and parents to help our kids have access to more healthy food, not less.

In an e-mail, the Pew Charitable Trusts wrote:

We are disappointed that the House agriculture appropriations bill includes a provision that would weaken national nutrition standards for foods served in schools…it is unfortunate that the House would consider letting schools opt out of efforts to improve the health of children served through these program…Ninety percent of schools already report that they are meeting USDA’s updated nutrition standards for school lunches. Turning back now would be a costly mistake.”

The School Nutrition Association disagrees.  In its version of reality, “since these standards took effect, more than one million fewer students choose school lunch each day, reducing revenue for school meal programs already struggling to manage the increased cost of preparing meals under the new standards.”

To this, Claire Benjamin of Food Policy Action, asks:

Why are Members fighting to roll back school nutrition standards? Our nation is facing a health and obesity crisis, and rather than think about the future of our children the members pushing for these rollbacks are only thinking about future campaign contributions,” said Claire Benjamin, managing director of Food Policy Action (FPA). “Schools have already made real progress implementing the reforms, and it is extremely disappointing that some members of Congress are advocating for business as usual.”

Other responses:

Write your Congressional representatives and ask them to leave nutrition standards to scientists, not food companies with vested interests in selling their products to government food assistance programs.

Additions, May 20:

Addition, May 21:

Addition, May 24:

  • Major General says school nutrition standards are a matter of national security
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