by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Dec 19 2016

USDA issues rules to protect poultry growers: a compromise, but still better

USDA has just released three sets of GIPSA rules governing poultry grower ranking (“tournament”) systems (GIPSA stands for Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration).

These are draconian systems in which poultry growers working for giant, vertically integrated poultry companies compete with each other for payments.

The system works like this:

The vertically integrated live poultry dealer provides the chicks, feed, and medication to poultry growers who house and feed the birds under a contract. The poultry grower grows the birds to market size (preferred weight for slaughter) and then, after slaughter, receives a settlement check for that flock. The payment received depends on how efficiently the poultry grower converted feed to meat as compared to the other poultry growers in the settlement group.

It’s hard to begin to imagine how unfair this system can be.

The poultry companies control the following inputs and production variables: chick health, number of chicks placed, feed quality, medications, growout time, breed and type of bird, weighing of the birds, and weighing of the feed.

And on top of this, “company employees who are also poultry growers get preferential treatment and may get better birds or get to keep flocks longer.”

Or, as GIPSA’s Q and A puts it:

For example, if a chicken grower attempts to organize other chicken growers to bargain for better pay or publicly expresses unhappiness with the way they are being treated by a processor, they can suffer retaliation. Processors can require growers to make investments that are not economically justifiable for the grower, or can terminate contracts with little notice. And because in contract growing the processors own the birds and provide inputs like feed, they can choose to provide poultry growers with bad feed or sickly birds that have a higher mortality rate, which cuts deeply into a grower’s opportunity to earn income on those birds.

The USDA press release pointed out that

the four largest poultry processors control 51 percent of the broiler market and 57 percent of the turkey market.  In part due to this concentration, poultry growers often have limited options for processors available in their local communities: 52 percent of growers have only one or two processors in their state or region to whom they can sell.  That means processors can often wield market power over the growers, treating them unfairly, suppressing how much they are paid, or pitting them against each other.

GIPSA initially proposed rules in 2010 that would protect growers from some of these abuses by paying them more fairly, but the industry objected.  It doesn’t like the revised rules either.  As the National Chicken Council puts it, “Obama Administration Strangles Poultry and Livestock Producers with New, Controversial Regulations.”  And the pork producers say they will work with president Trump to get rid of the rule.

The current proposals are a compromise, but a reasonably good one.  The proposal establishes criteria that the USDA Secretary may use to determine:

whether a live poultry dealer has used a poultry grower ranking system to compensate poultry growers in an unfair, unjustly discriminatory, or deceptive manner, or in a way that gives an undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any poultry grower or subjects any poultry grower to an undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says the rules

finally give the largely toothless act some bite. The “Farmer Fair Practices Rules” published today…will provide much-needed protections to contract farmers in the poultry and livestock industry.

Food and Water Watch says (via email)

These proposed and interim rules provide important, though modest, protections for farmers, but fall far short of the safeguards mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill. Hopefully, these rules can provide a foundation for strengthening farmer protections in the face of an increasingly consolidated poultry, hog and cattle slaughter and processing industry.

But I particularly love the tell-it-like-it-is statement from the Government Accountability Project’s Amanda Hitt (also via email):

It’s been a long time since we have been in a position to praise the Department of Agriculture, but today, Secretary Vilsack got it right…The GIPSA rules that came out today are not only a welcome attempt to right a series of wrongs that heretofore have gone unchecked, but are also simple common sense.

These farmers…were lied to and manipulated by a corporate machine that has been using its political influence to profit at the peril of the American farmer. This is not a partisan issue; this is about putting limits on corporate greed. I hope that all can agree that something needs to be done and that these rules are an important first step.

Here are the relevant documents:

 

Nov 28 2016

Small farms: the new math

My former student, Michael Bulger sends interesting tidbits.  This one is an article on 538 by Maggie Koerth-Baker how the USDA’s ways of measuring farm size and number obscure the (a) the increasingly rapid consolidation of large farms and (b) the fact that many small farms aren’t farms at all.

From 2001 to 2011, the number of very large farms — 2,000 acres or more — grew from 1.7 percent of all farms to 2.2 percent. In other words, a relative handful of big farms are getting even bigger, even though the amount of land being farmed stayed about the same.

From 1982 to 2012, the number of very small farms grew from about 637,000 farms of 49 acres or less to more than 800,000.

Big farms and tiny farms are increasing; the ones in the middle are declining.

A lot of this has to do with the definition of a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the reference year.”

$1,000 isn’t much, and this makes it difficult to tell real farms from big backyards.

But changing the definition to up the cut point has consequences.

  • Votes for the Farm Bill: Large farms don’t need government aid; if there are fewer small farms it might be harder to pass the bill.
  • States might lose federal revenues.
  • Land-grant colleges might lose research revenues.

As I keep saying, agricultural policy is hard for mere mortals to understand (but I keep trying).

 

 

Nov 24 2016

Happy Thanksgiving: Special thanks to farmers

Thanks today for everything there is to be thankful for, and especially to the National Farmers Union for reminding us how small a share our farmers get of the American food dollar.

I know you can’t read this, so try this piece.

Or maybe just this one?

Where does the rest go?  Labor, processing, transportation, marketing, etc.

Ponder that, and enjoy your dinner!

Nov 22 2016

Some good news: childhood obesity declines in low-income children–a bit

The CDC and USDA are collaborating to track the prevalence of obesity in children ages 2 – 4 who participate in the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

In a new report, the agencies find obesity prevalence to have increased from 14% in 2000 to 15.9% in 2010.   But here’s the good news:  it dropped to 14.5% in 2014.

More good news: it decreased significantly among toddlers in these groups:

  • Non-Hispanic whites
  • Non-Hispanic blacks
  • Hispanics
  • American Indian/Alaska Natives and Asians/Pacific Islanders
  • 61% of the 56 agencies in states, DC, and US territories

The not-so-good news is that obesity in WIC kids is still higher than the national average among kids 2 – 5 years (8.9%), but this trend is in the right direction.

What accounts for it?  The report lists several possibilities:

Let’s keep doing more of the same and keep that trend heading downward.

Nov 18 2016

Weekend reading: USDA’s analysis of decline in mid-size farms

The USDA has a report out on midsize farms, those with gross cash farm income of $350,000 to $1 million.

The reason for the report is that the number of midsize farms declined by 5% from 1992 to 2012.

How worried should we be about this?  Of the 125,000 midsize farms, the great majority grow grain and oilseeds—animal feed.

USDA finds:

  • The loss in midsize farms is higher among beginning farmers, retired farmers, and renters.
  • Government subsidies helped stave off losses.
  • If past patterns hold, a significant percentage (15%?) of today’s midsize farms will be tomorrow’s large farms.

I can’t wait to see how the next farm bill handles this one.

Oct 5 2016

Some thoughts about SNAP: declining enrollments and legal issues

Let’s start with the USDA’s latest figures on SNAP participation.  Enrollment is down by a couple of million which could be good news (people have jobs that pay enough to make them ineligible) or bad news (elibility runs out).

The USDA issued a report in 2001 explaining the reasons.

 

As the report explains:

The large decrease in the number of food stamp participants is due to both a decrease in the number eligible for food stamps and a decrease in the rate at which eligible persons participate. The decrease in the participation rate played a slightly more important role, explaining 56 percent of the fall in the number of participants. The decrease in the number of eligible persons explains 44 percent of the fall in the number of participants.

Next, let’s look at the article in the New York Times on attempts to improve the quality of foods that can be purchased with SNAP benefits.

There have been manymanymany calls for the food stamp program to promote more healthful diets. Many states have requested waivers allowing for restrictions on what benefits can buy (some items, like alcohol, tobacco and household supplies, are already prohibited). Further restrictions have been rejected by the Department of Agriculture, which administers this welfare program.

The article is based on a study trying incentives for buying fruits and vegetables, restrictions on junk foods, and a combination of both.   The study concluded:

A food benefit program that pairs incentives for purchasing more fruits and vegetables with restrictions on the purchase of less nutritious foods may reduce energy intake and improve the nutritional quality of the diet of participants compared with a program that does not include incentives or restrictions.

the study was accompanied by an editorial calling for a trial of mixed incentives and restrictions.

But, as Daniel Bowman Simon tells me, the law only allows the USDA to do incentives.  By law, it cannot do additional exclusions.  This is because Congress says what retailers can and cannot sell to SNAP recipients:

As written in 7 U.S. Code § 2012, section (k)

“Food” means (1) any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption….

It looks to me as though excluding soft drinks, for example, would require Congress—not the USDA—to change this definition or let states do so.

Daniel wonders why USDA doesn’t make this clear.  Me too.

I’m told that three states have requested waivers and that the USDA is considering them.  How?  I don’t know, but stay tuned.

NOTE:  Several readers filed corrections on this post and I thank them.  I have revised it accordingly.

Sep 8 2016

Good news: U.S. Household food security improves!

The USDA has just released its annual summary of statistics on national food insecurity, with these encouraging results.

Both total and very low food security have declined since 2014 and are heading back to the lower levels observed in the early 2000s.

The USDA defines food insecurity as not having enough resources to provide food for family members.

The new data show:

  • Households considered food insecure = 12.7%
  • Households considered severely food insecure = 5%
  • Households with children who are food insecure = 7.8%
  • Food insecurity is higher in households headed by single parents, especially those who are Black or Hispanic
  • Food insecurity is higher in some states (e.g., Mississippi = 20.8%) than others (e.g., North Dakota = 8.5%)
  • Food-insecure households participating in federal food assistance programs = 59%

These figures are better than last year’s, but still need improving.

The bottom line: federal food assistance programs do not do enough to alleviate food insecurity, even among households enrolled in them.

Jul 25 2016

USDA finalizes school food rules: Applause!

Last week, the USDA sent out a press release announcing the last four Final Rules for school meals under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010:

The press release summarizes USDA’s view of what’s most beneficial in these policies:

You probably won’t want to read all the fine print.  Fortunately, others have done just that.

Bettina Siegel at The Lunch Tray

  • Wellness policies will be required to prohibit on-campus marketing of foods and drinks that fail to meet the Smart Snacks nutritional standards.
  • Whether companies can market “copycat” snacks in schools (Smart Snacks-compliant versions of junk food available in supermarkets) is left up to local districts.
  • Also left to local districts are policies about incentive programs, such as Box Tops for Education or fast food coupons passed out to kids for reading books.
  • School wellness policies will be required to set nutritional standards for foods and drinks offered to kids at classroom parties or by teachers as treats, but districts can determine the actual policies.
  • Schools will be allowed to sell hard-boiled eggs, low-sodium canned vegetables, and peanut butter and celery.

Her bottom line:

With the finalization of these four rules, the historic work of the Obama administration in improving children’s school food environment is now complete. But, of course, we’re already one year overdue for the next CNR [Child Nutrition Reauthorization], a process which could easily roll back or weaken these reforms – many of which have already been overtly threatened by House Republicans.

CSPI’s Take on What’s New

  • Local wellness policies must address marketing of foods and drinks that do not meet the Smart Snacks standards.
  • Local wellness policies must involve the public and school community and produce an annual progress report.
  • Local wellness policies must designate a school official for compliance and undergo administrative review every 3 years.
  • School districts must update goals for nutrition promotion, nutrition education, physical activity, and school wellness activities based on evidence-based strategies.

CSPI says the new rules mean local wellness policies can and should:

  • Shift unhealthy school fundraisers to profitable healthy food or non-food fundraisers
  • Ensure that school celebrations support healthy eating and physical activity
  • Use non-food rewards
  • Provide ample opportunities for physical activity, quality physical education, and recess

My comments

Nutritionism: Many of the complaints about USDA’s nutrition standards derive from their focus on single nutrients—fat, salt, sugar—rather than on foods. Boiled eggs weren’t allowed because of their fat and cholesterol content, but copy-cat snack foods were.  If the standards applied to minimally processed whole foods, they would make more sense. USDA now has to take comments on whether to eliminate the standard for total fat from Smart Snacks because of the egg issue and the confusing nature of current research on saturated fat (also a problem resulting from studying one nutrient at a time).

Politics:  Regardless of how trivial some of these rules may appear, USDA’s school food standards must be considered an extraordinary achievement.  Against all odds—unrelenting opposition from companies that supply junk food to schools, Congress, and, weirdly, the School Nutrition Association—the new rules will improve the nutritional quality of school meals and snacks, at least most of the time.  School districts with officials who care deeply about improving the food served to kids now have a mandate to do so.  Those who don’t will have a harder time doing a bad job.  Applause to USDA for bringing the rules to closure.  May they survive the next round of lobbying.

 

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