by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Jul 4 2016

Happy Fourth of July!

Happy eating:

And happy thinking.  Check out Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech on industry consolidation and concentration, including what is happening in the food industry.

Competition in America is essential to liberty in America, but the markets that have given us so much will become corrupt and die if we do not keep the spirit of competition strong. America is a country where everyone should have a fighting chance to succeed—and that happens only when we demand it.

Here’s one idea:

The Agriculture Department has a role to play in making sure that poultry farmers and produce growers aren’t held hostage to the whims of giant firms.

Jun 15 2016

Seafood politics: Catfish? Really?

The Senate just voted to reverse a decision of Congress last year to remove catfish inspection from the FDA (which is usually in charge of regulating seafood) and give it to the USDA (which usually regulates meat and poultry).

Why did the 2008 and 2012 farm bills say that catfish inspection should be given to USDA?

It depends on whom you ask.

  • Defenders say it’s because USDA has the resources to protect us against unsafe Vietnamese catfish.
  • Critics said it’s to protect the Mississippi catfish industry against the food safety hazards of cheap imported catfish from Vietnam.

Indeed, the USDA inspection program is finding antibiotics and other unapproved carcinogens in catfish imported from Vietnam.

This issue, however, is a sticking point in US negotiations with Vietnam over the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Vietnam wants the USDA catfish inspection removed as an unfair barrier to trade.

As I wrote about this issue in 2013,

What is this about?  Not fish safety, really.  It’s about protecting catfish farmers in the South and setting up “more rigorous” safety criteria that will exclude competitive foreign catfish imports, especially from Vietnam.

Food retailers and retail trade associations are for reverting inspection to FDA. They say USDA’s catfish inspection program will take years to allow imports from Vietnam, thereby causing the cost of domestic catfish to rise.

But today, Politico Morning Agriculture reports that more than 100 House Republicans are urging repeal of the USDA’s catfish inspection program, pointing out that

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has 10 times stated that this program is “duplicative” and at “high risk” for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement…This is not a food safety issue.  USDA acknowledges that catfish, regardless of where it comes from, is considered a “low risk food.”

When I wrote this issue previously, I got comments that I needed to better appreciate the superiority of USDA’s import safety program.  As I said in response:

It’s not surprising if USDA’s import safety system is better than the FDA’s.  USDA gets $14 million a year to run its currently non-operating catfish inspection system.  The FDA gets $700,000 and, according to the Government Accountability Office, has managed pretty well with it.

My conclusion then and now:

If the political fuss over catfish inspection reveals anything, it is why we so badly need a single food safety agency—one that combines and integrates the food safety functions of USDA and FDA—to ensure the safety of the American food supply.

Documents

May 19 2016

SNAP politics: strange bedfellows

Wouldn’t it be useful if stores that accept SNAP benefits stocked some other real—as opposed to packaged—foods in addition to the apples, oranges, and bananas most of them now seem to carry (witness Walgreens)?

Congress thought so when it passed the 2014 farm bill.  This intended

to expand or preserve the availability of staple foods in underserved areas with moderate- and low income populations by maintaining or increasing the number of retail outlets that offer an assortment of perishable food and staple food items, as determined by the Secretary, in those areas.

In response, USDA proposed new regulations to improve what SNAP retailers had in stock.

The 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to develop regulations to ensure that stores that accept SNAP offer a broader variety of healthy food choices. The stocking provisions in the proposed rule would require SNAP-authorized retail establishments to offer a larger inventory and variety of healthy food options so that recipients have access to more healthy food choices. SNAP retailers would be required to offer seven varieties of qualifying foods in four staple food groups for sale on a continuous basis, along with perishable foods in at least three of the four staple food groups. The staple foods groups are dairy products; breads and cereals; meats, poultry and fish; and fruits and vegetables. In addition, the proposal calls for retailers to stock at least six units within each variety, leading to a total of at least 168 required food items per store.

Guess what?  Some retailers don’t like this idea.

What to do when you don’t like food regulations?  Go straight to Congress.

Now the House agriculture committee is complaining to USDA about the rule.  It says that USDA’s estimate of the cost per store ($140) is wrong.  Retailers say it will cost them $5000 per month to implement.

Who’s right?  Hence: politics.

The Congressional Black Caucus also wants the USDA to back off on this rule.  It says communities need these retailers (the quality of the foods they sell is not an issue, apparently).  Here is its letter.

Civil Eats has a good summary of the issues.

It troubles me greatly that SNAP divides advocates for the poor and advocates for health.  Don’t all of us want the recipients of federal food assistance to have access to healthful food choices?

Apr 20 2016

Federal Appropriations and the FDA

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee passed the 2017 Agriculture-FDA spending bill.

As Politico explains (behind a paywall, unfortunately)

The bill would boost funding for rural development to $2.9 billion and allocate an additional $33 million over fiscal 2016 levels for the FDA to carry out the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

This isn’t nearly enough to permit FDA to carry out its functions.

The committee also passed amendments to:

  • Block the USDA from carrying out rules to protect chicken farmers with contracts with processing companies (they own the birds).
  • Exempt e-cigarettes from FDA regulations that restrict e-cigarettes advertising.

Can someone please explain to me why agricultural appropriations committees have jurisdiction over FDA and FDA spending is linked to agriculture spending?  OK, this is an historical anomaly; the FDA used to be part of USDA, but that was nearly a century ago.

Today’s FDA is part of the public health service, along with the CDC.

Shouldn’t health committees decide how much funding should go to FDA’s mandate to protect public health?

Just asking.

Mar 31 2016

What do Americans eat? It’s hard to say.

I’ve just received a new report from USDA’s Economic Research Service, U.S. Food Commodity Consumption Broken Down by Demographics.  This looks at trends in per capita food availability—the amounts of specific foods available in the food supply, obtained from data on production and imports, from 1994 to 2008, corrected for waste, per person in the United States.

Food availability data, especially when corrected for waste, suggest trends in per capita consumption patterns (otherwise why would USDA bother to collect them?), but they are not consumption data.  They are about supply, not use.

With that said, the trends seem odd to me.  They demonstrate a decline in the availability of:

  • Fruit (mainly oranges)
  • Vegetables
  • Dairy (mainly milk)
  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Potatoes
  • Sugars

The supply of yogurt and cheese, however, has increased (but their per capita availability is relatively low).

The supply of apple juice also has increased:

Capture

Food availability data corrected for waste are supposed to come close to what people actually eat.  But if people are eating less of practically all foods, how come so many of us are still gaining weight?  Surely it’s not because of apple juice.

These data are an important source of information on U.S. dietary patterns.

But what do they mean?  The authors do not say, so it’s left to us to figure that out.

As I keep saying, finding out what people eat is the single most intellectually challenging problem in the field of nutrition.

Jan 11 2016

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines’ hidden advice about sugary drinks: definitely there, but hard to find 

I’m indebted to Maria Godoy of NPR’s The Salt for pointing out where in the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines you can find advice about cutting down on sugary drinks.  As she puts it, this is easy to miss.

Here’s my wonky analysis.

In my post about the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, I noted that they are unambiguous about the need to reduce added sugars to 10% or less of calories.  But what they say about cutting down on sugary drinks—the leading source of sugars in US diets—is buried deep in the text.  Fortunately, Deborah Noble of slowfoodfast.com has performed a great public service by producing the 2015 Dietary Guidelines in a searchable pdf format.Here’s where to find advice about cutting down on sugary drinks:

The Executive Summary: See under “Cross-Cutting Topics of Public Health Importance:”

Similarly, added sugars should be reduced in the diet and not replaced with low-calorie sweeteners, but rather with healthy options, such as water in place of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Figure 2-10 explains:

The major source of added sugars in typical U.S. diets is beverages, which include soft drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, alcoholic beverages, and flavored waters.

Reading the Figure tells you that beverages comprise a whopping 47% of added sugars (closer to half if you add in sweetened milks, teas, and coffees).  The text following the Figure says:

Shift to reduce added sugars consumption to less than 10 percent of calories per day: Individuals have many potential options for reducing the intake of added sugars. Strategies include choosing beverages with no added sugars, such as water, in place of sugar-sweetened beverages, reducing portions of sugar-sweetened beverages, drinking these beverages less often, and selecting beverages low in added sugars.

Strategies?  How about just saying: “Cut down on sugary drinks” or “Drink water instead of sugary drinks.”

Figure ES-1 in the Executive Summary illustrates the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans at a Glance.  All it says is:

Limit calories from added sugars…Consume an eating pattern low in added sugars…Cut back on food and beverages higher in these components to amounts that fit within healthy eating patterns.

Figure 3.2 shows Implementation of the Guidelines through MyPlate: “Drink and eat less…added sugars,” but nothing about sugary drinks.

This circumspection is weird.  Clear, straightforward advice to cut down on sugary beverages has plenty of historical precedent.

Both Figures ES-1 and 3.2 are most certainly derived from a USDA graphic on the MyPlate website (dated January 2016).  This says flat out:

Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

This statement, in turn, derives from:

  • The precepts issued with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines in January 2011
  • The statements issued with the MyPlate graphic in June 2011

myplate

  • The USDA’s May 2012 tip for making better beverage choices.

The 2015 DGAC (Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee) repeatedly urged limits on consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.  Statements like this one, for example, appear throughout the document:

To decrease dietary intake from added sugars, the U.S. population should reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Why did the USDA and HHS writing committee choose to waffle about his point?

This cannot be an accident.  It must be deliberate.  And it can have only one explanation: politics.

Dec 16 2015

House Appropriations Bill Affects 2015 Dietary Guidelines

The bill just passed by the House contains this language:

SEC. 734. None of the funds made available by this or any other Act may be used to release or implement the final version of the eighth edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, revised pursuant to section 301 of the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C. 5341), unless the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services ensure that each revision to any nutritional or dietary information or guideline contained in the 2010 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and each new nutritional or dietary information or guideline to be included in the eighth edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

(1) is based on significant scientific agreement; and

(2) is limited in scope to nutritional and dietary information.

SEC. 735.

(a) Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Agriculture shall engage the National Academy of Medicine to conduct a comprehensive study of the entire process used to establish the Advisory Committee for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the subsequent development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, most recently revised pursuant to section 301 of the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C. 5341). The panel of the National Academy of Medicine selected to conduct the study shall include a balanced representation of individuals with broad experiences and viewpoints regarding nutritional and dietary information.

(b) The study required by subsection (a) shall include the following:

(1) An analysis of each of the following:

(A) How the Dietary Guidelines for Americans can better prevent chronic disease, ensure nutritional sufficiency for all Americans, and accommodate a range of individual factors, including age, gender, and metabolic health.

(B) How the advisory committee selection process can be improved to provide more transparency, eliminate bias, and include committee members with a range of viewpoints.

(C) How the Nutrition Evidence Library is compiled and utilized, including whether Nutrition Evidence Library reviews and other systematic reviews and data analysis are conducted according to rigorous and objective scientific standards.

(D) How systematic reviews are conducted on longstanding Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations, including whether scientific studies are included from scientists with a range of viewpoints.

(2) Recommendations to improve the process used to establish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and to ensure the Dietary Guidelines for Americans reflect balanced sound science.

(c) There is hereby appropriated $1,000,000 to conduct the study required by subsection (a).

Comment:  I continue to be astonished that the House of Representatives would take such an intense interest in the science of nutrition when it is so uninterested in the science of climate change.  And I am puzzled as to why the House thinks that nutrition scientists appointed by the Academy of Medicine (formerly Institute of Medicine) would have views any different from those of the current Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

Will the USDA and HHS release the 2015 Dietary Guidelines before the Senate passes its version of the Appropriations bill?

I’m in Geneva this week and am hoping they wait until I get back.

Aug 25 2015

Update on the school meal situation

School is starting and the school food debates will no doubt be starting up again.

The USDA has a new report on what’s happening with adoption of the new nutrition standards.

  • A national study of elementary school principals and foodservice managers finds the majority (63%) to agree or strongly agree (7%) that students seem to like the new lunches.
  • The participation rate for paid school lunches declined from FY 2008 through FY 2014, with steeper declines during FY 2012-2014.  This could be do to the changes in standards but is more likely the result of higher prices charged for meals.
  • Smaller, more rural, and wealthier districts had the most difficulty adopting the new meal standards. Higher meal prices affected smaller and more rural districts.

The 2015 School Food Poll conducted by the Kellogg Foundation just reported:

  • 90% of respondents support the national school nutrition standards.
  • 86% say the school nutrition standards should stay the same or be strengthened.
  • 91% say kids need access to safe drinking water in schools.
  • 88% support increased government funding to expand farm to school programs.
  • 84% believe sustainable agriculture should be part of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Kellogg Foundation provides

My interpretation: The nutrition standards are working well enough but it’s time to advocate even more strongly for universal school meals.  It’s absurd and unconscionable that poor kids are getting priced out of school meals.

Addition: The School Nutrition Association, the group doing everything it can to undermine the new nutrition standards, has just issued a report finding that the standards have caused severe financial harm to 70% of schools.  The reason?

There is strong consensus as to the leading reason for the decline in lunch ADP: decreased student acceptance of meals [.underlined in report].

The report does, however, provide a table of reasons for increased costs:

  • Increased per meal food costs — 70.1%
  • Decreased lunch participation — 56.8%
  • Decreased a la carte revenue — 53.0%
  • Increased labor/benefits costs — 48.5%
  • Declining student enrollment — 20.6%

Given these results, you might think the SNA would be lobbying night and day for higher reimbursement rates, but no such luck.  The SNA is lobbying for weaker standards.  Pity.

Addition, August 25:  A study from the University of Vermont finds school kids to be consuming slightly fewer servings of fruits and vegetables since the nutrition standards were implemented and to be producing 56% more plate waste.  This is not good news.

Addition, August 28:  But a CDC study finds that in 2014, schools were making significant progress:

  • Almost all schools offered whole grain foods each day for breakfast (97.2%) and lunch (94.4%)
  • Most schools offered two or more vegetables (79.4%) and two or more fruits (78.0%) each day for lunch.
  • Approximately one third (30.5%) of schools offered self-serve salad bars.
  • Among the 55.0% of schools that prepared food at the school, about half were trying hard to reduce salt.
  • Overall, 97.5% of schools used at least one of the nine school nutrition services practices examined, with 23.9% using one to three of the practices, 48.3% using four to six of the practices, and 25.3% using seven or more of the practices.

My interpretation: Schools are moving to adopt the new nutrition standards.  Some are succeeding better than others.  The outcome of studies therefore depends on whether you see the glass as half full, or empty.

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