by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Nov 20 2014

What Dan Glickman is doing these days: bipartisanship

Dan Glickman, former USDA Secretary (1995-2001) has been turning up in my mailbox newsletters a lot lately.  Here’s a small collection.

On making the connection between agriculture and health

The food, agriculture, health, hunger and nutrition sectors need to create new ways of working together that harness their shared commitment to improving health through food and nutrition. And we need government and industry to work together in a way that transcends typical political and business interests….The food industry can do more to reinforce healthy diets through marketing, incentives and other strategies, including product formulation, placement, packaging, and portion sizes. And government needs to amplify its existing efforts to ensure consistent and affirming nutrition and health messages for consumers.

On the need for bipartisan approaches

While a healthy, civil debate among those with differing viewpoints is an essential component of our democracy, the current partisan tone in government is impeding progress. Through the Democracy Project and events like Bridge-Builder Breakfasts, political summits and timely policy discussions, BPC [Bipartisan Policy Center ] is fostering an ongoing conversation about how to overcome political divides and help make our government work better.

He is a co-chair of AGree–Transforming Food and Agriculture

AGree seeks to drive positive change in the food and agriculture system by connecting and challenging leaders from diverse communities to catalyze action and elevate food and agriculture as a national priority.  [Here is what AGree agrees on]

And here he is on the implications of the midterm elections’ for the “rural-urban divide:” 

Notwithstanding the very strong farm and agricultural economy the past few years, the Democratic Party and its leadership are having a great deal of trouble connecting with farmers and rural citizens and small-town America…a sustained effort at the highest political level by Democrats to connect with rural issues and concerns is necessary if they want to broaden their popularity and build bigger and more successful electoral coalitions and succeed in this country’s many rural congressional districts.

…It is no secret that casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan were borne by a disproportionate number of young men and women from these areas. The economic recession has also hit rural America very hard and many towns have not seen much impact on their lives from the rebounding American economy.

The White House and Democratic Party gurus need to recognize that they are failing to connect with rural America….The future of American leadership on nutrition, farming and hunger is in jeopardy without positive action to rebuild and maintain these bipartisan coalitions.

In his post USDA years, Glickman has become a strong spokesman for bipartisanship and bipartisan decisions about how to link agricultural policy to health policy.

Wouldn’t it be nice if he succeeds?

Nov 13 2014

White House delays even more food rules

This morning’s Politico Pro Morning Agriculture says that FDA menu labeling (see Monday’s Post) is not the only food rule being held up by the White House.

The issue: The White House is supposed to sign off or reply within 90 days, or formally request an extension.  That’s not happening with menu calorie labeling or four others:

  • The Common or Usual Name for Raw Meat and Poultry rule: this refers to what you can call meat and poultry with added water, salt or other ingredients.  The White House has been sitting on rule for review since April 30.   Chicken producers love it.  Some meat producers don’t.  Here’s the initial proposal.  It’s not clear whether or how it’s been altered.
  • Child Nutrition Program Integrity and Child and Adult Care Food Program proposals: these rules, also sent in April, deal with USDA’s implementation of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. The integrity rule deals with mismanagement.  The other one requires USDA to update the meals to comply with dietary guidelines every 10 years.
  •  USDA’s catfish inspection rule: Sent to the White House on May 30, this would implement a section of the 2014 farm bill that puts USDA, not FDA, in charge of catfish inspections (see previous post on this).
  • EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard for 2014: This was sent August 22.  The White House has not extended the review period.  f the administration does take more time to officially complete its review, it could push the release of the rule governing how much ethanol needs to be mixed into gasoline for 2014 into 2015.

What’s going on?  Politics, of course.  But I can only speculate on what they might be.

Nov 11 2014

Does the USDA deliberately make it difficult for retailers to accept SNAP benefits?

A colleague and reader who recently took over a small food business wanted to continue to make it possible for people enrolled in SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. Food Stamps—to buy his products.

The business had already followed the steps needed to become an authorized SNAP retailer and had been accepting Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT cards) for a couple of years.

His new ownership required him to start over.  He filed the application with the USDA last April.  As he explained last week:

About six months later now, after repeated follow-up and efforts to move it along and resubmitted paperwork and things not mailed back, we’re finally learning that our accounts were approved for use in August. Probably the 8th person we spoke to since starting was able to tell this to us nonchalantly today. Everyone prior has had *virtually* no idea what’s going on or good answers for us other than “start over” or “I’ll have someone call you.”

Six months to set up EBT, surely among the largest transaction types in the country (in terms of the funding body and the process). The USDA & FNS must be woefully understaffed….

So our EBT accounts were finally approved and activated. What’s fascinating then is the number of companies that reach out to tell us (paraphrasing) that “due to recent changes in the Farm Bill, retailers are no longer able to get free processing equipment from the USDA so call us today to get low-cost equipment and a low-cost monthly flat-fee for your EBT processing needs.”

Obviously our bi-cameral, newly monocular Congress will only care about fraud with respect to EBT. So any responses to bureaucratic inefficiency will not likely result in reform, only reduction.

Alas, he is right about that.  Although Congress, in passing the Agricultural Act of 2014 (a.k.a. the Farm Bill), did not make the deep cuts in SNAP that many Republicans wanted, it did make some mean-spirited changes.

For example:

Section 4002: The Secretary shall require participating retail food stores to pay 100% of the costs of acquiring, and arrange for the implementation of, electronic benefit point-of-sale equipment and supplies, including related services (exceptions: farmers’ markets, nonprofit food coops, etc).  So yes, my reader’s small business has to pay for this.

Here’a another example:

Section 4018: Prohibiting Government-Sponsored Recruitment Activities.  No funds authorized shall be used by the Secretary for:

  • Recruitment activities designed to persuade an individual to apply for SNAP benefits
  • TV, radio, or billboard ads designed to promote benefits and enrollment
  • Agreements with foreign governments designed to promote benefits and enrollment
  • Compensating persons who conduct outreach activities relating to SNAP participation or who recruit others to do so.

It’s possible that the long delay in USDA approval of his EBT accounts could be due to staff incompetence, but it’s clear that Congress does not want anything done to promote SNAP or make it work well for anyone involved in the system.

Let’s hope the USDA is better about approving the eligibility of recipients.

As of August 2014, 46.5 million Americans received SNAP benefits at an average of $124 per month.   The USDA needs to do a better job of serving them and the retailers they buy from.

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.

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