by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Mar 28 2014

Salmonella is NOT an inherent part of chicken, proves Denmark

Yesterday, Food Safety News republished the last of a four-part series in the Portland Oregonian about how Denmark was able to get rid of Salmonella in chickens, but we can’t. 

This one explains why.

[USDA] announced a plan last year to stem Salmonella. Its goal is to reduce illnesses by 25 percent by 2020. The plan, which is still being rolled out, includes a controversial overhaul of inspections, enhanced testing and a first-ever limit on allowed Salmonella in cut-up chicken.

Denmark opted for a more comprehensive approach, attacking Salmonella in flocks, poultry barns, animal feed and slaughterhouses.

Why can’t we do that too?

  • The U.S. chicken industry is too big.
  • Reforms would cost too much.
  • Chicken prices would rise.
  • Chicken would cost more than beef.
  • Nobody–industry, regulators or retailers—wants to bother.
  • The U.S. food safety system is too fractured; no federal agency has the authority to mandate such reforms.
  • USDA food safety authority only starts at the slaughterhouse, not the farm.

An impressive number of excuses, no?

Better make sure you handle chicken as if it were radioactive and cook it thoroughly.

This series is well worth a read if you want to understand what’s wrong with our food safety system.

 

Mar 7 2014

Universal school meals? Not quite, alas.

Last week during the rollout of all the accomplishments of Let’s Move!, I wrote enthusiastically about one of them: universal school meals.

I pointed out that schools in which 40% or more of children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals will now be permitted to serve free breakfasts and free lunches to every student in the school, regardless of family income.  Oops.

And I said: This program, which will affect 22,000 U.S. schools and 9 million children, is cost-neutral.  Oops again.

Ain’t necessarily so, not so simple, it’s complicated—objected four readers who know a lot more about the arcane rules for school meal reimbursement.

  • My first error: the 40% refers only to kids eligible for free meals, not reduced-price.
  • Second error: because of the reimbursement formula used by USDA, cost-neutrality does not kick in until 60-65% of the kids are eligible for free meals.

Let’s hope I get it right this time.

Readers explained that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorized a Community Eligibility Provision.  This allowed schools serving mostly low-income children to serve all meals to all children at no cost.

USDA reimburses the schools using a formula based on the percentage of students identified as eligible for free meals as certified by some other means-tested program such as SNAP or being homeless.

USDA rolled the program out gradually in pilot projects.  Seven states participated in 2013.

The idea was that if the pilot projects were successful–which they were–the program would be available to all states by 2014-15.

My take: school districts with lots of low-income kids ought to be doing this, but making the programs pay for themselves requires high levels of outreach and involvement.

Advocates:

  • Get your school districts to apply.
  • Work with the schools to make the food so good that all kids will want to eat it.
  • Tell USDA you want to get rid of the complications: authorize universal meals for all school children

A challenge?  Yes, but worth it.

As I pointed out, universal school meals put an end to:

  • USDA paperwork requirements for ensuring eligibility.
  • Parents having to fill out complicated eligibility forms.
  • Schools having to monitor to make sure kids’ families have turned in the paperwork or paid.
  • Schools turning away kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Schools destroying the meals of kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Students knowing who gets free meals, and who does not.

These new rules are a step in that direction and deserve advocacy support.

Mar 5 2014

Oops. WIC rules for yogurt permit loads of added sugar

After my post earlier this week about the USDA’s final rules for the WIC program, I heard from Tracy Fox, who heads a food and nutrition policy consulting firm in Washington, DC.

She wrote: “Did you see the amount of total sugar they are allowing in the yogurt provision?  Up to 40 grams per 8 ounces.”

Oops.  She’s right.

The sugar rules for WIC yogurt

The rules say:

As recommended by the IOM, yogurt must conform to the standard of identity for yogurt as listed in Table 4 of 7 CFR 246.10(e)(12) and may be plain or flavored with ≤ 40 grams of total sugar per 1 cup of yogurt.

The IOM reference is to the Institute of Medicine’s 2005 report, WIC Food Packages: Time for a Change.  On page 221, this report says:

Yogurt (must conform to FDA standard of identity…plain or flavored with ≤ 17 g of total sugars per 100 g yogurt.

Let’s do the math

The standard serving size for yogurt in these rules is 8 ounces, or 226 grams.  At 17 grams of sugar per 100 grams, this allows for 38.4 grams of sugar per 8 ounces.  USDA must have rounded this up to 40.

But plain yogurt is already sweet.  It contains 16 grams of lactose sugar in 8 ounces.

The rules allow for an additional 24 grams of sugar per 8 ounces—6 teaspoons!

But most yogurt comes in 6 ounces containers

In 2003, yogurt makers shrunk the package size to 6 ounces as a cost-saving measure.

A 6-ounce yogurt contains 12 grams of lactose. 

So the rules allow for 18 grams of added sugars in 6 ounces—4.5 teaspoons.

The new Nutrition Facts label may help

  • It requires listing the amount of added sugars.
  • This may discourage government agencies from buying highly sweetened yogurts.
  • It may encourage yogurt makers to cut the sugar.

In the meantime, what to do?

  • Encourage the WIC program to buy plain yogurt.
  • Ask USDA to amend the regulations.
  • Make sure added sugars stays on the FDA’s proposed rules (file comments here)

 

Jan 16 2014

Congress on curbing food marketing to kids: not a chance.

Congress can’t pass a farm bill but it has plenty of time to micromanage nutrition and health.  Buried in the pork-filled Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 (see Monday’s post) are some zingers.  Here’s one:

appropr

This refers to the ill-fated IWG report I’ve discussed previously. To recap:

  • Congress asked the FTC to examine the effects of food marketing to children and make recommendations.
  • The FTC, USDA, FDA, and CDC got together and produced a report recommending voluntary guidelines for marketing to children based on the nutritional quality of the foods.
  • I thought the guidelines were weak in addition to being voluntary (they allowed lots of junk foods to qualify).
  • The food industry disagreed, strongly, and went to Congress to object.
  • Congress caved in to industry pressure and said the report could not be released unless the FTC produced a cost-benefit analysis.
  • End of story.
  • Why Congress feels that it’s necessary to do this again is beyond me.

I suppose we should be glad our legislators are at least doing something.

As for the food industry’s role in all this: when food companies say they are doing everything they can to reduce marketing junk foods to kids, you now know what they really mean.

Jan 14 2014

Congress releases its draft budget bill (sigh)

In the strange way the U.S. government works, Congress has produced the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014,” which authorizes payments for government services, including those related to agriculture.

This is not the farm bill.  It’s what Congress decides taxpayers will pay for in the farm bill as well as bills that cover other programs run by USDA.

The House summary of agriculture appropriations is a lot easier to read than the bill itself, although it contains its share of double speak.  Try this:

WIC – This program provides supplemental nutritional foods needed by pregnant and nursing mothers, babies and young children. The bill provides full funding for WIC at $6.7 billion – $153 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level…This level will ensure all eligible participants will be served.

Can someone please explain to me how a cut of $153 million will ensure service to everyone who is eligible?  WIC is not an entitlement; eligible people cannot be served once the money runs out.

The bill does provide full spending—$82.2 billion—for SNAP, but only because it has to.  SNAP is an entitlement and spending for it is mandatory.  Unless, of course, Congress ever passes the farm bill, which currently contains a $9 billion proposed cut.

And here’s more double speak.  “The legislation includes several provisions to reduce spending and increase oversight of taxpayer dollars.”  How?  By authorizing spending for:

  • Oversight and monitoring requirements for the WIC program, including a directive for the Secretary of Agriculture to increase oversight of vendors to help rein in food costs;
  • A provision requiring USDA to submit a plan for reducing high error rates and improper payments in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs;
  • Requirements for the Secretary of Agriculture to help weed out and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in the SNAP program – including a directive to ban fraudulent vendors, and a prohibition on advertisements or outreach with foreign governments.

And why does the FDA’s budget still get decided by committees dealing with agricultural appropriations?

The FDA is a public health agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, which is funded by entirely different committees which you might think understand its mission a lot better than committees fussing about legislation that

restricts the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing certain regulations that would allow harmful government interference in the private market for the livestock and poultry industry.

I can hardly wait to see what the farm bill will look like.

Jan 13 2014

What are Americans eating?

I’ve only just come across this USDA chart, which first appeared in an article in Amber Waves.

USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers looked at 1998-2006 grocery store food expenditures and compared what consumers buy to dietary guidelines for healthy eating.  

Oops.  

Jan 3 2014

Winter Friday: a good day for GMO announcements

Two today:

General Mills: GMO-free Cheerios

General Mills says it will make a GMO-free version of its Cheerios cereal.  This is surprising because it says Cheerios’ oats have never been GMO.   Now, it will take extra trouble—and, no doubt, charge more—to make sure the GMO and non-GMO sugars and corn don’t mix.

USDA deregulates 2,4-D herbicide for GMOs

The USDA released its draft Environmental Impact Statement:

as part of its review to determine whether to deregulate genetically engineered (GE) corn and soybean plants that are resistant to several herbicides, including one known as 2,4-D.  [USDA] APHIS is performing an assessment of these GE plants, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting a concurrent review of the related herbicides.

…Dow AgroSciences’ GE corn and soybean plants are the first developed to be resistant to 2,4-D and are intended to provide farmers with new plants to help address the problem of weeds that have developed resistance to other herbicides.

Dow, which filed the petition for this action, is pleased.

Is 2,4-D safe?  The USDA says yes.

The National Pesticide Information Center sort of says so too, except that it lists plenty of reasons for concern, “possibly carcinogenic” among them.

Earth Justice points out that this action will allow farmers to douse fields with 2,4-D:

The potent and toxic 2,4-D has been linked to many human health problems. It also is likely to harm non-genetically engineered crops in neighboring fields, threaten endangered species, and ultimately lead to the development of weeds that are resistant to it, leading to even more problems.

Even more reason to buy and promote organics!

Dec 10 2013

Yes, one more post on the meaning of “natural”

At a talk I gave for CQ Roll Call in Washington, DC last week, an audience member asked about the definition of “natural.”  I thought I had said everything there was to say about it (see post from August).  Wrong.

Another member of the audience sent me the definition of “natural” produced by, of all things, the  Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Three federal agencies deal with “natural.”

The FDA

In answer to the question, “What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?,” the FDA says:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

The USDA

The USDA discusses “natural” in the context of organic foods, in order to distinguish “natural” from organic:

Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.

The ATF

This agency is in charge of regulating alcoholic beverages, largely for tax-collection purposes.  Its “ATF Ruling 85-4″ does not actually define the term “natural,” but instead says when ATF takes no exception to its use.

(1) Any grape fruit, citrus or agricultural wine may be designated “natural” if it is made without added alcohol or brandy…No other type of wine may be designated as “natural.”

(2) A distilled spirit may be designated as “natural” if is solely the result of distillation, with or without mingling of the same class and type of spirits or simple filtration which does not alter the class or type of the product.

(3) A malt beverage may be designated “natural” if it is made without adjuncts (additives) other than those additives which do not remain in the finished product, either by precipitating out or by combining with other components of the product and the resulting compound precipitates or is filtered out.

I am not making this up.

CSPI thinks it’s time to phase out the use of “natural.”  OK by me.

Addition: Michele Simon, who blogs at Eat, Drink, Politics, writes (she’s not making this up either):

In fact, ATF is how housed within the Department of Justice.

Historically, ATF had all jurisdiction over alcohol (and was within Treasury), which is where that rule must have come from.

ATF still maintains jurisdiction over criminal activity, but now, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau oversees labeling. That’s housed within Treasury.

This explains the split in 2002 (click here).

Clear as mud? So maybe you can add a fourth agency to your list!

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