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Mar 30 2012

I’ve been lobbied! Intense efforts to save pink slime aimed at governors, USDA officials, and me

I don’t think I’ve ever been the target of a concerted lobbying campaign before, but efforts to restore the public image of pink slime—a.k.a. Lean Finely Textured Beef—have even gotten to me.

This week, while I was working on my column on pink slime for the Sunday, April 1 San Francisco Chronicle, I received e-mail messages from:

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm, the Minnesota-based food safety authority who I have never met but know about through his expertise and strong support for irradiation as a beef safety measure
  • Bruce Smith, the Environmental Health and Safety officer of Beef Products, Inc (BPI), the company that makes pink slime
  • Bruce Silverglade, the lawyer who now represents BPI but for many years was chief counsel for Center for Science in the Public Interest

All wanted me to know that pink slime was being treated unfairly because it is safe, nutritious and healthy, and getting rid of it will make ground beef more dangerous.

These efforts to educate me must be understood as a tiny fraction of the effort that is going into lobbying in favor of BPI and its product.  Yesterday, the governors and lieutenant governors of five states toured BPI’s facilities and participated in a heated press conference, which also included the undersecretary of USDA for food safety.

This is breathtakingly high-level—and perhaps unprecedented—support for the public relations troubles of a private food company.

Helena  Bottmiller of Food Safety News has a terrific report on these events.   She quotes the remarks of Iowa Governor Terry  Branstad:

We need to stand together to clear up the misinformation that has been circulating in the media…These accusations [against pink slime] are totally unfounded… I am proud to say that for 20 years I and my family have been eating it.

Here’s his instant classic: “Dude, it’s beef!”

The press conference also featured Nancy Donley, the founder and president of STOP Foodborne Illness, and mother of a child who died from eating a contaminated hamburger in 1993.

I had seen Ms. Donley’s letter about her son and the need for safe beef in a BPI advertisement in the Wall Street Journal on March 23.  It contained one eye-popping statement:

BPI has generously supported STOP and has never asked for anything in return.

Really?  I’d say BPI has gotten plenty of return on this particular investment.

STOP posts its tax statements online and these reveal a few small contributions from named private donors ($5000 to $10,000) but one of $250,000 from “a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.”

It doesn’t take much to deduce that this must be from Eldon Roth, the owner of BPI.

My comment to Food Safety News sums all this up:

Evidently, BPI has the political clout to pull in governors, USDA officials, and even food safety advocates on its behalf. I can’t help wondering whether their support for pink slime derives from a genuine belief that the public has treated BPI unfairly, or whether they are responding to the generous campaign contributions and charitable donations by BPI’s owner…I’m willing to grant that pink slime is safe, but that doesn’t make it acceptable [see note below].

Caroline Scott-Thomas writes in NutraIngredients that pink slime is “safe, nutritious—and icky” and that the food industry needs to take action “to avoid being at the mercy of the next consumer scare.”  She suggests:

  • Tell people what you’re selling them, no matter how unsavory it may seem.
  • Spend more time preempting consumer concerns, rather than reacting to them.
  • When industry does need to react, it should – quickly and with honesty.
  • The idea of “pink slime” might be icky, but it has definite advantages, and we should have heard about them before.

Good advice. Watch for my comments on the pink slime situation in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

Note added, April 4: Michael Osterholm has no financial or other ties to BPI (see post of April 4).

Feb 21 2012

Jim Prevor on Organics, Crop Yields and Food Politics

I don’t ordinarily reprint or comment on discussions of my work but Perishable Pundit Jim Prevor’s response to my recent post on organics is worth a read.  I reprint his piece with his permission.  Skip the flattering comments about my work and scroll right down to his discussion of the downside of the organic community’s deal with the USDA.   

Our piece, Organics, Crop Yields And Feeding The World, brought many letters and public comments, including an article from one of the most prominent food analysts writing today.

Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University and the author of many food and food policy related books, is often perceived by many in the trade as an enemy of the food industry. We find her enormously thoughtful and willing to ask many questions that are sometimes uncomfortable for the trade to address. We don’t always come down on the same side as her, but we always find reading her to be a wise investment of our time.

She recently wrote a piece titled, The Endless Controversy Over Organics, which focused on our interview with Dr. Steve Savage. As usual, Professor Nestle was open to the evidence presented — in this case regarding the relative yield between conventional and organic production. In the end, though, she threw up her hands at the conflicting research:

What impresses me about research on organic productivity is that its interpretation can be predicted by who is doing the interpreting. I’ve seen, and review in my book,What to Eat,plenty of research demonstrating that organics are only slightly less productive than industrial agriculture and at much lower cost to soil and the environment.

We think this is where most people will end up. The problem is that it is relatively easy to do research that will show organic production to be competitive. This is because as long as organic has only a tiny share of production, producers have the option to grow organic in a location that is optimized for organic production.

The yields in these optimized locations can sometimes be competitive with those of conventional production. This has, though, almost no relationship to the question of whether if all production was converted to organic, would the yields be competitive.

Here at the Pundit, we are in touch with too many growers who have tried to grow organic to have many doubts. Most of these growers were very motivated, they tried to grow organic because they thought they could make money doing so. Yet the results are in… demand or not, East Coast organic apples will remain a rarity.

This issue is not a trivial one. Professor Nestle highlights that organic growing operates at “much lower cost to soil and the environment.” This is controversial. Organic growing utilizes all kinds of substances, and it is not easy to establish that utilizing, say, copper, is more beneficial for than environment than synthetic substances.

Even if true, however, the environmental benefit would depend crucially on the ability to use the same area of land to raise food. If we were compelled to, say, destroy the rain forest to increase acreage for food production, it would be very difficult to make the case that the net benefit of organic production was beneficial to the environment.

One area we find ourselves in sympathy with Professor Nestle is in her critique of the interactions between the organic community and the US government:

The USDA has long been an uncomfortable host forThe National Organic Program. This agency’s job is to support industrial agriculture, and organics are indeed small in comparison.

But organic production is anexplicitcritique of industrial agricultural systems. Organics get higher prices. And their sales are increasing.

No wonder USDA and representatives of industrial systems don’t like organics much and do everything they can to find fault with it.

Sure there are faults to find:

  • Weak and inadequately enforced standards
  • Endless pressure to add industrial chemicals to the approved list and further weaken the standards
  • Expenses that few small farmers can afford
  • Inadequate protection from contamination with genetically modified crops
  • Suspicions about the equivalency of standards for imported organic foods
  • Bad apples who make things difficult for farmers who are doing things right

USDA ought to be doing all it can to work with organic producers to fix these problems. To its credit, USDA recruited undersecretary Kathleen Merrigan to try.

We think most at USDA would dispute her characterization of the agency, saying instead that its responsibility is to promote US agriculture, and since 99% of that agriculture is not organic, it should mostly promote the agriculture we actually have, rather than the agriculture organic advocates might wish we had.

That doesn’t mean that USDA doesn’t want to help organic farmers. As Professor Nestle notes, there is now an “agreement between the U.S. and the E.U. to recognize each other’s organic standards, thereby opening the European market to American organics. USDA reports that the organic industry is delighted with the opportunity for new market possibilities.”

Although Professor Nestle sees a problem in USDA hosting the program, we would say the organic community made a deal they will find difficult to live with in asking the government — any agency of the government — to manage this effort.

Obviously, organic advocates could have gone out and registered a trademark and could have kept organic standards pure and enforcement rigorous.

The minute the government is involved, though, politics is involved. And in politics, the organic community faces a difficult state of affairs. As long as organic is a tiny and insignificant industry, it could probably make its own rules without much interference. After all, who would care enough to fight?

Yet as organic grows, it becomes a more significant business opportunity and then General Mills, Kraft, etc., become more interested. As they become more interested, they also will look to see that the rules established meet their needs.

Now, obviously, there is no upside for them in tarnishing the organic “brand” — after all they want to profit from the brand. Still, over time, if organic becomes a substantial part of the food business, since organic growers are not the most powerful political force in the food industry, we will see the standards and enforcement change in a way that will benefit larger, more politically powerful companies.

This is not a function of USDA misbehaving. It is a function of tying one’s hopes to political forces. Of course, we don’t have to lecture to Professor Nestle on that subject… she is the author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales totaled nearly $27 billion in 2010, and constituted 11% of produce sales. Is this “tiny and insignificant”? I don’t think so.

Is the National Organic Program really a pact with the devil?  Organic producers worked long and hard—fully 12 years—to get organic standards codified in 2002.  Was this a mistake?

Feb 16 2012

The endless controversy over organics

I am a big fan of the Perishable Pundit, Jim Prevor, whose opinions on the produce industry I think are always worth reading whether I agree with them or not.  I check his site regularly.

I am also a big fan of organics.  I think research shows that organic production methods are kinder to soil, climate, and animals than industrial production methods.

So I was interested to read Perishable Pundit’s interview with Dr. Steve Savage, an agricultural consultant in San Diego.

Q: Your detailed analysis of U.S. organic crops rattles the generally accepted notions about the size and potential growth of the organic market. Based on the latest USDA-NASS data, you make four key points:

  • Organic is a very small part of US agriculture.
  • Organic is significantly less productive on a per area basis.
  • Organic acreage, and to a greater extent, organic production, is skewed to the dry, Western states.
  • Farmers are paid higher prices for organic commodities, but when combined with lower productivity, gross income per acre is not always much higher and even sometimes lower.

Dr. Savage backs up these statements with additional data in a slide show from USDA.  You can look up both links and decide for yourself if you agree with his conclusions.

What impresses me about research on organic productivity is that its interpretation can be predicted by who is doing the interpreting.  I’ve seen, and review in my book What to Eat, plenty of research demonstrating that organics are only slightly less productive than industrial agriculture and at much lower cost to soil and the environment.

The USDA has long been an uncomfortable host for the National Organic Program.   This agency’s job is to support industrial agriculture and organics are indeed small in comparison.

But organic production is an explicit critique of industrial agricultural systems.  Organics get higher prices.  And their sales are increasing.

No wonder USDA and representatives of industrial systems don’t like organics much and do everything they can to find fault with it.

Sure there are faults to find:

  • Weak and inadequately enforced standards
  • Endless pressure to add industrial chemicals to the approved list and further weaken the standards
  • Expenses that few small farmers can afford
  • Inadequate protection from contamination with genetically modified crops
  • Suspicions about the equivalency of standards for imported organic foods
  • Bad apples who make things difficult for farmers who are doing things right

USDA ought to be doing all it can to work with organic producers to fix these problems.  To its credit, USDA recruited undersecretary Kathleen Merrigan to try.

She just announced an agreement between the U.S. and the E.U. to recognize each other’s organic standards, thereby opening the European market to American organics.   USDA reports that the organic industry is delighted with the opportunity for new market possibilities.

Experts can argue whether organics are slightly or substantially less productive but they are demonstrably better for soil and the environment.  I think that matters.

Comments are welcome.

Jan 26 2012

Cheers for USDA’s new nutrition standards

Michelle Obama and Tom Vilsack announced new nutrition standards for school meals yesterday, to what seems to be near-universal applause (the potato growers are still miffed, according to the New York Times).

The new standards are best understood in comparison to current standards (see chart).  They call for:

  • More fruits and vegetables
  • A greater range of vegetables
  • A requirement for whole grains
  • All milk to be 1% or less
  • Only non-fat milk to be permitted to be flavored

This may not sound like much.  But given what it has taken USDA to get to this point, the new standards must be seen as a major step forward.

See, for example, the comparison of an old and new weekly menu (this has not changed since USDA’s original proposal in January last year).

The new one looks so much better.   Now it’s up to schools to make the new standards work, make the foods taste yummy, and get kids to be willing to try new foods.

To review the history: This all started when the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to design nutrition standards that would:

  • Increase the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Set a minimum and maximum level of calories
  • Focus more on reducing saturated fat and sodium

The new standards come pretty close to what the IOM recommended (see the earlier chart), with some now-famous exceptions.  The IOM proposed limits on starchy vegetables.  USDA then proposed to limit starchy vegetables to two servings a week.  It also set a minimum for the amount of tomato sauce on pizza that could count toward vegetable servings.

Under pressure from potato growers and suppliers of school pizza, Congress weighed in and overruled the USDA on both counts.

The result: pizza now counts as a vegetable.

To give some idea of the extent of lobbying on all sides of this issue, USDA’s January proposal elicited 132,000 public comments (these are someplace at www.regulations.gov and are addressed in the Federal Register notice).

I asked in a previous post whether this kind of congressional micromanagement made sense (absolutely not, in my view).  I also wrote previously about the intense lobbying efforts to make sure these standards would never be released.

Despite congressional and industry opposition, the standards are out.

Applause is very much in order for Mrs. Obama’s leadership on this issue.

Good work.  Now let’s get busy on the next challenges:

  • Set nutrition standards for competitive foods in schools—those sold outside of the lunch program as snacks and meal replacements.
  • Teach kids where food comes from
  • Teach kids to cook

For the record:

The initial press release: It is headlined “First Lady to Announce New Nutrition Standards for Meals Served in America’s Schools: Public-Private Partnership Aims to Connect More Kids to Nutrition Programs.”  I’m not sure where the Public-Private Partnership comes into this.

USDA’s actual press announcement provides links to the Nutrition Standards home page and other relevant documents.

Additions: Dana Woldrow sends this link to shed some light on the curious business of private-public partnerships.  Here’s one where Goya foods is giving out teaching materials in schools.

Jan 17 2012

Rumor: a single food safety agency at long last?

According to rumors passed along by Dan Flynn at Food Safety News via the Hagstrom Report (an agricultural subscription news service costing $999 a year), the Office of Management and Budget wants to merge federal agencies, among them the food safety components of FDA and USDA.

Rumors are that the Obama administration wants to do this to make “food safety independent of USDA, which primarily exists to market and promote American farm products.”

If this happens, it could be one major benefit of cost-cutting measures.  At the moment, USDA gets about three quarters of the total appropriation for food safety (for roughly one quarter of the food supply) whereas FDA gets one quarter of the appropriation for three quarters of the food supply.

This inequity is a result of the way Congress funds the FDA—through agricultural appropriations committees, not, as any sensible person might expect, through health committees (this too needs to change).

The merger also would eliminate the dysfunctional distinctions between regulations for meat and poultry (USDA) and practically all other foods (FDA).   A merged agency could deal with the unpleasant fact that animal waste is the cause of many food safety problems with fruits and vegetables.

The idea of a single food safety agency is not new.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been calling for its creation since 1990 or earlier, most recently in 2011.

In the 2011 report, GAO said, as it has for years:

Fragmented food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient uses of resources…The Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration are the primary food safety agencies, but 15 agencies are involved in some way.

These, GAO points out, administer at least 30 food-related laws.

In addition, GAO urges Congress to ask the National Academy of Science to consider several organizational structures that might work better than the current system:

  • A single food safety agency, either housed within an existing agency or established as an independent entity, that assumes responsibility for all aspects of food safety at the federal level
  • A single food safety inspection agency that assumes responsibility for food safety inspection activities, but not other activities, under an existing department, such as USDA or FDA
  •  A data collection and risk analysis center for food safety that consolidates data collected from a variety of sources and analyzes it at the national level to support risk-based decision making
  • A coordination mechanism that provides centralized, executive leadership for the existing organizational structure, led by a central chair who would be appointed by the president and have control over resources

The rumors do not say which of these options is favored.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about a single food safety agency as I am, in part because this and other issues remain to be resolved: where the new agency would go and what its resources might be.

And, as food safety lawyer Bill Marler points out, legal matters are also at stake:

We can’t overlook the legal issues in food safety. Right now there are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences, for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.

So, let’s make some progress in stopping food poisoning and then later pick out the new stationery.

Former USDA official Richard Raymond, writing in Food Safety News argues:

It is my sincere belief that a merger of the two food safety agencies would be an unmitigated disaster in the short term because the cultures are so very different. And unless megadollars flowed with the merger, nothing more could be accomplished than is currently done.

And there are dozens of other valid reasons to “just say no” to the Administration’s thinking.

He suggests reading the comment posted on Dan Flynn’s article from Carol Tucker Foreman, also a former USDA official and a long-time food safety advocate.

The major point of her very long comment is that moving USDA’s meat and poultry inspection responsibilities to FDA

Would likely reduce the current level of health protection provided by food safety laws and curtail the progress that has been made in reducing foodborne illness.

The FDA, saddled by lack of funds, sufficient legal authority, and food safety leadership has been criticized…for its inability to provide a decent level of food safety protection in the domestic and imported food products it regulates.

…Today the FSIS [USDA] has surpassed the FDA in some areas. The agency has adequate resources and high official status in a relatively small Cabinet agency…FDA, despite its new law, is still strapped for funds, burdened by its low position at HHS and the need to manage multiple agendas…Reorganization would not address the continuing problems of either agency.

…We’re confident that trying to move other agencies to the FDA or HHS won’t save money. In fact we are confident it would reduce the effectiveness of the meat and poultry inspection program…leading to a potential increase in foodborne illness and the related costs. That makes it bad policy and a bad bargain.

But what if the new hypothetical single food safety agency does not go to FDA?  What if it goes someplace independent of either agency?   And what if the new entity started out with the highest possible safety standards, funded adequately?

If we are dealing with rumors, we can deal with dreams too, no?

Update, January 29Food SafetyNews says all rumors are false.  This isn’t going to happen because the meat industry doesn’t want it to happen.

 

 

Jan 11 2012

USDA to close hundreds of offices. A problem?

 USDA has announced that it is closing 259 domestic offices and 7 foreign offices “to meet the evolving needs of a 21st century agricultural economy.”

You have to love the government-speak explanation:

When fully implemented, these actions along with other recommended changes will provide efficiencies valued at about $150 million annually—and eventually more based on future realignment of the workforce—and will ensure that USDA continues to provide optimal service to the American people within available funding levels.

 Huh?

 What is this about?  I can only speculate. 

Over the years as a result of congressional earmarking—-putting government “pork” in the districts of members of House and Senate Agricultural committees—USDA’s bureaucracy became highly decentralized into hundreds of offices staffed by just a few people in throughout the country.  

 USDA has wanted to clean this up for years. 

I’m guessing that USDA is using congressional budget cutting pressures to do something its leaders have wanted to do for a long time. 

 Are so many of those offices redundant?  Some USDA oversight committee thought so. 

 The closures will not affect meat safety.  USDA still must maintain its legislated inspection responsibilities. 

 What surprises me is how little money this saves.  USDA’s annual budget is $145 billion.  If I have this right, this move will get rid of 7,000 jobs and save a mere $150 million, or just one-tenth of a percent of total annual expenditures.   

This seems like a lot of trouble to go through for something so relatively small.  

Maybe USDA Secretary Vilsack thinks this is enough of a sacrifice to head off further budget cuts?

In the meantime, expect cries of woe?    

Dec 29 2011

Food safety: it’s déjà vu all over again

In preparation for the holiday season, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack held a press conference  to promote the departments’ efforts on food safety.

They announced release of the administration’s progress report from its Food Safety Working Group.

They also highlighted additional places to get government information about food safety at home:

I didn’t pay much attention to these announcements until I read the slightly snarky account in Food Chemical News (December 22). 

The Obama administration patted itself on the back today with a new report that both lists the accomplishments over the past three years of its Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) and identifies the group’s top priorities for the coming year.

Released just minutes before a short media call that served as more of a pep rally, The Federal Food Safety Working Group Progress Report, a 31-page document, summarizes for stakeholders a host of activities that have taken place at government agencies over the past three years related to detecting foodborne pathogens, enhancing surveillance, responding to food safety problems, improving food safety at the retail level and educating consumers.

The list of the administration’s food safety accomplishments is long and detailed, and many are impressive.

But what the report does not say is telling.  Neither the USDA nor FDA have the resources or power to require the industries they supposedly regulate to produce safe food.

As Mark Bittman explains in his Opinionator column in the New York Times, politics defeats even the most rational and thoroughly science-based safety measures, leaving the FDA unable to do much more than politely request “voluntary guidance” of industry.

Bittman focuses on the political barriers to doing what the FDA has been asking for since 1977:  a ban on the use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes, in this case to make food animals grow faster.   The result: “Bacteria 1, FDA 0.”

Here’s the nut: The F.D.A. has no money to spare, but the corporations that control the food industry have all they need, along with the political power it buys.

That’s why we can say this without equivocation: public health, the quality of our food, and animal welfare  are all sacrificed to the profits that can be made by raising animals in factories….Animals move from farm to refrigerator case in record time; banning prophylactic drugs would slow this process down, and with it the meat industry’s rate of profit.

Lawmakers beholden to corporate money are not about to let that happen, at least not without a fight.

For more than 20 years, the Government Accountability Office has called for creation of a single food safety agency that unites the safety oversight functions of the FDA and USDA and has the authority to require food to be produced safely.

In this Congress?  Hopeless.

But Congress can be changed—and that’s a worthy thought for the new year.

 

 

Nov 19 2011

Of course pizza is a vegetable: Mark Russell commentary

From comedian Mark Russell*

  • No dessert until you finish your tomato paste.
  • The push to limit pizza in school lunch programs has been derailed in Congress by members who classify tomato paste as a vegetable. Who says this is a do-nothing Congress?
  • Their true quote: “An eighth of a cup of tomato paste has the nutritional value of a half-cup of vegetables and when mixed with water for pizza sauce, more of a vegetable is created.”
  • Right. And when you add cheese, pepperoni and sausage — voila! — you have a healthy fruit salad.

* c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.

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