by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Oct 29 2012

Why isn’t USDA keeping up its series on calories in the food supply?

In November 2011, I wrote about my frustration over the USDA’s discontinuation of a data set it had published continuously since 1909: Nutrients in the Food Supply.   For unfathomable (to me) reasons, USDA stopped the data set in 2006.

For decades—since 1909—USDA has converted information about food availability (the amount of food produced in the U.S., less exports, plus imports) to per capita nutrient availability in a continuous series (it also publishes data on calorie intakes from certain foods). 

This is the data set I use to explain how calories in the food supply have increased to today’s 3,900 per person per day from 3200 in 1980—an increase of 700 calories per day in parallel with rising rates of obesity.

USDA stopped this series in 2006. It now only publishes calorie supply figures that have been adjusted for waste. 

When I wrote USDA to ask whether more recent data were available, here’s what I got back (in its entirety):

Because of other project priorities the Food Supply project has been curtailed.  There are programming issues to which we haven’t been able to devote available resources.

In July this year, I wrote letters to everyone I could think of at USDA who might shed some light on this and, hopefully, restore the data set.  Although I hated to bother her, I even wrote to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

Her reply: 

 As I will discuss in a later post this week about USDA’s data on sugar availability, the agency seems to be changing the way it evaluates food supply data. 

This is bizarre.  USDA must have figures on total calories available in the food supply.  Otherwise, how could it produce figures adjusted for waste? 

I’ve been concerned that I’m the only one who cares about this, but a similar issue has emerged about USDA data on sugar availability.  I’ll write about that once hurricane Sandy blows over.

Oct 7 2012

School lunch rules caught up in politics

Here’s my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle.  For links to appropriate resources and what to do to defend the new standards, scroll down to Friday’s post.

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Q: Can you please explain to me why the USDA is restricting the number of calories in school lunches. It’s bad enough that school food is so awful that the kids won’t eat it. Now are they supposed to go hungry as well?

A: I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at a question like this or at the uproar over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new nutrition standards. As Comedy Central‘s Jon Stewart pointed out in his not-to-be-missed commentary on Sept. 27, if kids aren’t eating the food because they hate it, the calorie limits hardly matter. And if kids are hungry, the remedy is simple: Eat the food.

The new lunch standards hardly call for starvation rations. Kindergarteners through fifth-graders get up to 650 calories. The maximum is 700 for kids in grades six through eight, and 850 for high schoolers. All kids can have extra servings of vegetables. This ought to be plenty to get most of today’s kids – sedentary, underactive and prone to obesity as they are – through any school day.

Let’s face it. This uproar has nothing to do with school food. It has everything to do with election-year politics.

Some Republicans view school meals as convenient generator of emotional opposition to the incumbent president.

You don’t believe me? Take a look at the “No Hungry Kids Act” introduced by Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., both members of the House Agriculture Committee.

Their act would repeal the USDA’s hard-won nutrition standards and prohibit upper limits on calories. As King explains, this is to undo “the misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama’s Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Let me briefly review where these standards came from. In 2004, Congress required school districts to develop wellness policies, but left the details up to the districts. In part to resolve the resulting inconsistencies, Congress asked the USDA to develop new nutrition standards. In turn, the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to study the situation and make recommendations.

The institute’s 2009 report called for aligning school meals with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but reducing saturated fat, sodium and calories. It suggested encouraging students to try new vegetables by establishing weekly requirements for various kinds, but to limit starchy vegetables like potatoes to one cup a week.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which required the USDA to set nutrition standards for all food sold and served in schools, not only at breakfast and lunch, but also at any time during the school day. The USDA used the institute’s report as a basis for its proposals.

These, you may recall, got the USDA in trouble with lobbyists for businesses that supply French fries and pizza to schools. The Senate intervened and amended the agriculture spending bill to say that none of its funds could be used to “set any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs” or “require crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume.” The results include no weekly limits on French fries; a dab of tomato paste on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving.

With these allowances in place, the USDA released the new standards in January. Most observers viewed them as an important accomplishment of the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

What about student outrage that the new meals leave them hungry? As a strong supporter of student activism, I applaud students getting involved in protests. Their actions have already persuaded Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to tell kids to eat healthy snacks if they are hungry.

Perhaps student activism around calories will be a first step toward advocacy for more substantive goals for their education and wellness: more and better paid teachers, better educational materials, more sensible testing, better quality food in schools, and instruction in how to grow, harvest and cook food.

But where, I wonder, are the adults in all of this? Childhood obesity is not trivial in its consequences for many kids, and school food ought to be a model for how healthy, delicious food is normal fare.

Schools in which adults – principals, teachers, school food personnel and parents – care about what kids eat and act accordingly are setting examples that what kids eat matters just as much as what kids learn.

It’s shameful that elected officials would attempt to undermine the health of America’s children for partisan political purposes.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com

Aug 16 2012

Surprise! Kids who don’t eat junk foods in school don’t gain as much weight

I love the new study reported in Pediatrics.    It confirms just what I have long expected.  If you don’t expose kids to junk foods and sodas, they won’t eat as much, and they won’t put on as much fat.

The study found that kids who go to schools where lots of junk foods are sold are heavier than those who go to schools in states with strict standards about the nutritional quality of snacks and drinks.

The investigators compared the body mass indices (BMIs) of kids in schools in 40 states with varying nutrition standards for what is allowed in “competitive” foods–those sold outside the lunch programs.

Kids from schools with stricter standards had lower BMIs.

The authors explain their result:

Experts argue that education will not suffice without changing the contemporary ‘obesogenic’ environment in which adolescents have countless sources of high-caloric-density, low-nutrient-density foods and beverages. Schools have become a source of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), candy, and other foods and beverages of minimal nutritional value.

Food Chemical News (August 14) reminds me that when Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act of 2010, it authorized the USDA to develop nutrition standards both for meals—but also competitive foods.

USDA issued final rules for school meals in January (remember the fuss over pizza is a vegetable?).

Its rules for competitive foods were sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget in mid-March, but are still stuck there, most likely because the White House does not want to introduce regulations that might adversely affect food company sales during an election year, especially one in which the role of government is so prominent an issue.

This is an election year, in case you haven’t noticed, and looks like it will be an especially unattractive one, unfortunately.

Jul 11 2012

The Ad Council on food safety: buy a meat thermometer

Yesterday’s international edition of USA Today (I picked it up at Heathrow) carried a full-page ad from the Ad Council, which donates its services to worthy causes every now and then.  This one, entirely in grey and white, displays logos from the Ad Council, USDA, and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the parent agency of FDA.

In inch-high letters, all caps: DO YOU WANT THAT SAFE OR MEDIUM-SAFE?

In quarter-inch letters, also caps: USE A FOOD THERMOMETER TO MAKE SURE YOU COOK RAW MEAT AND POULTRY TO A BACTERIA-KILLING TEMPERATURE.

The ad also displays the Cook, Clean, Chill, Separate logo and the admonition to “Keep your family safer from food poisoning.  Check your steps at foodsafety.gov.”

Mind you, I’m highly in favor of following food safety procedures at home.

But most food safety problems are not due to the failure of home cooks to use thermometers.

They are caused by failures to observe food safety procedures during commercial production and preparation.

Shouldn’t meat and poultry be safe when you buy it in the supermarket?

This ad implies that the principal responsibility for food safety lies with the end user—you.

If you get sick it’s your fault because you didn’t use a meat thermometer?

USDA and DHHS:  how about getting the Ad Council to encourage meat and poultry producers to make sure their products are safe in the first place.

May 10 2012

GAO says U.S. food safety system needs work, resources

The Government Accountability Office is complaining again about the inadequacies of the American food safety system, and with good reason.

Its 2012 Annual Report, Opportunities to Reduce Duplication, Overlap and Fragmentation, Achieve Savings, and Enhance Revenue, says that the food safety system is:

fragmented and results in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.

In 2007, GAO added food safety to its list of high-risk areas that warrant attention by Congress and the executive branch.

More recently GAO found that this fragmentation extends to the responsibilities across multiple agencies to defend food and agricultural systems against terrorist attacks and natural disasters…Many of these activities are everyday functions or part of the broader food and agriculture defense initiative and would be difficult for the agencies to separately quantify.

This report repeats what the GAO has been saying since the early 1990s:

there is no centralized coordination to oversee the federal government’s overall progress in implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense policy.

Because the responsibilities outlined in this policy (HSPD-9) are fragmented and cut across at least nine different agencies, centralized oversight is important to ensure that efforts are coordinated to overcome this fragmentation, efficiently use scarce funds, and promote the overall effectiveness of the federal government.

Reminder: the present food safety system is mainly divided between two agencies: USDA (meat and poultry) and FDA (everything else).

Centralized oversight of food safety?  What a concept.

Apr 11 2012

The legacy of LFTB (a.k.a “pink slime”): power politics in action

The noise about lean finely textured beef (LFTB), commonly known as “pink slime,” is bringing attention to some of the more unsavory aspects of the U.S. political system—public relations spin, the revolving door, and other aspects of power politics.  Here are some recent examples:

According to the Sioux City Journal:

Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday called for a congressional investigation into the source of what he called a “smear campaign” meant to discredit the Lean, Finely Textured Beef made by a Siouxland company.

“Clearly, this is a safe product, it is a lean product, it helps reduce obesity, and there is a spurious attack being levied against it by some groups who are against it…And you can suspect who they might be — people who don’t like meat.”

Helena Bottemiller of Food Safety News reports that Branstad’s colleague, Steve King (Rep-Iowa) explains how the hearings will work:

Witnesses would be under oath and they’re of course obligated by law to tell the truth, those who have been the ones who have perpetrated this smear campaign against one of the stellar companies in the country…I think they’ll have an obligation then to explain themselves why they could not base their allegations on facts and what they’ve done to damage an industry.

Perhaps King will call on Representative Chellie Pingree (Dem-Maine) who has submitted a bill calling for labeling of LFTB. The the Sioux City Journa quotes Branstad’s comments about her:

Pingree is guilty of spreading “bogus misinformation” about lean, finely textured beef along with celebrity chefs and “media elites.”

Pingree should have no trouble explaining why she wrote the bill:

Consumers have made it pretty clear they don’t want this stuff in their food…If a product contains connective tissue and beef scraps and has been treated with ammonia, you ought to be able to know that when you pick it up in the grocery store.

Calling people up before congressional committees is harassment, given how rude congressional committee members typically are to witnesses.

On a lesser scale, Bettina Siegel, the school lunch advocate who initially wrote the USDA to stop using LFTB, has been so harassed by nasty comments on her blog that she has had to set up a filtering system (I’m considering doing the same).

The Concord Monitor reports that USDA undersecretary Joann Smith, the official who approved LFTB for use in school hamburger, was an appointee of President George H.W. Bush and formerly a beef industry advocate.

When Smith left government, she was appointed to the board of directors of Beef Products Inc., the maker of LFTB, which paid her $1.2 million over 17 years [actually, she was on the board of IBP, a supplier of BPI].

Republic Report says that Beef Products Inc. retains a team of lobbyists from the firm Olsson, Frank & Weeda. One lobbyist employed by the firm is Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former congresswoman from South Dakota and leader of the “Blue Dog Caucus” of pro-corporate Democrats.

It’s enough to make anyone start buying organics.

Addition, April 16: Food Safety News has published an excellent timeline on the history of the “pink slime” crisis.

Addition, May 10: Legal scholars weigh in on whether pink slime should be labeled.  No, they say, requiring labeling would violate the First Amendment.

Apr 6 2012

Tired of hearing about beef processing? Try chicken.

Apparently as a result of a need to cut costs, the USDA is changing the way its inspectors oversee chicken processing.

As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post puts it, this is

a proposal to allow chicken slaughterhouses to inspect themselves — eliminating those pesky federal monitors who have the annoying habit of taking diseased birds out of the food supply.

Even if the Obama administration were inclined to bring down capitalism with an orgy of overregulation, there isn’t enough money in the budget to enforce the rules on the books.  That’s what the chicken fight is about: Spending cuts…are a form of de facto deregulation (my emphasis).

The New York Times account of this policy change notes that inspectors:

had observed numerous instances of poultry plant employees allowing birds contaminated with fecal matter or other substances to pass. And even when the employees try to remove diseased birds, they face reprimands….

The Agriculture Department proposal allows poultry plants to speed up their assembly lines to about 200 birds per minute from 140, hampering any effort to examine birds for defects.

But that’s not all.  The Center for Livable Future at Johns Hopkins  reports that meal made from chicken by-products (in this case, feathers) contains arsenic and antibiotics such as fluoroquinolones that have been banned by the FDA for use in poultry.

A study published in Environmental Science & Technology found fluoroquinolone antibiotics in 8 of 12 samples of feather meal collected from six states and China.

A second study found arsenic in every sample of feather meal tested.

These findings indicate that poultry producers are using these drugs, even though they are not allowed to.

The U.S. poultry industry raises about 9 billion chickens and 80 million turkeys for human consumption each year.  Meal made from their feathers is commonly added to feed for chickens, pigs, cattle, and fish.  This could be a reentry route into the human food supply for such drugs.

Nicholas Kristof explains in the New York Times that these studies also found feather meal to contain

an antihistamine that is the active ingredient of Benadryl…[and] acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol.  And feather-meal samples from China contained an antidepressant that is the active ingredient in Prozac.

Poultry-growing literature has recommended Benadryl to reduce anxiety among chickens, apparently because stressed chickens have tougher meat and grow more slowly. Tylenol and Prozac presumably serve the same purpose.

Such findings indicate some of the worst problems with industrial poultry production.  They result from pressures to produce chickens cheaply.  The faster chickens can be pushed to grow, the less feed they consume and the cheaper they are to raise.

I don’t know what the best system for inspection might be, but I’m quite sure that leaving food safety oversight to the discretion of the packers is not a good idea.  Neither is speeding up the line.  And neither is feeding chickens drugs that can affect human health.

Here is even more evidence for the need for an overhaul of our food safety system.

A single food safety system anyone?

Apr 2 2012

“Pink Slime:” Some questions about what’s really at stake

The “pink slime” furor gets curiouser and curiouser.  It’s hard to keep up (see yesterday’s post) but here’s my summary of where we are with this for the moment.

What is the furor about?

The best place to start is with Michael Moss’s December 30, 2009 investigative report in the New York Time on the ammonia process used by Beef Products, Inc to make LFTB (lean finely textured beef).

The article contains the first mention of the term “pink slime” as a pejorative for this product.

Moss provides confidential documents detailing the effects of the ammonia processing of LFTB, and revelations of the discrepancy between USDA’s standards for beef safety and those of its school lunch program.

How much LFTB is used in ground beef?

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (March 28), Cargill Inc. estimates about 850 million pounds per year.

What is the “pink slime” crisis going to cost the beef industry?

According to the business press, meat packers are likely to lose a record $101 per head as a result of the pink slime crisis. Multiply that by the 34 million head of cattle slaughtered each year for food. And then there’s the economy:

Margins for meat packers have been declining for several months as consumers began to push back against high prices at retail in order to cope with rising gas prices. In response, processors have reduced slaughter rates in an effort to maintain beef prices [see Addition at the bottom of this post].

Who supports BPI and why?

BPI is a strong supporter of the Republican party and its candidates. But it is also generous elsewhere.

See, for example, BPI’s full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2012. It quotes from “In defense of food safety leadership,” by Nancy Donley. Donley is a founder of STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority), an organization of mothers whose children died from eating contaminated hamburger.

After what I personally experienced watching my son suffer and die, I am very skeptical and cynical about for-profit meat companies and their professed commitment to food safety. Not all companies ‘walk their talk.’ BPI does.

BPI is well known to be the donor of the anonymous gifts to STOP of $250,000 last year and $500,000 the year before (see the tax forms posted on STOP’s website).

What is the USDA’s position on LFTB and BPI?

Obamafoodorama (March 29) reports on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s press conference in Iowa on March 28. He joined Governor Terry Bransted, a Republican, in defense of LFTB.

Here’s what Obamafoodorama says Secretary Vilsack said:

  • The product is crucial to fighting childhood obesity.
  • This product is safe…There’s no question about it. We’ve said that hundreds of times and we’ll continue to say it.
  • It is a “leaner product” than regular ground beef, and crucial for the battle to end childhood obesity. That’s one of the reasons we’ve made it a staple of the school lunch program.
  • We are…concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat.
  • “Historically” the product is less expensive than other products…For that reason it’s been part of the school lunch program.”
  • [It] doesn’t have to be labeled when it is included in ground beef because “it is safe.”

Obamafoodorama’s report concludes:

Somewhat disappointingly, the Secretary’s efforts to defend lean, finely textured beef did not include him digging into a plate of the product and eating it on camera.

Why is a Democratic USDA Secretary going to bat for a private company well known for supporting Mitt Romney in particular and Republicans in general?

I can only speculate that it has something to do with Tom Vilsack’s wife, Christie, who is running for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. In Iowa, BPI has bipartisan support, and Christie Vilsack says:

LFTB is safe…it is the women in our community who can put BPI back on it’s feet.

I think one of the biggest strengths in this audience today are all the women here, because we tend to be the ones who go to the grocery stores, and we’re the ones who choose the products that we bring home and feed to our families.

No concerns at all. It’s a safe product, and these are wonderful people who work there.

Who stands to benefit from the “pink slime” furor?

Wendy’s for one. I saw the company’s full-page ad in USA Today and the New York Times (March 30):

Where’s the pure beef? At Wendy’s that’s where! We use nothing but pure, 100% fresh, never-frozen North American beef.

We’ve never used fillers, additives, preservatives, flavor boosters, or ammonia treatments.

We’ve never used ‘pink slime,’ and we never will.

If LFTB is safe, isn’t it acceptable?

I’ve heard this argument before. It’s the same one used for GMOs. As I discuss in my book Safe Food, even if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable—especially if they are not labeled and do not give consumers a choice.

What should BPI and other companies do when caught in a crisis like this?

Bill Marler has an explanation and some suggestions. This CEO:

  • Did not trust consumers with the truth.
  • Did not openly explain how the food product was made and what additives and ingredients it contained.
  • Ignored dissenting expert opinions in memos and emails.

To rebuild public trust and sales, Marler advises, do not:

  • Shoot the messenger.
  • Threaten legal action.
  • Play the political card.
  • Make political supporters eat your product or say how safe it is in front of the national media.

What should companies do? Simple:

  • Just tell the truth.
  • Tell consumers what they already know.
  • Tell the public how the product is made and what is in it.
  • Tell consumers the real benefits of the product.
  • Post test results online.
  • Invite the public, not politicians, to your plant for a tour and a taste test.
  • Bottom line: If you have nothing to hide, hide nothing.

My last questions for now:

  • Why are we allowing the school lunch program to be the dumping ground for cheap food?
  • Why don’t we have a food safety system in place that requires beef to be safe in the first place—so it doesn’t have to be treated with ammonia?

We should all be asking these questions and demand that our elected leaders ask them too—and insist on answers.

Addition: AFA, a competitor of BPI, filed for bankruptcy, because of reduced demand for all beef products.

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