by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Nov 26 2013

The hooks and lines of the farm bill: Catfish inspection

As I am endlessly complaining, the farm bill is so detailed, complicated, and opaque that no rational person can possibly understand it, let alone a member of Congress.

To wit: catfish inspection.

As Gail Collins noted in her New York Times column a week or so ago, some members of the House want the USDA to inspect catfish, not the FDA (which ordinarily is responsible for fish inspection).  The current FDA inspection office costs $700,000 per year.  The USDA office, established by the 2008 farm bill, costs about $14 million a year, even though the USDA has not gotten around to issuing rules or actually inspecting catfish.

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

The House version of the farm bill calls for repeal of USDA catfish inspection as a cost-cutting measure (the Senate farm bill does not mention catfish inspection, which means it leaves the USDA office in place).

Thad Cochran, Republican Senator from Mississippi, wants the House to delete the repeal provision, keep USDA in charge, and, thereby, protect the Mississippi catfish industry from foreign catfish imports.

Politico Pro quotes a member of Cochran’s staff:

Sen. Cochran has made it clear that his priority is to complete the new farm bill and get it signed into law. It sounds like there are some who have a deep under-appreciation of the diversity of Mississippi’s agriculture industry and the importance of this bill to the state’s farmers, foresters, hunters, and those in need of nutrition assistance.

The New York Times also points out that although some watchdog consumer groups support tougher safety standards for catfish (because of lower foreign standards for antibiotics and other chemicals), a Government Accountability Office report in May 2012 called imported catfish a low-risk food and said an inspection program at the Agriculture Department would “not enhance the safety of catfish.”

Now, says the Times in another article, a coalition of budget watchdog groups and a seafood trade group are lobbying to repeal the USDA’s inspection program.

All of this is in the House version of the farm bill, but unless you are a lobbyist for the catfish industry, you would never know it from the bill itself.  Here’s the relevant section from the  House bill.

catfish

As Gail Collins puts it,

See, this is what I like about the farm bill. The agriculture parts harken back to the golden era when Republicans and Democrats could work together to promote stupid ideas that benefited the special interests in their districts. And then go out and get inebriated in bipartisan drinking sessions. Now everybody is in the gym and then shutting down the government.

Oct 10 2013

Annals of Government shutdown: What’s up with Salmonella Heidelberg?

I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s happening with the latest horrible food poisoning outbreak: this time of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg.  Food Safety News and attorney Bill Marler have been following the events closely.

They reported that USDA—not CDC (which was on furlough)—issued the Public Health Alert.

But the outbreak is so serious that CDC recalled staff from furlough.  Now the CDC is back on the job.  It reports that as of October 7:

  • 278 persons in 17 states are infected with 7 outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg.
  • 42% of them are hospitalized (this is unusually high), and no deaths have been reported.
  • 77% of cases are in California.
  • The source is Foster Farms chicken

What does Foster Farms have to say about this?

First, it blames the government:

Consumers should know that as recently as Oct. 8, USDA-FSIS publicly assured the safety of our chicken:  “Foster Farms chicken is safe to eat but, as with all raw chicken, consumers must use proper preparation, handling and cooking practices.” There is no recall in effect and FSIS continues to inspect our poultry on a daily basis, certifying it as Grade A wholesome.”

Then, Foster Farms argues that toxic, antibiotic-resistant salmonella are normal on poultry:

Raw poultry is not a ready-to-eat product. All raw poultry is subject to naturally occurring bacteria… According to the CDC, “It is not unusual for raw poultry from any producer to have Salmonella bacteria. CDC and USDA-FSIS recommend consumers follow food safety tips to prevent Salmonella infection from raw poultry produced by Foster Farms or any other brand.”

Bill Marler asks how come Foster Farms is not issuing a recall?

Good question.  Take a look at CDC’s most recent Epi curve.  Usually, these show a standard distribution pattern over time with cases rising to a peak and then declining.  This one shows no sign of decline.

Persons infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Typhimurium, by date of illness onset as of October 7, 2013

OK, so what, as Bill Marler asks, will it take to close Foster Farms or force it to recall its tainted products?

For starters, how about getting the government opened again.  And insisting that FDA issue the final food safety rules and start enforcing them.

Update, October 11:  On October 7, USDA sent three letters of intended enforcement to Foster Farms:  Letter #1Letter #2, and Letter #3.  Now, according to a report from Bill Marler, the USDA has decided not to close Foster Farms or force a recall.

And here are two useful articles from Politico:

Jul 16 2013

Vilsack on the farm bill: “There ought to be outrage.”

Our dysfunctional Congress continues to dither over the farm bill.  Will the House send its SNAP-less, corporate-welfare bill to the Senate?  Will it do terrible things to SNAP first?  Or will it do nothing?

While waiting to find out, I want to mention a speech given by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to the National Rural Assembly.   From the beginning, Secretary Vilsack said that his agenda for USDA was to revitalize rural America—a laudable goal.

Here he is last month calling for outrage over congressional failure to pass legislation in support of this goal.

What do we see from rural advocates? Utter disappointment. Are you kidding me? There ought to be outrage… “It is going to be important for groups like this to express more than extreme disappointment,.. Demand that they pass legislation that is supportive and not destructive. Demand appreciation for those in rural America.

How about that.  A call to action from the USDA!

Jul 1 2013

USDA issues rules for competitive school foods. Yes!

At long last the USDA released Interim Final Rules for competitive foods—the snacks and sodas sold from vending machines and carts outside of federally supported school lunches.

They were worth the wait.

The new  standards are tough and will change the food landscape in schools much for the better.  They are summarized in a handy flier.   The new rules require:

  • Snacks to be rich in whole grains, have real food as a first ingredient, and provide nutritional value.
  • Drinking water to be available to all students at no cost.
  • Other drinks to contain no more than 40 calories per 8 fl oz, or 60 calories per 12 fl oz.  This excludes all regular sodas, even Gatorade. 

USDA summarizes the changes in its Smart Snacks in School Infographic:

Competitive foods have long been a bone of contention.  They compete for kids’ food money with the school meals.  Although USDA regulates where and when they can be sold, schools routinely violate such rules.  I’ve seen for myself  how many schools allow vending machines to be open during lunch periods.

The USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals early in 2012, but it’s taken this long to issue the ones for competitive foods, no doubt because of the expected uproar from food and drink producers whose products will now be excluded.

To back up the rules, the USDA has produced a vast array of materials and documents.

One web page is devoted to a toolkit of materials for “the healthier school day.”

A separate web page links to all of the legislative and other documents, videos, issue briefs, Q and A’s, statement from First Lady Michele Obama, and other items of technical assistance to the new “smart snacks in schools” program and rules.

Also see:

But note: the rule is “interim” because the 120-day comment period is now open.  USDA can still make plenty of changes.  Schools will have a year to implement the final standards.

Watch the lobbying begin.

You think there won’t be opposition?  Think again.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just released a report recommending that USDA ease off on restricting the amount of meat and grains allowed in the school meal standards that went into effect this year.   Apparently, USDA agrees.  GAO reports are usually requested by members of Congress and this one is no exception.  Guess which party these particular requesters belong to, and who funds their election campaigns.

USDA deserves much applause and support for its courage in issuing rules for competitive foods that might actually help kids stay healthier.

Feb 5 2013

USDA proposes rules for “competitive” snack foods

At long last, the USDA announced that it has released its proposed rules governing the nutritional content of snacks, sodas, and meals sold in competition with federally subsidized school breakfasts and lunches.

As soon as the rules get published in the Federal Register, which is supposed to happen this week, people will have 60 days to file comments.  Although USDA has not said when it will issue final rules, it did say that it will give schools another year to implement them.

The rules apply to foods sold outside the school meals in vending machines and a la carte lines.  They will not apply to fundraisers.  They set minimum standards.  States and localities that want stricter standards may do so.  A recent CDC analysis says states are already doing this (see Competitive Foods and Beverages in U.S. Schools: A State Policy Analysis).

Under the proposed rules, schools must provide:

  • Potable water at no charge [this alone is cause for celebration].
  • Real foods that are either something recognizable as a food or something that naturally contains 10% of the Daily Value in calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber.
  • Snacks with less than 200 mg sodium per serving.
  • Desserts with less than 35% of calories from sugars or less than 35% of weight as sugars.
  • Beverages with no more than 40 or 50 calories per 8-ounce serving.

There are plenty of exceptions.   I can only guess that the exemption for sweetened yogurt—30 grams of sugars in 8 ounces—has something to do with dairy lobbying.

My immediate reaction: these rules are a big improvement and deserve much support.

Applause to USDA for this one!

Dec 12 2012

We eat what we buy. Both need improvement, says USDA.

USDA’s Economic Research Service has just issued a report, Assessing the Healthfulness of Consumers’ Grocery Purchases.

The bottom line?  Americans buy fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended but far more refined grains, sugars, and meat.

Here’s the summary diagram:

These results should not come as a surprise.  According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, the leading sources of calories in U.S. diets are:

  1. Grain-based desserts
  2. Breads
  3. Chicken and chicken dishes
  4. Sodas and other sugary beverages
  5. Pizza
  6. Alcoholic beverages
  7. Pasta and pasta dishes
  8. Tortillas, burritos, tacos
  9. Beef and beef dishes
  10. Dairy desserts
We eat what we buy (or are given).
That’s why congressional pressure to increase grains and meat in school lunches (see yesterday’s post) is questionable from a public health standpoint.
Dec 11 2012

USDA to allow flexibility in school meal standards: food politics in action

When it comes to feeding kids, it is not possible to overestimate the self-interest of food producers—and their friends in Congress.

Forget about childhood obesity and other child health problems.  If you want to understand why school nutrition standards are so controversial, you must pay close attention to their effects on the financial health of the companies selling food to school meal programs.

Corporate health trumps kids’ health every time.

That is the lesson to be drawn from USDA’s December 7 announcement that it will allow schools some flexibility in implementing school nutrition standards for meat and grains.

As long as the schools meet minimum requirements for meat and grain servings, they no longer have to restrict the maximum size of servings.

This may be a trivial change; schools will still have to serve mostly whole grains and adhere to calorie standards.

But was this decision political?  Of course it was.

Despite two Institute of Medicine reports recommending improvements in the quality of school meals, Congress has chosen to micromanage USDA’s regulations.  Recall: tomato sauce on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving.

In October, three members of Congress asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether the new school nutrition standards resulted in higher costs and more food waste.  In November, Senator John Hoeven (Rep-ND) and 10 other senators, all from meat- and grain-producing states, that they were hearing complaints from constituents about kids going hungry in school.

In response, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack reassured Senator Hoeven that USDA was listening to the complaints and was taking steps to address them: “you should be pleased to know that we have recently moved to allow for additional flexibility in meeting some of the new standards.”

On December 8, Senator Hoeven issued a news release:

The rule had appeared to pose problems…especially for students in low income families, students in athletics programs or students in school districts with limited operating budgets. Moreover…it may be difficult for all students to get adequate protein to feel full throughout the school day. Protein is an important nutrient for growing children.

“I’m grateful to Secretary Vilsack for recognizing that the rules need to allow for individual differences among children and the prerogatives of local school districts, and resources available to them,” Hoeven said. “While we welcome this news from USDA, we believe the new flexibility should be permanent, rather than for just the 2012-2013 school year, and we will continue to press that case.”

Protein?  Since when is protein an issue in American diets?  (Most Americans, even kids, get twice the protein required).

What’s at stake here are sales of meat and grains to school lunch programs.

What’s also at stake is what comes next.

USDA has yet to issue regulations for nutrition standards for vending machines and competitive snacks and sodas sold in schools outside the lunch programs.

You can bet that Congress—which seems to have nothing better to do—will be taking a close interest in those rules as well.

If what’s happening with school meals proves nothing else it is that Congress cares a lot more about the health of the industries that support election campaigns than it does about the health of children.

Sad.

 

Oct 30 2012

Is USDA changing its sugar consumption estimates? Why?

If I weren’t so concerned about USDA’s dropping its data on calories in the food supply (see previous post), I might not have become so alarmed about the New York Times report on the sudden drop in estimates of sugar consumption.

USDA provides data on amounts reported as consumed, from 1970 to 2011.

These have declined, not necessarily because people are eating less but because USDA changed its methods.

According to the Times account:

In e-mails the center obtained through a Freedom of Information request, officials at sugar industry trade groups discussed the benefits of the lower estimate and how they might persuade the U.S.D.A. to make a change that would reduce it even more.

“We perceive it to be in our interest to see as low a per-capita sweetener consumption estimate as possible,” Jack Roney, director of economics and policy analysis at the American Sugar Alliance, wrote in an e-mail on March 30, 2011.

These figures are for reported intake—always an underestimate.

Reported intake is much lower than amounts of sugars available for consumption—amounts produced, less exports, plus imports—always an overestimate (the truth lies somewhere in between).

Food availability figures also indicate declines, but suggest that Americans have access to about 65 pounds a year each of table sugar and corn syrup for more than 130 pounds per year total.

None of these figures is precise.  But if the methods for calculation are the same every year, trends should be discernible.

Adjusting for waste introduces new sources of error and makes trends impossible to determine.

The USDA used to re-correct the entire food availability series when making changes in methods.  Why aren’t its data collectors doing that now?

We neeed USDA to be keeping up with food availability data.  What to do?

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