by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

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.

Nov 15 2011

Ketchup is a vegetable? Again?

Food Chemical News (FCN) reports today that the USDA has sent its final rules on nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts to the Office of Management and Budget for approval.  The final content of what got submitted is not known.

These rules, you may recall from previous posts, are based on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine in a 2009 report on School Meals.

Several of the USDA’s proposals for implementing these suggestions have elicited more than the usual level of fuss.  The most controversial:

  • Limits on starchy vegetables to two servings a week.  As I noted a few days ago, the Senate passed an amendment to the USDA’s appropriations bill to block any restrictions on potatoes.  Most observers think this means that unlimited potatoes will stay in the school meals.
  • Preventing tomato paste on pizza from counting as a vegetable.  According to FCN, language in the appropriations bill “also stipulates that tomato paste used to make pizzas can be counted toward the weekly total of vegetable servings.”

Does the Senate think this can pass the laugh test?

Historical note:  Remember when the Reagan administration proposed to allow ketchup to count as a vegetable in school meals:

An additional proposed change in crediting policy would allow vegetable and fruit concentrates to be credited on a single-strength reconstituted basis rather than on the basis of the actual volume as served.

For example, one tablespoon of tomato paste could be credited as 1/4 cup single-strength tomato juice.  Previously, it was only credited as 1 tablespoon, the volume as served (Federal Register 9-4-81).

Meaning ketchup!

The press had a field day.  The  ensuing bipartisan hilarity and what Nutrition Action (November 1981) called a “maelstorm of criticism from Congress, the press, and the public alike” induced the USDA to rescind the rules one month later.

  • The Washington Post (9-26-81) quoted the budget director’s comment that USDA “not only has egg on its face, but ketchup too.”
  • Republican Senator John Heinz (whose company owns Heinz ketchup) said “Ketchup is a condiment.  This is one of the most ridiculous regulations I ever heard of, and I suppose I need not add that I know something about ketchup and relish–or did at one time.”
  • The New York Times (9-28-81) noted that “Democrats are still chortling at what they hail as ‘the Emperor’s New Condiments’—the attempt to declare ketchup a school-lunch vegetable.”

Times have changed.  Senators used to have the health of American school children in mind.  Now, they undermine efforts by USDA to improve meals for kids.

The Senate’s action has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with political posturing and caving in to lobbyists.

The Senate should reconsider its actions.  The USDA should not back down on this one.

Additions, November 17: background documents and additional links

Nov 11 2011

Oh no! USDA cutting back on research.

A couple of days ago, William Neuman wrote about an announcement by the USDA’s statistical research unit that under pressures to cut budget, it would eliminate or cut back on its ongoing research reports.

This is alarming.

As USDA explained:

The decision to eliminate or reduce these reports was not made lightly, but it was nevertheless necessary, given the funding situation. Because of the timing of the agency’s survey work during the coming year, these decisions are necessary now.

The affected reports include these, among others:

  • Annual Reports on Farm Numbers, Land in Farms and Livestock Operations – Eliminate
  • Catfish and Trout Reports – Eliminate all
  • Annual Floriculture Report – Eliminate
  • Chemical Use Reports – Reduce frequency of commodity coverage
  • Annual Bee and Honey Report – Eliminate
  • Fruit and Vegetable in-season forecast and estimates– Reduce from monthly and quarterly to annual report
  • Nursery Report – Eliminate

This decision, Neuman reports, “reflects a cold-blooded assessment of the economic usefulness”—translation: lack of political clout in the affected industry—of the 500 or so reports issued by the National Agriculture Statistics Service each year.  The reports will still be issued on the big commodities: corn, soybeans, cattle, and pigs, for example.

Why do I find this alarming?  If these reports can be eliminated, so can the ones that I personally care about and depend on for my research.

I am particularly worried about the invaluable data produced by USDA’s Economic Research Service on the composition of foods, their availability (production less exports plus imports), and per capita nutrient availability in the American diet.

I have plenty of reason to be worried.

For decades, USDA has converted information about food availability to nutrient availability in a continuous series dating back to 1909.  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 exactly in parallel with rising rates of obesity.

USDA stopped this series in 2006.

I wrote USDA to ask whether more recent data were available.  Here is the response 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.

Neuman quoted a former USDA official who argues that pressures to continue the statistical reports are an example of

how hard it was to eliminate a government program, no matter how small the constituency….These congressmen up on the Hill say, “$50,000 is not much, let’s give it to them.”   [The reports apparently cost about $50,000 to produce]

I have a different reaction.  Isn’t it a responsibility of government to produce research that nobody else has the resources to produce?   This argument reminds me of similar ones I hear that if a book hasn’t been taken out of a library in ten years, the library ought to dump it.

This is short-sighted.

Yes, $50,000 seems like a lot of money to you and me, but it is peanuts in comparison to the billions the USDA spends every year on support payments to people who aren’t even farmers.

Hence: alarming.

Nov 8 2011

Food politics semantics: the meaning of “natural”

Are you puzzled, annoyed, or irritated beyond belief by the word “natural” on food product labels?

FoodNavigator must think so.  It conducted an opinion survey on what to do about marketing foods as “natural”.

FoodNavigator asked: Do we [food companies] need a clearer definition of ‘natural’ for food marketing?

The response options:

  • Yes. The FDA should come up with a formal definition (63% checked this one)
  • Yes. The industry should develop voluntary guidance (20%)
  • No. The FDA’s 1993 guidance is sufficient (~1%)
  • No. The term is meaningless and manufacturers should stop using it (16%)

Hello FDA.  How about it?

The FDA has never defined “natural” for labeling purposes.  But it does have an answer to the question “what is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of a food,” one that requires self-cancelling nots (my emphasis):

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.

By this non-definition, High Fructose Corn Syrup is “natural” even though to make it, corn refiners must extract the starch from corn, treat the starch with an enzyme to break it into glucose, and treat the glucose with another enzyme to turn about half of it into fructose.

This is “natural,” according to the FDA, because the enzymes are fixed to a column, do not actually mix with the starch, and HFCS does not contain added colors or flavors.

In contrast, the USDA is way ahead and has defined what “natural” means for meat and poultry products.  “Naturally raised” means  no growth promoters, antibiotics, animal by-products, or fish by-products.

The USDA says meat and poultry products can be labeled “natural” if they are only minimally processed and don’t have any artificial flavorings, colorings, preservatives, or other additives.

As I’ve discussed previously, Horizon Organics now has “natural” milk that does not meet standards for organic certification.  It must hope that consumers can’t tell the difference.

To do something about this confusing situation, FoodNavigator reports that  the Natural Products Association (NPA) is developing standards for use of the word “natural” in food marketing.  This will be similar to the NPA’s Natural Seal Certification for personal home-care products.  NPA is doing this to “give consumers confidence that foods featuring the seal adhere to clear set of standards.”

NPA has not yet worked out the details but says some ingredients are unlikely to qualify:  those extracted with organic solvents, modified starch, high fructose corn syrup, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Oops.  What about GMOs?  NPA hasn’t decided yet, mainly because it is so hard to find soy products that are not GMO.

This situation is a mess and runs the risk of undercutting organic standards.  And we hardly need another certification system.

It’s time for the FDA to step in and give the food industry—and the public—some guidance about what counts as “natural” and what does not.

Nov 3 2011

One potato, two potato: Undue industry influence in action

Yesterday’s New York Times’ report (in which I am quoted) reminds me that it’s time I commented on the astonishing dispute about potatoes in school meals.

On October 20, 2009, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a report on nutrition standards for school meals.  It recommended that school meals be aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  To do so, the IOM said USDA should

Adopt standards for menu planning that increase the amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; increase the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat and sodium provided; and set a minimum and maximum level of calories.

To do that, the IOM said USDA should establish (1) weekly requirements for dark green and orange vegetables and legumes, and (2) limits—of one cup a week—on starchy vegetables such as white potatoes, corn, lima beans, and peas.

The IOM’s quite sensible rationale?  To encourage students to try new vegetables in place of the familiar starchy ones.

In January this year, the USDA proposed new nutrition standards for school meals based on the IOM report.  These included the IOM’s recommendation of no more than one cup a week of starchy vegetables.

Please note: the proposal does not call for elimination of starchy vegetables.  It calls for a limit of two servings a week (one cup is two servings).

What’s wrong with that?  Plenty, according to the potato industry, which stands to sell fewer products to the government and could not care less about spreading the wealth around to other vegetable producersPotato lobbyists went to work (apparently the sweet corn, lima bean, and pea industries do not have the money to pay for high-priced lobbying talent).  The Potato Council held a press conference hosted by Senators from potato-growing states.

The result?  The U.S. Senate added an amendment to the 2012 agriculture spending bill blocking the USDA from “setting any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs.”

Mind you, I like potatoes.  They are thoroughly delicious when cooked well, have supported entire civilizations, and certainly can contribute to healthful diets.  Two servings a week seems quite reasonable.  So does encouraging consumption of other vegetables as well.

But what’s at stake here goes way beyond the choice of one vegetable over another.

At issue is Senate micromanagement of nutrition standards under pressure from food industry lobbyists. 

  • Lobbyists have no business trying to influence nutrition standards.
  • The Senate has no business micromanaging nutrition standards.

This is one more—and a particularly egregious—example of undue industry influence on federal dietary guidance policy.  It is just plain wrong.

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