Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Jun 27 2011

Perdue’s chickens: “USDA Process-Verified”?

When New York Times reporter Stuart Elliott called to ask about the USDA’s process verification for Perdue chickens, I had to confess that I had never heard of it.

 

I had no idea that USDA sponsored a program to certify poultry producers’ claims like Perdue’s:

  • All Vegetarian Diet
  • No Animal By-Products
  • Humanely Raised 1/
  • Raised Cage Free
  • Tenderness Guaranteed 2/(I discuss the footnotes below)

The USDA does indeed have a process verification program.

This  is not, as you might expect, an inspection program to make sure that food producers are doing what they claim.  No, USDA’s Process Verification is a marketing program that allows producers to make claims and create certification logos.

As I discussed in the egg chapters in What to Eat, process verification is very much in the eye of the beholder.  Most egg—and broiler—process verification programs certify that the chickens are fed and sheltered.  How, is quite another matter.

Perdue’s claims are marketing hype because broilers are pretty much always fed grain, are not routinely fed animal by-products, and  are not raised in cages.  The claims say nothing about antibiotics so you have to assume these chickens are treated with antibiotics to promote growth and prevent infection under crowded conditions.* see correction below

And now the footnotes:

*1/ Humanely Raised Program claim is in accordance with Perdue’s Best Practices, which include:

  • Education, training, and planning
  • Hatchery Operations
  • Proper Nutrition and Feeding
  • Appropriate Comfort and Shelter
  • Health Care
  • Normal Patterns of Behavior
  • On-Farm Best Practices
  • Catching and Transportation
  • Processing

*Based on the principles outlined in Official Listing of Approved USDA Process Verified Programs Company Claims Verified Program Scope Verification Information in the National Chicken Council’s Animal Welfare Guidelines to ensure the proper care, management, and handling of broiler chickens.

2/ Tenderness is Guaranteed through the implementation and verification of Perdue’s “Tenderness Best Practices”.

The guidelines require careful reading.  “Humanely raised” by Perdue’s criteria might not be what you mean by the term.

This campaign is not about safety, health, or humane treatment.  It is about marketing.

As I explained to Stuart Elliott, it’s hard not to be sarcastic about this sort of thing.  And to wonder why the USDA needs to do this.

*Correction July 5, 2011:  An official of Perdue points out that many chicken producers feed animal by-products to the birds but his company decided not to do that some time ago because it could not verify what went into the by-products.  He also points out that the company cannot claim that the birds are raised without antibiotics because they have to use a particular kind of antibiotic—not one used in humans—to deal with coccidiosis.   Perdue, he explains, is a family-owned company trying hard to do this right (family-owned companies are not subject to Wall Street pressures to grow profits every 90 days).  I haven’t visited a Perdue farm so I have no first-hand experience, but I’m inclined to take what he told me at face value.

 

Jun 15 2011

U.S. food politics in action

For an instant tutorial in U.S. food politics, take a look at this Washington Post map of where agricultural subsidies go.

Presidents have been trying to get rid of subsidies for decades, but they also want to be reelected.  Will Obama succeed where others have failed?  We shall soon see.

Jun 14 2011

Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen”

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just published its 2011 guide to the most and least pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables.

The #1 “dirtiest”?  Apples.  The remedy?  Buy from the EWG “clean 15″ list or buy organic.

The “dirty dozen” list, in order: Apples, Celery, Strawberries, Peaches, Spinach, Imported nectarines, Imported grapes, Sweet bell peppers, Potatoes, Domestic blueberries, Lettuce, Kale/collard greens.

The “clean 15″ list of foods with the least pesticides: Onions, Sweet corn, Pineapples, Avocados, Asparagus, Sweet peas, Mangoes, Eggplant, Domestic cantaloupe, Kiwifruit, Cabbage, Watermelon, Sweet potatoes, Grapefruit, Mushrooms

How much should you worry about pesticides on foods?  As one reader asked,

Is it better to eat conventional fruits (cherries, berries and apples) and other veggies (peppers) that are on the “dirty” vegetable list or forego them altogether?

This is not an easy question to answer.  EWG recognizes that the science linking pesticides to health problems is limited (this is an understatement).  EWG bases its rankings on data published by USDA and FDA.  It considers:

  • Percent of samples tested with detectable pesticides
  • Percent of samples with two or more pesticides
  • Average number of pesticides found on a single sample
  • Average amount (level in parts per million) of all pesticides found
  • Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample
  • Total number of pesticides found on the commodity

EWG explains that its

Shopper’s Guide is not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks but instead reflects the overall pesticide loads of common fruits and vegetables. This approach best captures the uncertainties of the risks of pesticide exposure and gives shoppers confidence that when they follow the guide they are buying foods with consistently lower overall levels of pesticide contamination.

Most available research supports the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables regardless of their pesticide loads.  Ken Cook, the president of EWG says:

We recommend that people eat healthy by eating more fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic,” says Ken Cook, president and founder of Environmental Working Group. “But people don’t want to eat pesticides with their produce if they don’t have to. And with EWG’s guide, they don’t.”

By EWG calculations, you can lower your pesticide intake by 92% if you avoid the dirty dozen.  No wonder.  How’s this for an observation: “Hot peppers had been treated with as many as 97 pesticides, followed by cucumbers (68) and greens (66).”  Who knew?

Where is the produce industry in all of this?  EWG reports that produce trade associations are working hand-in-glove with the pesticide industry to attempt to keep information about these chemicals out of the public eye.

I wish more research existed on the dose-response effects of pesticides and on their long-term effects on health, especially in children.  I cannot imagine that pesticides are good for health.  In high doses, they are demonstrably harmful to farm workers.

But what about the low doses on fruits and vegetables?  Here, the evidence for long-term harm is weak, uncertain, and unhelpful.

What to do?

On the personal side: if you want to avoid eating pesticides, you can stick with the EWG 15.  Washing produce before eating it is always a good idea even if it doesn’t get rid of all of the chemicals (USDA studies are done on washed produce).  When in doubt, buy organic.

As for the political, if ever there was a situation where more research was needed, this is it.  And isn’t it time for industrial food producers to find ways to use fewer pesticides?  Let the produce trade associations know that you don’t like their defense of potentially harmful chemicals and that you much prefer organic.

Addition, June 16: For anyone interested, here are the USDA’s pesticide announcements for the new data:

Press release

Consumer factsheet

Report executive summary


 

 

Jun 5 2011

San Francisco Chronicle column: food plate, of course

My monthly (first Sunday) San Francisco Chronicle Food Matters column is on guess what?  This will be the last post on the new food icon for a while at least, I promise.

Food plate icon improvement of pyramid


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q: What’s the big deal over the government’s new food icon? A plate? That seems really boring.

A: The Department of Agriculture’s plate may look banal, but it is a key part of first lady Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign and I see it as a big step forward. Unlike the 2005 MyPyramid, this one is mostly about food, is easy to understand, and does not require use of a computer.

The plate does a better job of reflecting current thinking about healthy diets than previous guides. Its four sectors are unequal. Vegetables get the most space, and dairy – a discretionary choice – is off to the side.

You are to pile half your plate with fruit and vegetables, and a quarter with grains (half of them whole grains). All these come from plants.

I’m less happy about the sector marked “protein.” Protein is not a food. It is a nutrient.

USDA must think everyone knows that “protein” means beans, poultry and fish, as well as meat. But grains and dairy, each with its own sector, are also important protein sources. The meat industry wants you to equate protein with meat. It should be happy with this guide.

What I like best are the messages that come with the plate. My favorite? “Enjoy your food, but eat less.”

At last! Enjoyment is part of dietary advice. High marks to USDA for this one.

Other messages are designed to help you eat less while eating better. Smaller portions keep calories under control. Making half your plate fruits and vegetables is a profound switch from the six to 11 calorie-rich grain servings you were supposed to eat daily under the old MyPyramid.

For people who drink milk (really, you don’t have to), switching to low-fat is an effective way to save on calories, and whole grains are better for health than refined, rapidly absorbable starches that behave like sugars in the body.

So far, so good. But next come the politically charged “foods to reduce.” Here, the USDA is leaning in the right direction, but still pulling punches. USDA tells you to reduce sodium from soup, bread and frozen meals, but says nothing about salty snacks or other sodium-laden processed foods. This is a glaring omission.

And the final principle – “drink water instead of sugary drinks” – puts naturally sweet fruit juices (fine in small amounts) in the same category as sugar-added juice drinks, sports drinks and sodas, which ought to be reserved for occasional treats.

Let’s give USDA credit for going as far as it could without directly confronting the processed-food and soft-drink industries.

Optimist that I am, I think the icon has plenty for everyone to work with. It emphasizes the positives – fruits, vegetables, whole grains – and leaves lots of room for enjoyment. You can pile whatever foods you like on that plate as long as they fit within their assigned sectors.

Best of all, you do not have to count numbers of servings. If you want to control the size of your servings, just use a smaller plate.

Consider the alternatives. From 1958 until 1979, the USDA’s uncontroversial Four Food Groups advised eating two or three servings a day from dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables, and breads and cereals – half the plate from animal-source foods.

In 1979, in an effort to help reduce dietary risks for chronic diseases, USDA stacked the groups with plant foods above animal foods, eliciting a furor that led USDA nutritionists to begin a 12-year project to research a new food guide.

USDA released a food guide Pyramid in 1991, withdrew it under protest from meat producers, and re-released it a year later. Meat and dairy producers did not like being at the “eat less” top of the Pyramid. Nutritionists thought it promoted too many servings of high-calorie grains.

In 2005, the USDA replaced that Pyramid with the unobjectionable, food-free MyPyramid. This was impossible to teach (you had to know what each color stood for), eliminated any sense that it is better to eat some foods than others, and required a computer to personalize your own diet.

USDA officials say they spent about $2 million to research and test the new plate logo, create its website, and publicize it. This is a lot or a little depending on your perspective, but a plate is not exactly a new concept. The American Diabetes Association, American Institute for Cancer Research and Canadian government have all used similar plant-focused plates for years. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has one with a similar design but 100 percent vegetarian.

We can argue over nutritional details, but I think USDA’s plate-plus-messages works better than anything it has done before. The plate works for health and for disease prevention. It took courage to make half of it fruit and vegetables. That’s real progress.

Now the challenge is to Congress: How about fixing agricultural policies so they support these recommendations?

 

 

 

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Jun 2 2011

Deconstructing the USDA’s new food plate

I attended the launch of the new food icon this morning, and the press conference following it (which featured Red Rooster chef Marcus Samuelson).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack explained, we have an obesity crisis in America that imperils our nation’s national security, economic vitality, and health care system.  It’s time for action.

I got a preview of the design on a conference call last week (while I was in Spain) and took a screen shot:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This may not look much like action, but it is a sharp departure from previous USDA icons (which USDA has delightfully put online).   These mostly emphasize the importance of meat and dairy foods (the 1992 Pyramid was an exception, which was why the Bush II USDA got rid of it).

Before yawning, consider its strengths:

  • It is easy to understand (as Mrs. Obama explained, even a child can use it).
  • Vegetables comprise the largest sector.
  • Together, vegetables and fruits are half the plate.
  • You can put whatever foods you like on that plate.
  • You don’t have to count servings or worry about portion size (if the plate isn’t too big).
  • Dairy foods–a discretionary group–are off to the side.

My one quibble?  Protein.  I’m a nutritionist.  Protein is a nutrient, not a food.  Protein is not exactly lacking in American diets.  The average American consumes twice the protein needed.  Grains and dairy, each with its own sector, are important sources of protein in American diets.

Why protein?  USDA used to call the group “meat” even though it contained beans, poultry, and fish.  The meat industry ought to be happy about “protein.”  Meat producers have spent years trying to convince Americans to equate meat with protein.

And USDA says its consumer testing (as yet unpublished) indicated that the public understood “protein” to cover diverse food sources.

According to William Neuman’s report in the New York Times, USDA official Robert C. Post said that:

U.S.D.A. had spent about $2 million to develop and promote the logo, including conducting research and focus groups and creating a Web site. Some of that money will also be used for the first year of a campaign to publicize the image.

I would like to see that research.  Post told me that the research would be published on the website within the next few days.  I look forward to seeing it.

One other point: consider the alternative.  Just for fun, here’s the plate the USDA was considering in its last efforts to try to get rid of the Pyramid in 1991.  We have Marian Burros, then at the New York Times, to thank for rescuing the Pyramid that came out in 1992.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next step, of course, is to bring agricultural policy in line with the plate, meaning doing a much better job of supporting producers of vegetables and fruits.  This is part of Secretary Vilsack’s plan for repopulating and revitalizing rural America—a goal that I strongly support.

Given the pushback against public health that is happening in Congress this week—Cut school lunches! Cut WIC! Get rid of nutrition recommendations! Go easy on tobacco and antibiotics!—the more I think it took courage for USDA to do this.

Let’s hope USDA can stand up to the heat.

 

 

 

Jun 1 2011

What will USDA’s food plate look like?

According to William Neuman’s report in the New York Times, a USDA official, Robert C. Post, said the new food guide would be a plate and that it would serve educational purposes :

The agency would use the plate to get across several basic nutritional messages, including urging consumers to eat smaller portions, switch to low-fat or fat-free milk and drink water instead of sugary drinks.

A plate with half devoted to fruits and vegetables is not exactly a new concept.

The American Diabetes Association has been using this plate as  a food guide:

 

 

 

 

 

 

The American Institute for Cancer Research uses this one:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canada’s food guide is translated into this plate:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine has an elegantly designed 100% plant-based plate for vegetarians and vegans:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s what CNN thinks the new USDA food icon will look like:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can the USDA improve on the existing versions?  Does CNN have it right?

I’ll be in Washington tomorrow to find out.  You can be there virtually at www.cnpp.usda.gov.

 

May 29 2011

MyPyramid R.I.P.

On May 26, the USDA announced that it will be releasing a new “food icon” to replace the foodless and useless 2005 MyPyramid:

The USDA’s press announcement explained:

The 2010 White House Child Obesity Task Force called for simple, actionable advice to equip consumers with information to help them make healthy food choices. As a result, USDA will be introducing the new food icon to replace the MyPyramid image as the government’s primary food group symbol. It will be an easy-to-understand visual cue to help consumers adopt healthy eating habits consistent with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

What will the new icon look like?  The USDA isn’t saying, but William Neuman of the New York Times did some sleuthing.  According to his account:

The circular plate, which will be unveiled Thursday, is meant to give consumers a fast, easily grasped reminder of the basics of a healthy diet. It consists of four colored sections, for fruits, vegetables, grains and protein, according to several people who have been briefed on the change. Beside the plate is a smaller circle for dairy, suggesting a glass of low-fat milk or perhaps a yogurt cup.

And WebMD scored an interview with Robert C. Post, PhD, deputy director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, who gave additional hints:

“There will be a ‘how-to’ that will resonate with individuals. That is the behavioral part that is needed. We need to transcend information — ‘here’s what the science says’ — and give people the tools and the opportunities to take action.”

He referred to six how-to messages to guide healthy eating that were released with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, and which I enthusiastically posted when the Guidelines were released (I was disappointed that they weren’t actually part of the Guidelines):

Balancing Calories

• Enjoy your food, but eat less.

• Avoid oversized portions.

Foods to Increase

• Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

• Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.

Foods to Reduce

• Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals—and choose the foods with lower numbers.

• Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

A bit of history:

From 1958 until 1979, the USDA’s food guide was sort of a rectangle illustrating four food groups: Dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables, breads and cereals.  In 1979, USDA introduced a highly controversial design with food groups stacked on top of each other, with the plant-food groups at the top and the animal-food groups underneath (the producers of these foods did not like that).

Beginning in 1980, the USDA conducted an extensive research project to develop a new design—the pyramid—which it released in 1991 and withdrew immediately under pressure from meat producers.

In 1992, after a year of extraordinary controversy (recounted in my book Food Politics), the USDA released its highly controversial Food Guide Pyramid.

Why was it controversial?  The food industry objected that the Pyramid make it look as if you were supposed to eat more foods from the bottom of the pyramid than the top (which, of course, was its point).

Nutritionists objected that it encouraged eating too many servings of grains and, therefore, encouraged obesity.

In 2005, the USDA replaced it with the unobjectionable MyPyramid.  The food industry liked this one because it did not indicate hierarchies in food choices.  Most nutritionists that I know hardly knew what to do with it.  It required going online and playing with a website, and was unteachable in clinic settings.

I thought the 1992 pyramid had a lot going for it, particularly the idea that it’s better to eat some foods than others.  But MyPyramid was a travesty–hopelessly complicated, impossible to teach, and requiring the use of a computer.

Given this situation, the new image is highly likely to be an improvement.  If the new icon keeps the hierarchy, conveys concepts easily, and does not require online access, I will consider it a great step forward.

Fingers crossed.

Details about the release:

The announcement will be Thursday, June 2, 10:30 a.m. EDT. It will be live-streamed at www.usda.gov/live.   All information will be posted at www.cnpp.usda.gov.

I’ll be there.  Stay tuned.

 

 

Balancing Calories 

• Enjoy your food, but eat less.

• Avoid oversized portions.

Foods to Increase

• Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

• Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.

Foods to Reduce

• Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals—and choose the foods with lower numbers.

• Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Mar 22 2011

Who is responsible for dealing with poverty?

I don’t often respond to comments but this one about the political division caused by obesity is worth further discussion.

I truly resent your statement that Republicans don’t want to have an education, access to health care or access to nutritious food. Such statements not only undermine your credibility but contribute nothing to the discussion.

For the record, Republicans as just as committed to these things as the Democrats. The difference is that the Republicans don’t believe that it is the taxpayers responsibility to provide them.

If not taxpayers, who?  The writer does not say.

I thought of this question when I read the new report released by the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity. The center was established in 2006 by Mayor Bloomberg to seek evidence-based ways to reduce poverty in the city.

As the New York Times explains:

Without a flood of food stamps and tax benefits for low-income families, about 250,000 more New Yorkers would have slipped into poverty at the height of the recession…The center concluded that the poverty rate would have been three percentage points higher without federal tax programs passed in 2009 for low-income families and an aggressive city program to enroll New Yorkers who were not receiving public assistance but were eligible for food stamps, coupled with higher food stamp benefits.

Beyond personal damage, poverty is demonstrably bad for the health of cities.  Poor people do not buy much.  They cause social unrest.  They drain public resources.  Getting people out of poverty is sensible public policy and has been throughout history.

History also tells us that private charity is never adequate to meet the needs of the poor.

That’s why U.S. taxpayers support food stamp and other food assistance programs to the tune of close to $100 billion a year, as can be seen in the USDA’s budget figures.

The “aggressive city program” paid off.  At a time of economic crisis, poverty levels throughout America increased.  New York City’s did not.

Isn’t dealing with poverty a core function of government?  Isn’t some reasonable level of income equity a core feature of democratic society?

I think so, but await your opinions.

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