by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

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.

Oct 31 2011

The latest fish story: this time it’s Boston-area restaurants

When I wrote What to Eat, a book devoted to discussion of food issues using supermarkets as an organizing device, I needed five chapters to discuss issues related to fish.  By the time I was through, I considered the fish sections of supermarkets to be the Wild West of the food industry: anything goes and the buyer had best be wary.

Fish regulation, I pointed out, is divided among at least four federal agencies: USDA for marketing, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for ocean fisheries, EPA for fish caught for sport and recreation, and FDA for fish safety.  This alone should tell you that this is a virtually unregulated industry.

Now the Boston Globe presents the latest evidence for this dismal view.  Investigative reporters examined fish served in Boston-area restaurants.  Oops.  They found widespread bait and switch.  In many restaurants—even good ones—the fish served are not what customers think they paid for.

On the menu, but not on your platefish at restaurants were mislabeled about half the time, sometimes deliberately.  The site takes some work to scroll through but is worth the effort.  Here is one example:

At East Bay Grille in Plymouth, what was advertised as native scrod or haddock was actually previously frozen Pacific cod. A general manager said the restaurant hadn’t yet updated the menu. The revised menu, however, still describes the fish as “fresh day boat scrod.”

From sea to sushi bar, a system open to abusefish is a largely unregulated industry and problems are pervasive.

Suppliers such as Goldwell use the names interchangeably, contributing to a little-known but pervasive problem in the international seafood industry: lower-quality and less expensive fish mislabeled as desirable species. Some distributors do this unknowingly, while others intend to deceive. Lax government oversight, industry indifference, and consumer ignorance allow mislabeling to flourish.

Fish misidentification is especially common at sushi restaurants, partly because they use various names for the same fish. The confusion can be compounded by packaging labels written in other languages that are incorrectly translated into English.

Bertucci’s tries to right a wrong: How hake ended up as cod on the menu at 94 Bertucci’s restaurants.

Scrutiny vowed on fish labeling: state officials vow to improve oversight of seafood sales.

Good luck to state officials.  They will have their hands full trying to get on top of this industry.  Here’s what I wrote in What to Eat:

Much of this industry acts like it is virtually unregulated and as if all it cares about is selling fish as quickly as possible at as high a price as the traffic will bear.  Out of ignorance or, sometimes, unscrupulousness, the more profit-minded segments of this industry bend the rules to their own advantage any time they can get away with it.  No wonder “fishy” translates as “suspicious.”  If you want to buy fish, you need to watch out for labels that are sometimes untruthful and often misleading” (p. 232).

Thanks to the Boston Globe for exposing this fish scandal. 

And thanks to Consumer Reports for doing a similar story in its December issue.  Its investigation found 20% of 190 samples to be mislabeled.  And the only fish consistently labeled correctly were Chilean sea bass, coho salmon, and bluefin and ahi tuna. 

Regulation anyone?

Sep 28 2011

Help! Rescue the government’s marketing-to-kids nutrition standards!

I’ve just gotten an urgent plea from Margo Wootan at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Please encourage everyone to write to President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and federal agencies to support the nutrition standards for marketing foods to kids.

As I’ve discussed previously, these were created jointly by the Interagency Working Group (IWG) of four federal agencies—CDC, FDA, FTC, and USDA.

Under intense pressure from the food and entertainment industries and their friends in Congress, the IWG’s proposed guidelines—voluntary, no less—are in danger of being withdrawn.

Doing that might help corporate health but would do nothing for public health.

CSPI organized 75 researchers (including me) to send a letter to the President urging support of the voluntary guidelines and expressing dismay at the campaign of disinformation aimed at getting them withdrawn.

Junk-food advertisers, in the guise of the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, have attacked the voluntary guidelines as an assault on the First Amendment, a point debunked by top Constitutional experts, and claimed that adopting the voluntary guidelines would result in job losses, based on a flimsy industry “study.”

….It would be a real setback for children’s health if the Administration backed down on strong guidelines for food marketing to children, especially given the transparently specious arguments of junk-food advertisers….Denying the science on food marketing and childhood obesity is like denying the science on global warming or evolution.

But the food industry is dug in on this one.  For example, a reader sent me this letter from Tom Forsythe, Vice President, Corporate Communications, General Mills (excerpts follow with my comments in brackets):

Your email notes that we have lobbied against the Interagency Working Group (IWG) proposal.  That is correct.  We have serious concerns about the IWG proposal.

Our most advertised product is cereal – and we stand behind it.   Cereal is one of the healthiest breakfast choices you can make….If it is a General Mills cereal, it will also be a good or excellent source of whole grains.

Childhood obesity is a serious issue – and General Mills wants to be part of the solution.  But if the issue is obesity, cereal should perhaps be advertised more, not less.

…You can be assured than food and beverage companies have studied every letter, comma and period in the proposal.  We know what it says, and what it does not.

For example, we know that 88 of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages could not be marketed under the IWG guidelines.  The list of “banned” items under the guidelines would include essentially all cereals, salads, whole wheat bread, yogurt, canned vegetables, and a host of other items universally recognized as healthy [Note: I’m not at all sure this is true–MN].

Despite the characterizations used to advance them, the IWG guidelines would not be voluntary, in our view.  The IWG guidelines are advanced by two of the agencies most responsible for regulating the food industry, as well as the agency most responsible for regulating advertising.  Ignoring their “voluntary guidance” would not be an option for most companies.

Regulation has already been threatened (even demanded) should companies choose not to comply – and litigation would inevitably follow.

The IWG guidelines also conflict with most existing government programs and definitions relative to food.  For example, many products that meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current definition of “healthy” could not be advertised under the IWG guidelines [It would be interesting to see examples].

Many products included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program fail the IWG standards, as do most products encouraged and subsidized under the USDA’s Women, Infants and Children Feeding Program (WIC) [If so, this is a sad commentary on what we encourage low-income mothers and children to eat].

Finally, your email suggests companies should focus on providing feedback via public comment.  We agree.  We have reviewed every detail of the IWG proposal – and we remain opposed, as our public comment explains.

My interpretation: if food companies are this upset, the guidelines must be pretty good.

Companies have the right to sell whatever they like.  But they should not have the right to market it as healthy or to kids.

Tell the IWG you support their guidelines.  Tell the White House to protect the guidelines.  Now, please.

 

 

Sep 15 2011

Harvard plate v. USDA MyPlate: an improvement?

Scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health have come up with a new Healthy Eating Plate as an alternative to USDA’s MyPlate released last June.

 For an explanation, see the Harvard group’s press release.  Harvard intends this as an explicit challenge to the USDA’s version

Recall my deconstruction of the USDA plate when it first came out.

I’d love to hear what you think of the Harvard version.

Is it better? Likely to be more effective?

 

Weigh in, please.

Sep 14 2011

Clarification of yesterday’s post on using SNAP for fast food

As many of you have pointed out, the use of SNAP benefits in fast food restaurants is a state decision but one that is supposed to be limited to the elderly, disabled, and homeless (whether those limitations are adhered to in practice is another question).

This morning I received further clarification from Aaron Lavallee, Communications Coordinator in the USDA Office of Communications. Mr. Lavallee, whom I don’t think I’ve met, writes:

Marion,

I just read your post in the Atlantic and wanted to follow up with you with some information that can clarify some of the misinformation posted and to help bring accuracy to parts that may be misleading for your readers.

You probably know most of this but Restaurant Meal Program has been an option for states – state run, state contracted, state administered – since the 1977 Food Stamp Act. The decision to establish a restaurant meal program is made entirely at the state level.

Most importantly, the ONLY people who qualify are the elderly, disabled, and homeless, as this provision is intended to assist people who are unable to prepare meals at home or in a traditional kitchen setting. This key fact and requirement of the law is mentioned nowhere in your article and we can both agree that with that clarification this story changes drastically.

Since 1977 the decision to establish a restaurant meal program has been made by only a handful of states and because of this participation is very low.

As noted in your article, California, Arizona, and Michigan are operating State administered restaurant programs serving their elderly, homeless, and disabled populations. Rhode Island began a limited pilot restaurant program on August 1, 2011. However you also mention Florida without providing the facts to your readers. In 2009, Florida began operating a pilot program in one county and has a total of only 14 restaurants participating. Furthermore in Florida this option is ONLY available to the homeless. To date Florida has not expanded that pilot.

The original emails to you from readers Robyn and Will were inaccurate – this is not an option for any SNAP beneficiary which is what they are thinking.

Additionally you close by drawing a false conclusion – “In June 2011 alone, according to USDA, 45 million Americans received an average of $133 in benefits at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $6 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend on fast food.” This can’t be spent on fast food because it is not an option for the 45 million Americans on SNAP.

Your voice has been and will continue to be an important one when it comes to nutrition in America. Your opinion continues to add to the healthy dialogue on critical issues ranging from MyPlate to the school meal programs. Your insight and knowledge on these topics is beneficial to everyone working to improve the health and wellbeing of Americans.

This is a critical opportunity for those of us with the ability to communicate to do so actively and accurately.

Because of that I ask that you add a clarifying note to your blog post highlighting the facts and clarifying for your readers you’re the truth about this program.

Please know that I am glad to help provide any information I can. Tim Laskawy at Grist hit the nail on the head with his piece.

I apologize for not making the restrictions clear in my original post and I thank all of you and Mr. Lavallee for taking the trouble to file corrections.

I also should have said that the billions of dollars in SNAP benefits could be a lot to spend on fast food. 

SNAP must look like a honey pot to fast food and other companies that cannot wait to get their hands on some of those benefits.  That’s what Yum! (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, etc) is trying to do.

But make no mistake.  Yum! is not a social service agency concerned about feeding the elderly, disabled, or homeless.  Yum! wants to attract low-income people with SNAP money to spend to its fast food restaurants.

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