by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

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industries and their friends in Congress, the IWG’s proposed guidelines—voluntary, no less—are in danger of being withdrawn.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support of the voluntary guidelines and expressing dismay at the campaign of disinformation aimed at getting them withdrawn.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.

Sep 13 2011

It’s OK to use food stamps to buy fast food? Better check for conflicts of interest

Readers Robyn and Will sent me a link to an ABC News story about Yum! Brands efforts to get more states to authorize the use of food stamp (SNAP) benefits in fast food restaurants.

Michigan, California, Arizona, and Florida already do this.  Yum!, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, wants it to go national.

They write:

We believe that food stamps should be used to buy nutritious food for kids and families, not junk food! This nonsense has to stop!  This is a government program–it should not be a means for corporations to sell products that will eventually lead to ever-increasing health problems–obesity, heart issues, diabetes, etc. What can we do to be heard?

USA Today did a story on this last week.  It elicited more than 1,000 comments.  I’m not surprised.

The issue thoroughly divides the food advocacy community.   Public health and anti-hunger advocates sharply disagree on this issue, as they do on the question of whether sodas should be taxed.

USA Today quoted Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s anti-obesity Rudd Center:

It’s preposterous that a company like Yum! Brands would even be considered for inclusion in a program meant for supplemental nutrition.

But then the article quoted Ed Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center and a long-time anti-hunger advocate:

They think going hungry is better?…I’m solidly behind what Yum! is doing.

Of course he is.  Want to take a guess at who funds the Congressional Hunger Center?

Yum! is listed as a “Sower,” meaning that its annual gift is in the range of $10,000.   I’m guessing Yum! is delighted that it is getting such good value at such low cost.

USA Today was negligent in not mentioning Mr. Cooney’s financial ties to Yum! and other food brands.  Such ties matter, and readers deserve to know about them.

But Mr. Cooney’s argument worries me on grounds beyond the evident conflict of interest.

For one thing, it smacks of elitism.  “Let them eat junk food” argues that it’s OK for the poor to eat unhealthfully.  I think the poor deserve to be treated better.

For another, promoting use of SNAP benefits for fast food and sodas makes it and other food assistance programs vulnerable to attack.

Rates of obesity are higher among low-income groups, including SNAP recipients, than in the general population.

Anti-hunger and public health advocates need to work a lot harder to find common ground if they want food assistance programs to continue to help low-income Americans.

Let’s be clear about what’s at stake here.  SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who qualifies can get benefits.

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.  Yum!’s interest in getting some of that money is understandable.

If you think low-income Americans deserve better:

  • Complain to Congress for permitting the legal loophole that allows this.
  • Insist to USDA that SNAP benefits be permitted only for real food.
  • Get your city to recruit farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and other sources of healthy food to low-income areas.
  • Let your congressional representatives know that you want a safety net for people who are out of work that enables people to eat healthfully.
  •  And tell the Congressional Hunger Center and similarly inclined anti-hunger groups that you think conflicts of interest interfere with their ability to help the clients they are supposedly trying to serve.
Sep 7 2011

USDA seeks method to compensate farmers for GM contamination

I am a long-time reader of Food Chemical News, a weekly newsletter covering a huge range of food issues and invaluable for someone like me who lives outside the Beltway and does not have access to the ins and outs of Washington DC politics.

An item in the August 30 issue caught my attention:  USDA secretary Tom Vilsack’s instructions to his department’s new Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

Get this: Vilsack told AC21 to come up with a plan for compensating organic or conventional farmers whose crops become contaminated by GM genes through pollen drift.

According to Food Chemical News, Vilsack gave a three-part charge to the panel:

  1. What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate?
  2. What would be necessary to implement such mechanisms?
  3. What other actions would be appropriate to bolster or facilitate coexistence among different agricultural production systems in the United States?

Vilsack urged the committee to address the questions in order and not yield to temptation to address the third question first.

“This is a very specific charge,” Vilsack stressed. He also told the AC21 not to worry if their proposed solutions would require an act of Congress or new regulations. “Don’t worry about the mechanism. We’ll figure out how to make it happen.”

Why is Vilsack doing this?

“What motivates me is an opportunity to revitalize the rural economy,” the agriculture secretary declared. “I have no favorite [type of agriculture] here. I don’t have that luxury. I just want to find consensus. I believe that people who are smart and reasonable can find a solution.”

Responding to a question from panel member, Vilsack said the AC21′s failure to come up with solutions would result in “continuation of what we have today….If we want to revitalize rural America, we can’t do it while we’re fighting each other.”

Deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan cited the recent droughts and flooding as an “overwhelming time for agriculture.”

I wonder how we are going to prevent the loss of more farmers and encourage young people to take up farming….you have to come up with scenarios where there’s lack of data.  You don’t have to figure out the politics.  That’s my job and the secretary’s.  Just answer the questions [in the charge] and let us carry the water.

Interesting, no?

Could this possibly mean that instead of Monsanto suing organic or conventional farmers whose crops get intermingled with patented GM varieties, Monsanto might now have to pay the farmers for the damage caused by the contamination?

I can’t wait to see what AC21 comes up with.

Sep 4 2011

New school nutrition law takes youths’ health to heart

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: My kids are heading back to school, and I’m braced for another year of fighting about what they get for lunch. The school says there is a new law that makes things better. Will it? 

A: There is indeed a new law. Getting it implemented, however, will take some doing. With much fanfare, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. But unless your children attend one of the 1,250 schools that applied for and won an award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge, they might graduate before seeing its benefits.

 That’s because the law has to be turned into regulations, an interminable process that has barely begun.

 Significant changes

But never mind the law’s odd title. It is meant to do good things. It increases school meal eligibility for low-income children. It encourages local farm-to-school networks and school gardens. It expands access to free drinking water in schools (yes, this is necessary in some places).

Most important, the law gives the USDA the right to set food standards for school meals.

Now the USDA can specify numbers and sizes of food servings, rather than nutrient percentages. This should make it easier for schools to serve foods, not food products, and offer more and larger servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The USDA can also apply these standards to all foods sold during school hours – breakfasts and lunches, but also “competitive” foods sold in vending machines, a la carte lunch lines and school stores. California is already doing this, but the new law takes it national.

As always, the devil is in the details. The USDA’s proposed rules for implementing the law take up 78 pages of microscopic type in the Federal Register. Because the USDA worried about the effects of the new rules on meal acceptance, participation rates, practicality and cost, it made some compromises.

Its standard for added salt seems generous, and it did not set one for added sugars. The USDA assumed that if other standards were followed, there would not be much room for sugary foods.

Except for milk. The USDA standards require milk to be low-fat but allow it to be flavored (translation: sugar-sweetened). Otherwise, the USDA says, children might not drink milk and will not get enough calcium.

Chalk this up to dairy lobbying. Schools account for more than 7 percent of total milk sales in the United States, but more than half of all flavored milk.

Lobbyists in motion

The proposed standards have set other lobbies in motion, too. One proposal is to encourage children to try new vegetables by restricting starchy vegetables – white potatoes, corn, green peas and lima beans – to one cup per week.

Makers of french fries and produce lobbying groups went to work, and 40 members of Congress have demanded reconsideration. The beef and poultry industries want the proposals to place more emphasis on high-quality, nutrient-rich proteins that offer all essential amino acids in a serving (neither protein nor amino acids are lacking in American diets).

The USDA’s proposals elicited more than 130,000 letters of comment, and the agency now has to deal with them. Officials say they have not even started on the rules for competitive foods.

The USDA must issue final rules by December 2013 and will undoubtedly give schools even more time to implement them. This gives lobbyists plenty of opportunity to create mischief.

Congress might backtrack. Under pressure to cut spending, the House of Representatives added a rider to its agriculture spending bill urging the USDA to scrap the proposals. The House must think the additional 6 cents per meal authorized by last year’s bill was overly generous.

Much is at stake here. School food matters because schools set an example. Schools that offer poor-quality food because it is cheaper are telling children that what they eat is not important. If a school promotes sales of sodas and snacks, it reinforces the idea that children are supposed to be eating junk foods.

Effects on learning

I have much sympathy for what school food professionals are up against, financially and bureaucratically. Nevertheless, I’ve visited plenty of schools – even in low-income communities – where children are served grown-up food, eat it happily and are eager try new tastes.

Successful school food makes the political personal. The cooks cook. They know the students’ names. They make it clear that they care about what the kids eat. They are invariably backed up by a principal committed to the belief that what kids eat affects their health and learning.

The USDA is trying to make it easier for schools to serve healthier meals. Write your congressional representatives to support the proposed school food standards.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books, and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail comments to food@sfchronicle.com.  This article appeared on page G – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle, September 4, 2011.

Aug 24 2011

SNAP soda ban? USDA says no!

Remember New York City’s idea to ban purchase of sodas with SNAP (food stamp) benefits?  I supported the proposal and explained why in posts on April 16, April 30, and May 1.

USDA has just sent a letter turning down the proposal.  Most of its grounds for denial are technical: too much, too soon, too big, too complex, too hard to evaluate.

Underlying these concerns is a philosophical issue:

USDA has a longstanding tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions to the obesity epidemic, especially among SNAP recipients. In fact, USDA is currently partnering with the State of Massachusetts in implementing the Healthy Incentives Pilot, which increases SNAP benefits when fruits and vegetables are purchased….We feel it would be imprudent to reverse policy at this time while the evaluation component of the Healthy Incentives Pilot is ongoing.

SNAP is USDA’s biggest program.  The latest figures on participation and cost indicate that SNAP serves nearly 46 million people at a cost of more than $68 billion annually.

Advocates for SNAP prefer positive incentives.  They strongly—and successfully—opposed the New York City proposal.

Indeed, the public health and anti-hunger advocacy communities are split on this issue.

I wish they would find common ground.  Rates of obesity are higher among the poor than they are in the general population.

That, after all, was the proposal’s purpose in the first place.  As Mayor Bloomberg put it:

We think our innovative pilot would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything being proposed anywhere else in this country – and at little or no cost to taxpayers. We’re disappointed that the Federal Government didn’t agree..New York City will continue to pursue new and unconventional ways to combat the health problems that affect New Yorkers and all Americans.

Back to the drawing board.

 

 

Aug 11 2011

Q. What’s with the turkey recall? A. Same old, same old

I’ve been rounding up information about the Cargill recall of ground turkey contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg.  William Neuman at the New York Times related the story on August 3. Same old same old.

Cargill is a huge company with, as Bill Marler counts them, a long history of food safety problems.  Did Cargill not bother to test for pathogens?   As I explain in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, no meat company wants to test for pathogens.  If they found pathogens, they would have to recall the products.

And where was the USDA in all of this?  Best not to ask.

The USDA was testing.  The testing found Salmonella.  The USDA did nothing.

According to the Wall Street Journal,

Federal officials said they turned up a dangerous form of salmonella at a Cargill Inc. turkey plant last year, and then four times this year at stores selling the Cargill turkey, but didn’t move for a recall until an outbreak killed one person and sickened 77 others.

How come?

Food-safety specialists said the delay reflected a gap in federal rules that don’t treat salmonella as a poisonous contaminant, even if inspectors find antibiotic-resistant forms such as the Heidelberg strain implicated in the latest outbreak.

But CDC investigations show that turkey-related illnesses have been reported for months.  Despite the reports, the USDA took its own sweet time insisting on a recall.

The rationale for the delay is—get this—the USDA believes it does not have the authority to order recalls for any contaminant except E. coli O157:H7.  It has no authority to recall meat contaminated with Salmonella or other toxic forms of E. coli.

Or at least that’s how USDA interprets the legal situation (for the history of all this, see Bill Marler’s summary.

One reason for the USDA’s foot-dragging must surely be pressure from the meat industry which wants as little testing as possible and preferably none.  The meat industry would rather leave it up to you to cook your food safely.

According to a report by Elizabeth Weise in USA Today,

The reasons these bugs aren’t currently regulated are a mix of politics, money and plain biology — the bacteria are constantly evolving and turning up in new and nastier forms, making writing rules about them a bit of a nightmare. For example, the German E. coli variant that sickened more than 4,075 in Europe and killed 50…wasn’t known before this spring.

The meat industry takes advantage of this situation and argues:

“We don’t have a true baseline determining the prevalence of these organisms in the beef supply,” says Betsy Booren of the American Meat Institute (AMI) Foundation, the research arm of AMI. Without knowing how common they are, it’s impossible to say whether they should be considered adulterants, she says.

What they seem to be saying is that meat always has bacteria on it.  And just because these particular bacteria can kill people doesn’t mean the industry is responsible if anyone gets sick.  But shouldn’t the industry be doing a better job?

In Food Safety News, Michele Simon has a terrific analysis of the safety loopholes that allow this absurd situation to continue:

How did the meat industry get so powerful that it can keep USDA from doing its job? Now, instead of preventing illnesses from occurring by requiring testing with teeth, we have USDA regulations that are so lax they allow almost half the samples tested at ground turkey plants to be contaminated with Salmonella — a pretty easy standard to meet. And one that allowed this outbreak to occur.

I keep asking: how much worse does it have to get before Congress does something about ensuring safe food.  Cargill’s inability to protect the public from unsafe meat is reason alone to create a single food safety system that unites the functions of USDA and FDA.

If Congress isn’t ready to take that step, it could at least give USDA the power to act and the FDA the funding it needs to do its job.

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