by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

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.

Aug 5 2011

Does it really cost more to buy healthy food?

I got several calls this week about a new study from the University of Washington arguing that because of the way foods are subsidized, it will cost everyone nearly $400 a year to follow the recommendations of the government’s MyPlate food guide

The Seattle group calculates the cost of food per calorie.  By this measure, the price of fruits and vegetables is exceedingly high compared to the cost of junk food.  Fruits and vegetables do not have many calories for their weight.

The Commerce department tracks the indexed price of foods.  Its data show that the indexed price of fresh produce increased by 40% ince 1980 whereas the price of sodas and processed foods has declined by 10-30%.  (The easiest place to see their charts is in New York Times articles from a couple of years ago.  Click here and also here).

USDA economists have produced a similar chart:

 

Other USDA economists, however, argue that price trends for fruits, vegetables, and junk foods are really no different, and that the data shown in the figure overstate the apparent difference.

Nevertheless, the Seattle paper got a lot of attention, and rightly so.  One of my calls was from David Freeman of CBS News who said he was hearing lots of complaints that the study promoted a “nanny state” because it blamed bad eating habits on the government.  My quotes:

“It’s a common misconception that food choices are solely a matter of personal responsibility,” Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and an outspoken critic of the fast food industry, told CBS News. “People are hugely influenced by the price of food. If you don’t have any money and go into the store to buy some fresh fruits, you might decide that it’s cheaper to have a couple of fast food hamburgers.”

And those who can afford healthy food may lack the time or the necessary food-preparation skills, Dr. Nestle said.

Government-sponsored cooking classes and kitchen equipment may not be in the offing. But Dr. Monsivais and Dr. Nestle agreed that federal agriculture policies could do more to encourage healthy eating. For example, some of the federal farm subsidies now directed to producers of corn, soybeans, and other crops used to make fast and processed foods could be redirected to growers of fruits and vegetables.

“What’s the matter with that?” Dr. Nestle said. “I can’t think of a thing.”

Jul 14 2011

Last chance to comment on proposed kids’ food marketing standards

Today is the last day to comment on the federal Interagency Working Group’s (IWG) proposed nutrition standards for marketing food products to kids.  The IWG is a joint project of four federal agencies with at least some responsibility for public health: FTC, FDA, USDA, and CDC.

As I discussed back in April, I thought the IWG standards were generous and gave food companies plenty of room to market junk foods with impunity.  Maybe, but that’s not how food companies see it.  They think it will cause so much havoc with their marketing that they are fighting back, big time.

Large food companies joined together to create the “Sensible Food Policy Coalition.”  This entity paid for an economic assessment.  On July 8, the Coalition released Global Insight’s report of this assessment—a call to arms arguing that the “administration’s misguided ad restrictions would cost 74,000 American jobs.”

The report’s point is that restricting advertising would have unintended economic consequences, particularly losses in sales and revenues, and therefore jobs.  The report estimates an astonishing loss of $28.3 billion from manufacturing and retail sales, just in the first year, translating to “at least 74,000 lost jobs.”

This makes me think that the standards may have some merit.  Campbell Soup, for example, has just announced that because its low-salt soups aren’t selling, they are putting the salt back in.  Oh.

In any case, industry pushback seems to be having an effect.  As I discussed in my post a week or so ago, David Vladeck of the FTC used his blog to discuss industry mythology about the proposed standards.  I thought his statement backpedaled on even a hint of federal regulation of food marketing to kids.

MYTH #2: The Working Group’s proposal is regulation by the back door

….This is a report to Congress, not a rulemaking proceeding, so there’s no proposed government regulation. In fact, the FTC Act explicitly forbids the Commission from issuing a rule restricting food advertising to children. So the FTC couldn’t issue a rule on this subject if it wanted to, which it doesn’t. Simply put, a report like this can’t be a rule — whether it’s delivered to Congress by the front door, the back door, or the kitchen door.

The IWG is collecting comments on its proposals through close of business today.  If you need a rationale for filing a comment, read Larry Cohen’s piece in the Huffington Post.

Comments don’t have to be long or complicated.  Just say what you think.

Go to this site to file them.

Or go to the PreventObesity site for additional suggestions.

Do this today!

 

 

 

Jun 29 2011

USDA’s new food safety campaign: it’s all about YOU

Yesterday, USDA announced its new Food Safe Families campaign to get you to pay attention to food safety procedures in your kitchen.  These, as always, are:

  1. Clean: Clean kitchen surfaces, utensils, and hands with soap and water while preparing food.
  2. Separate: Separate raw meats from other foods by using different cutting boards.
  3. Cook: Cook foods to the right temperature by using a food thermometer.
  4. Chill: Chill raw and prepared foods promptly.

The media campaign, which reportedly cost $2 million, comes with a graphic that can’t be all that expensive:

So what is the $2 million for?  According to Food Chemical News (June 28):

The campaign, which will feature public service announcements in English and Spanish, centers on “humorous over-the-top depictions of the four key safe food handling behaviors”….The campaign will include ads on television, radio, print and websites, along with an integrated social media program.

As it happens, a reader sent me the preliminary “concept” version of this campaign (thank you kind reader).   Trust me, this campaign is worth a look, and Food Safety News has some of the videos.

Here’s my favorite concept:

Yes, this is a baby pig in a sauna.  Humorous maybe, but how will it convince anyone to clean up the kitchen?

Two other points:

  • None of the concepts seem to have anything to do with food.
  • All of them are about your responsibility for food safety.

But the big national outbreaks we’ve been experiencing lately are from foods that are already contaminated by the time they get to you.  Following food safety procedures makes good sense, but that’s not where the problem lies.  They would not help you much with contaminated raw sprouts, for example, unless you cook them (not a bad idea these days).

To stop food safety problems at their source, we need a functional food safety system.  This means rules that require all producers to follow food safety procedures and a government with the authority and resources to make sure they do.

Will we ever get a food safety system like this?  And how bad will things have to get before we do?

 

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