Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 23 2018

Weekend reading: Effects of Industrial agriculture on health and the environment

I reviewed an earlier draft of this report, and was impressed by its comprehensiveness and attention to detail.  If you are interested in understanding how our current agricultural system came about, what problems it causes, and what to do about them, this report is an excellent place to start.

It’s “new vision for farm and food policy” calls for:

  • An end to subsidies that encourage farm specialization, intensification, and overproduction
  • Practices that reduce soil loss and water pollution
  • Ending the use of medically important antibiotics
  • Aligning agricultural policy with health policy

Its conclusion:

It is time for a change in our agricultural policies and priorities, away from a near absolute emphasis on maximizing production and toward ameliorating the problems caused by the intensification and specialization of farming. Developing a more balanced agricultural system will require extensive changes throughout our food production system. Those reforms will threaten established interests and reshape farming in the U.S., but also create opportunities to build more vibrant rural communities. Accepting those challenges is essential because the
threats generated by current farming practices cannot be ignored any longer.

Feb 22 2018

USDA’s pesticide testing results for 2016

Worried about pesticide residues on fresh and processed fruit and vegetables?

The USDA tests for a bunch of them in more than 10,000 food samples (of which more than 90% are fruit and vegetables).

The results from 2016 are encouraging.

Residues exceeding the tolerance were detected in 0.46 percent (48 samples) of the total samples tested (10,365 samples).

Of these 48 samples, 26 were domestic (54.2 percent), 20 were imported (41.7 percent), and 2 were of unknown origin (4.1 percent).

Residues with no established tolerance were found in 2.6 percent (273 samples) of the total samples tested (10,365 samples).

Of these 273 samples, 179 were domestic (65.6 percent), 90 were imported (32.9 percent), and 4 were of unknown origin (1.5 percent).

These are low percentages.

They could be lower.

It’s good the USDA is keeping an eye on this.

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Feb 21 2018

The ongoing debates over glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup)

What do we know about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate?

The International Agency on Research on Cancer (IARC) said it was “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, the glyphosate herbicide used widely on genetically modified crops, was not happy with this decision and has been doing all it can to cast doubt on that research.

Some of its efforts are documented in this report:

Republicans on the House science committee have repeatedly tried to get IARC to admit its judgment was based on inadequate evidence.  The chair of the committee wrote IARC complaining about its report and asking for someone to come and testify about it.  IARC declined.  In yet another letter the committee said it would stop funding IARC, to which IARC asked that its immunity be respected.

How to understand all this?  A lot of money is at stake.  In this diagram, HT means herbicide tolerance (e.g., Roundup glyphosate):

 

 

Feb 20 2018

Trump’s “Blue Apron” plan for SNAP: real or a smokescreen?

I vote for smokescreen.

Let’s take this one step at a time, starting with the FY 2019 Budget announced last week.  In this administration’s usual Orwell-speak:

The Budget proposes a bold new approach to administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that combines traditional SNAP benefits with 100-percent American grown foods provided directly to households and focuses administrative reforms on outcome-based employment strategies. The Budget expands on previous SNAP proposals to strengthen expec­tations for work among able-bodied adults, pre­serves benefits for those most in need….

Translation: work requirements and budget cuts.  These are emphasized in the FY 2019 Budget Addendum.  This proposes a $17 billion cut in funding ($213 billion over the next decade).  In more Orwell-speak, it is

designed to improve nutrition and target benefits to those who need them while ensuring careful stewardship of taxpayers’ money. This  suite of proposals includes a new approach to nutrition assistance that combines retail-based SNAP benefits with a package of nutritious, 100 percent American-grown food. The Budget also encourages States to innovate in helping participants move to self-sufficiency and improving employment outcomes.

This language comes directly from USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s Big Idea: America’s Harvest Box, specified as containing:

Shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat-cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables.

The box would account for roughly half the benefits; the other half would come from using EBT cards, as in the past.

What got all the attention was a statement from White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, as reported in the Washington Post:

What we do is propose that for folks who are on food stamps, part — not all, part — of their benefits come in the actual sort of, and I don’t want to steal somebody’s copyright, but a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash,” Mulvaney said. “It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices] whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food. So we’re pretty excited about that.

Blue Apron, in case you haven’t been keeping up with this, is a meal-delivery service that has had some fiscal problems lately.

The budget plan includes some “add-back” requests for additional funds for special purposes.  One such request is for $30 million to test whether the Harvest Box plan works.

Under this proposal grants would be made to a small number of states to design, implement, and evaluate the provision of a package of USDA Foods in combination with the traditional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) electronic benefits used at approved retailers. This supports early implementation and evaluation of the related 2019 Budget proposal, which calls for this program structure nationwide and is estimated to save over $12 billion in 2019, and $129 billion over ten years. These grants would provide important policy and administrative lessons to inform efficient and effective nationwide implementation.

What are we to make of all this?  My favorite reaction comes from Politico: “Trump’s Food Stamp Idea Is Like Blue Apron Had a Socialist Hangover.”

It is hardly pro-market to displace the private sector and build a parallel, state-run distribution system, no matter how many times you name-check Blue Apron. This is the sort of thing you find in countries still recovering from socialist hangovers…No, the “Harvest Box” approach to hunger policy makes sense only in the context of hunger politics. And hunger politics have always been as much about the welfare of agribusiness as about the welfare of the poor…. It is generally more expensive than either buying food locally and distributing it or simply giving the recipients cash or vouchers to purchase their own food. Rigorous experimental testing has shown that it does not even produce systematically better nutritional outcomes than giving out money.

I particularly enjoyed Andy Fisher’s comments.  Fisher is author of Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups (see my Weekend Reading post on this book).  “Comrade Trump, he says, might just be on to something.”  SNAP, he points out,

is an accomplice to our need for cheap food with the accompanying externalities caused to public health. It reinforces the ills of the marketplace rather than seeks to transform them.”

His suggestion?  Nationalize the grocery industry.

The NY Times pointed out that even Trump administration officials don’t think this is a serious proposal:

administration officials on Tuesday admitted that the food-box plan…had virtually no chance of being implemented anytime soon.  Instead, the idea…was a political gambit by fiscal hawks in the administration aimed at outraging liberals and stirring up members of the president’s own party working on the latest version of the farm bill.  The move, they said, was intended to lay down a marker that the administration is serious about pressing for about $85 billion in other cuts to food assistance programs that will be achieved, in part, by imposing strict new work requirements on recipients.

Let’s be clear what this about: Cuts to SNAP.  As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analyzes the situation, the plan intends to cut SNAP benefits as well as:

  • Expand government bureaucracy
  • Shift costs to states and nonprofits
  • Increase costs for participants
  • Restrict access to fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Increase stigma for low-income households
  • Negatively impact retailers

Let me add a couple of other points:

The bottom line:  pay attention to the budget cuts.

Feb 19 2018

Bakery & Snacks: China Market Report

I subscribe to a bunch of newsletters, one of which is BakeryandSnacks.com.  It tracks the market for baked goods and snack foods throughout the world.  Here, for example, is its roundup of articles about that market in China—the fastest growing bakery market in the world.

Special Edition: China market report

China’s bakery sector has been the most dynamic around the world – growing in double digits in the past decade – and shows no signs of slowing down, despite quickly becoming saturated with both large and artisanal Asian and foreign players. To coincide with the country’s Lunar New Year celebrations and proceeding Bakery China – Asia Pacific’s largest event for the bakery and confectionery market to be held in Shanghai in May 2018 – BakeryandSnacks examines the world’s fastest growing bakery market.

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Feb 16 2018

Weekend reading for kids: Eat This!

Andrea Curtis.  Eat This!  How Fast-Food Marketing Gets You to Buy Junk (and how to fight back).  Red Deer Press, 2018.

This, amazingly, is a 36-page toolkit for fighting marketing to kids, with endorsements from Mark Bittman and Jamie Oliver, among others.

As I read it, it’s a manual for teaching food literacy to kids—teaching them how to think critically about all the different ways food and beverage companies try to get kids to buy their products or pester their parents to do so.

The “fighting back” part takes up just two pages, but it suggests plenty of projects that kids can do:

Do taste tests of fast food and the same thing home made.  “Which one is more delicious, more expensive, more healthy?  Which creates the least amount of waste?”

Watch your favorite show…Mark down how many times you see product placement.”

“Quick: think of all the fast-food mascots you know by name…Who are the mascots aimed at?”

The illustrations are kid-friendly as is the text.  I’m guessing this could be used easily with kids from age 8 on.

 

Feb 15 2018

Congratulations Marler-Clark on 20 years of food safety advocacy

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler is celebrating 20 years of using the legal system to encourage companies to produce safe food by summarizing 25 of his most prominent cases.

These start with the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box E. coli 0157:H7 disaster and end with the 2016 Genki Sushi Hepatitis A Outbreak.

These cases should be required reading for anyone concerned about the need to make sure that companies produce safe food.  They reveal in horrifying detail what it is like to be a victim of a food pathogen and the extraordinary damage caused by foodborne microbes.

These stories make the political deeply personal.

They remind us of why the Food Safety Modernization Act was such an important step forward and why it is so important to enforce it at every level.

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Feb 14 2018

Mars Inc says goodbye to ILSI, hello to science policy

Since it’s Valentine’s Day (have a happy one), we might as well talk about a candy company, in this case, Mars, Inc.

Image result for mars inc candies

Mars, Inc., one of the defectors from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (see yesterday’s post) has also withdrawn from membership in and support of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a group that claims to be independent  but in fact is funded by hundreds of food and beverage companies (hence: front group).

ILSI’s positions on food issues are decidedly pro-industry, and so are the results of its sponsored research.  Mars couldn’t take it anymore.

Mars told Politico Pro (this may be behind a paywall):

After careful consideration, Mars will end its relationship with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) by the end of 2018, and is withdrawing from ILSI’s nutrition committees immediately,” the company said in a statement to POLITICO. “Increasingly, the presentation of certain studies by ILSI has been at odds with our position and principles. Mars has a long history of engaging in external research that is evidence-based and data-driven, particularly in the area of promoting public health. We wish to thank ILSI for its partnership.

Mars announces this departure as a component of its new research and engagement policy.

The policy applies to all of Mars’ partnerships with universities, governmental and non-governmental organizations, foundations, individuals, food companies, and trade associations (like ILSI).

Here is my summary of the policy’s long list of principles:

  • High scientific standards in all animal and human research
  • Full disclosure of funding and potential conflicts of interest
  • Appropriate standards of authorship
  • Funding not linked to achievement of a specific research outcome

This new policy adds to Mars’ existing policies on research:

Let’s give Mars, Inc. credit for recognizing that its funded research (especially its earlier research on chocolate and later research on CocoaVia flavanol supplements) appear conflicted, and for trying to do something about it.

Let’s hope the company succeeds in putting these principles into practice.

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