by Marion Nestle

Search results: in bed with Congress

May 19 2016

SNAP politics: strange bedfellows

Wouldn’t it be useful if stores that accept SNAP benefits stocked some other real—as opposed to packaged—foods in addition to the apples, oranges, and bananas most of them now seem to carry (witness Walgreens)?

Congress thought so when it passed the 2014 farm bill.  This intended

to expand or preserve the availability of staple foods in underserved areas with moderate- and low income populations by maintaining or increasing the number of retail outlets that offer an assortment of perishable food and staple food items, as determined by the Secretary, in those areas.

In response, USDA proposed new regulations to improve what SNAP retailers had in stock.

The 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to develop regulations to ensure that stores that accept SNAP offer a broader variety of healthy food choices. The stocking provisions in the proposed rule would require SNAP-authorized retail establishments to offer a larger inventory and variety of healthy food options so that recipients have access to more healthy food choices. SNAP retailers would be required to offer seven varieties of qualifying foods in four staple food groups for sale on a continuous basis, along with perishable foods in at least three of the four staple food groups. The staple foods groups are dairy products; breads and cereals; meats, poultry and fish; and fruits and vegetables. In addition, the proposal calls for retailers to stock at least six units within each variety, leading to a total of at least 168 required food items per store.

Guess what?  Some retailers don’t like this idea.

What to do when you don’t like food regulations?  Go straight to Congress.

Now the House agriculture committee is complaining to USDA about the rule.  It says that USDA’s estimate of the cost per store ($140) is wrong.  Retailers say it will cost them $5000 per month to implement.

Who’s right?  Hence: politics.

The Congressional Black Caucus also wants the USDA to back off on this rule.  It says communities need these retailers (the quality of the foods they sell is not an issue, apparently).  Here is its letter.

Civil Eats has a good summary of the issues.

It troubles me greatly that SNAP divides advocates for the poor and advocates for health.  Don’t all of us want the recipients of federal food assistance to have access to healthful food choices?

May 10 2016

Congress, FOIA, and Checkoff programs

Congress in its infinite wisdom is now doing Big Ag a big favor.  It wants to exempt checkoff programs from having to deal with pesky Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The House Appropriations Committee just approved its version of the 2017 Agriculture Appropriations bill along with committee report language getting checkoffs off the hook.

Checkoff programs, you will recall are commodity research and promotion programs run by boards and overseen by USDA.   The Milk Board, for example, does the milk mustache campaign.

Checkoffs mainly do generic marketing.  They are not supposed to lobby.  The USDA is supposed to manage the boards—but not with federal money.

So are checkoffs government programs or not?

The checkoffs like to say they are government when convenient, but not government when inconvenient.  This is one of those times.

The report language says because checkoffs are “not agencies of the federal government,” they should not be subject to FOIA laws.

I learned about this latest example of congressional protection of industry from a tweet on May 2 from Associated Press reporter Candice Choi.

Food commodity trade groups, she shows, wrote a letter to Congress to exempt checkoff programs from being subject to FOIA requests.

Congress happily incorporated that language right into the Appropriations Act.

In their article about this latest act of hypocrisy, Candice Choi and Mary Clare Jalonick write:

On April 11, a group of 14 trade associations sent a letter to Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., the subcommittee’s top Democrat, asking them to urge USDA to recognize that the promotional programs are not subject to public records requests.  The rationale was that the programs are funded by producers, according to a copy of a letter obtained by the AP.

Irony alert: A Supreme Court decision in 2005 upheld the checkoffs’ collection of fees from producers as being protected as “government speech.”

Hypocrisy alert: Trade associations wrote the letter, not the checkoff boards.  This is because the boards are not allowed to lobby, but their closely related trade associations can.

Choi and Jalonick also point out that:

The checkoff programs were established by the government at the industry’s urging as a way to collect mandatory fees from producers for promotional efforts. That has resulted in considerable marketing muscle for agricultural products. Last year, the egg board had revenue of more than $22 million; the pork board’s revenue topped $98 million in 2014.

The Fern quotes professor Parke Wilde of Tufts University, a long-standing expert on checkoff programs.  These, he says,

have always been subject to freedom of information laws. It stands to reason: Farmers and the public deserve to know what’s really going on with these well-funded USDA-sponsored programs….

Wilde obtained documents

about the 2006 decision by the Pork Board to pay $60 million to the National Pork Producers Council for the rights to the advertising slogan of pork as “the other white meat.” Wilde wrote in 2013, “It looks to me like the sale price was drastically inflated as a way of funneling money from the semi-public checkoff program to the private-sector trade association.”

Just last year, a FOIA request from The Guardian, revealed that the egg checkoff, working with Unilever, agreed to use its influence to have Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo removed from Whole Foods.

Lobbying or not?  You decide.

The National Farmers Union says it

strongly opposes the blurred lines between the commodity trade associations and the checkoff boards. Our policy states that mandatory producer assessments should not go to organizations that engage in lobbying, and no contracts should be awarded to organizations that carry out political or lobbying activities.

FOIA is a central pillar of transparency in our democracy. It provides for an open government where citizens can request records from federal agencies – with some exemptions for national security, law enforcement and personal privacy…Take a look at the letter NFU sent today, and let your members of Congress know that this language is not in the best interest of family farmers, ranchers or consumers.

Thanks to The Hagstrom Report for this list of references

Capital Press — Commodity groups seek Freedom of Information exemption for checkoff boards

National Public Radio — Under Attack, Commodity Promotion Programs Try To Hide Their Emails

U.S. Food Policy —Checkoff program supporters seek to shield checkoff boards from freedom-of-information scrutiny

The Guardian — Largest U.S. food producers ask Congress to shield lobbying activities

Fortune — Where’s the Beef? You Won’t be Able to Find Out if Agricultural Groups Get Their Way

Apr 22 2013

Food politics makes strange bedfellows, again

Last week, I wrote about the dairy industry’s petition to avoid having to follow FDA rules about labeling artificial sweeteners on the front of milk cartons.

Cara Wilking, Senior Staff Attorney at the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University points out that the Sugar Association, the trade association for producers of cane and beet sugar, is right on top of this issue.

To assist consumers in making informed choices about what is sweetening the products they purchase, the Sugar Association petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requesting changes to labeling regulations on sugar and alternative sweeteners.

In this petition we asked that artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols be identified on the front of the package along with the amounts, similar to what is required in Canada.

If it is important to you to know if the product you purchase contains artificial sweeteners, let your congressional representatives know that FDA needs to take action on this important consumer issue.

The Sugar Association, obviously, represents the producers of cane and beet sugar. It wants to sell more sugar.  It doesn’t like artificial sweeteners much.  [Recall: it doesn’t like me much either—go to Media and scroll down to the bottom to read the Sugar Association’s letter threatening to sue me].

In contrast, the dairy industry wants to sell more milk.  Sweetened milk, no matter with what, sells to kids.  School kids are a big market for the dairy industry.  This market, however, is not doing well these days, according to the dairy industry’s August 2012 School Channel Survey.

Schools and processors are realizing 59% of current potential…Milk potential stands at 6.29 milks per student each week…Actual usage is 3.74 milks per student each week.  Elementary schools: 70% of potential being realized, down 1 point Secondary schools: 50%, down 1 point over last year.

Achieving ‘a milk with every meal’ translates into nearly 300 million incremental gallons….

Of course artificial sweeteners should be prominently labeled.  The Sugar Association has this one right.

Whatever your opinion, you can file comments at www.regulations.gov. Search for docket number FDA-2009-P-0147.

 

Dec 17 2011

Congress caves in again. Delays IWG recommendations.

It’s hard to believe how thoroughly Congress is in bed with the food industry but here is another example: the House has just inserted language in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012  requiring the Federal Trade Commission’s Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children to conduct a cost/benefit analysis of the final recommendations in its report.

This, of course, will delay or even kill the IWG’s recommendations for voluntary nutrition standards for marketing foods to kids (see previous posts).

Get this: Section 626 of the Act says:

None of the funds made available in this Act may be used by the Federal Trade Commission to complete the draft report entitled “Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children: Preliminary Proposed Nutrition Principles to Guide Industry Self-Regulatory Efforts” unless the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children complies with Executive Order 13563.

And what, pray tell, is Executive Order 13563?  Agencies may:

  • Propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination that its benefits justify its costs
  •  Tailor its regulations to impose the least burden on society
  • Select, in choosing among alternative regulatory approaches, those approaches that maximize net benefits
  •  To the extent feasible, specify performance objectives
  • Identify and assess available alternatives to direct regulation

Recall that the industry spent a reported $37 million to oppose the IWG recommendations.  Apparently, it was money well spent.

Let’s hope the Senate has sense enough to delete this section so that the FTC can put its long-delayed and already watered-down standards in place.

Additions, December 18: No such luck.  Consider this passed.  Thanks to Michele Simon for pointing out that Congress cannot legally require a cost/benefit analysis of the IWG guidelines because they are voluntary and, therefore, not regulations.  And thanks to Margo Wootan for explaining how and where to contact Congress.

 

Jun 18 2018

Where are we on the farm bill?

Let’s start with FERN’s (Food and Agriculture Reporting Network) truly helpful, 7-minute video explaining what the Farm Bill is about.

And then there’s my overview from Politico.

With all that said, the House and Senate agriculture committees have each produced their own versions of the bill and we are waiting for the votes.  So these are preliminary, pending arguments, amendments, changes, and, eventually, reconciliation.

The big food movement issues are the SNAP and Horticulture (translation: fruit, vegetable, and organics) titles.  Browse around and see what Congress is and is not doing to link agricultural policy to health policy.

More to come when we see what gets passed.

Apr 18 2018

Where are we on the Farm Bill?

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has scored the farm bill (“HR 2”) meaning that they have estimated its costs.

Here’s the CBO summary, and its key paragraph in perfect CBO-speak (I’ve divided the sentences up into bullets to make this a bit easier to read):

  • Relative to spending projected under CBO’s April 2018 baseline, CBO estimates that enacting H.R. 2 would increase direct spending by $3.2 billion over the 2019-2023 period.
  • Following the rules specified in BBEDCA [Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act], CBO has incorporated the assumption that the changes made to those programs would continue after 2023, the final year of authorization under the bill.
  • On that basis, CBO estimates that direct spending would decrease by $2.7 billion over the 2024-2028 period, for a net increase in direct spending of $0.5 billion over the 2019-2028 period.
  • CBO also estimates that enacting the bill would increase revenues by $0.5 billion over the 2019-2028 period.

Huh?  Got that?

Next, we have the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s analyses of key Farm Bill provisions.  Start with these from the bottom up for Farm Bill 101:

  • RELEASE: END OF PAYMENT LIMITATIONS WOULD PAVE WAY FOR FURTHER FARM CONSOLIDATION: End of Payment Limitations Would Pave Way for Further Farm Consolidation House Draft Farm Bill proposes to eliminate annual subsidy caps, opening subsidy floodgates Washington, DC, April 16, 2018 – Included in the draft farm bill presented by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) last […]
  • DRAFT HOUSE FARM BILL: ORGANIC AGRICULTURE:  This is the sixth and final post in a multi-part blog series analyzing the draft farm bill released on April 12, 2018 by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX). Previous posts focused on: beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, crop insurance and commodity subsidies local/regional food systems and rural development, research and seed breeding, and […]
  • DRAFT HOUSE FARM BILL: CONSERVATION: This is the fifth post in a multi-part blog series analyzing the draft farm bill released on April 12, 2018 by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX). Previous posts focused on: beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, crop insurance and commodity subsidies local/regional food systems and rural development, and research and seed breeding. The bill […]
  • DRAFT HOUSE FARM BILL: RESEARCH AND SEED BREEDING: This is the fourth post in a multi-part blog series analyzing the draft farm bill released on April 12, 2018 by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX). The first was on beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, the second on crop insurance and commodity subsidies, and the third on local/regional food systems. The bill is […]
  • DRAFT HOUSE FARM BILL: LOCAL & REGIONAL FOOD AND RURAL DEVELOPMENT: This is the third post in a multi-part blog series analyzing the draft farm bill released on April 12, 2018 by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX). The first was on beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and the second on crop insurance and commodity subsidies. The bill is expected to be considered and “marked-up” […]
  • DRAFT HOUSE FARM BILL: CROP INSURANCE AND COMMODITY PROGRAMS: This is the second post in a multi-part blog series analyzing the draft farm bill released on April 12, 2018 by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX). The first was on beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, the third on local/regional food systems, and the fourth on research and seed breeding. The bill is expected to […]
  • DRAFT HOUSE FARM BILL: BEGINNING AND SOCIALLY DISADVANTAGED FARMERS: This is the first post in a multi-part blog series analyzing the draft farm bill released on April 12, 2018 by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX). Subsequent posts focus on: crop insurance and commodity subsidies local/regional food systems and rural development, research and seed breeding, conservation, and organic agriculture. The bill is expected to be considered and […]
  • RELEASE: DRAFT FARM BILL DELIVERS KNOCK-OUT PUNCH TO “TINY BUT MIGHTY” PROGRAMS:  Local/regional food system and rural development programs are among the hardest hit Washington, DC, April 13, 2018 – At a price tag of well over $800 billion dollars, the farm bill wouldn’t be considered by […]
  • RELEASE: THE FACTS ABOUT WORKING LANDS CONSERVATION IN THE HOUSE DRAFT FARM BILL:  Yesterday, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) presented a draft farm bill to America’s farmers and ranchers that would eradicate the nation’s largest voluntary […]
  • COMMENT: AMERICAN AGRICULTURE NEEDS A STRONG FARM BILL, DRAFT HOUSE BILL DOESN’T DELIVER:  Today, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) introduced his draft of the 2018 […]

As for the Farm Bill itself:

  • Farm Bill (Nutrition on pp 223-305 /Nutrition Education on p. 292):
  • Section-by-Section (Nutrition Begins on p. 24/Nutrition Education on p. 30)
Mar 28 2018

The NIH’s dubious partnership in industry-funded alcohol research

Last week, New York Times reporter Roni Rabin wrote how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) solicited funding from alcohol companies to fund—and, distressingly, participate in the design of—a study of the effects of moderate drinking on heart disease risk.

This is not the first time Ms. Rabin has written about this study.  In July, she described the study and its funding.

Since then, she has apparently been busy filing FOIA requests and conducting further interviews.  These reveal that the NIH actively solicited industry funding and input into this trial.

The [NIH] presentations gave the alcohol industry an opportunity to preview the trial design and vet the investigators. Indeed, the scientist leading the meetings was eventually chosen to head the huge clinical trial.

They also made the industry privy to pertinent details, including a list of clinical sites and investigators who were “already on board,” the size and length of the trial, approximate number of participants, and the fact that they could choose any beverage. By design, no form of alcohol — wine, liquor or beer — would be called out as better than another in the trial.

But it gets worse.  Boston University professor Michael Siegel tells his personal story of dealings with NIH’s National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

On January 16, 2015, I was called into the office of the Director of NIAAA and was essentially reprimanded for conducting NIAAA-funded research that was detrimental to the alcohol industry…At the meeting, I was told that I would never again be funded to conduct research on alcohol marketing, regardless of how highly my research proposal was scored by the scientific review panel.

Let me be clear: research ethics require funders to have no involvement in research design, conduct, or interpretation, lest they exert undue influence on the results.

Julia Belluz (Vox) put this study in context.  She describes how

The NIH is now investigating whether the researchers violated federal policy by soliciting donations, and they’re appointing outside experts to review the design of the study. We don’t yet know the full story, and there’s surely more to uncover.

Anheuser Busch InBev, Heineken, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Carlsberg helped pay $67.7 million of the $100 million government study, which is currently underway. And even more troubling is that if you were a patient looking to enroll in the trial through the online clinical trials registry, you’d have no way of knowing about the industry’s involvement because that funding is not disclosed there.

Although I do not have much to say about the alcohol industry in my forthcoming book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, I mention of this study as an example of how other industries skew research and also how pooling industry research funds is insufficient protection against conflicted interests (alcohol companies agreed to contribute 67.7% of the funding).

It’s good that the NIH has decided to investigate this dubious government-industry partnership, which so clearly seems aimed at marketing, not public health.

Nov 15 2017

Sugar industry politics, 2017 style

If you search this site for “Sugar Policy,” you will get lots of items over the years.

Now, several members of Congress have introduced a bill, the Sugar Policy Modernization Act, to remove price supports and repeal marketing allotments and quotas.

These keep the price of sugar produced in the U.S. artificially high, but not so high that the public complains.

Industrial users of sugar—candy and soda makers, for example—want to buy sugar at cheaper worldwide market rates.

Good luck with trying to do this. Big Sugar is happy with the current system and lobbies with great effect to make sure it stays that way.

Representatives from the House Sugar Caucus (yes, there is one) sent a letter to fellow members of Congress urging them to vote against this proposal.

The Sugar Program Modernization Act would upend this success and reward the world’s worst subsidizers at the expense of U.S. sugar farmers. While a handful of food manufacturers would benefit under the Sugar Program Modernization Act, farmers, sugar workers, rural communities, and consumers would lose out. That is too steep a price to pay so multinational food conglomerates can pad their profits.

But politics makes strange bedfellows.  The American Enterprise Institute has a new analysis of sugar policies. Its key points?

  • The US sugar program is a protectionist scheme destined to transfer income to sugar growers and processors at the cost of sugar users and consumers.
  • The losses to consumers and users are large in aggregate for the country, in the order of $2.4–$4 billion.
  • The major recommendation is the total removal of the sugar program’s main components, including tariff-rate quotas, allotments, and sugar loan rates.

It’s hard to know how this will play out this year.  History favors a win for Big Sugar.  They run politics in Louisiana and Florida,  But this too will be interesting to watch.

 

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