by Marion Nestle

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Aug 25 2021

Another food safety hazard: cake mix

The CDC is investigating an outbreak of illnesses from toxic E. coli most likely caught from commercial cake mix, of all things.

State and local public health officials are interviewing people about the foods they ate in the week before they got sick. Of the eight people interviewed, six (75%) reported tasting or eating raw batter made with a cake mix. People reported buying different varieties and brands of cake mix.

Even so, the cases are related.

DNA fingerprinting is performed on bacteria using a method called whole genome sequencing (WGS). WGS showed that bacteria from sick people’s samples are closely related genetically. This means that people in this outbreak likely got sick from the same food.

FDA is conducting a traceback investigation using purchase records from locations where sick people bought cake mix to try to determine a common cake mix brand or production facility.

I’m guessing that the source of the E. coli is contaminated flour.

This is not the first time that eating raw cake mix has caused illness.

As Food Safety News reports, another cake mix episode occurred in 2018, but that time it was from Salmonella (maybe from eggs?).

It also reports previous incidents with raw flour.

Raw flour and other ingredients can be individually contaminated and then cross-contaminate the entire mix.

Raw flour has caused two outbreaks in recent years, one in 2016 and another in 2019.

About 100 people are known to have been sickened with E. coli from eating raw flour.

I’ve posted previously about safety problems with General Mills flour.

And in 2009, there were E. coli problems with raw cookie dough; but then it was hard then to figure out whether the cause was eggs or flour.

Now, the FDA is testing cake mixes to try to identify a common source.

While all this is going on, the CDC advises:

Eating raw cake batter can make you sick. Raw cake batter can contain harmful germs like E. coli. Germs are killed only when raw batter is baked or cooked. Follow safe food handling practices when you are baking and cooking with cake mixes, flour, and other raw ingredients:

Good advice, and easier to follow with cake mixes than with cookie dough, alas.

Aug 24 2021

How much do cattle contribute to greenhouse gases?  It depends on who’s counting, and what.

A couple of weeks ago I did a post about a beef industry ad promoting the idea that eating beef promotes sustainability.  The ad claimed that beef contribute only 2% of greenhouse gases.  In rebuttal, I cited the widely quoted figure of 14.5%.

Two readers argued for a correction.

The first, Stephen Zwick, describes himself as a “regenetarianist,” a “huge soil nerd,” and independent of industry interests.  He sent lengthy and highly technical notes.  These, in my interpretation, boil down to:

He says:

Enteric methane is a distraction. Poor land management destroying soil sinks and reducing photosynthesis via desertification, deforestation and ocean acidification are also a huge problem. And yes, cattle and palm oil are part of the problem in tropical regions (see The Deforestation Process... )…Cattle is a very conspicuous driver, though it’s not really the primary driver. Human greed is…So, in other words, we need better regional and system data, and we can’t really make universal claims.

The second set of comments comes from Greg Miller, the chief science officer of the National Dairy Council.

While FAO estimates livestock emissions at 14.5% based on LCA [life cycle assessment], the emissions from transportation are only from the tailpipes (not LCA), so comparing apples and bananas – FAO did this, but later retracted because it is an inappropriate comparison, that now keeps getting repeated, thought you should know.

He cites this source on greenhouse gas emissions from the dairy sector:

And he cites this reference:  Recht, L. 2021 An Inclusive Transition to a Sustainable and Resilient Meat Sector, which talks about how to raise cattle sustainably.

How to make sense of this?

The percentage of greenhouse gases due to animal agriculture depends on who is doing the counting, and what factors and assumptions go into the estimations.  Low estimates predictably come from the beef and dairy industries (Stephen Zwick does not, which is why I am quoting him).  The Environmental Protection Agency also produces low estimates: 1.3% of total emissions for dairies.

In contrast, the Humane Society uses 18% (referring to carbon dioxide equivalents), as does Cowspiracy.

A new paper in Sustainability argues that the correct estimate is 16.5%.

It matters whether we are talking about carbon dioxide or methane.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends “strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CH4 [methane] emissions” and notes that the growth in atmospheric methane is “largely driven by emissions from the fossil fuels and agriculture (dominated by livestock) sectors.”

I was interested to see yesterday’s Politico, which had a report about the current politics of methane emissions. (behind a paywall).  It notes:

While oil and gas production is the main reason methane emissions have boomed since 2007, agriculture (namely livestock operations) remains a massive source of the potent greenhouse gas, accounting for 40 percent of methane emissions worldwide. ..Senate Democrats plan to include a “methane polluter fee” in their $3.5 trillion budget resolution that would hit energy producers that vent or burn off excess methane and compressors used to pressurize and transport natural gas.

The precise percentage contributed by animal agriculture?  I’m not sure it matters.  Everyone agrees that cattle produce more greenhouse gases than produced by any other food (as a result of burps, deforestation, feed production, manure, etc).

Raising cattle more sustainably and regeneratively is a really good idea.

That’s where policy needs to be directed.

Aug 23 2021

Industry-funded studies of the week: One Potato, Two Potato

One Potato

Thanks to David Ludwig for alerting me to an e-mail from the Alliance for Potato Research & Education (APRE), a trade association “dedicated to advancing the scientific understanding of the role potatoes play in promoting the health of all people.”

A new APRE-funded study published in Nutrients investigated the effect of increased dietary potassium from a whole food source – baked/boiled potatoes and baked French fries – or a potassium supplement on blood pressure and other cardiovascular disease risk factors compared to a ‘typical American’ control diet (lower potassium intake) among 30 pre-hypertensive-to-hypertensive men and women.

Results showed that baked/boiled potato consumption had the greatest benefit on reducing sodium retention, even more than the supplement, and resulted in a greater reduction in systolic blood pressure (SBP) compared to the control diet.

Further, despite commonly held misbeliefs about French fries and their role in heart-healthy lifestyles, the authors observed that a 330-calorie serving of baked French fries, when eaten as part of a ‘typical American’ diet, had no adverse effect on blood pressure or blood vessel function.

The study concludes:

This was the first controlled feeding study of potassium from food and supplements on BP and CVD outcomes in an unhealthy population…Of public health relevance is our observation that French fries in amounts typical of a large serving in a fast food restaurant has no adverse effect on blood pressure or endothelial function.

It discloses the funding source: “This research was funded by Alliance for Potato Research and Education.”

Comment: Because some (but not all) observational studies have linked potatoes, and especially French fries, to poor health outcomes, the potato industry wants research to give these foods a healthier image.  This study says that potatoes are high in potassium and a high potassium-to-sodium ratio is good for blood pressure and heart disease.  I could have told them that on the basis of food composition data alone: 100 grams of French fries contains 435 mg potassium versus 295 of sodium.  Does that make French fries a health food?  No, alas, it does not.

Once more for the record: industry-funded research is about marketing, not public health.

Two Potato

Last week, I received an emailed notification from APRE, the Alliance for Potato Research & Education announcing a new study.

For decades, people have often associated higher intakes of carbohydrate-containing foods with less healthy lifestyles. Yet, evidence suggests this view is overly simplistic, and it is instead the type and quality of carbohydrate foods that matter most for supporting health…In a newly published perspective in Nutrients, a group of nutrition researchers, who collectively make up the Quality Carbohydrate Coalition-Scientific Advisory Council (QCC-SAC), outline the opportunity for a stronger, more evidence-based approach to defining quality carbohydrate foods to support overall health and provide clearer dietary guidance.

The study: Toward an Evidence-Based Definition and Classification of Carbohydrate Food Quality: An Expert Panel Report.  Kevin B. Comerford, Yanni Papanikolaou,  Julie Miller Jones, Judith Rodriguez. Joanne Slavin,  Siddhartha Angadi.  and Adam Drewnowski.  Nutrients202113(8), 2667.

Conclusion: The identification of higher quality carbohydrate foods could improve evidence-based public health policies and programming—such as the 2025–2030 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

Funding:  This work was supported by the Quality Carbohydrate Coalition (QCC), which is funded by Potatoes USA. The QCC was not involved in the expert panel discussions, manuscript preparation, or the decision to submit the manuscript for publication.Conflicts of Interest: All authors are invited members of the Quality Carbohydrate Coalition’s Scientific Advisory Council (QCC-SAC). A.D. is the developer of the Nutrient Rich Food (NRF) index, a nutrient profiling model, and has received grants, contracts, and honoraria from entities, both public and private, with an interest in nutrient density of foods, complex meals, and the total diet. Y.P. is the president of Nutritional Strategies, collaborates on NHANES analyses and provides food, nutrition, and regulatory affairs consulting services for food/beverage companies and food-related associations. S.A. and J.M.J. advise the Grain Foods Foundation. J.S. has current grants from Taiyo and Barilla in the area of dietary fiber, and also serves on the Scientific Advisory Boards for Tate and Lyle and Atkins Nutritionals. J.R. has no conflicts of interest. K.B.C. is employed by FoodMinds, which provides science communications consulting services to various food and nutrition entities, including Potatoes USA and the Alliance for Potato Research and Education (APRE).
Comment: This is a successful effort by the potato industry to engage academics in support of the value of potatoes in healthful diets.  The role of potatoes in health is a contentious issue in the nutrition research community (see, for example, this FrontLine interview with Walter Willett).  The potato industry is fighting back by funding research (see above and also a previous post) and now engaging sympathetic academics.  I think potatoes are fine, in moderation.  But I wish academics would stay out of conflicted situations like this one.Reference: For a summary of research on the “funding effect”—the observations that research sponsored by food companies almost invariably produces results favorable to the sponsor’s interests and that recipients of industry funding typically did not intend to be influenced and do not recognize the influence—see my book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.

Aug 20 2021

Weekend reading: the food politics of Afghanistan, 2001 version

Reading about Afghanistan sent me back to what I wrote about food aid to that country in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (University of California Press, 2003, revised edition 2010: pages 260-265).  The World Food Programme has declared a hunger emergency  in Afghanistan that affects a third of the population, 14 million people.  This excerpt from my book illustrates a small part of the history of the current Afghanistan tragedies.

A New Emphasis for Food Security: Safety from Bioterrorism 

On October 13, 2001, New York Times photographer James Hill took this photograph of U.S. “Humanitarian Daily Rations” dropped over Afghanistan.  The photograph appeared in the Week in Review section on October 21.  Mr. Hill said the food packets were available in local markets for the equivalent of 60 cents each (Photographer’s Journal: War is a Way of Life, November 19, 2001)…©2001 New York Times Photo Archive.  Used with permission.)

 

Prior to the terrorist attacks [of September 2001], food security in the United States had a relatively narrow meaning that derived from the need to establish criteria for welfare and food assistance.  In the 1980s, the U.S. government expanded its definition of “hunger” (as a problem requiring food subsidies or donations) to include involuntary lack of access to food—the risk of hunger as well as the physical experience.   By this definition, food security came to mean reliable access to adequate food.[1]

The international definition is broader, however.  In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which said, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and the necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”[2]  Many interpret this provision to mean that people have a right to food security, in this case encompassing five elements: (1) reliable access to food that is not only (2) adequate in quantity and quality but also (3) readily available, (4) culturally acceptable, and (5) safe.  With respect to safety, the Geneva Convention of August 1949, an international agreement on the protection of civilians during armed conflict, expressly prohibited deliberate destruction or pollution of agriculture or of supplies of food and water.  These broader meanings derived from work in international development, where it was necessary to distinguish the physical sensation of hunger (which can be temporary or voluntary), from the chronic, involuntary lack of food that results from economic inequities, resource constraints, or political disruption.[3]

The significance of the lack-of-access meaning of food security is evident from a health survey conducted in a remote region of Afghanistan just a few months prior to the September 2001 attacks.  Not least because of decades of civil strife, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, and its health indices are dismal: a life expectancy of 46 years (as compared to 77 years in the United States) and an infant mortality rate of 165 per 1,000 live births (as compared to 7).[4]   At the time of the survey, the United Nations World Food Programme estimated that 3.8 million people in Afghanistan lacked food security and therefore required food aid.   Investigators examined the health consequences of this lack and found poor nutritional status to be rampant in the population and a contributing factor in nearly all of the deaths that occurred during the survey period.  Half of the children showed signs of stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition.  Scurvy (the disease resulting from severe vitamin C deficiency) alone accounted for 7% of deaths among children and adults.  Because visible nutrient deficiency diseases like scurvy are late indicators of malnutrition, the investigators viewed the level of food insecurity as a humanitarian crisis—less serious than in parts of Africa, but worse than in Kosovo during its 1999 upheavals.[5]  After October 2001, when bombing raids led to further displacement of the population, the United Nations increased its estimate of the size of the food insecure population to 6 million and predicted that the number would grow even larger as humanitarian aid became more difficult to deliver.

In part to alleviate shortages caused by the bombings, resulting dislocations, and the collapse of civic order, the United States began a program of food relief through airdrops.  The packages, labeled “Food gifts from the people of the United States of America,” contained freeze-dried lentil soup, beef stew, peanut butter, jelly, crackers, some spices, and a set of plastic utensils, and provided one day’s food ration for an adult–about 2,200 calories.  Beginning in October 2001, airplanes dropped about 35,000 food packages a day.  The quantities alone suggested that their purpose had more to do with politics than food security.[6]  A British commentator did the calorie counts:

If you believe, as some commentators do, that this is an impressive or even meaningful operation, I urge you to conduct a simple calculation.  The United Nations estimates that there are 7.5 [million] hungry people in Afghanistan.  If every ration pack reached a starving person, then one two hundredth of the vulnerable were fed by the humanitarian effort on Sunday.…But the purpose of the food drops is not to feed the starving but to tell them they are being fed.  President Bush explained on Sunday that by means of these packages, “the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies.”[7]

Even with a possible exaggeration of the extent of food insecurity, this comment suggests that food aid is a complicated business, and at best a temporary expedient.   One problem is getting dropped food to the people who need it most. The Figure illustrates the fate of some of the food aid packages.  As often happens, enterprising people collect the packages and sell them on the open market; this gets the food into public circulation, but at a price.   In this instance, the packages also encountered unexpected safety hazards.  The Pentagon warned that the Taliban might try to poison the packages or spread rumors of poisoning as a means of propaganda against the United States, but Taliban leaders denied this accusation: “No one can be that brutal and ignorant as to poison his own people.”[8]  The packages themselves presented hazards.  They were packed in specially designed plywood containers that could be dropped from 30,000 feet without breaking, but several landed in the wrong place and destroyed people’s homes.  Children sent to collect the food packages died or lost limbs when they ran across fields planted with land mines.  While the food drop was in progress, the political situation made it impossible for food aid to get into the country through conventional routes.  Later, warlords stole shipments, and riots broke out when supplies ran out.[9]  Political stability depends on food security, and food security is inextricably linked to political stability.  Without such stability, food aid alleviates a small part of the humanitarian crisis—better than nothing, but never a long-term solution.[10]

Would increasing the amount of food aid alleviate the crisis?   Former Senator George McGovern, U.S. ambassador to the World Food Programme said, “If these people have nourishment for healthy lives, this is less fertile territory for cultivation by terrorist leaders.”  Bringing in another issue germane to this book, he said that the war on hunger in Afghanistan and elsewhere cannot be waged without biotechnology: “It is probably true that affluent countries can afford to reject scientific agriculture and pay more for food produced by so-called natural methods.  But the 800 million poor, chronically hungry people of Asia, Africa and Latin America cannot afford such foods.”[11]  As we have seen, biotechnology is still a remote solution to food security problems, and it is difficult to imagine how it might alleviate immediate food shortages in Afghanistan.

References

[1]   Andrews MS, Prell MA, eds.  Second Food Security Measurement and Research Conference, Volume II: Papers.  USDA/ERS, July 2001.

[2]   United Nations.  Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, December 10, 1948).  Reprinted in JAMA 1998;280:469–470.

[3]   Oshaug A, Eide WB, Eide A.  Human rights: a normative basis for food and nutrition-relevant policies.  Food Policy 1994;19:491–516.  Drèze J, Sen A.  Hunger and Public Action.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

[4]   The World Factbook–United States, 2001. Central Intelligence Agency. Online: www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html.

[5]   Assefa F, Jabarkhil MZ, Salama P, et al.  Malnutrition and mortality in Kohistan district, Afghanistan, April 2001.  JAMA 2001;286:2723–2728.  Ahmad K.  Scurvy outbreak in Afghanistan prompts food aid concerns.  Lancet 2002;359:1044.

[6]   Perlez J.  Individual meals from the sky.  NYT, October 8, 2001:B3.

[7]   Monbiot G.  Folly of aid and bombs. Guardian (London), October 9, 2001.  Online: www.guardian.co.uk.

[8]   Hungry for peace: with winter near, starving Afghans need more than air-dropped relief.  San Francisco Chronicle, October 26, 2001:A1,A18.  Shanker T, Schmitt E.  U.S. warns Afghans that Taliban may poison relief food.  NYT, October 25, 2001:B2

[9]  Dao J.  Sergeant designs a better box for dropping food to Afghans.  NYT, October 10, 2001:B3.  Waldman A.  Food drops go awry, damaging several homes.  NYT, November 21, 2001:B2.  Becker E.  Even with roads still open, security fears are choking the flow of food aid.  NYT, November 30, 2001:B4.  Chivers CJ, Becker E.  Aid groups say warlords steal as needy wait.  NYT, January 4, 2002:A1,A15.

[10]  Nestle M, Dalton S.  Food aid and international hunger crises: the United States in Somalia.  Agriculture and Human Values 1994;11(4):19–27.  Lewis P.  Downside of doing good: disaster relief can harm.  NYT, February 27, 1999:B9.  McKinlay D.  Refugees left in the cold at “slaughterhouse” camp. Guardian (London), January 3, 2002.  Gall C.  Pleas for food, help and a way out.  NYT, January 20, 2002:A15.

[11]   Truelsen S.  Food aid and the war on terrorism.  The Voice of Agriculture.  American Farm Bureau Federation, November 5, 2001. Online: Online:  www.fb.com. 

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Aug 19 2021

Lab-based meat: the latest

Eating less meat is good advice for the health of people and the planet.  How to do that?  The makers of cell-based meat substitutes say they are the solution to this problem.  But are they?  They aren’t on the market yet, except in Singapore, so the jury is still out.

Public interest

  • A taste for lab-grown meat: In an online poll, 19 percent of American adults responded “Yes, I am eager to try” cell-cultured meat when it becomes available, while 78 percent of meat eaters said they would prefer “real meat” in the long run. (Piplsay)

The rationale

  • The film: Meat Me Halfway is a just-released documentary from the Reducitarian perspective, which argues that any reduction in meat intake is a help, any way it happens.  One way is to substitute cell-based meat.  Take a look.  I found the film interesting and compelling, and not just because I’m one of the talking heads in it.

The forthcoming products

  • Bacon:  Sales of Vegan Bacon Are On the Rise as More Brands Hit the Market.  Plant-based producers are attracting notable funding for a market not yet taken over by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.
  • Milk: Tech fantasy or a liquid goldmine? BioMilk goes public:  Visitors to BioMilk’s website are asked a simple question: ‘What is milk?’ a question that – until relatively recently – had a pretty obvious answer: the white stuff lactating mammals produce. Today, however, there’s plant-based milk; there are products containing selected components of mammalian milk produced via microbes in fermentation tanks; and now the final frontier: cell-cultured milk…. Read more
  • Chicken: Memphis Meats Re-Brands as UPSIDE Foods, Announces Cultured Chicken as its First Product.  Press release.
  • Caviar: the mass-market health food star of the future? A British company is developing the world’s first lab-grown ‘compassionate’ caviar to allow more people to experience the delicacy’s unique taste and nutritional benefits…. Read more
  • Foie Gras: Gourmey, a start-up based in Paris, received an additional $10 million in seed funding this week. The company hopes to find a market in the United States amid growing concerns about animal cruelty.

The business (follow the money)

Aug 18 2021

Who is responsible for public distrust of GMOs? Monsanto, anyone?

In my view, one of the strongest reasons for public distrust of GMOs is the behavior of the GMO industry, with the secretive, aggressive, corporate behavior of Monsanto as the most glaring example.

I saw this myself.

In the late 1990s, I was at a meeting of food industry executives, among them the CEOs or high ranking officials of several agricultural biotechnology companies, including Monsanto.

The others were openly furious with Monsanto’s CEO for ruining public trust in their products: “You have ruined this for us.”

But Monsanto’s reputation did not stop Bayer from buying the company in 2018 (for $63 billion, no less), something it—and its stockholders—must surely regret (some are suing the company).

As Carey Gillam of US Right to Know has just reported, “Appeals court rejects Bayer’s bid to overturn Roundup trial loss and slams company for “reckless disregard” for consumer safety.”

In a decision handed down on Monday, the 1st Appellate District in the Court of Appeal for California rejected Monsanto’s bid to overturn the trial loss in a case brought by husband-and-wife plaintiffs, Alva and Alberta Pilliod.

This is the third trial in which juries awarded millions of dollars to plaintiffs who claimed that they developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma as a result of exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

To head off subsequent trials, Bayer said it would pay about $11 billion (yes, billion) to settle about 100,000 pending cases, and would pay $4.5 billion more to offset further liability for Roundup claims.  Bayer also announced it would stop selling Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides for home use in the US by 2023 (but it will still sell Roundup to farmers.  And it is taking its case to the Supreme Court to get a reversal of a cancer-claim case.

What I find remarkable about the Pilliod decision is the judge’s scathing comments on Monsanto’s corporate behavior.  As quoted by Gillam:

  • “Monsanto’s conduct evidenced reckless disregard of the health and safety of the multitude of unsuspecting consumers it kept in the dark. This was not an isolated incident; Monsanto’s conduct involved repeated actions over a period of many years motivated by the desire for sales and profit.”
  • Monsanto acted with a “willful and conscious disregard for the safety of others.” Monsanto “failed to conduct adequate studies on glyphosate and Roundup, thus impeding discouraging, or distorting scientific inquiry concerning glyphosate and Roundup.”
  • “But rather than fairly stating all the relevant evidence, Monsanto has made a lopsided presentation that relies primarily on the evidence in its favor. This type of presentation may work for a jury, but it will not work for the Court of Appeal.”
  •  “Summed up, the evidence shows Monsanto’s intransigent unwillingness to inform the public about the carcinogenic dangers of a product it made abundantly available at hardware stores and garden shops across the country.”

Or try this footnote:

The effects of all this on Bayer’s stock prices?

Other People vs. Monsanto/Bayer cases are in the works.  Stay tuned.

Aug 17 2021

Splendid news! USDA updates Thrifty Food Plan and SNAP benefits

Yesterday, the USDA issued a press release: USDA Modernizes the Thrifty Food Plan, Updates SNAP Benefits

WASHINGTON, August 16, 2021 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today released a re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, used to calculate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

This is a miracle, an event long sought by anti-hunger advocates.

The Thrifty Food Plan is supposed to be “the cost of groceries needed to provide a healthy, budget-conscious diet for a family of four.”

  • It is the basis for establishing SNAP benefits.
  • It was created in 1962.
  • All subsequent updates (until now) only adjusted for inflation but were otherwise required to be cost-neutral.

No wonder SNAP benefits were so inadequate.

Hope for change came with the 2018 Farm Bill.

In January, President Biden issued an Executive Order to review the Thrifty Food Plan.  USDA moved quickly on this in order to increase pandemic benefits permanently.

In its re-evaluation, USDA did as directed by Congress.  It based its report on current food prices, food composition data, consumption patterns, and dietary guidance.

The New York Times has a graphic displaying these changes in greater detail, as well as the effects of these changes on benefits.

This may not seem like much of a difference, but it should help.

No surprise, some members of Congress have objected to the increased expenditures, estimated to amount to $20 billion a year.

SNAP expenditures have always been contentious.   But for now, those who need help will be getting a bit more.

Additional Resources

  • What is the TFP? (Blog)
  • The Thrifty Food Plan and SNAP Benefits (Website)
  • The TFP Re-Evaluation Process (Infographic)
  • Changes in Benefits by State (Tables)
  • TFP Listening Sessions (Summary) (Blog)
  • SNAP Participants’ Barriers to Healthy Eating (Infographic)
  • Barriers that Constrain the Adequacy of SNAP Allotments (Report)
  • SNAP FY 2022 Cost-of-Living Adjustments (Memo)
Aug 16 2021

Least credible ad of the week: “Beefing Up Sustainability”


My colleague, Lisa Young, forwarded this ad to me from the weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

In case it’s too small for you to read, the ad makes some eyebrow-raising points:

  • “If all U.S. livestock were eliminated and every American followed a vegan diet, greenhouse gas emissions 0would only be reduced by 2%, or 0.36% globally.”
  • “Plus, cattle play an important role in protecting and enhancing our ecosystems by increasing carbon storage, improving soil health, mitigating wildfires, and providing habitat for wildlife.”
  • “We all play a role in a more sustainable future, but eliminating beef is not the answer.”

This, in case it is not instantaneously obvious, is part of the beef industry’s well documented effort to fight concerns about the well documented role of beef production in climate change.

The ad is paid for by the Beef Checkoff, one of the USDA-sponsored marketing and promotion programs funded by what is essentially a tax—the “checkoff”—on producers.  I recently wrote about how the Beef Checkoff funds research in this industry’s interest.

The ad cites research studies supporting its statements, but these are cherry-picked.

Estimates of the percent of greenhouse gases contributed by lifestock production vary, but the most widely accepted range from 14% to 18%.  Beef accounts for at least 10%.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, for example, says:

Total emissions from global livestock: 7.1 Gigatonnes of Co2-equiv per year, representing 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic GHG emissions…Cattle (raised for both beef and milk, as well as for inedible outputs like manure and draft power) are the animal species responsible for the most emissions, representing about 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions…feed production and processing (this includes land use change) and enteric fermentation from ruminants are the two main sources of emissions, representing 45 and 39 percent of total emissions, respectively.

The New York Times describes foods that have the largest  impact on climate change.

Meat and dairy, particularly from cows, have an outsize impact, with livestock accounting for around 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases each year. That’s roughly the same amount as the emissions from all the cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined in the world today.

In general, beef and lamb have the biggest climate footprint per gram of protein, while plant-based foods tend to have the smallest impact. Pork and chicken are somewhere in the middle.

A study published in Science calculated the average greenhouse gas emissions associated with different foods.  The New York Times summarizes its results:

Beef production creates emissions of methane as well as carbon dioxide from multiple sources: feed production, cow burps, manure production, etc.

Beef production that involves grazing on grasslands could meet sustainability goals, but beef cattle raised in feedlots cannot.

There are plenty of environmental reasons for eating less beef, and these are on top of health reasons.

The Beef Checkoff ad does not tell the whole story, alas.

Addition

Lisa reminds me that the cost of a full-page color ad in the Wall Street Journal runs around $200,000.