by Marion Nestle

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Aug 3 2021

GAO tells USDA to get busy on worker safety at meat-packing plants

The summer is a good time to catch up on reports.  Early in July, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO)—a government watchdog agency—sent a firm letter to USDA chiding that agency for not implementing GAO’s recommendations in a timely manner.

In November 2020, we reported that on a government-wide basis, 77 percent of our recommendations made 4 years ago were implemented…[but] USDA’s recommendation implementation rate was 46 percent. As of May 2021, USDA had 171 open recommendations. Fully implementing all open recommendations could significantly improve USDA’s operations.

Among the GAO’s recommendations were two of particular interest:

I.  Strengthen Protections for Wage Earners. See: Workplace Safety and Health: Better Outreach, Collaboration and Information Needed to Help Protect Workers at Meat and Poultry Plants. GAO-18-12. Washington, D.C.: November 9, 2017.

Recommendation: The FSIS Administrator should work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to assess the implementation of their agencies’ joint memorandum of understanding (MOU) regarding worker safety at meat and poultry plants and make any needed changes to ensure improved collaboration, and also set specific time frames for periodic evaluations of the MOU.

Comment: This is about the failure of OSHA and USDA to protect meat-processing and -packing workers from Covid-19 (for data on the effects of Covid-19 on these workers, see Leah Douglas’s regular reports on the Food and Environment Reporting Network.  GAO is essentially calling on the two agencies to get busy on protecting workers at those plants.

II.  Improve Cybersecurity.  See Cybersecurity: Agencies Need to Fully Establish Risk Management Programs and Address Challenges. GAO-19-384. Washington, D.C.: July 25, 2019.

Recommendations:  The USDA should (1) develop a cybersecurity risk management strategy that includes the key elements identified in this report; and (2) establish and document a process for coordination between cybersecurity risk management and enterprise risk management functions.

Comment:  The GAO is asking USDA to work with other agencies to improve cybersecurity at meat-processing plants.  Why?  Because the meat industry’s weak cybersecurity—a long-standing problem—was recently exposed when hackers did a ransomware attack on JBS meat plants that cost the company $11 million to resolve.

Aug 2 2021

Unethical food marketing ad of the week: infant formula, organic no less

When my partner, Mal Nesheim, showed me this ad in Sunday’s New York Times, I had two immediate questions.

Question #1: Who paid for this?

The answer: Bobbie’s Infant Formula “inspired by a mom’s choice.”

When I went to the website, I learned that Bobbie’s infant formula is organic.  I am greatly in favor of organics, but just as organic junk food is still junk food, organic infant formula is still infant formula.

Breast feeding isn’t easy in today’s society and yes, some mothers (and fathers, of course) can’t do it.

But breast feeding is unquestionably best for babies.  Mothers who can breast feed need all the help and encouragement they can get.

That’s why this week has been designated World Breastfeeding Week.

Breastfeeding mothers do not need to be undermined by infant formula marketing.

If Nestlé (no relation) or the other leading infant formula manufacturers put an ad like this in the paper, the result would be worldwide outrage.  This leads to my second question.

Question #2: Doesn’t this ad appear to violate the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes?

OK, so the ad does not display infant formula products or even say that Bobbie’s is an infant formula company, let alone an organic one.  But it doesn’t take much to figure both out.

Recall the Nestlé boycott of  the 1980s, a worldwide boycott of the company because of the way it marketed infant formula to women in low-resource countries without clean water supplies.  The women were unable to use the products safely; contaminated or improperly diluted infant formula sickened and killed babies.

Opposition to Nestlé’s marketing strategies led to development of Marketing Code, now ratified by all WHO member nations (the United States and South Africa were the two holdouts, but both eventually agreed).

The boycott was so damaging to Nestlé’s sales and reputation that the company discusses it and defends its current marketing practices on its website.

If you have any concerns about our breast milk substitutes marketing practices, we encourage you to raise them with us so that we can continue to improve.

I’d say this Bobbie ad is morally and ethically wrong on four counts:

  • It undermines breast feeding
  • It directly undermines the intent of World Breastfeeding Week.
  • It violates the spirit if not the letter of the International Marketing Code.
  • It organic washes—it implies that because its products are organic, this company is above the Code.

This is the kind of marketing that gives organics a bad name.

Bobbie’s should not be doing this.

Time for another boycott?

Jul 30 2021

Weekend reading: Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet?

Jessica Fanzo.  Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet?  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.

This is a small book, 4′ x 6″ format, 214 pages.  I did a blurb for its back cover:

Jessica Fanzo argues that dinner not only can fix the planet, but must.  The cutting edge of nutrition policy today is to promote diets that simultaneously achieve three goals–reduce hunger, prevent chronic disease, and protect the environment—and this means those lower in meat and higher in vegetables and other plant foods.  Read Fanzo’s book.  It is beautifully written, authoritative, and utterly convincing—essential reading for anyone interested in food system approaches to world food problems.

A couple of excerpts:

The foods we eat are much more than just a source of sustenance.  They have direct and substantial impacts on the nutrition and health of individuals and populations, the planet’s natural resources and climate change, and structural equity and social justice challenges of societies.  Food connects us to the world.  It also dictates (to a degree most people don’t realize) the kind of world we live in today and the kind of world we will occupy in the future (p. 3)

Do animal-source foods support or harm sustainability and health outcomes?  In reality, they do a bit of both.  Climate change is not the only measure of sustainability.  Sustainability also describes human and animal health outcomes and well-being, equity, and security.  Often, discussion about the sustainability of animal-source foods neglect to include the effect that low consumption of animal-source foods has on the lives and futures of nutritionally vulnerable populations, women, and children.  Moving forward, we’ll have to combine more sustainable livestock production practices with increased access and moderate consumption (p. 108).

Jul 29 2021

The food news from China: a roundup

I’ve been collecting items about China’s food system as well as that country’s role in ours.

Podcast: The scientist whose hybrid rice helped feed billions: A historian reflects on the life of Chinese crop scientist Yuan Longping, and the possible influence of geothermal energy production on earthquake aftershocks.

BMI and obesity trends in China:  Limin Wang and colleagues use data from six representative surveys in China…The authors report that standardised mean BMI increased from 22·7 kg/m2 (95% CI 22·5–22·9) in 2004 to 24·4 kg/m2 (24·3–24·6) in 2018, and obesity prevalence from 3·1% (2·5–3·7) in 2014 to 8·1% (7·6–8·7)…in 2018, an estimated 85 million adults (95% CI 70 million–100 million; 48 million men [95% CI 39 million–57 million] and 37 million women [31 million–43 million]) aged 18–69 years in China were obese.

China says it will buy US farm products: Bloomberg News reported on Friday that, “China plans to accelerate purchases of American farm goods to comply with the phase one trade deal with the U.S. following talks in Hawaii this week.

Chinese holdings of US agricultural landAccording to USDA’s data on foreign ownership of US land, China owns about 192,000 agricultural acres, worth $1.9 billion.  This includes land used for farming, ranching and forestry,.

The House introduces legislation to prevent China from buying U.S. farmlandTexas representative Chip Roy has introduced the “Securing America’s Land from Foreign Interference Act” to “ensure that Texas’s land never comes under the control of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] by prohibiting the purchase of U.S. public or private real estate by any members of the CCP.  [Comment: I’m guessing this won’t get very far, in part because China is an important trading partner].

Balance of trade with China:  U.S. exports of agricultural products to China totaled $14 billion in 2019, largely from soybeans ($8.0 billion); pork and pork products ($1.3 billion); cotton ($706 million); tree nuts ($606 million); and hides and skins ($412 million).  U.S. imports of agricultural products from China totaled $3.6 billion in 2019, mainly from processed fruit and vegetables ($787 million); snack foods ($172 million); spices ($170 million); fresh vegetables ($136 million); and tea, including herbal tea ($131 million).  [Comment: we were way ahead on the balance in 2019].

China Focus: Yeyo’s Tmall launch, Chinese dietary spending trends, local cultivated meat developments and more feature in our round-up:  China’s first coconut yoghurt brand Yeyo’s Tmall launch, Chinese dietary spending trends, local cultivated meat developments and more feature in this edition of China Focus…. Read more

‘Follow, not lead’: China likely to be world’s largest cultivated meat consumer – but long, challenging journey ahead: China looks likely to be the world’s largest consumer market of cultivated meat due its population size and government support, but a long, arduous journey lies ahead before this becomes a reality, according to an industry expert…. Read more

Deliciou-s bite: Shark Tank alumni sets sights on China with first shelf-stable plant-based meats after cross-country supermarket success:  Australia-based Deliciou has its eye on China and other Asian markets with its market-first shelf-stable plant-based meat products after successful launches in both Australia’s Coles and Woolworths and US’ Whole Foods supermarkets…. Read more

Comment: I visited Beijing in 2019 and was surprised by the emphasis on dairy foods (never part of traditional Asian diets) and snack foods, especially for children.  Weight gain is only to be expected.  Current political tensions must be understood in the context of trade relations.   Although we export more agricultural goods to China than we import, our overall trade balance is to import about $300 billion a year more in products made in China than we export.

Jul 28 2021

The food system is unfair to real farmers

This study in Nature Food caught my eye: Post-farmgate food value chains make up most of consumer food expenditures globally.

The study examines the proportion of at-home food expenditures received by farmers in several countries, including the U.S.

For the U.S. it reproduces this USDA figure:

The caption:

Farm share of US consumer food expenditures. As reported in the USDA ERS food dollar series, the revenue share of consumer food expenditures has declined fairly consistently for 70 years. Data are from the USDA ERS…The new series is, on average, 3.5 cents per dollar lower than the old series over the 16 years of overlapping coverage. US real per capita incomes grew roughly 2% annually over this period.

The USDA’s Food Dollar series makes this clear.

What this means is that all but about 12 cents of every food dollar goes for processing, retail, food service, and everything else that happens to a food after it is produced.

As the authors of the Nature Food study put it,

There is already growing agreement that the most unhealthy foods are largely ultra-processed products that are high in such ingredients as salt, sugars and saturated fats, that is, manufactured post-farmgate. In the average American diet, for example, only about 30% of calorie intake comes from non-processed or
mildly processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods also occupy a rapidly rising share of diets in developing countries as consumers seek greater convenience and safety. The environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods have not been properly accounted for in many studies, often considering the effects of the primary commodities used for production and disregarding the processing, packaging and distribution stages.

Likewise, the post-farmgate food processing sector is a major source of single-use plastics, greenhouse gas emissions, water use and effluent discharge.

We and the planet would be healthier eating foods that are less heavily processed.  This would not only be good for us, but also for farmers.

Jul 27 2021

America’s food monopolies and power imbalances

The Guardian and Food and Water Watch have produced a lengthy, interactive, and fact-filled investigative report, essential reading for anyone interested in how power is distributed in the US food system.

The report is a about how consolidation has increased the power of every segment of the food industry, and how that power imbalance threatens workers, consumers, and American democracy.

The size, power and profits of these mega companies have expanded thanks to political lobbying and weak regulation which enabled a wave of unchecked mergers and acquisitions. This matters because the size and influence of these mega-companies enables them to largely dictate what America’s 2 million farmers grow and how much they are paid, as well as what consumers eat and how much our groceries cost.

Here are some of the facts (and the Guardian summarizes others in an article on “The Illusion of Choice“):

  • At least half of the 10 lowest-paid jobs are in the food industry. Farms and meat processing plants are among the most dangerous and exploitative workplaces in the country.
  • Overall, only 15 cents of every dollar we spend in the supermarket goes to farmers. The rest goes to processing and marketing our food.
  • Four firms or fewer controlled at least 50% of the market for 79% of the groceries. For almost a third of shopping items, the top firms controlled at least 75% of the market share.
  • During the 2020 election cycle, the food industry spent $175m on political contributions, including lobbying by PACs and individuals and other efforts.
  • Until the 1990s, most people shopped in local or regional grocery stores. Now, just four companies – Walmart, Costco, Kroger and Ahold Delhaize – control 65% of the retail market.
  • Farmers received $424.4bn in subsidies between 1995 and 2020, of which 49% were for just three crops: corn, wheat and soybeans, according to the Environmental Working Group. Corn subsidies are the largest by a long way – $116.6bn – accounting for 27% of the total.
  • At least half of the 10 lowest-paid jobs in the US are in the food industry, and they rely disproportionately on federal benefits. Walmart and McDonald’s are among the top employers of beneficiaries of food stamps and Medicaid, according to a 2020 study by a non-partisan government watchdog.
  • Here in the US, there were 1.6bn animals living on 25,000 factory farms in 2017 – a 14% rise in just five years. Together, these animals produced about 885bn pounds of manure annually – equivalent to the human sewage generated by residents of 30 New York Cities.

Jul 26 2021

The UN Food Systems Pre-Summit starts in Rome TODAY: Online Access

Thanks to Tom Forster at the New School for sending information about the programs—formal, informal, and counter.  The formal and informal events are in Rome, but available online.  Registration is essential.

For information and registration:

Formal programme: this has the schedule for the 150 sessions.    Register for them here.

Informal programme: register at the links given.

Counter Summit events: these are listed online, along with a call to action.

The Counter events are being organized by the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for Relations with the UN Committee on World Food Security (CSM).

The CSM has produced the following resources:

Jul 23 2021

Weekend reading: What food really costs

One big question about a food system is what it costs, not only at the grocery store but also on expenses we can’t readily see—what economists call the “externalized” costs.  These go beyond the production, transportation, processing, and preparation that get factored into what we pay for food.   Instead, they include what the food system does to health, the environment, biodiversity, livelihoods, and the economy itself.

The Rockefeller Foundation has just produced a report addressing the externalized costs of food: True Cost of Food Measuring What Matters to Transform the U.S. Food System.

Consider this: In 2019, American consumers spent an estimated $1.1 trillion on food. That price tag includes the cost of producing, processing, retailing, and wholesaling the food we buy and eat. It does not include the cost of healthcare for the millions who fall ill with diet-related diseases. Nor does $1.1 trillion include the present and future costs of the food system’s contributions to water and air pollution, reduced biodiversity, or greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change. Take those costs into account and it becomes clear the true cost of the U.S. food system is at least three times as big—$3.2 trillion per year.

The report identifies 14 areas of externalization and estimates how much each of them contributes to the total cost of food.

The big ones are the costs to health and the environment but together all add up to $2.1 trillion—on top of what we pay for food at the grocery store, which already amounts to more than a trillion.

The report breaks down each of these areas.  Here is its estimate of the cost of the food system to health—on its own, $1.1 trillion annually.

And here is a recent book on just this topic.  It’s an edited volume of chapters by various authors who take deep dives into specific examples—Egyptian cotton, water in the Andes, Maize, organics, meat, low wages—along with examinations of broader issues of health, the environment, and sustainability.

True Cost Accounting for Food (Routledge Studies in Food, Society and the Environment)

All of this reminds me of yet another book, which I wrote about briefly when it first came out in 2011.

The Real Cost of Cheap Food (Routledge Studies in Food, Society and the Environment)

This is an important topic that demands attention.  Cheers to the Rockefeller Foundation for taking it on.