by Marion Nestle

Search results: peanut

Jun 22 2012

The Senate passed its version of the farm bill. Now what?

It’s difficult to know what to say about a 1010-page bill that affects literally hundreds of programs, some big, some small, at such astronomical cost—an expected $97 billion per year.  The bill is so big and so complex that it is unreasonable to expect legislators to understand it well enough to vote on it intelligently.  Think of it as a prime example of special interests in action.

I’ve been collecting e-mailed responses from various groups.  From these, it’s seems that the food movement scored a few wins along with plenty of losses.

First the wins.  The United Fresh produce association is happy that the bill provides for:

  • Specialty Crop Block Grants funded at $70 million per year
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative funded at $25 million in FY13; $30 million in FY14-15; $65 million in FY16; $50 million in FY17
  • Plant Pest and Disease Program funded at $60 million in FY13-16 and $65 million in FY17
  • Market Access Program and Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Hunger-Free Communities Grant Program for fruit and vegetable SNAP incentives
  • Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program
  • Section 32 specialty crop purchases funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • DoD Fresh program fully funded at $50 million per year consistent with 2008 levels

Oxfam likes two things:

  • It converts the 2008 pilot program to study the effectiveness of purchasing food aid locally and regionally to a full program funded at $40 million per year.
  • It tries to reduce dumping of food aid on developing country markets.

Everyone else is mixed or skeptical:

  • From Food and Water Watch: “Today, the U.S. Senate passed a farm bill that left the largest agribusiness and food processing companies firmly in control of America’s food system.”
  • From the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: “While the bill includes historic commodity payment limit reforms and renewed investments in a variety of sustainable farm and food programs…[it] would benefit greatly from more agriculture reform, a greater local and regional food focus, and a much greater commitment to economic development and jobs…We are also disappointed with the $3.7 billion cut to conservation programs on working farms and ranches.”
  • From the Environmental Working Group: “While we do not support this bill, we applaud the provisions that require farmers who receive crop insurance subsidies to carry out basic environmental protections on their farms and to reduce insurance subsidies for the largest and most successful agribusinesses.”

The debates over the farm bill hold some interesting lessons.

  • The historic “logrolling” alliance between rural states favoring commodity support and urban states protecting food assistance programs (SNAP, food stamps) may soon come to an end.  Senator Ron Johnson’s (Rep-WI) motion to separate SNAP benefits from farm supports was allowed four minutes of discussion.  It failed on a vote of 59 to 40 (all Republicans).  Forty?  That seems like a lot.
  • Labeling of genetically engineered foods remains an issue in American politics and not likely to go away.  The Senate voted down an amendment to allow states to decide for themselves whether to label such foods.  How will this affect the California “lets label it” initiative?
  • Crop insurance will be the new focus of consumer advocacy.  As Politico puts it, “the bill reflects a major shift of resources to crop insurance, which emerges as a new political powerhouse for agriculture — and what’s left of the safety net promised farmers. Midwest corn and soybean producers — riding high with good prices and a federal ethanol mandate — helped drive this change. But the result is a real and lasting split with Southern rice, peanuts and wheat growers reflected in the final vote.”
  • The food movement has to get its act together. Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group said “When conservationists stood our ground and fought, we won against the supposedly invincible crop insurance industry. Too many in the conservation community didn’t fight at all…As a consequence, conservation funding took the largest proportionate hit in this bill. For the “food movement”, the Senate farm bill has been another, rather sobering reminder that until we develop political muscle to match our passion for a sustainable food system, we’ll continue to see billions of dollars misspent on industrial agriculture.”

This is a call to action.  The House is about to take up its version in the coming weeks.  Advocates: get to work!

Jun 6 2012

What’s at stake in the farm bill?

Whoever at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is doing the analysis and summaries of the farm bill deserves much praise for performing a major public service.

The Senate version of the bill under discussion right now is 1009 pages long and estimated to cost taxpayers $969 billion over the next ten years, of which nearly 80% goes for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).

The NSAC account deals with the big issues: the lack of conservation requirements attached to taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance, the enormous complexity of the bill, and the lack of an overriding vision of what the farm bill should do. 

In one sense, the Senate bill reflects not so much a new farm policy as a new, confusing, and costly set of options targeted at different segments of commodity agriculture…the emerging bill is a bundle of contradictions with respect to subsidy caps and conservation requirements…. This results from, among other things, the complete lack of clearly identified policy goals.…All of this would be complicated enough by itself, but as the headlines and hearings of the past several weeks amply demonstrate, before this farm bill is finished, it will very likely get more complicated still.

As I have said repeatedly, the farm bill is a vast collection of specific programs aimed at specific constituencies, each with its own lobbyists and congressional supporters.  It is so big and covers so many issues that nobody in Congress can possibly be expected to understand more than a tiny fraction of what is involved.  Hence: lobbyists.

I will leave consideration of the big issues to the NSAC analysts, and just focus on a few very small ones that caught my eye as an example of the absurdity of conducting farm policy through this mechanism.  The current Senate proposal:

Adds popcorn to covered commodities: Only some crops are eligible for federal support.  These include wheat, corn, grain sorghum,barley, oats, long grain rice, medium grain rice,pulse crops, soybeans, other oilseeds, and peanuts.  Now: “The Secretary shall study the feasibility of including popcorn as a covered commodity by 2014.”

Specifies use of fortified foods in international food aid: “adjust products and formulations,including potential introduction of new fortificants and products, as necessary to cost ffectively meet nutrient needs of target populations, to test prototypes;to adopt new specifications or improve existing specifications for micronutrient fortified food aid products.”

Calls for a report on honey: “Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary, in consultation with affected stakeholders, shall submit to the Commissioner of Food and Drugs a report describing how an appropriate Federal standard for the identity of honey would promotes honesty and fair dealing and would be in the interest of consumers, the honey industry, and United States agriculture.

Removes Canada geese from within five miles of airports, especially JFK: “by the first subsequent molting period for Canada geese that occurs after the date of enactment of this Act, publish a management plan that provides for the removal, by not later than 1 year after the date of publication, of all Canada geese residing on the applicable land.”

On the brighter side, it also:

Expands farmers’ market promotion to include local food: “domestic farmers’ markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture programs, agritourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities; and local and regional food enterprises that are not direct producer-to-consumer markets but process, distribute, aggregate, store,and market locally or regionally produced food products.”

NASC’s assessment:

that may be, as the saying goes, the best that can be accomplished under current circumstances.  If so, one would hope that if nothing else, it would spur a major re-evaluation and thorough overhaul between now and the next farm bill to create something that might begin to approximate a goal-driven, fairer, less costly, more rationale, less environmentally damaging, more economic opportunity-creating, and less market distorting approach then where it appears the current process will end up. 

Hey—we all can dream.

Dec 22 2011

The latest in new product introductions

You may be interested in how real foods improve health and well being, taste better, reduce waste, and are friendlier to the environment.

But such foods, alas, are much less profitable than those highly processed.

Caroline Scott-Thomas of Food Navigator USA gives us a preview of what Big Food has in store for us next year. Coming soon to a store near you:

From General Mills:
  • Dulce de Leche Cheerios
  • Peanut butter Cheerios

And from Kraft:

  • BelVita breakfast biscuit, a cookie-type product made with whole grains and fortified with vitamins and minerals
  • MilkBite Milk and Granola bars with as much calcium as an 8oz glass of milk
  • New flavor combinations for Velveeta Cheesy Skillets Dinner Kits
  • New Kraft Sizzling Salads Dinner Kits to which you can add your choice of meat and vegetables

The rationale for this last one?

Americans are having more interactive experiences with food and want the opportunity to do some of the cooking themselves. With global influence and the merging of different cultures, consumers are open to new flavor combinations. Being able to customize the flavor and texture to enhance the end dish is important and Kraft Foods is delivering.

Real food anyone?  Or—how’s this for an idea—real cooking?

Dec 15 2011

More problems with FDA’s ability to inspect food facilities

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services, FDA’s parent agency, has just issued a report sharply criticizing FDA’s oversight of State food inspections.

This report is one more piece of evidence for how FDA’s lack of resources makes our food supply less safe.

Because it does not have the personnel to do its own inspections, FDA increasingly delegates them to State agencies.  The Salmonella outbreak from peanuts in 2009 is a prime example of why the State system is too diffuse to work.  As the report explains,

The peanut processing plant responsible for a 2009 salmonella outbreak was inspected multiple times by a State agency working on behalf of FDA. This outbreak resulted in one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history and has led to serious questions about the effectiveness of State food facility inspections.

FDA has long been unable to inspect more than a tiny fraction of food processing facilities and the situation is getting worse, not better: the overall number of facilities inspected decreased from just over 17,000 facilities in 2004 to about 15,900 in 2009 (4%-5% of the total number).

FDA increasingly goes to States to fill the gap.  In 2009, it contracted with 41 States to conduct inspections, and these conducted 59% percent of FDA’s food inspections.  In 2004, State inspections comprised just 42% of inspections.

FDA says it has good reasons for relying on States:

According to FDA officials, one reason FDA relies on States is that these inspections are conducted under State regulatory authority, which often exceeds FDA’s own authority. For example, several FDA officials noted that, under certain conditions, State inspectors can immediately shut down a facility or seize unsafe food products, whereas FDA would have to go through a lengthy legal process to achieve similar results.

But this is not enough.  The current report is only the latest of a series of OIG reports detailing problems with FDA’s food inspections.  Previous reports found that more than half of all food facilities have gone 5 or more years without an FDA inspection.

The report concludes:

Taken together, the findings demonstrate that more needs to be done to protect public health and to ensure that contract inspections are effective and prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Yes, of course they do.  But how is FDA supposed to fix the problem?

Bizarrely, and at great risk to the public, FDA gets its funding from congressional agriculture appropriations committees, not health committees.

In this era of cost cutting, FDA was lucky to get a $50 million increase in funding, or so everyone says.

But this is nowhere near enough to hire and train enough inspectors to do the job right.  It’s not that the States can’t do a good job.  It’s that the dispersion of authority leaves much room for flexibility in interpretation and lack of accountability, as the OIG reports consistently show.

For reasons of politics, this may not be the time to demand a stronger food safety system.  But if not now, when?

Nov 11 2011

Oh no! USDA cutting back on research.

A couple of days ago, William Neuman wrote about an announcement by the USDA’s statistical research unit that under pressures to cut budget, it would eliminate or cut back on its ongoing research reports.

This is alarming.

As USDA explained:

The decision to eliminate or reduce these reports was not made lightly, but it was nevertheless necessary, given the funding situation. Because of the timing of the agency’s survey work during the coming year, these decisions are necessary now.

The affected reports include these, among others:

  • Annual Reports on Farm Numbers, Land in Farms and Livestock Operations – Eliminate
  • Catfish and Trout Reports – Eliminate all
  • Annual Floriculture Report – Eliminate
  • Chemical Use Reports – Reduce frequency of commodity coverage
  • Annual Bee and Honey Report – Eliminate
  • Fruit and Vegetable in-season forecast and estimates– Reduce from monthly and quarterly to annual report
  • Nursery Report – Eliminate

This decision, Neuman reports, “reflects a cold-blooded assessment of the economic usefulness”—translation: lack of political clout in the affected industry—of the 500 or so reports issued by the National Agriculture Statistics Service each year.  The reports will still be issued on the big commodities: corn, soybeans, cattle, and pigs, for example.

Why do I find this alarming?  If these reports can be eliminated, so can the ones that I personally care about and depend on for my research.

I am particularly worried about the invaluable data produced by USDA’s Economic Research Service on the composition of foods, their availability (production less exports plus imports), and per capita nutrient availability in the American diet.

I have plenty of reason to be worried.

For decades, USDA has converted information about food availability to nutrient availability in a continuous series dating back to 1909.  This is the data set I use to explain how calories in the food supply have increased to today’s 3,900 per person per day from 3200 in 1980—an increase of 700 calories per day exactly in parallel with rising rates of obesity.

USDA stopped this series in 2006.

I wrote USDA to ask whether more recent data were available.  Here is the response in its entirety:

Because of other project priorities the Food Supply project has been curtailed.  There are programming issues to which we haven’t been able to devote available resources.

Neuman quoted a former USDA official who argues that pressures to continue the statistical reports are an example of

how hard it was to eliminate a government program, no matter how small the constituency….These congressmen up on the Hill say, “$50,000 is not much, let’s give it to them.”   [The reports apparently cost about $50,000 to produce]

I have a different reaction.  Isn’t it a responsibility of government to produce research that nobody else has the resources to produce?   This argument reminds me of similar ones I hear that if a book hasn’t been taken out of a library in ten years, the library ought to dump it.

This is short-sighted.

Yes, $50,000 seems like a lot of money to you and me, but it is peanuts in comparison to the billions the USDA spends every year on support payments to people who aren’t even farmers.

Hence: alarming.

Nov 6 2011

Food Matters: front-of-package labels again

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle appears today.  This time, it’s about the fuss over front-of-package labels.

Q: I’m completely confused by all of the little check marks and squares on food packages telling me they are healthy. Do they mean anything?

A: The Food and Drug Administration feels your pain. It sponsored two studies by the Institute of Medicine to rationalize front-of-package nutrition ranking systems.

The institute released its second report last month; it advises the FDA to allow front-of-package labels to state nothing but calories and nutrients to avoid: saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugar (go to sfg.ly/sUptQR).

The institute’s proposal gives products one point for not containing too much of each of these nutrients. It suggests displaying the points like Energy Stars on home appliances with zero to three stars, depending on how well the product meets nutritional criteria.

This is a simple system, instantly understandable. I think it is courageous. The institute’s proposal benefits consumers. It does not help companies sell junk food.

Selling or educating?

No food company wants to display nutrients to avoid. For the food industry, the entire point of front-of-package labels is to market products as healthy or “better for you” no matter what they contain. Front-of-package labels are a tool for selling, not buying. They make highly processed foods look healthier.

Will companies accept a voluntary labeling scheme that makes foods seem worse? Doubtful.

Nutrition ranking symbols began appearing on food packages in the mid-1990s, when the American Heart Association got companies to pay for displaying its HeartCheck.

Food companies then established their own systems for identifying “better-for-you” products. PepsiCo, for example, developed its own nutritional standards and proclaimed hundreds of its snacks and drinks as “Smart Choices Made Easy.”

In an attempt to bring order to this chaos, food companies banded together to develop an industry-wide system. Unfortunately, their joint Smart Choices checkmark appeared first on Froot Loops and other sugary cereals. The ensuing ridicule and legal challenges forced the program to be withdrawn.

At that point, the FDA, backed by Congress and other federal agencies, asked the Institute of Medicine for help.

The institute released its first report last year. It revealed inconsistencies in the 20 existing ranking schemes from private agencies, food companies and supermarket chains. Toasted oat cereal, for example, earned two stars in one system, a score of 84 (on a scale of 100) in another, and a score of 37 in a third.

The report said labels should display only calories and to-be-avoided nutrients. Labels should not display “good-for-you” nutrients – protein, fiber, and certain vitamins and minerals – because these would only confuse consumers and encourage companies to unnecessarily add nutrients to products for marketing purposes.

Although the FDA was waiting for the second institute report before taking action, the food industry wasted no time. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute introduced their own system.

Complicated approach

They got their members to agree to a more complicated system, “Nutrition Keys,” based on nutrients to avoid but also including up to two “good-for-you” nutrients.

Food companies immediately put Nutrition Keys’ symbols – well established to be difficult for consumers to understand – on package labels where you can see them today. Now called Facts Up Front, the symbols are backed by a $50 million “public education” campaign.

The reasons for the industry’s preemptive strike are obvious. The second Institute of Medicine report gives examples of products that qualify for stars – toasted oat cereal, oatmeal, orange juice, peanut butter and canned tomatoes, among them.

It also lists the kinds of products that would not qualify for stars, including animal crackers, breakfast bars, sweetened yogurt and chocolate milk.

So the industry argues that consumers “want simple and easy to use information and should be trusted to make decisions for themselves and their families … rather than have government tell them what they should and should not eat.”

But why, you ask, does any of this matter? I view front-of-package labels as a test of the FDA’s authority to regulate and set limits on any kind of food industry behavior. If the FDA cannot insist that food labels help the public choose healthier foods, it means the public has little recourse against any kind of corporate power.

Perhaps Facts Up Front will arouse the interest of attorneys general – just as the Smart Choices program did.

In the meantime, the industry’s pre-emption of FDA labeling initiatives is evidence that voluntary schemes don’t work. Labeling rules need to be mandatory.

Let’s hope the FDA takes the Institute of Medicine’s advice and starts rule-making right away.

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.

Oct 20 2011

IOM releases tough report on front-of-package labeling

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) just released its second report on front-of-package (FOP) labeling.  It tells FDA to allow only four items in any front-of-package evaluation scheme:

  • Calories
  • Saturated and trans fat
  • Sodium
  • Sugars

To display this, the IOM committee recommends a point system based on levels of saturated and trans fats, sodium, and sugars for evaluating food products.  The points are to be indicated with check marks or stars.  Here is an example of how stars might be used to indicate products that qualify for zero, one, two, or three points.

I’m guessing that anything this clear and understandable will elicit storms of protest.

Recall that food companies have been setting their own nutrition criteria for evaluating their very own products and identifying the “better-for-you” or “more nutritious” products with special front-of-package logos.  By company standards, many of their products qualify for the logos.

To deal with the multiplicity and absurdity of such schemes, the FDA asked the IOM to take a look at the various FOP logos that were out there and recommend how to clean up the mess.  The first IOM report said the FDA should allow FOP labels to state only calories, saturated and trans fat, and sodium, but not sugars (this last was a mistake, I thought).

But—while the FDA was waiting for the IOM to produce its next report, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) jumped the gun.  Their preemptive logo included “positive” nutrients such as vitamins and fiber along with the “negatives.”  This scheme is already in use on food packages.

The IOM committee was faced with an impossibly difficult task: to come up with a front-of-package scheme that would reduce the overall nutritional quality of processed foods to the sum of a few key factors.

Given strong industry marketing pressures to retain front-of-package labels—and the lack of an option to remove them altogether—the committee did the best it could with an inherently bad idea.

Why a bad idea?  FOP labels are a tool for selling, not buying.  They make highly processed foods look healthier, whether or not they really are.

And whether slightly better-for-you processed foods assessed by this method will help anyone to make better food choices and to be healthier remains open questions.

Nevertheless, the IOM proposal is a huge improvement over what food companies are now doing.  I consider it courageous.

Why courageous?  Because the scheme makes it so easy to distinguish products that qualify for the various point levels.

For example, here are some products that qualify for stars:

  • Toasted oat cereal
  • Oatmeal, instant
  • Milk, 1% fat
  • Yogurt, plain nonfat
  • Salad dressing, light
  • Orange juice, 100%
  • Grape juice, 100%
  • Kidney beans, canned
  • Peanut butter
  • Tomato soup, “healthy”
  • Tomatoes, canned

Examples of products that do not qualify:

  • Animal crackers
  • Graham crackers
  • Breakfast bar
  • Sweetened toasted oat cereal
  • Oatmeal, instant with fruit, nuts
  • Chocolate milk
  • Yogurt, sweetened

I can’t wait to see the GMA and FMI press release on this report.

And the FDA must now take this report under consideration to begin its interminable rulemaking process.

Why, you might ask, does any of this matter?  Aren’t questions about what food companies put on package labels basically trivial?  Don’t FOP label fights divert attention from other, more important food issues?

Maybe, but I see this as a test of the FDA’s authority to regulate and set limits on any kind of food industry behavior.  If the FDA cannot mandate a label that might help consumers choose healthier food options or refuse to permit labels that mislead consumers, it means the public has little recourse against any kind of corporate power.

I think this matters, and I’ll bet food companies do too.

And now, sit back and watch the lobbying begin!

That did not take long:  Here’s the GMA press release—fairly tame all things considered:

The Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols report adds a perspective to the national dialogue about front-of-pack nutrition labeling.  In the meantime, food and beverage companies have developed a real-world program that delivers real value to real consumers in real time.

Consumers have told us that they want simple and easy to use information and that they should be trusted to make decisions for themselves and their families. The most effective programs are those that consumers embrace, and consumers have said repeatedly that they want to make their own judgments, rather than have government tell them what they should and should not eat.  That is the guiding principle of Facts Up Front, and why we have concerns about the untested, interpretive approach suggested by the IOM committee.

My translation: Consumers prefer to have the food industry’s “Facts Up Front” tell them what to eat?  I don’t think so.

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Sep 12 2011

Calorie labeling in action: baseball!

I went to Mets v. Cubs at Citifield last night (Cubs 10, Mets 6, 11 innings).  While everyone else was engrossed in the game, I was distracted by the vendors.

They wore calorie label buttons!

I managed to get one.

Is anyone evaluating this public health education method?

Whether it does any good or not, I wish I could have gotten the button for peanuts: 960 calories!