Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 17 2021

We now have a chance to repair the damage done to the Economic Research Service

I’ve been writing about the forced move of the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) from Washington DC to Kansas City for quite some time now, most recently here.

I relied heavily on ERS analyses for my work.  The stated purpose of the move was to get the economists closer to farmers, but it was obvious from the start that the real reason was to destroy the agency’s ability to produce reports with results inconvenient for the Trump Administration.

Now others are weighing in, not least the USDA Inspector General.   Its recent report on USDA’s Research Integrity and Capacity, which notes losses in staffing and slower output. the IG says:

When asked about the reason for the decreased number of economic research reports publications, an ERS official noted that every division within ERS had sustained staffing losses since the agency’s relocation from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Missouri. The official acknowledged that the decrease in the publication of economic research reports between FY 2018 and FY 2020 was the result of the staffing reduction, but did not know what the future impact of the staffing reduction would be. Additionally, we were unable to determine what the future impact of the staffing losses would be.

On staffing levels and experience:

  • From 2018 through 2020, the number of economists with 10 or more years of Federal service fell from 98 to 53. There was an increase in economists with less than 1 year of Federal service from none to 21 over that same time.  [This means a tremendous loss of experienced economists; the new ones are just starting out]
  • From 2018 through 2020, the number of GS-14 [senior]economists at ERS declined from 42 to 21. Similarly, during the same time period, the number of GS-13 economists at ERS declined from 45 to 19. Conversely, the number of GS-9 [junior-level] economists showed an increase from four to seven during this timeframe.

Employees with a:

  • post-doctoral degree decreased by more than 33 percent,
  • doctoral degree decreased by more than 38 percent,
  • master’s or professional degree decreased by more than 20 percent, and
  • bachelor’s degree decreased by more than 30 percent.

The American Economic Association also weighed in on this: Necessary Improvement in the U.S. Statistical Infrastructure: A Report to Inform the Biden-Harris Transition

9. The Department of Agriculture must restore the viability of the Economic Research Service (ERS)
ERS is one of the 13 official statistical agencies of the United States. Located since its origination in 1961 in Washington, D.C near federal agricultural policy makers, a majority of its staff positions
were relocated to Kansas City in 2018. Following the relocation, roughly 75-percent of the professional staff resigned or retired. More than two years after the relocation was announced, ERS
has severe staff shortages, particularly in its ranks of senior analysts and management, and is facing substantial staff recruitment challenges. As a consequence, the agency’s statistical programs have
been abridged and federal and state governments are suffering from inadequate agricultural statistics generally, but especially statistics to inform rural development, food assistance and
security, and agriculturally related natural resource conservation policies. While we do not have a specific recommendation for how the Department of Agriculture ameliorates these problems, we
believe it needs to act swiftly and decisively to assess and resolve the challenges it faces as a result of ERS’ decimation.

At issue, of course, is what to do about this now.  Move it back to DC and recruit back all those experts?  It’s worth a try!

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Feb 16 2021

Cell-based meats: an skeptical update

Cell-based meat substitutes are not yet on the market in the United States, but they are of great interest, and here’s why.

Singapore has approved them:  Eat Just, Inc., a company that applies cutting-edge science and technology to create healthier, more sustainable foods, today announced that, after a rigorous consultation and review process, its cultured chicken has been approved for sale in Singapore as an ingredient in chicken bites.

A Singapore restaurant is serving cell-based chicken nuggets At the debut, the restaurant served cultured chicken from the brand GOOD Meat, affiliated with Eat Just, a sustainable food startup based in the U.S. The event followed the regulatory approval of the product by Singapore…“I’m speechless,” an 11-year-old patron of the restaurant said in a press release. “It will save a lot of animals’ lives and it will be a lot more sustainable … It feels good to have chicken without feeling guilty.”  [Comment: Do we really need cell-based chicken nuggets?]

There is a lot of money riding on these products: A company in Israel has gotten the price down to $7.50 per “chicken breast,” and just got nearly $27 million in funding.  [Prices are going to have to go down a lot further before anyone other than the rich will buy them]

Another Isreali company is producing 3-D printed steaks: Aleph Farms, based in Israel, unveiled the first 3-D-printed ribeye steak, using a culture of live animal tissue and “broadening the scope of alt-meat in what is expected to be a rich area of expansion for food companies.”  This used “a culture of live animal tissue, in what could be a leap forward for lab-grown meat once it receives regulatory approval.”  [Do we need 3-D printed food?]  

The meat may be fake, but the proIfits are real

If this sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Indeed, as this article maintains, “There’s a giant, undiscussed, confounding party at the table: the world’s richest investors, and the delicious returns they expect for saving the world.”

Meat imitation technologies can deliver staggering profits and act as a lever to transition from a destructive animal diet—but we must recognize that those two potentialities are necessarily in conflict….When the chips are down, fiduciary obligations will always privilege profit over the moral aspirations of these patent-clutching geniuses. In its present composition, the new-meat dream will let us down. Its affinity for and resemblance to agribusiness will ultimately prolong the hegemony of animal slaughter, not challenge it.

Feb 15 2021

Industry-funded study of the week: meat and metabolism

I’ve been collecting items about meat.  This is a good week to post them, starting with this.

The study:  Effects of Total Red Meat Intake on Glycemic Control and Inflammatory Biomarkers: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Lauren E O’Connor, Jung Eun Kim, Caroline M Clark, Wenbin Zhu, and Wayne W Campbell. . Adv Nutr 2021;12:115–127.

Conclusion:  “Total red meat consumption, for up to 16 weeks, does not affect changes in biomarkers of glycemic control or inflammation for adults free of, but at risk for, cardiometabolic disease.”

Funder (my emphasis): “This study was funded by The Pork Checkoff and Purdue University’s Bilsland Dissertation Fellowship (LEO). The funder had no role in the design or conduct of the study or the analysis or interpretation of data.

Author disclosures: LEO received honoraria and travel to present related research as a graduate student from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. During the time this research was conducted, WWC received funding for research grants, travel, or honoraria for scientific presentations or consulting services from the following organizations: National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Board, National Dairy Council, North Dakota Beef Commission, Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education, Barilla Group, New York Beef Council, and North American Meat Institute. All the other authors report no conflicts of interest.

Comment:  Red meat is under attack for its strong association with health problems, cancer in particular.  In the 24 studies this group looked at, selected out of nearly 1200, they found no bad effects.  This is a typical result for an industry-funded study conducted by investigators with industry ties.  It would be more reassuring if found by independent investigators.

Feb 14 2021

Happy Valentine’s Day (I think)

Under the heading of “You can’t make up this stuff,” Kraft Foods, now part of Kraft/Heinz, has a Valentine’s Day surprise for you: pink, candy-flavored Mac and Cheese. 

Roses, anyone?  They, at least, don’t have calories (or artificial colors and flavors).

[Thanks to Esther Trakinski for this delicious example of food marketing in action].

Feb 12 2021

Weekend reading: Lancet Commission Report on Public Policy and Health in the Trump Era

Yesterday, the Lancet Commission on Public Policy and Health in the Trump Era published the report of its four-year investigations.  I was a member of the Commission, so have a special interest in this report.

The Executive Summary  

Convened shortly after President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the Lancet Commission on public policy and health in the Trump era, offers the first comprehensive assessment of the detrimental legislation and executive actions during Trump’s presidency with devastating effects on every aspect of health in the USA. The Lancet Commission traces the decades of policy failures that preceded and fueled Trump’s ascent and left the USA lagging behind other high-income nations on life expectancy. The report warns that a return to pre-Trump era policies is not enough to protect health. Instead, sweeping reforms are needed to redress long-standing racism, weakened social and health safety nets that have deepened inequality, and calls on the important role of health professionals in advocating for health care reform in the USA.

The bottom line (as stated by Dr. Kevin Grumbach in the announcement video): “Trump committed medical malpractice.”

The Commission’s process

Commission members were appointed in 2017, met in Atlanta soon after, held a conference at Boston University in 2018, and met again early in 2019.  I drafted the section on food and nutrition, no surprise, and also worked on the box on what happened in Puerto Rico, in which I have a particular interest (I taught a class there in 2003 with the anthropologist, Sidney Mintz, who wrote Sweetness and Power).  Other members drafted other parts.  The co-chairs, Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, pulled it all together and established its direction and voice.  Food politics is a small part of this report (see section 6), but I was happy to get it included.  It gave me a chance to complain, once again, about the forced move of the USDA’s Economic Research Service to Kansas City, something I consider to be a national tragedy, and to talk about how the Trump Administration attempted to destroy SNAP and undermine school meal standards.

The report, associated documents, and announcement video are on this Lancet website 

It got a lot of press—news accounts and opinion pieces

Feb 11 2021

The cost of foodborne illness

The USDA publishes estimates of how much foodborne illness costs Americans.  It does this for 15 pathogens, one at a time:

The Cost Estimates of Foodborne Illnesses data product provides detailed data about the costs of major foodborne illnesses in the United States, updating and extending previous ERS research. This data set includes the following:

  • Detailed identification of specific disease outcomes for foodborne infections caused by 15 major pathogens in the United States
  • Associated outpatient and inpatient expenditures on medical care
  • Associated lost wages
  • Estimates of individuals’ willingness to pay to reduce mortality resulting from these foodborne illnesses acquired in the United States.

If you click on the links below, you get an Excel spreadsheet.

I clicked on Salmonella (non-typhoidal); the estimate for its costs in 2018 is basically $4 billion ($4, 142,179.161).

It would be really nice if USDA’s Economic Research Service would add these all up for us, but it’s short staffed (remember the forced move of the agency to Kansas City that I complained about so much last year.

But foodborne illness costs a lot, in health care costs, lost work and productivity, and all the other bad things that happen when people get sick.

It’s best to do everything possible to prevent foodborne illness before it occurs.

Last Updated
Current Pathogen Files
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Campylobacter (all species) 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Clostridium perfringens 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Cryptosporidium parvum 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Cyclospora cayetanensis 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Escherichia coli O157 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Listeria monocytogenes 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Norovirus 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Salmonella (non-typhoidal) 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Shigella (all species) 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Toxoplasma gondii 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Vibrio parahaemolyticus 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Vibrio vulnificus 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Vibrio (all other non-cholera species) 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Yersinia enterocolitica 1/29/2021
Feb 10 2021

Monsanto/Bayer’s self-inflicted problems with the dicamba herbicide

Week killers do their job but also cause problems: illness among people exposed to them (especially farm workers), induction of resistance, and killing weeds in places they are not supposed to be.

Illnesses: The most well known is the non-Hodgkins lymphoma associated with use of glyphosate (Roundup).

Weed resistance: This chart from the University of Minnesota shows the number of species resistant to various kinds of herbicides from 1955 to 2020.  GMO crops resistant to glyphosate were first approved in 1994.

Herbicide drift:  This has been a  particular problem with the weed killer dicamba used with GMO corn and soybeans.  It has a particular problem: it drifts, and does so inconveniently over organically produced crops that are not weed resistant, thereby killing them and making organic farmers extremely unhappy but without recourse, apparently.

Now an investigative report from In These Times demonstrates how Monsanto and BASF, the makers of dicamba, knew perfectly well that it drifted and would cause extensive damage, but sold it anyway.

Exec­u­tives from Mon­san­to and BASF, a Ger­man chem­i­cal com­pa­ny that worked with Mon­san­to to launch the sys­tem, knew their dicam­ba weed killers would cause large-scale dam­age to fields across the Unit­ed States but decid­ed to push them on unsus­pect­ing farm­ers any­way, in a bid to cor­ner the soy­bean and cot­ton markets.

The investigation found:

  • [Mon­san­to’s] own research showed dicam­ba mixed with oth­er her­bi­cides was more like­ly to cause dam­age. The com­pa­ny also pre­vent­ed inde­pen­dent sci­en­tists from con­duct­ing their own tests and declined to pay for stud­ies that would poten­tial­ly give them more infor­ma­tion about dicamba’s real-world impact.
  • Although adver­tised as help­ing out cus­tomers, the com­pa­nies’ inves­ti­ga­tions of drift inci­dents were designed to lim­it their lia­bil­i­ty, find oth­er rea­sons for the dam­age and nev­er end with pay­outs to farm­ers. For exam­ple, BASF told pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tors that some­times it is not safe to spray even if fol­low­ing the label to the let­ter, plac­ing lia­bil­i­ty square­ly on the applicators.

As for recourse:

A fed­er­al court banned the her­bi­cide ear­li­er this year, but the EPA rein­stat­ed dicam­ba for five more years in October.

Ear­li­er this year, a fed­er­al jury sided with a Mis­souri peach farmer who sued the com­pa­nies for dri­ving his orchard out of busi­ness. The jury award­ed Bill Bad­er $15 mil­lion for his loss­es and $250 mil­lion in puni­tive dam­ages designed to pun­ish Bay­er. Bay­er and BASF are appeal­ing the ver­dict. The puni­tive dam­ages were lat­er reduced to $60 mil­lion.

This report is well worth reading for its detailed review of documents.  These demonstrate that Monsanto and BASF could not have cared less about the damage their herbicide might cause.  Monsanto has been purchased by Bayer, which defends its purchase to the hilt.

Bayer’s stock prices declined dramatically after the Monsanto purchase.  It’s hard to feel sorry for either company.

Feb 9 2021

Uh oh. Baby foods contain toxic metals—arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury

The big news in food politics last week: revelations about toxic metals in baby foods.

This is not a new topic, as I’ve discussed previously with respect to arsenic in rice cereal.  Babies should be eating the healthy foods parents eat, just mashed or cut to size so they don’t choke.  Commercial baby food is a convenience for sure, but not at the price of babies’ health.

What’s new are these revelations:

  • Arsenic, led, cadmium, and mercury are present in commercial baby foods at levels much higher than considered safe.
  • Their sources: foods raised on contaminated soil and water, and vitamin/mineral pre-mixes.
  • Baby food companies set their own safety standards for toxic metals.
  • The FDA knows baby foods have high levels of toxic metals but isn’t doing anything about it.
  • Some baby food companies refused to share data on this topic.

This news comes from, of all places, the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee in a report titled Baby Foods Are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury

The Food and Drug Administration has set the maximum allowable levels in bottled water at 10 ppb inorganic arsenic, 5 ppb lead, and 5 ppb cadmium, and the Environmental Protection Agency has capped the allowable level of mercury in drinking water at 2 ppb. The test results of baby foods and their ingredients eclipse those levels: including results up to 91 times the arsenic level, up to 177 times the lead level, up to 69 times the cadmium level, and up to 5 times the mercury level.

Furthermore,

The Subcommittee has grave concerns about baby food products manufactured by Walmart (Parent’s Choice), Sprout Organic Foods, and Campbell (Plum Organics). These companies refused to cooperate with the Subcommittee’s investigation.

The Subcommittee complains:

  • Contaminated baby foods do not carry warning labels
  • Manufacturers do not have to test for heavy metals.
  • The FDA has only one standard for heavy metals in baby food—a 100 ppb inorganic arsenic standard for infant rice cereal.  Even this is too high.

The Subcommittee recommends:

  • Mandatory testing of baby foods for heavy metals
  • Mandatory labeling of toxic heavy metals
  • Voluntary phase-out of toxic ingredients (rice, for example, is high in arsenic)
  • Mandatory FDA standards for maximum levels of toxic metals in baby foods
  • Parental vigilance: Avoid commercial baby foods containing toxic heavy metals.

Consumer Reports, which has been complaining about this problem for years (see CR’s 2019 testing of fruit juices and CR’s 2014 tests) , explains:

Heavy metals all are part of the earth’s crust, so they are naturally found in the environment. But most of the heavy metals in food come from soil or water that has been contaminated through either farming and manufacturing practices (such as pesticide application, mining, and smelting) or pollution (such as the use of leaded gasoline).

Its recommendations for parents and caretakers:

  • Ease up on fruit juice
  • Consider making your own
  • Minimize baby food snacks
  • Vary the foods you feed your child

Its recommendations for the FDA:

  • Establish aggressive targets
  • Create and enforce benchmarks
  • Finalize existing proposed guidelines

Comment: This is a scandal and an emergency.  Parents should be warned off  baby foods that test high in any of these heavy metals.  Now.

Press accounts:

Update, February 16: the FDA’s response to the congressional report

 

 

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