Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 28 2021

FDA issues warnings to leafy green growers and their cattle raising neighbors

Leafy greens contaminated with toxic E. coli make eaters very sick (this is an understatement).

Toxic E. coli are excreted by cattle raised in the vicinity of lettuce and spinach fields.

But leafy green safety is overseen by FDA whereas everything having to do with food animals is overseen by USDA.

This is why the latest moves by FDA about leafy green safety are so noteworthy.

  • The FDA is warning leafy green growers that they must take better precautions to prevent E. coli contamination.
  • It also is warning cattle growers that they must prevent wastes from contaminating leafy green fields.

The Big Question: Will—can—the FDA force cattle ranchers and leafy green growers to adhere to food safety precautionary measures?

Let’s hope.

Here are the relevant documents:

FDA statement on release of a report on a 2020 outbreak

The findings of foodborne illness outbreak investigations since 2013 suggest that a likely contributing factor for contamination of leafy greens has been the proximity of cattle. Cattle have been repeatedly demonstrated to be a persistent source of pathogenic E. coli, including E. coli O157:H7.

Considering this, we recommend that all growers be aware of and consider adjacent land use practices, especially as it relates to the presence of livestock, and the interface between farmland, rangeland and other agricultural areas, and conduct appropriate risk assessments and implement risk mitigation strategies, where appropriate.

Report on the 2020 outbreak investigation

The analysis has confirmed a positive match to the outbreak strain in a sample of cattle feces, which was collected during follow-up investigations on a roadside, uphill from where leafy greens or other food identified in the traceback investigation were grown. While the finding does not provide definitive information on how E. coli may have contaminated product during the growing and harvesting season, it does confirm the presence of a strain of E. coli O157:H7 that causes recurring outbreaks in a more narrowly defined growing region and a potential, continued source of contamination.

Leafy Green STEC Action Plan

As outbreaks have continued to occur, despite significant efforts in recent years, greater emphasis will be needed around such complex issues as adjacent land use, agricultural water, and understanding likely routes by which human pathogens may contaminate leafy greens.

Former FDA food safety official Michael Taylor’s comment on these documents

FDA declared the recurring strain implicated in the 2020 outbreak to be a “reasonably foreseeable hazard,” which FDA attributed to the presence of cattle on land adjacent to growing fields.  This finding seems obvious and shouldn’t be surprising. The surprise, however, is that FDA used regulatory language to express its finding and spelled out the implications: farms covered by the FSMA produce safety rule “are required to implement science and risk-based preventive measures” to minimize the risk of serious illness or death from the E. coli hazard…I do not anticipate FDA taking judicial action to enforce its April 6 finding, absent egregious practices or clear negligence in a particular leafy green growing situation. I do see, however, a heightened sense of urgency at FDA and frustration that efforts to date have not solved the leafy greens safety problem. I share that frustration.    

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler’s comment

The FDA took specific aim at California growers as the cause of repeated and ongoing outbreaks, putting the responsibility of combating the outbreaks squarely on the growers.

FDA’s investigations into foodborne illness outbreaks are available from its outbreak page.  These are the ones from 2020.

 

Apr 27 2021

Urgent note to subscribers

If you are an e-mail subscriber to this blog, you should have received this message today.  Despite its off-putting wording, it is legitimate.

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I’m so sorry for the awkward transfer.  If I had known, I would have alerted you in advance.

My apologies and thanks for subscribing.

Apr 27 2021

What the Green New Deal says about food

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Dem-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (Dem-MA) have reintroduced their bipartisan bill for a Green New Deal, H. Res. 109, aimed at preventing further climate change.

The Green New Deal provides for improvements to food systems and to food access (with my editing and emphasis):

  • Resolved that it is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal to secure for all people of the United States for generations to come—healthy food.
  • The goals should be accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization (the “Green New Deal” mobilization”) that will require workfing collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible, including by (a) supporting family farming, (b) investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health, and (c) bulding a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.
  • To achieve the Green New Deal goals and mobilization will require providing all people of the United States with clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and access to nature.

The details are yet to come, but this plan has much to offer and deserves widespread support.

The Green New Deal was first introduced in 2019.

Apr 26 2021

Least credible food industry ad of the week: JBS and climate change

This ad appeared in yesterday’s New York Times.

The ad is signed jointly by JBS and Pilgrim’s, but JBS owns nearly 80% of Pilgrim’s, so this is JBS’s ad.

At the bottom of this ad, you can read about the company in very small print:

JBS is the second-largest food company in the world, producing high-quality beef, chicken and pork products, alokng with innovative prepared foods and plant-based alternatives that reimagine the future of protein….

The company is based in Brazil, where burning of the rainforest to grow soybeans—to feed cattle–produces massive amounts of greenhouse gases.

In this ad, JBS promises to achieve “net-zero emissions” by 2040.

How?  It’s a bit vague on details.

We’re setting time-bound, science-based targets and backing them up with $1 billion in capital over the next decade.  We’re supporting producers by investing $100 million by 2030 in on-farm research.

We will cut our own emissions by 30% by 2030 and eliminate Amazon deforestation from our supply chain within five years.

For the record, JBS’ annual revenues are nearly 40 times higher than what it plans to spend on this over the next 10 years.

The company’s revenues have been declining.  Does that explain its sudden interest in preventing climate change?

This looks like classic greenwashing to me.

Before believing that this is not greenwashing, I’d like to see those “time-bound, science-based targets” and to know who is holding JBS accountable for meeting them.

Apr 23 2021

Weekend reading: Turning food banks into a community resource

Katie S. Martin.  Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger.  Island Press, 2021.

After Janet Poppendieck’s Sweet Charity?, and Andy Fisher’s Big HungerI didn’t think there was anything new to say about private charitable food handouts in the U.S., but this book surprised me.

Reinventing is a how-to manual for people working in the food banking and food pantry system.  Katie Martin’s goal is to make this system more dignified, healthier, and politically focused for participants.

Martin recognizes that a volunteer-run system for distributing charitable food is unsustainable.  She wrote this book to encourage longer term solutions to food and nutrition insecurity.

What if our success is measured not simply by the pounds of food we distribute but by the reduction in people who need our services?  Or the number of people who are connected to additional services?  Or the number of people who make fewer trade-off decisions between paying for food, rent, or medicine.  Or the number of people who have improved health outcomes based on the food and services they receive? (p. 26)

The book provides step-by-step guides to talking about hunger in policy rather than individual terms, to making food pantries more hospitable and better connected to social resources, to providing participants with choices, to training volunteers, to evaluating how programs work, and to dealing with systems change.

Every chapter ends with actions steps and encouragement to take one step, make one change.

Yes!

Apr 22 2021

More on cannabis edibles: cookbooks!

I don’t follow cookbooks closely but was surprised to see Stained Page News’ account of an entire cookbook genre devoted to cooking with Cannabis.

I knew about Elise McDonough’s writings in High Times, but had not paid much attention to her Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook when it came out.  Stained Page News explains:

Author Elise McDonough is foundational to the modern cannabis cookbook space. A cannabis consumer since her teens, she eventually found herself working for the flagship subculture magazine High Times while taking classes at New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute. McDonough says that the magazine would field recipes from contributors, who often sent them in without photography, and they’d have to re-create the dish in order to print it. “That really got me into the idea of cooking with cannabis—learning a lot of techniques, an interest in food style and prop styling for photography, that got me started,” she said.

Here is SPN’s Guide to Cannabis Cookbooks

Disclaimer: I have never cooked from any of these and cannot vouch for the accuracy of the recipes or their quality.  But if you do cook from them,

 

Apr 21 2021

Let’s pay attention to nutrition security (as well as food security)

Dariush Mozaffarian (Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts), Sheila Fleischhacker (Georgetown University Law Center), and the chef, José R. Andrés, now of World Central Kitchen, propose to drop the term “food security” and replace it with “nutrition security.”

For decades, US policies to address hunger and food insecurity have focused largely on providing sufficient calories or quantities of food. However, effectively addressing the current diet-related challenges in the US will require a shift beyond these concepts to the broader concept of nutrition security. Addressing nutrition security, which can be defined as having consistent access, availability, and affordability of foods and beverages that promote well-being and prevent (and if needed, treat) disease, may be the next needed approach to inform clinical care and public policy.

Their point: it’s not enough to provide adequate calories to people who need food; those calories should come from foods that promote health.

…many policies and programs to address food security continue to place a greater emphasis on access to quantity, rather than quality, of food. The prevalence of obesity and diabetes is at an all-time high, with highest risk among individuals who are food insecure. Traditionally marginalized minority groups, as well as people living in rural and lower-income counties, are more likely to experience disparities in nutrition quality, food insecurity, and corresponding diet-related diseases. Clearly, the current approach is not sufficient.

And they recognize the need for “upstream” public policies to promote healthier diets:

An emphasis on nutrition security also could serve as a better guide for public health investments and national research, for which a growing coalition of antihunger, clinical, public health, and business groups recognizes the critical need for a stronger evidence base to accelerate food and nutrition solutions. From a societal standpoint, because poverty and food insecurity are closely associated, efforts must be made to reduce the level of poverty in the US.

This is a short editorial piece titled “Prioritizing Nutrition Security in the US.”

I’m for it.

Apr 20 2021

R.I.P. USDA’s food boxes

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced the end of the Farmers to Families food box program.  As reported by The Counter,

The reality is the food box program was set up to respond to Covid. There were a lot of problems with it, a lot of problems,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a congressional hearing on Wednesday. Over the last year, we’ve reported on many of those problems—namely high prices, uneven distribution, and lack of oversight.

This program, which has cost at least $5.5 billion to date, was ostensibly supposed to help farmers by buying their produce and provide food to people who needed it by distributing it through food banks and pantries.

I say “ostensibly” because its real purpose was to undermine SNAP.

Food boxes were one of three ways the Trump Administration acted to reduce SNAP enrollments and expenditures (the other two were enforcement of work requirements and invocation of the public charge rule denying residency and citizenship to people who used public benefits, even benefits to which all residents are entitled).

To review the history of this program:   In 2018, Trump’s Budget proposed to replace some of SNAP benefits with “Harvest Boxes”—along the lines of those provided by Blue Apron, apparently.   The proposal provided few details.  It was immediately criticized for its lack of information about logistics, composition of the boxes, fresh foods, and choice.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue did not give up on the idea, however.  The Coronavirus pandemic gave him the excuse he needed to start the program, now called Farmers to Families.

This seemed reasonable in theory.  Distributors would collect unsold produce from farmers, pack it in boxes, and deliver the boxes to food banks.  Farmers would have income for what they produced; this would help people who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

In practice, small farmers were quickly dropped from the program, Black farmers were excluded, and people who got the boxes got whatever was in them—not always what was supposed to be in them.

Here’s what the USDA says the program delivered:

To date USDA contractors have delivered 157,996,398 of fresh produce, milk, dairy and cooked meats to disadvantaged Americans across the country

35.7 million food boxes invoiced in round one (May 15-June 30)

50.8 million food boxes invoiced in round two (July 1-August 31)

15.2 million food boxes invoiced in round two extensions (September 1 – September 18)

18.8 million food boxes invoiced in BOA Contracts (September 22 – October 31)

12.4 million food boxes invoiced in round four (November 1 – December 31)

25.1 million food boxes invoiced in round five (January 19 – April 30)

I say R.I.P.  The Biden Administration’s shoring up of SNAP is better policy for food assistance.

Assistance to small farmers is another matter entirely, and one that needs immediate attention.