Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 6 2017

Orwell-speak from USDA: new SNAP rules

The USDA, straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, has promised “new SNAP flexibilities to promote self-sufficiency.”

What does USDA mean by “flexibilities”?  Here are its exact words (I put the key words in quotes and in bold for emphasis:

  • “Self-Sufficiency” – The American dream has never been to live on government benefits. People who can work, should work. We must facilitate the transition for individuals and families to become independent, specifically by partnering with key stakeholders in the workforce development community and holding our recipients accountable for personal responsibility.
  • “Integrity” – We must ensure our programs are run with the utmost integrity. We will not tolerate waste, fraud, or abuse from those who seek to undermine our mission or who do not take their responsibility seriously.
  • “Customer Service” – Together, we must ensure that our programs serve SNAP participants well. In order to achieve a high degree of customer service, we at FNS must also provide States the flexibility to test new and better ways to administer our programs, recognizing that we are all accountable to the American taxpayer for the outcomes.

Why the quotes?  Because the words mean anything but what they say.  Hence: Orwellian.

This is the USDA’s first attack on SNAP.  Prediction: more to come.

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Dec 5 2017

Defections from the Grocery Manufacturers Association: Rats leaving a sinking ship?

I’ve written many times about the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an organization so locked into the interests of its food-company donors that you can count on it to vehemently oppose every consumer-friendly measure that gets proposed.

A couple of weeks ago, Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich and Catherine Boudreau wrote what they discovered about the unraveling of the GMA: the big Washington food fight.

The defectors so far:

  • Campbell Soup
  • Nestlé (my non-namesake)
  • Dean Foods
  • And, most recently, Mars.

Mars says:

At this time, we believe we can more effectively drive our business objectives and meaningful progress for our categories and consumers by working with other like-minded companies and through other sector-specific trade associations and collaborations.

What’s going on?  Easy.  GMA just isn’t keeping up with today’s marketplace.

Politico’s analysis (these are quotes):

  • Companies are increasingly under pressure to find growth in a market where more and more consumers are seeking healthier fare, whether they’re buying organic baby food, cereal without artificial colors or meats raised without antibiotics.
  • As legacy brands lag, food companies have two options: Change to compete or buy up the new brands that are already growing rapidly.
  • With each episode of discord, both internally and publicly, it becomes harder for GMA to convince its members to pay fees to belong to a trade group that’s rife with division and, at times, fights against issues they either don’t want fought or don’t want to be associated with.
  • “More than one food industry lobbyist has told me that they spend more time lobbying their industry association than they do Capitol Hill,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.
  • Many in Washington think GMA has been tone deaf as it has, in some cases, kept up lavish spending even as its members are cutting costs and laying off workers to meet their quarterly targets.
  • “I don’t know a single challenger brand that’s said ‘hey, I need to join GMA,'” said John Foraker, the founder and former CEO of Annie’s.

My favorite quote comes from Jeff Nedelman, who was a VP of communications at GMA during the 1980s and ’90s: “To me, it looks like GMA is the dinosaur just waiting to die.”

May it rest in peace.

Dec 4 2017

USDA makes school meals more flexible (translation: less nutritious)

The USDA announces its revised school meal rules, in words that would make George Orwell proud:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today provided local food service professionals the flexibility they need to serve wholesome, nutritious, and tasty meals in schools across the nation. The new School Meal Flexibility Rule…reflects USDA’s commitment, made in a May proclamation to work with program operators, school nutrition professionals, industry, and other stakeholders to develop forward-thinking strategies to ensure school nutrition standards are both healthful and practical…This action reflects a key initiative of USDA’s Regulatory Reform Agenda, developed in response to the President’s Executive Order to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens.

Try and get your head around this.  The revised rules make school meals less nutritious.  They allow schools to:

  • Serve flavored rather than plain low-fat milk (higher in sugar)
  • Be exempt from serving whole grain-rich products.
  • Have until the end of the 2020-2021 school year to reduce the salt in school meals.

This rule will be in effect for SY 2018-2019. USDA is accepting public comments for longer term use at

I will never understand why adults would lobby to make school meals less healthful, but here is the School Nutrition Association praising the changes.  The Association cites survey data indicating that 65 percent of school districts are having trouble with whole grains and 92 percent with sodium requirements.

I love Margo Wootan’s quote (she is director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest):

The proposal is a hammer in search of a nail…Virtually 100 percent of schools are already complying with the final nutrition standards, including the first phase of sodium reduction.

Here are:

Dec 1 2017

Weekend action: Advocating for organics (Toolkit!)

IFOAM—Organics International–offers a Global Policy Toolkit on Public Support to Organic Agriculture, for use by anyone who wants to advocate for organics and sustainable agriculture.

The toolkit includes:

The main report offers Policy summaries for specific measures to promote organic production and consumption.

No excuses!

Nov 30 2017

Policy wonks: Here’s USDA’s latest introduction to global trade

The USDA has a new report out on global trade.  

It’s full of facts and figures about what foods we export and import, how the trade agreements and tariffs work, and how food aid works.  Here’s who we gets worldwide food aid:

And here’s why our food safety system is so important to protect:

If your eyes glaze over whenever you read anything about NAFTA or any other trade agreement, this is a good place to start understanding the issues.

Nov 29 2017

Good news about farming!

How about some good news for a change?

I.  Politico reports on on a new report, Feeding the Economy, on the importance of agriculture for the US economy (you can search the site for your own state and congressional district).

The findings are impressive:

As Politico puts it, “more than a fifth of the U.S. economy and a quarter of American jobs are either directly or indirectly tied to the food and agriculture sectors.”

That’s more than 43 million jobs and $1.9 trillion in wages, and $894 billion in taxes.  That’s $6.7 trillion for the impact..

Who paid for the study?  22 food and agriculture groups, including the Corn Refiners Association, the American Bakers Association and the United Fresh Produce Association.

II.  The Washington Post writes:

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.

The implications for public policy are obvious: promote farming opportunities for young people.

III.  Here’s what The National Young Farmers Coalition says in its new report:

Its agenda:

Now, to make that happen…

Nov 28 2017

The glyphosate (“Roundup”) saga continues

Glyphosate (Roundup), the controversial herbicide used with crops genetically modified to resist it, has been in the news a lot lately.  I’ve been collecting items:

♦  An analysis from In These Times: How Monsanto Captured the EPA (And Twisted Science) To Keep Glyphosate on the Market.

Glyphosate is a clear case of “regulatory capture” by a corporation acting in its own financial interest while serious questions about public health remain in limbo.  The record suggests that in 44 years—through eight presidential administrations—EPA management has never attempted to correct the problem.

♦  Reuters has an article about the problems posed for Monsanto by dicamba drift.  Widespread use of glyphosate has created a crisis in weed resistance.  To overcome it, Monsanto has genetically engineered crops to resist a more powerful and longer-lasting herbicide, dicamba.  Unfortunately, dicamba is volatile and drifts onto neighboring crops.

♦  As the New York Times reports:

Because genetically modified crops allow dicamba to be sprayed later in the year, after crops emerge from the ground, and in hotter and more humid weather, the chemical is susceptible to what is known as “volatility”—it can turn into a gas and drift into whatever happens to be nearby.

♦  The New York Times also wrote about problems getting glyphosate approved in the European Union.  The EU’s actions are head spinning. First, the EU rejected a European Commission proposal to renew glyphosate’s license for five years:

Opposition from France and Italy doomed a European Union vote…to reauthorize the world’s most popular weedkiller, glyphosate, a decision that came hours after Arkansas regulators moved to ban an alternative weedkiller for much of 2018…Taken together, the decisions reflect an increasing political resistance to pesticides in Europe and parts of the United States, as well as the specific shortcomings of dicamba, whose tendency to drift has given pause even to the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, which has otherwise largely acceded to the wishes of the chemical industry.  Dicamba has damaged more than 3.6 million acres of soybean crops in 25 states, roughly 4 percent of all soybeans planted this year in the United States.

But now the EU’s food safety committee has approved the five-year license renewal.  Even so, this saga is not over yet.  France declared it would ban glyphosate “as soon as alternatives have been found,” and within three years. Italy says it will ban glyphosate by 2020.  The European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution asking the European Commission to phase out glyphosate by 2022.

♦  While all this is going on, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute had good news for Monsanto.  It published a study finding no increase in cancer risk among people whose work involves glyphosate applications.  But nothing is simple:

However, among applicators in the highest exposure quartile, there was an increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) compared with never users (RR = 2.44, 95% CI = 0.94 to 6.32, Ptrend = .11), though this association was not statistically significant.

Finally, Just Label It has been collecting articles about glyphosate.  Examples:

♦  Medical Journals: Monsanto Glyphosate in Pee, Bad for Health: New research in the prestigious medical journal JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) reports on the startling evidence that glyphosate—the main ingredient in Monsanto’s weed-killer, Roundup—is not only getting into our bodies but has been doing so at increasing levels for decades.

♦  Ben & Jerry’s to launch glyphosate-free ice-cream after tests find traces of weed killer: Company pledges products will be free from ingredients tainted with controversial herbicide after the survey found traces in its European ice-creams. The company also pledges to source only organic dairy for a new line. 

♦  Glyphosate persists – and European topsoils are contaminated with it: A new research study from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and two Dutch laboratories shows that 45% of Europe’s topsoil contains glyphosate residues, demonstrating the over-reliance of the EU agricultural model on this harmful herbicide. Contrary to manufacturers’ claims, glyphosate persists in soils, not only affecting soil fertility and crop quality but also posing risks to human and environmental health. 

How to make sense of all this?

The health issues are confusing, not least because of this industry’s efforts to cast doubt on the science.  The issues are unlikely to be sorted out soon.

The weed resistance problem is so serious that glyphosate is becoming unusable, only to be replaced by herbicides that are much worse.  Dicamba drift is killing conventional crops, organic crops, and home gardens.

The remedy? Sustainable agricultural methods for all crops, and the sooner the better.

Addition:  Gary Ruskin of US Right to Know reminds me of these documents.

♦  Carey Gillem’s article on Monsanto’s manipulation of glyphosate science

♦  The Monsanto Papers archive on glyphosate


Nov 27 2017

Where are we on menu labeling?

At the moment, we are on track to have the long-delayed calorie labeling on menu boards by May 2018.

The FDA has just issued draft guidance on how to do it.

Recall that menu labeling was authorized by the Affordable Care Act of 2010, but the FDA delayed it until May 2017 and the Trump administration delayed it again for another year.

Why?  Lobbying by everyone affected by it, but particularly by trade groups for movie theaters, grocery stores, and pizza places.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement listing the agency’s compromises for these groups:

We’ve heard the [industry’s] concerns, took them to heart, and are responding with practical solutions to make it easier for industry to meet their obligations in these important public health endeavors.

For instance, some store owners asked us whether posters, billboards, coupon mailings, and other marketing materials would meet FDA’s definition of a menu that would be required to include calorie information. Our new draft guidance explains that these materials are not considered menus under our regulation and do not require calorie counts.

Supermarket and convenience store managers with self-service buffets or beverage stations asked whether they needed to have an individual sign next to each item with a calorie declaration. While this is one way to comply with the regulation, our draft guidance offers other practical ways to post calories for multiple items on a single sign. For instance, a single sign posting that is visible while consumers are making their selection is one way to comply that may provide additional flexibility for some establishments.

Pizza delivery chain owners told us they were struggling to develop menu boards reflecting the thousands of topping combinations people might want on their pizza, so we provided several new examples for how to do this to help them comply with the law’s plain language.

For some segments of the industry, these compromises are not enough.

According to Politico, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) complained that the new guidelines do

nothing to pull down the barriers to compliance that have retailers facing extraordinary costs, uncertain enforcement and frivolous lawsuits…The failure of FDA’s latest menu-labeling ‘guidance’ to address the concerns of NACS and others has left even the agency confirming that Congress must step in to fix its one-size-fits-none mess.

Such groups must think that menu labeling will discourage sales of high-calorie items.  Good.  That’s their point.

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