Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 4 2019

U.S. agriculture policies are a mess: trade, tariffs, payments

Food trade is a mess right now, but I keep trying to keep up with it.  Here are some recent items that caught my attention..

Trade deals dump U.S. junk foods in Central America.  The University of Buffalo sent out a press release about a study of the effects of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) on dietary practices in that country.

Our analysis demonstrates that low-income consumers face increasing household food expenditures in a context of overall food price inflation, in addition to relatively higher price increases for healthy versus ultraprocessed foods. Neoliberal policies not only contribute to restructuring the availability and pricing of healthy food for low-income consumers, but they also exacerbate social inequality in the food system through corporate-controlled supply chains and farmer displacement.

Current tariff policies threaten nearly 1.5 million jobs and raise prices.   This is the conclusion of a 75-page report conducted by economic consulting firm BST Associates .

A new study commissioned by the Port of Los Angeles finds that U.S. tariffs put nearly 1.5 million American jobs and more than $185 billion in economic activity at risk nationwide – based solely on the impact of tariffs on cargo handled in the San Pedro Bay port complex….China is the primary target of the Trump administration’s tariff policy, and Chinese producers account for about half of the imports passing through San Pedro Bay. Chinese retaliatory tariffs affect China-bound American exports, and Chinese buyers account for nearly a third of the American products headed overseas out of LA and Long Beach…“With 25 percent fewer ship calls, 12 consecutive months of declining exports and now decreasing imports, we’re beginning to feel the far-reaching effects of the U.S.-China trade war…With the holiday season upon us, less cargo means fewer jobs for American workers.”

The USDA has released the second collection of payments compensating agriculture for losses due to the trade war with China.  This comes to more than $14 billion on this round.  This is on top of the previous $9 billion already paid.  All of this is way beyond what the Farm Bill authorizes in agricultural support.  Supporting Big Ag this way sets an expensive precedent.  And guess where the payments are going.  To “a bundle of states that are essential to his re-election chances,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

As for why those payments are needed:  USDA’s complicated-to-read economic report explains how farm debt is increasing and income decreasing.  As the Des Moines Register reports, Iowa’s farm debt reached $18.9 billion in the second quarter of 2019—the highest level in the nation.  USDA’s farm income and wealth statistics are here.

In the meantime, what’s happening to small farms?  They face extinction, according to Time Magazine.

A mess indeed.  Fixable?  Only with political will.  It’s hard to be optimistic at this point.

Dec 3 2019

The latest Romaine lettuce outbreak: Just say no.

The CDC continues to track the latest outbreak of illnesses caused by eating Romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

The outbreak at a glance:

The FDA’s advice:

Consumers should not eat romaine lettuce harvested from Salinas, California. Additionally, consumers should not eat products identified in the recall announced by the USDA on November 21, 2019.

A former FDA official, Stephen Ostroff, says:

With five multistate outbreaks in less than two years, it’s clear there’s a serious continuing problem with E. coli O157:H7 and romaine lettuce. The natural reservoir for this pathogen is ruminant animals, especially cattle. Moreover, one particular strain of E. coli seems to have found a home in the growing regions of central coastal California, returning each fall near the end of the growing season.

It’s not clear where this strain is hiding. Cattle? Water sources? Elsewhere? What is clear is that additional steps must be taken to make romaine safer.

The New Food Economy emphasizes some particularly distressing aspects of this particular outbreak.

  • It is caused by the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 that caused outbreaks linked to leafy greens in 2017 and to Romaine lettuce in 2018.
  • This strain of E. coli seems particularly virulent: 39 of the 67 cases had to be hospitalized.
  • The source has not yet been traced.

Consumer Report’s advice: ”

People should avoid all romaine lettuce and that any currently in refrigerators should immediately be thrown out because of the risk of E. coli contamination…CR’s experts think it is prudent and less confusing for consumers to avoid romaine altogether, especially because romaine is also sold unpackaged and in restaurants, and customers can’t always be sure of the origin that lettuce.  “Much of the romaine lettuce on the market at this time of year is from Salinas,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says enough is enough; It’s time to put warning labels on Romaine lettuce.

Marler’s advice: when in doubt, throw it out.

My comment:  Contamination of vegetables with toxic E. coli means that the vegetables somehow came in contact with waste from farm animals or wild animals or birds.  The most likely suspect is Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or large dairies because they produce so much animal waste.  If one animal is infected under crowded CAFO conditions, other animals also will be infected (but cows don’t show symptoms).

Preventing lettuce contamination means that CAFOs must manage their waste so that it is not infectious (USDA and EPA regulated) and vegetable farms must keep infected water from contaminating their crops (FDA regulated).  All of this means following food safety procedures to the letter, but also in spirit.

Constant Romaine outbreaks are further evidence for the need for consistency in USDA and FDA food safety policies, and a reminder that calls for a single, united food safety agency have been coming for more than 40 years.  Surely, it’s time.

Dec 2 2019

Industry-funded scientific argument of the week: do blueberries prevent dementia?

I have posted several studies funded by blueberry trade associations over the years, including my all-time favorite, the one about prevention of erectile dysfunction.  Yes!

Can we please use some common sense here?  I love blueberries, grow and harvest them on my Manhattan terrace, and eat them whenever I can—but not because I think there is the remotest chance that they alone will keep me from dementia.

But scientists are seriously debating whether blueberries do or do not improve cognitive function in the elderly.

Study #1: Hein S, Whyte AR, Wood E, Rodriguez-Mateos A, Williams CM. Systematic review of the effects of blueberry on cognitive performance as we age. Journal of Gerontology: Series A. 2019;74(7):984-95

Conclusion: “Findings from these studies indicate that cognitive benefits may be found for delayed memory and executive function in children and for delayed memory, executive function, and psychomotor function in older healthy and MCI [mild cognitive impairment] adults”.

Funder: “This work was supported by an unrestricted grant from the Wild Blueberry Association of North America.”

The Debate:

Study #2:  The effect of blueberry interventions on cognitive performance and mood: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials.

Conclusion: “Based on the current evidence, blueberries may improve some measures of cognitive performance.”

Funding: The article, still in press, states that the authors declare no competing interests but provides no information about study funding.

The debate: 

My Comment: Of course blueberries are healthy and wouldn’t it be wonderful if all you had to do to prevent dementia was to eat some every day.  Skeptic that I am, I am happy to see widespread agreement that these studies do not constitute conclusive evidence.  Of course eating blueberries (or any other fruit) is healthy; eating fruits and vegetables is healthy.   This kind of research is about getting you to eat more blueberries, rather than any other kind of berry or fruit.

 

Nov 29 2019

Weekend reading: history of American cuisine

Paul Freedman.  American Cuisine: And How it Got that Way.  Liveright Publishing, 2019.

Paul Freedman is an historian at Yale who in recent years has taken on food history.  His previous book, Ten Restaurants that Changed America, was on my weekend reading list in 2016.

This one covers the history of cuisine in America, addressing basic questions such as “is there such a thing as American cuisine?,” “What happened to it?,” and “What is likely to happen to it?”

The chapters cover such things as culinary nostalgia, community cookbooks, industrial food, ethnic restaurants, and the food revolution.  My favorite chapter title: “Have your cake, choose from our fifteen fabulous flavors, and eat it too.”

It’s a good read.  Here is a sample from page 367:

Americans have been enthusiastic consumers of modern products.  It is not just that historically the United States was technologically precocious or that its citizens value convenience, although these are true.  The key factor is a peculiar attitude toward food.  Americans have attempted to apply ideas about health and efficiency to diet.  Obsessed with technological progress, anxious about time-saving, and worried about physical well-being, Americans for well over a hundred years have embraced scientific nutrition, industrial food, and convenience.  They have been willing to sacrifice tradition and regional variation in favor of standard brands and their array of flavor and style.  Infatuation with science, convenience, and variety require giving up the natural taste of food in favor of texture, color, multiplicity, and simplicity of preparation.  Quick, easy, and healthful have been more important than flavor.

This is also a beautiful book, printed on high-quality paper, in an attractive easy-to-read font, and lavishly illustrated with menus, recipes, and pictures of advertisements, book covers, places, and people, many of them in color.

Reading it made me want to re-read Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad and Something From the Oven, both cited by Freedman in his chapter titled “women and food in the twentieth century.”

Nov 28 2019

Happy Thanksgiving: The Farmers’ Share

The National Farmers Union publishes an annual survey of how much of every Thanksgiving dinner food dollar goes to the farmers who produce the food.  Not much.  This year, it’s 12 cents on average.

And the USDA produced this:

Enjoy the holiday!

Nov 27 2019

Food options for Thanksgiving? Omega 3-enriched farmed grasshoppers!

I was interested to see this announcement from the University of Eastern Finland about new research suggesting a way to improve the nutritional quality of fats from….edible grasshoppers!

Until I read this account, I did not know that

  • Long-horned grasshoppers are widely consumed as snacks in parts of Africa.
  • More than 2,000 insect species are known to be eaten by humans.
  • Raising edible insects requires less space and water and has lower greenhouse emissions than meat production.
  • In some places, overexploitation of insect resources is a problem.
  • Feeding omega-3 fatty acids to grasshoppers to finish off their growth (as is done with farmed salmon) improves their essential fatty acid levels.

This research was done for a doctoral dissertation and published in the Journal of Economic Entomology.  It must have been a lot of fun to do.

Yum?

Nov 26 2019

Good news: Changes to the WIC package are associated with a lower prevalence of obesity among young kids

Here’s some good news for a change.  The CDC announces that young children enrolled in the WIC program are reducing their prevalence of obesity.

The study: State-Specific Prevalence of Obesity Among Children Aged 2–4 Years Enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — United States, 2010–2016.  Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) November 22, 2019 / 68(46);1057–1061.

The happy result:  “Among children aged 2–4 years enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), obesity prevalence decreased from 15.9% in 2010 to 13.9% in 2016 and during 2010–2014, decreased in 34 of the 56 WIC state or territory agencies.”

One possible explanation:  WIC revised its food packages a few years ago to emphasize healthier food options in order to

promote fruit, vegetable, and whole wheat product purchases; support breastfeeding; and give WIC state and territory agencies more flexibility to accommodate cultural food preferences….In addition, the availability of healthier foods and beverages in authorized WIC stores has increased. Children enrolled in WIC consumed more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products and less juice, white bread, and whole milk after the revisions than they did before.

Comment: Here is evidence that eating more healthfully promotes healthier body weights.  Let’s do more of this.

Note: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s State of Childhood Obesity report provides an interactive map, state by state.

Nov 25 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: Potatoes (they improve athletic performance!)

The study: Potato ingestion is as effective as carbohydrate gels to support prolonged cycling performance.  Salvador AF, et al.  J Applied Physiology, 17 October 2019.

Conclusion: “Potato and gel ingestion equally sustained blood glucose concentrations and TT [time-trial] performance. Our results support the effective use of potatoes to support race performance for trained cyclists.”

Funder: The Alliance for Potato Research and Education, “a not-for-profit organisation funded by the potato industry in the US.”

Comment:  I learned about this study from an article in NutraIngrendients.com: “Powered by potato? Spuds ‘just as good’ as carb gels for athletic performance, says study.”

Despite my previous correspondence and interview with the editor of NutraIngredients, the article failed to mention the study’s industry sponsor.

This was especially disappointing because its sister publication, FoodNavigator.com, covered the same study but quoted the funding statement.

The study’s title and result should have triggered a look to see who paid for it.  Really?  Cyclists are supposed to carry potatoes with them to eat on long races?   Why would anyone other than potato sellers even think of such a thing?

Addition: But see comments from readers…

I was interested to hear this from Courtney Puidk, a dietitian:

Love your industry updates – BUT actually using potatoes as fuel has been a thing with cyclists for a long time. I have several friends and an ex who used baked potatoes as fuel during bike races and triathlons because potatoes are 99% glucose so they shoot through you fast, and they have lots of potassium and sodium so act as natural electrolytes. They fit nicely into the pockets of cycling jerseys and/or water bottle holders. And they’re cheap! Not to mention a whole food fuel source over some pricey, marketed sugar gel with lots of packaging.  Plenty of reasons to use potatoes as fuel!

And Simone Braithwaite, a reader from Australia, writes:

A friend of mine recently did the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. She has now done the 100km twice – once for each direction. Funny thing is, on the course the provided energy source is boiled potatoes (with salt). Runners actually carrying boiled potatoes along as they trudge this arduous race, apparently nibbling/sucking as they go.  In this developing world context I actually thought this was excellent as potatoes are an affordable and accessible food source for all. I also wondered how long this tradition would last – before multinationals got in with their ‘superior’ ultra processed products. Maybe this is one case where this study will be most useful!!!😂

OK.  I concede.