Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 15 2023

The Upcoming Farm Bill: What’s Needed (Courtesy of Civil Eats)

I try to keep up with what’s going on with the Farm Bill, up for renewal soon.  I thought this Civil Eats post by Lisa Held was the best thing I’d seen on it in ages, and got permission from Civil Eats to re-post it [To subscribe to Civil Eats—I’m on their advisory committee—click here].

To all of what follows, amen.

This Farm Bill Could Reshape the Food System. Here Are 10 Proposals at the Center of the Fight.

In this week’s Field Report, an update on how lawmakers are gearing up for a food-and-ag sprint when they return to D.C. in September. Plus: A smaller-than-expected Gulf of Mexico dead zone, and updates on the Better Chicken Commitment.

While the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have been holding hearings and listening sessions since the beginning of the year, progress has repeatedly stalled amid fights over the debt ceiling and appropriations bills that still have not been finalized.

Now, the deadline of September 30 looms large—and will almost certainly be missed.

Before members of Congress left for their August break, they initiated a flurry of activity in advance of what will likely be a sprint toward writing and then passing the legislation that shapes America’s food and agriculture system. Members of the House Ag Committee held listening sessions with farmers in Maine and Minnesota.

Then, Democrats sent a strongly worded letter to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-California) urging Republicans to drop their attempts to further restrict Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, since those efforts would hold up the bill even longer and hurt low-income Americans struggling from the impacts of the pandemic and high food prices.

At the same time, lawmakers rapidly introduced dozens of new marker bills, which are smaller pieces of legislation that are considered for inclusion in the larger farm bill package. In the bills, they proposed a wide range of changes, from more support for urban agriculture and small farms to new programs for farmer conservation education to improvements to the nation’s supply chain infrastructure and provisions that would expand SNAP access for college students and Tribes.

There are also bills to help farmers install renewable energy systems and to give contract growers more power to stand up to the corporations they work for. The list is overwhelmingly long and adds to dozens of marker bills introduced earlier this year, many of which we’ve already covered.

Here, we share 10 important new marker bills you should know about before Congress returns next month and the pace of negotiations accelerates. One detail in particular might surprise you: Many—if not most—have some measure of bipartisan support.

1. Expand Access to Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Representatives Rick Crawford (R-Arkansas) and Dan Kildee’s (D-Michigan) GusNIP Expansion Act would strengthen the popular Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) in a number of ways, while another marker bill proposes increasing the program’s funding. GusNIP funds programs that give SNAP users access to more fruits and vegetables, especially through farmers’ market matching and produce prescription programs. Unlike SNAP, it generally garners bipartisan support, since it focuses on healthy food and directs more dollars directly to farmers. More than 600 farm, nutrition, and public health organizations support expanding the program.

2. Track SNAP Purchases

Changes to SNAP always attract controversy, and the SNAP Nutrition Security Act falls into that category. Introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida), the bill would require the USDA to track and report on what SNAP users are buying to assess whether the program is helping low-income Americans improve their nutrition. Many public health groups support it. But while it doesn’t restrict what SNAP users can buy, some advocacy groups oppose it because they believe that the data could be used to restrict purchases in the future. Rubio also introduced a separate marker bill that would change SNAP rules so that users couldn’t use SNAP dollars to buy unhealthy foods such as soda, candy, and ice cream.

3. Prevent States From Regulating Farm Animal Welfare

In May, after years of legal challenges brought by the pork industrythe Supreme Court declined to overturn a California law that prohibits selling pork that comes from systems that hold pigs in confining cages. Now, a group of lawmakers are trying to use the farm bill to overturn that law—and prevent other states from regulating farm animal welfare. Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) and Representative Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) led the introduction of the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act, which is supported by industrial agriculture groups like the National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

At the same time, the Organization for Competitive Markets led a group of farmers and ranchers representing multiple producer groups to lobby against the bill, while leaning into the argument that it would hurt farmers and increase China’s control over the pork industry (since Smithfield, the nation’s largest pork producer, is owned by a Chinese company). Meanwhile, Harvard’s Animal Law and Policy Program released a report that concluded the EATS Act is likely unconstitutional and would have far-reaching consequences that could threaten “states’ rights, consumer safety, and farmers’ livelihoods.”

4. Limit Commodity Payment Abuse

It is a well-known fact among farm policy insiders that a small group of individuals regularly take advantage of loopholes in the commodity payment system that allow family members who are not farming to receive payments. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) want to end that with the Farm Program Integrity Act, which would institute a more restrictive cap of $250,000 for a single farm and tighten requirements around being “actively engaged in farming” to qualify for payments. By closing that loophole, the bill would save hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to absentee farm managers and prevent million-dollar payments to each of the country’s 50 largest farms.

5. Increase Land Access for Young Farmers

America is staring down a farmer aging crisis, and the National Young Farmers Coalition has identified land access as the number one challenge facing young farmers. In response, Senator Tina Smith (D-Minnesota) introduced the Increasing Land Access, Security, and Opportunities Act in July. It aligns with a House version of the bill introduced in June and would direct funding toward new programs that help young farmers—and especially young farmers of color—afford and get access to land.

6. Reform the Checkoff System

Checkoff programs are meant to promote the interests of farmers that pay into them by promoting their products. (“Got milk?” is the most famous example.) But many farmers feel that checkoffs have moved away from their original intent and often misuse funds and lobby against the interests of members. The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act would reform the federal checkoff program by creating more transparency around how the money is spent and banning the use of funds for lobbying. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Representative Nancy Mace (R-South Carolina) led its introduction alongside a list of lawmakers in both chambers on both sides of the aisle.

7. Make USDA Farm Lending More Equitable

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) introduced the Fair Credit for Farmers Act, which would improve accountability and transparency within Farm Service Agency lending in an attempt to better ensure that historically underserved farmers and ranchers receive equal treatment. The National Family Farm Coalition and Rural Advancement Foundation International support this bill.

8. Help Small Farms Access Crop Insurance

Crop insurance only works well for large, commodity farms, since most smaller, diversified farms don’t grow enough of a single crop to make it worth the investment. In the 2014 Farm Bill, Whole Farm Revenue Protection was created as a solution, but flaws in the program have prevented most farmers from signing up. Senator Brown’s Whole Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) Program Improvement Act, backed by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, attempts to fix that by streamlining the application process, making changes that reward diversification, and providing incentives and training to crop insurance agents.

9. Reduce Environmental Impact of Animal Agriculture

Two California Democrats—Senator Alex Padilla and Representative Jim Costa—led the introduction of the Converting Our Waste Sustainably (COWS) Act. That makes sense, since the bill creates a federal program modeled after a successful initiative in their state. The COWS Act would fund upgrades to manure management systems on dairies and other livestock operations, such as implementing composting instead of liquid lagoons and increasing the time cows spend on pasture, to prevent water pollution and reduce methane emissions. (Whatever happens with the legislation, Padilla and Costa definitely win for the most successful acronym.)

10. Invest in Organic Farming Research

Although demand for organic food has grown in this country, U.S. production has not kept pace. One reason is that only a tiny fraction of agricultural research dollars go to organic farming. Senator John Fetterman (D-Pennsylvania) led the introduction of the Organic Science and Research Investment Act, which would increase funding for organic research and direct the USDA to dedicate a portion of its research fields to organic farming. Another research-related marker bill aims to fund studies on regionally adapted seeds and animal breeds.

Read More from Civil Eats:
The Farm Bill Really Matters. We Explain Why
Former SNAP Recipient Calls for Expanded Benefits in Next Farm Bill
Op-Ed: We Need a New Farm Bill for My Iowa Farm and Beyond
Climate Change Is Walloping U.S. Farms. Can the Farm Bill Help?

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The GuardianThe Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Read more >

Aug 14 2023

Industry-influenced study of the week: Kombucha

The study: Kombucha tea as an anti-hyperglycemic agent in humans with diabetes – a randomized controlled pilot investigation.  Mendelson Chagai, Sparkes Sabrina, Merenstein Daniel J., Christensen Chloe, Sharma Varun, Desale Sameer, Auchtung Jennifer M., Kok Car Reen, Hallen-Adams Heather E., Hutkins Robert.  Frontiers in Nutrition.  2023;10.  DOI=10.3389/fnut.2023.1190248.

Purpose: “Kombucha is a popular fermented tea that has attracted considerable attention due, in part, to its suggested health benefits. Previous results from animal models led us to hypothesize kombucha may reduce blood sugar levels in humans with diabetes. The objective of this pilot clinical study was to evaluate kombucha for its anti-hyperglycemic activities in adults with diabetes mellitus type II.”

Method: 12 study subjects were instructed to consume kombucha or a placebo (240 ml each) for 4 weeks, then later switch to the other one.

Results: “Kombucha lowered average fasting blood glucose levels at 4 weeks compared to baseline (164 vs. 116 mg/dL, p = 0.035), whereas the placebo did not (162 vs. 141 mg/dL, p = 0.078).”

Conclusion: “In this pilot study, the effect of kombucha consumption on blood glucose levels in adult T2D subjects revealed positive effects. Nonetheless, this study was not sufficiently powered to provide more definitive conclusions.”

Acknowledgment: “We thank Craft Kombucha, Kombucha Brewery in Washington, DC, and especially founder Tanya Maynigo-Loucks for donating the kombucha and for creating and donating the placebo drink for this study.”

Conflicts of interest: “RH is a co-founder of Synbiotic Health; JA has a financial interest in Synbiotic Health. DM serves as President of the Board of Directors of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, a non-paid position. All kombucha and placebo drinks were donated by Craft Kombucha. Craft Kombucha did not have any access to data reported in this study. No author has any financial ties with Craft Kombucha. SD was employed by MedStar Health. The remaining authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Comment: Synbiotic Health develops and sells probiotic ingredients.  Its “mission is to harness the power of the human microbiome, using the best science to develop precise, scientifically validated microbiome ingredients that support optimal health in every age group.”  Craft Kombucha sells its products in classy cans.  Kombucha is a fermented sweet tea; it contains bacteria and yeast (probiotics).   It’s easy to find claims for its health benefits if you search for them, but much harder to find science to back them up.  IIf you can demonstrate benefits, you can sell more products.  Hence, this study.  High marks to the authors for including the disclaimer: “this study was not sufficiently powered to provide more definitive conclusions.”  Indeed.

My bottom line: drink kombucha if you like it, but don’t expect miracles.

Thanks to Laura Schmidt for this one.  Both of us like kombucha drinks, by the way.

Aug 11 2023

Weekend reading: National Dish

Anya Von Bremzen. History, and the Meaning of Home. Penguin, 2023.

I can never get over how many superb books are now published on food themes, on after another.

Consider—and you definitely should—this one, for example.

For starters, there’s the fabulous cover by Roz Chast, no less (I want one for my next book!).

For another, there’s its brilliant structure and what Von Bremzen does with it.  She is a cookbook author, best known to me for her memoir, Masterian the Art of Soviet Cooking, an account of what food was like for a child growing up in Moscow in the former Soviet Union.

National Dish uses what are assumed to be foods representing entire cultures to reflect on the meaning of food for personal identity and larger issues of gastronationalism.  Von Bremzen spent at least a month in each country examining how its particular dish did and did not represent the culture of Japan (Ramen noodles), France (Pot-au-Feu), Spain (tapas), and Mexico (mole), and others, necessarily ending with the most poignant, Ukraine (borsch).

Von Bremzen is great company on these explorations, delving into language, history, anthropology, and whatever else it takes to understsand the role of that particular food in that particular society.  A couple of excerpts:

Neopolitans were not Italy’s original mangiamaccheroni, however; the Sicilians were.  A twelfth-century Arab geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, was first to report that people near Palermo were making strings of dough called itriyya–-from the Arabic? Greek?  Hebrew?—which they traded “by the shipload” to Calabria and “other Christian lands.”  The Neopolitans?  They were called mangiofoglie (leaf eaters), or, more quaintly, cacafoglie (leaf shitters) for their massive intake of dark leafy greens—a forerunner of the Brooklyn dream diet.  (p. 52)

This, on “washoku—fuzzily defined as “the traditionally dietary cultures of the Japanese” and modeled on the equally fuzzy but successful “gastronomic meal of the French.”

But it was the UNESCO listing that produced a washoku explosion.  A word only faintly known before to the Japanese public was now everywhere, celebrated in cookbooks, media articles, gastronomic guides, and scholarly studies.  And the government—mixing bunka gaikō (cultural diplomacy and Brand Japan building—promoted washoku abroad as the nation’s ancient and healthy tradition.  An upscale pizza effect swung into action.  International recognition boosted washoku’s domestic cachet, swelling the pride that Japanest home cooks now took, according to polls, in their own intangible food heritage.

Intangible indeed. (p.103)

This is one terrific book, erudite but fun to read and a great contribution to the literature of food studies.  Enjoy!

Aug 10 2023

A taste of summer: melons

Every now and then the USDA recruits a talented designer and produces terrific charts like this one.

I thought this was perfect for a hot summer day.  Enjoy!

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Aug 9 2023

On Netflix now: Poisoned

Poisoned, the food safety film featuring the lawyer, Bill Marler,  is now available to watch on Netflix.

I wrote about earlier when I saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival.

It’s totally worth watching, and not only because I have a cameo in it.

Bill Marler explains why.  I reproduce his post with permission.

Over two months ago, while watching the premiere of the documentary, “Poisoned,” at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC, I got thinking again about how little in the past 30 years I feel I have moved the needle on food safety – pathogens and certainly, human nutrition.  Now that “Poisoned” is up on the Netflix platform, it has become the most watched documentary in the world – at least for the last few days.

The real issues to me is how do we engage the food industry, policy makers, academics and most importantly consumers, to focus on driving the numbers down on the pathogens that kill us quickly and the products that kill us over time?

I will focus on pathogens as I have for the last 30 plus years. I will leave it to some very smart people who are rightly concerned about the millions of us who become sick and die due to inadequate nutrition – especially the millions of illnesses and deaths due to heart disease, diabetes and obesity caused by ultra-processed foods, salt, sugar, and fat.

There is so much to do, and the list is long. So, what would I do with a Food Safety Magic Wand on day one?

  1. Vaccinate. The first thing I would do is mandate that all food service workers be vaccinated against hepatitis A.  Perhaps to some, not the most pressing food safety issue, but it is forefront of my mind.  In the past few months, I finished up litigation around a hepatitis A outbreak involving one ill food service work who infected nearly 50 people, hospitalizing most, killing four and causing two liver transplants.  With regret, I forced a family-owned restaurant chain to file for bankruptcy.  All of this could have been prevented by a safe vaccine that has been around for decades.  It is time for the restaurant industry and the CDC to step up.
  • Investigate. Invest in public health surveillance over human pathogens, like, ListeriaE. coli and Salmonella, etc.  A dirty truth is that most culture-confirmed illnesses are never attributable to a food source, so people never know what sickened or killed them. Not because the source was not food, but because we fail to invest adequate resources in the epidemiologists that investigate illnesses and track those illnesses to the cause. Tracking illnesses to the cause gets tainted product off the market and helps us all understand what products and producers to avoid.  We need to continue to invest in the science of whole genome sequencing, so we know with certainty which pathogens are causing which illnesses. Foodborne illness epidemiology helps us understand the root cause of an outbreak and helps prevent the next one from happening at all.
  • Relegate. Allow public health officials access, especially during an outbreak investigation, to all areas around farms that grow fruits and vegetables.  It is long past time to allow investigators access to neighboring cattle, dairy, chicken, or hog operations that spill billions of deadly pathogens into the environment, via air or water.  We need to think of our growing regions as an integrated system and that all sectors responsible need to play a role.  Access allows investigators to understand the likely cause of an outbreak, and again, what can be done to prevent the next one.
  • Advocate. Make all pathogens that can sicken or kill us adulterants.  In 1994 Mike Taylor making E. coliO157:H7 and adulterant has saved countless lives and has saved the beef industry from my lawsuits. We can do the same for all food producers, especially chicken, turkey, and pork.  Remember, in the 1990’s nearly all the lawsuits I filed were E. coli cases linked to ground beef.  Today that is zero.  Think about it.
  • Educate. Give everyone a thermometer and provide better education to middle and high school teachers and students around food safety and human nutrition policy, not in a dry, technical way, but by sharing engaging history, microbiology, patient stories, and case studies. We need to teach how and why our food can be unsafe and what consumers can do about it.
  • Consolidate. Finally, make a single federal agency out of USDA/FSIS, FDA, and the food safety parts of CDC, NOAA, and EPA, to oversee food safety and human nutrition. Making food safety and human nutrition its own agency would help increase governmental accountability,  close regulatory loopholes, facilitate the collection and sharing of information and facilitate critical change.  I might have a suggestion for someone to run it.

With the CDC estimating 48,000,000 are sickened each year, 125,000 hospitalized, and 3,000 die from food, preventing pathogenic foodborne illness is no simple matter.  And, if you consider the millions that are impacted by the lack of adequate and safe nutrition, we have a lot to do.  However, it can be done, and the six ideas above are a small start.

“Doing anything is better than doing nothing,” my Marine drill sergeant father used to say.  He used to require my brother and I to make our beds every morning and bounce quarters on them.  For the longest time I thought this was punishment.  But it was not punishment, it was accomplishment, that you could build on for the rest of the day.  Doing “little” things, like the six things above, are accomplishments. Doing them starts a process that will continue to make all our lives just a little bit safer.

Aug 8 2023

Big changes coming to pet food labels—and about time too

AAFCO, the American Association of Feed Control Officials, says its membership has at last agreed to fix pet food labels so they look more like Nutrition Facts labels.  When this happens, you might possibly be able to understand them.

Here’s what the nutrition information on a pet food label looks like now.

Pet food labels follow the regulations for animal feed, not human food.

This might have made sense when dogs and cats were on their own to hunt or be fed household scraps, but it makes no sense at all now that pets are considered members of the family—fur babies.

The agreed-upon changes have to be incorporated into state regulations, and manufacturers need time to adopt them.  Everybody gets 6 years to do this, although some companies will undoubtedly start using the new rules right away.

The changes will be in four areas of the labels:

  1. Nutrition Facts Box – Updated to resemble human-food labeling more closely.  This will be a Pet Nutriton Facts panel.
  2. Intended Use Statement – Updated to new location on the lower-third of the front display panel to help consumers easily identify the purpose of the pet food.
  3. Ingredient Statement – Updated to clarify the use of consistent terminology and allow parentheticals and common or usual names for vitamins.
  4. Handling and Storage Instructions (optional) – Updated and standardized with optional icons for greater consistency.

This is a great step forward.  One reason why I think so is that the new Pet Nutrition Facts label is exactly what Mal Nesheim and I recommended in our book, Feed Your Pet Right.

That book came out in 2010; these rules go into effect in 2029.

It pays to be patient—and to persist!

Aug 7 2023

Industry-funded study of the week: sugar!

My thanks to Paola Baratto for sending this one.

The study: . Intakes of Added Sugars, with a Focus on Beverages and the Associations with Micronutrient Adequacy in US Children, Adolescents, and Teens (NHANES 2003–2018).  Ricciuto L, Fulgoni VL III, Gaine PC, Scott MO, DiFrancesco L.   Nutrients. 2023; 15(15):3285.

Method: This is an analysis of links between added sugars from different kinds of drinks and nutrient adequacy in children using combined data from 8 consecutive NHANES surveys (2003-2018).

Results: I found the results hard to understand because they are presented selectively by age, and they compare nutrient intakes to estimated average requirements.  Here is what I think they mean:

  • 2 to 8 year olds: If they got their sugar from flavored milk, they had better calcium intake.
  • 9 to 18 year olds: If they got their sugar from soft drinks, coffee, or tea, thei had worse intakes of magnesium and vitamins A and C.  But if they got their sugars from fruit drinks or flavored milk, they had better intake of vitamin C (from the fruit drinks), and of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin A, and potassium (from the flavored milk).
  • 9 to 18 year olds: Higher intake of added sugars in the overall diet was associated with bettter intake of vitamins and minerals.

Conclusion: The results suggest that the relationship between added sugars intake and micronutrient adequacy depends on the added sugar sources and their nutrient composition.

Funding: The funding for this research was provided by The Sugar Association, Inc. P.C.G. and M.O.S. are employed by The Sugar Association Inc., had input in the study design, and reviewed and edited the manuscript.

Comment: The Sugar Association’s purpose in sponsoring this study is to buttress its argument that sugary drinks and foods have nutrients and, therefore, do not warrant restrictions.  If you get the idea from this study that the more sugary foods you eat, the more nutrients you and your kids get, the Association will be even happier.  Sorry Sugar Association, but it is quite possible to consume adequate intakes of vitamins and minerals without eating sugary foods and doing so will make calories easier to control.  With this study, the Sugar Association got what it paid for.

Aug 4 2023

Weekend reading: FDA’s curricula for middle and high school teachers

I started out my careeer as an instructor in a university biology department teaching cell and molecular biology.  I got handed a nutrition course to teach and quickly discovered it was the best way to engage students in learning biology.  I’ve never looked back.

Now the FDA has made the same discovery:

The Science and Our Food Supply Teacher Guides are challenging hands-on, minds-on activities that empower students to make informed choices about food safety, nutrition, biotechnology, and dietary supplements. They are crafted in a teacher-friendly modular format that easily fit into science, health, and other classes.

I.  Food Safety: Science and Our Food Supply: Investigating Food Safety from Farm to Table (2014) 


II.  Nutrition: Science and Our Food Supply: Using the Nutrition Facts Label to Make Healthy Food Choices (2022)

III.  Biotechnology: Science and Our Food Supply: Exploring Food Agriculture and Biotechnology (2020)

IV.  Dietary Supplements: Science and Our Food Supply: Examining Dietary Supplements (2021)


I think these are pretty good and could make teaching these topics easy for teachers and fun for students.  They are written intelligently and do not talk down.  All of them provide useful sections on how to decide whether information sources are reliable.   For that alone!

The curricula provide plenty to work with, even though they are decidedly non-controversail.  You would never know from reading the one on biotechnology, for example, that the topic caused much in the way of debate.