by Marion Nestle

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Jan 14 2011

If I had a food safety magic wand…

 Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer in Seattle, is asking for responses to the question, “if you had a magic wand, how would you fix the food safety system?” 

I’ve been mulling over his question in light of the recent enactment of the food safety bill, as yet unfunded.  Magic wand in hand, here’s what I’d do:

Create a single food safety agency: the new law is designed to fix the FDA.  It does nothing to fix the USDA’s food safety functions.  These remain divided between the two agencies, with USDA responsible for the safety of meat and poultry, and FDA responsible for everything else.  This division pretends that animal wastes have nothing to do with the safety of fruits and vegetables which, alas, they do. 

Require safety control systems for all foods.  Everyone who produces food should do it safely using proven methods for identifying where hazards can occur, taking steps to prevent those hazards, monitoring to make sure the steps were taken, and—when appropriate— testing to make sure the system is working. 

Apply safety controls from farm to table.  The new law does this for FDA-regulated foods.  But USDA safety regulations begin at the slaughterhouse after animals have already been contaminated in feedlots or in transport.  Everyone involved in food production, even farmers large and small, should be actively engaged in food safety efforts.

Fund food safety through congressional health committees.  For irrational reasons of history, the FDA gets its funding through agricultural committees, not health—even though FDA is an agency of the Public Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services.   As a consequence, the FDA is at the mercy of appropriations committees whose mandate is to protect agricultural interests.  This anomaly explains why 80% of food safety funding goes to USDA, and only20% to FDA.  The new chair of the House agricultural appropriations committee has made it clear that he does not believe FDA needs any more funding.   Health appropriations committees might view FDA’s role in food safety in a more favorable light.

Fund food safety adequately.  To protect the domestic food supply—and to ensure the safety of imported foods—more money is needed to pay for inspection, testing, and research. 

Give the food agency cabinet-level status.  Everyone eats.  Food safety affects everyone.  Food has critically important economic and food security dimensions, domestically and internationally.   

Require election campaigns to be publicly funded, with no loopholes. This is the only way we will be able to remove corruption from our political system and elect officials who care more about public health than corporate health.

Require Wall Street to rate corporations on long-term sustainability.  Wall Street pressures on corporations to report growth every quarter are at the root of corner-cutting on food safety.  Food corporations should be valued for excellent food safety records and for maintaining high ethical standards in every aspect of their business.

Even a magic wand may not be enough to do this.  It will take more than a magic wand to do this, I fear.  Hey, I can dream.

Jan 1 2011

Predictions: national nutrition issues for 2011

My first San Francisco Chronicle “Food Matters” column for the new year deals with some predictions:

Q: Whatever you used as a crystal ball last year turned out to be a pretty good predictor of the most prominent food issues of 2010. How about trying again: What food matters will we be hearing about in 2011?

A: It doesn’t take a crystal ball to figure out what’s coming up with food issues. I’m happy to make predictions, especially since most seem fairly safe.

Dietary guidelines will be released this month. By law, they were due last year and are already late. What will they say? The 2010 guidelines advisory committee recommended eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but introduced a new euphemism – SOFAs, or Solid Fats and Added Sugars – for the “eat less” advice. SOFAs really mean “cut down on fatty meat and dairy products” and “avoid sugary sodas.”

Will government agencies have the nerve to say so? Let’s hope.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue a new food guide. The 2005 pyramid’s rainbow stripes proved impossible to teach and useless to anyone without a computer. I’ve heard a rumor that I will love the new design. I’m skeptical. I liked the original 1992 pyramid. It showed that bottom-of-the-pyramid foods were healthiest, making it unpopular with companies selling top-of-the-pyramid products. But it is healthier to eat some foods than others (see: dietary guidelines).

Will the USDA improve on the 1992 design? We will soon find out.

The fights over food safety will continue. At the last possible moment, Congress passed the food safety bill by a large majority. Now the fights really begin.

Funding will be most contentious, with the actual regulations not far behind. The Congressional Budget Office absurdly considered the bill’s provisions to be “budget neutral.” They are anything but.

The bill’s provisions require the Food and Drug Administration to hire more inspectors just at a time when Republican lawmakers have sworn to cut domestic spending. The FDA also must translate the bill’s requirements and exemptions for small farmers into regulations.

Rule-making is a lengthy process subject to public comment and, therefore, political maneuvering. Watch the lobbying efforts ratchet up as food producers, large and small, attempt to head off safety rules they think they won’t like.

Expect more lawsuits over the scientific basis of health claims. The Federal Trade Commission just settled a $21 million claim against Dannon for advertising that yogurt protects against the flu. The agency also has gone after scientifically unsubstantiated claims that omega-3s in kiddie supplements promote brain development and that pomegranate juice protects against prostate problems. POM Wonderful has already countersued the FTC on grounds that the First Amendment protects commercial speech. I’ll be watching this case carefully.

The FDA will issue new front-of-package label regulations. The FDA has promised to propose an at-a-glance symbol to indicate the overall nutritional value of food products. Food companies like the Guideline Daily Amount spots they are using in the upper corners of food packages because the symbols are factual but nonjudgmental. The FDA, however, is considering red, yellow and green traffic-light symbols that do convey judgments. Food companies say they will not voluntarily use a symbol that tells people to eat less of their products.

Will the FDA have the courage to make traffic lights mandatory? It will need courage. The new British government dealt with the traffic-light idea by summarily dismantling the food agency that suggested it.

Corporations will seek new ways to co-opt critics. Under the guise of corporate social responsibility, food companies have been making large donations to organizations that might otherwise criticize their products. The most recent example is the decision by Save the Children, formerly a staunch advocate of soda taxes, to drop that cause coincidentally at a time when its executives were negotiating funding from Coca-Cola.

Such strategies remind me of how the Philip Morris cigarette company distributed grants to leading arts groups. Expect food companies to use generosity to neutralize critics and buy silence.

School meals will make front-page news. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act last month. Now the USDA must implement it by setting nutrition standards, adding fresh fruits and vegetables (some locally grown) and expanding eligibility.

President Obama has promised to restore the $4.5 billion “borrowed” from the SNAP (food stamp) program to fund this act. The scrambling over the regulations and financing should make excellent spectator sport.

Farm bill advocates will be mobilizing. You might think it too early to be worrying about the 2012 Farm Bill, but I’ve already gotten position papers analyzing commodity and food-assistance issues from groups gearing up to lobby Congress to bring agricultural policy in line with nutrition and public health policy.

I have a personal interest in such papers. I will be teaching a course on the Farm Bill at New York University next fall. Please get busy and write more of them!

Happy new year, and let’s see how my guesses play out.

Dec 10 2010

Food is political? Indeed it is.

Every now and then, I enjoy answering questions posed by Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman.  Here’s one for today.

Let’s Ask Marion: How Did Junk Food and Obesity Become a Red State/Blue State Debate?

(With a click of her mouse, Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):

kat: The “agri-culture war” that’s long been simmering is coming to a boil now, as recently noted in The Washington Post, The Daily Dish, and elsewhere in the blogosphere.

The Palin/Beck/Limbaugh axis of egos is vigorously defending junk food, lamenting the passage of the food safety bill, and decrying all efforts to address our obesity epidemic, even as David Frum, a rare voice of reason (sometimes) on the right, tells CNN that obesity poses a greater threat to our national security than, say, openly gay soldiers.

You yourself are under fire yet again (sigh) from those uber-astroturfers at the Center For Consumer Freedom for having the audacity to question whether our cherished principle of free speech entitles Big Food to emblazon the labels of its edible food-like substances with Big Lies (i.e. dubious, unproven health claims).

Why do you think that the issues of junk food and obesity have become so incredibly politicized?

Dr. Nestle: Politicized? Of course they are politicized. Junk food and obesity are key indicators of political divisions in our society. For starters, junk food is cheap and obesity is more common among low-income populations. So right away we are into divisive issues of income inequality and class and, therefore, who pays for what and which sectors of society get government handouts.

The minute we start talking about small farms, organic production, local food, and sustainable agriculture, we are really talking about changing our food system to accommodate a broader range of players and to become more democratic. Just think of who wins and who loses if $20 billion in annual agricultural subsidies go to small, organic vegetable producers who are part of their communities rather than to large agricultural producers who do not live anywhere near their corn and soybeans.

The issue at stake is who gets to decide how food is grown and what people eat. For as long as I can remember, big agriculture and big food were in control, in close partnership with congressional agricultural committees and the USDA. Today, the food movement–democracy in action, if you will–is challenging their authority and power. No wonder defenders of the status quo don’t like the challenge. It is only to be expected that they are fighting back.

I see the intensity of the debate (and, alas, the personal attacks) as a clear sign that the movement is making headway. The system is clearly changing. It has to change if we are to address obesity, climate change, and the other unsustainable aspects of our present ways of doing food business.

Anyone who is working to reduce income inequity and to make healthier food available to every American has to expect to encounter the methods corporations always use to fight critics: personal attacks, claims of junk science, invocation of personal responsibility, cooptation, and plenty of behind-the-scenes lobbying.

Telling truth to power has never been popular. But I’m convinced it’s worth doing.

Nov 17 2010

FDA and FTC get tough on caffeine-alcohol drinks!

The FDA held two conference calls today to announce action on caffeine-alcohol beverages. It is sending warning letters to four companies that make this collection of caffeinated alcoholic beverages:

  • Core High Gravity HG Green
  • Core High Gravity HG Orange
  • Four Loko
  • Joose
  • Lemon Lime Core Spiked
  • Moonshot  (This product is labeled as “premium beer with caffeine”)
  • Max

The FDA says:

The manufacturers of these products have failed to show that the direct addition of caffeine to their malt beverages is “generally recognized as safe” by qualified experts.  Rather, there is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern….The agency has given the firms 15 days to respond to the warning letters and then may proceed to court to stop their sale. In addition, other alcoholic beverages containing added caffeine may be subject to agency action in the future if scientific data indicate that the use of caffeine in those products does not meet safety standards.

The FTC issued similar warnings to the same four companies because “marketing of such beverages may constitute an unfair or deceptive practice that violates the FTC Act.  Companies receiving letters include: United Brands Co (Joose and Max), Phusion Products (Four Loko and Four Maxed), Charge Beverages Corporation (Core High Gravity, Core Spiked, and El Jefe), and New Century Brewing Company (Moonshot).

What this is about:

Ever ahead of the game, the New York Times announced yesterday that the FDA would soon be doing something about the caffeinated alcohol beverages that have caused so much trouble on college campuses recently (see previous post on this).

Today, Four Loko says it will voluntarily take the caffeine out of Four Loko.

Why?  In a statement, Phusion Projects, the maker of Four Loko explains:

We are taking this step after trying – unsuccessfully – to navigate a difficult and politically-charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels….We have repeatedly contended — and still believe, as do many people throughout the country — that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe…If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees that have been consumed safely and responsibly for years would face the same scrutiny that our products have recently faced….By taking this action today, we are again demonstrating leadership, cooperation and responsible corporate citizenship.

Yeah, right.  Irish coffees are hardly considered party drinks.

Phusion Projects is acting because it is being forced to.   FoodSafetyNews has kept score, based on data collected by the Marin Institute, which has been on top of this issue for years (thanks to Michele Simon and others).

So far, Oklahoma, Michigan, Utah, and Washington have banned drinks that combine caffeine with alcohol.  New York’s largest beer distributors have stopped selling the drinks. And several colleges have banned the drinks on campuses.

And where are the regulatory agencies in all this?  Alcohol beverages are not regulated by the FDA.  They are regulated by theTobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the Treasury department.  From the government’s standpoint, alcohol is about tax revenues, not health.  As Phusion Projects explains, all this is TTB’s fault:

If our products were unsafe, we would not have expected the federal agency responsible for approving alcoholic beverage formulas – the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) – to have approved them.   Yet, all of our product formulas and packaging were reviewed and approved by the TTB before being offered to consumers.

Why is the FDA involved in this at all?  Because it regulates food additives—like caffeine and the other supplements put into energy drinks.

If this incident illustrates anything, it’s that alcohol beverages require the same kind of scrutiny given to any other food product and their regulation needs to move to an agency that cares about their effects on health.

Additions, November 18: The California Department of Health Services says caffeine-alcohol beverages can no longer be sold in the state.  And TTB has come out with its own warnings.

Addition, November 23: I’ve been sent the Saturday Night Live skit on Four Loko, and particularly appreciate the comment on portion size—120 servings per can!

Jul 15 2010

Nestlé does nutrition education in China

Nestlé (the corporation, not me) is moving its Healthy Kids Program to China, and intends to put the program into every country in which it operates by the end of 2011.

The program “aims to improve the nutrition, health and wellness of children aged 6-12 years old by promoting nutrition education, balanced diet, greater physical activity and a healthy lifestyle.”

Nestlé believes that education is the single most powerful tool for ensuring that children understand the value of nutrition and physical activity to their health through the course of their lives. As a Council member of the Chinese Nutrition Society, Nestlé is indeed honoured to work together with the authorities and several other organizations to promote nutrition awareness and health education for the Chinese children.

Want to make some guesses about what this program will say about nutrition?  Note yesterday’s post.  Probiotics in juice drink straws, anyone?

One clue comes from that barge loaded with food products that Nestle is sending up the Amazon into the Brazilian outback: The vessel will carry 300 different goods including chocolate, yogurt, ice cream and juices.”

Jul 14 2010

FTC forces Nestlé to settle questionable probiotic marketing claim

While I’m on the subject of the FTC (see yesterday’s post), let’s congratulate the agency for going after the Nestlé (no relation) corporation for marketing a product aimed at kids with misleading, deceptive, and—according to the FDA—illegal health claims.  The FTC settlement announcement says that

from fall 2008 to fall 2009, Nestlé HealthCare Nutrition, Inc. made deceptive claims in television, magazine, and print ads that BOOST Kid Essentials prevents upper respiratory tract infections in children, protects against colds and flu by strengthening the immune system, and reduces absences from daycare or school due to illness.

Nestlé must have introduced this product in 2008 because bloggers (of the sponsored kind) were promoting its benefits in September that year.  One said:

BOOST Kid Essentials is a nutritionally complete drink intended for children ages 1 to 13.  The probiotics in BOOST Kid Essentials are embedded in a straw that comes with the drink, which was prominently featured in ads for the product.  Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria that are found naturally in many foods, and they are known for aiding digestion and fighting harmful bacteria.

This blogger’s enthusiasm for the product—“parenting solved”—quotes two studies, one done with adults using the straw and another with kids in day care whose infant formula was supplemented with one of the bacteria used in the adult study.  Both studies look preliminary to me, as they must have to the FTC.

In February 2009, in what reads like a company advertisement, another (sponsored) blogger wrote:

BOOST Kid Essentials Drink is the only nutritionally complete drink that provides kids ages 1 through 13 with immune-strengthening probiotics plus complete, balanced nutrition. Just one daily serving of the probiotic found in the BOOST Kid Essentials Drink straw has been clinically shown to help strengthen the immune system. BOOST Kid Essentials Drink is perfect for children who are below growth percentiles, having trouble gaining weight, resisting eating enough nutritious foods, or needing extra nutrition to help maintain an active lifestyle.

But in December 2009, the FDA  issued a letter to the company warning it that it was marketing this product as a drug:

this product is misbranded under…the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act… because the label is false or misleading in that the product is labeled and marketed as a medical food but does not meet the statutory definition of a medical food in the Orphan Drug Act…Furthermore, this product is promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug under section 201(g)(1)(B) of the Act…The therapeutic claims on your website establish that this product is a drug because it is intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.

The warning letter didn’t get into the business of whether probiotics really do any good (the European Food Safety Authority certainly doesn’t think so) or whether “healthy” bacteria stay live and active in a straw stuck in the packaging of a kids’ drink.  The company must not have wanted to get into all that, so it settled.  The probiotic straw no longer comes with the package.

Nestlé is the largest food company in the world with earnings that exceed $100 billion annually.  It should have known better.

Update, July 15: Since the FTC imposed no penalties on Nestlé,  analysts expect class action lawsuits to follow in due course.  And here’s the account in the New York Times (I’m quoted).

Jun 21 2010

Wild Alaskan salmon: food politics in action

On a tour arranged and paid for by the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute (see Note below),  I spent last week observing salmon fishing and processing in Anchorage and at remote places 600 miles to the southwest.

I could not help thinking about federal dietary guidelines.  The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has just filed its report.  It recommends consuming two 4-ounce servings of seafood per week, preferably fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Develop safe, effective, and sustainable practices to expand aquaculture and increase the availability of seafood to all segments of the population. Enhance access to… information that helps consumers make informed seafood choices.

This, among other fish, means salmon, particularly wild Alaskan salmon because they have higher levels of omega-3 fats than the farmed fish and because Alaska is working hard to maintain the sustainability of its wild fish.

Wild Alaskan salmon caught 6-19-10. Top to bottom: King (Chinook), Red (Sockeye), Chum (Keta), Pink

To be sustainable, fish have to remain in the sea and steams long enough to reproduce. This means controlling the number of people who are allowed to catch fish (through licenses and permits) as well as the number of fish they catch (through restrictions on fishing methods and times and places).

The Alaskan system for doing this works fairly well but is under constant pressure.  Commercial fishers want to be able to catch all the salmon they can with no restrictions. Communities that have always depended on salmon for sustenance want to be able to continue doing so, and do not want fish caught before they get to community spawning streams.  Hence: salmon politics.

Here are some thoughts about what I observed:

Labor conditions in the processing plants: workers were imported from the Philippines or Eastern Europe, and worked 12 to 16 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, for months at a time.

The amount of hand labor involved: Fishermen haul nets and sort fish by hand, and processing plant workers remove heads and guts, fillet fish, trip fillets, and debone by hand. In canneries, they weigh cans and clean the contents by hand. Some of this work is highly skilled and so meticulously done that it qualifies as artisanal. All of it is hard and repetitive

Peter Pan salmon cannery, King Cove, Alaska, 6-20-10

The huge numbers of fish that can be caught by commercial fishers: Alaska regulates how fish can be caught (boat size, types of nets), but even so a purse seine picks up thousands of pounds of fish at one time. It is hard to imagine how such fisheries can be sustainable, even when tightly regulated.

Purse seine bringing in the catch

The waste in the system: Some plants had arrangements to supply fish heads, guts, backbones, belly fat, skin, tails, and other parts to be used for pet food or fish meal, but some just ground up the leftovers and flushed them into the water system or back into the ocean. If the wrong fish get into nets, they get tossed back into the sea.

The cold chain (temperature controls): fish stay fresher longer if they are held temperatures just above freezing throughout every step of processing. The tenders (collecting boats) do “RSW,” hold fish in a tank filled with Refrigerated Sea Water. High quality fish are sampled at arrival at plants to make sure their flesh is below 35 degrees. Two of the three plants we visited were careful with temperature controls. The third, however, allowed fish to sit in holding tanks for days or to remain on stopped processing lines at room temperature while workers went to lunch.

The role of science: Geneticists are madly working on methods to identify salmon by stream of origin as a means to settle arguments about who gets to catch which fish. This, of course, could backfire if the salmon turn out to be from Russia or Canada.

The love of fishermen for what they do: The ones we met love their work and have been doing it for decades. They just wish they got treated better by processors and paid better for the fish they catch.

As fish eaters, we don’t need to consider where fish comes from or how it gets to us. I will be looking at fresh, frozen, and canned salmon in grocery stores and fish markets with new appreciation for what it takes to get them to us.

I haven’t said anything about methylmercury and PCBs, fish safety, international disputes over fishing rights, or issues about organic or farmed fish. For these topics, see the five chapters on fish in What to Eat.

If we want to continue to have fish to eat, we must pay attention to such issues, uncomfortable as they may be to contemplate.

Note: The Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute is a trade association supported by the seafood processing industry:

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) was created over twenty years ago as a cooperative partnership between the Alaska seafood industry and state government to advance the mutually beneficial goal of a stable seafood industry in Alaska. It is Alaska’s “official seafood marketing agency”, and is established under state law as a public corporation…[It] is divided into three distinct marketing programs: international, foodservice and retail. All three programs are designed to enhance the appeal and popularity of Alaska Seafood. The international program operates in the European Union, China, and Japan, while the retail and foodservice programs conduct their activities in the U.S.

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Jun 20 2010

Wild Alaskan seafood: sustainability

One point of the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute’s invitation to visit remote fishing and processing operations was to publicize the state’s fish sustainability initiatives (see Note below).

Everyone wants to catch fish.  But who has the right to catch them?  Fish swim long distances and pay little attention to political borders.  The commercial fishing industry is highly efficient at using technology to catch fish (the fish hardly have a chance).  And cultural issues are involved, as well as economic issues.  Indigenous communities have long standing cultural traditions related to fish.

Fish stocks are not infinite.   Hence, the need for management.

In Alaska, fisheries management is so complex that it takes a chart to explain how it works.  The goal is to have enough seafood available so all the stakeholders in the fish system can make a living.  Salmon, groundfish, halibut, and crab each require a different agency to manage stock conservation, set policy (local, national, and international) for who is entitled to fish, and enforce the rules.

For example, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulates the amounts of fish that can be taken, the Alaska Board of Fisheries decides who gets permits to fish, and Alaska Wildlife Troopers make sure everyone follows the rules.

The main management tools limit the time and place where fishing is allowed, and limit the number of commercial groups allowed to fish.  Alaskan fisheries are closed unless the Department of Fish and Game says they are open.   Nobody can fish in a closed area.

The number of fishing permits is fixed and finite, making them a market-driven commodity.  They are often handed down from generation to generation, but also can be sold.   A king salmon permit, for example, might cost as much as half a million dollars.  Yes, this allows rich commercial fishers to work in Alaskan waters.  But fishing area controls are democratic.  A closed fishing area is closed to rich and poor alike.

This system creates some tricky situations.  On the day we observed fishing in action near Sand Point, the area was open to salmon fishing. But it was closed to cod fishing.

Catch from a purse seine, Shumagen Islands, Alaska, June 2010

The boat shown here was out salmon fishing.  It caught salmon, but also picked up an almost equal number of cod (we were told this was highly unusual).

The salmon would go to the cannery to be processed.  The best salmon would be processed with special care by Aleutia, an organization specializing in high quality Alaskan wild salmon getting high prices for fishermen.

The salmon were caught legally.  The cod, however, were by-catch.  They were not supposed to be caught in the salmon nets or, for that matter, at all that day.

What happened to the caught cod?  We ate one of them for dinner that night, prepared for us by Michael Cimarusti, chef owner of Providence (Los Angeles), who conveniently was a member of our group. It was worth the trip.

The others went for personal use or were thrown back into the sea to become food for crab or other seafood.  Under the rules, they could not be sold.

Does this complicated management system work?  It looked to me like it does the job pretty well.

  • Stocks of major Alaskan seafood—salmon, groundfish, halibut, and crab—are holding their own.
  • Everybody who fishes or depends on fish complains that they don’t get the chance to get enough of their fish.

Now, if only this system could go international, we might have a shot at keeping fish in the sea.

Tomorrow: Wild Alaskan salmon, from ocean to table.

Note: The Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute is a trade association for seafood processors::

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) was created over twenty years ago as a cooperative partnership between the Alaska seafood industry and state government to advance the mutually beneficial goal of a stable seafood industry in Alaska. It is Alaska’s “official seafood marketing agency”, and is established under state law as a public corporation…[It] is divided into three distinct marketing programs: international, foodservice and retail. All three programs are designed to enhance the appeal and popularity of Alaska Seafood. The international program operates in the European Union, China, and Japan, while the retail and foodservice programs conduct their activities in the U.S.

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