by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Coronavirus

Jun 5 2020

Weekend reading: Feeding Britain

Tim Lang. Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them.  Pelican, 2020.  

I reviewed this book for The Lancet.  The online version is here.

Although Lang wrote his book before the COVID-19 pandemic, it thoroughly explains the governmental weaknesses that led to the UK’s food vulnerability and delayed and inadequate response to the crisis. Lang could not be more expert; he knows the British food policy scene from the inside, having started his career as a hill farmer, spending decades as a food advocate, academic, and adviser to domestic and international agencies, and having written previous books on food systems. His purpose here is to convince British politicians to take food issues seriously, to assume moral and political leadership, and to transform the UK’s food system to one that is more self-sufficient, more resilient, and better able to reduce food insecurity, prevent obesity, and reduce environmental damage.

Jun 4 2020

A dog with coronavirus!

Interested as I am in pet food and the effects of coronavirus on what’s happening with these products, I was fascinated to come across this item:

Confirmation of COVID-19 in Pet Dog in New York.

Uh oh.  We knew that cats and tigers could get this disease but dogs were considered safe from it.

The big question: can pets transmit?

I’m guessing yes, although maybe not easily.

Jun 3 2020

Meat: the ongoing saga

If you want to understand why meat has become the focus of political fights about the effects of Covid-19, it helps to start with why the meat industry is so powerful.

I’ve always explained it this way: cattle are raised in every state, every state has two senators, every senator attracts hordes of lobbyists.

Food Safety News takes a deeper dive:

The meat industry effectively controls the Senate and House of Representatives by stopping a bill before it even reaches the floor. All legislation related to food and agriculture crosses the desks of the respective Agriculture Committees, so effort is targeted to build relationships, tailor strategic communications, and send influential campaign contributions to stay on the pulse of new developments.  For bills that do reach the floor, swift action is taken.

Over the years, proposals to have meat processors become partially or fully responsible for the cost of USDA inspections, which are currently provided without cost for routine operation, are quickly shot down as “unwise and unnecessary,” without explanation or discussion. Ironically, industry also seeks to reduce the presence of USDA inspectors by seducing the agency into allowing their workers to complete the tasks on their tab– but more on that later.

Yesterday’s Politico: has this headline “As meatpacking plants reopen, workers terrified of coronavirus risk” [this may be behind a paywall]

The latest Agriculture Department figures show that U.S. meat production is returning to nearly last year’s capacity, accomplishing the White House’s goal of keeping the food supply steady during the pandemic…At least 44 meatpacking workers have died from the virus and more than 3,000 have tested positive, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. About 30 plants have closed in the past two months, affecting more than 45,000 workers.

A spokesperson for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency responsible for worker safety, told POLITICO that it has received more than 4,400 Covid-19-related safety complaints, but has issued only a single citation related to the pandemic….An employee at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colo., where eight workers have died from the virus, told POLITICO that although the company has required social distancing in break rooms and other areas, workers remain standing shoulder to shoulder on assembly lines. The employee was granted anonymity out of concern about retribution from the company after speaking out.

Some other items about the meat situation:

Jun 2 2020

Harvest boxes: the ongoing saga

Let’s start the latest round of items related to food boxes for the hungry (which I’ve been following closely) with the New York Times Sunday Magazine cover for May 31: cars lined up in San Antonio for handouts from food banks.

To deal with this problem—and that of farmers destroying animals and crops—the USDA  has issued contracts to companies to collect the food and pack it into boxes to be delivered to food banks.

The contracts were issued in a great hurry, with just the kind of results you might expect.

Some members of Congress were so concerned about the haste and lack of oversight that they wrote a letter to Secretary Perdue raising questions about the entire process.

This new program was announced on April 17, 2020, and solicitations were accepted for one week.  USDA then announced $1.2 billion in contracts just one week later, on May 8, 2020, with awardees expected to begin box deliveries as soon as May 15, 2020…We are concerned, however, that contracts were awarded to entities with little to no experience in agriculture or food distribution and with little capacity to meet the obligations of their award.

Little funding is going for boxes in New England, for example, and none to Maine or Alaska.

Put another way, the Northeast has 10% of the country’s population and 33% of COVID-19 cases but is receiving only 4% of food relief dollars, according to ProPublica’s analysis of data from the USDA, the Census Bureau and Johns Hopkins University.

USDA has already cancelled one $40 million contract with an avocado producer.

Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich and Ryan McCrimmon have been closely following this story, particularly events related to a company in San Antonio.

CRE8AD8 (pronounced “create a date”), a San Antonio event marketing firm, received $39 million to deliver food boxes in the Southwest, sparking questions about its qualifications from produce industry veterans, local lawmakers and top ag policymakers in Washington. The San Antonio Express-News also reported that the company made dubious claims about its clients, credentials and affiliations.

They report that Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) wrote to Secretary Perdue calling for revocation of the contract.

Despite these objections, the USDA rushed through a license to CRE8AD8 to allow it to operate as a produce business. CRE8AD8 posted on its Facebook page: “We’ve received our PACA license! Let’s feed America!”

The reporters note:

It’s been more than a month since an aerial photo of thousands of cars waiting in line for food in a San Antonio parking lot went viral — a gut-wrenching sign of the huge need amid economic fallout from Covid-19. But USDA’s new Farmers to Families Food Box program has yet to come through for that hard-hit community.,,The San Antonio Food Bank has not received a single box from CRE8AD8 (pronounced “create a date”), the embattled event planner that received a massive $39 million USDA contract in its own backyard. The food bank says it’s currently getting about 10 percent of what it expected from the program, all from smaller contractors.

Overall,

The fledgling food box program is working well for many nonprofits and food banks serving food to people in need. Of the roughly dozen major food banks POLITICO contacted, nearly all reported that they had begun receiving boxes, though many deliveries starting behind schedule.

All of this is likely to go on for a long time.  The Packer says that USDA will do a second round of funding for box distributors.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning another round of contracts for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, according to an administrator of the program who touted its successes during a Produce Marketing Association Virtual Town Hall.

Additions

From Politico, June 1:

The Texas-based event planner that received a $39 million contract from USDA to supply boxes of meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables has delivered its first 235 boxes to the San Antonio Food Bank. CRE8AD8 agreed to provide 750,000 boxes to feeding organizations across the Southwest by June 30. The company’s CEO said more food will be delivered this week to food banks in Arizona, Texas and Utah. More from the San Antonio Express-News.

From Politico, June 2: The Wisconsin dairy industry is concerned that its industry has been left out of the USDA payments for boxes; Members of Congress wrote the USDA Secretary to complain that Wisconsin-based businesses received less than 1 percent of the funding.

May 29 2020

Weekend reading: The Defense Production Act

I was particularly interested in this article from Food Safety News: “What does the Defense Production Act have to do with food?”

This past week, FDA and USDA issued a Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Potential Use of the Defense Production Act with Regard to FDA-Regulated Food During the COVID-19 Pandemic. The MOU refers to “potential use” because USDA has not yet invoked its DPA authority. Nor will it, in any likelihood. Messaging matters, however, and so the MOU may still operate to significantly influence the food system. What message does it send exactly?

Good question, and one well worth answering.  The author, Thomas Gremillion, has much to say about the topic, and compellingly.  He argues:

All of this is to say that the April 28 Executive Order is a paper tiger. But to the extent that the Administration sought to cow state and local public health officials, it may have succeeded. According to recent reporting, “As of May 19, nearly all of the once-closed meatpacking plants have started back up.” Large meatpackers have declined to disclose data on how many of their workers have fallen ill or died, but according to an analysis by Johns Hopkins University researchers, the rate of COVID-19 infections for counties with very large meatpacking plants was twice the rate in counties without for the week following the Trump executive order. 

May 28 2020

Tone deaf food company ads of the week: Are these for real? So it seems.

Here are two ads sent to me last week.  Both have now been taken down.

This one, according to reader Tony Vassallo (thanks!) comes from the Walmart Supercenter Store 908 at 8101 South John Young Parkway, Orlando FL.  I’m not the only one who thought this was in bad taste (sorry).   After a Twitter storm, Pepsi took it down.

But what about this one?

I looked up Westbrook Mall: Calgary, Alberta.  This too caused an uproar.   The franchise owner apologized, explaining that he was struggling and hoped to generate business, and the sign is now gone, apparently.

May 27 2020

What’s the story on Vitamin D

Yesterday, I wrote about current research suggesting that higher levels of blood Vitamin D [actually, 25-hydroxycholecalciferol, or 25(OH)D] help to protect against Covid-19.

To understand concerns that this evidence may not be totally convincing, it’s useful to know the basics about this “vitamin,” which I put in quotes because its active form is a hormone that helps govern calcium balance.  Here’s how it works.

  • Sunlight acts on a form of cholesterol in skin (7-dehydrocholesterol) to covert it to cholecalciferol, the chemical name for vitamin D3.
  • Vitamin D3 goes to the liver where an enzyme converts it to 25 (OH)D.
  • 25(OH)D goes to the kidney where an enzyme converts it to 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol (a.k.a. 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D), the active hormone.

If you eat foods containing vitamin D3 (fish and meat, which have it in very small amounts, or fortified milk) or vitamin D2 from plants, yeast, or supplements, these travel in the blood to the liver where they undergo the same metabolic steps.

This means that there are three sources.

  • Sunlight on skin—this produces thousands of IU (International Units)
  • Food—is low in this vitamin
  • Supplements—vary, but high doses are not recommended by most health authorities; they may induce hyper-immune responses (not a good idea)

The commonly recommended daily dose of vitamin D is 400-600 IU.

Sunlight on skin is by far the best way to get your vitamin D hormone.

Sensible sun exposure, especially between the hours of 10:00 am and 3:00 pm produces vitamin D in the skin that may last twice as long in the blood compared with ingested vitamin D.If sun exposure produces slight pinkness, the amount of vitamin D produced in response to exposure of the full body is equivalent to ingesting 10,000-25,000 IU.

 In the UK, a study showed that 13 minutes of midday sunlight exposure during summer, just three times per week, maintains healthy levels in white adults ; other studies have shown 30 minutes of midday summer sun exposure in Oslo to be equivalent to consuming 10,000–20,000 IU of vitamin D.

How does all this relate to Covid-19?

So far, we do not have studies of vitamin D supplements in patients with Covid-19 or longer term prospective trials.  These will undoubtedly come.

While waiting for those results, enjoy the sunshine!

May 26 2020

Vitamin D and Coronavirus? Will it help?

In the past few weeks, several studies have appeared linking low levels of the vitamin D intermediate, 25-hydroxycholecalciferol [25(OH)D] to Covid-19 severity.

Previous studies have noted that vitamin D deficiency may be a biomarker of sepsis risk, and giving supplements helps to protect people from acute respiratory infections.

Supplements?

The supplement marketer Wileys Finest says

Did you know there is a special role for vitamin D in our immune cells? Our immune cells use vitamin D to function normally. That’s why experts recommend supplementing with 2,000 IU per day (50 mcg) to support healthy immune function.1,2  P.S. Vitamin D3 is the better choice!

It cites two additional studies:

But wait!

COVID-19: Internet ‘rife with misinformation’ about Vitamin D, say scientists.  Reports arguing high dose Vitamin D supplementation could treat COVID-19 are based on speculation and are a risk to public health, warns a team of scientists from across the globe…. Read more.

This article refers to Vitamin D and SARS-CoV-2 virus/COVID-19 disease, by Martin Kohlmeier and colleagues.  These scientists summarize the situation succinctly (rearranged for readability).

(1) Vitamin D is essential for good health.

(2) Many people, particularly those living in northern latitudes (such as the UK, Ireland, Northern Europe, Canada and the northern parts of the USA, northern India and China), have poor vitamin D status, especially in winter or if confined indoors.

(3) Low vitamin D status may be exacerbated during this COVID-19 crisis (eg, due to indoor living and hence reduced sun exposure), and anyone who is self-isolating with limited access to sunlight is advised to take a vitamin D supplement according to their government’s recommendations for the general population (ie, 400 IU/day for the UK7 and 600 IU/day for the USA (800 IU for >70 years)) and the European Union (EU).

(4) There is no strong scientific evidence to show that very high intakes (ie, mega supplements) of vitamin D will be beneficial in preventing or treating COVID-19.

(5) There are evidenced health risks with excessive vitamin D intakes especially for those with other health issues such as a reduced kidney function.

This seems like sensible advice.

As readers of this blog know, I am not a fan of supplements, particularly in high doses, mainly because there is so little evidence that supplements do anything to make healthy people healthier.  There is also some evidence that they could be harmful, especially those that are fat-soluble, as is vitamin D.

I am particularly skeptical of the benefits of Vitamin D:

  • Its best source by far is from the action of sunlight on skin.
  • It is not a vitamin; it is a hormone (widespread hormone replacement therapy does not seem like a good idea).
  • It is unclear whether 25 (OH)D is the best measure of hormone status (it is just the easiest one to do).
  • More research on immune effects is needed.

In the meantime, what to do?

It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere.  Get outside!

Tomorrow: I will explain more about why the effects of Vitamin D are so hard to figure out.