by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Dairy

Aug 8 2012

Question for today: how should we support mid-size dairy farms?

My “thought for a summer weekend” post elicited interesting comments.

Let’s start with the one from FarmerJane, a mid-size dairy farmer who is a frequent contributor.

She asks: How can farmers and consumers find ways to dialog and share information?

She says (and I’m doing some heavy editing here, with her permission):

Thoughts about ag are dominated by a few powerful big media writers.  When we farmers try to speak, we find ourselves excoriated….Rural America does not seem to have any sort of spokesperson who has access to national media.  The issues are framed by a handful of urban food-elite writing whose thoughts then trickle down to how rural farmers are perceived…I think the inclusion of farmers in food dialog would bring a multidisciplinary approach to the issue of food:  environment, ag economics, animal welfare, food systems to name a few. But what are the ways this could happen?

I feel that we, the average farmer of the middle are being marginalized.

I asked: What would you like to see done for farmers like you, neither CAFO, nor small.  She had several suggestions, which I summarize here mostly in my words (hers are in quotes):

Fix milk marketing orders and “end-product” pricing.  Right now, prices are paid to farmers according to the use of the milk.  From high prices to low: Class I (fluid milk), Class II (yogurt), Class III (cheese), Class IV(butter/powder).  If the push is to turn milk into yogurt, cheese, or butter, dairy farmers don’t get paid as much.

Encourage local production.  “The eastern half of the country is actually in “milk deficit” of about 3.2 billion pounds per month, while the western half is pushing the milk out like there is no tomorrow…Farmers in the western part of the country are calling for supply management to rein in some of this rapid growth, while we here in the east are generally opposed to it.”

Make pricing more transparent.  “Farmers don’t know instantly what dairy prices are (hopefully this will change as farmers have pushed hard on this issue to come out of the Stone Age).”

Cap supports on CAFOs.  “Some of the major NY CAFO’s got millions in terms of ‘corn subsidies’ in addition to dairy payments.”

Support mid-size dairy herds: The trigger point at which a farm becomes a CAFO in NY is only 200 cows.  Extension estimates that meeting CAFO requirements at this limit keeps farmers at 199 cows because the compliance cost is something like $162,000.

Reregionalize dairy processing: “meaning more processors in NY who can compete for the farmers’ milk….The more competition for milk the better, especially from a number of smaller processors that farmers and smaller coops can negotiate with.”

Deal with anti-competitive forces. Large dairies are engaged in market collusion and this hurts smaller dairies.  “ Massive retail level buyer consolidation is another issue… Walmart has the power to drive down farmer prices in all dairy categories… The more we can do to break the Walmart grip, the better off we all will be.”

Look at the trends.  “ I know that NY has gone from 30,000,000 acres of farmland when we were kids, to just 7,000,000 today.  There are some 3,000,000 acres of abandoned grazing farmlands Upstate, with empty barns as far as one can see in some areas.  And, I see an increasing number of huge CAFO’s with all-immigrant work forces who send every penny home, cows that never go outdoors, and emptied out Main Streets up here….I wonder how it could possibly make sense not to encourage farms of all kinds, especially making use of the grasslands that are close to NYC.”

Her overall question: “How does one move these questions into the public realm for intelligent discussion?

Senator Gillibrand has made it her business to understand dairy policies as they affect New York State.  For anyone who has ever tried to understand milk marketing orders, that’s an achievement (see below).

Responses?  Any good ideas for FarmerJane?

Mar 10 2012

Dairy farmers: are you part of the 1%?

Adam Davidson in the New York Times Sunday Magazine asks how come dairy farmers have such a hard time making a living?

His explanation: Dairy farmers thought they were in the business of raising cows.  Wrong.  They are in the business of betting on feed prices.

…in the last decade, dairy products and cow feed became globally traded commodities. Consequently, modern farmers have effectively been forced to become fast-paced financial derivatives traders.This has prompted a significant and drastic change.

For most of the 20th century, dairy farming was a pretty stable business…at base, dairy-farming economics are simple: when the cost of corn and soybeans (which feed the cows) are low and milk prices are high, dairy farmers can make a comfortable living.

And for decades, the U.S. government enforced stable prices for feed and for milk, which meant steady, predictable income, shaken only by disease or bad weather.

…[But] by the early aughts, to accommodate global trade rules and diminishing political support for agricultural subsidies, the government allowed milk prices to follow market demand.

…Animal feed, especially corn and soybeans, became globally traded commodities with all the impossible-to-predict price swings of oil or copper.

Davidson points to the 1% of dairy farmers who have figured all this out and are big enough to hire derivative traders to manage their feed stocks.

Farm bill politics, anyone?

Dairy farmer readers: comments please.

Aug 8 2011

It’s time for some Q and A’s

I’ve just turned in the copy-edited manuscript of Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics (pub date March 2012) and now have time to catch up on some questions:

Q. I was recently given to read a book titled “The China Study” which is based on research conducted in 1970’s in China by Dr. Colin Campbell. His main conclusion is that eating dairy and meat causes cancer. His resolution is that a plant-based diet (i.e. vegan) is the (only?) healthy diet for humans. This book has made strong enough of a point to convince several of my friends to “convert” to a vegan diet in order to save their health. Could you share some comments on the validity of the research and conclusions this book presents with regards to detrimental effects of dairy and meat on human health?

A. Campbell makes a forceful argument based on his interpretation of the research and on case studies of people whose diseases resolved when they became vegans. And yes I’ve seen Dr. Campbell’s new movie, Forks over Knives. The first half is a terrific introduction to how the current food environment promotes unhealthy eating.  The second half promotes Dr. Campbell’s ideas about the hazards of meat and dairy foods.

Whether you agree with these ideas or not, the film is well done and worth a look.

Some scientists, however, interpret the research as demonstrating that people are healthier when they eat dairy foods.  For example, the enormous consensus report on diet and cancer risk from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund concluded in 2007 that eating lots of red meat and processed meat is convincingly associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer (but no others).

On the other hand, they found dairy foods to be associated with a decrease in the risk of colorectal cancer.  They found limited and less convincing evidence that dairy foods might decrease the risk of bladder cancer but increase the risk of prostate cancer.

How to make sense of this?  These are two food groups in the diets of people who consume many kinds of foods and who do many things that might increase or decrease cancer risk.  Given this complexity, one food or food group seems unlikely to have that much influence on cancer when considered in the context of everything else people eat and do.

Nutrition research, as I am fond of saying, is difficult to do and requires interpretation. Intelligent people can interpret the studies differently depending on their point of view.

The new Dietary Guidelines say to cut down on saturated fats. Those are most plentiful in meat and dairy foods (plant foods have them, but in smaller amounts). Pretty much everyone agrees that plant-based diets promote health/  But whether they have to be 100% plant-based is highly debatable.

The new USDA MyPlate food guide suggests piling plant foods—fruit, vegetables, and grains—on 75% of your plate so the argument is really about what goes on the remaining 25%, what USDA calls the  “Protein” section. You can put beans in that quarter if you don’t want to eat red meat, poultry, or fish.

Q. I’d love to hear your take on the recent walnut flap [accusations that the FDA now considers walnuts to be drugs].  I suspect walnuts got caught with such offenders as Pom, Froot Loops, and Juicy-Juice, but I’d love to find out what the FDA actually said about this. For some odd reason I don’t believe the article is presenting the whole truth.

A. This is a health claims issue. The FDA is not saying walnuts are drugs. It is saying that Diamond Walnut is claiming walnuts as drugs on package labels. How so?

The labels say the omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts may help lower cholesterol; protect against heart disease, stroke and some cancers (e.g. breast cancer); inhibit tumor growth; ease arthritis and other inflammatory diseases; and even fight depression and other mental illnesses. These are disease claims for which the FDA requires scientific substantiation.

The company’s petition did not provide that substantiation so the FDA issued a warning letter. In general, you should be skeptical any time you see a nutritional factor advertised for its ability to prevent or treat such a broad range of problems.

Q. A question about sugar and how it is counted: My books say: 4 g = 1 teaspoon = 15 calories. My Illy Caffe says 10 g of sugar, but 50 calories. Ingredients: coffee, sugar, potassium bicarbonate, potassium citrate. If the drink is 50 calories, shouldn’t it say 12 g or more for the sugar listing?

A. Sugar should be the only ingredient that has calories in this coffee but I’ve seen calorie lists that say 5 calories per gram for sugars. Food companies have some leeway in the way they compute calories. Illy may be using a method that gives 5 rather than 4. But the difference between 40 and 50 is hardly measurable and I wouldn’t worry about amounts this small, annoying as imprecise figures may seem.

Mar 16 2011

How come a private company is funding national nutrition surveys in Asia?

I was surprised to read a report in FoodNavigator.com that a private company is about to conduct an enormous—and undoubtedly very expensive—study of the nutritional status of children in Southeast Asia.

The study will collect data from more than 16,000 children aged 12 and under in four countries:

  • Dietary profiles and nutrient intake assessment, including food intake, bone density and cognition.
  • Iron status, vitamins, lipid profile and blood pressure.
  • Body composition and physical activity, including measurements on weight, height and hand grip strength.

The company is doing this in partnership with institutions in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Why would a private company embark on a project like this?  The company is FrieslandCampina, a Dutch firm specializing in dairy products:

We provide people around the world with all the good things milk has to offer, with products that play an important role in people’s nutrition and well-being.

Our product range: baby and infant food, milk-based drinks, cheese, milk, yoghurts, desserts, butter, cream, milk powder, dairy-based ingredients and fruit-based drinks.

As the company explains, “We aspire to help people move forward in life with our dairy nutrition, and are committed to helping our consumers maintain and improve their nutritional well-being with the goodness of milk.”

I’m willing to predict that these studies will show that kids in Southeast Asia would be a lot healthier if they drank more milk.   And will find reasons to dismiss concerns that lactose intolerance is the norm in Asian populations over the age of five or so.

Nov 7 2010

Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Could The USDA Get Any Cheesier?

Eating Liberally’s kat (a.k.a. Kerry Trueman) asks one of her inimitable “Ask Marion” questions, this one about Michael Moss’s blockbuster story in today’s New York Times about dairy lobbying.

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KT: Sunday’s New York Times has a disturbing exposé by Michael Moss about the USDA’s efforts to aid the dairy industry by encouraging excessive cheese consumption. Can the USDA ever reconcile its two mandates? On the one hand, the USDA has the task of tackling the obesity epidemic by encouraging healthier eating habits. Yet it must also promote the interests of U.S. agriculture. As Moss documents so well, these two missions are in total conflict.

Dr. Nestle: And so they are, have been, and will be until public outrage causes some changes in Washington. In two of my books, Food Politics and What to Eat, I wrote about how dairy lobbying groups, aided and abetted by the
USDA, convinced nutritionists that dairy foods were equivalent to essential nutrients and the only reliable source of dietary calcium, when they are really just another food group and one high in saturated fat, at that.

The USDA is still at it. As Michael Moss notes:

The department acknowledged that cheese is high in saturated fat, but said that lower milk consumption had made cheese an important source of calcium. ‘When eaten in moderation and with attention to portion size, cheese can fit into a low-fat, healthy diet,’ the department said.

So let’s talk about “moderation,” a word that I find hard to use without irony. The pizza illustrated in Michael Moss’s article is described as a “thin-crust medium pie.” The diameter is not given, but one-fourth of the pie contains 430 calories, 12 grams of saturated fat (20 is the daily recommended upper limit), and 990 mg sodium (the upper limit is 2,300).

Who eats one-quarter of a pizza? Not anyone I know. So double all this if you share it with a friend. If you eat the whole thing–and why do I think that plenty of Domino Pizza customers do?–you are consuming more than 1700 calories, nearly 4,000 mg sodium (that’s 10 grams of salt, by the way), and 48 grams of saturated fat. This is enough to make any nutritionist run screaming from the room.

So why is USDA in bed with dairy lobbying groups? That’s its job. From its beginnings in the 1860s, USDA’s role was to promote U.S. agricultural production and sales, with the full support of what was then a largely agricultural Congress. Only in the 1970s, did USDA pick up all those pesky food assistance programs and capture the “lead federal agency” role in providing dietary advice to the public.

Much of Food Politics is devoted to describing the USDA’s severe conflict of interest in developing dietary advice to “eat less” of basic agricultural commodities. As Times reporter Marian Burros put it in one of her articles about the fights over the 1992 Pyramid, which visually suggested eating less meat and dairy, “the foxes are
guarding the henhouse.”

This is what Mrs. Obama is up against in her efforts to reduce childhood obesity and bring healthier foods into America’s inner cities.

How to change this system? One possibility might be to move dietary guidance into a more independent federal agency, NIH or CDC for example. Another might be to recognize the ways in which corporate lobbyists corrupt our food system and do something about election campaign laws.

A pipe dream? Maybe, but I never thought I’d live to see the editors of the New York Times consider an article about USDA checkoff programs to be front-page news, and in the right-hand column yet, marking it as the most important news story of the day.

Oct 19 2010

What do checkoff programs do?

I’m catching up on reading and just ran across a report about the accomplishments of the dairy checkoff.  This, you will no doubt recall, is the USDA-sponsored program that collects a “tax” from dairy producers and uses the funds for generic promotion of dairy products.   What fills the folks running the checkoff with pride?  Among them,

  • Focusing on dairy health and wellness by helping to combat childhood obesity by encouraging schools to implement physical activity and good nutrition, including dairy.
  • Partnering with Domino’s Pizza to develop pizzas using up 40% more cheese than usual.  This worked so well that other pizza chains are doing the same thing.
  • Partnering with McDonald’s to launch McCafe specialty coffees that use up to 80 percent milk, and three new burgers with two slices of cheese per sandwich.  The result?  An additional 6 million pounds of cheese sold.
  • Creating reduced lactose milks in order to bring lapsed consumers back to milk.  The potential result?  An additional 2.5 to 5 billion pounds of milk each year.
  • Partnering with General Mills’ Yoplait to develop yogurt chip technology that requires 8 ounces of milk.
  • Maintaining momentum for single-serve milk by offering white and flavored milk in single-serve, plastic, resealable bottles.

As the person who sent this to me put it, you can’t make this stuff up.

Jun 7 2010

The raw milk fights: economics, ideology, or both?

Today’s New York Times has an op-ed, “Crying over raw milk“, about the political fights over raw milk in Wisconsin.  The Wisconsin legislature has introduced a bill allowing dairy farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers.  The conventional dairy industry is not happy about that.

The author of the piece, Michael Feldman, is dubious about the purported health benefits of raw milk but is quite clear about its economic benefits: “you can’t get $6 a gallon for pasteurized milk.”

Crass economics is behind much of the politics of raw milk these days.  The conventional dairy industry is in trouble: too many cows, too much milk, and not nearly enough regulation of supply.  In contrast, raw milk has passionate advocates willing to pay premium prices.

Not fair, says the dairy industry, which wants raw milk to be regulated:

In a letter to two senior members the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the dairy groups called for a measure obliging all facilities producing raw or unpasteurized milk products for direct human consumption to “register with FDA and adhere to the tried-and-true food safety requirements that are followed by all other facilities producing milk products”.

As for the safety of raw milk, it is useful to take a look at Seattle attorney Bill Marler’s website: “Real Raw Milk Facts.”   There, he summarizes recent cases of illness caused by toxic E. coli and Salmonella contaminants in raw milk.  These constitute a full employment act for attorneys like Marler who represent victims of foodborne illness.

My position on raw milk has long been that people have a right to drink it but it had better be produced safely.  I believe that all foods–no exceptions–should be produced under well designed and carefully followed HACCP plans (or their equivalent) with pathogen testing at intervals commensurate with the level of risk.

But food safety experts tell me that raw milk can never be tested frequently enough to be confident it is safe.

Raw milk carries a greater risk of bacterial contamination than pasteurized milk and people who buy it should know what those risks are.  The risk may be small, but it is finite.  Putting a child at risk of hemolytic uremic syndrome from toxic E. coli just doesn’t make sense to me.

Like Michael Feldman, I’m dubious about the claims made for the health benefits of raw milk.  No question, it tastes better and that may be reason enough to want it.  But until I can be sure that the producer is scrupulous about safety, my personal choice favors pasteurization.

But that’s just me.  You?

Feb 16 2010

European companies’ ongoing struggle for food and supplement health claims

As readers of this blog know, I am not a fan of health claims on food packages or supplements.  I think they are inherently misleading.   It’s hard for me to believe that eating any one food product or supplement will have a significant effect on disease risk.

It is one thing to say that a nutrient is required for good health.  It is quite another to say that products containing that nutrient are going to have the same effect.  We would all be better off eating foods rather than food products.

That’s why health claims are really about marketing, not health.

Food marketers work hard to get approval for health claims.  America is well ahead of Europe in allowing them.  European regulatory agencies are still trying to hold health claims to reasonable scientific standards.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been turning down requests for health claims right and left, but recently broke down and  approved one for iron, requested by the Association de la Transformation Laitière Française, a trade association of French dairy cooperatives.  Iron, of course, is an essential nutrient.

EFSA said the association could say: “Iron contributes to normal cognitive development of children.” But EFSA said the association could not say: “Iron is necessary for the cognitive development of children.”

I don’t think dairy products should say either, but that’s just me.

As for supplements:  In December, Food Chemical News reported that supplement firms in the European Union are considering filing a case with the World Trade Organization over EFSA’s refusal of so many of their proposed claims.   They consider the rejections a barrier to trade.  The firms are looking for a non-European Union country to make their case.

Never underestimate the self-interest of makers of food products and supplements in the struggles over health claims.