by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

Apr 30 2010

Food politics: our government at work (and play)

I’ve been collecting items sent to me this week about government actions at the local, state, and national level.  Here’s the weekend round up.

Santa Clara County, California, Board of Supervisors bans toys in kids meals: On April 27, the San Jose Mercury News announced that this county, clearly at the vanguard of actions to help prevent childhood obesity, passed a groundbreaking law banning toys in kids’ meals that do not meet minimal nutrition standards (the very ones I talked about in a previous post).  Companies can still give out toys in meals, as long as the meals meet those standards.  What an excellent idea.  Let’s hope this idea catches on in other communities.

Here’s the press release, a a fact sheet on childhood obesity, and remarks by the president of the board of supervisors, along with recommendations from the local public health agency.  Thanks to Michele Simon for the documents.

Connecticut state legislature plays computer games: This photo, attributed to the Associated Press, arrived from Michelle Futrell.  I worried that it might be Photoshopped.  Whether it is or not, it is flying around the Internet, in versions that clearly identify each of hard-at-play legislators.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) teaches kids about marketing: The FTC regulates advertising, including food advertising, and it must be getting increasingly concerned about the effects of marketing on kids.  To counter some of these effects, it has created a website, Admongo.gov, an interactive site to teach kids about advertising.  After playing these games, the FTC wants kids to be able to answer these questions:

  • Who is responsible for the ad?
  • What is the ad actually saying?
  • What does the ad want me to do?

The New York Times concludes: “Perhaps the effort comes not a moment too soon. Adweek devotes this week’s issue to “Kids” and “How the industry is striving to conquer this coveted market.” Thanks to Lisa Young for sending the links.

The FDA asks for comments on front-of-package (FOP) labeling: Patricia Kuntze, a consumer affairs advisor at the FDA sends the April 28 press release and the April 29 Federal Register notice announcing the FDA’s call for public comment on this topic.  The agency particularly wants data on:

  • The extent to which consumers notice, use, and understand FOP nutrition symbols or shelf tags
  • Results of research examining the effectiveness of various FOP approaches
  • Graphic design, marketing, and advertising that will help consumers understand nutrition information
  • The extent to which FOP labeling influences food manufacturers’ decisions about the contents of their products

The goal, says the FDA, is to make “calorie and nutrition information available to consumers in ways that will help them choose foods for more healthful diets – an effort that has taken on special importance, given the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases in the U.S. and of increasingly busy lifestyles that demand quick, nutritious food.”

Here is a speech on the topic by FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.  For information about how to submit comments, click here. To submit comments, refer to docket FDA-2010-N-0210 and click here. You have until July 28 to do it.

Public comment, of course, includes the food industry and a FoodNavigator call for industry comment cites my recent commentary in JAMA with David Ludwig.  I’m glad food industry people are reading it and I hope the FDA does too.

The White House equivocates on organics: What’s going on with the White House garden?  Is it organic or not?   Michael Pollan forwards this item from the Associated Press:

Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass, an old friend of President Barack Obama’s who oversees the garden, says labeling the crops “organic” isn’t the point, even though the White House only uses natural, not synthetic, fertilizers and pesticides.

“To come out and say (organic) is the one and only way, which is how this would be interpreted, doesn’t make any sense,” Kass said Monday as he walked among the garden’s newly planted broccoli, rhubarb, carrots and spinach. “This is not about getting into all that. This is about kids.”

Uh oh.  Has “Organic” become the new O-word?  Surely, the White House is not secretly pouring herbicides and pesticides over its garden vegetables.  If not, are we hearing a small indication of big agribusiness pushback?

Apr 2 2010

The latest on organic production

For all the complaints about organics, production and sales are booming.  USDA economists in the Economic Research Service (ERS) keep track of such things and have just produced tables that display the growth in organic production from 1992 to 2008.  Organic crop and pasture lands still comprise less than 1% of the total in the U.S., but this will surely increase.

USDA/ERS compiles all of its information on organics in a briefing room that links to recommended readings and handy maps and images.

I think it’s interesting that the ERS sites do not link to the National Organic Program (NOP) itself.  This is, no doubt, because the NOP  is housed in a different part of USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service.  Whether any of that makes sense is something one hopes will be considered in the next Farm Bill.

And here’s a link to the European Union’s organic site.  The EU ran a competition to create a new organic logo, and this one is the winner.

Mar 20 2010

Auditors find flaws in USDA’s oversight of organic standards

The USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report last week criticizing the agency’s oversight of the National Organic Program (NOP). The OIG said the USDA had followed some of the recommendations in its previous report (in 2005), but by no means all.

This report is a sharp critique of the last administration’s ambiguous enforcement of organic standards.  This new administration recruited Kathleen Merrigan to get the program back in shape and the agency says it is totally committed to doing so.

But the administrator of the program responded to the OIG audit with this comment: “The integrity of the organic label depends largely upon effective enforcement and oversight of the many accredited certifying agents responsible for reviewing organic operations.”

Largely?  I would say entirely.

USDA is an uncomfortable home for organics because its main goal is to support industrial agriculture.  For years, the NOP home page carried a statement that organic foods were not better than industrial foods.  I am happy to see that the statement is no longer there, but I’m guessing some old attitudes still remain.

USDA delegates organic oversight to certified inspection agencies.  These vary in diligence.  I constantly hear suspicions of fraud in the organic enterprise.  USDA needs to do everything it can to put those suspicions to rest.

Otherwise, why pay more for organic foods?

Feb 15 2010

Organic data: production, support programs, nutrients, safety, and corporate ownership

In light of the new USDA rules (see yesterday’s post), I’ve been collecting information about organics.

PRODUCTION: the USDA’s latest (2008) survey results come in 59 tables giving data on organic acres, productivity, and anything else you might want to know about the this piece of the agricultural sector – crops, vegetables, and animals.  Interesting facts: more than 14,500 organic farms produce food on 4.1 million acres, but all of this comprises less than 1% of farming in the U.S.

USDA ORGANIC PROGRAMS:  the USDA says the organic agricultural sector is growing because farmers view it as a “way to lower input costs, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, and capture high-value markets.”  The USDA summarizes data on organic production by commodity, and explains its support and research programs.

NUTRIENTS: Remember the study last summer arguing that organic foods are no more nutritious than non-organic?  Now a French study comes to the opposite conclusion.   The authors claim that organics are more nutritious than non-organics.  I see organics as more about production values than nutrition, so I expect these kinds of arguments to go on forever.

SAFETY: Are organics more likely to carry dangerous microorganisms because they are fertilized with manure?  Dutch researchers say not necessarily.  If the manure compost is turned occasionally, the bacteria will be killed.  My comment: all food should be produced safely and organic rules specify how compost is to be used.

CORPORATE OWNERSHIP: Thanks to Subvert for reminding me about Michigan State professor Phil Howard’s nifty charts of Who Owns What in the Organic Food Industry:

If you find it difficult to sort out issues of integrity and trust in the organic industry, this kind of information provides ample reason for your difficulty.  That is why the work of organic advocacy groups like the Cornucopia Institute is so important: they are trying to keep the industry honest.

Feb 14 2010

USDA closes organic dairy loophole

USDA’s 2002 organic rules said that dairy herds must have access to pasture.  They did not say the animals had to actually be fed on pasture.   This loophole is now supposed to be fixed.  USDA has just issued new rules.

Starting in June, organic dairy herds must be sent to pasture for the entire grazing season of at least 120 days and must get at least 30% of their food from pasture during that season.  Smaller organic dairy farmers are already doing this.  Now the big ones will have to come into line. And about time too.

Here’s how the New York Times explains this action.

Before this final rule, the Cornucopia Institute had a number of concerns (in 2008). The proposed rules were bundled together with provisions that had not been properly reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).  These problems have now been solved.

Mark Kastel of the Cornocopia Institute writes:

In its final version we are virtually 100% satisfied (still doing some technical review).  Even more importantly we are highly impressed by the professional approach taken by Kathleen Merrigan and the staff at the organic program as to how they plan to implement this.

He sends the Institute’s most recent press release celebrating the new rules.

Score this one as a win for organic advocates!

Aug 11 2009

National Organic Program to be audited!

On August 4, the Washington Post ran a story about requests from the organic community to clean up inconsistencies and omissions in the National Organic Program (NOP) and bring its practices in line with more stringent international organic standards.  The House and Senate approved an expenditure of $500,000 to conduct an independent audit of the program and its certifying agencies.

The USDA has now announced the audit.  Why is this needed?  As the new USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan puts it, this step is part of department efforts “to strengthen the integrity of the NOP and to build the organic community’s trust in the program.”

Distrust, as we learned when the British Food Standards Agency released its report on the nutritional equivalence of organic and conventionally grown crops, is rampant (see previous post).  The public deeply distrusts the integrity of the organic standards, the honesty of the inspection process, and the claims made for the benefits of organic foods.

When I reviewed the organic program in preparation for writing What to Eat, I was impressed by how everyone connected with organics thought the system worked well and was honest.  That’s not what I’m hearing these days.

This audit is badly needed.  Let’s hope the Commerce Department auditors hold the NOP to the highest possible standards.

Aug 7 2009

Organic nutrients: the debates continue

The Food Standards agency has issued a statement in response to the outpouring of outrage over its study demonstrating that the nutritional value of organic foods is, on average, equivalent to that of conventional foods.  In defense of the study results, the CEO of the agency says:

Irresponsible interpretation of the review by some has resulted in misleading claims being made concerning higher levels of some nutrients found in organic food.  The review…focused on nutrients where statistically significant differences were seen. Arbitrary quotes or selective use of the data from the other papers which were of less robust scientific quality should be treated with caution. The important message from this report is not that people should avoid organic food but that they should eat a healthy balanced diet and, in terms of nutrition, it doesn’t matter if this is made up of organic or conventionally produced food.

I have long argued that functional foods (in which nutrients are added over and above those that are already present in the foods) are not about improving health; they are about improving marketing.  Evaluating foods on the basis of their content of one or another nutrient is what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism.”  Nutritionism is about marketing, not health.

I am a great supporter of organic foods because their production reduces the use of unnecessary chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, and favors more sustainable production practices.  Yes, some organic foods will be higher in some nutrients than some conventional foods.  But so what?  Customers who can afford to buy organic foods are unlikely to be nutrient deficient.  What’s at stake in the furor over this issue is market share.  What should be at stake is the need to produce food – all food – more sustainably.

Jul 31 2009

More about organic nutrients

British newspapers are unfailingly interesting.  This morning’s Daily Telegraph carries a commentary by Rose Prince about the benefits of organics.  She provides an interesting take on the politics of this report (see previous post) and of the organic movement in general, along with this thought:

It is a pity that the focus has been on nutrition. All food is nutritious; having no food is what kills. The wider benefits of organic foods are still worth pursuing. It is what food does not contain and the effects that it does not have that really matter.

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