by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Jun 28 2024

Weekend reading: USDA’s food assistance programs

The USDA has just summarized its accomplishments with respect to food and nutrition assisttance since the pandemic.  It’s an impressive list.

The report has loads of enlightening charts.  This one shows the substantial increase in spending on food assistance over the years, and recently.

This report has the advantage of putting everything in one place.

This report uses preliminary data from USDA, Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to examine program trends and policy changes in USDA’s largest domestic food and nutrition assistance programs through FY 2023. It also summarizes two 2023 USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) reports including one that examines the prevalence of household food insecurity in the United States in 2022 and another that documents the share of households with school-aged children reporting difficulty paying for expenses after pandemic waivers allowing schools to serve free meals expired in 2022.

If you want to understand why food assistance is anything but a bipartisan issue, the facts and figures here tell the story.  I’m glad to have this one.

Jun 22 2024

What do we need to know about bird flu?

[Oops.  This one did not get sent out, apparently.  Hope it works this time].


The current bird flu pandemic is a huge worry, because the current strain, H5N1, is highly pathogenic .

Although there have only been 4 reported cases in humans since 2022, the strain has infected:

  • Nearly 100 million chickens .
  • 101 herds of dairy cattle.
  • Some number of cats

The CDC says: “Mammals can be infected with H5N1 bird flu viruses when they eat infected birds, poultry, or other animals and/or if they are exposed to environments contaminated with virus. Spread of H5N1 bird flu viruses from mammal to mammal is thought to be rare, but possible.”

Oh great.

The epidemiological fear, of course, is the more cattle affected, the more the virus can mutate (sound familiar?).

the personal fear is that the milk supply might contain active viruses.  Untreated milk does, and lots.

But the NIH says tests show that the virus is destroyed by standard Pasteurization methods.

The FDA says (as it always has): do not drink raw milk.

This seems like especially good advice at the moment.

I’m going to be tracking this closely.  Stay tuned.



The industry-fun Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) is doing a webinar , Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) and Its Impact on Food Production Industries.June 24 at 1 PM CST. Register for it here.


May 29 2024

U.S. food insecurity: a failure of public policy

It takes a while for USDA to catch up to the data so its most recent report on food insecurity ends with 2021: “Household Food Insecurity Across Race and Ethnicity in the United States, 2016-21.

The highlights:

▪ The prevalence of food insecurity ranges from a low of 5.4% for Asian households to a high of 23.3% for American Indian and Alaska Native households. Food-insecure households had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all household members because of a lack of resources.
▪ Food insecurity varied substantially by country of origin. Among Hispanic origin subgroups, food insecurity varied from 11.4% in Cuban households to 21% in Dominican households. Food insecurity among Asian origin subgroups ranged from 1.7% in Japanese households to 11.4% in other Asian households.

But where is the trend?  The report did not include a trend line (could politics have something to do with this?).

Fortunately, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities used the USDA data to produce this:

It’s a sad story of policy failure.  We had one that worked during the pandemic.  But Congress chose to end demonstrably effective measures.  Politics wins over science, in this case tragically.

Overall, food insecurity increased from 10.2 percent in 2021 to 12.8 percent in 2022 — resulting in 10.3 million more people, including 4.1 million more children, who lived in households that experienced food insecurity in 2022 compared to 2021 — reflecting higher food costs and the phasing out of many pandemic relief measures.

May 2 2024

USDA finalizes rule declaring Salmonella an adulterant in ONE chicken product. More to come I hope.

As I’ve said before, USDA is at long last taking a first step toward declaring Salmonella an adulterant on poultry products.

Here’s the headline: USDA Finalizes Policy to Protect Consumers from Salmonella in Raw Breaded Stuffed Chicken Products:  an adulterant in raw breaded stuffed chicken products when they exceed a specific threshold (1 colony forming unit (CFU) per gram or higher) for Salmonella.

And here’s the Advance Copy of Final Rule: Salmonella in Not-Ready-To-Eat Breaded Stuffed Chicken Products.  

What this rule means: raw breaded stuffed chicken shown to have more than one colony forming unit of Salmonella (basically none) cannot be sold.  Period.

I have long argued:

  • Chicken should be free of pathogenic bacteria when we buy it.
  • We should not have to run our kitchens like biohazard laboratories.
  • Poultry producers should be responsible for eliminating pathogens in their flocks.

Finally, the USDA is taking some action on this.  It promises to start rulemaking on other chicken products.  This can’t come too soon.

As for the chicken industry, alas: NCC [National Chicken Council] Expresses Grave Concerns with New FSIS Salmonella Regulation

NCC is gravely concerned that the precedent set by this abrupt shift in longstanding policy has the potential to shutter processing plants, cost jobs, and take safe food and convenient products off shelves, without moving the needle on public health….“NCC estimates that on an annual basis, over 200 million servings of this product will be lost, 500-1000 people will lose their jobs, and the annual cost to industry is significantly higher than USDA’s estimates. It is likely that this proposal would drive smaller producers of this product out of business entirely.

If you want to know why it’s taken the USDA so long to get this done, and only in one product, the NCC is your answer.

Additional resources

Apr 4 2024

Sugars: the downward trend continues

The USDA has released its latest data on sugar production and the 20-year downward trend continues.

The chart is based on data from the USDA Economic Research Service’s (ERS) Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System,

Availability means total amount produced, less exports, plus imports; it is a proxy for consumption (but undoubtedly higher than actual consumption).

In 2021, total caloric sweeteners (meaning all kinds of sugars and syrups) had dropped by 17% since 1999, the peak year for sugars availability.

Almost all of the change is due to the drop in availability of corn sweeteners.

Why the drop in corn sweeteners?  Corn syrup used to be much cheaper than cane and beet sugars.  But now that so much of it is grown to produce ethanol biofuel, its cost is about the same so there is no point in using it except in products where it works better—soft drinks, for example.

The drop in overall sugar availability looks like a healthy trend.  But the prevalence of  overweight and obesity continues to rise in children and adults.

There are still plenty of sugar calories available in the food supply.

The 127.3 pounds available in 2021 works out to a whopping 158 grams per person per day, three times the upper recommended limit and about 5 ounces.

If someone is producing that much sugar, or making sugary products, that person wants to sell it.

You are the target of those sales efforts.

If you try to resist, you are fighting the entire food system on your own.


Mar 1 2024

Weekend reading: the ironies of drinking fluid milk

Anne Mendelson.  Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood.  Columbia University Press, 2023 (396 pages).


I am an admirer of Anne Mendelson’s books and did a blurb for her Chow Chop SueyBut this one is over the top—original, compelling, brilliantly written.

Driving this book is a question I’ve not heard asked before, at least not so directly: Why and how did the consumption of fresh liquid milk (“drinking-milk”)—as opposed to fermented dairy products—become framed as a nutritional necessity?

Her question derives from some basic facts about cow’s milk and its industrial production:

  • Once cow’s milk leaves the udder, it is easily contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.
  • Most adults have stopped making the enzyme that digests the sugar lactose in milk and can’t drink it without getting unpleasant digestive systems.
  • To produce milk safely requires complicated and expensive industrial processes.
  • The cost of milk production exceeds the price people are willing to pay for it; dairy farming is a losing proposition even with taxpayer subsidies.
  • Industrial milk production is hard on cows and pollutes the environment.

Why are we even doing this?  For this, she blames 19th and 20th century European and American doctors who thought the ability to digest lactose normal, nutritionists (calcium!), and the USDA (3 servings a day!).

She is not against eating dairy foods when they are fermented.  These, yogurt and the like, are much safer.  Friendly bacteria split the lactose along with producing acid that destroys pathogens.

You don’t have to agree with all her points to appreciate how well they are argued.

To wit:

[The book] argues that influential nutritional theories about fresh and fermented milk took a disastrously wrong turn in the eighteenth century.  The reason is that the founders of modern Western medicine had no way of understanding the genetic fluke that allowed them, unlike most of the world’s peoples, to digest lactose from babyhood to old age.  In other words, today’s mega-industry stemmed from a lack of scientific perspective.  That lack turned the one form of milk that is most fragile, perishable, difficult to produce on a commercial scale, and economically pitfall-strewn into a supposed daily necessity for children and, to a lesser extent, adults.  [pp x, xi].

No other food product is as staggeringly difficult and expensive to get from source (in this case, a cow) to destination (milk glass on table) in something loosely approximating its first condition.  If one existed, it would be treated as an astounding luxury. [p. 1].

Mendelson takes deep dives into the history of dairy use, dietary recommendations, industrial production, and government dairy policy.  In attempting to teach about the Farm Bill, I was defeated by Milk Marketing Orders, the formulas used by the government to set price support levels required to be paid by “handlers” (milk processors) to dairy producers in different areas of the country.  I could not find anything about this in the index, alas, but I loved what she says about them on page 205.

These formulas gradually became as abstruse, and as unintelligible to anyone outside a small charmed circle, as anything in the bad old days before the federal government stepped in.  Far from abolishing the buyer’s market, they trapped farmers selling fluid milk within the marketing order system in endless struggles to wring enough out of handlers to recoup production costs….What I do understand is that as the postwar era advanced, the sheer incomprehensibility of producer-handler milk price schemes again became an endless frustration to dairy farmers, above all those trying to make a living within the marketing order system for drinking-milk.

One final irony:

Nothing is going to dislodge supermarket drinking-milk from its towering economic importance.  It is certain to continue along the track of expansion, consolidation, and increasingly complex technological infrastructure that it has pursued for almost three quarters of a century.  Big Milk is going to become Bigger Milk.  Its absurdities are also sure to become more entrenched.  The greatest of these is the plain fact that Americans are drinking less milk while dairy farms are producing more of it.

A personal comment: The book triggered a memory.  I once visited a school lunch program in Barrow (now Utqiaġvik), Alaska.  Inuit children were served the standard USDA lunch, which requires half-pint cartons of milk.  I did not see any of them drinking it.  The untouched cartons were discarded.  The milk was not only culturally inappropriate, but wasteful.  All food in that part of North Alaska has to be flown in on airplanes.

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Feb 27 2024

USDA’s latest census of agriculture: not an encouraging picture

The USDA announced the latest data on the US agricultural system in a press release.  It summarizes the highlights:

  • Number of farms: 1.9 million (down 7% from 2017)
  • Average size: 463 acres (up 5%)
  • Total farmland: 880 million acres of farmland (down 2%), accounting for 39% of all U.S. land.
  • Revenues: $543 billion (up from $389 billion)
  • Net cash income (less expenses): $152 billion.
  • Average farm income: $79,790. A total of 43% of farms had positive net cash farm
  • Percent farms with net income: 43%
  • Farms selling direct to consumers: 116,617 with sales of $3.3 billion (up 16%)
  • Farms with sales of $ 1 million or more: 105,384 (6% of all farms); they sell three-fourths of all agricultural products.
  • Farms with sales of $50,000 or less: 1.4 million (74% of farms); they sell 2%.
  • Percent of farmland used for oilseeds or grains: 32%
  • Percent of farmland used for beef cattle: 40%
  • Average age of farmers: 58.1 (up 0.6 years)
  • Average age of beginning farmers: 47.1

The 2022 census information is so complicated to access that the USDA provides a video on the main site to explain how to use it.   This helps—a lot.

The site for the full report is here.   For the full report itself, go here.

Highlights are here.

Most of the data refer to industrial crops like corn and soybeans: feed for animals, fuel for automobiles.

If you want to know about food for people , you can looik at Table 36. Vegetables, Potatoes, and Melons Harvested for Sale: 2022 and 2017

All of this is in miserable-to-read tables.  Fortunately, The Guardian to the rescue: ‘America is a factory farming nation’: key takeaways from US agriculture census.

It provides illuminting charts based on the data.  For example:

What more to say?  Only that our agricultural system needs a major refocusing on smaller, diverse, regenerative farms producing food, as well as those producing animal feed.  We should not be growing food crops to produce automobile fuel.

Feb 22 2024

USDA’s latest campaign: checkoff-based sandwiches of all things

I received this email from USDA’s MyPlate group:

Hi Marion

MyPlate National Strategic Partners, a group developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), just announced the launch of a new resource to help Americans build healthier sandwiches! The full press release is below, and I am happy to answer any questions or arrange any interviews!

WASHINGTON, D.C. – January 11, 2024 – As MyPlate National Strategic Partners, the Grain Foods Foundation, Hass Avocado Board, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Foundation and National Wheat Foundation are excited to introduce a new resource aimed at helping individuals build healthier and more nutritious sandwiches.

Every day, nearly half of all Americans enjoy a sandwich – and most people are not meeting recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.[1] The new “Build a Better Sandwich” resource features practical tips to help bridge this gap, with realistic and inspiring ideas for enjoying a variety of grains, lean proteins and fiber-filled fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy in better-built sandwiches…To download the “Build a Better Sandwich” resource and other materials created by MyPlate National Strategic Partners, please visit

[1] Sebastian et al. Sandwich consumption by adults in the U.S.: What We Eat In America, NHANES 2009-2012. Food Surveys Research Group Dietary Data Brief No. 14. Dec 2015.

Given the sponsors, want to take a guess at how you are supposed to make these sandwiches?

I’m all for healthier sandwiches and eating avocados (love them!), but this is an example of the Hass Avocado Board—a USDA-sponsored checkoff (marketing and promotion) program—at work.

Don’t you think it’s odd that the USDA’s doesn’t include a broader range of vegetables or plant foods in its sandwich advice?

This is one of the many things wrong with USDA sponsorship of checkoff programs….

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