by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Jul 17 2018

Lab-grown meat: FDA v. USDA

The FDA held a public meeting last week on lab-grown “meat,” meaning, in FDA-speak, “foods produced using animal cell culture technology.”  The meeting agenda is here.

At issue are:

The FDA’s announcement of the meeting, and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s statement staked FDA’s territory over these products.  Gottlieb said:

The FDA has a long history of ensuring food safety and applying our statutory framework while supporting rapidly evolving areas of technological innovation in food. The agency currently evaluates microbial, algal and fungal cells generated by large-scale culture and used as direct food ingredients. The agency administers safety assessment programs for a broad array of food ingredients, including foods derived from genetically engineered plants, and also manages safety issues associated with cell culture technology in therapeutic settings.

But if these foods are meat, then USDA is responsible for their regulation.  In a statement to Politico (behind paywall), a USDA spokesperson said:

According to federal law, meat and poultry inspections are the sole purview of USDA, so we expect any product marketed as ‘meat’ to be USDA’s responsibility. We look forward to working with FDA as we engage the public on this issue.”

Politico points out what’s at stake in the jurisdictional dispute.

There are at least 10 lab-grown meat companies across the globe that are furiously working to figure out how to get their products to market. Some of the startups are driven by a desire to reduce animal agriculture’s environmental footprint as developing countries increasingly drive demand for meat and dairy products. Major investors who’ve moved to get into the action include innovators like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Tyson Ventures, an investment arm of meat giant Tyson Foods.

The meat industry, as you might expect, does not want these foods to be called “meat.”  But the industry has not reached agreement on strategies (some meat companies have invested in lab-grown meat startups).

The US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) in February asked federal government regulators to adopt a definition for meat that would exclude cell-cultured products (often called “clean meat“).  This week though, the more-powerful National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) asked the same regulatory agency to rule the opposite.

The NCBA wrote  a letter to USDA stating its position:

NCBA is alarmed by the growing number of flagrantly deceptive food product labels proliferating the marketplace. Consumers have the right to expect that the information on food labels is truthful and not misleading, just as all food products should expect to compete on a fair, level playing field…NCBA firmly believes that the term beef should only be applicable to products derived from actual livestock raised by farmers and ranchers.

Global Meat News has a good summary of the industry’s concerns.

Four members of Congress chided the FDA for jumping into this:

Cell-based food technologies and products are an emerging science, and both agencies should be working collaboratively on a scientific approach towards a framework to regulate these products.

Good luck with that.  The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) has a report on the FDA meeting.  I’m quoted:

Between the two agencies, I favor FDA…USDA’s primary role is to support and defend industrial agricultural production. The agency tolerates, but is unenthusiastic about organics. It will do the same for lab-based meat.

The FDA has opened questions about lab-grown meat for public comment.  File comments here.  The deadline is September 25.

Added comment

At a Politico Summit meeting today,

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said…that the agency is working closely with USDA on early efforts to establish a regulatory framework for lab-grown meat, or “cell-cultured foods,” the FDA’s preferred name for it.

We shall see.

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Jun 25 2018

Trump’s government reorganization plan: really?

The Trump Administration announced its new plan to reorganize government.  Obviously, this affects the agencies dealing with agriculture, food, and nutrition issues—USDA, FDA, and FDA’s parent agency, HHS.  Here is my translation of the major shifts being proposed:

  • Move most of USDA’s nutrition programs—SNAP, WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program—to HHS.
  • Move FDA’s food safety oversight to USDA, putting USDA in charge of all food safety.
  • Downsize the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Congress would have to vote on all this so there’s no point in going too deeply into the weeds at this point, but I have just a few comments:

  • Putting all food safety oversight in one agency is a good idea, but not if it’s USDA.  USDA’s principal purpose to to support agribusiness.  Holding agribusiness responsible for food safety puts USDA in conflict of interest.
  • Moving SNAP and WIC into HHS (or whatever its new name will be) would make sense if HHS weren’t already overwhelmed by everything else it has to deal with (more than a trillion dollars in spending).
  • The proposal still leaves school breakfasts and lunches and commodity programs in USDA, meaning that food assistance programs will still be split between USDA and HHS.
  • Downsizing the Commissioned Corps doesn’t make much sense either.  Public health needs all the health it can get.

Whatever happens with this is unlikely to happen quickly.  USDA will not be happy about losing SNAP’s $80 billion a year or WIC’s $6 billion budget.

Many other agencies are also affected by these proposals.  My prediction: Congress will have a lot of trouble coming to agreement on these ideas.

Maybe this is just another attempt to distract us from more pressing matters.

Law Professor Timothy Lytton, an expert on food regulatory policy, has plenty to say about why moving food safety to USDA won’t work (in my paraphrasing):

  • Congressional committees are unlikely to support any reorganization that would reduce their power.
  • Industry associations are unlikely to support a reorganization that would disrupt their influence with existing agencies.
  • The two agencies are different in jurisdiction, powers and expertise; a merger would require a complete overhaul of federal food safety laws and regulations, a task of extraordinary legal and political complexity.
  • A merger might create new forms of fragmentation.
  • Reorganization is expensive and will take years.  The payoff is unclear.

As I’ve explained before, plans for a single food safety agency have been in the works for years, but have encountered many barriers.  The Food Safety Modernization Act was meant to be step #1 in a three-step process:

  1. Pass and implement rules governing FDA’s oversight of pretty much all foods except meat and poultry (this is now done).
  2. Fix USDA’s food safety rules governing meat and poultry so they are consistent with FDA’s (in the talking stage, hopefully).
  3. Merge the food safety responsibilities in one agency.

These proposals, alas, ignore step #2.  Good luck with that.

Apr 25 2018

Interim federal spending for food programs

I am just getting to this (better late than never), but in March Congress passed the 2,232-page appropriations bill H.R. 1625 (115).  This continued funding for the federal government until the end of September.

Despite White House calls for deep cuts—this bill gave:

  • USDA and FDA $23.3 billion in discretionary funding, $2.4 billion above current levels.
  • USDA USDA Farm to School Grant Program $5 million
  • Food for Peace ,$1.7 billion
  • Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, $35 million, a 30% increase since last bill
  • USDA Economic Research Service, $86.75 million, above USDA’s request of $77 million.
  • USDA Agricultural Research Service, $1.2 billion, above the $993 million request
  • Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, $400 million, $25 million more than in 2017
  • USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, $981.1 million, $925 million more than current spending.
  • Child nutrition programs (school meals), $24.25 million, $2 million more than current levels.
  • Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), $6.175 billion in discretionary funding over two years
  • Commodity assistance programs (soup kitchens, food banks, farmer’s market nutrition programs and other emergency assistance programs), $322.1 million over two years, and above current $313 million

But then there’s SNAP, where the real money is: $74.01 billion.  This is a $4 billion cut from current levels, and “subject to any work registration or workfare requirements as may be required by law.”

Except for SNAP, these look good for the next few months.

But the Farm Bill can change all this and we have yet to see what Congress will do about it.

And, according to Politico, the White House is expected to ask for up to $60 billion in cuts.

Start lobbying now.

 

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Apr 2 2018

US Food Assistance, 2018 Overview

USDA has just published its latest overview of US food assistance.

Here’s what this is about:

These percentages apply to total USDA spending on 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs: $98.6 billion in FY 2017.

The bottom line: expenditures are down and have been declining for the past 4 years.  $98.6 billion is 4% less than in 2016 and nearly 10% less than the all-time high of $109.2 billion set in FY 2013.

How come?

Note: The prevalence of food insecurity has not changed.

Although USDA attributes the drop to improvements in the economy, the prevalence of food insecurity has not changed.

Therefore, we have to ask: Could tougher eligibility requirements and application procedures have anything to do with this?

Mar 29 2018

How much of the food dollar do farmers get?

USDA has just issued a revision to its food dollar series—its graphic explanation of how the U.S. food dollar gets spent.

This tells us that 15.8 cents out of every food dollar goes to the producer; the rest goes for marketing.

Oddly, the USDA does not provide an updated illustration of the marketing components from its previous version in 2006:

What this tells us is that 80% of the cost of food is accounted for by marketing.

Don’t farmers deserve more?

Mar 1 2018

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations: A prototype for the Harvest Box? Not exactly.

Last week I discussed my skepticism about the Trump Administration’s plan to replace some SNAP benefits with boxes of 100% American-grown commodities.

NPR’s The Salt is skeptical for a different reason: the experience of Native Americans with the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).

Since 1977, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has bought nonperishable foods to distribute on Indian reservations and nearby rural areas as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. The program was designed as an alternative to SNAP for low-income Native Americans living in remote areas without easy access to grocery stores. The food boxes delivered were filled with canned, shelf-stable foods like peanut butter, canned meats and vegetables, powdered eggs and milk.

It’s consequences?  A high prevalence of overweight and type-2 diabetes on Indian researvations.  As The Salt quotes:

“There’s even a name for it – it’s called ‘commod bod.’ That’s what we call it because it makes you look a certain way when you eat these foods.”

As it happens, I was in Albuquerque last week speaking at the Native American Healthy Beverage Summit sponsored by the Notah Begay III Foundation (I got to meet Notah Begay III when he introduced my talk).

I asked everyone I could about experiences with FDPIR.  Those who grew up in households participating in the program cited several issues:

  • Culturally inappropriate
  • Poor quality
  • Induced dependency
  • Undermined traditional diets
  • Part of barter/trade economy (unwanted items were bartered, traded, sold, or fed to pets)

Justin Huenemann, the CEO of the Foundation, took me to an FDPIR distribution center on a reservation near Bernalillo.

This was a big surprise.  It was clean, well stocked with fresh produce, frozen meats and fish (bison, salmon), and canned and packaged foods, all of them reasonably healthy.  Ordered items are delivered by truck to people who cannot come into the center.

The USDA has worked hard to improve the program (see fact sheets and evaluations).  Participants can choose from a long list of eligible foods.

But: the program serves only about 90,000 participants at a cost of $151 million in 2017.  Scaling it up to 40 million SNAP participants—and nearly $70 billion in benefits, seems unlikely.  Even scaling it up to the 16.7 million households promised by USDA seems iffy.

In any case FDPIR is NOT the prototype for the Harvest Box.

The prototype is the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) for low-income elderly.  This program, serving 600,000 seniors with a $236 million budget in 2017, offers a more limited selection of food options, none fresh.  It distributes the boxes through food banks and other nonprofits who then do the actual deliveries.  CSFP raises many if not all of the issues mentioned by my informants.

I still think this is a smokescreen to distract attention from budget cuts to SNAP but I was grateful for the opportunity to see the FDPIR in action.  The quality of the foods looked pretty good to me—an oasis in a area where healthy foods are not readily available.

Feb 22 2018

USDA’s pesticide testing results for 2016

Worried about pesticide residues on fresh and processed fruit and vegetables?

The USDA tests for a bunch of them in more than 10,000 food samples (of which more than 90% are fruit and vegetables).

The results from 2016 are encouraging.

Residues exceeding the tolerance were detected in 0.46 percent (48 samples) of the total samples tested (10,365 samples).

Of these 48 samples, 26 were domestic (54.2 percent), 20 were imported (41.7 percent), and 2 were of unknown origin (4.1 percent).

Residues with no established tolerance were found in 2.6 percent (273 samples) of the total samples tested (10,365 samples).

Of these 273 samples, 179 were domestic (65.6 percent), 90 were imported (32.9 percent), and 4 were of unknown origin (1.5 percent).

These are low percentages.

They could be lower.

It’s good the USDA is keeping an eye on this.

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Feb 20 2018

Trump’s “Blue Apron” plan for SNAP: real or a smokescreen?

I vote for smokescreen.

Let’s take this one step at a time, starting with the FY 2019 Budget announced last week.  In this administration’s usual Orwell-speak:

The Budget proposes a bold new approach to administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that combines traditional SNAP benefits with 100-percent American grown foods provided directly to households and focuses administrative reforms on outcome-based employment strategies. The Budget expands on previous SNAP proposals to strengthen expec­tations for work among able-bodied adults, pre­serves benefits for those most in need….

Translation: work requirements and budget cuts.  These are emphasized in the FY 2019 Budget Addendum.  This proposes a $17 billion cut in funding ($213 billion over the next decade).  In more Orwell-speak, it is

designed to improve nutrition and target benefits to those who need them while ensuring careful stewardship of taxpayers’ money. This  suite of proposals includes a new approach to nutrition assistance that combines retail-based SNAP benefits with a package of nutritious, 100 percent American-grown food. The Budget also encourages States to innovate in helping participants move to self-sufficiency and improving employment outcomes.

This language comes directly from USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s Big Idea: America’s Harvest Box, specified as containing:

Shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat-cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables.

The box would account for roughly half the benefits; the other half would come from using EBT cards, as in the past.

What got all the attention was a statement from White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, as reported in the Washington Post:

What we do is propose that for folks who are on food stamps, part — not all, part — of their benefits come in the actual sort of, and I don’t want to steal somebody’s copyright, but a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash,” Mulvaney said. “It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices] whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food. So we’re pretty excited about that.

Blue Apron, in case you haven’t been keeping up with this, is a meal-delivery service that has had some fiscal problems lately.

The budget plan includes some “add-back” requests for additional funds for special purposes.  One such request is for $30 million to test whether the Harvest Box plan works.

Under this proposal grants would be made to a small number of states to design, implement, and evaluate the provision of a package of USDA Foods in combination with the traditional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) electronic benefits used at approved retailers. This supports early implementation and evaluation of the related 2019 Budget proposal, which calls for this program structure nationwide and is estimated to save over $12 billion in 2019, and $129 billion over ten years. These grants would provide important policy and administrative lessons to inform efficient and effective nationwide implementation.

What are we to make of all this?  My favorite reaction comes from Politico: “Trump’s Food Stamp Idea Is Like Blue Apron Had a Socialist Hangover.”

It is hardly pro-market to displace the private sector and build a parallel, state-run distribution system, no matter how many times you name-check Blue Apron. This is the sort of thing you find in countries still recovering from socialist hangovers…No, the “Harvest Box” approach to hunger policy makes sense only in the context of hunger politics. And hunger politics have always been as much about the welfare of agribusiness as about the welfare of the poor…. It is generally more expensive than either buying food locally and distributing it or simply giving the recipients cash or vouchers to purchase their own food. Rigorous experimental testing has shown that it does not even produce systematically better nutritional outcomes than giving out money.

I particularly enjoyed Andy Fisher’s comments.  Fisher is author of Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups (see my Weekend Reading post on this book).  “Comrade Trump, he says, might just be on to something.”  SNAP, he points out,

is an accomplice to our need for cheap food with the accompanying externalities caused to public health. It reinforces the ills of the marketplace rather than seeks to transform them.”

His suggestion?  Nationalize the grocery industry.

The NY Times pointed out that even Trump administration officials don’t think this is a serious proposal:

administration officials on Tuesday admitted that the food-box plan…had virtually no chance of being implemented anytime soon.  Instead, the idea…was a political gambit by fiscal hawks in the administration aimed at outraging liberals and stirring up members of the president’s own party working on the latest version of the farm bill.  The move, they said, was intended to lay down a marker that the administration is serious about pressing for about $85 billion in other cuts to food assistance programs that will be achieved, in part, by imposing strict new work requirements on recipients.

Let’s be clear what this about: Cuts to SNAP.  As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analyzes the situation, the plan intends to cut SNAP benefits as well as:

  • Expand government bureaucracy
  • Shift costs to states and nonprofits
  • Increase costs for participants
  • Restrict access to fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Increase stigma for low-income households
  • Negatively impact retailers

Let me add a couple of other points:

The bottom line:  pay attention to the budget cuts.

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