by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Sep 21 2018

USDA’s double-speak proposal to “improve” the ERS: brute-force politics

I listened in yesterday to the webinar on USDA’s proposed relocation and reorganization of the Economic Research Service.  Participants included Scott Swinton (Michigan State University), Cathie Woteki (former undersecretary for research at USDA), Susan Offutt (former ERS head), Gale Buchanan (another former undersecretary for research, USDA), and Stephen Censky (current USDA deputy secretary). The former officials were unanimous in arguing that the proposal to relocate the agency outside of Washington DC and reorganize it into the USDA Secretary’s office was “ill-conceived,” made no sense, was done without appropriate consultation, was potentially illegal, would politicize the agency, and would damage, if not destroy, an agency that is the jewel of USDA. The USDA says the reasons for doing this are easier recruitment, cheaper rent, closer alignment with the Secretary’s policy initiatives, and getting the agency closer to stakeholders.  None of these bears up under even the most casual scrutiny. So what is this really about? I’m guess that this is about getting political control over—silencing—an agency that conducts independent, unbiased, nonpartisan research that risks leading to inconvenient truths. Here, for example, are some recent publications [with my comments].

ERS is not broke and does not need fixing.  The proposal must be understood as an attempt to destroy the ERS.  Participants called for:

  • Congressional hearings
  • An independent cost-benefit analysis
  • Delay further action until then or, better yet, a full stop

I am a big user of ERS data and a great admirer of the work of ERS economists. Other views on the webinar and this issue

Additions, September 24

The groups that did the WEbinar have forwarded links:

These ask Congress to:

  • retain the ERS in the national Capitol region;
  • maintain and strengthen the integrity and independence of the ERS as a statistical agency; and
  • keep the budget and personnel for the USDA Economic Research Service at least at FY 2018 levels.

Additions, September 25 (thanks to the Hagstrom Report

USDA — Secretary Perdue response to Roberts and Stabenow
American Statistical Association — Count on Stats
— Fact Sheet
— Friends of Agricultural Statistics and Analysis Sign-On Letter Opposing USDA re-organization and re-alignment of the Economic Research Service
— USDA Economic Research Service Sign-On Letter – Former administration officials and statistical agency leaders
— NIFA Relocation Letter to Congress
Center for Progressive Reform — Draining Washington of Science and Talent

 

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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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