by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Mar 20 2020

Weekend reading: USDA’s food and agriculture charts

In this strange era of social distancing, I am catching up on items of interest, this one on USDA’s Selected Charts from Ag and Food Statistics, published in February this year.

These cover the ag and food sectors, the rural economy, land and natural resources, farm income, production, food spending and prices,  food consumption, trade, and food security.

I love charts.  These are especially informative (and date from when USDA’s Economic Research Service was still functional).

Examples:

This is one reason why China is so important to our food economy.

And here’s why the current Coronavirus crisis will be so tough on the restaurant industry:

At a glance, we can see what dietary recommendations ought to be saying, although the grouping together of meat, eggs, and nuts is not particularly helpful in understanding what’s going on here.

 

The other charts—there are lots of them—are worth a look and have much to teach.  They make me even sadder about the loss of two-thirds of ERS staff when USDA moved the agency to Kansas City.

Feb 25 2020

Meat recalls keep going up. It’s time for USDA action.

A report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) says that USDA recalls of meat and poultry have nearly doubled since 2013.

  • USDA posts its recalls and notices here.

The PIRG report says FDA recalls of the products it regulates—produce, seafood, and processed foods—have dropped.  The Food Safety Modernization Act rules are in effect, and working.

  • FDA posts its recalls and notices here.

To do something about meat and poultry recalls, some of which involve Salmonella, food safety lawyer Bill Marler along with  Consumer Reports and other advocacy groups, have petitioned USDA to classify Salmonella as an adulterant, an action that is long overdue (see the Washington Post’s story on Marler’s action.

Does USDA have the authority to do this?  I think yes, even though courts have ruled that because Salmonella can be killed by cooking, they are a natural contaminant.

Yes, but supermarket raw chicken is frequently contaminated with Salmonella and frequently associated with disease outbreaks.

Salmonella-contaminated chicken requires special handling in kitchens: Don’t wash it!  Keep it entirely separate from all other foods.  Don’t put it on counters, plates, or cutting boards that can come in contact with other foods.   In other words, run your kitchen like a maximum security laboratory.

It’s high time the USDA did something about this one.

Feb 18 2020

The Trump Administration’s proposed budget (Sigh)

The Trump Administration has released its proposed budget for fiscal year 2021.

I emphasize proposed because Congress has to pass it before it goes into effect.  What will Congress do?  Time will tell.

With that said, here are the White House documents.

From the Hagstrom Report (thanks Jerry)

These sections are classic examples of double-speak.  The words mean precisely their opposites.  “Reform,” for example, really means cut budget and enrollment.

You want evidence?  The budget proposes an 8% cut to overall USDA spending, with a $15 billion cut to SNAP.

The Fact Sheet summarizes SNAP proposals [with my translations]:

Reforming [cutting budget and reducing SNAP participation]the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The Budget proposes to strengthen work requirements to help all able-bodied adults participating in SNAP enter the job market and work toward self-sufficiency [lose eligibility for participation].

The Budget also promotes the use of data and technology to improve program integrity and streamline State operations [Tightening up on fraud will reduce participation].

Finally, the Budget proposes to combine the traditional retail-based SNAP electronic benefit with the direct provision of nutritious and 100 percent Americangrown USDA Foods, maintaining our commitment to helping needy families avoid hunger while generating substantial savings to the taxpayer and allowing innovative partnerships with the private sector [Really?  USDA still hasn’t given up on Harvest Boxes?].

This is so awful that a group of Democratic members—all former recipients of SNAP benefits— wrote a letter to Trump expressing concerns.

Let’s hope Congress rejects these cuts.

The New York Times’ analyses

Jan 28 2020

USDA’s infographics on school food purchases

The USDA has produced four infographics on its purchasing practices for school meals.

  • USDA Foods in Schools – This infographic summarizes nationwide USDA Foods purchases including the average cost per pound by food group and the breakdown of total spending and pounds received by food group.
  • USDA Foods in Schools: Summary by Program – This infographic shows a summary of purchases from all three programs: USDA Foods Bulk for Processing, USDA Foods Direct Delivery, and USDA DoD Fresh. It is important to note that the USDA Foods Bulk for Processing section only includes items classified as a bulk product on the USDA Foods Available List.
  • USDA Foods in Schools: State Overview– This infographic shows the average number of products ordered by States and the top five products by dollar value and volume. This infographic also displays the value of food orders by State.
  • USDA DoD Fresh in Schools – This infographic provides an overview of USDA DoD Fresh purchases including a summary of the top five fruit and vegetables received and the total pounds purchased. It is important to note that the items available through USDA DoD Fresh may vary by State.

I took a look at the first one and got stopped cold by this:

Protein?  What’s that?  The answer:  meat, poultry, fish, eggs, peanut butter, and sunflower seed butter.

I also wondered what DoD Fresh was about.  It is an agreement between USDA and the Department of Defense to supply fresh fruits and vegetables to schools.

For school food aficionados, there is much information here in a readily accessible format.  Enjoy!

Jan 22 2020

USDA issues guidance for non-GMO labeling

The USDA has issued a guide for meat and poultry sellers explaining what they need to do to claim that their products are non-GMO.  This, apparently, will do.

What, you may ask, are they to do if their products are GMO?  Here’s your answer.

That USDA is allowing the use of non-GMO rather than non-bioengineered must be considered some kind of miracle or oversight.

AgriPulse says producers want more guidance before trying to comply with whatever the biotech labeling law means.

I can’t wait to see if meat sellers use any of this.

Jan 21 2020

The USDA never gives up in favoring corporate interests over kids’ health: the new school food rules

If it weren’t so tragic, we could all have a big laugh at the USDA’s latest announcement of how it plans to weaken the nutrition standards for school meals.   Here’s how it starts:

Delivering on his promise to act on feedback from dietary professionals, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced two proposals today that will put local school and summer food service operators back in the driver’s seat of their programs, because they know their children best. Under the school meals proposed rule, school nutrition professionals have more flexibility to serve appetizing and healthy meals that appeal to their students’ preferences and subsequently reduce food waste…These improvements build on the 2018 reforms that preserve strong nutrition standards while providing schools the additional flexibilities they need to best serve America’s students [the words in red are my emphasis].

This is USDA doublespeak.  My translation:

  • Dietary professionals: USDA is not talking about me here.  It is referring to the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service workers, and receives nearly half its funding from food companies that sell products to schools.
  • Driver’s seat: This is Trump’s USDA saying that it is not bound by anything accomplished by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.
  • Flexibility: This means that schools can decide on their own to ignore nutrition standards and let kids eat all the junk food they want.
  • Improvements: This refers to benefits for the companies that sell junk foods in schools.
  • 2018 reforms:  In USDA-speak, “reform” usually means rollback of rules or budget cuts; it never means real improvement.

I just can’t get my head around why there is so much political pressure to feed junk food to kids.  Doesn’t everyone want kids to be healthy?  Apparently not.

Bettina Siegel, author of Kids’ Food and blogger at The Lunch Tray, has her own analytical deconstruction of what this announcement means.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest interprets USDA’s proposals as an “assault on school meals.”

In an email, a reader who wishes to remain anonymous sent me some notes on the large body of research, some of it from the agency itself, countering USDA’s claims that the current nutrition standards are not working.

  • USDA’s own research shows that meals are healthier, plate waste has not increased, and most schools are complying with nutrition standards.
  • Healthy Eating Research shows that the nutritional quality of school meals has improved under the current rules.
  • A study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity shows that low-income kids are eating better under the existing standards.
  • Surveys from Bridging the Gap show that most kids like the healthier school lunches.
  • poll conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and American Heart Association shows that more than 70% of parents support healthier school nutrition standards, and more than 90% want fruits or vegetables served with every meal.
  • A Harvard study stimates that the current nutrition standards will prevent more than 2 million cases of childhood obesity and save nearly $800 million in health care costs over 10 years.

In short, school meals are not broken and do not need fixing.  This is about politics, in this case USDA’s pandering to food company interests at the expense of kids’ health.

Shameful.

Dec 3 2019

The latest Romaine lettuce outbreak: Just say no.

The CDC continues to track the latest outbreak of illnesses caused by eating Romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

The outbreak at a glance:

The FDA’s advice:

Consumers should not eat romaine lettuce harvested from Salinas, California. Additionally, consumers should not eat products identified in the recall announced by the USDA on November 21, 2019.

A former FDA official, Stephen Ostroff, says:

With five multistate outbreaks in less than two years, it’s clear there’s a serious continuing problem with E. coli O157:H7 and romaine lettuce. The natural reservoir for this pathogen is ruminant animals, especially cattle. Moreover, one particular strain of E. coli seems to have found a home in the growing regions of central coastal California, returning each fall near the end of the growing season.

It’s not clear where this strain is hiding. Cattle? Water sources? Elsewhere? What is clear is that additional steps must be taken to make romaine safer.

The New Food Economy emphasizes some particularly distressing aspects of this particular outbreak.

  • It is caused by the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 that caused outbreaks linked to leafy greens in 2017 and to Romaine lettuce in 2018.
  • This strain of E. coli seems particularly virulent: 39 of the 67 cases had to be hospitalized.
  • The source has not yet been traced.

Consumer Report’s advice: ”

People should avoid all romaine lettuce and that any currently in refrigerators should immediately be thrown out because of the risk of E. coli contamination…CR’s experts think it is prudent and less confusing for consumers to avoid romaine altogether, especially because romaine is also sold unpackaged and in restaurants, and customers can’t always be sure of the origin that lettuce.  “Much of the romaine lettuce on the market at this time of year is from Salinas,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says enough is enough; It’s time to put warning labels on Romaine lettuce.

Marler’s advice: when in doubt, throw it out.

My comment:  Contamination of vegetables with toxic E. coli means that the vegetables somehow came in contact with waste from farm animals or wild animals or birds.  The most likely suspect is Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or large dairies because they produce so much animal waste.  If one animal is infected under crowded CAFO conditions, other animals also will be infected (but cows don’t show symptoms).

Preventing lettuce contamination means that CAFOs must manage their waste so that it is not infectious (USDA and EPA regulated) and vegetable farms must keep infected water from contaminating their crops (FDA regulated).  All of this means following food safety procedures to the letter, but also in spirit.

Constant Romaine outbreaks are further evidence for the need for consistency in USDA and FDA food safety policies, and a reminder that calls for a single, united food safety agency have been coming for more than 40 years.  Surely, it’s time.

Sep 11 2019

USDA’s Nutrition Education programs

I was astounded to learn that the USDA spends more than $900 million a year on nutrition education since I can hardly recall seeing any of it.

But now we have a Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis of USDA’s expenditures on nutrition education.

The GAO says that USDA does not:

  • Coordinate its nutrition education efforts
  • Use the expertise of USDA nutritionists
  • Make nutrition education a priority
  • Have leadership with responsibility for nutrition education
  • Share information across sub-agencies and avoid duplicating efforts
  • Assign nutrition education experts to appropriate sub-agencies

No big surprise here—I’ve been hearing such complaints since I worked for the government in the late 1980s—but it’s good to see them documented.

Most of the report is about nutrition education for participants in WIC, SNAP, and other nutrition assistance programs.

Note that there is no line budget for promotion of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a statement of of federal nutrition policy, or for MyPlate, a food guide directed at the general public.  Funds to promote these documents have to be authorized by Congress.

Note also that while $900 million seems like a lot of money, it is considerably below what companies like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola each spend on advertising every year.