Oh dear. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has just released a summary of a new report on the use of USDA surplus commodity foods in school meals, mainly in California. The major findings? More than half the commodity foods are processed before they get to the schools and that means added fat, sugar, or salt (example: chicken to nuggets). More than 80% of funds for commodities are used for meat and cheese; only 13% is spent on fruits and vegetables. There is so little correlation between foods recommended by the USDA pyramid and those purchased by schools that the report displays a nifty side-by-side illustration of a commodities pyramid next to a USDA pyramid (the useful old one). It is an almost perfect inverse. The complete report has lots more good stuff in it. High marks to the groups that collaborated on this one, the California Food Policy Advocates and Samuels & Associates.
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USA Today interviewed USDA officials who think food prices will go higher quickly, and maybe much higher. Grow your own, anyone?
Sometimes I think we live in an alternate reality. The U.S. Court of Appeals (District of Columbia Circuit) has now overturned a lower court ruling that allowed Creekstone Farms Premium Beef to conduct its own tests for mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE). Imagine! Creekstone wanted to demonstrate that its beef was free of BSE so it could be sold in Asia. But that would imply that other meat was not safe and force other companies to test as well. Apparently, the USDA does not think that would be fair and the Appeals Court agrees. What about fairness to beef eaters? About that, the court had nothing to say.
The USDA has just published an analysis of its school lunch program. Among other useful information–the history, funding, etc–this report asks an interesting and pointed question: Does the school lunch program promote obesity in order to support industrial agriculture? The answer: it just might. This is a must-read for anyone interested in doing anything to make school lunches better for health and the environment.
USDA economists have just produced a theoretical study proposing – surprise! – that knowledge of nutrition is not sufficient to change dietary behavior. What they call “immediate visceral factors” (i.e. hunger, food in front of you, large portions) overpower “cognitive dietary information.” They don’t put it this way, but that’s why personal responsibility doesn’t work. You have to change the food environment to make it easier to make better choices. It’s nice to have some evidence….
Sunday’s New York Times has a beautifully illustrated account of how the U.S. food supply has changed since 1970, based on USDA food supply data. These do not measure actual food intake. Instead they measure food produced in the U.S., less exports, plus imports. The USDA has collected (or computed) such data since 1909 and to the extent that they are collected the same way every year, give a good idea of food trends, even though they overestimate actual food intake. I like this USDA data set a lot. It shows that production of all foods is up, with the biggest increases in fats (59%), grains (42%), and sugars and corn sweeteners (17%). Vegetables are up (15%), but so are corn sweeteners (373%), cream cheese (350%), and sour cream (275%). The article doesn’t say so, but calories went up from about 3,200 to 4,000, an increase of 800 calories per person per day since the 1970s. Why are Americans gaining weight? Duh. There is more food around and we are eating it.
The epidemic of illness caused by the unusual saintpaul type of Salmonella has now affected more than 800 people, and federal agencies seem more than perplexed about its source. The FDA says tomatoes, and called for their removal from the market, an action with devastating consequences for the tomato industry. But cases are still turning up. Perhaps that is why the CDC thinks maybe something else might be the cause. Salsa? Guacamole? The produce industry is understandably interested and two websites are excellent sources of day-to-day information: the straight-news Packer, and the tell-it-like-it-is Perishable Pundit. Go to the FDA website for updates on the ongoing investigation and also provides lists of tomatoes safe to eat. Part of the difficulty in following this story is that two federal agencies are involved: the FDA and the CDC. The CDC has its own version of events (with useful maps of where the cases are in the U.S.). The USDA , which only deals with animal foods, doesn’t seem to be part of this one. It should be. The ultimate source of this outbreak has to be animal waste. This tomato (?) outbreak is precisely why we need a single food agency to oversee food safety. When, oh when?
Update, July 1: The Wall Street Journal reviews the outbreak and explains why the produce and restaurant industries are so angry.
Update, July 2: The Wall Street Journal quotes the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Mike Leavitt , saying that because multiple countries and multiple agencies are involved in the investigation, “it shows the need for better cooperation.” No. It shows the need for a single food agency!
Update, July 3: I’ve just discovered USA Today’s nifty time line of the tomato saga.
Yesterday, I received a press announcement from the USDA with an invitation to join today’s press conference, “The Road to Healthville: Challenge to End Childhood Obesity.” The press release explains:
Dr. Brian Wansink, Executive Director of the
Kellogg is among the charter members. Today’s Kellogg press release lists what the company promises to do. Uh oh. It’s developing a curriculum for K through 8 school kids. Want to bet that Kellogg’s logo will be prominently displayed?