One of the things that USDA does really, really well is research designed to develop a basis for food assistance policies. Its Economic Research Service is one of the best kept secrets in American government. Here’s what the ERS investigators have done, discovered, and published over the last 10 years. Best of all, you can access their publications from an electronic data base.
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The Department of Agriculture, apparently concerned about consumer confusion over what “natural” meat might be, is proposing to define the term. Right now, “natural” means minimally processed plus whatever the marketer says it means, and nobody is checking (I devote a chapter of What to Eat to explaining all this). This proposal, as the USDA explains, would be a voluntary marketing claim (“no antibiotics, no hormones”). The proposal is open for comment until January 28. Want to comment? Do that at this site.
Every now and then something incredible happens and here it is. Brian Wansink, Cornell Professor and author of Mindless Eating, has been appointed executive director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. This is the piece of USDA responsible for dietary advice to the public. Wansink is the guy who does the terrific research on environmental determinants of overeating showing that large portions, wide drinking glasses, foods close by, and health claims encourage everyone to eat more calories than they need or want. Will he be able to anything good at USDA? Let’s hope so. In the meantime, cheers to USDA for making a brilliant appointment.
I don’t know about you but I can’t keep up with them. So here is another million pound recall of hamburger contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. This time, the USDA was on the job testing hamburger at the retail level. Good work. USDA has safety rules (HACCP with pathogen reduction) for meat and poultry packers. Now, how about enforcing them? Or is that too much to ask?
USDA economists (a national treasure, in my opinion) have just produced an analysis of health (“no trans fat!”) and ecologic (Fair Trade, free-range) labels. Their conclusion: most of the time, the labels benefit food producers more than consumers. Why am I not surprised? Much evidence suggests that they confuse consumers about the issues (which is why I went to the trouble of writing What to Eat).
According to news reports, the USDA has just announced that it plans to hold companies accountable for producing safe beef. USDA safety officials say they are taking aggressive steps (see list) to reduce outbreaks from E. coli and other pathogens. As I keep saying, companies know how to produce safe meat, but need some encouragement (translation: enforcement) to do so. The USDA absolutely has the mandate to enforce food safety regulations and let’s hope it really does.
On July 18 and again on July 21, the FDA announced a recall of canned chili and other foods, including pet foods, produced by Castleberry’s Food Company in Georgia because they made four people sick from botulism. Now the FDA and USDA have issued guidance to companies for proper handling of foods to prevent botulism, which can be fatal.
I don’t understand why people aren’t demonstrating in the streets for better oversight of food safety. Botulism used to be a big problem in low-acid canned foods until the FDA issued rules for dealing with them properly. If it’s still a problem, it’s either because companies are not following standard food safety procedures or because their systems failed and nobody noticed. We do not have a food safety system in this country that requires every food product made or imported into this country to be produced under standard food safety rules, monitored and enforced, from farm to table. I think we need them. Now. The endless “recalls” (in quotation marks because they are voluntary, unenforceable, and never able to get back more than a fraction of the products out there–they are still on shelves according to USA Today) may be endlessly boring but they ought to be inducing outrage–and lots of expressions of outrage to congressional representatives (easy to contact).
A reader asks what might be the ideal percentage of protein, fat, and carbohydrate in diets. It’s not an easy question to answer because the percentages could vary a lot, depending on the amounts of good fats (monounsaturated, for example) and good carbohydrates (whole grains). In any case, it’s too hard to have to look up the nutrient composition of every food you eat. But I sometimes have fun using the USDA’s food composition tables. They do require interpretation though as the numbers may or may not reflect what you are actually eating. Carrots grown in California may or may not have the same nutrient composition as those grown in upstate New York. I consider these tables a national treasure and wish the USDA would put more resources into making them even more comprehensive.