Thursday, November 30, 2006

A better "healthy food" labeling system

Have you noticed the proliferation of "healthy food" labeling systems lately?

They remind me of a line from Michael Franti's song: "They're telling me to choose, but there's only lies to choose from."

The American Heart Association (AHA), for example, charges a fee to allow manufacturers to put its "heart check" symbol on selected foods, but the selection criteria don't consider trans fat or give much weight to sugar content (see the image at the bottom of this post). So, at your grocery store, you may find the AHA "heart check" symbol on Chocolate Lucky Charms or Cocoa Puffs. Lucky indeed!

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to initiate a national discussion about possible improvements to "healthy food" labeling. The public interest group asked FDA to solicit public comments on appropriate nutrition criteria and promising examples of communication tools used in other countries (see the stop light image from the United Kingdom at right).

It is just the sort of thing a pro-market pro-nutrition food policy advocate likes to see. What choices would consumers make if the nutrition label were so clear and graphic that it would be pointless for the manufacturer to clutter it with misleading claims and misdirections? If you are an optimist, you may imagine choices good enough to reverse the current nutrition-related epidemics. If you are a pessimist, you may imagine little change from current behavior, and little harm in trying. In either case, this approach seems respectful of people's right to know what the market is offering them and then to make their own decisions about food.

The modest petition is signed by a number of researchers in nutrition, epidemiology, and food policy, including among others Alberto Ascherio, Eric Rimm, Meir Stampfer, Walter Willett, George Blackburn, Carlos Camargo, and myself.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The electric car and the inconvenient truth

My family is going through a period of reflection and change about lifestyle choices and environmental ethics. We were already getting by with one beat up old Honda Civic for our family of four. Then, our 6-year old son -- probably having heard some conversation between my wife and myself -- suggested that we stop using the car. We haven't sold the car yet, but we have started marking our kitchen calendar in big bold marker with the words "no car" on every day we do without. If we reduce our car miles from 11,000 per year to 7,500 per year, our insurance company will give us a discount. So far, the words "no car" appear on about 10 out of 14 calendar days, and we are still learning rapidly how to get by without it.

You might think this change would be an ordeal, but certainly not so far. We bought new bright bike lights for the kids and reinstalled our own. For travel together by bike path, the six-year-old rides his own new bike and the four-year-old rides the tag-along. For travel that includes roads, the four-year-old gets the old bike trailer and the six-year-old gets the tag-along. We bundle up for the late New England fall, and of course the weather has been mild lately. Every time we make a decision specifically prompted by the discipline of our new calendar record-keeping -- whether walking together in a hard rain or loading up the bikes with a particularly heavy burden -- we get home laughing at the fun we had together.

You might also think we were doing fine on car choices already and must be particularly uptight to be attempting yet more restraint. But, that's not true either. Everybody knows, for example, that per capita energy use or carbon emissions is much higher in the United States than in China, for example. But not everybody may understand the scale of the difference. Aggregate carbon emissions in the United States (population about 300 million) far exceed aggregate emissions for China (population about 1.4 billion). It is almost enough to make a person fear the growing economic justice in the world economy.

The bad news, if you haven't made this kind of change yet, is that at some point in the future you may feel called to deeper lifestyle changes than you now think possible. The good news is that these changes may be carried more lightly than you realize.

How can you get started? Over the last three days, my wife and I watched both Who killed the electric car? and An Inconvenient Truth, recently out on DVD. Both documentaries are entertaining, informative, and moving. I recommend them more strongly today than any other recommendation I have ever made to you. The Al Gore movie ends with an eloquent list of things to do. They are not all about light bulbs. Two of them, which resonated with us after this month's conversation with our kids, have to do with what children can ask their parents, and what parents can promise their kids, about the future of the planet.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Do it yourself publishing

I had previously missed noticing that the 2006 Lulu Blooker prize was won by Julie and Julia, the book by notable one-time food weblogger Julie Powell. This prize for the best "blook" -- or book that started as a website -- is a takeoff on the esteemed Booker prize [edit 12/2 -- Mcauliflower from Brownie Points corrects my previous description of the prize and reports that Julie and Julia had a major publisher]. I see that many books on self-publishing sites such as Lulu and xlibris cover food and cooking topics. While some of these publishing companies are owned by major book publishers, they still offer a do-it-yourself route around the major publishers' control over information flow.

My work life seems to be peppered with interesting efforts in recent years to reduce the price of information flow: dotlearn, the publisher of the competent online microeconomics textbook used by my program at Tufts; the Berkeley Electronic Press, a publisher of interesting journals on economics and other topics; and online basic statistics teaching resources such as SticiGui and HyperStat.

Of course, life is not just work. I spent a couple hours or more yesterday reflecting on self-publishing while walking in the Fall sunshine around Middlesex Fells with my earphones blaring the punk classics from the guys at Dischord Records, who started at the DC public high school I attended in the early 1980s and went on to become rock stars. To this day, they play all-ages shows with reasonable door prices and charge comparatively low prices for their records. They never signed with a major record label, though they were surely offered millions. See a newly-posted interview with Dischord founder and Fugazi front-man Ian MacKaye (pictured).

Many people seem to think one needs a major publishing house -- or record label -- not just for the economics of product distribution, but also to help consumers distinguish high quality products in the first place. But then I think about Ian MacKaye and the most successful self-published books and I gain hope that the opposite is true [edit 12/2].

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Animal ID to remain voluntary, administration says

One part of the national strategy to protect Americans from mad cow disease is scientific testing of cows. Earlier developments are that USDA in July announced a reduction in the government's testing program and then continued this month to defend in court its decision to prohibit a beef producer from voluntarily testing cattle for the disease.

Another part of the national strategy to protect Americans is animal identification. Public health experts consider the status quo a shambles. Yet, after years of acknowledging the public health importance of being able to trace the origins of beef and other food animals, USDA announced this week that any national identification system would be voluntary. The AP's Libby Quaid reported (via Forbes):
The Bush administration is abandoning plans to make farmers and ranchers register their cows, pigs and chickens in a nationwide database intended to help limit disease outbreaks.

Faced with widespread opposition, the Agriculture Department said Wednesday the animal tracking program should remain voluntary. "Really embracing this as a voluntary program ... will help the trust issues that some farmers and ranchers have raised about the national animal identification system," said Bruce Knight, undersecretary for marketing and regulation...."

Last year, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced that participation would be mandatory by 2009. Later, Johanns said it would be required someday....

First promised in response to the discovery of mad cow disease in this country, the tracking system would pinpoint an animal's movements within 48 hours after a disease was discovered. Investigators never found all 80 of the cattle that came to the U.S. from Canada with the infected dairy cow that became the country's first case of mad cow disease in 2003.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Why does WIC provide free infant formula?

Comments are open for responses to George Kent's unforgiving criticism of WIC's free provision of infant formula, amounting to perhaps half of the infant formula consumed in the United States. Kent's essay appeared earlier this year in the International Breastfeeding Journal.
Perhaps people should have the opportunity to choose to use infant formula, just as they are allowed to choose greasy hamburgers and cigarettes. The point here is that allowing a questionable product to be on the market is one thing. Having the government promote it is quite another. Having the government promote infant formula particularly among poor people raises enormous ethical questions. Does the balance of benefits and risks from the use of infant formula justify the government's providing infant formula to almost half the infants in the US?

Even if they ask, WIC will not provide alcoholic beverages to its clients. The fact that they might ask for beer, for example, is not a sufficient reason to provide it. Similarly, the fact that some WIC clients prefer to use infant formula is not a sufficient justification for WIC to provide it. The large-scale distribution of free infant formula by WIC to all clients who ask for it is a situation that needs to be fixed.
Whether you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing, the full essay contains answers to some of the natural questions. Are breastfeeding rates higher among participants or seemingly comparable nonparticipants? Is the WIC formula provision consistent with international protocols? Is it true that many women cannot breastfeed? Doesn't WIC actually promote breastfeeding? Is formula that much worse than breastfeeding anyway?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Conservative Futurist says: "Quiznos, you lost my business!"

The politically conservative business-friendly weblogger finds he must explain his reluctant stance in favor of a boycott of Quiznos Subs.
Why? Because Quizno's makes claims like "low carb" and "healthy" without backing it up with facts. It is a chain of lies! Subway can release their information, so why can't Quizno's? After all, Quizno's claims to be the #2 sandwich joint in the nation.

I also must add that I am pained by this decision. I love Quizno's food. But, because of their silence on the nutrition info, I must assume that Quizno's has something to hide - probably the fact that their food is TERRIBLE for you. So, I will no longer eat there....

NOTE: I am aware that Quizno's lists nutritional info for TWO of their sandwiches. But that's all. Also, I am aware that Quizno's Australia posts nutritional data, but the sandwiches are different (as are the measurements).
For myself, I must admit to continued surprise at the company's stubborn stance. But dismay has long turned to bemusement, as this weblog's number one source of readers is people who were seeking in Google for Quiznos nutrition information and ended up reading this post and reader comments.

Do you have research on economics and nutrition?

If you are a scholar with research to present from the borderlands between the disciplines of economics and nutrition, please visit the website of the Food Safety and Nutrition Section of the American Agricultural Economics Association. You can contact myself or Neal Hooker from the section website, regarding the section's upcoming "track" of sessions at the AAEA annual meeting in Portland, OR, next July 29 to August 1.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

USDA reports today that respondents experienced hunger in 2.9% of American households in 2005

At first glance, you might think the federal government has ceased to report how many American households experience hunger. But it is not true.

In the new food security report for 2005, released today by USDA's Economic Research Service, the department introduces the new term "very low food security" to describe households with serious symptoms of food-related hardship. Previously, the official wording for this classification was "food insecure with hunger."

The new report describes the change in terminology as a response to advice from the Center for National Statistics (CNSTAT), which advised a reconsideration of the evocative word "hunger."
The CNSTAT panel recommended that USDA make a clear and explicit distinction between food insecurity and hunger. Food insecurity—the condition assessed in the food security survey and represented in the statistics in this report—is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Hunger is an individual level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity. The word “hunger,” the panel stated in its final report, “...should refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.” To measure hunger in this sense would require collection of more detailed and extensive information on physiological experiences of individual household members than could be accomplished effectively in the context of the household-based and labor force-oriented CPS. The panel recommended, therefore, that new methods be developed to measure hunger and that a national assessment of hunger be conducted using an appropriate survey of individuals rather than a survey of households.
While USDA may consider following this advice to develop new methods in the future, the status for now is that the federal government has eliminated the word "hunger" from its most prominently reported figures.

Readers who really want to know the extent of hunger in American households, or who simply object to the government's new antiseptic words for describing a serious social concern, may begin to ignore the federal government's very low food security measure altogether. Dispensing with all the mumbo-jumbo, the heart of the matter is found deep in appendix table A-1 of today's USDA report. In this table, one sees more simply the fraction of American households whose respondents reported that they were hungry but didn't eat because they couldn't afford food. I challenge anybody to find in the government's official statistics, which collapse information from 18 different questions using a Rasch scaling model, anything as comprehensible as this simple number.

By this straightforward measure, the fraction of American households whose respondent experienced hunger in 2005 is 2.9%, a statistic that has not improved since 2002 despite the economic expansion.

Local TV news channels run Wheaties "Video News Release" as if it were news

The Center for Media and Democracy has for a long time been running down the story of how businesses get local TV stations to run their advertising segments for free, as if they were news stories, sometimes without attribution. For example, follow the link to view and compare the video segment recently produced by General Mills' PR firm for Wheaties and the corresponding segment that ran on channel CN8 in Philadelphia.

Friday, November 10, 2006

"Mapping an End to Hunger" in New York City

This clever Geographic Information System (GIS) utility for New York City allows you to create customized maps of restaurants, food retailers, community markets, food stamp offices, and so forth, with your choice of color-coded overlays for poverty rates or population density. It was created by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

One use of the utility, whose maps may be read and manipulated with a recent version of the Adobe Acrobat reader, is to assess the extent of "food deserts" -- or neighborhoods without adequate supermarkets. It is clear that, in New York City, much depends on the quality of the mid-sized retailers. One would read the policy implications of these maps entirely differently depending on whether the mid-sized retailers are good or bad. Please feel free to comment, or even to send me photographs, of some of these retailers, especially in the three low-income neighborhoods detailed in the Coalition's report. Of the three, I only know the Harlem neighborhood in Manhattan from visits to friends, and was quite impressed with the retail there, but in fact the report acknowledges good things as well as shortcomings of the community food security environment there.

A 1999 USDA report (summary and .pdf) suggests that a majority -- but not all -- low-income people in a nationally representative survey have reasonably good access to retail. How can we square this report with the impression we have of terrible food deserts? One answer is that when we contemplate food deserts, our mind immediately turns to the worst such neighborhoods we know, such as the South Bronx neighborhood in the Coalition's report. Yet, most people -- and even most low-income people -- have better access to food retail than one would have living in the center point of that neighborhood. Using a mark on a pencil, representing a half-mile walk, try for yourself to estimate what fraction of the low-income population even in New York City lives close to a full-sized supermarket.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"Victual Reality" by Tom Philpott

At the eco-magazine Grist, Tom Philpott has a column series called "Victual Reality," which champions the interests of small farms. We have been corresponding with Tom and reading his work for a couple years now, originally at his own weblog and most recently as a contributor to the online Gristmill (see this funny article about the ribald early days of Chez Panisse and the amusing debate over coffee snobbery prompted by this post). In addition to his writing, Tom farms and cooks at Maverick Farms in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

"Hunger report" scheduled for November release, but may not say "hunger"

As U.S. Food Policy noted earlier, USDA's forthcoming annual report on the extent of "food insecurity" and "food insecurity with hunger" in the United States is scheduled for release later this month. The AP's Libby Quaid offered a provocative article just before this week's election, quoting people who suggested that perhaps the postponement was political.

What hasn't been discussed in the media, as far as I can tell, is the intense pressure that USDA must be feeling to amend its use of the word "hunger" in response to the recommendations of this report from the National Academies, which may be read free online. Former USDA under secretary Eric Bost, a long-time Texas ally of the President, was known to criticize USDA's food insecurity measure, but he has now become ambassador to South Africa, so it is not clear how strongly his influence will be felt. What would the AP article have looked like if the new report had come out before the election, but the term "food insecurity with hunger" was changed to the milder "very low food security" as some have suggested?

It will be difficult to understand the politics of the scheduling for this report until we learn what the numbers actually say. Here is U.S. Food Policy's summary of last year's report, describing several years of deterioration in household food security.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Debating the research agenda for the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs)

The National Academies Press has released the online pre-publication version of a Research Synthesis Workshop Summary, full to the brim with arcane debates over the research agenda for Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs), which are the scientific reference intakes and tolerable upper intake levels for various nutrients. These DRIs have a major though perhaps indirect policy influence, serving as a central input to Nutrition Facts labels and other important policy documents such as the periodic Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Buying Green

The CNN website today has a graphical feature summarizing the real meaning of various "green" logos (but I can't figure out how to link to it well).

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

APPAM Fall 2006 Conference in Madison, WI

At the always enjoyable and interesting annual conference of the Association of Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM), I will be presenting tomorrow at this session on obesity policy and serving as discussant at this session on food insecurity and hunger measurement. Please stop by to say hello.

Salmonella outbreak in 19 states

The AP has been covering a salmonella outbreak in 19 states, whose source has been difficult to determine. Yesterday's article by AP's Andrew Bridges (via Washington Post) reports that the outbreak appears to be subsiding. The previous day's article by Mike Stobbe had this interesting quotation from Thomas Nassif, a growers' trade association official, which addresses a theme that U.S. Food Policy has been discussing lately.
"It is not normal for a business to say, 'Please regulate us and enforce it if we don't do the right things,'" Nassif said. "But that, we believe, is essential to restore public confidence."
On many nutrition and food safety issues where voluntary disciplines have turned out to be a sham, I have been wondering if industry requests for sound regulation could establish better rules of the game while avoiding the worst economic shortcomings of ill-informed government intervention.

Consumer Law and Policy Blog

Here is Public Citizen's Consumer Law and Policy Blog. Along with good coverage of lending practices and consumer legal rights, one finds CSPI's Stephen Gardner's report last week about the Federal Trade Commission's bold request for information from companies about marketing to children. Here is an excerpt, but you should read the full post (complete with Gardner's Texas aphorisms):
On October 25, the Federal Trade Commission announced its plans (.pdf) to issue "compulsory process orders to major food and beverage manufacturers and quick service restaurant companies in order to obtain information from those companies concerning, among other things, their marketing activities and expenditures targeted toward children and adolescents."

This is a significant development in the regulation of food marketing to kids. Of course, the proof of this pudding is in the eating, so it remains to be seen what the FTC does with the information it obtains.

In 2005, Congress directed the FTC "to prepare a report on food industry marketing activities and expenditures targeted to children and adolescent." Pub. L. No. 109-108.

In March 2006, the FTC asked nicely for information, but the food industry failed to provide "information, especially empirical data, on the nature and extent of marketing activities and expenditures targeted to children and adolescents."

My organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), filed a comment in response to the March 2006 proposal (.pdf), urging the FTC to obtain "information on the nutritional quality of products marketed to children."

The FTC now proposes to do something akin to that — to demand information from about 50 companies about food advertised to children, including fast foods, breakfast cereals, snack foods, candy and gum, carbonated and noncarbonated beverages, frozen and chilled desserts, prepared meals, and dairy products, including milk and yogurt. Specifically, the FTC announced its need to obtain data about:
  • The types of foods marketed to children and adolescents.
  • The media techniques used to market products to children and adolescents.
  • The amounts spent to market to children and adolescents.
  • The amount of commercial advertising time that results from this marketing.
The FTC continued talking tough, cautioning that anyone who destroyed responsive data might be prosecuted criminally. But at the same time, it indicated a willingness to second-guess itself, by asking for comments "whether the proposed collections of information are necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the FTC, including whether the information will have practical utility."

Since the FTC in the New Millennium has moved from being the "National Nanny" (as it was called in the 70's) to the Chicken Guarding the Foxhole, one must wonder what engendered this tough squawk from the FTC. It might be the desire to come to the rescue of the food industry, to prevent it being sued, in light of recent developments.
This effort to find out what the marketers know about the effectiveness of their marketing seems politically astute, and better information is likely to improve the national discussion of policy responses.