Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What does "natural" really mean?

The term "natural" on labels for food products within USDA's jurisdiction has been controversial for many years. Here is CSPI's May 2007 summary (.pdf) of efforts to change the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service's (FSIS) definition of the term “natural” on fresh poultry labels:
Currently, approximately thirty percent of all fresh chicken sold to consumers in the U.S. has been pumped-up (either through injection or vacuum tumbling) with a significant percentage of water, sodium, binding agents like carrageenan (a seaweed extract), and other additives. Yet under current FSIS policy, this pumped-up chicken is being labeled as 100% Natural.
The issue has won recent major media attention, including blog coverage in January, a Washington Post article last fall, and CBS evening news coverage in November.

In part, the issue is in the media because chicken businesses that really do use the term "natural" in a somewhat more restrictive sense have put money into public relations and lobbying, to press USDA for closer oversight. (Sigh. Is this really what progress requires?)

The Truthful Labeling Coalition (see image below), a coalition of some public interest folks and parts of the poultry industry, has been pressing hard on the salt water injections, and also on questions about whether some competitors' poultry is incorrectly labeled "raised without antibiotics." From the fact sheet they sent by email this week:
Under federal law, the USDA is required to ensure that food labels are neither false nor misleading.

Consumers certainly don’t expect poultry labeled “Raised Without Antibiotics” to have been fed or treated with any type of medicine classified as an antibiotic.

In the past year, the USDA has unfortunately made a series of inconsistent and contradictory decisions on fresh poultry labels relating to the use of ionophores – a substance added to chicken feed to help fight disease that both the USDA and FDA consider to be an antibiotic. For example, some poultry companies who use ionophores in chicken feed have mistakenly received approval from USDA for labels bearing the “Raised Without Antibiotics” claim.
The coalition says it doesn't oppose ionophores per se, but it just wants them labeled correctly as antibiotics. The ionophores themselves can be "good or bad," the coalition says.

Industry divisions over food labeling rules are common, and this type of public information campaign in cooperation with public interest groups happens occasionally. But there are risks from the perspective of participating poultry producers, even if they really do produce chickens that are somewhat closer to natural. Within the public's short attention span, it is difficult to tar one's opponents without having some of the feathers stick to one's own skin, so to speak.


There are so many conversations to follow! Here are a handful of blogs where I follow the community comments with interest.

Among major popular internet blogs, I like the well-informed conversation at boing boing, where the occasionally skeptical comments provide just the right balance to complement Cory Doctorow's reporting on technology, intellectual property, and privacy issues. Among economics blogs, the audience at marginal revolution clearly appreciates Tyler Cowen's plainspoken yet erudite reading summaries, even while correcting him on occasional howlers such as blaming China for his pessimism about global warming while claiming that "the U.S. has done better on carbon emissions than most of the Kyoto signatories" (the comments judge that claim about the U.S. to be plausible only in the legalistic sense of a small reduction by selected measures from 2002 levels, but not as a broad summary of progress for the nation with the single largest contribution to global warming, both in aggregate and on a per capita basis).

On food policy, I learn much from the comments at ethicurean and what to eat.

I always follow the links from the many fascinating comments here at U.S. Food Policy, which are a key motivation for continuing to keep this blog into its fourth year (!). I have essentially never had to delete a comment for objectionable content (perhaps once), and only occasionally delete comments for spam if they seem cut and paste. Please contact me by email if I ever make an error in this judgment. I never ever delete a comment on grounds of disagreeing with it. I am glad that the Blogger platform retains the title of the deleted comments, so you can see the deletions are rare.

Among U.S. Food Policy comments, you may not know about continuing conversations on older posts. For example, here are the views of Fuddruckers customers about their difficulty in acquiring nutrition facts information from the chain. The customers come here as their forum on this issue, because -- for reasons that are not entirely clear to me -- this 2005 post is the top Google search for "Fuddruckers nutrition." That is only true because Fuddruckers itself has no nutrition facts page in the Google rankings. This is a mass-market issue, in contrast with more esoteric topics also covered here, so this single search brings in a large readership. You have to wonder why Fuddruckers, which knows the nutrition facts for its products, would prefer this grief to simply sharing the facts with its customers.

Recent comments here led me to other interesting blogs. After she encouraged us all to garden more, I read Whirlwind Woman this morning with admiration. Courage, Whirlwind Woman! I think I started reading Janet at foodperson and bix at fanatic cook after seeing their comments here. Bix's paraphrase of NPR coverage about the impact of daylight savings on cows will make you smile.

At some point, I hope we can take on some type of community writing or information gathering project. Shall we pick a comparatively obscure U.S. food policy cause to follow together? Or choose a question that would benefit from a little decentralized digging that a single journalist couldn't feasibly undertake? Let's think about this.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Common sense about children's media

Should the government sharply regulate marketing to children? Or should parents fend for themselves as they seek to transmit their values to their kids?

Your answer may depend in part on how much power you believe parents really have to assess media and put their priorities into practice. Advocates for a strong public policy response tend to believe the media and advertisers are too powerful and ubiquitous for parents to overcome. On the other hand, dogged parents have found for years that the media powers can be beaten. One approach is to avoid commercial television entirely, and to limit even children's videos to rare occasions. This approach may be easier, more fun, and, if you start young, less controversial with the children than you might think (at least through age 7, it seems). However, I can see clearly it is not for everybody.

As an intermediate approach, I have been reading with interest about efforts to give parents stronger tools for assessing children's media and exerting influence over the kids' media consumption. Because we don't have cable, I don't really understand technologies like TiVo, but I gather parents are gaining somewhat more ability to limit advertisements and to regulate channel choices.

On the media assessment side, I see the commonsense media site offers movie and book reviews with a nice clean layout and active community input from adults and kids. For food policy interest, I enjoyed the site's resources on obesity, commercialism, and other topics.

I gather that conservative parents have long had resources for media information that reflect their views on sex, drugs, and foul language. In contrast, the commonsense media reviews have a broader focus on social behavior and commercialism as well as violence, sex, and information about drug use. Even the coverage of the latter topics treats discussion of them as issues of child readiness and parental judgments about age appropriateness, not as taboos for everybody.

[A digression on the origins of this post. I came across the commonsense media site this evening while looking for a review of the The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo, which my kids and I were reading on vacation. Edward Tulane is a china toy rabbit, aware but unable to move or speak as he journeys from each owner to the next increasingly tragic owner. In tonight's reading, the beautiful story took a particularly poignant turn, and I felt obliged to read the rest of the novel myself before taking it up again with the kids tomorrow evening. I wondered what other parents thought. The commonsense media review correctly gave the book a top score of five stars and suggested 7+ years for an appropriate children's age. But, I was surprised that the review didn't mention the novel's Christian themes. I found the novel theologically more mature than C.S. Lewis' Narnia allegory, in which the Christ-like Lion fixes everything so that the child heroes become warrior monarchs. Edward Tulane is more true to the sadness in the original religious story (it turns out to be ironic that we were reading this on Easter). With a further web search, Edward Tulane's allegorical elements seem to be a matter of some discussion on other sites. For better or worse, with no mention of these elements, the commonsense media review seems quite vigorously secular!]

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

State House rally March 24 on school nutrition in Massachusetts

From the Massachusetts Public Health Association (MPHA) this week, an announcement about a rally at the State House on March 24:
With your help, MPHA is delivering hundreds of postcards to Beacon Hill, publishing letters in newspapers across the state, and generating new support for healthy school nutrition. But we must keep the momentum going!

Join us today and on March 24 in sending a message to our legislators: Children should learn healthy eating habits in school. Rising rates of diabetes, asthma, and other health problems associated with being obese and overweight demand nothing less.

The School Nutrition Bill establishes healthy standards for snacks and beverages sold in Massachusetts schools. The bill is in the House Ways and Means Committee, having already been approved by the Public Health and Health Care Financing Committees.

Take action to advance the bill to a vote by the House of Representatives!

* Email your state representative.

* Submit a letter to the editor.

* Endorse the bill.

* Join us at a State House rally! On Monday, March 24, Representative Peter Koutoujian, MPHA, and supporters from across the Commonwealth will holding a rally for the School Nutrition Bill. The rally will be from 9:00 to 11:00 am at Nurses Hall in the State House.

Thank you for your ongoing support and involvement.

Eric Weltman
Deputy Director, Advocacy and Policy
Massachusetts Public Health Association

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Are prices rising faster for fruits and vegetables than for other foods?

Everybody is concerned about food prices lately.

Some worry about food price inflation. Others worry about a looming recession, bringing deflation.

In nutrition circles, one focus of concern is that prices might be rising faster for fruits and vegetables than for other food categories, contributing to less healthy diets.

A fascinating report this week from Fred Kuchler and Hayden Stewart at USDA's Economic Research Service includes this chart for major Consumer Price Index (CPI) categories over the past 27 years. It shows more rapid price inflation for fresh fruits and vegetables than for cakes and cookies.

Regarding this figure, Kuchler and Stewart write:
The line plots clearly show that, compared with all other goods purchased, Americans are paying relatively more for fresh fruits and vegetables now than they did 27 years ago.
But here things begin to get a bit more complicated. Kuchler and Stewart don't really believe the top line in the figure above represents price inflation for fruits and vegetables very well. They argue that this trend overstates the real level of price inflation by failing to correctly account for quality changes.

To evaluate this concern, I think it is important to emphasize that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not make the error of simply ignoring quality changes. BLS understands very well that the price of traditional fresh carrots in 1981 cannot be compared to the price of bagged mini carrots in 2001. Instead, BLS carefully looks at price changes for fixed products from one period to the next. For example, BLS looks at how the price of traditional fresh carrots changed from 1981 to 1982 and how the price of bagged mini carrots changed from 2001 to 2002. The agency links together such price changes from one year to the next to get a sense of price trends over the years. The price changes represent consumer spending patterns in a particular time period, so traditional carrots were given comparatively more weight in estimating price changes in the early 1980s and bagged mini carrots were given comparatively more weight in estimating price changes in the 2000s.

Nevertheless, Kuchler and Stewart believe the BLS approach may miss some of the consumer benefit that arises when a traditional product is replaced by a new product that is closely similar -- such as when old fashioned carrots are replaced by bagged mini carrots. For this reason, the authors prefer to look at price changes for particular selected foods. They believe the trends for these foods show little evidence of more rapid price inflation for fruits and vegetables.

Still, even the analysis of specific foods contains some examples of real price increases. Here is the price trend for broccoli:

I doubt that quality improvements in broccoli are responsible for all of this price trend.

The bottom line: The main BLS price indices show particularly rapid price inflation for fruits and vegetables. Though the BLS method is imperfect, it is difficult to find a better summary of price changes over time for a representative sample of foods.

San Francisco approves restaurant nutrition labeling

An email correspondent writes:
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the city’s Board of Supervisors has approved unanimously a new regulation requiring chain restaurants to post nutrition information on their menu boards. According to the story, “Diners in San Francisco will start seeing the labels in about six months. The law requires nutrition information - including calories, fat, carbohydrates and sodium - to be posted on menus or, for restaurants that do not have menus, on prominently displayed posters. Restaurants with menu boards would be required to list the calories per item on the board; other nutrition information could be listed on the posters.”

The move is aimed at addressing the obesity epidemic, though the Chronicle notes that studies are inconclusive, with some research showing that if people really want to eat calorie-laden burgers and fries, all the signs in the world are unlikely to dissuade them.

The regulations are similar to those passed in New York City.
Here is in an earlier post about restaurant nutrition labeling policy in California.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Second try at home-made maple syrup

The second try this week worked better. We borrowed an old Coleman camp stove, bought a digital cooking thermometer, let the boiling run for a longer day on multiple burners, and strained the syrup. With these four improvements, we got about five nice jars of amber syrup, enough for one jar each for two neighbor families who contributed sap from their trees, two jars for relatives, and one for ourselves.

On the environmental economics, maple syrup from a large operation in Quebec surely uses fewer resources than the same amount of maple syrup from our backyard.

But food is about community. You wouldn't believe the enthusiasm of the neighbor kids who brought over sap from their trees. Many more kids came by just to look. Even the grownups got caught up in the operation.

The New York Times had a nice article on the maple sugaring scene.

See an earlier post for a description of the first try. We will give this one more go today, with the goals of increasing the quantity still one more notch and letting the boiling temperature reach about a half degree higher for slightly thicker syrup.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Farm Bill nearing a conclusion?

The FarmPolicy blog today has a roundup of news reports that the Farm Bill may be nearing a conclusion. House and Senate conferees must iron out differences between bills that passed the two houses of Congress in late summer and fall 2007. They must also contend with a veto threat from the administration if the compromise bill includes taxes or other new revenue.

The House and Senate bills both rejected widespread calls for substantial reform of the main row crop subsidies. Under either bill, even very rich farmers will be able to receive in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in subsidies, despite the current year's high farm profits and soaring commodity prices in the midst of the ethanol boom.

The Mulch blog at the Environmental Working Group today links to a press release from Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who is still trying to get the Senate to pass a $250,000 limit on farm payments. The proposal would save taxpayers $641 million over five years. I was momentarily confused by this press release, because my foggy memory was having trouble recalling whether the Grassley proposal had passed or failed in the Senate last fall. Funny that I should be unclear on that point -- 56 of the 100 Senators had voted for Grassley's proposal, but it still failed to pass under obscure Senate rules.

Here is the interactive map from the Environmental Working Group of newspaper editorials from around the country that called for farm policy reform in the Farm Bill. Sigh.

Update: edited slightly 3/18 to correct the name of the Environmental Working Group.

Boston Public Health Commission to hold March 13 hearing on trans fat

The Boston Public Health Commission is considering a requirement that restaurants stop using artificial trans fats, such as hydrogenated vegetable oils, because of scientific evidence that they increase risk of heart disease. There would be exceptions for very small quantities of artificial trans fat and for trans fat in packaged foods such as potato chips. Boston's action follows similar bans in New York City and Boston's neighbor Brookline, MA.

In January, the commission gave preliminary approval to a ban on trans fats, but some of the real decisions are still coming up. A public comment period is almost over, so write quickly if you'd like to express your views on trans fats. There will be a public hearing on Thursday, March 13, 2008, from 3 to 4pm, in the Hayes Conference Room, 1010 Massachusetts Avenue. For more information, see the brochure from the Boston Public Health Commission (.pdf).

The Boston Globe in January summarized the scientific case for the commission's proposal:
Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health conducted much of the landmark research into trans fat, establishing the link between the substance and cardiovascular disease in people. Primate studies have also shown that consuming trans fat can elevate the risk of a condition that is a precursor to diabetes and also pack fat around the belly, where it is believed to be more dangerous than elsewhere. Studies estimate that having as few as 40 calories of trans fat a day can boost the risk of a heart attack by 23 percent. A fast-food meal of chicken nuggets and French fries, if prepared with artificial trans fat, can easily contain more than 100 calories of the substance.
A ban on a particular ingredient is seldom an economist's preferred policy lever, and many progressive food policy advocates prefer to focus on real foods and foodways rather than single ingredients. Still, in the case of trans fat, a ban might be simpler and more efficient than other policy options. In contrast with salt or caloric sweeteners, there is no major economic constituency lined up in favor of trans fats, and no large economic cost to a ban.

The Boston action is just part of what is going on nationally to address trans fats. For example, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has recently been taking on Burger King, the only one of the major three burger chains without plans to move away from hydrogenated vegetable oil.