Monday, May 06, 2019

USDA announces 3 finalists for ERS and NIFA location

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on May 3 announced three finalists for the potential new location of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

USDA has said the move will save money but has offered little information to support this view. Employees of the agency are demoralized by what they see as an effort to exert political control over research.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said:
Relocation will help ensure USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers. Our commitment to the public and our employees is to continue to be transparent as we proceed with our analysis.
The three finalist locations announced by USDA are:
  • Indiana. U.S. agricultural output ranked 10th (2.8% of national total). Leading products are corn, soybeans, and hogs. Won by President Trump in 2016 with 57% of the vote.
  • Kansas. U.S. agricultural output ranked 7th (4.2% of national total). Leading products are cattle, corn, and soybeans. Won by President Trump in 2016 with 57% of the vote.
  • North Carolina. U.S. agricultural output ranked 8th (3.1% of national total). Leading products are chicken, hogs, and turkey. Won by President Trump in 2016 with 50% of the vote.
Just for comparison, the biggest agricultural state is not on the list:
  • California. U.S. agricultural output ranked 1st (13.5% of total). Leading products are dairy, produce, grapes, almonds, and strawberries. Lost by President Trump in 2016 with 33% of the vote.
The USDA definition of "closer to stakeholders" may have in mind a particular vision of U.S. agriculture, heavy on meat and animal feed production. Along with farmers, other important USDA stakeholders are food manufacturers, food retailers, and food consumers in all parts of the country. Approximately 80% of the department's budget is for U.S. nutrition assistance programs. Critical issues for the department in the next several years include supporting farm incomes, protecting the labor rights of farmworkers, supporting rural and urban food economies, promoting nutrition in a time of rising insurance costs, and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

I am not persuaded that the proposed move will achieve its stated objectives of saving taxpayer funds and helping USDA better serve its most important stakeholders. I hope USDA can keep in mind all of its important public purposes.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Outbreak by Timothy Lytton

The new book Outbreak by legal scholar Timothy Lytton (University of Chicago Press; Amazon) is both well-written and insightful about how private markets and government institutions (including regulation and courts) jointly affect food safety successes and failures. It mixes lively narrative about particular outbreaks (including much detail that is new to me) with legal analysis about incentives and constraints for each stakeholder. I have added it to my syllabus.

Food Safety News writes:
Lytton discusses how inadequate budgets restrict the ability of government to develop and enforce meaningful regulations. Pressure from consumers to keep prices down constrains industry investments in safety. The limits of scientific knowledge leave experts unable to assess policies’ effectiveness and whether measures designed to reduce contamination have actually improved public health.

“Outbreak” offers practical reforms that will strengthen the food safety system’s capacity to learn from its mistakes and identify cost-effective food safety efforts capable of producing measurable public health benefits, according Lytton’s publisher.

The book has earned praise from big business officials, academic researchers, and lawyers who specialize in food safety cases.
Lytton is an associate dean and distinguished university professor at Georgia State University College of Law.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Preventing chronic disease (evidence versus Google's featured snippets)

Scientifically dubious information may sometimes appear in Google's "featured snippets."

An online search -- in Google of course -- turns up all sorts of scammy sites offering advice on how to optimize web content so that it appears in these featured snippets.

When we Google "preventing Parkinson's", we get advice to consume the co-enzyme CoQ10, but research in the journal Neurological Science found no benefit.

Similarly, when we Google "preventing colon cancer," we get a featured snippet with advice from Mayo Clinic (a reputable source):
Make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk
You can take steps to reduce your risk of colon cancer by making changes in your everyday life. Take steps to:
  • Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, which may play a role in cancer prevention. Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables so that you get an array of vitamins and nutrients.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. If you choose to drink alcohol, limit the amount of alcohol you drink to no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.
  • Stop smoking. Talk to your doctor about ways to quit that may work for you.
  • Exercise most days of the week. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days. If you've been inactive, start slowly and build up gradually to 30 minutes. Also, talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you are at a healthy weight, work to maintain your weight by combining a healthy diet with daily exercise. If you need to lose weight, ask your doctor about healthy ways to achieve your goal. Aim to lose weight slowly by increasing the amount of exercise you get and reducing the number of calories you eat.

That is mostly good advice, with one big omission. Authoritative research summaries from the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and American Cancer Society (ACS) recommend lowering risk of colorectal cancer by eating less processed meats (such as bacon and sausage).

These authoritative sources appear further down the list of Google results for "preventing colon cancer," overshadowed by the incomplete information in the featured snippet.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Should data on SNAP sales by retailer be available for analysis?

The U.S. Supreme Court this week scheduled a hearing on April 22 about an important case for policies to address the adequacy of food retail access, especially for low-income communities.

Knowing the amount of SNAP sales by retailer would help for (1) identifying "food deserts," (2) understanding how SNAP contributes to healthy food environments, and (3) determining whether policy innovations or changes in retail practices could further increase the beneficial impact of SNAP.

In 2011, the South Dakota Argus Leader asked USDA to share such data. Retailers objected to the sharing, and USDA declined to approve the release under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rules, so the case went to court. Eventually, appeals courts ruled for the Argus Leader. USDA would have released the data, but the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the leading food retail trade association, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. See SCOTUSblog for more on this history and links to the legal documents.

The Argus Leader yesterday noted that the implications go beyond food policy: "The outcome of Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media could have broad implications for what the federal government can keep secret under the Freedom of Information Act."

An FMI statement last month said, "It is a critically important case that will clarify the protections from disclosure applicable to confidential business information that private parties submit to the government." But is this really confidential information submitted by private parties? USDA spends public money for a public purpose, and the Argus Leader just is asking USDA to share its own spending data, much as USDA already must share information about who receives farm subsidies, or what big businesses receive federal contracts. Businesses receiving government money sometimes wish the amounts would be secret, but it makes sense in a democracy that these amounts should be public.

Supporters of the FMI position say retailers will suffer competitive harm if the data are released. For example, in recorded Congressional debate (time 4:31:00) last year, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) expresses concern about "food deserts" and says the data release would "poach customers and revenues." First, retailers already have plenty of commercial intelligence about each others' business. Second, more importantly, is Rep. Newhouse's argument internally inconsistent? The only way a competitor could poach customers and revenues is by adding retail locations in the vicinity, which improves food retail access. For a retailer in a particular location, if competitors see some data and decide to stay away, then the business result is a competitive benefit not a harm.

If these data were public, we would all understand the role of SNAP in local food retail environments better. If FMI cares about the healthfulness and adequacy of the local food retail environment for low-income Americans, I would encourage the trade association to drop this appeal. This lawsuit does not serve the public interest.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The long road to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and the long road afterward

Nutrition Today (.pdf) has published a nice history of the initial struggle to design and pass ... and the later struggle to implement ... the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Colin Schwartz and Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) summarize considerable familiar material, but also provide insight into less widely understood details. For example, while this legislation usually is described purely as an Obama administration victory, the authors highlight much of the preparation that already took place during the W. Bush administration. The continuing policy arguments after passage also are notable. It is true with any legislation, and especially true for this law, that the road to administrative rule-making and implementation may be as important as the initial passage of the bill.

I will add this article to the syllabus for my U.S. food policy class (for a week on child nutrition programs).

Schwartz and Wootan (2019). [Click for larger image].

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

SSB taxes from the distinct perspectives of diverse stakeholder groups

Previous studies found sugar-sweetened beverage taxes are cost-effective from the societal perspective. Our new article in the American Journal of Public Health argues that policy-making in a democracy depends on costs and benefits for particular stakeholders.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Let's see the research before reversing school lunch standards

After years of effort to strengthen nutrition standards, based on scientific reports from the National Academies and others, leading to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, USDA yesterday published a final rule that rolled back the proposed standards in three ways: (1) delaying implementation of interim standards for sodium, and giving up on the eventual more ambitious standards; (2) allowing sweetened flavored low-fat milk, and (3) relaxing rules to encourage whole grain content.

It is good to base major child nutrition policy decisions on the best and most recent research. Every few years, USDA publishes a major School Nutrition Dietary Assessment (SNDA) and a school meals cost study. The last SNDA, in 2012, found that many school meals fell short of targets for whole grains and sodium, for example.

For the most recent such research, USDA funded a major study by Mathematica Policy Research that for the first time would combine the previously separate studies into a single more coherent School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study (SNMCS). The Mathematica website lists the study as running from 2013-2017. The study has long been awaiting clearance at USDA.

For sound science-based policy-making, an appealing option for USDA could have been to first publish this important study and then afterwards publish the final rule on school meals standards. However, this week the order was reversed, with policy decision first. We will read the scientific report with great interest when it is published.