Friday, April 29, 2005

ERS report on nutrition and restaurant food labeling

Jay Variyam of USDA's Economic Research Service -- a true "nutrition economist" -- courageously takes on the nutritional implications of America's growing reliance on restaurant food.

Here is the trend:

Variyam 1

And here are the nutritional covariates:
Variyam 2
Apparently, we are on the road to perdition. [Update 4/29/2005 evening -- actually, I read the top row of this table in reverse, and it doesn't say we are on the road to perdition. Apparently, furthermore, blogger ethics require me to leave my error uncorrected and note my error in an update. Ugh. I will have to build the case that we are on the road to perdition another day.]

Variyam considers the resulting policy issues as an economist is trained to do:
The trends toward higher consumption and lower nutritional quality of food away from home are the outcome of the economic forces of supply and demand. Away-from-home-food is of lower dietary quality not just because providers supply such food, but also because there is consumer demand for such food—or its attributes such as taste and convenience. At the same time, market characteristics suggest that the information disclosure mechanism may result in a lack of nutritional information for buyers. Sellers have an incentive not to disclose “negative” attributes about their products because these same ingredients usually enhance taste. To the extent that this lack of disclosure leads to consumption levels that would differ if buyers were better informed, asymmetric information might be creating an inefficient market outcome.
As any good economist would, Jay considers both benefits and important costs of possible government regulation to require food labeling in restaurants. But he may even understate the case. Right now, the issue is not just that restaurants are unwilling to undertake the publication or signage costs of making the information consumers need more accessible at the point of purchase. The issue is that some major chains hide the necessary information altogether. The economic case for better information than THAT is overwhelming.

Ironically, the best place to find the current status of restaurant labeling rules at the state level is from the people who want to keep you in the dark. Latest tally is restaurant labeling bills for 2005 introduced in 12 states, defeated by the restaurant industry in 4 states, and still pending in 8 states.

Mike Keefe's Cartoon


With permission from the Denver Post.

Weblogs discuss the Pyramid, children, and ...

See Half Changed World on the new Pyramid, children, and obesity issues.

See Tigers and Strawberries on the new Pyramid, children, the IOM recommendations for the WIC package, and the new federal budget.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

How is your state's food stamp participation rate?

Many eligible people do not participate in the Food Stamp Program. Participation rates are especially low for eligible elderly Americans (.pdf), for example. These participation rates are strongly influenced by arcane program policies. A tangible policy is the length of the certification period -- the amount of time before a participant family must come in and prove its continued eligibility (see this USDA/ERS report and Nader's and my earlier article on that topic in the Journal of Human Resources). Less tangible policies affect the "climate" or "unfriendliness" of local food stamp offices. If barriers and hurdles are put in front of eligible applicants, they may become eligible nonparticipants. How is your state doing?

Here is the latest map (large .pdf), released this month by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., a contractor for USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.
Food Stamp Participation Map

IOM: Time for a change in the WIC package

The Institute of Medicine yesterday recommended bold improvements to the nutritional quality of food benefits delivered through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. The changes would reduce benefits for dairy and fruit juice, increase benefits for fruits and vegetables, and improve breastfeeding incentives. According to Robert Pear's article in the New York Times, the changes would be the biggest in the $5 billion-per-year program's history. Pear reported that the new package has been well received by nutrition program advocates:

"The panel has proposed some great innovations like the inclusion of fruit and vegetables, yogurt, tofu and soy milk," said Geraldine A. Henchy, a dietitian at the Food Research and Action Center.

Douglas A. Greenaway, executive director of the National W.I.C. Association, which represents state and local agencies, said: "Members of the panel showed courage. They stood up to pressure from segments of the food industry."

The hard part will be getting these changes approved. USDA commissioned the IOM report, but still must issue its own regulations to implement any changes.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

To whom does Applebee's donate?

The previous post mentioned that Reuters quoted an Applebee's spokesperson refusing to say whether the restaurant chain helped fund the Center for Consumer Freedom. The restaurant chain is willing to have its donations acknowledged for more reputable charities, such as America's Second Harvest, so there is clearly no company policy against such acknowledgement. Incidentally, like Quizno's, Applebee's refuses to make public its nutrition profile except for selected products that are being marketed in conjunction with Weight Watchers. That's great. Make some money marketing food to people who are trying to lose weight, while hiding the nutrition profile of the rest of the menu, and (perhaps) simultaneously funding an attack-dog fake nonprofit that seeks to undermine the public health response to obesity concerns. Applebee's, would you please start answering questions?

Washington Post and Reuters report on Center for Consumer Freedom

The Post's excellent article by Caroline Mayer and Amy Joyce confirms what most observers suspected. The Center for Consumer Freedom started as a tobacco industry group, but now gets money from major restaurant chains. Although it has nonprofit 501 (c) (3) status, the Center for Consumer Freedom passed along more than $1 million in 2003 to the private firm of Richard Berman, the lobbyist who founded it.

Reuters yesterday provided the full context for the Center for Consumer Freedom's recent advertising campaign accusing the CDC of hyping obesity concerns. Reuters quotes the Center's spokesperson refusing to list donors, but agreeing that "casual dining restaurant chains 'are predominant sources of funding for us.'" Then, Reuters quotes the chains' officials refusing to say whether they support the Center.

The groups Citizens for Responsiblity and Ethics in Washington and PR Watchreported much of the case against the Center for Consumer Freedom, which was picked up by the American Prospect. U.S. Food Policy had a second-hand report. But, I appreciate the value of the reporting by the Post and Reuters.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Commercial Alert petitions USDA on sodas in schools

Here is their press release:
Commercial Alert filed a petition for rule-making today with the U.S. Department of Agriculture requesting that it strengthen the enforcement of federal rules prohibiting the sale of soda pop and some types of candies in school cafeterias across the country. USDA rules currently prohibit the sale of “foods of minimal nutritional value” during mealtimes in school cafeterias. But the enforcement provisions for these rules are extremely lax, so some schools may not take them seriously.

“We’re asking the USDA to side with parents who want their kids to grow up healthy, not with the junk food companies that want to stuff our children with sugar and caffeine,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert. “The USDA should strengthen existing rules against the sale of junk food in school – before the childhood obesity epidemic gets any worse.”

Copies of the petition to USDA for rule-making are available at

USDA admitted last month in a report that it does not know whether schools are complying with prohibitions against the sale of foods of minimal nutritional value during school mealtimes. The report stated, “it is unclear to what extent federal and state regulations [against the sale of foods of minimum nutritional value] are enforced at the local level.”

Foods of minimal nutritional value are defined as soda pop, water ices, chewing gum, and certain types of candies, such as hard candies, jellied candies, licorice and marshmallows.

According to a Wall Street Journal poll in February, 2005, 83% of American adults “believe public schools need to do a better job of limiting children's access to unhealthy foods like snack foods, sugary soft drinks and fast food.”

Commercial Alert is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy. For more information, see our website at

Michele Simon and Sally Squires on MyPyramid

Informed Eating's Michele Simon lets the new dietary guidance graphic have it in a news wire editorial on Ascribe. She points out that 80 percent of Americans recognize the old graphic, and derisively suggests that this powerful recognition may be exactly what led to its replacement:
To try and fix this problem, Uncle Sam set out to create a new and improved version. In true government fashion, the job was outsourced to the mega-PR firm, Porter Novelli International. While past clients have included the likes of McDonald’s and the Snack Food Association, the company promised there would be no conflict of interest.

So what did U.S. taxpayers get for its $2.5 million? Reactions from nutrition experts to the new graphic that contains no actual information -- just colored sections and a figure walking up stairs -- have been swift and unequivocal: The new "MyPyramid" is certainly no better and may even be worse than the old version. With all of the dietary details now only available via the web site, buried deep among too many pages to click through, who on earth is going to bother to take the time?
One person who took the time is Sally Squires of the Washington Post. The large number of words required to explain how the new federal government site works somewhat corroborates Simon's point. On the other hand, once Squires' explaining is done, I certainly understand the new web utilities better.

Graduate student work in nutrition policy

Here are a couple interesting research projects.

Xiang Gao has been using linear programming tools to assess the implications of adhering to a number of dietary guidance recommendations, including for vitamin E and calcium. The Vitamin E paper (subscription or payment required), from a conference sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, uses data from the Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals (CSFII) to show that it is possible for most Americans to meet the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) recommendation from food alone -- without supplements -- but it requires a diet much different from what most Americans eat. In particular, because vitamin E is often found in nuts, meeting the requirement without going overboard on calories requires heavier consumption of nuts. But that, in turn, tends to bump the diet up against a fat constraint. It's a conundrum.

Jennifer Coates gave a paper last month at the Experimental Biology meetings, with the title, "Why do women and men in the same households respond differently to household-level food security questions?" The study stems from Coates' work in Bangladesh, but similar questions arise in U.S. food security measurement. The abstract is online (.pdf) and earned a student research award. Coates estimates the frequency of disagreement in male and female responses to household-level food security questions -- i.e. questions about the household in which the man and woman both live, as opposed to their individual separate experiences. Among the results:
The rate of concordance in responses was 81 % and was higher for food insecure than food secure households (10 % vs. 23 % disagreement). Response disparities related to: separate spheres of household responsibility, power imbalances influencing intra-household food allocation, and gendered attitudes toward food-related vulnerability.
I'm a minor faculty member and co-author on both efforts.

Monday, April 25, 2005

In praise of average Americans

Daniel Drezner offers both a sympathetic reading of and, in some ways, a forceful rebuttal to U.S. Food Policy's comments on obesity revisionism. In the context of other recent studies of average Americans -- their weight, their savings behavior, and their television habits -- Drezner criticizes well-meaning paternalism. U.S. Food Policy is nonpartisan, but we couldn't fully dodge Drezner's sharpest words: "For Democrats, Americans are obese spendthrifts susceptible to faith-based argumentation at the expeense of logic and evidence. For Republicans, Americans are obese spendthrifts susceptible to the temptations of a debased popular culture at the expense of moral probity." For the record, I try as well as possible to insulate the factual reporting in U.S. Food Policy from my instinctive Republican loyalties.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Let's not exaggerate obesity revisionism

All the coverage has yelled "gotcha," following a new study by CDC scientists, who reported a lowered estimate of how many annual deaths are caused by obesity. The economists at Marginal Revolution and Steven Levitt's weblog both pursue this story line, although both posts cite secondary sources rather than the scientific article in question. The revisionism seems overstated.

Scientists have excellent estimates of trends in obesity. These trends are astonishingly rapid for a genetically stable population, and reflect major changes in our environment. Scientists also have a wealth of information showing the risks presented by obesity. Even the new article by the CDC scientists cited what scientists know on this topic:
A recent population-based study has found that overweight and obesity have a strong and deleterious impact on important components of health status, including morbidity, disability, and quality of life, and this impact is disproportionately borne by younger adults.
By contrast, it is difficult for scientists to estimate a key statistic that has special policy punch: the number of deaths attributable to obesity. Don't let your public health judgement blow too lightly in the back-and-forth winds of research on such a difficult-to-measure number.

The reason the new study lowered that estimate is not because the increase in obesity is in doubt, nor because obesity is found to be harmless. Rather, it seems to be because medical technology may have made obesity less fatal:
[T]he association of obesity with total mortality may have decreased over time, perhaps because of improvements in public health or medical care for obesity-related conditions.
Even if heart bypass surgery has become more effective at prolonging life, that hardly means the health hazards of obesity should be dismissed. I remember reading a quip by a vegetarian author, when told that the vegetarian diet seemed Draconian: "And what's your view of open heart surgery?"

Furthermore, the new study still found a strong association between official "obesity" (body mass index greater than 30) and estimated a low mortality impact only for official "overweight" (body mass index between 25 and 30). If this latest article leads you to worry about BMI>30 and to dismiss mild overweight as just fine (which I think is premature except for muscular athletes), then you may be interested in trends in the more severe category of obesity. Here is the 2003 graphic for rates of BMI>30, and you can follow the link for the full set of CDC slides for the time series.


New satire site

That was quick! A tart satire of the new USDA guidance system, MyPyramid, quickly has been posted by critics of the USDA's comparatively friendly stance toward the nutritional benefits of meat, dairy, and conventional agriculture. The new site has the address, in contrast with the USDA's It borrows USDA's graphics and mimics the USDA site's organization. At times, the wits adopt USDA's voice:
Many of USDA's top officials have worked in the Agribusiness industry, providing the expertise necessary to develop a pyramid that best represents the truth about healthy eating -- it's not what happens to the food before it gets to your table, but simply that you eat substantial servings of all foods -- Following these guidelines will help ensure the health of American families while guaranteeing the health of Agribusiness Corporations around the world.
At other times, the satire is more explicit. There is no author listed for the site, but one may speculate based on a couple of the external links. One link leads to a CBS news article about obesity, and another leads to a commentary criticizing the new MyPyramid from the generally vegetarian advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. I suspect that CBS news is not the author.

[Thanks to Informed Eating for bringing this site to our attention].

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Early reactions to USDA's new Pyramid

A leading concern with the new USDA food graphic, MyPyramid, is the absence of any message encouraging moderation. Marian Burros of the New York Times reports some interesting comments:

"The pyramid is incredible to me," said Dr. Carlos Arturo Camargo Jr., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and a member of the dietary guidelines advisory committee. "The whole concept of replacing unhealthy food with healthy food is very hard to find. I'm pretty skeptical this graphic is going to produce many healthy people except for some highly motivated ones...."

"What they've done is remove any of the eat-less suggestions," said Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General's Report. "It's all about moderation and personal responsibility."

Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, echoed that sentiment. "Basically, I don't think the graphic itself is much of an advance at all except that it shows physical activity," Dr. Willett said.
"It's somewhat disappointing that a lot of what was in the guidelines is not readily conveyed in what I've seen so far."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also disapproved:
The Dietary Guidelines unveiled in January were the strongest ever, but the new pyramid doesn't clearly communicate that advice to the public. By making "one size doesn't fit all" the mantra, and by replacing one pyramid with 12, the government has made this advice more complicated than it needs to be. There are simple key principles about healthy eating that truly do work for all Americans, and those could have been represented on one symbol.

The Accidental Hedonist says, "I think it's too abstract. The icon representing exercise is all well and good, and I'm glad it's there, but can anyone tell me...without looking it up...what the colors specifically represent?" Actually, on that count, there are .pdf files on the new USDA website that provide more detail about the food groups, but I don't know how to link to them well.

Even the American Dietetic Association sounded decidedly chilly:

The ultimate value and success of the new “MyPyramid” Food Guidance System graphic will be measured by whether it can serve as an effective tool to help people eat according to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Time will tell if MyPyramid will convey to consumers the vital nutritional messages of balance, variety, moderation and adequacy. If MyPyramid can assist people in effectively adopting the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines, it will be a great success.

So listen to my own favorable early impression at your own risk -- and certainly keep in mind the disapproval of others.

First, the new graphic is right to include exercise, and does so without stealing the thunder of the food messages. Second, I had feared the graphic would take away the message of proportionality, including the key shocking clear proclamation in the 1992 Pyramid that meat is not the heart of a healthy diet, but the new graphic seems as courageous as the old one on that count. Third, I like the new graphic's appearance, and accept that it is an important marketing logo as well as an important nutrition education document. Fourth, some of the concerns that bother other people most -- such as the new extra steps for finding the actual servings numbers for a particular age and gender profile -- bother me less because I can't count servings over the course of the day anyway. What seems more important to me is the graphic's picture of a healthy diet. Fifth, and finally, I am willing to accept almost any decent graphic, so maybe the basic issue here is that my standards are not as high as the critics' standards. Federal policy might benefit from being held consistently to any consistent marketing message of sensible dietary guidance. The effort to hold the government to consistency is only weakened by too much quibbling over the marketing graphic. But, I really am willing to be pushy when I feel sure I am right, and I am not sure here. Just put my comments in the mix.

Nutrition programs on Ag Policy Radio

I had a nice conversation this afternoon with Todd Gleason and Dave Dickey of Ag Policy Radio at WILL-AM, a National Public Radio station in Illinois. We spoke about food and nutrition programs in the context of budget debates this year and 2007 Farm Bill. The audio runs about 35 minutes.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

USDA replaces the Food Guide Pyramid with MyPyramid


From the USDA press release today:
WASHINGTON, April 19, 2005 — Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns today unveiled MyPyramid, a new symbol and interactive food guidance system. “Steps to a Healthier You,” MyPyramid’s central message, supports President Bush’s HealthierUS initiative which is designed to help Americans live longer, better and healthier lives. MyPyramid, which replaces the Food Guide Pyramid introduced in 1992, is part of an overall food guidance system that emphasizes the need for a more individualized approach to improving diet and lifestyle.
The designers of the new graphic faced a difficult challenge. On the one hand, the existing 1992 Pyramid captured at a glance the overall picture of a healthy plant-centered diet. On the other, hand, the old Pyramid didn't do so well at making important distinctions within food groups, such as between whole grains and refined grains, or between high-fat and low-fat dairy products. The new Dietary Guidelines give greater emphasis to exercise and healthy weight, to whole grains, and to the difference between the most harmful fats (saturated fats and trans fats) and other fats. I saw drafts of the new graphic in the past year, which I worried overreacted by sacrificing the between-group message of the old Pyramid entirely.

At first glance, the new graphic isn't bad. Exercise is featured with the new stairs element. The central columns are for fruits, vegetables, and low-fat milk. Meat and grains get peripheral treatment, and the more detailed descriptions make very clear that the purple meat column is for "meat and beans," while the orange grains column is for whole grains.

I look forward to following in this space the whirlwind of public commentary that will be launched today.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Toronto's campaign, "Your Kids Are Listening"

Toronto has an active living and healthy eating campaign with an interesting twist. Along with advice about exercise and food, it also shows great sensitivity about the hazard of paradoxically promoting unhealthy body weight obsessions, especially for children.


Thanks to the Big Fat Blog for the link.

No tv week, April 25-May1

Last year, I heard a great presentation by Harvard's Steven Gortmaker about television and childhood obesity. The epidemiological (non-experimental) association is unassailable between television time and obesity, and between television time and many behavioral problems. Of course, association is not causation, but a hallmark of the work of Gortmaker and his colleagues is their cleverness in chasing down evidence of a causal relationship. Consider Gortmaker's work on Planet Health, one of the few related random assignment studies that includes a TV reduction intervention. Gortmaker summed up his concerns about television in a column for the Boston Globe last fall.

Even non-experimental epidemiological evidence can be made persuasive if it includes careful thought about the mechanism. In the case of television, there are two plausible causal mechanisms. It appears that TV time displaces active time, and hence reduces calorie expenditure. It also appears that heavy TV watchers consume more calories, which may come from eating habits while watching TV, or perhaps from the effectiveness of television food advertising. Gortmaker thinks this second mechanism is most important, but the two are difficult to disentangle.

This post was prompted by hearing this morning about all the wonderful activities schools and places of worship in my community have planned for "TV-Turnoff Week" next week. The national event is April 25-May 1. Some things about healthy living may seem like a burden or a discipline, but I am sure you will find this one nothing but fun.


Friday, April 15, 2005

The supermarket equivalent of high-fat milk

The Accidental Hedonist loves Mark Mumford of the San Francisco Chronicle. Here is the passage of Mumford's she quotes:

Remember how when you were a little kid and you drank gallons of pasteurized two-percent milk with your Oreos and you thought it was amazing and good? And then when you reached adulthood you (hopefully) got away from that nasty stuff and maybe switched to nonfat or even (hopefully) soy or almond or rice milk because you learned that milk is for babies and besides, those sad cows are pretty much bathed in noxious hormones and chemicals from birth? Remember?

And then one day you just so happened to be handed a glass of old-school milk and you remembered your happy childhood, so you took a big swig and almost gagged because it tasted like thick liquid phlegm and you were like, "Oh my God, how the hell did I ever drink this crap?" Supermarket Syndrome is exactly like that, except with buildings.

Porter Novelli touts candy with one side of its mouth...

... and the forthcoming replacement graphic for the Food Guide Pyramid with the other. Here is Kim Severson of the New York Times:

Candy lovers from [almost] 200 countries voted on a new M&M's color in 2002.

Purple won, and hundreds of newspapers and television stations reported the news. Web sites buzzed. Jay Leno worked it into his monologue on "The Tonight Show."

The campaign, regarded as a masterwork of food marketing, was created by Porter Novelli, one of the world's largest and most successful public relations companies.

Now the company is selling a different kind of product. Within the month, the Agriculture Department is expected to present a new icon to help Americans interpret the recently released federal dietary guidelines. For the company's work in designing the icon (which may or may not retain the shape of the current food guide pyramid) and for related tasks, Porter Novelli will receive nearly $2.5 million.
Thanks to the Center for Media and Democracy for the link.

AgriMarketing irony

I think the AgriMarketing Pros weblog has reached a wise decision:
Do we accept advertising?


Pretty simple answer. We love agrimarketing and want to make AgriMarketing Pros a very credible source of news and information about our profession. After all, that’s why we call ourselves agrimarketing professionals, right? Besides, don’t you get more than enough advertising from a gazillion other websites?

The weblog's target audience of agrimarketing professionals is savvy. Who else would understand better whether advertising money could bias the quality of information provided? Who else would have more awareness of the aesthetic value of just 8 inches of screenspace with no advertising?

Thursday, April 14, 2005

How much is enough?

Recently Half Changed World has been talking with her son about toys, and how to resist them. All of a sudden, in the couple days since then, everything I read seems to be related. A good friend recently gave us the funny book Better Off, about a young Boston couple's year on a farm in an Amish-like community. On my commute, I have been reading Citizenship Papers, a fairly recent book of essays by the stubborn rural essayist Wendell Berry. He writes:
What actually do we need? We might say that, at a minimum, we need food, clothing, and shelter. And, if we are wise, we might hasten to add that we don't want to live a minimal life; we would also count comfort, pleasure, health, and beauty as necessities. And then, ...
Further reflection leads Berry to think we need historical artifacts, towns, clean air, wholesome food, countryside, parks, and so forth. But he starts to consider the hazards of too long a list of needs. So:
How do we know when we have passed from needs to wants, from necessity to frivolity? That is an extremely difficult and troubling question, which is why it is also an extremely interesting question and one that we should not cease to ask.
And that, in turn, reminds me to ask, "Hey, who borrowed my copy of Alan Durning's 'How Much is Enough' and didn't return it?" Don't worry. It is a mere possession anyway. You can keep it, and profit from it. None of this is new thinking anyway. Here is our local boy Henry Thoreau. No, wait. That's not yet well-seasoned thinking. Here is something older still:
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?"
Now there's a truly crazy line of thought.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

FDA asks for public comment on food label changes

From the FDA press release earlier this month:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today asked for public comment on two proposals to improve the appearance and content of the nutrition label to help consumers make better-informed weight management decisions. The proposals focus on providing practical serving size information and increasing the prominence of calories on the food label.

The proposals are direct responses to the recommendations contained in the FDA's Obesity Working Group (OWG) report entitled "Calories Count." The OWG final report made short and long-term recommendations that are based on the scientific fact that weight control is mainly a function of caloric balance.

I think the first proposal would essentially make the calorie count on the Nutrition Facts label more prominent, through bigger lettering or boldface. I am somewhat indifferent, mainly because I suspect few people count calories. Some colleagues who I respect like this proposal anyway, not so much because people can count calories over the course of the day, but so that it is easier to see which of two seemingly comparable food products has fewer calories.

The second proposal would rationalize the serving size standards used in the Nutrition Facts label. For example, a 20 oz. soda would have to report all of its calories, rather than pretending to be several servings (each of which has a reasonable number of calories). I think this proposal seems wise, although I haven't mastered the details yet.

FDA strongly encourages fast food restaurants to provide nutrition information, but I think the agency hasn't had the courage to tackle regulation in this area yet. Given the trends towards eating away from home, such action seems more important than the two measures proposed this month. I don't mind if the FDA waits a bit to see if moral suasion will convince the major chains to be more transparent (a non-regulatory approach might increase the flexibility and reduce the burden for smaller chains and individual restaurants). But the agency shouldn't wait forever. I think it would require a real stick to get Quizno's to move its burro.

The comment period is open for 75 days. Thanks to PHAI for the link.

Do you want to protect your child from in-school soda sales?

If so, see the "help wanted" notice from the Public Health Advocacy Institute: "If you have a child in public schools where soft drinks are sold, are troubled by the marketing of soft drinks in schools, and are interested in assisting PHAI, please contact PHAI at with your name and contact information."

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Antibiotics in animal feed

The Farm Policy weblog on Friday quoted the Des Moines Register's Philip Brasher:
"The government is coming under new pressure to curb the use of antibiotics on livestock farms because of concerns the drugs are losing their effectiveness in people.

"The American Academy of Pediatrics and three other organizations petitioned the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday to ban seven types of antibiotics from being fed to hogs, cattle and chickens for promoting growth or preventing disease.

"The groups say the drugs should only be used to treat animals that are actually sick."
Keith Good at Farm Policy adds his own doubts that antibiotics in animal feed are as important as overprescription of antibiotic medicine to humans.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Oxfam's campaign to Make Trade Fair

Hooray for the activist enlightened neoclassical economist rabble! I can't recall reading quite anything like the eloquent pro-trade appeal of Oxfam's current campaign to Make Trade Fair. The introduction to the centerpiece report reads:
Trade is one of the most powerful forces linking our lives, and a source of unprecedented wealth. Yet millions of the world's poorest people are being left behind. Increased prosperity has gone hand in hand with mass poverty. Already obscene inequalities between rich and poor are widening.

World trade could be a powerful motor to reduce poverty, and support economic growth, but that potential is being lost. The problem is not that international trade is inherently opposed to the needs and interests of the poor, but that the rules that govern it are rigged in favour of the rich.
The preface to the report is by Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. The report has no patience with the empty and ritualized debate between "globaphiles" and "globaphobes." The Oxfam campaign praises the anti-globalization movement for raising some of the right issues, but it fundamentally rejects that movement's remedy.
History makes a mockery of the claim that trade cannot work for the poor. Participation in world trade has figured prominently in many of the most successful cases of poverty reduction - and, compared with aid, it has far more potential to benefit the poor.
In the campaign's clever visuals, music and media stars from around the world act out what it feels like to have agricultural supplies dumped on them. The tagline is, "Ever felt dumped on"? Antonio Banderas:


Friday, April 08, 2005

Meat industry coalition seeks to block country-of-origin labeling

The Hill covers recent developments in meat industry efforts to block country-of-origin labeling, which is supposed to go into effect next year.

Meat packers and other agribusinesses have formed a new lobbying coalition to block the U.S. Department of Agriculture from requiring meat to be packaged with a country-of-origin label

The group — the Meat Promotion Coalition — has hired a lobbying firm that specializes in agricultural issues to make the case on Capitol Hill that country-of-origin labeling is too costly to implement.<

Cargill, Tyson Food, the National Cattlemen’s Association and the National Pork Producers Council are among the nine members of the new coalition, which hired the firm Lesher & Russell

In a twist, the American Farm Bureau Federation, which had supported mandatory country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, is now part of the coalition. Critics already succeeded in delaying the implementation of the labeling rule — which would enable consumers to see whether their meat was 100 percent homegrown — by attaching an amendment to an omnibus appropriations measure in 2003.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials now have until Sept. 30, 2006, to finalize the rule. Congress had mandated that the USDA implement its rule in 2004 in the 2002 farm bill.

Here is the coverage of COOL controversies a few months ago by Choices Magazine, the publication of the American Agricultural Economics Association.

Quizno's nutrition and the USDA-sponsored promotion

I haven't heard anything further from Quizno's, the sandwich chain whose Steakhouse Beef Dip sandwich with pan roasted au jus has been promoted by the USDA-sponsored Beef Board. A few weeks ago, I requested nutrition facts information, in order to get a better sense of what kind of food the federal government is promoting with its "government speech." The Quizno's email to me a few weeks ago said the nutrition information was not available because of recent menu changes.

That's unlikely to be true. Here is the Carbwire weblog from a year ago, so angry about the lack of nutrition information that it posted a link for complaints to Quizno's. Here is a Quizno's PR piece two years ago, bragging about the company's low carb profile: "Quiznos understands that the key to sticking with any diet is balance, variety and taste." Well, that would certainly make it easy if dieting didn't require, say, restraint and selective food choices. And here are some other comments posted on an internet site for runners, complaining about Quizno's for not providing nutrition information. I believe the Quizno's email to me was untrue.

It is one thing for a private company to be so unresponsive to consumers and so shady about its nutrition profile. We could all then simply avoid that restaurant chain (as I certainly will). It's another thing altogether for them to be supported by the Beef Board and USDA. Will somebody please read this thread and call this thing to a halt?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

School lunch economics

The Washington Post today has a fairly good account of the pressures school lunch programs face, which lead them to rely on selling junk food to students.

In the face of opposition from students who enjoy junk food and school systems hooked on the revenue it brings in, health advocates are supporting legislation in the Maryland General Assembly that would tighten nutrition standards on school food. Twenty-six other states are considering similar measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The proposed fat and sugar caps concern some food service managers and administrators who say they pose a risk to their schools' financial health.

Even some who support tougher standards say such measures don't address the central problem in public school cafeterias: that schools have a financial incentive to serve unhealthful food.

"It's a bizarre system that needs to be fixed," said Erik Peterson, spokesman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents food managers and workers.

The article explains well that school food services are reimbursed for most, but not all, of their per-meal cost for meals served free to low-income children through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The food service company loses even more per-meal on meals served for a price to nonpoor children through the NSLP. The food services often end up with a profit overall through lucrative sales of pizza and junk food, which are called "competitive foods" in the child nutrition lingo. If unhealthy competitive foods were banned, as many people who care about children's nutrition recommend, it seems reasonable that the reimbursement rate for NSLP meals should be increased somewhat to compensate.

I have two quibbles with the article. First, just after explaining the preceding points, the article quotes an enormous dollar figure, which I almost don't want to repeat, because I don't want it to stick in your head. Okay, $6 billion. This quoted dollar figure is the cost of "universal school lunch" -- which is a term that usually means the provision of free meals to all students regardless of income. That is a different issue. I think the cost of increasing reimbursements to compensate for the loss of unhealthy comepetitive foods would be much lower.

Second, losing unhealthy competitive foods is not the same as losing all competitive foods. Many people are working so hard to increase the attractiveness of healthy school food offerings, so it's sad to see their work overlooked. Salad bars. Fresh fruit. It may be hard for administrators to believe that their students would buy fresh fruit, if today they eat only potato chips and never touch fruit. But, without potato chips, increased sales of fresh fruit are an economic certainty.

Given the seriousness of the nutrition challenge facing young people in this country, the article should have described a ban on high-fat high-sugar high-salt competitive foods as a serious policy option even in a tight fiscal environment.