Friday, September 30, 2005

New study on FDA website casts doubt on qualified health claims

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently posted to its web site a new study (.pdf) showing that FDA's own policy for permitting "qualified health claims" confuses consumers and fails to work as intended.

Qualified health claims are statements on the food label that are accompanied by an honest explanation of the limited scientific support for the statement. For example, the front of the label might say, "Pomegranate juice reduces your risk of heart disease*," with an asterisk. The disclaimer might say, "*This claim about pomegranate juice has not been scientifically proven, and is based on limited evidence from rats."

You may think it strange that such contradictory statements could end up on the food label, but the mixed messages reflect a genuine food policy conundrum. Until recently, FDA permitted only health claims that have "significant scientific agreement," such as the link between calcium and stronger bones. Food companies sued, however, claiming that this policy violated their freedom of speech and prevented them from sharing important health information whose scientific certainty fell slightly short of this legal standard. Court decisions forced FDA to begin permitting health claims based on somewhat weaker evidence.

The FDA website summarizes the various qualified health claims. I'd be interested to hear your comments about the health claims that do or do not appear on the FDA site. For example, although USDA strongly supports many millions of dollars in advertising of dairy weight loss claims, which are not endorsed in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, I couldn't find such claims as having even qualified support on the FDA site.

The new FDA research study by Brenda M. Derby and Alan S. Levy, which does not reflect an official agency position, found that written qualifications expressing scientific uncertainty failed to significantly reduce consumer confidence in questionable health claims. By contrast, a "report card" style graphic may successfully communicate some distinctions in levels of scientific certainty. Unfortunately, however, a report card with a "B" or "C" rating seemed to increase consumer confidence in the health claim by comparison with no report card at all -- even though having no report card means the claim meets FDA's stronger standard of significant scientific agreement. The authors speculated that the qualified health claims report cards might work better if the graphic appeared on all products with health claims, even those that rate an "A."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest reported yesterday that FDA previously refused to make the new study public -- even to members of Congress! -- and finally posted the study to the agency website only after a Freedom of Information Act request from the consumer group. According to CSPI legal director Bruce Silverglade, "The FDA’s current policy allows companies to dupe consumers into thinking that this food or that food is the key to reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease.... The courts have made it clear that the First Amendment is not a license to practice quackery, but that is exactly what the Bush FDA policy sanctions."

The new report generally agrees with (but doesn't cite) the recent dissertation (large .pdf) by Ratapol Teratanavat, a clever student of Professor Neal Hooker at the Ohio State University. Teratanavat also finds that a report card graphic (see picture) strongly communicates differing levels of scientific certainty, while text qualifications seem to confuse the reader.

The research shows that qualified health claims work only if they include a graphic, like the "report card," which makes crystal clear to consumers that the health claim is unproven. In practice, report cards would probably never appear on real products with a "C" or "D" rating. The manufacturer would just decline to make the health claim. That seems to me a good outcome from the public interest and public health perspectives. The government is in a questionable position if it denies manufacturers their rights to speech, but it is in a strong position if it claims a bit of space on the food label to tell consumers when the manufacturer is lying.

Update 10/4/2005: Here's an interesting additional comment in July 2004 from a senior executive at the Ketchum public relations firm. It concludes,
Thus, the FDA’s support of qualified health claims will lead only to less informative, less instructional and less educational claims with less competitive value to marketers. Qualified health claims likely will add noise instead of clarity to the message stream, undermine the credibility and authority of regulatory statements and, potentially, even encourage retailers to place higher premiums on shelf space for products perceived to have more appealing claims. Here’s the bottom line: It is not “more information” but “more reliable sources of information” that impact consumer acceptance. The FDA should weigh these marketing issues carefully as it moves forward to establish a more definitive policy for allowing qualified health claims.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The 23rd post meme: "What is the government speech?"

Jennifer at Cookin' in the 'Cuse is a food weblogger and an Episcopal Priest. For several months, I have been following her eating adventures and her commentary on food politics, including such important issues as the recent controversies over redefining organic food. Jennifer invited me to play this game.

Jen of Life Begins at Thirty, who tagged Jennifer and was herself tagged by Jeanne of World on a Plate (all fascinating weblogs and residents of the sidebar), explained the game's rules in an earlier post.

Meme Instructions

1. Delve into your blog archive.

2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).

3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).

4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions. Ponder it for meaning, subtext or hidden agendas...

5. Tag five people to do the same.

The fifth sentence in my 23rd post is a quote from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last January:
"What is the government speech?"
This sentence is spot-on perfect as a representative question for U.S. Food Policy. I had to double-check my counting twice, because it seemed to good too be true. You can confirm my counting using the archives. "Government speech" is a technical legal term (see here and here [.pfd] for more on the Supreme Court case from whence it comes). But in the spirit of this meme, we can read the question more broadly. What does the government in our fine democracy have to say on the issues of the day in food policy? Does it say "eat in moderation" or "eat as much as you can"? For whom does the government speak?

Here's my invitation to five weblogs, only a small fraction of the fine ones I might have mentioned. Come play a game.

1. Bitter Greens Journal

2. Accidental Hedonist

3. Tigers and Strawberries

4. Fork and Bottle

5. Calorie Lab

Child nutrition programs around the world

Britain will ban junk food from school meals and in-school vending machines beginning next September, the BBC reported yesterday.

In related coverage, the BBC last spring had reporters around the world describe local school meals programs. From France:

In a country where food is virtually the national religion, school meals are naturally a subject of intense interest, not least as the nation worries about the rising obesity rate among its children, especially the under-15s.

Many schools already employ their own nutritionist, who works with a parents' committee to ensure lunches provide a healthy, balanced diet.

Much more is spent per meal than in Britain, with a French school lunch costing anything from £1.50 to £4 a head, depending on region. Poorer parents pay only a portion of the total.

And there's no pandering to children's love of pizzas, burgers or chips; these are adult menus served in child-size portions, as the French believe good eating habits start early.

From the United States:

Walk into almost any school cafeteria in the United States and the students will be grousing about the "mystery meat" and the pile of green stuff on their plates that once in a former life was spinach.

Students don't like the food, which means as soon as they can drive, they head off campus to the nearest fast food franchise.

And critics say that school lunches contribute to the fattening of the United States.

The humble school lunch has had more than its fair share of controversy in the US. Attempts to limit the amount of fat by limiting the servings of French fries have only been met by student rebellion.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Post Hurricane Katrina statement on budget and nutrition programs

The Food Research and Action Center, a leading national advocacy group for low-income Americans, has organized a lobbying coalition on the premise that the month after Katrina would be the wrong time to cut food stamps. Here is the coalition's statement distributed recently to legislators in the national capital.

TO: Senators, Members of the House of Representatives

The attached letter strongly opposing Food Stamp Program cuts in the reconciliation process and strongly opposing structural changes that would weaken the program was signed by more than 1,000 organizations and sent to Congressional leaders before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The success of the food stamp program and USDA’s fast and effective response since Hurricane Katrina in reaching people from the four affected states has shown once again that the food stamp program is fundamentally sound.

Yesterday and today representatives of more than 30 state-based anti-hunger organizations at a meeting in Washington D.C. discussed how Katrina has affected the food stamp and other anti-hunger programs and the needs of poor Americans. Based on that discussion we are writing you to:

  1. restate, but with renewed vigor and urgency, our opposition to cuts and structural changes in the Food Stamp Program;
  2. restate our deep opposition to proposed tax cuts and tax cut extensions that will disproportionately benefit wealthy Americans at a time of great need in our country;
  3. urge you in passing legislation in the weeks ahead to help Katrina’s victims to buttress the already effective ability of the food stamp, WIC, and child nutrition programs to respond; and
  4. move quickly, effectively, and fundamentally in the months and years ahead to address the problems of poverty, hunger, deprivation and inequality that Hurricane Katrina exposed.

The more than 20 million food stamp recipients just in our states – and the millions more in other states, and millions of poor, hungry, food insecure, unemployed, disabled, and others in this country who need but can not access food stamps – urge you to commit to take these four steps. We are confident that after Hurricane Katrina Congress can build on proven successful programs, Congress can reject proposals to reduce such programs and weaken the government’s fiscal position through tax cuts, and Congress can respond to the basic human needs Katrina has revealed.


Atlanta Community Food Bank, Association for Arizona Food Banks, California Association of Food Banks, California Food Policy AdvocatesCenter for Civil Justice, Center for Public Policy Priorities, Children’s AllianceChildren’s Hunger Alliance, Colorado Anti-Hunger Network, Connecticut Association for Human Services, DC Hunger Solutions, End Hunger Connecticut!, Federation of Virginia Food Banks, Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, Food Bank of Central New York, Food Bank of Iowa, Food Research and Action Center, FoodChange, Greater Minneapolis Area Council of Churches, Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Health & Welfare Council of Long Island, Hunger Solutions Minnesota, Illinois Hunger Coalition, Kentucky Task Force on Hunger, MANNA Tennessee, Milwaukee Hunger Task Force, Nebraska Appleseed, Center for Law in the Public Interest, New Jersey Statewide Emergency Food Network, Nutrition Consortium of NYSNYC, Coalition Against Hunger, Oregon Food Bank, Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force, Partners in Ending Hunger, Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center, Project Bread/The Walk for Hunger, Public Policy Center of Mississippi, Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, Southern New Hampshire Services, Inc., Texas Association of Community Action Agencies, Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger

Monday, September 26, 2005

FDA chief Lester Crawford resigns suddenly

FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford resigned Friday. According to the Associated Press (AP):

Crawford's surprise resignation, submitted Friday and effective immediately, gave no specific reason for his departure. "It is time at the age of 67, to step aside," he wrote in his resignation letter.

Crawford's tenure was marked by increasing criticism of the agency by those who contended it had become more interested in politics than in its mission to protect consumers.....

Crawford's time at the agency included more than a year as acting commissioner during a lengthy confirmation process. He won the Senate's backing in July only after telling senators the agency would make a final decision on legalizing Plan B for over-the-counter sales by Sept. 1.

Then in August word came of another delay, prompting intense criticism from proponents of Plan B and leading to the resignation of the FDA's top woman's health official.

Only days before his resignation, speaking at the Consumer Federation of America's annual food policy conference in Washington, Crawford gave little hint of an impending departure. A veterinarian by training, Crawford led USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service in the early 1990s. The newsletter I edited then, the Community Nutrition Institute's Nutrition Week, frequently criticized FSIS' food safety regulatory decisions during Crawford's tenure there.

Environmental regulation of agriculture

Juliet Eilperin writes in the Washington Post today about the public policy of environmental regulation for agriculture:

Agriculture does not occupy a prominent place in America's environmental policy debates, but farming has arguably more of an impact on the land, air and water than any other sector in the U.S. economy, environmental and industry experts say. In addition to producing airborne emissions, farms take up nearly half of the nation's land, and nutrient-laden runoff from farms affects such waterways as local streams and the Gulf of Mexico.
The most interesting parts of the article explain how Bush administration officials ordered the Environmental Protection Agency "to stop investigating farm emissions in 2001":
But the EPA's amnesty for major livestock producers may amount to a temporary reprieve as even farmers' most loyal political allies are sensing a shift in public sentiment. Calvin M. Dooley, a former central California farmer who served in the House for 14 years, said local attitudes hardened during his time in office, which ended this year.

"There's a different political environment in the Central Valley today," said Dooley, a Democrat who now heads the Food Products Association. "More and more people have become increasingly concerned about the health and environmental consequences of our air quality."

National Association of Farmers' Market Nutrition Programs (NAFMNP) conference

The National Association of Farmers' Market Nutrition Programs (NAFMNP) will hold its annual conference October 26-29 in Plymouth, MA. Speakers include USDA's Under Secretary Eric Bost, and Wil Bullock, Jr. , with the Food Project, a 24-year-old food advocate from Boston. This association has roots in the work of the School of Nutrition at Tufts in the 1980s (before the Friedman School was named) and the Massachusetts state government.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Ed Olsen, housing, and New Orleans

In several recent posts, the Marginal Revolution weblog emphasizes the advantages of Virginia economist Edgar Olsen's housing voucher plan for hurricane victims over the trailer ghettoes being planned by the Administration. Olsen writes:

What the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina need most now is housing. Hundreds of thousands of families are now living in temporary housing and shelters, sometimes little more than tents, throughout the south central region. These families cannot wait for new housing to be built.

Fortunately, new construction is not necessary to solve the immediate problem. Enormous numbers of vacant units in the region are available for immediate occupancy by families with the ability to pay rent — and a simple expansion of HUD’s largest housing program would provide even the poorest families with the means to rent these units.

The rental vacancy rate in the United States is at a historically high level. For all metropolitan areas as a group, it is over 10 percent. The largest metropolitan areas in the south central region have some of the highest vacancy rates – 15.6 percent in Houston, 14.4 percent in San Antonio, 12.8 percent in Dallas, 12.2 percent in Memphis, 13.1 percent in Birmingham and 18.5 percent in Atlanta. Vacancy rates for smaller metropolitan areas and non-metropolitan areas are also at historically high levels. In short, many rental units in the south central region and throughout the country are available for immediate occupancy by people with the ability to pay the rent.

Fortunately, no new federal program is required to match families suddenly needing housing with an existing stock of vacant apartments. The United States government already operates a program that would enable low-income families to pay the rent for these units. The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program currently serves about two million families throughout the country. It enables participants to occupy privately owned units renting for up to, and somewhat above, the local median rent. Enormous numbers of vacant units could be occupied immediately by families with these housing vouchers.

Coincidentally, my one visit ever to New Orleans was at Prof. Olsen's invitation, to serve as discussant in a session Olsen organized on food assistance and welfare policy at the annual meeting last November of the Southern Economic Association. The session included, for example, Chris Swann's interesting paper on WIC participation dynamics, which found that policies to encourage participation by women who have never participated previously may be particularly beneficial.

In addition to being a leading (and frequently conservative) federal housing policy expert, Olsen is an astute observer of food assistance policy. He and I both think that the Food Stamp Program provides one of the nation's most important housing subsidies, because shelter expenses within a certain range are deducted from the "net income" that is used for computing the food stamp benefit amount. In contrast with food stamps, there is no federal entitlement for housing.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

NYT: In Niger, Hungry are Fed, but Farmers May Starve

This article by Natasha Burley in the New York Times concisely explains the harm that misplaced and especially mis-timed food aid can cause for rural regions in developing countries. In a belated response to the Niger tragedy, food aid from rich countries with massive government-subsidized agriculture sectors may be arriving just in time to compete with a bumper harvest from the poor farmers in Niger whose economic success is most essential for sustainable development. Somebody please do something.

[Note. Read quickly. I will remove the link as soon as the New York Times removes the free online version of the article.]

Balance in the Tufts Daily News: Is Soda the New Tobacco?

Friedman School students Nicole Ferring and Sarah Wally offer an interesting counterpoint to the rather favorable review that U.S. Food Policy gave to CSPI's proposal for warning labels on caloric sodas. Their article this week in the nutrition-oriented Balance section of the Tufts Daily News leads with the following:
Next time you pop open a can of soda and take a swig, a warning label might be staring you in the face. Americans' rising soda consumption has caught the eye of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit consumer health group that recently filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration to post health notices on sugary soft drinks. But while CSPI employees hope that mandating cigarette-like warning labels on soft drink containers will encourage less consumption of the calorie-filled beverages, not everyone in health and nutrition circles is cheering them on.
Ferring and Wally acknowledge the nutritional dangers of soda, citing recent Tufts research on soda's growing share of calories for the young, but they find fault with "the suggestion that a label alone would remedy the problem." By way of comparison, they argue that warning labels on tobacco products deserve little of the credit for the subsequent collapse of tobacco consumption. Their closing quotation, from a Nutrition Marketing Specialist and dietitian for Tufts Dining Services, recommends parental responsibility in place of warning labels as the best solution to the soda problem.
"It's not about labeling foods as good and bad," she said. "All foods and drinks can play a part in the American diet. The drinks themselves aren't the problem. The amount being consumed is the problem... And education - starting in the home with parents - is going to make the difference. Not more labeling."
Comment section is open for (civil!) response, favorable or unfavorable.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Help get junk food out of Massachusetts schools

From the Massachusetts Public Health Association:

We're fighting to get junk food out of schools.

October 5 is our bill's public hearing.

It's time to make some noise.

Please Read, Take Action and Forward.

October 5 is the first major milestone for our bill to protect children's health by getting junk food out of schools. That's the day the Joint Committee on Public Health will hold its public hearing on the bill.

The association seeks your help with four actions.

1. Turn people out on October 5th. We need to make a strong showing at the State House - both at the hearing and at a press event we're holding beforehand. Please contact friends, colleagues, family - anyone and everyone - and urge them to join us. Please click here [.pdf] to view a flier announcing the hearing.

Help Our Kids Eat Right!
Press Event and Hearing for An Act to Promote Proper School Nutrition Wednesday, October 5. Press Event - 9:15 am, Beacon Street in front of the State House. Hearing - 10:00 am, Gardner Auditorium, the State House.

2. Contact your legislators - and ask others to do so. Please contact your state representative and senator and urge them to support the bill - and to show their support by testifying at the hearing or submitting written testimony. To determine who your legislators are, visit here. Contact information for legislators can be found here.

3. Recruit endorsers of the bill. We need to build a diverse base of support for the bill. Please help by contacting your local boards of health, churches, school committees, hospitals - whomever you think might be interested. Click here [.pdf] for our fact sheet, which includes an endorsement form, and current list of endorsers [I notice my Dean, Eileen Kennedy, on the list of endorsers -- ed.].

4. Submit a letter to the editor to your local newspaper. Letters to the editor are a great way to spread the word and get legislators to take notice. Please click here [.doc] for a sample letter to the editor. Please let us know if your letter runs!

Thanks for your help!

According to the fact sheet, the Act to Promote Proper School Nutrition (H. 1457), a bill in the Massachusetts legislature, would: (1) Replace sodas with healthier drinks, such as water, low- and non-fat milk, and juice, (2) Set healthy standards for fat and sugar in snacks, (3) Make fresh fruits and vegetables available in cafeterias.

See also the action page from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Posters for McDonald's and childhood obesity

From the Adrants weblog, we heard about the unfortunate juxtaposition of billboards for McDonald's and a campaign against childhood obesity. With permission from the photographer (who runs this website and tells us the photograph is real, but the lineup has since changed):


Steven Block awarded Seers Prize

News from my department:
Friedman School faculty member Steven Block was recently awarded the prestigious Dudley Seers prize by the Journal of Development Studies. This is an annual prize
for the best article to appear in each volume of the journal in economics and non-economics categories. His article [link to abstract] entitled “Maternal Nutrition Knowledge and the Demand for Micronutrient-Rich Foods: evidence from Indonesia” was adjudged to be the winner for Volume 40, in the non-economics category.

What's the story?

On the plane to Washington on Monday, I finished Dan Charles' book on biotechnology, Lords of the Harvest. As I mentioned, he was the moderator for a panel at the Consumer Federation of America yesterday. Throughout the book, Charles paints memorable word portraits of the early key players at Monsanto, Calgene, Greenpeace, Pioneer, university research labs, and elsewhere. He also does very well in his science journalist role, explaining complicated technologies to lay audiences. One of his themes is that the most controversial new technology adoptions have not always been the most important for society, while more revolutionary production changes have sometimes been less noticed by the press and public.

Throughout the book, which has a balanced tone, I wondered if Charles would end with something really damning about Monsanto and the prophets of biotechnology. Instead, however, the story line is complicated and textured to the end. A fascinating epilogue reflects on this pattern. Charles describes how he wanted not to take sides, but to "just tell the story." This turned out to be difficult, because many different images and stories are used in the biotechnology debate: the tale of progress and discovery (Wright Brothers, Jonas Salk, and the Next Big Thing), the agrarian populist story ("corporate giants and city slickers exploit farmers"), the leftist story ("profit-mad companies lay claim to the earth's genetic heritage"), the tale of Pandora's Box (Rachel Carson's Silent Spring). He ends with the religious themes: the Garden of Eden ("the serpent tempts Eve: You can eat the fruit of this tree. You will be like God"). Charles writes,
I've tried in this book to liberate agricultural biotechnology from the seductive clutches of myth, to give it its own space in our mental world, carved exactly to fit. I've tried to turn it from an epic into simply a story -- the kind of tale one tells about a slightly crazy uncle with all his quirks and contradictions.
In my class on U.S. Food Policy, I expect the students to have some elementary economics fundamentals and policy studies fundamentals as prerequisites. For economics, I suggest a straightforward online beginning microeconomics text by Hyman, available for only a $40 registration fee from a company called dotlearn, plus something more if you want a hard copy (part of the appeal of this publisher was that I don't like the high prices of most university textbooks, which after all cover material that is not usually novel). In part as an antidote to the mainstream text, I recommend Deborah Stone's Policy Paradox. Stone, like the economist Deirdre McCloskey, emphasizes the rhetorical story-telling aspects of the traditional economist's outlook on society. Like Dan Charles, she encourages us to be aware of the more lyrical narrative that often lies behind the apparently dry text of policy analysis.

How far has your food traveled?

A student forwarded this CNN report from Monday:

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Next time you are out for dinner on a business trip, you may find that the food on your plate has traveled further than you have.

Choosing between the locally farmed chicken or the New Zealand venison from the menu can help the environment.

Food miles -- the distance food is transported from the plough to the plate -- is of increasing concern for environmentalists.

This comes as we travel more and our tastes go global, whether it be for Chinese pine nuts or snap peas from Kenya.

However, hauling Peruvian asparagus or Pakistani mangoes across continents and oceans is not only costly financially, but is a growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

"When you are bringing food from so far away it can be as much as four times or ten times as much as if you were buying that product locally," says Kezia Cowtan from LifeCycles Project [link added -- ed.] a non-profit group focused on food sustainability.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Dean's letter for Tufts Nutrition

The Friedman School has started publishing a new newsletter from the Dean, Eileen Kennedy, with lots of recent news about the school. Here's a sampling.

Christina Economos and Miriam Nelson had their photos in Time magazine for being named two of the American Diabetes Association’s Women of Valor for 2005. They shared the award with Eileen Naughton, president of Time magazine, for their work in combating the nation’s obesity epidemic.

The Boston Globe reported on Aviva Must’s study on girls and obesity. She found that girls who experience early pubescence tend to be overweight and are more likely than their peers to be overweight or obese when they reach their early 40s.

Ph.D. student Dr. Mario Flores, who is also a researcher at the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico, was quoted in a New York Times article on Mexico’s sudden surge in obesity [available also here and here]. “We’re just recovering from the shock of the statistics,” he said.

Patrick Webb’s op-ed on Niger’s “invisible” emergency appeared in the Globe and Mail online edition. He wrote: “There are many more Nigers lurking within the suffering of children in the poor world. We just don’t see them yet.”

The Chicago Tribune quoted Jeanne Goldberg on advising Kraft Foods Inc. and prodding the company to stop using toddlers in TV ads for Oreo cookies [available also here]. “The notion of using kids to promote these things is very seductive because kids are cute, but I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Goldberg said. She also told BusinessWeek that Kraft’s reformulating of Lunchables to have more fiber and no trans fat was “a step in the right direction.”

Many publications, including The Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune, have reported on the supplements article in the Journal of the American Medical Association written by Robert Russell and Alice Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein told Northeast Public Radio’s “Health Show” program, “Assuming that we can just isolate one nutrient or multiple nutrients and all our health problems will be solved is probably a very naive perspective.”

Paul Jacques was quoted by the UPI about vitamin E and cataracts and his study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Dr. Ernst Schaefer discussed diets with Forbes magazine.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Debating agricultural subsidies and nutrition

I will participate in a lively session (.pdf) on agricultural subsidies Tuesday morning (corrected date: Sept. 20) at the National Press Club in Washington, as part of the annual Food Policy Conference of the Consumer Federation of America. The session will be a Phil Donahue style discussion and debate, perhaps recorded for C-SPAN.

The host is NPR's Dan Charles, author of an interesting book on biotechnology, Lords of the Harvest, as well as a new book I haven't yet read, Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare.

The other participants include former Congressman Charlie Stenholm (D-TX), the Environmental Working Group's Ken Cook, Bread for the World's David Beckmann*, and somebody from the American Farm Bureau.

I will probably get asked if farm subsidies contribute to poor nutrition and obesity. My answer is that farm subsidies should be seen in the context of agricultural policy more generally. Traditional subsidies help farmers essentially by raising the price they get for their crops. Other programs, like checkoff advertising, help farmers by increasing market demand and having consumers pay the farmers more for their crops.

Some traditional subsidies probably cause some small damage to nutrition, while others probably offer some small benefit for nutrition. In any case, the subsidies provide almost no encouragement for increased production of major categories emphasized in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans -- including fruits and vegetables.

By contrast, federally sponsored commodity promotions on the order of more than $400 million per year undermine the nutrition and healthy weight message of the Dietary Guidelines. Commodity promotion may not be the biggest farm program that affects nutrition, but it represents the clearest case where farm policy shoots nutrition policy in the kneecaps.

*Update 9/20/2005: corrected spelling.

Information sources for community food security

Hugh Joseph, Ph.D., who directs the New Entry Sustainable Farming Program at the Friedman School, has been circulating a nice collection of newsletters and other information sources about community food security and sustainable agriculture. In most of these web pages, there is a link to sign up for a newsletter or periodical.
The New Farm: Farmer-to-farmer Know-how from the Rodale Institute. Also a great website for organic, sustainable, and regenerative farming resources.

Potluck News below is posted monthly by Nefood - a listserve for the Northeast. It is a useful listserve for those interested in sustainable ag. issues in the region, with announcments of resources, events, etc. and sometimes articles and discussions.Posting level is low-to-moderate - about 2-4 times a week at most. Subscribing information is here.

NSAAS News Gleanings. Northeast States Association for Agricultural Stewardship, an affiliate of The Council of State Governments' Eastern Regional Conference.

This e-magazine's focus is on nutrition for the consumer. The September issue of CONSUMER MAGAZINES DIGEST which summarizes selected nutrition and food-related articles from 50 current consumer US and Canadian magazines is now posted here (.pdf). The site home page has links at lower left to this month's and back issues.

The Food Project's e-BLAST Bulletin. Blast was started at the Food Project in Lincoln and Boston, MA . Click here for the full e-BLAST.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The political economy of food stamps

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has been publishing some of its older books online for free in .pdf format. For example, the 1993 book on The Political Economy of Food and Nutrition Policies, edited by Per Pinstrup-Andersen, contains a chapter (.pdf) on the politics of the U.S. Food Stamp Program, written by Margaret Andrews and Katherine Clancy.

The chapter explores the reasons for the growth in the nation's leading food assistance program between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s. What explains the Food Stamp Program's growth? Was it to dispose of agricultural surpluses? Was it vote-trading or "logrolling," in which urban legislators agreed to vote for farm programs in return for rural votes for food assistance? Was it a consequence of the Civil Rights movement and the growing democratic strength of the poor? My quick summary of the chapter: some of each explanation. But the details are interesting.

Chris Mooney: The Republican War on Science

U.S. Food Policy has been covering examples of government actions that undermine the best scientific information on diet and health, but is there a larger pattern? From weblogger Chris Mooney's new book, The Republican War on Science:

At its most basic level, the modern Right's tension with science springs from conservatism, a political philosophy that generally resists change. The dynamism of science—its constant onslaught on old orthodoxies, its rapid generation of new technological possibilities—presents an obvious challenge to more static worldviews. From Galileo to Darwin and beyond, this conflict has played out repeatedly over the course of history. Consider conservative thinker Edmund Burke's famous denunciation of the Enlightenment as an age of "sophisters, economists, and calculators" in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Perhaps no line better captures the tension between conservatism as a political philosophy and the dynamism of scientific inquiry.

Yet conservative philosophy alone cannot explain the sweeping controversy over science that has emerged during George W. Bush's presidency. Another ingredient must go into the mix: raw politics. During its rise to political triumph and domination of the Republican Party, the modern conservative movement has relied heavily on two key constituencies with an overriding interest in the outcomes of scientific research in certain areas: industry and the religious Right. Companies subject to government regulation regularly invoke "science" to thwart federal controls and protect the bottom line. Religious conservatives, meanwhile, seek to use science to bolster their moralistic agenda. The Bush White House, in true modern conservative fashion, has bent over backward for both groups.

Other factors, too, contribute to a standoff between the conservative community and the scientific one. Modern conservatism's broad distrust of "big government" worsens the tensions with science, much of which either depends on federal funding or takes place at government agencies. Early in Bush's first term, one conservative even warned that "science moles" lurking in the federal bureaucracy might sabotage the president's agenda.

The Right's oft-expressed disdain for "liberal" higher education—epitomized by Bush strategist Karl Rove's smirking definition of a Democrat as "somebody with a doctorate"—fans the conflict as well. Today's "red state" conservatives nourish a deep suspicion of the nation's urban and coastal liberal enclaves, home to many leading universities and research centers. To counter mainstream science, economics, and political analysis coming out of these universities (as well as "liberal" think tanks such as the Brookings Institution), the Right has created its own favorable sources of expertise and analysis—think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and many others.

Finally, conservatives' views on science have been shaped as much by their political enemies as by their friends. In particular, the environmental movement—a core Democratic constituency—draws regularly on science to demonstrate the harms of various forms of environmental degradation and to demand stronger government regulation. In political spats with environmentalists, conservatives have thus learned to attack not just policies favored by environmentalists, but also the scientific information used to support those policies—which they repeatedly denounce as "junk science." To hear the modern Right tell it, you would think that environmental science, as conducted at America's leading universities, suffers from endemic corruption on a scale reminiscent of Tammany Hall.

Given all of these tendencies, a grand clash between modern American science and modern American conservatism may well have been inevitable.

In domestic food policy, does one political party do better than the other in representing the best possible science?

In an earlier passage of the book's online excerpt, before the part that I quoted above, Mooney errs by omission in treating the stem cell debate as a purely scientific argument instead of a more complicated mix of science and ethics.

Mooney speaks in the Boston area on September 21 (Porter Square Books, Cambridge, 7:00 p.m.) and September 22 (Student Pugwash, MIT, Cambridge, 5:30 p.m.).

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Why not stop junk food advertisements to children?

First amendment concerns provide one of the strongest arguments for permitting junk food advertisements to children. According to this argument,* we may not like these advertisements as parents, but in a free country, we shouldn't ask the government to restrict free speech as the remedy.

Here, in a recent speech, is what Marion Nestle offers in response to that argument.
I have trouble with this first amendment argument. I imagine back to our forefathers who wrote the first amendment sitting around a table saying, “how are we going to guarantee freedom of speech for people who have diverse religious beliefs?” They were NOT sitting around that table saying, “how can we defend the right of makers of junky cereals to market their products to kids?” I think we have a real problem with this. Some lawyers should take a look at the first amendment and start using it for what it was for.

*Slight edit 9/15: made more clear that I am summarizing an argument, not stating my view.

San Francisco Examiner used restaurant reviews to bring in advertising

The great journalism watchdog weblog, Romanesko, links to this expose in Grade the News.

The San Francisco Examiner and Independent agreed Friday to label as advertising a regular restaurant news column the newspapers had used to reward advertisers and solicit ads from eating establishments.

The announcement, by Executive Editor Vivienne Sosnowski, came in response to queries by Grade the News about George Habit, a dining columnist whose articles appeared several times each week in the newspapers. Mr. Habit's columns were presented as news and he was identified as a journalist under the byline "special to the Examiner," or just "Independent Newspapers."

In reality, Mr. Habit is an ad salesman, not a journalist. His column, he said in an earlier interview, is designed not to help consumers make informed dining choices, but to reward advertisers and entice new business from restaurants that have yet to sign an ad contract. "Yes, I use the column as an initiative to get advertisers to run
an ad," Mr. Habit said. "The paper gives me a free rein."

George Habit's column on Aug. 24 paid homage to his advertisers. In the Aug. 24 edition of the Examiner distributed on the Peninsula, Mr. Habit lavished praise on 29 restaurants, bars and attractions; 25 had ads on the same pages across which Mr. Habit's column was spread. Two more establishments had advertised the previous week.

"We do favor the accounts that are advertisers," he explained. "Even if the food is no good, the atmosphere is good. You can always find nice things to say about a restaurant." Apparently Mr. Habit will still get to write nice things about restaurants, but readers now will be warned that his comments are advertising, not news.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Obesity and preschoolers

When we moved from the Columbia Heights neighborhood in DC to an inner suburb of Boston two years ago, I spent a lot of time thinking about playgrounds. One thing I noticed in Columbia Heights was that fear of violence really didn't keep children indoors. Random violence and stray bullets were memorable and terrible but rare, and so unpredictable that countermeasures didn't matter much. Violent muggings happened disproportionately at night and were not a major deterrent to outdoor play during the day. Even the drug and prostitution trades were so predictable and quiet on 19 days out of 20 that families with children were happy to walk right on by with a polite nod. One couldn't let young children play outdoors without adult supervision, but that is true in most suburban and urban areas these days. Broken glass and the smell of urine in local playgrounds made a bigger difference in hindering our children's outdoor play than fear of violence did. I notice their absence every time I take my children out in our neighborhood today.

So, I am less surprised than some folks may be at the conclusion of this month's study in Pediatrics by Hillary Burdette and Robert C. Whitaker: "A National Study of Neighborhood Safety, Outdoor Play, Television Viewing, and Obesity in Preschool Children." From the press release from their employer, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.:

Do preschool children have a higher prevalence of obesity, spend less time playing outdoors, and spend more time watching television when they live in a neighborhood that their mothers perceive as unsafe? This study of three-year-olds in 20 U.S. cities found that if mothers perceive their neighborhood as unsafe, their children tend to watch more television, but they are no more likely to be obese and do not spend any less time playing outdoors than children in safer neighborhoods. Researchers used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a birth cohort study of nearly 5,000 children born in 20 large U.S. cities from 1998 to 2000.

Ruskin and Schor: Who's to Blame for Childhood Obesity?

From Gary Ruskin and Juliet Schor's recent article in The Nation:

In recent months the major food companies have been trying hard to convince Americans that they feel the pain of our expanding waistlines, especially when it comes to kids. Kraft announced it would no longer market Oreos to younger children, McDonald's promoted itself as a salad producer and Coca-Cola said it won't advertise to kids under 12. But behind the scenes it's hardball as usual, with the junk food giants pushing the Bush Administration to defend their interests. The recent conflict over what America eats, and the way the government promotes food, is a disturbing example of how in Bush's America corporate interests trump public health, public opinion and plain old common sense.

The latest salvo in the war on added sugar and fat came July 14- 15, when the Federal Trade Commission held hearings on childhood obesity and food marketing. Despite the fanfare, industry had no cause for concern; FTC chair Deborah Majoras had declared beforehand that the commission will do absolutely nothing to stop the rising flood of junk food advertising to children. In June the Department of Agriculture denied a request from our group Commercial Alert to enforce existing rules forbidding mealtime sales in school cafeterias of "foods of minimal nutritional value"--i.e., junk foods and soda pop. The department admitted that it didn't know whether schools are complying with the rules, but, frankly, it doesn't give a damn. "At this time, we do not intend to undertake the activities or measures recommended in your petition," wrote Stanley Garnett, head of the USDA's Child Nutrition Division.

Rebuttal welcome.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Labor conditions for California's farm workers

From the Economist this week (no link to the actual story), a report on new rules in California, providing somewhat improved conditions for farm workers. Can anybody corroborate the following anecdote? If true, this is evil:
Farmers rarely hire their migrant workers directly; instead, they use labour contractors who will supply workers as and when they are needed.... The problem is that there are few safeguards against unscrupulous contractors who cheat their workers, for example by denying them their legal break-times or by underpaying them. And what compounds the problem is the understandable reluctance of undocumented workers -- the polite term for illegal immigrants -- to complain, even though federal agencies exist to protect all workers, legal or not. The AFL-CIO recalls that in July in North Carolina the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency arranged a phoney "mandatory" meeting of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- and, to the dismay of the genuine OSHA, promptly arrested the illegal immigrants who dutifully turned up.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

What's the harm in promoting dairy weight loss?

In the comment section of a previous post, Mark from Calorie Lab offers a helpful link to a new study on dairy weight loss, which fails to support the dairy weight loss claims. Still, Mark has doubts about the harmfulness of dairy weight loss messages: "[G]iven that dairy is a good source of calcium, and is not soda pop, why not just let it ride and go on to more important battles?."

I give great weight to the importance of clear government communication about the best science on diet, nutrition, and healthy weight. When more burdensome regulatory policies seem unwise or politically infeasible, clear communication stands out as a key arena for good policy. At the very least, the government should not directly sponsor unhealthy consumer messages.

Why are dairy weight loss messages -- especially for high-fat dairy products -- unhealthy? First, there is the problem of fad diets. I'll quote the Federal Trade Commission's report written by Harvard scientist George Blackburn: “By promoting unrealistic expectations and false hopes, [fad diets] doom current weight loss efforts to failure, and make future attempts less likely to succeed” (Blackburn, 2002). Second, fat is more calorically dense than other foods: it has 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram. Third, the saturated fat in high-fat dairy products contributes to heart disease. After all, weight loss is not the only measure of good health.

There is nothing wrong with promoting skim milk and lowfat yogurt. Most cheese is high-fat, but if there were product or advertising innovations that developed a market for low-fat cheese, that would be fine also. Indeed, I think it would be sound policy for the checkoff programs to promote any messages consistent with the Dietary Guidelines. If promoting low-fat dairy received a large fraction of milk and dairy board spending, I would support these boards myself. But these federally sponsored messages spend most of their $200 million plus dollars per year to support high-fat dairy products with misleading health claims. Federally sponsored advertising on this scale swamps healthier messages. We shouldn't just ignore it and "let it ride."

[Update later that morning: See also the curious report by Kate at Accidental Hedonist. Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) is the operating arm of the federally sponsored dairy checkoff program, and it incorporates other previously independent organizations such as the National Dairy Council. There is more information than I can immediately process, including budget information, about this web of organizations in the USDA report to Congress released this week.]

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Charlotte's Web

My son has been loving Charlotte's Web, reported to be the best-selling children's paperback of all time. He listens to the whole book on tape over and over. Whole scenes now come into my head unbidden at random times. The scene where the girl realizes why her father is going to the barn with an axe, and then wears him down gently with her simple moral clarity, is priceless.

As you probably remember, the pig, after surviving the usual fate, is befriended by Charlotte, an atypically literate spider. Charlotte weaves comments about the pig into her webs: "Some Pig" and other words of praise. In the passage most likely to cause me to draw stares in a crowded subway car, by suddenly laughing out loud to myself, the farmer and his wife discuss their prodigious animals. The wife, quite astutely, thinks that the spider is the clever one. The farmer, however, is more literal minded: the web says very clearly that this is Some Pig.

The attack machine in the restaurant industry's fake public interest group, the Center for Consumer Freedom, specializes in demonizing those who come to think animal agriculture could be more humane. But what does it mean if the Center must expand its list of villains to include George Will, Henry Thoreau, and E.B. White?

New USDA report supports controversial dairy weight loss advertisements

The July 1 report from USDA to Congress, which I have been seeking, finally appeared today without fuss on the website of the department's Agricultural Marketing Service. This report describes the activities of the fluid milk and dairy commodity promotion programs, known as "checkoff" programs. While the Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage increased consumption of lowfat milk and dairy products, they discourage excessive consumption of high-fat milk, cheese, ice cream and butter by recommending reduced consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol and total calories. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee specifically considered claims that dairy consumption accelerates weight loss, but rejected these claims as having insufficient scientific support so far (see this earlier post).

Because fad dairy weight loss diets have been a major part of the checkoff programs' promotions in the past year, I wondered how the new report would square the circle. The report's authors came out swinging in the first paragraph, proudly proclaiming the central role of dairy weight loss in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's dairy promotions:
In 2004, the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board (Dairy Board) and the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board (Fluid Milk Board) continued to develop and implement programs to expand the human consumption of fluid milk and dairy products. While each promotion program has many unique activities, both programs used the role of calcium-rich dairy products in successful weight loss as a central theme and focal point for its activities in 2004.
It simply makes no sense that these dairy weight loss promotions and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are both "government speech."

Children's nutrition and competitive foods in schools

The Government Accountability Office last month completed an eloquent study (.pdf) of the economics of junk food and other "competitive foods" sold by schools.

First, some definitions. USDA generally provides almost no regulation of "competitive foods," which are foods and drinks sold a la carte in cafeterias or in vending machines outside of the parameters of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. The one slight exception is that USDA does provide some exceedingly mild regulation of "foods of minimal nutritional value," such as candy and sugary sodas, which may not be sold inside cafeterias during the actual school lunch period. As we noted earlier, the department refuses even to enforce that mild rule. Some unregulated competitive foods may be comparatively healthy, but others are not. If I understand correctly, many junk foods, such as potato chips or ice cream, are not regulated as foods of minimal nutritional value.

In some sense, the GAO study paints a bleak picture of school food authorities that are addicted to the revenue from competitive foods and a U.S. Department of Agriculture unwilling even to use the full extent of the minimal powers it has to provide some help. The revenue involved is massive, exceeding $125,000 per school in the highest-revenue high schools (30 percent of all high schools).

Ultimately, however, the report is constructive rather than depressing. First, I was relieved to see that most of the revenue from competitive foods other than soda pouring rights contracts goes to School Food Authorities (the district-level folks who manage federal school meals programs). This improves the options for new policies that restrict unhealthy competitive foods while using federal food program reimbursements to ensure that School Food Authorities are not grievously harmed by the change. The pouring rights contracts, by contrast, often benefit the school administration more directly, so it is harder to strike a grand bargain using the revenue from school meals programs as the lever to hold the school adminstration harmless from better nutrition policies. However, the soda pouring rights contracts are so blatantly awful, that I think it is possible for policy change (especially State level policy change) to make them illegal without as much political need to find new funding to compensate. All reasonable people recognize that schools, acting in loco parentis, never should have been making such backroom deals with soda companies in the first place.

Second, the GAO study provides a wonderfully clear analysis of the surmountable barriers to improving the nutrition situation in schools, and it includes a great detailed desciption of how people in specific school districts made improvements. It cites this report this year from the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies, which I had not seen previously, describing what can be done constructively. Here is the GAO's conclusion.

Our nation’s schools are uniquely positioned to positively influence the eating habits of children, yet almost all schools sell readily available foods that are largely unregulated by the federal government in terms of nutritional content. While not all of these competitive foods are unhealthy, many are. Although schools cannot be expected to solve the current problems with child nutrition and growing obesity alone, many states and districts have begun efforts to improve the nutritional environments in their schools.

As districts across the country develop their required wellness policies by school year 2006-2007, they will likely face decisions and challenges similar to those of the districts we studied and may benefit from their lessons learned. Although each district took a different approach, all of them recognized the value of including those parties affected by the changes, such as parents, teachers, and other community members, when developing new policies. In addition, they recognized that students are the ultimate consumers of competitive foods and took steps to consider
their opinions.

[Update later that evening: the Associated Press' excellent food and agriculture reporter Libby Quaid has this article on the report.]

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Monsanto's fan mail for Bitter Greens Journal

The Bitter Greens Journal, featured in the sidebar, received an interesting letter from Monsanto about the weblog's column entitled, "Roundup, ready." This opinion column, an occasional feature from the weblog's writer, farmer and journalist Tom Philpott, includes critical coverage of the biotechnology giant.

Dear Mr. Philpott,

I am the trademark and copyright attorney for Monsanto Company, the owner of the Roundup Ready(R) trademark. The attached link is to the Bitter Greens Journal which features the name "Roundup, ready" as the title of one of its features. Roundup Ready(R) is a well known trademark which is registered by Monsanto not only in the United States, but in many countries throughout the word [sic]. As you have pointed out in the column, Roundup Ready(R) is famous in the agricultural industry.

While you have stated in your column that you chose the name "Roundup, ready" in honor of Monsanto's famed line of seeds, we must object to this use and request that you change the name for the following reasons:

1) You are using our trademark without our consent. This use of the term could cause your readers to think that your journal is in some way sponsored by Monsanto or that Monsanto supports the positions set out in your journal.

2) You are using our trademark in an incorrect manner (with a comma and in a way that genericizes the mark). This weakens our trademark rights.

I would appreciate your confirmation that you will change the name of this column and cease using "Roundup, ready" or any form of our trademark as the name of a feature or in an incorrect manner in your journal. We appreciate your cooperation in this matter.

Very truly yours,


Barb Bunning-Stevens
Assistant General Counsel - Trademarks

I have no idea why Monsanto would want to encourage increased attention to a critic's coverage of its Roundup Ready products. Roundup Ready is a trademark for seeds that have been genetically modified to survive treatment with Monsanto's high-selling herbicide, Roundup. This herbicide actually has some environmental advantages by comparison to some of its competitors, but until Roundup Ready seeds came along, the herbicide also had the disadvantage of indiscriminately killing the field crops on which farmers might like to apply it. Even those of us with high hopes for new agricultural technologies as one possible approach to preventing worldwide hunger and agro-environmental decline couldn't help but be dismayed when the purpose of one of the most important early commercial successes for genetically modified crops was to permit greater sales of Monsanto herbicides!

Paradoxically, threats from Monsanto lawyers may draw yet more coverage of Monsanto's legal tactics and increase the number of places in the world wide web that provide links to this report on Monsanto's longstanding campaign of lawsuits against farmers. Can this really serve Monsanto's corporate interest?

As for the possibility of confusion between Philpott's weblog and Monsanto's trademark property, I don't believe a word of it. Or, at least, I won't believe a word of it until Philpott starts marketing seeds for his little-known genetically modified bitter greens. Where can I get me some of those?

Federal food assistance programs during the disaster

The Food Research and Action Center, a leading anti-hunger advocacy group at the federal level, has this report on USDA policies for the major food assistance programs.
USDA has responded quickly to the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina by issuing a comprehensive set of guidance and waivers designed to allow maximum use of the Child Nutrition Programs (school lunch, child and adult care food, and summer food to feed children in schools, shelters, child care centers, family child care homes, summer and afterschool programs.

USDA has eased program requirements that simply can not be met in the face of this disaster, including meal components, record keeping, and enrollment requirements (e.g., identification and income documentation). USDA’s WIC guidance is designed to help State WIC agencies restore or preserve the continued delivery of WIC benefits and to reach potentially newly eligible individuals affected by Hurricane Katrina.

USDA has issued policy guidance on Hurricane Katrina evacuees’ eligibility for food stamps, including how receiving states can process benefits for those who have relocated to their states. The policy defines refugees from areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina and distinguishes among procedures: for clients in states authorized to operate a disaster food stamp program; for those clients in states not authorized to operate a disaster program; and for clients currently certified. See USDA Food Stamp Program memorandum.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


Many of the webloggers in the sidebar have been helping to organize relief for victims of Katrina or share information about the tragedy. See, for example, What's in Rebecca's Pocket?, a poignant post in Asymmetrical Information, Life Begins at 30, an interesting post about Katrina wikis at Marginal Revolution, and many more. It still seems too early to begin to think about what the storm has in store for the national food economy. For a start, see NBC in Alabama on food prices, or Fast Food Facts on the restaurant industry. God bless the rescue and relief workers and sustain their strength and goodwill.

Welcome Fuddruckers customers!

This is funny. Due to some sort of computer glitch, visitors to the website this morning have been transferred to At Google, they naturally enter the search term "Fuddruckers," where they find U.S. Food Policy's coverage of Fuddruckers as one of the first ten search results. So dozens of people looking for information about Fuddruckers restaurants have been arriving here to read about U.S. food policy and economics from a public interest perspective.

Happy to oblige. Here is a reprint of our earlier post:
Under the category "viral," the Adrants weblog reports that Fuddruckers restaurant chain is behind a fake advertisement on the internet for a "beef relief patch." The ad's premise is that consumers need something like a nicotine patch to break their beef addiction or they will become irritable on their way to the nearest Fuddruckers restaurant for their fix. Adrants finds that the satire site is posted at the address [link no longer working] and also on the website for the Austin-based agency Fosfurus [link no longer working]. The advertisement's nutritional sensitivity seems well calibrated with the Fuddruckers menu [link no longer working], emphasizing hamburgers ranging in weight from 1/3 pound to 1 pound. Naturally, like Quizno's and Applebee's, Fuddruckers hides its nutrition information from its customers. (If you are thinking to yourself, "we all know what a 1 pound hamburger contains," then -- without looking it up -- please post in the comments section your guess for calories and saturated fat as a percentage of the daily recommendation). The bottom of the menu page says: "Specific nutritional data on Fuddruckers menu items is not currently available." Nobody wants the government to regulate what these restaurants offer, but the economic case for better nutrition information than this is compelling, and the public deserves to know what these restaurants are selling.

American Dietetic Association (ADA) and dairy weight loss hype

The worst thing about the dairy weight loss hype is the role of organizations that are supposed to represent the public health and the public interest: the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Dietetic Association. The federally sponsored milk and dairy commodity promotion programs have continuted to push dairy weight loss advertisements that misrepresent the scientific evidence, selectively quoting from small studies from scientists with unusually strong financial interests and ignoring other studies that fail to support the claims.

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service is required to make a report to Congress each July on the status of these dairy promotion programs. The 2005 report is still missing from the USDA/AMS website. The agency tells me they will send it when it is ready. The House Agriculture Committee staff tells me they hear there has been a "printing problem" and the report should be ready in a "few weeks." I suspect it will be difficult to write this report this year, because the advertising programs now have legal status as "government speech," confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in May. Federal government communication on diet and nutrition is supposed to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The scientific committee behind these guidelines specifically considered and declined to endorse the dairy weight loss claims. Under these circumstances, what will the 2005 USDA report to Congress on dairy commodity promotion say about the tens of millions of dollars being spent on advertising dairy weight loss diets? Since the release date for the USDA report to Congress is July, and the holdup is a mere printing problem, it should be legal for anybody to send an electronic copy to U.S. Food Policy. I'd be delighted to receive it.

Similarly, despite my suggestions that it be removed or edited, the American Dietetic Association has left up its web page on dairy weight loss. The worst thing about this web page is that its lead paragraph exactly misrepresents the scientific evidence. Even in its most favorable light, the weight loss suggested by some small scientific studies occurs on diets with deep caloric restrictions. The ADA web page, by contrast, says the dairy weight loss approach "doesn't mean depriving yourself." The ADA sounds like a classic fad diet advertiser: "Have you vowed to lose weight this year? If so, listen up. There is a new approach to losing – one that doesn’t mean depriving yourself or following the latest fad diet." (When the advertiser says, "this is not a fad diet," it should remind you of the politician saying, "I am not a crook"). I admire the ADA, a leading advocate for good health and nutrition, and I simply cannot believe that this language is acceptable to the ADA's professional membership. If you are an ADA member, please contact your association.

The September edition of the Tufts Health and Nutrition Letter (new issue not yet online) reports on the scientific evidence:
The two published clinical trials most often cited by the dairy industry involved small sample sizes and, critics note, were funded by the dairy council or General Mills, which makes Yoplait yogurt. Michael B. Zemel, MD, director of the University of Tennessee's Nutrition Institute, led both studies and has since taken the unusual step of patenting his findings, so dairy companies must pay him to cite his studies in their ads.

Reading the fine print in those ads makes clearer what Dr. Zemel actually concluded, which is not simply that upping your dairy consumption will peel off the pounds.
Instead, the studies were among people who also ate much less food, with a daily deficit of 500 calories.

Similarly, David Schardt has a fine detailed report on the scientific aspects of this controversy in the latest issue of the Nutrition Action Healthletter from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (issue not online). An accompanying editorial from the Center's director, Michael Jacobson, points out the role of the federal government's commodity promotion programs, which has been emphasized in U.S. Food Policy:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is supposed to oversee the programs and make sure that the ads are not false or misleading. However, the AMS's standards are rather low. For example, the AMS says that if the ads make a claim about health, at least two published studies should support the claim.
This standard of two scientific articles is trivially easy to meet, far easier than a policy of being consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which represents the balance of the best scientific evidence. If this "two-article" standard is for real, this policy completely overturns the promises that the Dietary Guidelines will be the federal government's 'one voice' on nutrition and health. See, for example, the promises in the testimony before Congress (.doc) from Eric Hentges, the former pork board vice president who now oversees dietary guidance for USDA as director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Our thoughts are with the folks in Louisiana and Mississippi. Accidental Hedonist offers the list of resources for donations below, and checks in with a food blogger from New Orleans. The Washington Post covers disruptions to freight supply lines, including the likely effect on food prices. The food museum blog has a post about efforts to provide food and water more immediately: no water, no food.

America's Second Harvest Phone:312-263-2303 ext. 147

American Disaster Reserve Phone: 804-287-1246

American Red Cross Phone" (202) 303-8635