Sunday, December 31, 2006

Hunger and food insecurity in the Latino community

The rate of food insecurity in Latino households is almost one in five, according to a study this month from the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization.
Among the report’s key findings is that nearly one in five Latinos (19.6%) suffers from limited or lack of access to nutritious food each year, compared to 12% of all Americans. The report identifies a number of areas that contribute to this figure, as well as examines the links between hunger and problems such as obesity and physical and mental health among children.
The Washington Post article about the report quotes an old family friend, Beatriz Otero, who has led a remarkable group of bilingual charter school and early childhood education programs in Washington's Columbia Heights neighborhood.

How good is online restaurant nutrition information?

The NYC Board of Health decided recently to require calorie labeling prominently on menus and menu boards for some restaurants. Some readers might have overlooked this policy in the media coverage of the Board's simultaneous ban on trans fats in restaurants (see earlier post), but the labeling rule may in fact be more important.

A curious feature of the new labeling rule is that it seems to apply only to restaurants that already make calorie information available, and not to restaurants that currently fail to provide nutrition information online. Clearly, the Board's purpose was to address chain restaurants with standardized products, because these chains clearly know the nutrition characteristics of their products and will have a comparatively easy time posting the information. Still, it would be ironic to allow restaurants to evade the menu labeling rule simply by refusing to provide nutrition information elsewhere as well.

This raises the question: how good is restaurant nutrition information online? For myself, because I am interested in more nutritional features than can be listed on the menu board, a good online database may be even more important.

Margo Wootan and Melissa Osborn took a look at this issue in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last February. This fall, starting with their paper, Sivakumar Chandran and I compiled this Excel sheet (.xls) with current notes about the online nutrition information provided by the leading chains, as identified by the QSR Top 50 list. Although Fast Food Facts and a couple other online sources provide excellent data bases for a large number of chains, we focused on the quality of direct information provision by the company.

The high quality and ease of use for the top several chains is notable. Here, in QSR's order, is McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut. The worst non-discloser among the top 20 chains appeared to be Quiznos.

That's great for Quiznos. Now that restaurant chain may not be subject to the NYC menu board rules either.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Stupidest weight loss drug ever

The weblog Weighty Matters offers this coverage of "the stupidest weight loss drug ever." It is a nasal spray "that would take away your sense of smell and taste." Jack from Fork & Bottle sent me the link, with none of his usual droll commentary. Andrew in the comment section thinks this new drug is just the beginning:
Why not patent a product that tastes and smells like manure that you can spray on your food? That'll deter you from eating. Or how about a clothespin that you can pinch your nose with while you eat? That would probably numb your sense of smell. Wow, that really is the stupidest weight loss drug ever! This society is out of control.

How did your district do on school wellness?

School districts around the country worked this year to pass "school wellness policies," establishing guidelines at the local level for nutrition and physical activity.

These new policies follow several years of hand-wringing about rising rates of childhood obesity and many more years of negative changes to school food and wellness practices: shortened physical education, junk food in vending machines, pouring rights for soda companies, branded pizza as a lunch entree, potato puffs as a vegetable, food company marketing in the guise of nutrition education curricula, and on and on.

These changes sometimes seemed to "just happen," without having been established as policy by any particular accountable person or council. Although the 2004 mandate from Congress requiring school wellness policies stood in place of even more ambitious pro-nutrition policy options that Congress lacked the courage to adopt, this mandate did at least require local school districts to decide in public where they stand on the child wellness debates of the day.

Now comes the challenge of figuring out what the districts decided. There are many thousands of school districts in the United States. No systematic collection system was established to organize district-level information about wellness policies.

Fortunately, this month, the School Nutrition Association -- an advocacy group for childhood nutrition and in some respects a trade association for the school food service providers -- released a report summarizing the policy decisions for a representative sample of 140 school districts (.pdf) (data on a la carte policies excerpted below). This new report follows an earlier report this fall about the 100 largest school districts (.pdf). The results are summarized briefly in this press release.

If you care about nutrition and wellness in your own local area, get and read a copy of your own local wellness policy. Here is a link to my town's policy (I served on the wellness policy committee and the later implementation committee until recently). Now, really for the first time, you can easily compare your district to other similar districts around the country. It almost makes me wish the parents here in Arlington had pressed even harder than we did for a vigorous pro-wellness policy.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Guacamole dip with no avocado -- a food policy lesson in "standards of identity"

It has been fun to follow recent coverage of Kraft's guacamole dip, whose label the company changed a few months ago when people complained that the product has little avocado in it. "A thunderous 'No!' to faux guacamole," says Tom Philpott. "Yum," says Chowhound, although one suspects sarcasm after following the link to Jerry Hirsch of the Los Angeles Times (via Seattle Times):
The guacamole sold by Kraft Foods Inc. ... calls for modified food starch, hefty amounts of coconut and soybean oils and a dose of food coloring [Note 12/21: slight correction, see comments].
A column by Fortune's Marc Gunther today picks up the story of the faux guacamole as one example of "misleading labels [that] raise a bigger issue, and it's called trust." The column links to U.S. Food Policy. Gunther, who keeps a weblog and is author of Faith and Fortune, continues in today's column:
At a time when trust in big business is low - and when the food industry, fairly or not, faces escalating concern over the epidemic of obesity in the United States - you would hope, and think, that the industry would go out of its way to avoid marketing practices that are even potentially misleading.
Are there no rules about this sort of thing?

You may be surprised that it is legal to call a paste "guacamole dip" if it has minimal amounts of avocado. In fact, the federal government does have such rules, called "standards of identity," for hundreds of food products. Here is a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announcement last year about possible changes to these standards.

Looking deep within the Code of Federal Regulations on this topic (see sections 130 to 169), I could find many related products, but no guacamole. I know you will be pleased to find that products that do have a standard of identity are required to have the nice simple ingredients you would expect.

For example, here is a brief excerpt of the long standard for "catsup":
... Such liquid is strained so as to exclude skins, seeds, and other coarse or hard substances in accordance with current good manufacturing practice. Prior to straining, food-grade hydrochloric acid may be added to the tomato material in an amount to obtain a pH no lower than 2.0. Such acid is then neutralized with food-grade sodium hydroxide so that the treated tomato material is restored to a pH of 4.20.2. The final composition of the food may be adjusted by concentration and/or by the addition of water. The food may contain salt (sodium chloride formed during acid neutralization shall be considered added salt) and is seasoned with ingredients as specified in paragraph (a)(2) of this section. The food is preserved by heat sterilization (canning), refrigeration, or freezing. When sealed in a container to be held at ambient temperatures, it is so processed by heat, before or after sealing, as to prevent spoilage....
Just like grandma used to make.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

More discussion on whether organic agriculture leads to deforestation

Dan Mitchell's New York Times column, "What's Online," today reviews the lively commentary on the Economist article this month, which criticized organic agriculture and other consumer movements.

Mitchell mentioned U.S. Food Policy's skepticism about whether organic agriculture is actually less efficient on a per acre basis (and this mention gave this weblog a record traffic day today). I was quite sure the Economist's use of 1950s production data to contrast with modern chemical agriculture was misleading, but I didn't offer any better data. For that, Mitchell turned to Samuel Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc., in the comment section at Gristmill:
As for the claim that organic will take more land, this is entirely based upon the assumption that organic yields less and thus needs more land to farm. But the longest running study comparing organic and conventional methods, published in Science, found that organic agriculture has about 10 percent deficit in yield in grains. Several universities in the U.S. have found that deficit in the range of 4 percent to nil. Other studies have shown organic outperforms conventional farming in years of drought. Finally, the problem with conventional farming has been soil depletion through overuse of chemicals - something that India is now experiencing and one reason they are looking beyond the Green Revolution to organic alternatives.
These numbers sound far more plausible than the yield penalty implied by the Economist. Fromartz's statistics do make organic agriculture appear a tad less efficient per acre than conventional agriculture. When readers think about organic farming, they should not imagine a weed-ridden backwards plot off the grid. Instead, they should picture fairly modern information-intensive production, which uses high-quality conventionally bred seed stock in place of GMOs, and which refrains from using certain chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Indeed, the very efficiency and recent modernization of organic agriculture has been so striking that it has become controversial within the movement. In addition to commenting, Fromartz also writes his own posts at Gristmill, recently linking to this interesting essay from Bob Scowcroft about long-term trends in organic agriculture.

Although a comment on my earlier post questioned the relevance, the discussion of a small yield penalty for organic agriculture naturally makes me wonder what change in the food system would more dramatically improve nutrients per acre sufficiently to alleviate the land pressure on the world's rainforests. The foremost answer is to eat less meat. If you are vegetarian, you're all set (although my colleagues at the nutrition school will remind you to take steps to ensure adequate micronutrients). If you are not vegetarian, you can easily to pick an amount of meat that exceeds your nutrition needs and is still far less than the average American consumption level.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Photo suggestions?

A nonprofit scholarly journal's editor has asked me for a suggestion for a photograph to use on the cover of an upcoming issue. The topic is related to economics and nutrition, and she suggests something about a food transaction. Her instructions say, "Generally a simple photo works best. It needs to be of high enough resolution for printing at the size used. (For example, we would need the file supplied at 300 dpi with a width of 8.375 inches, or proportionally higher dpi if provided at a smaller size--we can adjust the size as long as the resolution is there.) A copyright release is also required." If you have a suggested photograph, please send with a suitable price quote for nonprofit use to the email address in my Blogger profile. Thanks!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Action against advertising to children

Your child's doctor is a balanced and trusted source of wisdom, right?

Here is the abstract from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) earlier this month:
Advertising is a pervasive influence on children and adolescents. Young people view more than 40,000 ads per year on television alone and increasingly are being exposed to advertising on the Internet, in magazines, and in schools. This exposure may contribute significantly to childhood and adolescent obesity, poor nutrition, and cigarette and alcohol use. Media education has been shown to be effective in mitigating some of the negative effects of advertising on children and adolescents.
The Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch blog post reported this development with the headline, "Doctors seek ban on junk food ads." I couldn't find quite such a broad advertising ban in the recommendations, but I might be mistaken, and in any case it is a fine point. The recommendations do call for a ban on in-school advertising (such as the sinister and fortunately beleaguered Channel One TV project). The pediatricians point out that commercial speech targeting children does not really deserve serious First Amendment protections, as political speech does. Moreover, the word "ban" shows up in favorable comments about progressive pro-child policies in other advanced countries, so the pediatricians clearly have a strong policy response in mind. They also call for federally funded media awareness education to make children less susceptible to advertising influences in the first place.

In related news, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) this month praised the World Health Organization's most recent conference report on advertising food to children (.pdf) around the world.

A fascinating side story has been the efforts of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to find out what advertisers' own research shows about the influence of their advertising. What little I know about that research comes from a presentation I once saw by Juliet Schor, whose related book is Born to Buy: the Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture.

And that brings us to the most interesting sentence I read on this topic while preparing this post. It comes from a generally favorable Amazon review of Schor's book, which nevertheless found fault with her proposed solutions:
Reacting to the power and creativity of the consumer culture with politically unfeasible regulation and parental diligence is a little like attacking Frankenstein's creature with torches.
One could find this assessment discouraging, but I don't. It causes me to reflect on what responses really do have "power and creativity" to match those of the consumer culture. This happy list is so long that it had better wait for another day's writing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

A birthday present

Readers of U.S. Food Policy have been offering a wealth of thoughtful, informative, provocative comments lately. For starters, see all the topics with multiple comments on this front page, and then also see the conversations in the November archives. Reading these comments increases the fun of sharing these issues and links with you. Good timing, too. This month is the weblog's second birthday.

Nonsense from the Economist: "Buy organic, destroy the rainforest"

The December 7 Economist claims that Fair Trade principles, organic agriculture, and local food are actually bad for the environment. As alternatives to these market-based movements, the magazine recommends political action to support government responses such as carbon taxes and abolishing subsidies.

I won't criticize carbon taxes or praise subsidies here, but I do think the respected magazine overstated its case and failed to achieve its own typically astute market-centered and yet progressive policy insight.

Let's take a passage on just one of the three issues:
Buy organic, destroy the rainforest. Organic food, which is grown without man-made pesticides and fertilisers, is generally assumed to be more environmentally friendly than conventional intensive farming, which is heavily reliant on chemical inputs. But it all depends what you mean by “environmentally friendly”. Farming is inherently bad for the environment: since humans took it up around 11,000 years ago, the result has been deforestation on a massive scale. But following the “green revolution” of the 1960s greater use of chemical fertiliser has tripled grain yields with very little increase in the area of land under cultivation. Organic methods, which rely on crop rotation, manure and compost in place of fertiliser, are far less intensive. So producing the world's current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn't be much room left for the rainforest.
This is quite misleading. First, the journal must argue the case not just that organic agriculture is less efficient with respect to total inputs, which I find plausible, but less efficient with respect to land. Typically, organic agriculture involves more intensive labor and management inputs, which offset less intensive chemical inputs. The Economist should mention a source for the claim that organic agriculture is less efficient per acre. Until they do, I doubt it.

Second, it is quite an omission to claim that organic agriculture's (unproven) land inefficiencies will harm rainforests, without mentioning that growing feed grain for meat is vastly more wasteful. A typical contemporary post-hippy suburbanite's granola diet -- organic food and smaller amounts, if any, of animal products -- is not the cause of deforestation.

[Hat tip to Dr. Vino.]

E. coli and food safety regulation for produce

In protecting produce supplies from the dangerous form of E. coli that has caused recent outbreaks, one problem is that produce consumption doesn't offer a final "kill step" in the same fashion as cooking meat.

In response, growers could seek stricter FDA regulation of production processes, but that would take many months at the very least. Alternatively, growers could establish a marketing order enforced by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. These marketing orders aren't customarily used for food safety purposes, and they leave a higher level of responsibility on the industry's shoulders, but they would be quicker to implement.

Several sources have identified the increasing industrialization of the produce industry as a contributor to recent outbreaks. Annys Shin writes today in the Washington Post:
The patchwork of federal and state regulations that is supposed to ensure food safety has become less effective as the nation's produce supply has grown increasingly industrial. Three months after the spinach scare, there is no agreement on what should be done to reduce health risks from the nation's fruits and vegetables even as each episode of illness has heightened a sense of urgency.
According to Eric Schlosser's op-ed today in the New York Times:
Over the past 40 years, the industrialization and centralization of our food system has greatly magnified the potential for big outbreaks. Today only 13 slaughterhouses process the majority of the beef consumed by 300 million Americans.

And the fast-food industry’s demand for uniform products has encouraged centralization in every agricultural sector. Fruits and vegetables are now being grown, packaged and shipped like industrial commodities. As a result, a little contamination can go a long way. The Taco Bell distribution center in New Jersey now being investigated as a possible source of E. coli supplies more than 1,100 restaurants in the Northeast.

While threats to the food supply have been growing, food-safety regulations have been weakened. Since 2000, the fast-food and meatpacking industries have given about four-fifths of their political donations to Republican candidates for national office. In return, these industries have effectively been given control of the agencies created to regulate them.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

USDA releases partly-blacked-out details about sale of pork industry's "Other White Meat" brand

After announcing last February that the federal government's National Pork Board would purchase the "Other White Meat" slogan from the private National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) for $60 million, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service at first refused to share any information about the appraisal on which the sale price was based (see our post last June).

Recently, in response to my appeal of that refusal, USDA has shared partial photocopies of several documents, with key financial details blacked out. With these details secret, it is impossible for an outside observer to judge whether the sale has an "arm's length character." The sale funnels $60 million from the National Pork Board to the NPPC, which does not have to perform any work in return.

This sale was announced by the National Pork Board last February and covered in the agricultural press. I filed my first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in April, which USDA denied on grounds that the information about the appraisal was "pre-decisional." I appealed in June to the administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service and in October received the partially censored information provided here in .pdf format: (1) a letter from the National Pork Board's president and CEO to USDA, (2) a sale proposal from the National Pork Board, (3) information from a Mark H. Williams company about the appraisal for the sale price (this company appears not to have much of a web presence that I can find), and (4) a decision memorandum initialed by the acting Under Secretary for Agriculture.

The National Pork Board is one of the largest federal checkoff programs (see here for more information about these programs and their nutritional implications). Using the federal government's powers of taxation, it collects more than $60 million each year in mandatory assessments from pork producers, and uses the funds for advertising and promotions, including the well known "Other White Meat" campaign. A majority of pork producers voted to discontinue the checkoff program in a 2000 referendum, but the NPPC subsequently convinced the administration to continue the program anyway.

The NPPC is a private-sector trade association. It earns millions of dollars each year performing work under contract to the National Pork Board. The NPPC performs activities, such as lobbying, that are illegal for the National Pork Board. Once it starts receiving money from the sale of the "Other White Meat" brand, the NPPC may use the money without federal oversight.

Clearly, therefore, there is an important public interest in having transparent information about the appraisal on which this sale is based. It is difficult to believe that $60 million is truly the fair market value for this sale, for three reasons:
  • First, the existing value of this trademark asset was built in large part with checkoff money, so pork producers are apparently paying twice for the consumer awareness achieved by the slogan.
  • Second, no buyer other than the National Pork Board would see this slogan as valuable, so there are no competing buyers to bid up the price. What amount do you think pomegranate producers would pay for the "Other White Meat" property?
  • Third, the documents actually quote an appraised value of $36 million and a sale price of $34.5 million. This value is based on the costs of rebuilding an alternative brand from scratch over seven years. The much higher $60 million figure comes from scheduling payments of $3 million per year for 20 years, with an interest rate of 6.75%, which has the same present value as $34.5 million today. However, it is not clear that the $36 million in costs were similarly discounted to take account of the fact that these costs would also occur over several years. Though it is difficult to know for sure, given that the key information is kept secret, it appears possible that the deal is based on an accounting error that inflated the sale price by millions of dollars.
So you can see how important the information blacked out in the image below may be (see here for full .pdf file). Without this information, the deal fails pork producers, fails the public interest, and fails the smell test.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

New York City bans trans fats in restaurants

The AP's Jocelyn Noveck offers this summary, dated just a few minutes ago (via Washington Post) ...
New York on Tuesday became the first city in the nation to ban artery-clogging trans fats at restaurants, leading the charge to limit consumption of an ingredient linked to heart disease and used in everything from french fries to pizza dough to pancake mix.
... and finds several person-in-the-street interviewees who support the new ban:
"I don't care about what might be politically correct and what's not," said Murray Bader, nursing a cup of coffee at Dunkin' Donuts on Tuesday morning. "I want to live longer!"
Trans fats are found in baked goods, deep-fried foods, hard margarines, and to a lesser extent meats. They tend to raise the "bad" kind of blood cholesterol. They have few defenders.

Even so, I must admit to fearing that this ban might overreach. Many products in the marketplace are bad for us. Only those products with the highest risks and no redeeming features should be banned. For those products that merely increase risks and have some merits, well-informed consumers can weigh the risk for themselves.

fats may be a borderline case. In your own reflection, ask yourself why trans fats should be banned in restaurants but not barbecue pork ribs? Why ban trans fats in restaurants but not butter-drenched baked treats? Or, following Kate at Accidental Hedonist, why ban trans fats in restaurants but not trans fats in properly labeled manufactured foods such as potato chips?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

New Atkins endowed chair at Tufts University School of Medicine

Yes. That Atkins.

From the Tufts press release this Fall:
Dr. Andrew Greenberg, whose research focuses on obesity and its complications, has been named to the newly endowed Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Professorship in Metabolism and Nutrition at Tufts University School of Medicine.

The chair was established by a $2-million gift from the Dr. Robert C. Atkins Foundation to support research into the role of metabolism and nutrition in managing obesity and Type 2 diabetes....

"I'm deeply appreciative of the Atkins Foundation's generosity," said Greenberg, director of the Obesity and Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, whose research into the role of genes in healthy nutrition recently was spotlighted in Time Magazine....

Tufts is among a select group of academic medical centers receiving awards from the Atkins Foundation, which has established similar endowed professorships at Washington University (St. Louis), Columbia, Cornell, Michigan, the University of Southern California, the University of Texas Southwestern and Duke University
medical schools....

The Atkins Foundation, established with a $40-million gift following Dr. Atkins' death in 2003, operates independently as a supporting organization under the stewardship of the National Philanthropic Trust, and is not affiliated with Atkins Nutritionals Inc.
The press release emphasizes that other universities have installed similar Atkins endowed professorships. It points out that the donor, the Atkins Foundation, is not affiliated with Atkins Nutritionals Inc. These distinctions may be important.

Comments are open.

Are you prejudiced?

Do you implicitly prefer thin people? Do you subconsciously associate being male with stronger scientific aptitude? Do you harbor unrecognized prejudices on the basis of race or skin tone? Find out today with an implicit association test.

The instrument design seems quite clever. The test doesn't take long, and it provides you with feedback at the end.

My wife, who knows my prejudices well, asks me if they have an implicit association test about attitudes toward the suburbs. (But darling, some of my best friends live in suburbs.... Why, we now live in a suburb.)

Read more from a New York Times article yesterday about economics and weight status.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A better "healthy food" labeling system

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The electric car and the inconvenient truth

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 27, 2006

Do it yourself publishing

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Animal ID to remain voluntary, administration says

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2006

Why does WIC provide free infant formula?

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2006

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

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

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

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

Do you have research on economics and nutrition?

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2006

"Mapping an End to Hunger" in New York City

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"Victual Reality" by Tom Philpott

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 05, 2006

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

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

Buying Green

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

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

APPAM Fall 2006 Conference in Madison, WI

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

Salmonella outbreak in 19 states

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

Consumer Law and Policy Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 30, 2006

Kraft Capri Sun Sport Thunder Punch

As she points out in her comment on an earlier post, Michele Simon will speak tomorrow to a special public session of my U.S. Food Policy class at the Friedman School, on the topic of her new book, Appetite for Profit.

Open to the public at 4 p.m., October 31, in Auditorium B of the Sackler Building, on Tufts' Boston Campus.

Simon's book describes Kraft's nutrition marketing through its "Sensible Solutions" label and logo. To be granted this honor, a beverage for example "must be free of or low in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, or sodium, or must have 25 percent less of one of these in comparison to the base product or an appropriate reference product; and must be reviewed by Nutrition Department."

The key word in this mumbo jumbo is "or."

In much clearer English, a product that is all sugar may be labeled a Sensible Solution because it is low in fat. Or, a product that is all fat may be labeled low in sugar.

Following up on a hilarious example Simon mentions, I notice that the Capri Sun Sport Thunder Punch drink, heavily marketed to children, has 60 calories per 200 ml serving, according to the Nutrition Facts label [note, 7:30 p.m.: this sentence was edited to remove a previous suggestion that 200 ml was a misleading small serving size -- it is actually the size of the small 6.75 oz. packages]. Because the product is all sugar, it has no fat, and hence qualifies for the "Sensible Solution" label.


The label carries the astonishing claim: "hydrates kids better than water." I'd like to know if those kids were drinking only 200 ml!

I am sympathetic to the hope that Kraft and other leading reputable food and beverage companies, who know their products and their consumers better than anybody, could in principle help solve nutrition problems through their own private voluntary efforts at consumer education. But, truly, we must first look their current nutrition marketing straight in the face and call it false.

Friday, October 27, 2006

North Shore, MA, office receives award for being a food stamp hunger champion

Congratulations to our almost-nearby North Shore Transitional Assistance Office in Salem, MA, for winning a top "hunger champions" award from USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. In a state that has one of the ten lowest rates of food stamp participation among eligibles, the North Shore office stands out as an example of what is possible.

Nationally, the FSP caseload has been increasing even during a time period classified by economists as economic expansion (source: USDA Economic Research Service). One reason may be that the current "expansion," unlike the economic expansion of the 1990s, is not helping low-wage Americans very much. Another reason may be the Food Stamp Program's efforts to encourage greater access among eligible people. Still, protecting the legal rights of low-income Americans, and helping them navigate the program assistance bureaucracy, can sometimes be a dreadfully difficult task that takes great energy and imagination on the part of organizations such as the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI).

The most authoritative indicator of state-level success in providing access is the "participation rate" among eligible people, which is computed a couple years after the fact. Nationally, by this measure, only about 60% of eligible people get food stamps. Because of the time lag for the authoritative statistics, USDA's Food and nutrition Service (FNS) uses a simpler "Food Stamp Program access index" to evaluate progress at the state level more quickly. It would be a great idea for FNS to post the results of this index to its main food stamp data page, but in the interim, the easiest place I know to find these data each year is the website of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Kraft Foods: a case study in public relations and food marketing to children

Kraft Foods, the largest food manufacturer in America, earned sweet media coverage in 2003 when it announced voluntary steps to address childhood obesity. The Altria (Philip Morris) division, which had $34 billion in 2005 sales, promised to reduce portion sizes and end in-school marketing.

Yet, according to an article published and released free online this week in the Journal of Public Health Policy, "Kraft's efforts appear to be a mix of small improvements and business as usual."

In the article, Alexandra Lewin, Lauren Lindstrom, and Marion Nestle compare and contrast the voluntary nutrition measures and overall marketing strategies of Kraft (as a leading manufacturer) and McDonald's (as a leading quick service restaurant chain). The paper responds to a request by the World Health Organization as part of a research effort that has also included articles about global health and the food business more broadly.

For readers who want to evaluate the article's argument for themselves, let's include some links. For example, Lewin and her colleagues note the contrast between the public relations campaign surrounding the low-sugar reformulation of Alpha-Bits cereal -- promoted as a childhood literacy tool of all things -- and the real-world marketing, instead, of the high-sugar Oreo O's with Marshmallow Bits. Follow the links to compare the Nutrition Facts panels for the two products, and then enter your zip code in Kraft's convenient "Find Store" query box at the bottom of each page, to discover how many stores near you carry each product.

Similarly, while Kraft has promised to end in-school marketing, that promise does not imply an end to the company's vigorous efforts to reach children. Evaluate for yourself the sites whose mix of advertising and children's entertainment Lewin and colleagues discuss, including,, and

Do Kraft's voluntary efforts to improve its nutrition profile offer a promising low-burden market-oriented solution to contemporary nutrition problems, or just empty public relations? Comments are open.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Economically sensible soil and water conservation: "The Farmer's Decision"

The Soil and Water Conservation Society is promoting a book that seems to take seriously the farmer's economic needs as well as conservation goals.

The Farmer’s Decision: Balancing Economic Successful Agriculture Production with Environmental Quality.

Things I don't bother to wish for...

Things I don't bother to wish for: that restaurant chains would, on their own initiative, start serving smaller portions than their customers desire.

A series of studies in recent years has found that restaurant serving portions have increased in the past several decades. As people consume ever higher fractions of their calories in restaurants, these increases are implicated in the growing rates of overweight and obesity.

Yet, in Nanci Hellmich's USA Today article yesterday about restaurant portion sizes, an Applebee's executive explains why a business cannot on its own initiative just reduce these portion sizes:
Kurt Hankins, vice president of menu development for Applebee's, the nation's biggest casual dining chain, says portion sizes are determined by asking guests to rate meals for their size as well value and taste. "A simple portion reduction for no apparent reason would not be well accepted."
Readers of this weblog know we keep an eye out for economically feasible steps that businesses might take to improve their nutrition profile (I was going to say "incentive-compatible steps," but I can't find a link to a good definition of that economic jargon, so will leave an explanation for a later post).

Unlike many restaurant chains, the Applebee's website currently appears not to disclose nutrition facts for most foods on the menu, while disclosing only a few non-representative Weight-Watchers items (am I wrong?). Suppose Applebee's began to disclose nutrition facts information for all products on menus or another prominent place. To avoid being skewered by competitors, the chain might want to take steps to encourage similar disclosure by the remaining laggard chains, to level the playing field. Instead of secretly supporting the anti-consumer attack dogs at the Center for Consumer Freedom, as has been reported, Applebee's would want to work with more reputable public interest groups to promote the widespread availability of the information consumers really need.

Then, as Applebee's continues to collect information about what portion sizes consumers like, they might see a change in consumer desires. With the nutrition facts hidden, it is economically mandatory for restaurants to offer oversized portions. It may be the case that widely available nutrition facts would liberate fiercely competitive companies to offer healthier portion sizes.

Applebee's current posture -- non-disclosure of the nutrition facts and then blaming the consumer for poor nutrition choices -- is pretty ironic, don't you think? Dear Applebee's, the solution may be right in front of you. If your consumers resist a move to healthy portions "with no apparent reason," then perhaps you should start letting your consumers know the reason.

[Hat tip to a student who emailed the news link that led to this post].

FDA unable to reach food safety emergency contact people in one third of test attempts

From Libby Quaid of the Associated Press (via Ag Weekly on October 20):
WASHINGTON — A warning system meant to alert food companies in the event of a food poisoning outbreak failed one-third of the time in a recent government test.

The Food and Drug Administration was able to reach an emergency contact for a food facility in every two out of three cases.

Developed in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the system is supposed to help the government track the source of an outbreak of foodborne illness and help notify companies that might be affected.“As a result of this test, FDA believes that it is imperative that immediate steps be taken by FDA and owners, operators and agents in charge of domestic and foreign registered facilities to improve the accuracy of the information in the Food Facility Registration Database,” the agency said.
FDA's report was posted to the agency website on October 12.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lester Crawford, vigilant champion of FDA ethics

In light of recent news, this 2004 press release on the FDA website carries some unintended irony:

FDA Review of "Outside Activity" Requests Identifies No Additional Approved Outside Activities of Concern
Acting Commissioner Dr. Lester M. Crawford Nevertheless Strengthens FDA Ethics Oversight

Dr. Lester M. Crawford, Acting Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), today announced the results of a comprehensive review of all "outside activities" performed by FDA employees. In responding to the findings of an internal review at FDA of approved outside activities, Dr. Crawford said: "I am pleased to report, based on the review of all approved outside activity requests submitted by covered employees, that the review team did not identify any additional approved outside activities of concern beyond the one exception that was previously identified and promptly remedied last month upon discovery. I commend all FDA employees and Center management for upholding the highest ethical standards. This review has verified and validated my belief that FDA employees understand the importance and need for the rules and regulations applicable to the Agency's outside activities...."

"This review shows that the aggressive disclosure and review process designed to prevent conflicts of interest is working well," said Dr. Crawford. As a public health and regulatory agency, FDA has consistently lived up to the highest ethical standards. Nevertheless, I am further strengthening our disclosure and review program so that the impartiality of FDA's science-based regulatory decisions will continue to be above question."

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A New York Times trifecta

Jack from Fork & Bottle, one of our favorite correspondents here at U.S. Food Policy, sends three links to sharp reporting in the New York Times recently.
Mickey junkfood might be history (but only "might"?).

And then this is scary: Kindergarteners start puberty. Good thing none of these kids could get any hormones in the food they eat, huh?!

And, another reason not to drink Coke.
This last article, suggesting an association between cola consumption and lower bone density in older women, draws on the recent work by Dr. Katie Tucker, director of the epidemiology program at my school, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The Times writes:
“Our study is just one epidemiological finding, and it doesn’t prove causation,” said Katherine L. Tucker, the lead author of the paper and director of the nutritional epidemiology program at Tufts. Still, she added, “women who are concerned about osteoporosis should avoid drinking cola regularly.”

Former FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford to plead guilty to hiding ownership of stock in Pepsico

Marc Kaufman of the Washington Post reported today:
Lester M. Crawford, who resigned mysteriously last fall just two months after being confirmed as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, will plead guilty today to charges that he hid his ownership of stock in food and drug companies that his agency regulated, his lawyer said.
As an example of the conflict of interest, Crawford or his wife held previously undisclosed Pepsico stock during the period that he chaired FDA's Obesity Working Group, which released a 2004 report with fairly mild policy proposals, such as increasing the font size for the calorie count on the Nutrition Facts label for manufactured foods and encouraging entirely voluntary nutrition facts disclosure for restaurants.

A veterinarian by background, Crawford was administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service during the late 1980s and early 1990s. My boss at the Community Nutrition Institute during part of that period, Rodney Leonard, had been administrator of FSIS some years earlier, and was glad to speak on the topic of Lester Crawford with perhaps more fiery clarity than impartiality. Sometimes hearing just one end of such telephone conversations from the adjoining office, I would be astonished. Here is a brief from the Multinational Monitor in the early 1990s on the occasion of Crawford's resignation from FSIS to take a job with the National Food Processors Association:
Food safety advocates are not surprised by Crawford's move. Rod Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute and a former administrator of FSIS, says that Crawford has pursued a "typical career of industry representation," working first for the poultry and drug industries, then coming to Washington to work for the Food and Drug Administration and FSIS and now returning to an industry association.

Crawford served business well, Leonard says. "Rather than try to improve the quality of poultry inspection and therefore the wholesomeness of food," Leonard argues, Crawford "worked in exactly the opposite direction" by heading up "the effort of the Reagan and Bush administrations to deregulate meat and poultry inspection."

Leonard believes that Crawford probably chose to leave the Department of Agriculture because he had "used up his credibility with Congress" and was "no longer ... useful to industry or to the administration."

New report to Congress from USDA's fluid milk and dairy promotion programs

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service recently posted to its website its long-awaited 2005 annual report, dated July 1, describing the operation of the government's fluid milk and dairy promotion programs, sponsor of the Milk Mustache and similar campaigns to increase American cheese and butter consumption.

According to the new report, these checkoff programs collected mandatory payments from producers, in 2005, of $280 million for dairy promotion and another $100 million for fluid milk promotion. The programs have traditionally been considered semi-private producer organizations, but following litigation in recent years, the promotions are now recognized legally as "government speech" in their entirety. The fluid milk and dairy campaigns are larger than similar checkoff programs for beef and pork and far larger than any government support for promoting fruits or vegetables or other nutrition messages.

Like last year's report, the new report describes the program's use of dairy weight loss claims, which are controversial in nutrition science circles and are not consistent with the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as a "central theme and focus point" for the campaigns. Here is the first paragraph of the first chapter:
In 2005, 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. Each promotion program has many unique activities. In 2005, the Fluid Milk Board continued to use the role of calcium-rich fluid milk products in successful weight management as a central theme and focal point for its activities. The Dairy Board focused on the away-from-home market to promote the expansion of flavors and a greater range of packaging in foodservice and restaurants.
The report describes continued collaborations with fast-food restaurants to drive sales of new products such as yogurt and flavored single-serving milk, and older products such as the cheese in pizza:
Also, DMI helped increase cheese use by partnering with national restaurant chains to introduce cheese-friendly items and drive innovation. Pizza Hut (R), the Nation's top pizza chain, featured three new cheese-friendly items that DMI helped to develop and promote. During the four-week promotion of the new product "Dippin' Strips," Pizza Hut(R)'s cheese usage was up 3 million pounds over the previous 4 weeks.
The checkoff programs argue that they require government assistance to collect the contributions for such campaigns, because advertising levels for these products would be sub-optimal without government assistance.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Forbes: "We do not have a 'smoking cow' at this point."

One possible explanation for the e. coli outbreak in spinach last month traces the source of the contamination to cattle manure. See, for example, Nina Planck or Treehugger, and see Cattle Network for an alternative view.

Since it was disconcerting to experience a microbial outbreak in a favored green leafy vegetable, it would spare the conventional wisdom about food safety if it turned out that animal agriculture was to blame after all. Such an account seemed almost too convenient, so I have been keeping an open mind, and regularly read the links from Accidental Hedonist's continuing coverage to see how this turns out.

A student today sent a link to this story from Forbes this week -- not ordinarily classified with the environmentalist vegetarian rabble:
Three samples of cattle fecal matter from one ranch in California's Salinas Valley have tested positive for the same strain of E. coli bacteria that sickened 199 people in 26 states and left three dead after they ate contaminated spinach.

It's not certain that the ranch was the source of the outbreak, but it's an important lead in the continuing investigation, U.S. and California health officials said during a Thursday evening teleconference.

"We do not have a 'smoking cow' at this point," said Dr. Kevin Reilly, deputy director of the prevention services division for the California Department of Health Services. "We do not have a definitive cause-and-effect, but we do have an important finding."
It will be interesting to see how this important finding pans out.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Federal government's beef checkoff program promotes Cowboy Ranch Steak Dinner; but what is in it?

The federal government's beef checkoff program in July announced an ambitious campaign to promote beef sales through restaurants at TravelCenters of America, a leading highway retail chain.

The beef program's press release said the campaign "has gone off like a rocket, selling nearly 40,000 Ranch Steak meals nationally in the first 20 days of the campaign."

In response to repeated requests over several weeks, neither the retail chain, nor the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, nor USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service would provide complete nutrition facts for menu items such as the Cowboy Ranch Steak Dinner.

Here is the gushing advertising description:
Try our new 9 oz. Cowboy Ranch Steak. This lean steak is chargrilled to order, brushed and topped with tasty Cowboy Butter, and partnered with our huge trucker-sized baked potato, and your choice of vegetable. Dinner starts with a salad and warm rolls and butter.
Wow, I thought. That's quite a meal. Steak, Cowboy Butter (?), trucker-sized potato, rolls, more butter, and yet more, all for one low price.

In response to my first inquiries, the director of restaurant marketing for TravelCenters suggested I contact their partners at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a private trade association that serves as a contractor for the federal government's beef checkoff program on such campaigns, for information about the steak itself. Meanwhile, she provided the following information about the meal, "based on comparable meals we've analyzed":
Ranch Steak Dinner: less than 430 mg sodium, less than 160 mg cholesterol, less than 15 g fat, less than 500 calories, less than 10 g carbohydrates
These amounts seemed far too low if they were supposed to refer to the full meal described above. One interpretation of the correspondence was that these amounts represented everything except the steak, whose data I was supposed to get from the cattlemen.

The cattlemen offered the following information for the 9 oz. steak:
  • 337 calories
  • 13 g fat
  • 4 g saturated fat
  • 51 g protein
At first glance, I thought these nutrient amounts for the beef alone still seemed far too small. Even if the steak were very lean, 9 oz. would have to contain much more than 337 calories. But, my correspondent from the cattlemen revealed that the steak -- which was advertised without asterisk as 9 oz. -- lost weight in preparation and was really only 6.75 oz. as served. Without any external fat, let alone Cowboy Butter, it is possible for a very lean 6.75 oz. steak to have 337 calories.

At this point, the cattlemen and the TravelCenters decided that they could not give me a tally for the full meal. From the advertised description, my hard-working nutrition students estimate this meal would contain perhaps 1200 calories, but who really knows?

I asked USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which is supposed to have approved this promotion as it approves all beef checkoff promotions, for better information. After all, the federal government encourages voluntary disclosure of nutrition facts information, so it would make sense for the feds at least to insist on such disclosure for meals the government itself promotes. They passed me from one person to the next, and finally stopped returning my (very polite!) email and telephone inquiries.

So, the story ends here. In its advertising campaign -- marked with the beef check mark indicating official status as "government speech" -- the federal government encourages Americans to patronize TravelCenters of America and at a rocket-like pace gobble many tens of thousands of the enormous Cowboy Ranch Steak Dinners. But don't be nosy about what's in the meal or what it might do for your health. Neither your government nor its business partners will tell you that.

I hope potential restaurant partners read this coverage before pursuing similar checkoff collaborations in the future. Taking comparatively small sums of money from the government's checkoff program brings scrutiny and expectations of nutrition disclosure that they might have avoided as ordinary private-sector companies pursuing strictly private-sector advertising messages.