Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Senate Farm Bill

Friedman School alum Aimee Witteman from the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition writes at Gristmill that one needn't tar all Farm Bill programs with the same brush. She speaks up for the Sodsaver proposal, which protects grassland, and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which subsidizes sustainable conservation practices but which has been funded at only a fraction of its authorized levels since the program was created in 2002.

Attractive and politically astute reform proposals would steer clear of fatal cuts to the farm programs across the board, but instead use payment caps and income limits to establish sensible and substantial reductions (say, 20-40%?) in the row crop subsidies, with the savings split evenly between deficit reduction and new funding for nutrition programs and the types of conservation programs Aimee recommends.

The Blog for Rural America from the Center for Rural Affairs tries hard to maintain an upbeat attitude on the Farm Bill overall, but comes down very hard on Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), who crosses both party and regional lines to back Southern Republicans in their efforts to pressure committee chair Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) to maintain the status quo and resist stronger reform proposals.
As my colleague John Crabtree pointed out recently, “Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, thinks it is better for his state to work with Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, to defeat the ideas of Tom Harkin, the chair of the committee from Iowa and a member of his own party. Iowa is practically neighbors with North Dakota, for God’s sake. What the hell is wrong with him?”
Perhaps reform-minded, nutrition-minded, conservation-minded, and deficit-reduction-minded residents of North Dakota should make their views heard.

The Senate committee deliberations will be webcast today.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Upcoming talk about checkoff programs

The Department of Health, Behavior, and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has a lively seminar series this Fall, entitled "Changing the Big Picture." At noon on Thursday, Nov. 1, I'll speak about the federal government's commodity checkoff advertising and promotion programs. If you are in Baltimore, or even in DC, I hope you will visit and introduce yourself.

Upcoming talk about the food industry and nutrition

I'll be speaking this Monday, Oct 29, in the afternoon session at the annual Friedman Symposium here in Boston. My talk will offer a food economist's perspective on what type of voluntary measures can reasonably be expected from the food industry in response to nutrition and public health concerns.

Perhaps for balance -- though surely my views are sober enough standing on their own -- I'm being paired opposite a gentleman from Unilever.

There is a fairly high registration fee, despite the symposium's generous support from DSM Nutrition Products, The Coca-Cola Company, Frito-Lay, Mars North America, United Soybean Board, Wyeth, Cadbury-Schweppes, Dannon, National Fisheries Institute, Ocean Spray, Safeway, U.S. Potato Board, Wrigley Science Institute, Blue Cross/BlueShield of Massachusetts, Egg Nutrition Center, Kraft, National Yogurt Association, and the Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition. I will offer a free U.S. Food Policy TV post with a condensed version of my talk. Still, I hope you will attend if you can.

Senate Farm Bill news

The Senate Agriculture Committee has scheduled its consideration of the Farm Bill for tomorrow, Wed, October 24. The committee chair, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), is holding a press conference today to describe his draft (view online).

The FarmPolicy blog reviews major media reports on several of the key issues to be decided.

One issue is whether farm subsidies will continue to go disproportionately to the largest and richest farmers. Sen. Harkin is expected to propose an income eligibility limit of $750,000 per year, which would not affect many farmers. For comparison, the House earlier passed a limit of $1 million per year (and double that for married couples), which would affect even fewer farmers. A stronger reform proposal to watch comes from Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Charles Grassley (R-IA), who propose an income cap of $125,000 (and double for married couples). Under this proposal, the federal government would help subsidize low-income, middle-income, and upper-middle-income farmers. High-income farmers would still get our admiration, good wishes, and food dollars, but not our tax money.

An even more dramatic reform proposal is summarized in the Washington Post this morning.
An alternative exists, in the form of a bill being prepared by Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.). Their proposal would replace the existing array of subsidies for favored commodities with government-funded crop insurance that would cover all farms and ranches, whether they grow strawberries or soybeans. Farmers would get paid if, but only if, their incomes in a given year dropped at least 15 percent below the previous five years' average in their respective counties. This is still an incredibly sweet deal; what other American industry can count on federally funded protection from the vicissitudes of capitalism? But it would save $20 billion over five years, money that Mr. Lugar and Mr. Lautenberg propose to spend on deficit reduction, nutrition and a soil conservation program that pays farmers to restore wetlands and wildlife habitats.
The Post editorial's subheading today was: "Congress gets ready to flub farm subsidy reform again." I'm neither naive nor hopeless. The status quo proposal in the House seemed politically fragile, barely squeaking through the floor vote with great gobs of bacon grease. It is not obvious to me what will happen in the Senate.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

National Pork Board removes "Counting Carbs?" slogan and logo from websites

The federal government's National Pork Board recently removed its low-carb marketing slogan and logo from its websites, following my petition to the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service in August.

Although the federal government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee strongly criticized low-carb marketing, and the Dietary Guidelines themselves emphasize calorie balance rather than fad dieting, the government's beef and pork checkoff programs have skirted the edges of low-carb diet promotion for several years.

The Pork Board's low-carb slogan and logo were still on the Pork Board's websites last month.

The explicit low-carb marketing cannot be found there now.

Lloyd Day, administrator of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, responded to my petition in a letter dated October 11.
In response to your concerns regarding the "Counting Carbs? Pork's Perfect" slogan, which you identified on a Board Web site, AMS contacted the Board and determined they are no longer using this slogan or symbol in any advertisements. This 1-year campaign ran in 2003 in conjunction with the low-carbohydrate diet trend, and the Web site you referenced has been inactive since 2003 and consequently removed.
The Pork Board’s website for food services formerly recommended low carb marketing: “There’s no denying that the low-carbohydrate/high-protein phenomena has taken the food world by storm. According to some reports, up to 50 million consumers have tried some type of low-carbohydrate diet plan.” The website favorably quoted a “leading” chef, Marlin Kaplan, saying, “There’s no denying this diet. If you are a restaurant operator not offering high-protein, low-carb options on your menu, then you are not listening to your customer.”

In his response to my petition this month, Mr. Day said that the Pork Board's campaign did not promote a low carb diet or lifestyle.
Regarding all of the Board's campaigns, AMS takes special precaution to review promotional materials before they are released to the public. In the case you referenced, AMS concluded that the Board was not promoting a low-carbohydrate diet or lifestyle, but instead promoting pork as an alternative to other protein products for consumers that have elected a low-carbohydrate diet or lifestyle.
The success of this recent petition, and an earlier public-interest group petition to end high-calcium fad-diet marketing for dairy products, is likely to be followed by further public interest in making sure the USDA-sponsored checkoff programs are consistent with the federal government's Dietary Guidelines.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Removing the Red Tape from the Carrots

Yesterday, the NYTimes reported on the difficult and rewarding nature of trying to get local foods into schools, by overcoming tangible barriers and bureaucratic obstacles in Local Carrots with a Side of Red Tape.

The article illustrates the large example of the NYC School System which has tried to use its tremendous purchasing power to help many of the struggling fruit and vegetable farmers of New York state. This video features a smaller scale example in MA.

The article makes brief mention of the policies which currently make it difficult for the 10,874 [and counting] schools across the country that are part of the Farm to School movement to source school food locally, which brings us back to...drumroll, please: THE FARM BILL

In case readers of this blog don't have enough other reasons to care about the Farm Bill--which is scheduled to be debated by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee next Tuesday, Oct 23--with farm and conservation payments, organic research, food stamps and the myriad other items up for negotiation, the ability for schools to request local foods for school meals is a small item of great import to be included in the draft of the Farm Bill due out any day now.

Specifically, all schools that receive federal dollars for school meal (lunch, breakfast, after-school, summer, etc.) purchases must follow a federal bidding process, also called procurement, and therefore have historically needed to comply with a federal ban on geographic preference for procurement. In the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress included language encouraging schools to purchase local foods. Yet, apparently the law was not clear enough in its intent to exempt schools from the ban on geographic preferences, and it has been difficult (.pdf) for many schools to prove to the USDA that they should be allowed (.doc) to do so.

Therefore, the House included in its Farm Bill a provision which a) encourages schools to purchase local foods when "practicable and appropriate" and b) makes this exemption from the ban on geographic preferences clear for all school meals. This provision does not provide any kind of mandate for local food-- only the option to request it if this is in the interest of the school food service program. Clearly, this is not the only action needed to change the nature of school meals, but many believe it is an important step in the right direction. More info here or at

YouTube coverage of food policy and marketing

What works and what doesn't for children's nutrition and marketing awareness-raising on YouTube?
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine on school nutrition reform (a reader submission by email).

Jeepers Media on Shrek marketing (from Shaping Youth).

A report on the "Nag Factor" study (parts one and two), centering on an extended interview with a marketing strategist.
And for farm policy?
Oxfam on farm subsidy reform (from Mulch). Here's an earlier longer more understated piece from Oxfam, focusing on what's at stake for African farmers.

Robert Reich on the Farm Bill

Here's Robert Reich's blog under the headline, "Nix the Farm Bill":
I’ve got a way to reduce global poverty, decrease the number of workers crossing our borders illegally, save American taxpayers money, and cut your supermarket bill -- in one fell swoop. How? Get rid of US farm subsidies and tariffs.

They were supposed to be a temporary remedy for small farmers during the Depression. But, renewed every five years regardless of which party controls Congress, farm subsidies keep going and going. They've been costing taxpayers some $11 billion a year. The Senate is now considering the latest version, and it's hardly better than what's come before.

Look, I have no problem insuring small farmers against major losses. But farm subsidies go mostly to big agribusinesses that hardly need them.

But the big problem isn't just the waste of taxpayer money. Americans -- including the US media and even Washington politicos -- tend to regard agriculture policy as the exclusive domain of legislators from farm states. Yet our farm policy is the single most damaging thing we're doing to the world's poor. Ending farm subsidies and tariffs would be the single most important thing we could do to reduce global poverty.
I found Reich's commentary on the inquisitive nutrition-oriented food blog, Fanatic Cook.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

WTO rules against U.S. policies that discourage fruit and vegetable production on land that gets crop subsidies

From a nutrition perspective, the most blatantly counter-productive U.S. farm subsidy policy may be the prohibition against growing fruits and vegetables on land that is eligible for direct subsidy payments.

This is a bit complicated, so bear with me.

Farm subsidies used to be criticized for encouraging overproduction of major row crops, such as corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton, because farmers could earn more subsidies by growing more of the crop. The overproduction harmed the environment and immiserated poor farmers in developing countries by suppressing world prices for these crops. To partly -- and only partly -- remedy these problems, beginning in the 1996 and 2002 farm bills, a portion of the subsidies were converted to "direct payments," which were based on a farmer's historical production rather than current production. These direct payments were supposed to solve the problem of encouraging overproduction, because farmers could earn billions of dollars of these welfare-style payments even without growing the crop.

However, fruit and vegetable lobbyists were concerned that corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton farmers would begin growing fruits and vegetables while collecting direct payments. This would increase the supply of fruits and vegetables and suppress their prices.

From a nutrition perspective, that would be great! But, the fruit and vegetable industries are more powerful than the nutrition lobby, so they convinced Congress to prohibit farmers from growing fruits and vegetables on land that qualified for direct subsidy payments.

This prohibition is just one of the issues at stake in the important Brazil cotton case. See today and an excellent Congressional Research Service (.pdf) report last month for the full story. Brazil argued that the fruit and vegetable prohibitions meant the direct payments continued to distort U.S. farmers' planting decisions and harm the interests of farmers in Brazil. The WTO agreed. The United States took half-steps toward fixing problems with the cotton subsidy programs, but these half-steps did not include repealing the fruit and vegetable prohibition. Even the new House-passed Farm Bill fails to repeal the prohibition.

This week, news reports say a compliance panel of the WTO has ruled that the half-steps taken by the United States do not suffice. The fruit and vegetable prohibitions continue to violate our country's world trade commitments. The consequence may be that the WTO will allow Brazil legally to impose trade barriers against U.S. export industries.

So here's my question. How many Americans in these export industries will lose their jobs so that Congress can protect this grand principle: preventing farmers from growing fruits and vegetables?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Shrek, the two-headed ogre

To my grandmother, "schreck" meant something frightful. The newer word "Offul" means a media message so bad, you just want to turn it off.

The cartoon character Shrek last week won the "Offul" award from Common Sense Media for his participation in dozens of awful junk-food marketing messages and, simultaneously, the Ad Council's public health commercial promoting physical activity.

See the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Boston Globe for more coverage of the charming green ogre's two-headed character. Hat tip to the Shaping Youth blog.

See the cereal with 15g sugar in a single one-cup serving!


World Food Day

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

U.S. Food Policy TV (episode 2): Interview with Brian Wansink

Brian Wansink is author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. In this interview, we discuss the Ig Nobel Award in Nutrition, the Bottomless Soup Bowl, the McSubway Study, the misleading power of the "Halo Effect," and whether it is hopeless to seek to change food and nutrition policy.

The first episode of U.S. Food Policy TV appeared in August. We are still on the steep part of our learning curve here.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Spin time: nutrition research sponsored by National Pork Board

Women on a normal-protein no-meat diet lost weight at least as quickly as did women on a high-pork-protein diet, according to research that was funded, paradoxically, by the federal government's National Pork Board.

In the study, published in the February issue of the journal Obesity, 46 women were randomly assigned to either a normal protein diet with no meat or a high protein diet with above-normal amounts of pork protein. For both groups, the diet had very low amounts of total calories, 750 kcal per day below estimated energy needs for weight maintenance. [Update 11/18/2008: corrected statistic on calorie deficit].

The authors of the study were Heather J. Leidy, Nadine S. Carnell, Richard D. Mattes, and Wayne W. Campbell of Purdue University.

The women with normal-protein no-meat diets lost 9.5 kilograms of body weight in 12 weeks. Those with the high-pork-protein diet lost only 8.1 kilograms of body weight in the same period. The difference in weight loss was not statistically significant.

The new study corroborates a large body of research showing that drastic calorie-reduction diets of any flavor can show weight loss in a 12-week period, but such diets offer most women little hope for long-term weight loss.

For both groups of women in the study, most of weight loss was due to losing something other than lean body mass. Presumably, they lost fat or water mass. A much smaller amount of the weight loss was due to losing lean body mass. The normal protein no-meat group lost 2.8 kilograms of lean body mass (from 43.3 kg to 40.8 kg), while the high-pork-protein group lost 1.5 kilograms of lean body mass (from 43.0 kg to 41.5 kg).

How would you spin these results if you were the National Pork Board?

See the headline: "Checkoff-Funded Study with Lean Pork Reveals Protein’s Power to Preserve Lean Body Mass during Weight Loss."

It gets worse. The checkoff program's press release claims that women on the high-pork-protein diet "retained nearly double the amount of lean body mass." You might look at the numbers above -- showing lean body mass of 40.8 kg for the normal protein no-meat group and 41.5 kg for the high-pork-protein group -- and ask, in what sense did the latter group retain nearly double the amount of lean body mass? But you just lack the right amount of imagination: the high-pork-protein group retained nearly "double" the lean body mass, because its lean-body-mass loss of 1.5 kg is slightly more than half the loss of 2.8 kg for the normal protein no-meat group.

This nonsense just contributes to the public confusion. By supporting this type of scientifically empty public relations campaign, administered by the semi-governmental checkoff programs, the federal government tragically undermines its own respected research program in human nutrition.

What happened to the VERB program?

A report from the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies earlier this year sharply criticized the federal government for its failure to support a major social marketing campaign to encourage physical activity among "tweens" -- the age group just before teenage years.

According to the report -- Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity: How Do We Measure Up? -- the Center for Disease Control's VERB campaign had some early signs of success. Kids who were aware of the campaign had higher levels of physical activity. More definitive evaluations were ongoing.

Yet, federal support for the program was reduced in the early part of the current decade, even as concern about childhood nutrition and physical activity was increasing.
Federal funding for the campaign was $125 million in FY 2001, reduced to $68 million in FY 2002, $51 million in FY 2003, $36 million in FY 2004, and increased to $59 million in FY 2005. Over the 5-year period the VERB campaign, the average cost was $68 million/year.
Other reports indicated that the program was in danger of losing funding altogether, and I can't find recent funding statistics on the Internet. Here's a 2006 report from the Wall Street Journal.

In unusually severe language for a National Academies report, the authors wrote this year:
The termination of an adequately funded, well-designed, and effective program to increase physical activity and combat childhood obesity calls into question the commitment to obesity prevention within government and by multiple stakeholders who could have supported the continuity of the VERB campaign through diverse representation.
Do any of you know the rest of the story of the VERB campaign?

Unlimited estate tax exemption for farmers?

Under current law, farmers who leave $4 million per-couple in nominal farm assets to their heirs do not have to pay any estate taxes. Because of provisions that let them value their farms at less than full market value, some farmers can leave farms whose full value is almost $6 million to their heirs without paying estate taxes. Despite the rhetoric of estate tax opponents, there is no evidence that any farmers nationwide have to sell their land to pay estate taxes.

Yet, estate tax opponents in the House and Senate have proposed an unlimited estate tax exemption for farmers. In other words, farms would be treated differently from all other assets, and farmers could leave to their heirs even the largest landed estates without paying estate taxes.

If farmers are already well protected under current law, what motivates the estate tax opponents behind this proposal?

The answer is: it's not about the farmers. This proposal offers a loophole for billionaires in other lines of work to leave great wealth to their heirs, without paying estate taxes, by buying up farmland. The foreseeable consequence will be higher farm land prices and, paradoxically, greater challenges for young farmers who want to take up their parents' and grandparents' honorable work on the land.

Read the report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for the full story.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Should the government improve food safety regulations for leafy greens?

At industry request, as a result of the E. coli outbreak in leafy greens last fall, the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA announced Thursday its intention to create future regulation of leafy greens to supplement the FDA's food safety regulations. It is unclear what the actual nature of this regulation would be, but the ANPR (advanced notice of proposed rule) describes:
the establishment of a marketing program to address the handling of fresh and freshcut leafy green vegetables. The program would allow packers, processors, shippers, and marketers (collectively referred to as handlers) to maintain the quality of their products by reducing the risk of pathogenic contamination during the production and handling of leafy greens.
and is soliciting public comments about whether they should create such a program and if so, what the implementation would look like, by December 3, 2007. Comments can be submitted to

Friday, October 05, 2007

Meat Inspection Roundup

After learning about food safety in Parke's U.S. Food Policy course last week, I've been seeing it rear its head everywhere, from the supermarket to Capitol Hill. Much of what makes the news involves problems with regulation of food safety- yet nobody seems to have the perfect solution:

The much maligned USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) seems to be falling down on the job of federal meat inspection:
  • Topps frozen hamburgers is going out of business due to the September 25th recall of its meat, which was announced 18 days after USDA authorities recognized an outbreak of E.coli 0157:H7.
Farm Bill to Allow Interstate Meat Shipment?
While Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) plans to propose an amendment to the farm bill to streamline federal food safety regulation by phasing out the current system in two years, the issue receiving the most attention is interstate shipment of state-inspected meat, which Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) added to the House farm bill and wants to be included in the Senate bill. According to supporters like Peterson, the provision would help smaller meat processors, many of which serve growing niche markets like organic and grass-fed.

Opponents, including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Food & Water Watch are concerned that the provision will weaken food safety standards, despite the fact that state inspections are required by law to meet the same standards as federal inspection, according to Elanor (a recent Tufts Nutrition Alum) over at the Ethicurean. Boxer has threatened to block the Senate farm bill if this provision, which Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) does not currently have in his bill, is included. More on the debate from Ethicurean and DanOwens at the CFRA.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

An okay part of Barbara Kingsolver's recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, is the author's perspective on the big issues of the day:
"How do you encourage people to keep their hope," Joan asked, "but not their complacency?"
But the more memorable passages are the simpler telling anecdotes.

The Kingsolver family of four left drought-stressed Arizona, where lack of rainfall prevented environmentally sound food choices, for the old family farm in Appalachia, where they could spend 12 months eating and growing local food. The first stop on the road trip was, paradoxically, to buy fuel.

Here is the conversation between the cashier at the gas station food mart and Kingsolver's husband, Steven:
"Dang," she said, it's going to rain."

"I hope so," Steven said.

She turned her scowl from the window to Steven. This bleached-blond guardian of gas pumps and snack food was not amused. "It better not, is all I can say."

"But we need it," I pointed out. I am not one to argue with cashiers, but the desert was dying, and this was my very last minute as a Tucsonan. I hated to jinx it with bad precipitation-karma.

"I know that's what they're saying, but I don't care. Tomorrow's my first day off in two weeks, and I want to wash my car."

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Advertisements against commercialism?

What do you make of advertisements that mock or criticize commercialism?

For example, there's a funny REI print ad in magazines recently, picturing a couple whose tent is pitched in front of a gorgeous mountain panorama. The sarcastic text recounts the supposed virtues of the plasma screen TV owned by the couple's friend. It's almost like you're there, the friend says of the TV.

Or consider this advertisement from Dove, mentioned by the adrants blog. The link was accompanied by this striking reflection addressed to the author's fellow marketing professionals:
After watching Dove's new Ogilvy-created commercial, Onslaught, a follow up to Evolution, you might become a bit sickened you work in an industry that forces impossible ideals down the throats of innocent children. Now if you think that's overstating things a bit, just watch the new commercial. You know it's true.
The tag line is "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does."

A different kind of promotion

I've been promoted to associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, where I direct the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition Program and teach classes in food policy and statistics or econometrics. The blogosphere had a lot of discussion a couple years ago about whether blogging harms the career prospects of junior faculty. In my case, I think the blog neither helped nor hurt, but I am relieved that it is tolerated and was not held against me at this university. After leading international policy scholar and blogger Daniel Drezner had his "bad day" at the University of Chicago, he was quickly snapped up by a university with a strong ideal of civic engagement: Tufts again.

Monday, October 01, 2007

How effective is generic pork advertising?

Generic pork advertising, such as the “Other White Meat” campaign, is far less effective at increasing consumer demand than had previously been reported, according to a new official economic evaluation (.doc) of the National Pork Board released this year. According to the previous official evaluation, released in 2000, a 10% increase in generic pork advertising would lead to a 1.1% increase in the quantity of pork consumed, holding other factors constant. By contrast, the new official evaluation estimates that a 10% increase in generic pork advertising would lead to a 0.21% increase -- one fifth of 1% -- in the quantity of pork consumed.

Because domestic pork consumption is very large, amounting to perhaps $40 billion per year, even a small percentage increase in consumer demand would reflect a large dollar amount. The report's best estimate is that producer benefits equal 10.39 times as much as the promotion costs. However, there was a wide range of uncertainty about that estimate: "We found benefit-cost ratios to be positive for all point estimates of Program activities and combinations of
activities, but some of our return measures can be measured only imprecisely." The authors reported that the true benefit-cost ratio could be anywhere from 58 to no benefit at all. They estimated a 78 percent probability that the checkoff promotions had a favorable benefit-cost ratio for producers.

The benefit for producers comes partly from an increase in the quantity demanded and partly from a modest increase in the price of pork, which of course is a harm to consumers rather than a true net gain for society. The net social benefit or loss -- reflecting the program's consequences for consumers as well as producers -- was not reported in the conclusions of the report.

The new evaluation used data for 1987 to 2005, while the previous evaluation used data from the years 1987 to 1998. For comparison, the new study broke out separate results for the earlier years. The new study estimated that in 1987 to 1998 a 10% increase in generic pork advertising would lead to a 0.18% increase in the quantity of pork consumed, less than one fifth as big an effect as had previously been estimated. The authors of the new study, commissioned by the National Pork Board from the Research Triangle Institute and North Carolina State University, said the earlier official economic evaluation had been cited in the economic literature as “a case of implausibly high promotion elasticity.”

The National Pork Board is a semi-governmental industry organization called a “checkoff” program, created by the U.S. Congress, overseen by a board appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and funded by a tax of about $60 million per year on pork producers. The board’s marketing messages are approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In a 2001 referendum, a majority of pork producers did not vote to approve the continuation of the checkoff program, but a deal between the leading pork industry trade association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture led to the program’s continuation in any case. Congress has required that checkoff programs conduct official economic evaluations every five years. The National Pork Board had widely used the more optimistic estimates from the older 2001 economic evaluation to defend the effectiveness of the pork advertising.

In 2006, the National Pork Board agreed to purchase the intellectual property rights to the “Other White Meat” brand from the pork industry’s private sector trade association, the National Pork Producers Council, for $60 million. In past reporting, U.S. Food Policy has questioned the appraisal on which that payment is based. Both the National Pork Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have refused to share details about the appraisal with U.S. Food Policy. Separately, I have petitioned USDA to stop approving the National Pork Board’s “low carb” fad weight loss diet promotion, which is inconsistent with the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The new study found that generic pork advertising had a bigger effect in reducing consumer demand for beef than it did in increasing consumer demand for pork. The report estimated that a 10% increase in generic pork advertising would lead to a 0.23% decline in consumer demand for beef, all else equal. Agricultural economists call this pattern the “beggar thy neighbor” consequence of generic commodity advertising.

The National Pork Board shared the full economic evaluation in response to my email request. I shared a draft of this post with the board for comment. Michael Wegner, the vice president of communications for the National Pork Board, forwarded a response from an economist who consults for the board. He disagreed with the post. He suggested it is misleading to report elasticities such as those reported in the lead paragraph, because they compare a percentage increase in advertising expenditure to a percentage increase in the much larger dollar value of total demand for pork. These elasticities were included among the "key results" in the executive summary of the report. He also advised that I add the figure in the second paragraph, showing that there is a 78 percent probability that the benefit-cost ratio is favorable to producers, which he described as "not bad at all." He objected to my description of the 2001 referendum, which "make it sound like this was some sort of backroom deal." Instead, he described USDA's conduct of that referendum as "ridiculous" and corrupted. Mr. Wegner added in a subsequent email that the board's public opinion polling suggests that 73 percent of producers support the checkoff program.

Short links

The September issue of Scientific American has a special on nutrition and food policy issues, including writing by Marion Nestle, Barry Popkin, Paul Raeburn, Fuzhi Cheng, and Per Pinstrup-Andersen.

Because we covered the restaurant industry in U.S. Food Policy class last week, a student forwarded an article in Slate earlier this year about Sysco, a company that sells more of the restaurant food you eat than you may realize.

I like linking to blogs whose authors comment at U.S. Food Policy. It gives me a chance to share with readers part of a conversation that is endlessly interesting, in part because of the differences in perspective and emphasis. Granny Miller is an agrarian philosopher, home canner, and Ron Paul fanatic. The Sugar Shock! Blog -- an accompaniment to Connie Bennett's book -- takes on bad carbs and their providers. "What do vegans eat?" is a group blog full of vegan recipes. [Update: I forgot to mention, with a nice mix of food blogging and commentary.]

NPR's Bonny Wolf, host of the Kitchen Window podcast, reports on the high standard set by a small number of colleges whose dining halls emphasize great food from local sources. Is healthy food too severe a regimen for today's college students? Consider Bowdoin, where the local food is Maine lobster!