Thursday, July 31, 2008

Restraining trans fats in Massachusetts restaurants

The Massachusetts Senate shortly may take up a bill passed by the House (HB 4346), which would ban artificial trans fats in restaurants. The small amount of naturally occurring trans fats in food would not be affected. Like saturated fats, or perhaps worse, trans fats appear to affect blood cholesterol in a way that increases the risk of heart disease. Because heart disease is a leading killer, a small improvement in risk can save many lives.

Senate President Therese Murray will try to move this bill shortly, perhaps today, according to David Seltz, a senior policy advisor. (A wonderful thing about State legislatures is that citizens can easily place a call directly to relevant staff on issues like this. Try it yourself on an issue you care about!)

The bill is supported by the American Diabetes Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the American College of Cardiology, the American Academy of Pediatrics, MassPIRG, and the Massachusetts Hospital Association. In the House, HB 4346 was supported by long-time public health and nutrition champion Peter Koutoujian.

Senate minority leader Richard Tisei may oppose the bill. An earlier opinion piece by him worried about "nanny state" implications. In the case of trans fats, these concerns are misplaced. Artificial trans fats are a recent invention with little merit in terms of the taste and food quality goals that consumers seek to achieve by expressing their freedom of choice. Trans fats are disappearing from manufactured foods already, because new labeling rules reveal which food products contain them, and food companies quickly realized that no consumers want trans fats. A similar approach doesn't work in restaurants, because consumers do not have such easy access to nutrition information, so they can't protect their own interests in the restaurant marketplace without government action.

In many cases, good government policy should defer to consumers, but for trans fats the simple and economically reasonable approach is to do away with them. I hope Senator Tisei keeps raising these considerations on other food policy issues, but relaxes his opposition in the case of trans fats.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Interesting blogs

I occasionally get emails about interesting blogs.

Here is chomposaurus, which features astonishing quantities of meat.

Here is Stirring and Whirring, a journey of cookbook writing.

In case you were wondering (I did), chomposaurus is not sponsored by the beef and pork checkoff programs, and Stirring and Whirring's campaign to replace high-fructose corn syrup in soda was not sponsored by cane sugar industry interests.

Far out

The fascinating food behavior researcher Brian Wansink, who was appointed last year to head USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (see earlier post), certainly breaks the mold of previous holders of that position (see my video interview with him last year). The CNPP is responsible for the Dietary Guidelines, MyPyramid, and the Thrifty Food Plan.

An electronic mailing this week from Wansink's Mindless Eating site, with his name at the bottom, invited readers to check out a program of web classes called HealthTeleClass.

The "renowned" teachers include Dr. Tea (owner of an "Herbal Emporium" in LA) ...

... John Basedow (a "fitness celebrity") and John Rowley (a "motivational guru") ...

... Karen Curry (a "long time student of prosperity teachings," who has used them "to create miracles in her own life") and Brad Yates ("internationally known for his creative and often humorous use of EFT").

I don't even know what EFT stands for, unless it is Electronic Funds Transfer.

I am sure these are excellent teachers, and I think it is safe to guess that no endorsement by USDA of this seminar series was implied. Still, I wonder if the upcoming revision of the Dietary Guidelines will be a little less staid than usual.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

FTC estimates the extent of food marketing to children

Using unprecedented data collected through subpoenas to 44 major food and beverage companies, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today estimated that $1.6 billion was spent in 2006 on food marketing to children.

The FTC study, which was requested by Congress, will provide a benchmark or baseline for evaluating marketing changes under the current system of industry self-regulation, especially the effectiveness of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative established in 2006.

That Initiative has been criticized as weak and voluntary, and several major companies including Yum! Brands and Nestle have declined to participate. FTC officials said today that they believed that the Nestle company will announce its participation in the Initiative later today.

The FTC officials said all food companies should join this self-regulatory Initiative and, moreover, that the voluntary company pledges under the Initiative should be seen just as a starting point. Lydia Parnes, who leads the FTC Division of Consumer Protection, quoted SpiderMan: "With great power comes great responsibility."

The data used by the FTC are different and in some ways better than anything else used previously in research on this topic. The FTC subpoenas asked companies to account for not just traditional "measured media," such as television and print advertising, but also the whole gamut of commonly unmeasured marketing techniques. Furthermore, FTC required breakdowns by food category.

FTC reported today that television advertising was 46% of total expenses for marketing to children. Internet advertising is very important in marketing to children, but comparatively inexpensive to produce, accounting for only 5% of expenses. Premiums or prizes were also a modest percentage, unless one counted the toys in fast food meals to children, in which case premiums ranked second only to television advertising.

Mary Engle, who leads the FTC's Division of Advertising Practices, described how companies integrate across media types in supporting a coherent branded message. Children might see an ad on television, for example, and have the message reinforced by packaging on a supermarket shelf. Or, the television ad might send the child toward more marketing at an internet site. The description makes clear that mild restrictions in one setting, such as a pledge to advertise only comparatively healthy products in a particular branded line on television shows for children, can be overcome by using similar branding and images that promote sales of the whole line, including lucrative less healthy products, in a wide variety of other settings.

Updates (late afternoon 7/29):

-- Are the headline writers are a bit weak on the math, or am I missing a subtle distinction of some sort? "Federal Trade Commission: Kids Target of $1 Billion in Food Ads." But what's $600 million between friends?

-- A press release and copy of the report are now on the FTC site.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

High food prices

I didn't notice until this morning that a Reuters report a couple weeks ago quoted me on the food price dilemma:
Ultimately, economists point out that demand for food is simply rising as the world's population grows along with its appetite for higher quality food.

"Higher food prices are here to stay. I don't know if that means that the current high rate of inflation will continue, I just wouldn't expect a substantial retrenchment," said Parke Wilde, an agricultural economist at Tufts University.

"It's a clear signal to people that resources are scarce."
Of course, my guess about future trends is just a guess. The more interesting question is whether an economist's understanding of what prices are makes any sense to anybody else. When I see food prices go up, I think not just of the hardship they cause -- though I do think of that, too -- but also of the signal the prices send about choosing foods that use fewer resources and hence cost less. I also think of the farmers around the world, including some of the poorest people in the world, who benefit from high prices. The tough question, on which comments are welcome, is: "Are high food prices unambiguously bad?"

AAEA / ACCI conference in Orlando, July 27-29

We noted earlier that the AAEA is holding its annual conference this year jointly with the American Council on Consumer Interests (ACCI), in Orlando, FL, this coming week: July 27-29.

To better describe the breadth of its member interests, AAEA is also changing its name from the American Agricultural Economics Association to the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association. The association will keep the same acronym.

I helped organize a symposium session, Hard Hitting and Well-Informed: A Conversation Between Food Safety Policy Advocates and Researchers. A section of the press release from Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America:
Orlando, FL—Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union food safety experts will discuss how new food technologies are also creating potential new risks for Americans at the 2008 ACCI & AAEA Joint Annual Conference, the nation’s largest gathering of consumer researchers and agricultural economists, taking place at the Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando, Florida from July 27 to 29. At 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday, July 29, CFA’s Chris Waldrop and CU’s Dr. Michael Hansen will identify the myriad food challenges facing U.S. consumers in a session in the Boca II room entitled: “Hard Hitting and Well Informed: A Conversation Between Food Safety Policy Advocates and Researchers.”

Food Safety: USDA and FDA Policies toward Bacterial Contamination in Meat
Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, will discuss needed efforts to prevent food-borne illness; providing consumers with better information about recalled food; labeling foods with their country of origin; and establishing a food traceability system that can track foods from the farm to the table. He will outline how consumer advocates will present their case for needed regulations before Congress and federal agencies.

New Food Production Technologies-New Risks
Dr. Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, will discuss genetically engineered food and pharma crops; meat and milk from cloned animals and their offspring; and the use of nanotechnology in food and in food contact substances. He will identify the scientific, ethical, social and safety (human and environmental) issues raised by these new technologies—which are little known by consumers.

The Consumer Policy Symposium, co-sponsored by ACCI and AAEA, is the first in a series that will bring academic consumer researchers and policy activists together to discuss ways to strengthen consumer advocacy through sound, up-to-date research.... More information on this conference and a conference program can be found at and
The AAEA's Food Safety and Nutrition Section will have its annual meeting over breakfast early Tuesday morning. The section's "track" of symposium sessions on interdisciplinary topics related to food, nutrition, and economics, is listed on the section website.

Thomas Hager: The Alchemy of Air

Thomas Hager shares an essay from his forthcoming book, The Alchemy of Air, which explores the implications of the 1909 invention of the Haber-Bosch process for creating nitrogen fertilizer. Without it, for better or worse, there would be no modern agriculture. Here is a sample.
Before Haber-Bosch, there were only two ways to get nitrogen out of the air and into food. One was lightning. But the most important one was the slow, steady process by which a few types of bacteria ate atmospheric nitrogen, broke it apart, and reformed it into substances plants could eat. The process is called bacterial nitrogen fixation. Some of these bacteria set up homes in nodules attached to the roots of plants, notably legumes like peas and beans, forming a symbiotic relationship in which they exchanged their fixed nitrogen for sugars and other food provided by the plants. These bacteria, working for millions of years, slowly built a stockpile of fixed nitrogen that fed most of the earth’s plants, which fed all the animals. Life on earth depended on that stock of fixed nitrogen.

Haber-Bosch turbocharged the process. Today, Haber-Bosch plants produce an amount of fixed nitrogen equivalent to that produced naturally, doubling the amount available on earth. While this massive change in natural cycles means little to the basic composition of the atmosphere -- there is so much N₂ in the air that the amount used by Haber-Bosch is negligible – it does mean a great deal to the biosphere, the places on the earth where life dwells....

Sunday, July 13, 2008

USDA will identify retailers involved in meat recalls

... and Elanor at the Ethicurean explains the information economics.
Score one for access to information.

The USDA announced today that starting next month, it will publicize the names of retail stores that have received shipments of recalled meat and poultry. Up until now, recalls were issued for slaughtering or processing companies; consumers were informed that meat processed at Hallmark-Westland packing plants might have some downer properties, or that Topps ground beef could give you an extra bacterial bang for your buck. If you were actually interested in information that could help you avoid these supplies, though, you’d be out of luck. As Marc reported in a February post, Topps meat was packaged and sold nationally under no fewer than eleven different brand names. And the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service wasn’t going to tell you where the contaminated meat might have been purchased....

The information is particularly important in light of the fact that the USDA can’t actually require companies to recall contaminated meat; they can only ask nicely and issue public warnings. (See Marc’s post for detailed info.) At least they’re giving consumers a shot at self-advocacy.
Thanks for pointing this out, Ashley.

Tell me exactly how bloated ...

A reader drew our attention to this funny paragraph of today's Washington Post story on restaurant menu board labeling in San Francisco. The California Restaurant Association had written a verbose complaint to oppose new labeling requirements.
Warming to the challenge, city attorney Dennis Herrera issued a statement calling the 59-page complaint "nearly as bloated as Burger King's Triple Whopper Sandwich with Cheese (1,230 calories, 82 grams of fat)." Further noting that a federal judge upheld a similar regulation in New York after a trade group asserted that it violated the First Amendment, Herrera termed the irony "as rich as an order of Outback Steakhouse Aussie Cheese Fries with Ranch Dressing (2,900 calories, 182 grams of fat)."
That's bare-knuckled politics! "Agree to the new labeling rules," the city attorney seems to be saying, "or we will use the spotlight on the resulting controversy to remind the public what kind of product you sell."

Friday, July 11, 2008

Will work for food

Washington Post cartoonist Ann Telnaes has really mastered multimedia. She uses images, simple animation, and real-world audio from political speeches to craft cruelly effective political satire. Here is her take on food and fuel prices for Independence Day, but the rest of her recent work is even better.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria (MRSA) in pork?

Ashley from Epicurean Ideal points our attention toward's online coverage of the dangerous Staph bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics.
We know that some strains of MRSA – methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – are extremely dangerous. Dr. Monina Klevens, of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, examined the cases of the disease reported in hospitals, schools and prisons in one year and extrapolated that "94,360 invasive MRSA infections occurred in the United States in 2005; these infections were associated with death in 18,650 cases."

Earlier his year, Dr. Scott Weese, from the Department of Pathobiology at the Ontario Veterinary College told those attending the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases at the CDC that there was a problem. He and his colleagues had found MRSA in 10 percent of 212 samples of pork chops and ground pork bought in four Canadian provinces. Picture

"I think it is very likely that the situation is the same in the U.S.," he told me in a phone interview.

"We've proven MRSA is in pigs and the marketed pork in Canada, and we know that it's also in U.S. pigs. It's inconceivable that it wouldn't also be found in the pork products from those pigs."

This raised a bunch of obvious questions, such as, who exactly is checking to see if antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria is in the 762 million pounds of Canadian pork that's imported into the U.S. each year?

The answer appears to be no one.

It should be the USDA.
One question is whether heavy use of antibiotics in industrial pork farming contributes to the problem. Since the bacteria can be killed by cooking, another question is whether it is still dangerous for people who handle raw pork in the kitchen (perhaps by touching their mouth or eyes while cooking, for example). See also

Monday, July 07, 2008

Nutrient labeling for alcoholic beverages

Quick nutrition science quiz. After carbs (4 kcal per gram), protein (4 kcal per gram), and fats (9 kcal per gram), what is the only other major source of human food energy? The answer is the alcohol in alcoholic beverages.

Yet, alcoholic beverages are exempt from federal nutrient labeling requirements. So, companies must tell you the amount of calories in lemonade, unless the lemonade is alcoholic, in which case you can be left in the dark.

This policy question is in the hands of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the Treasury Department, not the first name in federal sources of nutrition facts information. The TTB last year requested public comment (.pdf) on possible new nutrition labeling rules. Several consumer groups are in favor. On the one hand, with mandatory labeling, I would expect to start to see advertisements exaggerating the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. On the other hand, alcoholic beverages seem a strange class of products to exempt from disclosure rules.

TTB will announce its decision on next steps ... well, ... some day. In the meanwhile, the Consumer Federation of America last month released (.pdf) its own table (.pdf) of nutrition facts for leading products. There are some surprises. To continue the hard lemonade example, I would not have guessed that a serving of Mike's Hard Lemonade contained 220 kcal, about a tenth of a person's food energy needs for a day, mostly in the form of carbohydrates, not alcohol. But, now that I think about it, perhaps I should have guessed. I had one once. It tastes like high fructuse corn syrup.

Activia claims are being questioned

Dannon's popular probiotic yogurt product Activia cannot legally claim to protect against "constipation." If the company made a claim about the relationship between the product and a medical condition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would ask some reasonable questions about whether there is any scientific evidence for the claim.

But, there are ways around such meddlesome standards of consumer protection. Ask yourself, what condition is the company alluding to, in the passages I've bolded below?

Slate quotes the advertising copy from the Activia website ...
Activia helps to naturally regulate your slow intestinal transit.
and a press release a couple years earlier:
Orlando is at a standstill, and we're not talking traffic. According to The Activia Most Irregular Cities Ranking, a recent national survey(1) sponsored by The Dannon Company, the Orlando area(2) is the most irregular market in America. But, Floridians aren't alone. The same research shows that approximately 26 million American adults have experienced irregularity at least once in the last three months.

For the survey, irregularity was defined as that miserable experience of not going to the bathroom for two or more days. More uncomfortable yet, more than half (55 percent) of those reporting irregularity -- more than 12 million adults -- say they have been irregular three or more times over the last three months.

Help is on the way! The Dannon Company is trailblazing a new way to help Americans keep their bodies working like clockwork with the launch of Activia(R), the first and only probiotic yogurt available in the United States that is clinically proven to help naturally regulate the digestive system...
Clinically proven? The Slate article continues: "If you dig a little, Dannon seems aware that the studies it adduces to support Activia's effectiveness are inconclusive."

Thursday, July 03, 2008

FCC considers addressing product placement

From the Consumerist's post on recent FCC activity to consider addressing product placement issues, check out this ridiculous 7th Heaven segment featuring Oreos.

What a peculiarly fraudulent veneer of family values thinly painted over a crass junk food advertisement.

The 2,000-Watt society

In this passage from a fascinating article this week in the New Yorker, a group of Swiss scientists pose the question, what level of per capita energy use would be sustainable?
The answer they came up with—two thousand watts per person—furnished the name for a new project: the 2,000-Watt Society.

“What it’s important, I think, to know is that the 2,000-Watt Society is not a program of hard life,” the director of the project, Roland Stulz, told me when I went to speak to him at his office, in the Zurich suburb of Dübendorf. “It is not what we call Gürtel enger schnallen”—belt tightening—“it’s not starving, it’s not having less comfort or fun. It’s a creative approach to the future.” ...

One way to think about the 2,000-Watt Society is in terms of light bulbs. Let’s say you turn on twenty lamps, each with a hundred-watt bulb. Together, the lamps will draw two thousand watts of power. Left on for a day, they will consume forty-eight kilowatt-hours of energy; left on for a year, they will consume seventeen thousand five hundred and twenty kilowatt-hours. A person living a two-thousand-watt life would consume in all his activities—working, eating, travelling—the same amount of energy as those twenty bulbs, or seventeen thousand five hundred and twenty kilowatt-hours annually.

Most of the people in the world today consume far less than this. The average Bangladeshi, for example, uses only about twenty-six hundred kilowatt-hours a year—this figure includes all forms of energy, from electricity to transportation fuel—which is the equivalent of using roughly three hundred watts continuously. The average Indian uses about eighty-seven hundred kilowatt-hours a year, making India a one-thousand-watt society, while the average Chinese uses about thirteen thousand kilowatt-hours a year, making China a fifteen-hundred-watt society.