Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Corn Refiner's Association industry response

Thank you to reader Jack Everitt for a comment on the post High fructose corn syrup contaminated with mercury and other food safety news.

Jack pointed out the industry's quick response to the mercury research allegations. You can read the press release at their website They say the study is outdated and of 'dubious significance.'
WASHINGTON, DC – The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) today challenged the relevance and accuracy of information published by Environmental Health asserting that certain tests found measurable levels of mercury in high fructose corn syrup.

“This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance. Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two re-agents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years. These mercury-free re-agents perform important functions, including adjusting pH balances,” stated Audrae Erickson, President, Corn Refiners Association. “For more than 150 years, corn wet millers have been perfecting the process of refining corn to make safe ingredients for the American food supply.”

“It is important that Americans are provided accurate, science-based information. They should know that high fructose corn syrup is safe,” continued Erickson. “In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally listed high fructose corn syrup as safe for use in food and reaffirmed that decision in 1996.”

“High fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets FDA’s requirements for the use of the term ‘natural.” Erickson said.

CRA is the national trade association representing the corn refining (wet milling) industry of the United States. CRA and its predecessors have served this important segment of American agribusiness since 1913. Corn refiners manufacture sweeteners, ethanol, starch, bioproducts, corn oil, and feed products from corn components such as starch, oil, protein, and fiber.
In comments on the same post and elsewhere, reader extramsg cautions against alarmism and points out Marion Nestle's nuanced summary.

[Note: Updated slightly Jan 29]

High fructose corn syrup contaminated with mercury and other food safety news

I can't wait to see the new ad-campaign to try to wiggle out of this one. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has issued a report, Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup, revealing that mercury was found in nearly 50 percent of tested samples of commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The research article was published January 26th in the scientific journal, Environmental Health by Renee Dufault et al. From the IATP report:
What she found was that possible mercury contamination of these food chemicals was not common knowledge within the food industry despite the availability of product specification sheets for mercury-grade caustic soda that clearly indicate the presence of mercury (as well as lead, arsenic and other metals). Upon further investigation, she found mercury contamination in some commercial HFCS, which can be made from mercury-grade caustic soda.

Through this public scientist’s initiative, the FDA learned that commercial HFCS was contaminated with mercury. The agency has apparently done nothing to inform consumers of this fact, however, or to help change industry practice.Consumers likely aren’t the only ones in the dark. While HFCS manufacturers certainly should have been wary of buying “mercury- grade” caustic soda in the first place, the food companies that buy finished HFCS and incorporate it into their processed food products may be equally unaware of how their HFCS is made, i.e., whether or not it is made from chemicals produced by a chlorine plant still using mercury cells.

The HFCS isn’t labeled “Made with mercury,” just like contaminated pet foods, chocolates and other products have not been labeled “Made with melamine.” Under current regulations, that information is not made available to either consumers or to companies further down the food supply chain.

When we learned of this gap in information, we set out to do the FDA’s work for it. We went to supermarkets and identified brand-name products—mainly soft drinks, snack foods and other items mostly marketed to children—where HFCS was the first or second ingredient on the label.

We sent several dozen products to a commercial laboratory, using the latest in mercury detection technology. And guess what? We found mercury. In fact, we detected mercury in nearly one in three of the 55 HFCS-containing food products we tested. They include some of the most recognizable brands on supermarket shelves: Quaker, Hunt’s, Manwich, Hershey’s, Smucker’s, Kraft, Nutri-Grain and Yoplait.

No mercury was detected in the majority of beverages tested. That may be important since sweetened beverages are one of the biggest sources of HFCS in our diets. On the other hand, mercury was found at levels several times higher than the lowest detectable limits in some snack bars, barbecue sauce, sloppy joe mix, yogurt and chocolate syrup. Although closer to the detection limit, elevated mercury levels were also found in some soda pop, strawberry jelly, catsup and chocolate milk. The top mercury detections are summarized in Table 3, on page 14 of the report.
Environmental mercury from chlorine plants, coal-fired power plants, dental offices and other sources have helped contaminate albacore tuna, swordfish and many of our favorite fish with mercury. Eating these fish has long been thought to be the most important mercury exposure for most people.

However, HFCS now appears to be a significant additional source of mercury, one never before considered. When regulators set safe fish consumption recommendations based on an understanding of existing mercury exposure, for example, they never built mercury contaminated HFCS into their calculations. HFCS as a mercury source is a completely avoidable problem. HFCS manufacturers don’t need to buy mercury-grade caustic soda. And the chlorine industry doesn’t need to use mercury cell technology. In fact, most chlorine plants in the U.S. don’t use it anymore, as it is antiquated and inefficient.

While we wait for the FDA to do its job and eliminate this unnecessary and completely preventable mercury contamination, we have a few suggestions for what you as consumers and voters can do.

Currently, food manufacturers don’t list on their products the source of HFCS and whether or not it is made from mercury-grade caustic soda. So call them. Make use of the toll-free numbers or Web sites on many packages, and let companies know you’re not comfortable eating their product until you know exactly what is in it. As voters, call your elected officials and ask them for hearings to find out why the FDA is not protecting us from mercury in HFCS.

Also, ask these officials to reintroduce legislation originally proposed by then-Senator Barack Obama a few years ago that will force the remaining chlorine plants to transition to cleaner technologies. Because even if they stop providing the caustic soda used for HFCS, their mercury pollution is still contaminating our food system as it falls on farm fields and waterways.
Tom Philpot at the Grist also covers this topic in Some heavy metal with that sweet roll? Seems to me the house of cards is falling with food safety. In the FDA's spotlight is salmonella in peanut butter from mildew in peanut butter plants, melamine in dry milk from China, and the myriad of meat contamination, with its sights probably on the newest report of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) being found in swine and swine farmers in the Netherlands and Canada. The more of these reports that continue to surface, the more people will be looking towards alternative food systems.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A letter to U.S. Food Policy from Professor Harry Kaiser

In a recent article on this blog, Professor Wilde referred to a study that Kent Messer, William Schulze, and I conducted on designing voluntary food checkoff programs that sustain high levels of participation. In particular, Wilde was very critical of one paragraph in our study:
One might question the social importance and magnitude of under-provision of advertising for generic commodities. However, contrast the public health impacts from the types of foods associated with the majority of branded advertising, such as soda, beer, chips, and candy, to the types of foods that now benefit from mandatory generic advertising, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, chicken, pork, beef, and milk. Not only do the generic commodities comprise the key nutritional elements of the United States Department of Agriculture food pyramid but these commodities also tend to be low in fat and salt (in comparison to branded snack foods and restaurant meals) and represent the bulk of what might be called the components of a healthy diet. If generic advertising for agricultural commodities collapses because mandatory programs are declared unconstitutional, the "Dancing Raisins" will be gone and the vast majority of ads for snacks will be for chips, cookies, and candy. Given important health problems such as obesity, juvenile diabetes, and osteoporosis, the under-funding of generic commodity advertising has serious public health consequences.
Professor Wilde did not buy our argument justifying generic advertising for generic commodities, arguing:
Years of previous coverage here (and here) cast doubt on the claim that checkoff advertising is largely consistent with federal dietary guidance. The dancing raisins comparison is misleading, since a tiny fraction of checkoff advertising is for fruits and vegetables, while much of the funding is for high fat beef and pork and cheese. I don't think there even is a federal checkoff program for raisins. Raisins are not mentioned in Becker's CRS report (.pdf). Perhaps those ads were from a California state level board? If you believe that the checkoff programs are mostly about skim milk, not cheese, you've been hoodwinked by the public relations. I am not sure where the "low fat" comment came from -- federal dietary guidance gives greatest importance to saturated fat rather than total fat, and the products covered by checkoff programs are disproportionally high contributors to saturated fat in U.S. diets, compared to foods not covered by checkoff programs. And, how could lower checkoff advertising possibly lead to obesity? This is a very, very bad paragraph.
We do not share Wilde’s view that this is a very, very bad paragraph. Rather, we continue to believe that the nutritional state of consumers in the United States would be worse without generic food advertising programs. Here’s why.

The ERS publication, Amber Waves, recently reported the results of a study that indicates average per capita daily caloric intake in the United States has increased by a whopping 523 calories since 1970. It is no wonder we have an obesity problem with such a significant increase in caloric intake. However, when you examine the breakdown of changes in specific categories of foods consumed, which is provided in the table below, it becomes clear that there is no link between the introduction of generic food advertising and obesity. Wilde correctly points out that a sizable proportion of generic food advertising is for fluid milk, cheese, beef, and pork, but look at how caloric intake has changed for these categories since 1970. Dairy is actually down 11 calories per person per day, and meat, eggs, and nuts is up by only 24 calories. So to blame generic food advertising for changes in fluid milk, dairy, beef, and pork per capita consumption is a weak argument since there was basically no change in consumption of these commodities since 1970.

It appears from this table that the real culprit in increasing obesity is the tremendous increase in consumption of fat and oils, which increased by 216 calories since 1970. I am not aware of any significant generic advertising program for fats and oils. Our caloric intake of sugar and sweeteners also increased a sizable 76 calories over this period, and while there is a voluntary generic sugar advertising program, it is very small, and probably had little to no impact on this increase. My guess is that most of the increase in sugar, fats, and oils calories is due to us consuming a lot more soda, candy, junk food and fast food than we consumed in 1970. A major contributor to this change in consumption habits is the huge amount of brand advertising for these items, which completely overshadows the amount of generic food advertising.

Wilde asks: “how could a decrease in generic advertising possibly lead to obesity?” The answer is generic advertising of agricultural commodities has basically been a defensive strategy by our nation’s agricultural producers to stabilize tremendous losses in market share lost to increasing soda, chips, candy, and fast food consumption. For example, one of the major reasons dairy farmers initiated generic milk advertising in the mid-1980s was to combat huge losses in market share to Coca Cola, Pepsi, and other soda companies that were outspending the American Dairy Association by a ratio of 16 to 1 (Leading National Advertisers, 1980-1984). From 1970 to 2001, annual per capita soda consumption more than doubled, increasing from 21.9 gallons in 1970 to 54.3 gallons in 1999 (Beverage Marketing Corporation). Over that same time period, annual per capita consumption of fluid milk products decreased over threefold from 25 to 8 gallons (Putnam and Allshouse, 2003). Much of the loss in milk consumption over this period was the result of aggressive advertising (and other promotional strategies) by soda companies, which continue to outspend milk advertising by a substantial amount. For example, in 2003, even with a mandatory program, total soda advertising ($1.25 billion) was still 6.5 times the combined amount spent by dairy farmers and milk processors ($193 million) (Leading National Advertisers, 2003). Unfortunately, in 2007 combined generic fluid milk advertising has fallen to about $80 million, along with per capita fluid milk consumption, while obesity continues to rise.

We agree with Professor Wilde that there could be improvements in mandatory generic advertising programs for food. More emphasis should be given to healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables and lower fat products. There has been some progress in this area over the last ten years. There are now more generic advertising programs for fruits and vegetables than there were in the past. There is generic advertising for the majority of fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States. In the past, generic milk advertising did not differentiate among whole, reduced fat, low fat, and skim milk, and now we are seeing more examples of skim and lowfat “milk mustache” advertisements. At the same time, there are some examples of promotional efforts that are not consistent with nutrition guidelines, and we support efforts to promote lower fat products like lowfat and skim milk, lowfat cheese, and leaner cuts of beef and pork. But our point has always been that generic advertising of healthy food is a desirable feature of these mandatory, self-help programs.

The ERS per capita data represent the amount of calories available for consumption after adjusting for spoilage, plate waste, and other losses in the home or marketing system.

Harry M. Kaiser
Gellert Family Professor of
Applied Economics and Management
Cornell University

Vilsack names top advisors and 48 other appointments

The patiently awaited announcement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has arrived as he releases his chief of staff, and deputy chief of staff as well as 48 other appointments filling key points at USDA.

Drum roll please!

Chief of Staff is John Norris. According to the press release:
John Norris has been chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board since 2005 and served as Governor Vilsack's first chief of staff in 1999. He served as Senator John Kerry's Iowa Caucus Campaign Manager and as National Field Director for the Kerry-Edwards Campaign. He was the Democratic nominee for Iowa's Third Congressional District in 2002. Norris is a graduate of Simpson College and the University of Iowa Law School. He also served as state director of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition in the mid-1980's. He is married to Jackie Norris, who serves as Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama. They have three sons.
Deputy Chief of Staff is Carole Jett.
Carole Jett recently left federal service after 33 years to participate on the Obama Agriculture campaign team in Indiana and served as Co-Lead of the President's Transition Team USDA Agency Review Group. She served as Farm Bill Coordinator for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) prior to her retirement. Previously, she led the NRCS 2002 Farm Bill implementation effort and served on assignment with the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee.
Sarah Wyant at Agri-pulse has collected a list the 48 other appointees. As far as I can tell, I don't see any of the "sustainable dozen that Food Democracy Now has petitioned for in the last few months. As Jill Richardson points out on La Vida Locavore, many of the positions have "acting" in front of them, meaning they are doing the job until they are official appointed or replaced.

Vilsack's first line of business was repealing the proposed $3 million dollar cut to the Fruit and Vegetable Program, proposed by the previous administration. A nice 'good-bye gift,' I guess. He also has extended the comment period for 2008 Farm Bill Farm Program Payment Limitation and Payment Eligibility rulemaking process. Vilsack discussed his priorities in a teleconference call:

"Let's be clear - in no way is this move(extending the comment period) a signal that we will modify the rules for the 2009 crop year," Vilsack said. "Sign up has begun and it's important that clear and consistent rules remain in place so that producers can prepare for the crop year and manage their risk appropriately."

To date, USDA has only received seven comments on the payment limits rule and Vilsack says that by extending the comment period additional farmers and other interested parties will have the opportunity to comment.

"In keeping with President Obama's recent pledge to make government more transparent, inclusive, and collaborative, I would like to pursue an extended comment period so that more farmers and other individuals can participate in this rulemaking process," he said. "I'm particularly interested in suggestions that would help the Department target payments to farmers who really need them and ensure that payments are not being provided to ineligible parties for future crop years."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Living richly

For several years, my wife and two children and I have been experimenting with different environmental disciplines. Our goal is not to live miserably, but instead to see how much we can improve our impact on the world and still have our life feel prosperous.

There is some kind of fairy-tale magic at work. Every time we give something up, we get more in return than we sacrificed.

We adopted a low-car-use calendar, but it turned out to be more fun than driving. We now get a rebate from our car insurance company for low mileage on our one beat up old Honda Civic. We see more friends in the neighborhood. Our kids are tougher and less needy. We get more exercise without spending more time.

We bought a new boiler for heat and installed better insulation in our home. They save us money. We recently put extra blankets on our beds and started lowering our night-time thermostat one degree every few nights, planning to stop when we became uncomfortable. It hasn't happened yet. We just save money and sleep as well as ever.

At my profession's annual meeting last July, I told some colleagues to enjoy the beer we were sharing because they might not see me as frequently next year if I decide to limit my air travel. I expected them to express concern about the resulting harm to my career. Instead, they teased me for being self-indulgent and shirking my work, putting my family and personal happiness before my profession. Uniformly, they agreed less travel would be no hardship. "Sure," one joked, "why don't I say I'm an environmentalist too and spend more time with my family." This week, I took the Amtrak Acela instead of the air shuttle from Boston to DC for business. The view of the ocean shoreline was beautiful, there was a plug for my laptop, I worked the whole time without interruptions, and felt as if I had gained time instead of lost time.

After years of doing these experiments on our own, we recently decided to try to find a larger community of people around us, in part to reassure us we're not crazy.

We invited our church congregation members and neighbors of several faiths to a dinner at our church a couple weeks ago. Astonishingly, more than fifty people, including 20 kids, accepted the invitation. With help from our children, we cooked a bean chili with a little hamburger over pasta, cole slaw, fresh bread, and fresh whole fruit for desert.

There is a tradition of thought, from long before Thoreau all the way down to Michael Pollan and after, of thinking about one's own meal as a way of contemplating what life really costs. Our dinner cost us less than a dollar per person, and there were leftovers. We served 50 for less than the price of a nice restaurant meal for 2. We showed the guests the one pile of organic material from food preparation that would be composted, and the smaller pile of trash for the landfill. The trash was minimal (tomato cans and a few plastic bags), because the ingredients were all real food in their original form. People often say that it is the time cost that prevents them from cooking at home. Eating with friends is the remedy. Our 3 and a half hours of work to make the meal came out to less than 8 minutes of preparation time per person who enjoyed the meal.

The after-dinner discussion was exciting. We hired one of the church youth to babysit the younger children in a play room nearby so the adults could really spend some time concentrating on what big thing we can undertake together. Another meal is planned. I will post updates to the blog from time to time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Eating better

From Jill Richardson at La Vida Locavore:
Call it official: I am officially a David Pimentel fan. Pimentel, a professor at Cornell, has been doing research for years about the link between food production and oil. In a new study, he describes how food production energy needs could be cut in half. And, since about 19% of fossil fuels go to our food (about the same amount used for cars), a 50% savings would be significant!
Here are the press release and links from the publisher of Human Ecology, where the article by Pimentel and student coauthors appeared last year.

Do your thing, Mr. Obama

In meetings with world leaders in times of conflict, remind them of the futility of hate and lead them to hope that their divisions can be overcome.

In your conversations with Americans in times of fear, reassure them that Government of the People will protect them and advance their common good.

In your national leadership on the U.S. Food Policy issues covered in this blog, well..., er..., try not to flunk. Our expectations for you in this area are low and reasonable.

If you do your thing well, Mr. Obama, we'll still be grateful.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Your personal MLK day (re-posted from 2007)

On that December 5 night in 1955, when the Montgomery bus boycott had lived 1 full day so far and nobody knew it would eventually live a long life of 382 days, a frightened crowd gathered in church to sing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" and other reassuring hymns.

The speaker who then rose to the podium was a relative newcomer to Montgomery, and a youngster, who had lived just 9820 days so far, less than 27 years. Martin Luther King was not yet famous, but he met the needs of the congregation that night.

When King was shot in Memphis 4504 days later, he was only 39 years old. That's my age, too.

More precisely, February 14 this year (2007) is my "personal MLK day." That is the holiday I dreamed up on which a person has lived 14324 days so far, the number of days that King lived in total. The personal MLK day may be used as a time of reflection on what you have accomplished and want to accomplish.

Epilogue. Last night at bedtime, in our own little MLK Day observance, my children and I sang "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" and discussed the words. They have lived, respectively, 2346 and 1748 days so far.

*** Compute Your Personal MLK Day in SAS Statistical Software ***;
data temp;
my_bdate = mdy(--,--,1967);
k_bdate = mdy(01,15,1929);
k_ddate = mdy(04,04,1968);
k_age = k_ddate - k_bdate;
my_kdate = my_bdate + k_age;
format my_bdate k_bdate k_ddate my_kdate date.;
proc print data=temp;

Sunday, January 18, 2009

USDA releases 'naturally raised' marketing claim standard

The USDA Agriculture Marketing Services has issued a voluntary standard for 'naturally raised' livestock and meat marketing claims.

Naturally raised, often used as a marketing tool to attract consumers concerned about animal welfare, has up until now not had a official definition.

The new standard states that livestock used for the production of meat and meat products have:

1. been raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control)

2. have never been fed animal by-products

The voluntary standard will establish the minimum requirements for those producers who choose to operate a USDA-verified program involving a naturally raised claim. USDA analyzed over 44,000 comments from producers, processors, consumers, and other interested parties in the development of this standard.

Many are concerned that:

a) the standards aren't stringent enough on what it means to 'naturally raise' an animal. Under this ruling, animals raised in CAFO's (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) can still be tagged natural.

b) the new label will undercut the USDA Organic certification and/or farmers pushing to establish sustainable raised meat.

The Consumers Union and Food and Water Watch say the new standards sanction un-natural practices.

"This regulation will allow an animal that has come from a cloned or genetically engineered stock, was physically altered, raised in confinement without ever seeing the light of day or green of pasture, in poor hygiene conditions with a diet laced in pesticides to be labeled as ‘naturally raised.’ This falls significantly short of consumer expectations and only adds to the roster of misleading label claims approved by USDA for so-called natural meat," said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Senior Scientist and Policy Analyst at Consumers Union.

"These last minute rules for the 'naturally-raised' label on meat practically invite agribusiness to greenwash their products and rip off consumers" stated Patty Lovera, assistant director for consumer group Food & Water Watch. "Until these standards are revised, consumers will have to navigate another set of misleading labels at the grocery store."

USDA said it received more that 44,000 comments about the rule, while Consumers Union and FWW generated more than 36,000 signatures stating that the USDA's proposed standards for "naturally raised" were flawed, would only confuse consumers and should be withdrawn.

A national telephone poll conducted by Consumer Reports’ National Research Center released in November 2008 showed American consumers want the “naturally raised” meat claim to mean more than USDA's proposed standard, including that it came from an animal that:

• Had a diet free of chemicals, drugs and animal byproducts (86%)

• Was raised in a natural environment (85%)

• Ate a natural diet (85%)

• Was not cloned or genetically engineered (78%)

• Had access to the outdoors (77%)

• Was treated humanely (76%)

• Was not confined (68%)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shaping the Humanitarian World

The new book Shaping the Humanitarian World, by professors Peter Walker and Dan Maxwell at the Friedman School at Tufts, draws on years of leadership experience in promoting more effective humanitarian assistance. From the publisher, Routledge Press:
This book both describes the history of international humanitarian action, details its present structure, key organizations and methodologies and goes on to examine some of its most critical challenges. By tracing the history on international humanitarian action from its early roots through the birth of the Red Cross to the beginning of the UN, Walker & Maxwell examine the challenges humanitarian agencies face, from working alongside armies and terrorists to witnessing genocide. Particular emphasis is placed on the developments of the past fifteen years, the rise in humanitarian action as a political tool, the growing call for accountability of agencies, the switch of NGOs from bit players to major trans-national actors and the conflict between political action and humanitarian action when it comes to addressing causes as well as symptoms of crisis. Humanitarianism has a vital future, but only if those practicing it choose to make it so.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Highlights from Vilsack Senate confirmation hearing

This morning, I was among a presumably small number of people huddled around our computer screens or speakers, observing the Senate Agriculture Committee's hearing of Obama's Agriculture Secretary Nominee, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. Committee Chair Senator Harkin released this statement about the nomination. The archived webcast of the hearing is available here.

Although I only watched half of the hearing, the Senators covered many of the controversial topics in food and agriculture policy, ranging from organic standards to domestic and global hunger, trade liberalization, crop insurance, forestry and of course commodity payments. If you have never watched a confirmation hearing, as I hadn't, it feels remarkably like being a fly on the wall of a job interview. Vilsack drew on examples from his past positions to illustrate his commitments to farmers of all sorts, rural development issues, action against hunger and experiences addressing civil rights concerns in government.

As expected, Vilsack sailed through the hearing, which included substantial mutual back-scratching and compliments to the Committee on its work passing the 2008 farm bill, despite the many obstacles to doing so.

Some highlights included Vilsack's encouragement of locally grown fruits and vegetables and pronouncement that they should be grown not just in rural areas, but everywhere. He announced that he met with Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle last week in order to demonstrate the importance of working together for nutrition.“It’s going to be important for us to promote fresh fruits and vegetables as part of our children’s diets. . .that means supporting those who supply those products” and making it easier for consumers to buy locally grown products, Vilsack said. And there was Senator Pat Roberts' contrasting descriptions of local, organic farmers who sell apples "with a little extra protein" at farmers markets in "the county seat," with "real" farmers involved in production agriculture, as he proclaimed that the latter group are the ones actually supplying America's food.

It is expected that Vilsack will be confirmed easily by the full Senate as early as next Tuesday as soon as Obama is sworn in as President and officially nominates his Cabinet. You may wonder, as my roommate did, how the Senate can hold hearings for administration appointees before President-elect Obama has officially nominated them. From my small amount of research, it seems that this entire process is going more quickly than in previous transitions, with the hope that the new Administration will be in a better position to tackle the myriad problems with which they will be confronted on Day 1 if these appointees can be confirmed immediately. Some Republicans in Congress have expressed frustration at the unprecedented speed with which the administration-elect is proceeding through the nomination and vetting process; I imagine that if Congress were controlled by the opposite party, even the bipartisan spirit supposedly sweeping Washington would not be enough to enable things to proceed this quickly.

Diet books

U.S. Food Policy is not the best place to find diet books. More commonly, we discuss what's wrong with diet books. The number one reason we do not have advertising in the margin -- ranking more important than our internal sense of nonprofit virtue -- is that most Google ads for our content would probably be for diet programs.

Still, I enjoyed reading Jane Brody's surprisingly upbeat summary of the field this December.
But I’m happy to say that there has been a tremendous improvement in recent years in the crop of weight loss guides. Most have been written by research scientists who avoid gimmicks and boring, overly restrictive or quick weight-loss schemes that are bound to fail. Instead, their recommendations are based on sound studies and clinical trials that have yielded a better understanding of what prompts us to eat more calories than we need and, in particular, more calories from the wrong kinds of foods.
Among the books Brody favors are: The Volumetrics Eating Plan, by Barbara Rolls; Ending the Food Fight (Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food / Fake Food World), by David Ludwig; and The Instinct Diet, by my faculty colleague Sue Roberts. If U.S. food policy were designed by Sue, I can tell you the food system would be a different place (!), with a pricing structure that favored fruits and vegetables across the board and many other changes as well.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

U.S. Food Policy blog makes "Best Health Policy 100"

Radio Technician Schools has released The Health Policy 100: The 100 Best Health Care Policy Blogs. The categories range from general health care blogs, regulation, ethics, finance and the economy, public health, technology, health conditions, global health, law, access and insurance.

U.S. Food Policy was categorized as Environment and Food along with Environmental Health News, Clean Water, EnviroWonk, Farm Policy, Impact Analysis, Safe Foods Blog, eFoodAlert, Not In My Food and BarfBlog.

If you would like to put a U.S. Food Policy widget on your webpage or blog you can get one here.

SNAP benefits and food spending in stores and restaurants

Food benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) expand household grocery spending for low-income families. This seems obvious, because the nation's largest food assistance program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, provides targeted food benefits that legally may only be spent at authorized retailers such as grocery stores.

But, what is the effect of SNAP benefits on food spending at restaurants? This is less obvious, because the food benefits may not be spent in restaurants. Benefits could increase restaurant spending by increasing total resources, or the benefits could suppress restaurant spending by substituting grocery food for restaurant food.

In a recent study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics (AJAE), my colleagues Bea Rogers, Lisa Troy, and I estimated "Engel functions," which show how food spending responds to increased total household resources for food stamp participants and non-participants.

The most interesting finding is that food stamps appear to raise food spending on groceries ("at home" food spending), while perhaps suppressing food spending in restaurants ("away from home" food spending).

This graph shows "at home" food spending (on the vertical axis) as a function of total income including food stamps plus cash income (on the horizontal axis), for single-parent households. Food stamp participants (the shorter line) have greater at home food spending than non-participants (the longer line), even holding constant total income. The upward slope of each line shows how food spending increases as total income rises.

The next graph, by contrast, shows that away from home (restaurant) food spending is lower for participants than for seemingly similar non-participants.

This pattern may have nutritional implications, because past research has shown that restaurant foods contain on average comparatively more of the nutrients (such as salt and saturated fat) that Americans are advised to consume less frequently or in smaller quantities.

Related research, including similar results for household food security outcomes, is available in a report from USDA's Economic Research Service.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Victory garden 2.0

Ideas for Change in America is a nationwide competition to identify the best ideas for change in America. The top 10 ideas will be presented to the Obama administration just before inauguration day and form the basis of a nationwide advocacy campaign to turn each idea into actual policy. One of the more popular change ideas gaining traction is Victory Garden 2.0, who as of 01/08/09 held a top 30 spot (25th) with 1583 votes and needs 2380 more votes to make the top 10. Voting ends at 5pm ET on Thursday, January 15. From the site:
Thousands of Americans and people from the around the world are asking the Obamas to lead by example on climate change, health policy, economic self-reliance, food security, and energy independence by replanting an organic food garden at the White House with the produce going to the First Kitchen and to local food pantries.

The many successes of the first Victory Garden movement were the result of effective public policy, bold leadership at a time of national crisis, and the commitment of millions of citizens who were ready to roll up their sleeves for the greater good.

There's no better, more symbolic place for launching a new National Victory Garden Program than at the White House, "America’s House". There's no better, more urgent time than now. And there's NOTHING that can beat the fresh taste of locally grown, home-cooked foods.

1) Victory Gardens (behind homes, schools, in vacant urban lots, etc.) produced 40% of the nation’s produce at their peak, helped conserve food and natural resources at a time of crisis, resulted in the highest consumption rates of fruits and vegetables our nation has seen, and helped keep millions of Americans physically fit and active.

(2) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden on the White House lawn in1943 over the objections of the USDA, inspiring millions by her example.

(3) The UN estimates that 1 billion people will go hungry in 2009 while climate scientists predict this year will be one the five warmest years on record. --- For more on the campaign to grow some organic food at the White House, see: and
Eat The View has created some fun videos to watch including this one that characterizes the history of the White House grounds.

The Garden of Eatin': A Short History of America's Garden
from roger doiron on Vimeo.

The Victory Garden 2.0 idea has endorsements from nonprofits and bloggers as well, including: The Backward Future, The Fulbright Academy of Science and Technology, the UK's Wholesome Food Association, ecoyear, The Garden Klog, Kitchen Gardeners International and Tuft's own New Entry Sustainable Farming Project.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Value added in U.S. agriculture, by region

USDA's Economic Research Service reported in December that "2008 has proven to be another good year for the U.S. farm economy as a whole, driven by strong demand for feed crops, oilseeds, and food grains."

The annual Agricultural Income and Finance Outlook Report, by J. Michael Harris and more than a dozen colleagues, organizes the data in a clear way. Other writers often use total sales statistics to compare different sectors of the agricultural economy. USDA's economists, by contrast, give greater emphasis to "net value added," which is a measure of how much economic value is contributed by agricultural producers, beyond the value of the inputs they use. For example, meat and dairy production account for almost 50% of total sales, but much of that value comes from the value of the feed grains and soybeans that are used as animal feed. It is better to measure the meat and dairy industries by their economic contribution above and beyond the value of the animal feed.

When the contributions of different sectors are measured by value added in USDA's nice clear charts, the big surprise is that the meat and dairy industries are no more important than "cash grain and soybeans" or "high-value crops" such as fruits and vegetables.

When different regions of U.S. agriculture are compared, similarly, the big surprise is that the "fruitful rim," including California and Florida, make a substantially bigger economic contribution than the "heartland," even though the latter region gets the largest share of USDA subsidies (click image for larger view).