Saturday, October 30, 2010

Upcoming talks (Fall 2010)

I have several upcoming talks on U.S. Food Policy topics:

Mon, November 1, 12:30 p.m., Boston, MA.  Harvard Medical School, Tosteson Medical Education Center, 260 Longwood Ave, room 309.  Free.  Introduction to selected U.S. food policy topics, addressed to medical students.

Wed, November 3, 12:00 p.m., Boston, MA.  Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University (Boston Campus), Jaharis Building, 150 Harrison Avenue, Behrakis Auditorium.  Free.  Introduction to selected U.S. food policy topics, addressed to nutrition students.

Tues, November 9,  Denver, CO.  Tufts University Alumni Association event during the American Public Health Association (APHA) Conference.  Black Pearl restaurant, 1529 South Pearl Street.  There is a fee, and alumni are being allowed to register first.  Discussion of organic, local, and conventional agriculture.

Wed, December 1, 12:10 p.m., Davis, CA.  UC Davis, Nutrition Department, Program in International and Community Nutrition.  Free.  Seminar on food security measurement and policy in developed countries.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Choices Magazine issue on economics and obesity

The new issue of Choices Magazine, the outreach magazine for the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), includes a collection of articles on the theme, "Addressing the Obesity Challenge."

Some of the articles grew out of an interesting conference here at UC Davis last May.  Mary Muth organized and edited the series.  Helen Jensen and I contributed an article on food assistance programs, emphasizing that these programs do much more than just boost food intake.  I started drafting a few words about several more articles, but, better, here are links to the whole set.

Theme Overview: Addressing the Obesity Challenge
Mary K. Muth
Increasing rates of obesity and the associated effects on health of the U.S. population are often in the news recently. The set of papers in this theme describe measures of the costs of obesity, consider some of the contributors to increases in obesity, and evaluate current and potential solutions.
The Costs of Obesity and Implications for Policymakers
Eric A. Finkelstein, Kiersten L. Strombotne, and Barry M. Popkin
The increase in obesity prevalence has had profound economic consequences on state and federal government agencies and on employers. We present the most recent estimates of direct and indirect costs of obesity. We then discuss the implications of these costs for public and private payers.
Food Environment, Food Store Access, Consumer Behavior, and Diet
Michele Ver Ploeg
Lack of access to affordable, healthy food in some neighborhoods is hypothesized to lead to poor diet, obesity, and other diet-related diseases. Estimates show that access to healthy food is a problem for a small percentage of the population. Many, but not all, low-income households shop where food prices are relatively low.
Farm Policy and Obesity in the United States
Julian M. Alston, Bradley J. Rickard, and Abigail M. Okrent
This article shows that U.S. farm policies have had generally modest and mixed effects on prices and quantities of farm commodities, with negligible effects on the prices paid by consumers for food and thus negligible influence on dietary patterns and obesity.
More Than Just Food: The Diverse Effects of Food Assistance Programs
Helen H. Jensen and Parke E. Wilde
U.S. food assistance programs enhance nutrition and reduce food insecurity through diverse activities. The programs provide food directly, offer nutrition education, place limits on foods obtained with program benefits, and alleviate "boom and bust" cycles associated with food insecurity. Thus, their potential effects on obesity come through various mechanisms.
Can Nutrition Labeling Affect Obesity?
Joanne E. Arsenault
Nutrition labeling should help consumers make healthier food choices and encourage food manufacturers to produce healthier products. Some evidence exists for such effects, but it is less clear and difficult to assess if nutrition labeling impacts obesity.
Can Taxes on Calorically Sweetened Beverages Reduce Obesity?
Jessica E. Todd and Chen Zhen
This article reviews the emerging body of economic research that attempts to determine how large of a tax on calorically sweetened beverages—and in what form—would be effective in causing a noticeable decline in the prevalence of overweight and obesity in the United States.
Behavioral Economics: A New Heavyweight in Washington?
Sean B. Cash and Christiane Schroeter
Behavioral economic research has shown that individuals rely heavily on subtle external cues or nudges that influence what and how much we eat. Promising results from experimental settings in lunchrooms, grocery stores, and labs are now shaping food and obesity policies, but not without controversy.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Starved for Attention: A Double Standard

A collaboration between Doctors Without Borders and the VII photo agency recently produced two documentary segments in a series titled Starved for Attention: "The U.S. Standard" and "A Double Standard." 

The first segment praises the U.S. WIC program for women, infants, and children.  The second segment criticizes the corn/soy blend long used in U.S. food aid packages. 

For some additional background on efforts to reformulate international food aid, the Doctors Without Borders site includes related 2008 conference materials, including presentations and discussion by my Friedman School colleagues Patrick Webb and Dan Maxwell. 

Taken together, the thesis of the paired documentary segments may be that U.S. and European food aid programs should provide high quality nutrition supplementation throughout the world, rather than treating their own children better.  The accompanying petition says, "This double standard must stop."

That fairly broad policy prescription goes well with the film's indictment of the world's injustice toward children who have the misfortune to be poor.  For many other purposes, I prefer policy advocacy that goes beyond changes in the nutrition formulations used by U.S. and European food aid programs.  I especially like advocacy for food aid reforms that are more strongly nested in a vision for economic development.  Good starting places for reading on those topics are the websites of IFPRI and Oxfam.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

San Francisco considers limits on toys in less healthy happy meals

San Francisco is considering restrictions on toy giveaways in quick service restaurant meals for children, unless the meals include fruits or vegetables and are within food energy limits.

I have little interest in revisiting the big philosophical division on this topic.  Many, but not all, public health and nutrition folks will endorse restrictions on fast food meals for children.  Many, but not all, pro-business economists will be skeptical.

To me, what is interesting in each new policy proposal of this type is how it draws a slightly different line between the proper scope for government regulation or restraint.  In this case, San Francisco is not proposing to tell restaurants what food they can serve, nor even to tell them what food they may serve to children.  San Francisco also is not forbidding restaurants to give toys to children.  Instead, more specifically, the proposal forbids restaurant companies from using toys to entice children to eat less healthy meals.

Even so, McDonald's is responding vigorously to the proposal, taking out full-page newspaper advertisements in the San Francisco Chronicle:
We believe in kids.  That probably doesn't come as news.  Kids and McDonald's have always gone together....  That's why we started offering Happy Meals made with white meat Chicken McNuggets and always make our hamburgers with 100% real beef....  We also believe in kids helping other kids.  That's why a portion of the proceeds from every Happy Meal we sell is donated to Ronald McDonald House Charities.  Because we believe in kids.  And that will never change.
Here are the newspaper's related letters to the editor.

Supporters and opponents can contact the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to offer input.  A former student, now working with Corporate Accountability International, sends a link to the advocacy group's page for supporters of the proposed ordinance. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Forbes Magazine and Monsanto

Last year, Forbes Magazine anointed Monsanto as Company of the Year. My coverage at the time was doubtful.
Forbes credulously repeats these promises about future products as if they were already here, while burying its more skeptical coverage of Monsanto's main business lines.

The article focuses first of all on Monsanto's efforts to provide omega-3 fatty acids through genetically modified soybeans. These fatty acids are found naturally in fish oils. Citing a not-yet-refereed paper from a recent scientific conference, Forbes gushes: "Wouldn't that be a wonderful product to have for sale? Stops heart disease--and protects the environment, too. People could get their nutritional supplements without depleting fish stocks."
But that Forbes article did not represent all of the magazine's coverage of food business issues, much of which is informative and challenging. For example, an article in May, by Matthew Herper and Rebecca Ruiz, about over-hyped health claims for probiotics in foods, had the headline, "Snake Oil in Your Snacks."

This week, Forbes writer Robert Langreth reflects back on his Monsanto Company of the Year article a year earlier.  The new headline is courageous, "Forbes Was Wrong on Monsanto.  Really Wrong.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

New York City seeks a waiver to restrict food stamp (SNAP) benefits

New York City this week petitioned USDA for permission to disallow soda purchases with food stamp (SNAP) benefits.  USDA may well disapprove the proposal, having in previous years turned down requests from other states for similar waivers from federal rules.

Such proposals have greatest promise when they can answer "yes" to some simple questions.  Have the policy's sponsors won over any substantial fraction of the supposed beneficiaries?  Does the policy treat people from different income backgrounds fairly and equally?  Do the sponsors articulate the limits to the policy, so that the public is reassured the policy will not overreach?

Dan Sumner is an agricultural economist who participated in some recent work about food stamps with colleagues at the University of California Davis, where I am visiting.  By email this morning, he explained his misgivings about the new proposal:
This policy proposal raises two questions in my mind. (1) Are we ready as a matter of policy to declare some legal foods are just BAD no matter what else one consumes and no matter the context? (2) Would such a ban have an effect on behavior of anyone, except those proposing the ban, who would presumably enjoy thinking that their taxes were not used to buy "bad" food and may then celebrate with a glass of red wine (which is already a banned food for food stamps)?
In an op-ed today in the NYT, New York health officials favoring the proposal did describe its context in the midst of other efforts to promote good health.  However, most of those examples were also about nutrition improvements for poor people.

It must be disappointing for policy sponsors when neither Marion Nestle nor the Center for Science in the Public Interest (see third paragraph in this link) approve of a proposal to improve the nutrition environment.

[Update Oct 11: CSPI writes by email to point out that executive director Michael Jacobson's statement on this policy, dated Oct 7, endorses the NYC proposal:
The USDA should approve New York City’s sensible request to test excluding soda and other sugary beverages from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The empty calories in soft drinks pose a major public health problem by promoting tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. It’s also the case that those diseases have a disproportionate impact on low-income Americans. However, the extent to which SNAP recipients’ purchases of soft drinks is contributing to poor diets and obesity is unclear and controversial. I applaud New York City for seeking to get some real data to inform the debate. As it is, industry is enjoying about a $4-billion-a-year subsidy thanks to people spending SNAP benefits on soft drinks.]
You can imagine the voluminous comment page for the NYT coverage has much bluster on every side.  One more subtle comment was an anecdote from Burt in Oregon:
A woman once brought her boy to Mahatma Gandhi to have him tell her boy to stop eating sugar. He told them to return in two weeks. When they returned, he told the boy to stop eating sugar. When asked why he didn't tell the boy the first time to stop eating sugar, Gandhi replied, "Two weeks ago I was still eating sugar."
[Update 10/14/2010: Tom Ashbrook's On Point debates this issue.]

Sunday, October 03, 2010

GMO proponents should call for stronger safety testing of the AquAdvantage genetically modified salmon

The FDA recently held hearings to discuss the safety and labeling of a genetically modified salmon, called AquAdvantage, from a company called AquaBounty. Scientists have added a gene to the DNA of this fish, so that it has a longer period of rapid growth each year.

FDA will now take some time to consider approval for human consumption.  While milk is already commonly produced using a genetically modified growth hormone, the new salmon would be the first genetically engineered animal approved for direct human consumption.

As you know, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are one of the most controversial topics in U.S. food policy.  Many critics argue that GMOs, along with many other modern production technologies, promote an environmentally unsustainable industrialized food system.  Many supporters argue that GMO technology is essential to feed the world's growing population. I don't like either of these across-the-board claims, myself, but that is a topic for another day.  Because of this larger controversy, if this salmon is the first such product approved by FDA, the consequences will be closely scrutinized and will influence the broader debate about agricultural technologies for years to come.

GMO supporters should reflect on what standard of food safety they want this new product to meet.  For example, if the new salmon turns out to have a slightly higher allergenicity than conventional salmon, leading to a slight increase in hospitalizations and deaths, it will not fly to say, later, "well, people with allergies probably shouldn't even be eating finfish like salmon anyway."  If the new salmon turns out to have slightly elevated average concentrations of a growth factor that has been associated with risk of cancer, it will not be adequate to say, later, "only a few of the additional cancers can be directly attributed to the GMO technology."  The politics of this debate are such that GMO proponents should want the first GMO animal food to be as safe as conventional food.

If they have any strategic vision at all, GMO proponents should call on FDA to require additional tests before approving the AquAdvantage salmon.  The alternative is to risk a damaging mistake. An excellent prescription for the additional testing is provided by testimony to FDA (.pdf) from Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union.  Hansen is widely considered a committed critic of GMO technology, so GMO proponents who read this far will now be tempted to quit and ignore the rest of the post.  That would be a mistake.

I think GMO proponents should read Hansen's testimony as both friendly and frightening.  The testimony is friendly, because it is not religiously anti-GMO, instead offering a long but finite list of complaints about the AquaBounty and FDA safety analyses.  The testimony is frightening, because it seems quite convincing that the safety evidence is incomplete.

If you read Hansen's testimony as a prescription for additional studies, you would recognize that FDA's decision would be delayed by perhaps a year or two, but not a decade.  The main studies that would be required are: (a) studies of veterinary effects from Panama, where the fish will be grown, to supplement the existing studies that are all from Canada, (b) better studies of allergenicity, which remedy some serious flaws identified by Hansen, (c) studies of changes in concentrations of growth hormone and a related growth factor, which remedy flaws identified by Hansen.

The great thing is that you can read Hansen's testimony (.pdf) and FDA's safety submission (.pdf) side by side for yourself.  You don't have to believe Hansen's judgment more broadly.
  • If Hansen claims that a study of allergenicity was done with too few fish, you can read pages 98-100 in the FDA submission to confirm that FDA recognizes he is correct.  
  • If Hansen says that a study of the presence of growth hormone lacked sufficient sensitivity to detect any growth hormone in either GMO fish or control fish -- even though it seems the whole point of the genetic modification is to increase growth -- you can read Table 15 in the FDA submission to verify that all growth hormone measurements seem to be indistinguishable from zero. 
  • If Hansen claims that FDA strangely appears to have made it look like there was no detectable difference in a growth factor (IGF-1), by adding to the sample fish for which the research methods could not detect the growth factor at all, you can read for yourself the footnote and sample sizes in FDA's Table 16.  I am not sure, but FDA may have done what Hansen claimed.
For the second of these three points, about the inability to detect any growth hormone, Hansen is quite damning.
This is not a scientifically valid statement. How can FDA conclude that there are no biologically relevant differences in growth hormone levels between GE and non-GE salmon when the study uses a methodology that cannot detect growth hormone in these fish? This would be like the police using a radar gun that cannot detect speeds below 120 mph and concluding that there is no “relevant difference” in the speed of cars versus bicycles.
I can think of a couple rebuttals GMO proponents might make to Hansen's testimony.  The proponents could say that these safety concerns are secondary, and that most of the safety evidence was favorable.  But, I disagree.  My impression after close reading is that Hansen picked on the same safety issues that FDA focused on, implicitly accepting FDA's and AquaBounty's definition of the leading concerns.  That was fundamentally generous of him -- and many GMO critics would have offered a longer list of concerns -- but it means that Hansen cannot be accused of cherry-picking safety concerns.

The proponents could say that these additional tests are just the beginning, and that there would be no satisfying Consumers Union and Hansen after any volume of testing.  I think that misses the point.  Proponents might not want to offer to go ten more rounds on this scientific debate, but they will look like they are fleeing the scientific evidence if they don't go at least one more round.

As for the science, there are three possibilities: (a) the new studies that answer Hansen's challenge may show no evidence of increased risk, (b) they may show small evidence of increased risk, or (c) they may show strong evidence of increased risk.  GMO proponents should want FDA approval only in case (a).  For any other result, they should wait for a different first genetically modified animal for human consumption.