Tuesday, December 28, 2010

IOM report on front-of-pack food labels

In recent years, many consumers have been confused by the wild and ill-coordinated array of front-of-package (FOP) food labeling efforts: Smart Choices, Smart Spot, NuVal scores, Guiding Stars, Heart Check, and so forth.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) in October released its Phase I report on front-of-pack labeling options.  This report is available for free download on the website of the National Academies Press (requires brief registration of email address).

The report is politely worded, but it essentially seeks to rein in some of the excesses.  In place of complex multi-nutrient schemes, the report recommends emphasizing just a few key nutrition components for which the research base is most solid and the connection to major chronic diseases is strongest: calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.  I was a little surprised that added sugars failed to make the list, but the report authors had some practical concerns about how sugars are measured, and they felt that listing calories addressed much of the concern about sugars.

The report seemed unfavorably disposed toward algorithm-based systems (discussed previously on U.S. Food  Policy), especially if the algorithm is proprietary or complex and not all the details are shared.

Perhaps the most damning section of the report is an illustrative comparison of how the various systems rated the same set of products.  For example, the IOM report compared six grain products: regular oatmeal, instant oatmeal, unsweetened toasted oat cereal, sweetened toasted oat cereal, crisped rice cereal, and an apple cinnamon cereal bar.  These foods reflect the options that a grocery shopper really might face on a supermarket shelf, choosing the family's breakfast supplies for the next week.  All six products would win the Smart Choices and Heart Check standards, which seem fairly permissive.  NuVal would give a higher score to regular oatmeal and a lower score to instant oatmeal, while the Nutrient Rich Foods Index and Guiding Stars would do just the opposite.  Sensible Solutions would favor only the two oatmeal products plus unsweetened toasted oat cereal (not the sweet cereal and cinnamon cereal bar).  Taken as a whole, the comparison makes the current status quo in the grocery store aisle look like a big confusing mess.

A future report from the same committee will investigate what consumers actually understand.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Quick links

I have been blogging lightly in recent months, but there's plenty of fascinating things to read elsewhere.

The Farming Life.  The Daily Yonder has an eloquent essay by a young farmer and mother: To Farm Is To Let Go.

Food Safety.  Marion Nestle explains that the CDC's new food safety numbers (reducing the estimated annual deaths from 5,000 to 3,000) do not mean our food supply has gotten safer.  She credits the New York Times and USA Today for reporting this key point correctly.  Peter Katel has a fine feature in CQ Reporter (not free), reviewing food safety issues and controversies.  In related news, just today, I was pleased to see that the food safety bill finally passed for real

Sustainability.  Four leading public health organizations have issued a shared set of principles.  A healthy, sustainable food system is health-promoting, sustainable, resilient, diverse, fair, economically balanced, and transparent.  It is a nice short single page of guidelines.  Of course, the future document that explains what to do when principles come into conflict, and tradeoffs are required, may take a little longer to write.

Miscellaneous.  Regina Weiss asks whatever happened to those Department of Justice and USDA hearings about agribusiness.  Krista Tippett has an inspiring radio essay, with chef Dan Barber.  Grist reports on animal welfare abuses at a Smithfield plant, based on an investigation by the Humane Society.  Ethicurean's latest feature discusses farm-to-school moving to the next level in Ohio.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

U.S. food in pictures

A theme for me this year has been "see for yourself."  For a policy teacher from the East Coast, it has been both fun and fascinating to get about the country a bit.  Here are some photographs related to U.S. food and agriculture from my travels in the last several months.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Cargo preferences cost $140 million that could have helped the hungry

Cargo preferences are the regulations that require a large part of U.S. food aid to be shipped in U.S. ships.  The regulations are more cumbersome and expensive than you might think, leaving even some U.S. businesses out of luck, simply because they use other countries' ships for parts of a cargo's journey.  The losers from these policies are the world's hungry.

We think of a food aid as a way to demonstrate American generosity to the world, but the governments of countries that receive the food aid instead see a tragically mixed message, a sort of gesture toward generosity combined with greed at the expense of some of the poorest people in the world.

Cornell professor Chris Barrett in today's Washington Post explains:
Cargo preference was launched in 1954 alongside modern American food aid programs. By requiring the U.S. government to ship three-quarters of its international food aid on U.S. flag vessels, the policy was intended to maintain essential sealift capacity in wartime, safeguard maritime jobs for American sailors and avoid foreign domination of U.S. ocean commerce. But in a comprehensive - and, to date, the only peer-reviewed - analysis of available shipping data and shipping vessel ownership records, we found that cargo preference falls well short of these objectives. Our study of the shipping data and the fiscal 2006 food-aid shipment records - the only full year records were available - from the U.S. Agency for International Development found that by restricting competition, the policy costs U.S. taxpayers a 46 percent markup on the market cost of ocean freight. 
Along with my Friedman School colleague Dan Maxwell, Barrett wrote the authoritative book on U.S. food aid.