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.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

NYT had it right, Daily Yonder wrong

The Daily Yonder thinks the earlier New York Times article about checkoff promotions is mistaken. Here is my comment on the Daily Yonder site:
This post understates the federal government role in the checkoff promotions, such as the Dominoes cheese pizza campaign.

The federal government established the dairy checkoff program, the Secretary of Agriculture appoints the board members from a slate of candidates proposed by the industry, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service must approve every promotion campaign in writing, and the federal government uses its power of taxation to enforce the collection of the funds that sponsor these campaigns. If a cheese producer fails to pay, the U.S. Department of Justice takes them to court.

Your post says, "Industry Group Uses Its Own Funds To Promote Its Products." That is incorrect. A minority of producers -- especially those who produce a distinctive product and benefit little from general commodity advertising -- object to these checkoff assessments. It is not they themselves who decided to pay, and it is not an "industry group" making them pay, it is the federal government making them pay.

When dissident producers took the checkoff programs to court, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the checkoff programs, only because the federal government attorney convinced the justices that these programs are from top to bottom federal government programs, and their every message has official status as "government speech."

Other products sponsored by these checkoff campaigns: McDonald's McRib, Quiznos Steakhouse Beef Dip sandwich, Wendy's Bacon Cheesburger, and Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust Three Cheese Pizza. The checkoff programs encourage us to eat more beef, more pork, and more cheese all at the same time.

This blog post is full of misdirection -- saying the checkoff programs are not using "your tax money." This is like telling me that the government is not using "my tax money" for the war in Iraq or welfare checks or whatever you object to -- sure, the government is collecting the tax that funds those activities but they can reassure you that your particular tax payment was not the actual dollars used. Who cares which tax dollars were used for which purpose? If the federal government collected the tax, and the purpose is bad, we have a right to object.

Congress should either: (a) stop having the federal government enforce the checkoff assessments, or (b) expect that the checkoff messages serve our public health goals at a time when health care costs are threatening to bankrupt the government.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Three healthy Happy Meals that satisfy the proposed San Francisco rule

The San Francisco rule that would allow toys only in comparatively healthy Happy Meals still seems to be in limbo following a mayoral veto.  The rule is widely and erroneously described in the media as a ban on Happy Meals.  This is untrue, assuming that it really is possible for restaurants to market attractive and affordable kid meals that satisfy the rule.  At CalorieLab yesterday, Susan McQuillan laid out three appealing meals that McDonald's could consider.  Perhaps the Happy Meals could become even happier. If these meals turn into bestsellers, perhaps we could moderate the shrill tenor of the debate over this rule.

Boston Bounty Bucks program supplements SNAP benefits in farmers' markets

On the NPR radio show Living on Earth last week, Friedman School alum Jessica Smith reported on the Boston Bounty Bucks program, which provides a financial incentive to food stamp (SNAP) participants for fruit and vegetable purchases in farmers' markets.  A highlight of the segment was the demonstration of how food stamp Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards work in farmers' markets.
The program has become a model for other cities. Farmers' markets around the country are starting to add EBT stations and a few other programs offer financial incentives. The goals are the same: to improve health and nutrition in traditionally underserved populations.
The Boston Globe in June wrote about this program, and the Food Project website provides more details and a list of sites where the benefits can be spent.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Food insecurity in the United States remains at record high levels

USDA reported today that about 17 million households (or 14.7% of all U.S. households) were food insecure in 2009.  This level equals the record high level set the previous year, in the midst of recession.

Washington Post coverage today discussed the role of the economy and federal food assistance programs in influencing food insecurity:
"It's a considerable reflection of what is going on in the economy," said Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services....  Concannon said he was somewhat hopeful since the number of families suffering from hunger and nutrition problems stabilized last year even though the population of unemployed Americans rose from 9 million in 2008 to 14 million in 2009.

He attributed the stabilization to successful outreach and enrollment of many of these families into USDA-funded food programs. Fifty-seven percent of the families in the survey are enrolled in one or more of these programs. And one in four households have at least one family member participating in an USDA feeding program, up from one in five just two years ago.
Participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been increasing rapidly in the past two years.  Average monthly participation in this leading anti-hunger program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, was 33 million people in 2009, up more than 5 million from the preceding year.  However, increased SNAP participation itself reflects increased economic hardship and does not necessarily mean reduced food insecurity and hunger.  In the most recent USDA food insecurity report, the rate of household food insecurity was 55% among SNAP participants, but only 31% of low-income non-participants.

Because the annual USDA report no longer describes severe food insecurity as "food insecurity with hunger," the clearest national survey-based measure of hunger in the United States is the simple question about whether any adults in the household went hungry.  The estimates reported in appendix A of the new report indicate that 4.6% of U.S. households in 2009 experienced hunger in this sense, unchanged from the preceding year.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

SNAP (food stamp) purchase amounts at individual Massachusetts retailers

The website MuckRock has posted a remarkable data set showing SNAP (food stamp) purchase amounts at individual Massachusetts retailers.  A clever Google Maps application makes the data easy to access.  By clicking on each red dot, one can see the redemptions data for fiscal years 2006 through 2009.

In general, the federal government shares information about the location of SNAP retailers but not the amount of redemptions at each retailer.  According to the Boston Globe today, it is possible that the data were released in error, and MuckRock may have to take down the data.  This would be too bad.  Just as the farm subsidies received by individual farmers are subject to freedom-of-information rules, and can be shared with the public, it seems reasonable to think of SNAP benefit payments to retailers as public information rather than fully private business information.  Perhaps a reasonable compromise would be to stipulate a threshold for small retailers below which the exact dollar amount need not be made public.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Generic advertising for fruits and vegetables

In light of the recent controversy over commodity checkoff advertising for cheese, some may wonder why there is no similar advertising for fruits and vegetables.

A recent working paper (.pdf) by a team of economists from Cornell and Arizona State uses a laboratory experiment to estimate the potential consumer response to several different fruits and vegetable advertising strategies.  The paper by Jura Liaukonyte, Bradley Rickard, Harry Kaiser, and Timothy Richards found, in this consumer laboratory setting, that broad-based advertising for the entire category of fruits and vegetables seemed more promising than separate advertisements for particular products.  Separate advertisements for each product could cannibalize each other.

An earlier study in Australia estimated positive impacts of a fruit and vegetable advertising campaign.  The authors concluded: "Sustained, well-executed social marketing is effective in improving nutrition knowledge, attitudes and consumption behaviour. The Go for 2&5 campaign provides guidance to future nutrition promotion through social marketing."

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Despite Dietary Guidelines, federal government promotes high-fat cheese through dairy checkoff

For many years, there has been a tension between the federal government's recommendations for a nutritious diet and the government's promotion of high-fat beef, pork, and cheese through the federal commodity checkoff programs.

For example, in 2005 U.S. Food Policy described the dairy checkoff program's cheese promotion efforts in collaboration with fast food restaurants.
According to USDA’s report to Congress, the Dairy Board’s campaign with the motto, "Ahh, The Power of Cheese," is targeted at "cheese lovers," with an emphasis on "cheese enhancers" and "cheese cravers." The "enhancers" use cheese in their cooking, while the "cravers" eat cheese straight on its own. The USDA report to Congress emphasizes the Dairy Board’s success with cheese promotions through fast food restaurants: "DMI also worked closely with top national restaurant chains, including Pizza Hut ® and Wendy's ®, to drive cheese volume and ensure that cheese was featured prominently in menu items. For example, Wendy's ® introduced two new sandwiches, the Wild Mountain Chicken sandwich and the Wild Mountain Bacon Cheeseburger, nationwide. Both included a slice of natural Colby-Jack cheese and a smoky Southwestern pepper sauce. These new menu items were developed through a partnership between DMI and Wendy's ® that tested consumer acceptance of these sandwiches in select test markets. "

To take the most recent example, last month (April, 2005) the Dairy Board began a collaboration with Pizza Hut to promote a 3-cheese stuffed crust pizza (Figure 5). This pizza features an exceptional amount of cheese. A single slice of the plain cheese version contains 35 percent of the federal government’s recommended daily value for saturated fat and 39 percent of the daily value for salt, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The Dairy Board features this pizza on the front page of its website, with the address www.ilovecheese.com.
The federal government's dietary guidelines promote a diet with more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and more lowfat milk, while still maintaining a moderate total level of food energy.  By subtraction, the recommended diet includes less high-fat beef, pork, and cheese than Americans consume on average.

Michael Moss in the New York Times today provides a fascinating and thorough expose of the dairy checkoff program's role in marketing high-fat cheese:
Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese.

Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate. Cheese has become the largest source of saturated fat; an ounce of many cheeses contains as much saturated fat as a glass of whole milk.

When Michelle Obama implored restaurateurs in September to help fight obesity, she cited the proliferation of cheeseburgers and macaroni and cheese. “I want to challenge every restaurant to offer healthy menu options,” she told the National Restaurant Association’s annual meeting.

But in a series of confidential agreements approved by agriculture secretaries in both the Bush and Obama administrations, Dairy Management has worked with restaurants to expand their menus with cheese-laden products.
There are many more great stories about checkoff programs that an enterprising journalist could explore (our checkoff tag in the side-bar has 38 items going back five years).  For background, I summarized some of the nutrition policy tensions in a 2005 article for the journal Obesity.  One remarkable story that U.S. Food Policy followed was the $60 million sale of the pork industry's "Other White Meat" slogan from the National Pork Producers Council to the federal government's pork checkoff program.  My questions about that sale have never yet been answered.

Update (3 pm): On this topic, see the Volokh Conspiracy and the extensive discussion in comments at the NYT site.  For a while today, this issue ranked at the top of the Google Blogsearch business page.

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.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Are corporations allowed to sell healthy food?

Whenever advocates for healthy food talk to food business executives, one common response is:
Personally, I would like to serve a healthier product.  But, if these efforts threaten profitability, I risk getting sued by stakeholders.  Corporations are obliged to pursue maximum profits and no other goal.
The executives' response is not entirely correct.  Courts give a lot of deference to corporate management to use their own best business judgment.  Admittedly, a corporation cannot simply give away profits freely to serve public causes like better nutrition.  However, the managers have plenty of legal maneuvering space to develop a healthy product line, without fear that shareholder lawsuits will succeed. 

A recent working paper (.pdf) by Tufts economics professor Julie Nelson reviews the long history of relevant court cases.  She finds that, when people argue that the law requires profit maximization as the sole goal, they commonly are really describing their wishes that this were true, not evidence that it actually is true.
The profit maximization doctrine appears to operate far more strongly at the level of theory or ideology, than at the level of the actual practice of business management and corporate law. It seems, in short, to be a case of transcendental nonsense.
Nelson also tackles the more philosophical question of how profit-seeking should be related to other virtues and relationships, even love for our fellow person.  I suspect that I like markets better than she does, on balance.  But, like Nelson, I think markets should not be a social goal in themselves. They are a means to achieve bigger goals.  Just as a tennis game is most fun when two friends compete hard by the rules, I think competitive markets make our society better.  Markets are a great game, but a dreadful religion.

If one can argue with a straight face that selling healthier food enhances the reputation and long-term prospects of the company, I think that would count as a reasonable business judgment.  Corporations may not want to make sacrifices, but I doubt many claims that they are legally prevented from serving healthy food.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

U.S. food industry using more energy

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions in response to climate change, it is essential to reduce energy use in the U.S. food system. A USDA report this Spring described trends in exactly the wrong direction.

USDA economist Patrick Canning and colleagues estimated that energy use in U.S. agricultural and food industries increased by 23% -- from 11.5 to 14.1 quadrillion British thermal units --  from 1997 to 2002, the most recent data available [typo corrected Sep. 7].  The increase is so large that it accounted for 80 percent of all increased energy use in the United States.

Only one quarter of the increased energy use in the food system is due to population growth.  Another quarter of the increase is due to increased food spending per person.  Fully half of the increase was due to adopting more energy intensive technologies in the food system.

At a time when one might expect that Americans would adopt more energy efficient technologies, we did the opposite.  We continued to move from labor intensive to energy intensive methods throughout food production and manufacture.  A fascinating accompanying article (.pdf) in the USDA magazine Amber Waves gives the example of adopting high-technology energy-intensive hen houses in the egg industry, increasing energy use per egg by 40%.

Consumers, similarly, were splurging on energy rather than economizing.  We purchased more dishwashers, microwave ovens, self-cleaning ovens, and second refrigerators than ever before, so our own household food systems were also becoming more energy intensive.

In some circles, there is a temptation to hope that technological improvement will solve our energy and climate change problems, making it unnecessary to change consumption habits.  This research casts some doubt on this hope.  Consumption change remains important.

A popular way to reduce the energy impact of our food choices is to buy local.  The energy used in transportation varies greatly by food group.  For example, shipping rice long-distance by ship or grain by train is fairly innocuous, while shipping fresh produce from across the country and overseas may be a more spendthrift use of energy.  Packaged food and restaurant food are both more energy intensive than home-prepared food from real ingredients.  The USDA article emphasizes food from animals as another important consumer choice:
Based on 2002 energy technologies, if households choose to substitute a portion of their at-home meat and egg consumption with expanded fish and fresh vegetable consumption, for example, there could be substantial savings in energy usage.
Reread this sentence.  This is a bold conclusion for a USDA magazine article.

Click for larger image.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Ramadan fast

Muslims around the world are currently observing the month of Ramadan, during which adults keep a fast without food or drink during the day.  A web primer explains the purpose:
Fasting helps one to experience how a hungry person feels and what it is like to have an empty stomach. It teaches one to share the sufferings of the less fortunate. Muslims believe that fasting leads one to appreciate the bounties of Allah, which are usually taken for granted – until they are missed!

Throughout the day Muslims are encouraged to go out of their way to help the needy, both financially and emotionally. Some believe that a reward earned during this month is multiplied 70 times and more. For this reason, Ramadan is also known as the month of charity and generosity.

To a Muslim, fasting not only means abstaining from food, but also refraining from all vice and evils committed consciously or unconsciously. It is believed that if one volunteers to refrain from lawful foods and sex, they will be in a better position to avoid unlawful things and acts during the rest of the year.
During a year of my youth spent living in Bandung, Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic country, I never made it through a whole day of fasting without at least a snack or a little water.  In part, social roles for hosts and guests forced me to eat something to be polite, even with the host was keeping fast.  I was struck by the fasting practice of neighbors such as the becak (pedicab) driver and day laborers who hung out on the street corner by our house.  Any one of them, who at the time in the 1980s earned about $30 per month, could explain without any discernible irony that they kept the fast so that they might know what it is like to be poor and hungry. In the same vein, consider this month the fast being kept by people in Pakistan who are suffering from floods.

Last night, I took my two children to the community Iftar -- or evening meal after the fast -- hosted by the Islamic Center of Davis, CA.  Hundreds of people turned out for the call to prayer, a delicious meal, and a moving and lively sermon by Sheikh Alaa' El Bakry about "The Rights of Neighbors."  In one passage, he contemplated our modern lives, in which we think our neighbors are the like-minded people with whom we text and twitter.  Imagine our surprise, in a time of crisis, such as a house fire, when we find ourselves going next door for help from the person who is more literally our neighbor, but with whom we haven't ever tried to bridge differences and talk.

Muslims, Christians, Jews, and secular folk crowded in until the auditorium's long tables were filled and many ate standing along the walls.  There were warm greetings for ministers, rabbis, officials from the police and FBI, and local politicians.  One state legislator, who is Japanese American, reflected on the futility of ignoring the current climate of fear of Muslims, knowing and remembering that any community may have its turn in the crossfire.

Even many of the non-Muslims kept fast for the day, which gives a special appreciation for the Iftar.  I made it through the complete daily fast yesterday for the first time in my life.  My children, ages 8 and 10, chose to fast from noon until the evening dinner.  I am happy that they could participate in such an event.  Ramadan lasts this month until about September 10. 

Source: www.cuisineonline.pk (a Pakistani food site)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Agricultural experimentation

On my drive cross-country this week, I have enjoyed seeing a great diversity of agricultural research fields. 

For example, on Wednesday, I visited the Rodale Institute's experiment station near Kutztown, which has the longest running scientific experiment directly comparing organic to conventional production strategies on side-by-side plots.

Organically grown soybeans (just past the white post) and corn (behind) in the Farming Systems Trial at the Rodale Institute's experiment station near Kutztown, PA
Organic production preserves soil fertility naturally, without petroleum-intensive fertilizer, and it provides a great product for consumers worried about pesticide residue.  It has been especially successful in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, now reaching mainstream markets across the country and the world.

At the same time, organic production is not costless.  The Rodale experiment acknowledges that the organic production strategy for corn and soybeans must accept some sacrifices, both agronomic (tolerating weed competition) and economic (planting the most lucrative cash crops in just selected years of a multi-year rotation).   Nevertheless, in addition to the other environmental and consumer benefits, the Rodale investigators argue that the organic strategy is economically competitive, overall, in part because of reduced chemical input costs.

For a contrast, on Thursday, I saw the historic Morrow plots at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while visiting to give a seminar at the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics.

The historic Morrow plots, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  Here, the soybean fields maintain a more weedless aesthetic.

The Morrow plots (detail)
I crossed Iowa and eastern Nebraska Saturday on small rural highways, avoiding the interstate, marvelling at the oceans of cropland.

Farmland in western Iowa, August 2010
If it were true that these thousands of corn and soybean farmers could have profited equally well with certifiably organic production, but are too misguided by input suppliers realize their own economic interest, this truth would imply one of the greatest collective delusions in all of agricultural history.  I know organic advocates who believe this delusion has in fact happened, but I think that account somewhat misses the mark in describing where American agriculture goes most awry.

On Sunday, I climbed the stairs on a big combine with a large-scale corn and soybean farmer in southern Nebraska.  He explained how he plans his planting strategy on a laptop in his kitchen, including space for test plots of various seed varieties.  He downloads the plan to the GPS-linked "auto-steer" computer on his planter, which then lays down the seed destined for each row of field.  At harvest time, the combine, equipped with the same data, steers itself around the field with the farmer looking on from high in the cab, recording the productivity of each field and test plot.  Similarly, he carefully monitors water use for irrigation and allows part of his farm to be used for an agricultural experiment with low-irrigation corn.

To say that this farmer could have earned an equal profit from certifiably organic production is to say that he has misunderstood the economic incentives that are internal to his business.  I doubt it.  To me, the most interesting questions about his business relate to environmental consequences that an economist would call externalities, because the farmer's profits come in part at the expense of other people external to his business.  Would a different production strategy better protect the Ogallala aquifer, from which this Nebraska farmer draws his irrigation water?  (Farmers like the one I visited have greatly reduced their impact on water supplies, but withdrawals from the aquifer still exceed renewal from rainwater and snow runoff).  Would organic production of his consumer-grade and animal-feed-grade corn better protect consumers from pesticide residue, as proponents say?  Would higher fuel prices lead this farmer to lower fertilizer inputs and alter his capital-labor substitution in ways that reduced petroleum use and reduced his impact on climate change?  Would reform of federal ethanol policies alter prices of farm commodities and change the optimal use of his land from intensive corn production to more sustainable uses?  It is difficult to expect farmers themselves to sponsor research across this spectrum of questions, which could provide results both helpful and contrary to the farmers' own economic interests.

The impressive amount and variety of agricultural experimentation is one of the most striking things I have seen on this journey.  Reflecting on the Rodale experiment in particular, I am grateful that somebody other than input suppliers, and even other than farmers themselves, is carrying out this type of investigation.  To address externalities, it is essential to have research that, like Rodale's, is motivated by curiosity about consumer health and environmental protection.  To preserve blunt realism in research, it is essential to have experimentation by farmers themselves.  It has been fun to see both.

Update Aug 24, 2010.  The Nebraska grower with whom I visited adds by email:

"One comment about under groundwater. Rain, runoff, and snow melt replenish the underground water levels. Cylindrical rainfall and snow melt recharge underground levels, and over many years, the water levels have hardly changed over the past 40 years. We in production Ag do not want to be labeled as depleting underground water levels. We are conservationists that are protecting the natural resources we use for future generations.

"As for organic farming, that is a speciality market. I am feeding over 125 people as a producer, and that number continues to increase. Yields with organic farming are lower, so decisions to grow organic are not for all producers.

"I am very passionate about what I do and how I do it."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beginning with the bees

Nobody knows exactly what is wrong with the bees.

Since 2006, beekeepers have been reporting the loss of 30% - 90% of bees in many hives, with no clear cause.  The syndrome has been labeled Colony Collapse Disorder. 

My father-in-law, who has raised honey for many years in Carlisle, MA, had several recent years with no honey production. 

The book A Spring Without Bees (Lyons Press, 2009) focuses on harm from pesticides.  The USDA's Agricultural Research Service lists a wide variety of possible causes, but it too worries considerably about pesticides as a possible cause: "Pesticides may be having unexpected negative effects on honey bees."

Because bees provide essential pollination services to U.S. agriculture, ARS sounds very concerned about consequences:
While CCD has created a very serious problem for beekeepers and could threaten the pollination industry if it becomes more widespread, fortunately there were enough bees to supply all the needed pollination this past spring. But we cannot wait to see if CCD becomes an agricultural crisis to do the needed research into the cause and treatment for CCD.
This year, happily, my father-in-law at last has two hives in production (the two on the right in the photograph above), still far below his best years.  I asked him if this meant things were looking up for U.S. beekeeping.  He responded dryly, "I haven't heard that they are."

Note: I'm moving to California for a sabbatical year at UC Davis.  This morning, I took my family to the airport and then departed from my wife's parents home for the drive west.  Along the way, for the next ten days, I will visit and occasionally report on sights and people relevant to U.S. food policy.  A beekeeper in Carlisle is a beginning.

My Conestoga wagon.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is Child Nutrition Reauthorization moving or stalling?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) this week said they wanted lawmakers to approve a bill reauthorizing child nutrition programs before the August recess

U.S. Food Policy's coverage this Spring noted that the Lincoln bill is less ambitious than legislation the White House had proposed earlier.  For example, the Senate bill includes just six cents per meal increase in the federal reimbursement to local programs for providing a school lunch.  Yet, even this weaker and politically more palatable child nutrition reauthorization failed to make the list of three bills highlighted as priorities by leading Democratic legislators, which probably made advocates wonder if any child nutrition legislation would pass at all.

Legislation to reauthorize child nutrition programs for five more years has passed out of committee in both the House (.pdf) and Senate (.pdf).  The Food Research and Action Center is encouraging support for the House bill.  Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest wrote that the House bill "hopefully give a nudge to the Senate to pass its child nutrition bill."  The next few days will show if this hoped-for nudge actually comes to pass.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A fine line: nutrient content claims and health claims

Kellogg can no longer use this marketing strategy (see Time Magazine in June). 

In federal government lingo, the image above is a "health claim" or "function claim" with insufficient evidence.

But the company will still use this strategy (see Marion Nestle and Food Navigator this week). 

In federal government lingo, this is a "nutrient content claim." For official purposes, everybody agrees to pretend that the word "antioxidants!" has no more health implications or evidence requirements than does the word "crunchy!" The only legal issue is whether the manufacturer actually has added in the claimed antioxidants.

If you are convinced that this distinction between health claims and content claims succeeds in protecting consumers from misleading marketing, you will be reassured that somebody out there is watching that line like a tennis referee.  Everybody else may want to continue to be skeptical of health-related packaged food marketing claims across the board.

Massachusetts passes bill to improve school nutrition

The Massachusetts House and Senate yesterday passed legislation to improve school nutrition.  The bill now goes to Governor Deval Patrick, who is likely to approve it.  Though some details of the rules are delegated to state agencies, the law will strengthen wellness planning and reduce or in some cases end the sale of sugary drinks and junk food in school.

The legislative history and the text of the bill (.pdf) are online.

The Boston Globe reports:
“There is no specific list of foods that would be banned, but most up-to-date recommendations would prohibit sugary drinks, such as soda, and typical ‘junk food’ such as regular chips and processed packaged snacks,’’ David Falcone, Senate President Therese Murray’s spokesman, said in an e-mail.

The measure, which the House passed in January and the Senate passed in March, now heads to the desk of Governor Deval Patrick for signing.

“The governor supports efforts that promote healthy eating for our children, and we look forward to reviewing the final language,’’ Patrick’s spokesman, Kyle Sullivan, said in an e-mail.
How long has the U.S. Food Policy been blogging this particular issue?  In October 2005 (!), we described the efforts of State Rep. Peter Koutoujian.
At the press event before today's hearing about junk food in Massachusetts schools at the State Capitol in Boston, State Rep. Peter Koutoujian challenged the notion that policy-makers should allow children to choose junk food. "Who's in charge here?," Koutoujian asked. "The adults or the children?"
The law will in no way restrict foods or beverages that parents can offer their children.  Instead, it will reduce the unseemly and widespread practice of other adults making money selling high-sugar beverages and high-salt snacks to children in school in the midst of an epidemic of childhood obesity and nutrition-related chronic disease.

Advocates for the new policy, such as the Massachusetts Public Health Association, have long cultivated patience as an essential virtue for their line of work.  It seems likely that the association's website will soon have a very happy news item.

Cook outside your comfort zone for National Farmers Market Week

Bonnie Powell at Grist offers a challenge:

It's the height of summer, and the tables of farmers markets around the country are overflowing with firm-fleshed, scarlet tomatoes; bunches of fragrant basil; and -- depending on where you live -- juicy stone fruits, avocados, and more. Such bounty makes it easy to celebrate National Farmers Market Week August 1-7 by visiting a market near you (you can find one via the Eat Well Guide, LocalHarvest, or USDA). And there almost definitely is one near you, as there are now more than 5,000 around the country, up an astonishing 13 percent from the previous year....

[T]his year, I'm going to celebrate National Farmers Market Week by forcing myself out of my vegetable comfort zone. I'll be picking up whatever looks weirdest or most unfamiliar to me -- kohlrabi, say, or Romanesco broccoli -- and figuring out how to cook it. I'll share the results right here with you guys. They probably won't be fancy, but when food is this fresh -- as Grist's Jennifer Prediger keeps marveling -- you don't need no stinkin' fancy.

Care to join me?
It might look like an alien, but I ain't afraid of no kohlrabi.  (Grist)

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

USDA/ERS study estimates obesity-reducing effects of a soda tax

A 20% soda tax would reduce daily food energy intake for adults by 37 calories, enough to reduce the prevalence of obesity by almost 10%, according to a new report this week from USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS).  The prevalence of obesity for adults could fall from 33.4% to 30.4%, the report estimates.  The report corroborates other recent research suggesting that the obesity prevention impact of taxes on sugar sweetened beverages could be substantial.

There are a couple reasons why the estimated impact is higher than one might have expected based on previous research.  First, the report, by ERS researchers Travis Smith, Biing-Hwan Lin, and Jong-Yin Lee, estimated a somewhat stronger consumer response to beverage price changes than previous research used.  The new estimated own-price elasticity of -1.26 means that a 10% increase in price leads to about a 12.6% reduction in consumption.  Second, even a fairly small change in average daily soda consumption accumulates over time, leading to a notable estimated change in weight for a year's time.

Purely paternalistic taxes motivated by public health tend to generate political push-back, especially from more conservative policy-makers, but also from consumers who resist having their choices directed by public policy.  I think such taxes may be easier to explain to people when the tax revenues are needed in any case, to provide essential government services.  The idea is: "Paying for teachers and police requires some revenue source.  A tax on soda makes as much sense as a tax on other more meritorious goods, especially if people don't want their income or property taxes raised either."  The health benefits could be mentioned in passing as an additional advantage.  In this spirit, the Rudd Center at Yale has recently posted an online revenue calculator for beverage tax proposals.

The growing interest in beverage taxes during tough fiscal times is putting stress on beverage manufacturers.  The American Beverage Association in June pointed to earlier estimates, contradicted by the new USDA report, showing "a 20 percent tax on a soft drink would decrease Body Mass Index (BMI) for an obese person by just 0.02, an amount not even measurable on a bathroom scale."  The association's press release is headlined, "Reducing soda consumption is a simplistic and ineffective solution to public health challenges."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Supreme Court rules on alfalfa GMO

The U.S. Supreme Court today overturned (.pdf) some aspects of a lower court's nationwide injunction against genetically modified (GM) alfalfa.

However, it appears that GM alfalfa planting will not restart right away. A USDA decision would be required for temporary approval. More importantly, the court left in place the lower court's ruling that a formal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is required before the technology receives permanent approval.

I feel the result is not exactly a victory for those who oppose all GM technology, nor exactly a victory for the technology's sponsor, Monsanto. It seems to be a victory for the idea that GM technology deserves a strong federal environmental review, including careful attention to the right of conventional farmers to preserve non-GM production if they choose.  Monsanto's opponents in this case were farmers who objected to having GM seeds blow into their conventional fields, limiting their ability to market a non-GM crop.

A Monsanto press release claimed the Supreme Court decision as a win. So did a press release from the anti-GM Center for Food Safety.  The story was covered by Reuters and AP.  On related issues, I follow Grist Magazine's food channel.  Matt Jenkins at High Country News in 2007 had a nice long feature on this controversy.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report released

The obesity epidemic is the "single greatest threat to public health in this century," according to a report yesterday from the expert panel advising the federal government on dietary guidelines. Following an earlier report from the Institute of Medicine, the panel also recommended reductions in salt intake.

The report from the Advisory Committee will be considered by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services as they work on the 2010 revision of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Advisory Committee offers scientific advice. Then, the departments will consider politics, economics, and communication strategy in producing the guidelines themselves.

Media coverage seemed unsure what was the main news in the report's release yesterday. The Associated Press article emphasized the reduction in suggested salt limits.

Marion Nestle wrote that the main story is that there is no news -- the Dietary Guidelines are typically quite bland and industry-friendly. In somewhat the same spirit, Jill Richardson at La Vida Locavore is running a contest to see if anybody can find in the report any advice to eat less of any food (advice to eat less of a more abstract nutrient does not count).

My own impression is that the new report does better than previous recent editions in emphasizing real food patterns rather than obscure nutrients, and that it writes more favorably about plant-based diets rather than high-meat diets. Previous recent editions seemed subtly different in promoting lean meats. The new report recommends:
Shift food intake patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. In addition, increase the intake of seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products, and consume only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, and eggs.
There is more detailed reference to healthy vegetarian and nearly-vegetarian diets in the new report, along with the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which have moderate amounts of meat. Because of economic and political impact, meat-related advice is likely to be some of the most closely-scrutinized material in the report.

Like previous versions, the report offers sound mainstream nutrition science assessments, but makes little headway on the admittedly challenging task of advising Americans on how to put dietary advice into practice in the current challenging environment. For example, it has only the gentlest implicit criticism for food manufacturers and restaurant chains. The USA Today coverage quotes Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest:
"Basic nutrition advice hasn't changed much over the 30 years that the dietary guidelines have been published, but what has changed is it is harder and harder to eat well," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group based in Washington, D.C. "For Americans today, healthy eating is like swimming upstream. It's not that you can't do it, it's just it's so hard," she says. "Without changing the food environment, people don't stand a chance of following the advice in the dietary guidelines."

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Livestock and ethanol subsidies

In a post from the Des Moines Register blog covering environmental issues, livestock producers recommend an end to ethanol subsidies:
“Although we support the need to advance renewable and alternative sources of energy, we strongly believe that it is time that the mature corn-based ethanol industry operates on a level playing field with other commodities that rely on corn as their major input,” the letter says.

“Favoring one segment of agriculture at the expense of another does not benefit agriculture as a whole or the consumers that ultimately purchase our products.”
But the ethanol industry disagrees:
Matt Hartwig of the Renewable Fuels Association fires back in an email: “Once again, corporate livestock interests are seeking … a return to the days they bought corn under the price of production for the American farmer. Such practices resulted in farmers getting more income from the government than they could from the marketplace, while corporate livestock industries prospered.”
A classic intersection of supply, demand, principle, and politics.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Merrigan in the 2010 Time 100

From Time Magazine's brief on former Friedman School faculty member, and current Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan:
If you've ever wondered who in government shoulders the complexities of moving an agenda forward in a fractured time and pushes on without getting soaked, here is your answer.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How can salt be reduced?

Following the long-awaited new Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on salt released this week, here's a quick summary of a debate that I would find awful tiresome.
Institute of Medicine: "FDA should regulate salt."

Critics: "Big brother should not tell me what to eat."
To me, the more interesting questions are: (1) Is it important for Americans to consume much less salt; and (2) if so, how can this reduction be achieved in an economically sensible way?

The IOM report explains clearly why sodium reduction is important for our health and even for the national economy. It is apparently a myth that salt reduction is only important for a small number of people predisposed to hypertension. If you still hold that view, we'll have to postpone arguing about it until another day. The rest of the post assumes the answer to question (1) is "yes, salt reduction is important." The food industry, which is pursuing some voluntary efforts to reduce sodium in the food supply, concedes this point.

The interesting question is how salt reduction can be achieved. In calling for FDA participation in salt reduction efforts, IOM explains the collective action problem that limits the effectiveness of voluntary measures:
Regulatory action is necessary because four decades of public education campaigns about the dangers of excess salt and voluntary sodium cutting efforts by the food industry have generally failed to make a dent in Americans' intakes, the committee said. The industry's voluntary efforts have fallen short because of lack of a level playing field for all products. Companies have feared losing customers who could switch to competing products or brands with higher salt content.
[Update Apr 26, 2010: This sentence has been toned down, because of the next update below.] Moreover, the food industry's imagination on salt reduction could be more ambitious. For example, the input of the Grocery Manufacturers Association on the federal government's revision of the Dietary Guidelines emphasizes the limited options for high-tech salt replacements and claims that consumers would not accept less salty foods:
[F]ood processors have no alternatives with which to replace the sodium, and must simply accept a less salty flavor in lowered sodium products. But the consumer will not accept such products.
[Update Apr 26, 2010: Although the link above is to the GMA site and seems to have today's date, a reader tells me that the letter is actually GMA's comments on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines. I regret my error in reading. To be more current, here is the corresponding passage from the GMA comments to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
There is no perfect "salt substitute " currently available. Sodium reduction in foods is often a complex, highly technical, expensive and labor intensive task that must frequently be undertaken "silently" without consumer's knowledge.]
Contrast this assessment of the consumer's tolerance with the fascinating and quite well-written Chapter Three of the IOM report, which marshals the evidence for a more optimistic conclusion:
The food supply contains a vast array of commercially successful products and ingredients – fresh, prepared, and manufactured – whose sodium levels range from very high to moderate to very low. The fact that the same individual for example, might be fully satisfied with two snacks of widely varying sodium levels – one a fresh apple and the other a handful of salted pretzels – reminds us how dependent the sodium taste issue is on wider flavor contexts.... [T]he salt taste challenge might be as much a matter of reconsidering flavor options in recipe selection and menu development ... as needing to overcome technical challenges with salt substitutions.
[Update Apr 26: This sentence has been edited to remove an implication that the food industry didn't know these insights. The good food scientists probably recognize these points.] Here are some marketing insights that I draw from the IOM report (my paraphrase):
  • Consumers can become happily acclimated to a lower sodium environment over time, just as it took time for them to become accustomed to the current strangely high-sodium environment.
  • We could give consumers greater freedom of choice by reducing salt in processed foods and letting everybody use salt shakers; it turns out that people add only 20% as much sodium when they are free to make their own choices.
  • There is a difference between "taste" and "flavor." Salt is a "taste." Real "flavors" can be used to make less salty foods delightful.
  • Many foods can have less sodium without tasting less salty, by modifying the size of salt particles and their placement on the surface of a food.
Although consumers might eat less processed foods, and more real whole foods, we might enjoy life just fine with less sodium.