Monday, November 21, 2011

Spinning dairy weight loss claims

The USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) provides the Nutrition Evidence Library, a clear and transparent source of systematic evidence reviews about all sorts of nutrition and health issues.

For example, here is the evidence review summary for claims about dairy consumption and weight loss:

Strong evidence demonstrates that intake of milk and milk products provide no unique role in weight control.
That seems clear enough: no unique role in weight control.

Meanwhile, the federal government's semi-public dairy checkoff program offers its own distinct review of the evidence.  Although many people do not realize it, the National Dairy Council is an arm of this checkoff program.  Its review says:
A growing body of research illustrates that enjoying three servings of milk, cheese or yogurt each day as part of a nutrient-rich, balanced diet may help maintain a healthy weight.
The first study mentioned is by Michael Zemel, the researcher who won a patent on dairy weight loss claims, which allows dairy industry organizations to collect royalties from food companies that use such claims. 

Buried deep in the subsequent studies, one finds contradictory evidence.  For example, a study by Wagner and colleagues in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition finds, "there were no significant differences in weight loss between groups.  The milk group showed significantly less reduction of body fat than the placebo group."  But you would not know that from the Dairy Council's summary statement.

The National Dairy Council -- whose messages have official status as "government speech" -- seems to be contradicting the more impartial review of USDA's scientists.  Why should the federal government be willing to play the role of "enforcer" for the National Dairy Council, collecting the millions of dollars in mandatory assessments that support the Council's industry-friendly spin on the evidence?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

USDA posts the 2010 dairy checkoff report

The federal government's dairy checkoff program just today released the July 2010 Report to Congress, which was the subject of my earlier Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The report, 16 months overdue, says that $108 million were collected in 2009 for fluid milk promotions, and another $283 million were collected for other dairy products (principally cheese).  The checkoff programs use the federal government's power of taxation to collect mandatory assessments, essentially taxes, from producers.  All the advertising and promotion messages count as "government speech."  The expenditures vastly outweigh anything the federal government does to promote healthy eating.

The introduction emphasizes the controversial Domino's campaign:
The Dairy Board continued to develop and implement programs to expand the human consumption of dairy products by focusing on partnerships and innovation, product positioning with consumers, and new places for dairy product consumption. One such endeavor was accomplished through a partnership with Domino’s Pizza and the creation of the American Legends pizza line.
The report later explains in greater detail:
The pizza industry plays an important role in the dairy industry. Twenty–five percent of all cheese manufactured in the U.S. is used on pizza, and Mozzarella comprises 49 percent of all cheese volume in the foodservice industry. Research showed that negative pizza cheese volume trends were having an impact on the dairy industry. As a result, dairy producers partnered with Domino’s to reinvigorate the pizza category and launch American Legends, a line of six specialty pizzas that use up to 40 percent more cheese than a regular Domino’s pizza.
The report shows that a large fraction of affiliated advertising expenditure goes toward cheese.

Professor Harry Kaiser at Cornell University wrote the accompanying economic analysis, showing the great effectiveness of the checkoff program in expanding dairy consumption on both a nonfat and fat basis (increasing intake of milkfat).  Professor Kaiser (a good colleague for whom I was a teaching assistant at Cornell) has previously written U.S. food policy to explain his view of the nutritional impact of the checkoff programs:
[W]e continue to believe that the nutritional state of consumers in the United States would be worse without generic food advertising programs. 
I am not convinced.  The checkoff programs should rein in the fast food collaborations and bring the promotions in line with the dietary guidelines, or they should let free markets work on their own and let producers contribute voluntarily to the checkoff programs.  The status quo, with the federal government promoting Domino's Pizza, is terrible.

The July 2011 report has not yet been released.  It is not clear whether USDA simply didn't submit the report to Congress as required, or instead whether USDA submitted that report but is not yet willing to share it with the public.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Making sure schools can serve our children badly

Although appropriations bills are supposed to be about spending -- not policy-making -- Congress took extra special care this week to make sure child nutrition programs do not have to follow the very reasonable and temperate guidelines recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

The conference committee report for next year's agricultural appropriations overturns key elements of USDA's proposed guidelines for child nutrition programs.  The proposed guidelines had included strong support for whole grains, a recommended limit on salt, and a stipulation that not too much of the vegetables served would be white potatoes.  Currently, school lunch programs contain far more salt than recommended limits, and many school systems use french fries and other forms of white potatoes as by far the dominant vegetable.

In a step that reminds us all of the Reagan administration's heroically foolish effort to define ketchup as a vegetable, the appropriations committees also intervened to make sure that the tomato puree in pizza counts toward vegetable requirements.

USDA officials were sharply critical, and I imagine that the hard-working staff throughout the department are upset.  The Associated Press coverage says:
USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said Tuesday that the department will continue its efforts to make lunches healthier.

"While it's unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America's children, USDA remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals," she said in a statement.
It is fun to read the fine print of the conference committee report (.pdf).  See sections 743 and 746 on page H7443.  Although they have no expertise in meals programs or nutrition, the appropriations committee members were quite willing to do the food industry's bidding on these arcane provisions:
SEC. 743. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement an interim final or final rule regarding nutrition programs under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.) and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (42 U.S.C. 1771 et seq.) that—
(1) requires crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume;
(2) implements a sodium reduction target beyond Target I, the 2-year target, specified in Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, ‘‘Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs’’ (FNS–2007–0038, RIN 0584– AD59) until the Secretary certifies that the Department has reviewed and evaluated relevant scientific studies and data relevant to the relationship of sodium reductions to human health; and
(3) establishes any whole grain requirement without defining ‘‘whole grain.’’
A graduate student and I are taking a look at the diversity of comments that were submitted in response to USDA's proposed guidelines.  I will do a follow-up post in a couple weeks, noting which organizations suggested the policy reversals that Congress made this week.

In my children's schools, I see the need for well-written and reasonable guidelines.  The status quo is not good enough.  I believe the IOM and USDA did the best possible job in balancing nutrition and economic considerations.  Readers know very well that I will speak up against government overreach.  But these guidelines did not look to me like government overreach.  They looked judicious.

As a policy researcher, I think the public interest would have been better served by deferring to IOM and USDA.  As a parent, I am angry about Congress' intervention.  It seems clear that Congress is doing the food industry's bidding at the expense of our children.

National League of Cities passes a farm bill resolution

Modeled on an earlier proposal from the Seattle City Council, the National League of Cities yesterday passed a resolution (.pdf) encouraging the federal government to adopt a variety of public interest principles for the farm bill.

The resolution includes planks for:
  • a health-centered food system,
  • sustainable agricultural practices,
  • community and regional prosperity and resilience,
  • equitable access to healthy food,
  • social justice and equity, and 
  • a systems approach to policy-making.
New political constituencies are taking interest in the farm bill. Paradoxically, this year, it seems farm bill decision-making power may be concentrated in fewer hands than ever.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Tyler Cowen on agriculture policy and corporate bailouts

Here is the latest NYT column from Tyler Cowen, who I generally think of as a market-oriented libertarian economist.  Cowen generally prefers to let the deserving rich be rich, and yet he can see why the demonstrators at Zuccotti Park have "so much resonance."
The first problem is that higher status for the wealthy can easily lead to crony capitalism. In public discourse social status judgments are often crude. Critical differences are lost, like the distinction between earning money through production for consumers, as Apple has done, and earning money through the manipulation of government, which heavily subsidized agribusinesses have done. The relevant question, in my view, is not about how much you have earned but about how you have earned it. To further confuse matters, many right-wing Republican politicians supported corporate bailouts and corporate welfare far beyond what was necessary to stabilize the economy, in doing so further muddying the difference between productive and predatory capitalism. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011


In connection with Juliet Schor's book last year, Plenitude, I appreciated this video, posted four months ago. 

In our neighborhood (east Arlington, MA), my family and I have been exploring similar themes through a free dinner series (which we call "Living Richly" dinners) at our local church (Calvary Church, United Methodist), a community supported agriculture (CSA) pick-up site (from Enterprise Farm), a bike-to-school train to our neighborhood elementary school (organized by the East Arlington Livable Streets coalition), and in other ways.  I'll try to share more about this experimentation in future posts in the coming year.

New Dream Mini-Views: Visualizing a Plenitude Economy from Center for a New American Dream on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

New Rudd Center report on marketing beverages to children

Would you say Coca-Cola, the parent company for FANTA, is marketing to children here?

Would you say Coca-Cola is marketing to children in these lesson plans for elementary school students?

If you say "yes" to either question, then do you think Coca-Cola is breaking its pledge not to advertise to children?

Coca-Cola's pledge says:
We have a global Responsible Marketing Policy that covers all our beverages, and we do not market any products directly to children under 12. This means we will not buy advertising directly targeted at audiences that are more than 35% children under 12. Our policy applies to television, radio, and print, and, where data is available, to the Internet and mobile phones.
I can think of some ways that Coca-Cola could say these marketing efforts are consistent with the pledge. Perhaps one could find research showing that the FANTA cartoon characters are designed to appeal to 13-year-olds but not 11-year-olds. Perhaps the websites where these characters appear have a children's audience share under 35%.  Perhaps the lesson plans don't qualify as "marketing." Perhaps the use of the word "directly" is supposed to give the marketers some wiggle room.

Still, under any of these explanations, the detailed defense only serves to show how empty the pledge is. 

This post was provoked by reading the Rudd Center's new report on marketing sugar-sweetened beverages to children (.pdf).