Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Does the TPP allow exporting countries to certify their own food safety equivalence?

by Parke Wilde and Yue Huang

The U.S. Trade Representative this fall released the text of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a controversial trade agreement for the United States and other countries that border the Pacific Ocean.

Critics argue that the TPP will endanger U.S. food safety, but we wanted to read the text ourselves to see if this concern is justified.

If you are basically a food trade skeptic -- who thinks that farmers in poorer countries have no business seeking access to our markets, that U.S. consumers gain no benefit from food imports, and that U.S. farmers have no need for food export markets -- then no analysis of the food safety provisions will persuade you to like the TPP.

On the other hand, if you are basically open to food trade, and yet concerned that any such trade must be safe, then bear with us as we look into one central controversy: equivalence. The TPP has provisions to allow an importing country (such as the United States) to certify that the food safety oversight in an exporting country (such as Vietnam) is "equivalent" to our own.

The Center for Food Safety, a non-profit public interest organization opposed to the TPP, says the agreement allows the exporting country to claim to be equivalent, even if it violates U.S. food safety rules. The Center makes no mention of any power of the importing company to deny equivalance:
TPP would require the U.S to allow food imports from other countries if the exporting country claims that their safety regime is "equivalent" to our own – even if it violates key principles of our food safety laws. So, fish from Vietnam and other TPP countries using antibiotics and other drugs banned in the U.S. would have to be allowed under the agreement.
In fact, the TPP's chapter on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures says just the opposite. The TPP allows the importing country to decide whether the exporter's food safety rules are equivalent. The importing country may refuse to designate equivalence if the exporter violates key principles of our food safety laws.

The TPP does place some requirements on the importing country that makes this decision. Let us read three of the most central requirements closely. We recognize that these requirements are substantial, but they also illustrate how seriously the TPP takes the importer's power to make this decision.

First, the importing country has to begin assessing equivalence within a reasonable amount of time.
When an importing Party receives a request for an equivalence assessment and determines that the information provided by the exporting Party is sufficient, it shall initiate the equivalence assessment within a reasonable period of time.
Second, the importing country shall accept an exporter's food safety rules if they achieve the same goal as the importer's food safety rules, that is ... 
if the exporting Party objectively demonstrates to the importing Party that the exporting Party’s measure: (a) achieves the same level of protection as the importing Party’s measure; or (b) has the same effect in achieving the objective as the importing Party’s measure.
Third, if the importing country decides against certifying equivalence, it should tell the exporting country the reason.
If an equivalence determination does not result in recognition by the importing Party, the importing Party shall provide the exporting Party with the rationale for its decision.
For an agreement designed to increase trade, these seem like reasonable provisions. Currently, U.S. food safety depends heavily on import inspections, which touch only a tiny percentage of food imports. Our food will be safer if our food safety authorities seek to ensure the equivalence of food safety oversight at the actual source in the exporting country.

In our reading, the TPP text contradicts critics who say that the exporter gets to claim equivalence even if it violates U.S. food safety rules such as bans on certain antibiotics and drugs. If we missed an important passage, please let us know.

It is great to have access to some food that is local, some food that comes from other parts of the United States, and -- so long as it is safe -- some food that comes from farmers overseas. For this purpose, the food safety chapter of the TPP strikes a reasonable balance.

This post was the topic of Yue Huang's term paper in Determinants of U.S. Food Policy (NUTR 303), at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Two Pats and patriotism: Striving for a world, country, and communities without hunger

by Ellen Messer

We lost two Pats in 2015. And I’m not talking about season-ending injuries to gigantic players on our favorite New England football team, but about two small heroes in Team America’s fight against hunger.

One, Patricia Kutzner, founded the World Hunger Education Service and its newsletter, Hunger Notes. Over the period 1975 through 1995 she produced background materials, ran workshops, established a clearinghouse of organizations, and helped stimulate official and community actions against hunger by making sure everyone had information about the problems and the stakeholders in America’s War on Poverty and hunger. A Quaker, who worked closely with inter-denominational Christian and interfaith organizations, she helped shape national advocacy against hunger and for human rights, then dedicated her final twenty years to consulting for the Navajo Nation, as they ramped up their community agencies and services. Her many contributions are remembered and memorialized in Lance Vanderslice’s tribute in Hunger Notes.

The second, Patricia Young, served as the American coordinator for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s World Food Day, from 1981 through 2010. As background to this position, she brought years of civic-leadership experience, having served in an array of community, regional, national, and international capacities, expansively addressing education, civic responsibility, corporate responsibility, and government obligations to end hunger and injustice. Presbyterian, inter-denominational Christian, and inter-faith mobilizations against apartheid and hunger contributed important moral and structural contexts at home, in the nation’s capital, and in Rome. In recognition of her actions that helped transform America’s responses to hunger, she was awarded the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Prize for Public Service.

Like the first Pat, working with these agents of change, she encouraged mobilizations at every level against hunger by championing civil and human rights at home and in the world. In both cases, their lives of action demonstrate that true democracy means challenging society and government to pay attention, to address hunger and injustice and protect human rights, in all forms and at every scale. Both life stories testify that each and every citizen can make a difference; they show that democracy can work, and only works, when individuals courageously take or create such possibilities.

As Americans reflect on patriotism in this new year’s season of Presidential hopefuls, let voters remember the gigantic efforts of these two true patriots who confronted the violence of racial discrimination and hunger with courageous actions. Can their successors maintain such momentum in this age of virtual representations, religious posturing, and diversionary social media?

Note: Biographical information taken from Hunger Notes and obituary in Scranton Times-Tribune.

Ellen Messer is affiliated faculty at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

About those canned food drives

In this skeptical and critical video about canned food drives, from Adam Ruins Everything and Upworthy, a food bank administrator offers a good balanced summary of the main point:
Canned food drives don't suck, [but] they're not the most efficient way to give.
To allow food banks and food pantries to serve food that is fresh, healthy, and desirable, consider giving cash instead.

Want to help feed the poor? Ditch the canned goods and donate money. Adam Ruins Everything outlines why. (via truTV)
Posted by Upworthy on Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Monday, December 14, 2015

A conversation with Project Bread

I enjoyed a recent interview with Project Bread, a leading anti-hunger organization in New England and organizer of the annual Walk for Hunger in Boston.
What is the biggest cause of food insecurity in the United States?
There are multiple reasons why people lack sufficient income to meet their needs, and multiple reasons they go hungry. Some young people who want to work might not have a job because the unemployment rate is high, or there are no jobs availble to them at their skill or education level. Others might fall into poverty because of a medical conditions: they're too sick or injured to work, and they have major costs to cover. They may have a disability that keeps them from having access to the services and support they need. They might be older and isolated in their homes. This is why no one solution fits everyone everyone who is food insecure. ...

Are things getting better?
Some would say that at least they aren't getting worse, but we still have more than 14% of families facing food insecurity. We need to remember the goal of 6% that we set before, and figure out how to get there. Even though our economists tell us we're in a period of economic expansion, we're still not seeing the rate of food insecurity drop.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Peeling back the wrapper: Why would Mars support the new added sugars label?

By Melissa Hudec and Parke Wilde

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing a new Nutrition Facts Panel that identifies added sugars (rather than just mixing added sugars in with all other sugars).

The proposed label supports a recommendation from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which—if adopted by the federal government—would advise that added sugars be limited to no more than 10% of daily calories.

Of course, many food and beverage companies hated these policy changes. Yet, there were some exceptions. For example, Mars, Inc. — yes, the maker of M&Ms and other candies—supported the new added sugars label. As the Wall Street Journal reported:
“It might appear to be counterintuitive, but if you dig down a bit more, we know candy itself is not a diet,” said Dave Crean, global head of research and development at Mars. “It shouldn’t be consumed too often, and having transparency of how much it should be consumed is actually quite helpful to consumers.”
We are not sure why Mars would support the new labels, but we have three theories, which may in combination offer some explanation.

First, Mars is a privately owned company, not beholden to shareholders. Perhaps this gives managers greater freedom to pursue the company’s long-term interest and reputation rather than just short-term sales.

Second, chocolate products may have less to lose than other high-sugar products have. We created this mockup approximate comparison of a Mars candy and a major soda brand (assuming a standardized serving size for the candy and making some assumptions about how much sugar is added sugar). A chocolate candy has some calories from fat, and even some of the carbohydrates (in the dairy ingredients) may not count as “added sugars.” By comparison, a soda gets all of its calories from added sugars. In total, the Mars candy provides only approximately 13g of added sugars (26% of the daily value), while a soda provides 39g of added sugars (fully 78% of the daily value!).

Third, Mars is more than just chocolate. In fact, it may surprise the reader that confectionery products comprise only about 1/3 of its portfolio (.pdf). The rest of sales come from primarily from pet food, as well as from the Wrigley subsidiary, and a smaller amount from savory food products, drinks, and the up-and-coming Symbioscience (“cocoa flavanols” and a topic for future discussion) products. 

Source: Mars, Inc.
Surprisingly, the food industry is not unanimous about the new added sugar label. On the contrary, for a variety of reasons, some major players say they can work just fine under the new system.

This post was adapted from Melissa Hudec's term paper for Parke Wilde's class on U.S. Food Policy.

Update (Jan 5, 2016): A former student in the same food policy class -- who now works in corporate affairs at Nestlé -- emails to point out quite rightly that her company also supported the FDA proposal: "I loved your and Melissa Hudec’s post on added sugars labeling. Now that I work at Nestlé and spend a lot of time on our nutrition-related positions, I feel compelled to comment! Nestlé has also publicly supported FDA’s proposal for mandatory declaration of added sugars. In fact, this article came out a few days after your post."

Saturday, December 05, 2015

KIND Snacks petitions FDA to change the definition of "healthy"

In early 2015, FDA wrote a warning letter to KIND Snacks, calling out the company for using the term "healthy" on nut-filled snacks that -- among other things -- had a level of total fat level exceeding the official standards for "healthy" foods.

At the time, media sources included quotes from leading national figures in nutrition policy, who pointed out that recent editions of dietary guidelines do not come down hard on total fats (instead focusing on the types of fats). For example, NPR quoted Walter Willett.
Willett says that the FDA's letter to Kind is based on outdated guidelines, at least when it comes to nuts. The government updates its Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years, and the latest report from the advisory committee for those guidelines does indeed point to research supporting the inclusion of nuts in a healthful diet.

But the FDA seems to be lagging, in part because the agency doesn't revise its guidelines as frequently. "I think there's wide consensus that nuts are a healthy food," Willett says.
Last week KIND Snacks petitioned FDA, asking for a change in the definition of "healthy." Here is part of the firm's publicity in support of that petition, making the rhetorical point that current rules focus too much on fat content and not enough on processing or sugar content. 

What do you think?

A couple complications:
  1. This post was spurred by an email from a food policy student, who also has worked for KIND Snacks. I think I would have chosen this topic anyway, but introspection cannot quite confirm that. 
  2. Some KIND Snacks are sweetened, and, in any case they are packaged manufactured foods, not quite so simple as the nuts in the image above.
Food policy is never simple.

What really improves the economic condition of immigrant farmworkers

There are few roles in the U.S. food system as tough as being an immigrant farmworker ... especially one without documentation. There has been enormous advocacy in recent years to improve farmworker wages and working conditions.

Yet, in addition to advocacy, it is worthwhile to stay informed about the economic fundamentals that even more strongly influence working conditions for immigrant laborers.

Consider the consequences of several recent years of economic recovery (which increases job opportunities outside of agriculture), combined with the failure of sensible immigration reforms (which would have included a compromise with farmers, designed to stabilize their labor supply).

Economic growth and (perhaps pardoxically) nativist conservative grass-roots opposition to immigration reform have combined to raise wages for immigrant farmworkers.

University of Florida researchers -- Zhengfei Guan, Feng Wu, Fritz Roka, and Alicia Whidden -- this week write about labor conditions for strawberries and other specialty crops in Choices Magazine:
Specialty crop growers generally depend on a large number of farm workers to grow, harvest, and pack their tender fresh crops. Consequently, growers are sensitive to both the cost and availability of farm labor. Working conditions in agriculture are often physically challenging and hourly earnings are relatively low compared to other employment opportunities for U.S. residents. Thus, a large portion of agricultural labor needs have been met by immigrant workers. A high percentage of these immigrants are working in the United States without legal authorization. In recent years grower concerns over cost and availability have intensified as the rhetoric over comprehensive immigration reform continues to harden.
Figure 1: Annual Average Number of Hired Workers in U.S. Agriculture (Excluding Service Workers) and Average Wage Rates

Source: USDA/NASS, 2014