Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Anti-ethanol advocacy fuels an exchange of letters

Sabrina Wu, a graduate student in my class on U.S. Food Policy, contributes this blog post:
On October 28, 2008, Senator Chuck Grassley sent a letter to Grocery Manufacturers Association’s (GMA) CEO and President C. Manly Mopus (.pdf) demanding to know when and how GMA and the trade association’s 300+ member companies plan to reduce retail food prices to reflect recently lower input costs.

From the letter: “When oil prices and commodity prices rose earlier this year, food processors and grocery stores reflected their higher input costs almost immediately, passing them onto consumers. However since commodity prices have declined over the past three months, we have seen retail food prices continue to rise.”

This letter is the latest correspondence in a back-and-forth between Grassley and GMA, which started in May 2008. At that time, GMA was outed by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, for spearheading a multi-million dollar anti-ethanol campaign (.pdf).

The GMA campaign launched a website, providing consumer information on ethanol’s impact on food prices and an opportunity for visitors to express opposition to ethanol policies via an online petition; formed a broad-based advocacy coalition with largest representation from the food industry and livestock associations and a smattering of environmental and anti-hunger organizations; and funded research, including an economic analysis on ethanol’s long-term effects on commodity and retail food prices (.pdf) and a telephone survey to assess taxpayers’ concern about food price increases and opinion on ethanol policies. Results from both support GMA’s position of reducing or eliminating ethanol subsidies and mandates.

Grassley, senior U.S. senator from the corn state of Iowa and strong supporter of ethanol, vociferously opposes the GMA campaign. A few days after the Roll Call article came out, he delivered a statement about the “smear campaign” on the Senate floor and posted documents from GMA and Glover Park Group, the public relations firm with whom GMA contracted to coordinate the campaign, on his website. “They’ve outlined their strategy of using environmental, hunger and food aid groups to demonstrate their contrived ‘crisis,’” Grassley said. “I think it’s important for policy-makers and the American people to know who’s behind this effort.”

One week prior to Grassley’s letter, the major U.S. livestock trade associations—American Meat Institute, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Meat Association, National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation, and United Egg Producers—sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer objecting to proposed plans to provide rural development loans to ethanol plants, who are struggling to pay above-market rates on corn purchased through futures contracts. They write, “High commodity prices have been wreaking havoc in animal agriculture for almost two years. Yet no one at USDA has suggested that the government could provide loan funds to cover our members’ losses in the corn market.” And: “We urge you to rethink your intention of selectively lending taxpayer funds to private facilities that are having difficulty with the price of commodities.” This objection marks a departure from the livestock industry’s long-standing support of selective subsidies, namely commodity payments, which also address “difficulty with the price of commodities” and as some have argued, indirectly subsidize livestock producers by keeping the price of animal feed low.

The New York State "fat tax"

New York State Health Commissioner Richard Daines has endorsed Gov. David Paterson's revenue-generating budget proposal to create a so-called "fat tax" - an 18 percent levy on sugary drinks like non-diet soda. His endorsement, published on You Tube December 26th, is a five minute dialog which describes the increased consumption of sugar laden drinks, the concurrent rise in obesity, and the cost and impact of the obesity epidemic on the public. The tax is arguably focused on health care policy as opposed to revenues. Elizabeth Benjamin of The Daily Politics covers the issue in her blog post The Doctor is in (Cyberspace).

Daines also quotes a research editorial from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association called How Discretionary Can We Be with Sweetened Beverages for Children which concluded: "Only one high-risk dietary practice emerged as being linked to overweight in children: the intake of sweetened beverages."

[Note from Parke: Cool video, Ashley. I like Daines' effective use of props for data visualization. Because of this New York proposal, I've been getting questions from consumer advocates about the economics of soda consumption. In a nutshell, if people greatly change their consumption in reaction to such a tax, their response is called "elastic." If consumers don't change their consumption much, the policy does better for revenue generation. In a 2004 study of low-income Americans, in the journal Agribusiness, Steven Yen, Biing-Hwan Lin, David Smallwood, and Margaret Andrews estimated the price elasticity for soft drinks to be -0.8, which means that a 10% increase the soft drink price leads to about an 8% fall in soft drink consumption. At the same time, the price increase for soft drinks makes milk and juice products comparatively more attractive to consumers.]

Friday, December 26, 2008

Human fat for fuel

According to an article in Forbes Magazine, a Beverley Hills doctor has been transforming the fat from his liposuction operations into biodiesel to power him and his wife's SUVs. According to the article:

Fat--whether animal or vegetable--contains triglycerides that can be extracted and turned into diesel. Poultry companies such as Tyson are looking into powering their trucks on chicken schmaltz, and biofuel start-ups such as Nova Biosource are mixing beef tallow and pig lard with more palatable sources such as soybean oil. Mike Shook of Agri Process Innovations, a builder of biodiesel plants, says this year's batch of U.S. biodiesel was likely more than half animal-derived since the price of soybeans soared.

A gallon of grease will get you about a gallon of fuel, and drivers can get about the same amount of mileage from fat fuel as they do from regular diesel, according to Jenna Higgins of the National Biodiesel Board. Animal fats need to undergo an additional step to get rid of free fatty acids not present in vegetable oils, but otherwise, there's no difference, she says.

Greenies like the fact that waste, such as coffee grounds and french-fry grease, can be turned into power. "The vast majority of my patients request that I use their fat for fuel--and I have more fat than I can use," Bittner wrote on lipodiesel.com. "Not only do they get to lose their love handles or chubby belly but they get to take part in saving the Earth." Bittner's lipodiesel Web site is no longer online.

Using fat to fuel cars might be environmentally friendly, but it's definitely illegal in California to use human medical waste to power vehicles, and Bittner is being investigated by the state's public health department.

Although it's unclear when Bittner started and stopped making fat fuel or how he made it, his activities came to light after recent lawsuits filed by patients that allege he allowed his assistant and his girlfriend to perform surgeries without a medical license.

Crossposted from EpicureanIdeal.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Stevia sweetener gets FDA salute

Two agency response letters posted on the FDA site, confirmed to Cargill, Incorporated and Whole Earth Sweetener Company LLC that Rebaudioside A (a sweetener derived from the Stevia leaf) is, in fact, Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), thus giving the companies the green light for use in the US food supply. According to FoodProcessing: A Home Page for the Food and Beverage Industry, "Rebaudioside A's natural sweetening capacity makes it ideal for the food and beverage industries."

According to Food Navigator USA, “within hours Coca-Cola and PepsiCo announced that their first drinks sweetened with Reb A will be hitting US shop shelves shortly. Coca-Cola partnered with Cargill to develop their rebiana brand called Truvia, and PepsiCo, along with Whole Earth Sweetener Company (a subsidiary of Merisant Company) and PureCircle, have their own product under the PureVia brand."

Many are still critical of the industry sponsored research and FDA's seemingly hastily 'midnight' decision, including Marion Nestle at What to Eat, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and
Based on the information provided by Cargill (Whole Earth), as well as other information available to FDA, the agency has no questions at this time regarding Cargill’s(Whole Earth) conclusion that rebaudioside A purified from S. rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni is GRAS under the intended conditions of use. The agency has not, however, made its own determination regarding the GRAS status of the subject use of rebaudioside A purified from S. rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni. As always, it is the continuing responsibility of Cargill(Whole Earth) to ensure that food ingredients that the firm markets are safe, and are otherwise in compliance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

School lunch and school breakfast standards

The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, today released a report on meal patterns and nutrient standards for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP).

There is a request for public comments.
The National School Breakfast Program feeds 10 million children each day, and the National School Lunch Program feeds more than 30 million students. Yet the national nutrition standards and meal requirements for these meals were created more than a decade ago, making them out of step with recent guidance about children's diets. With so many children receiving as much as 50 percent of their daily caloric intake from school meals, it is vital for schools to provide nutritious food alongside the best possible education for the success of their students.

At the request of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Institute of Medicine assembled a committee to recommend updates and revisions to the school lunch and breakfast programs. The first part of the committee's work is reflected in the December 2008 IOM report Nutrition Standards and Meal Requirements for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs: Phase I. Proposed Approach for Recommending Revisions. Phase II of the report is expected in Fall 2009. This first report provides information about the committee's approach as it reviews the school lunch and breakfast programs. In the report's second part, the committee will share its findings and recommendations to bring these meals more in line with today's dietary guidelines.

The committee welcomes public comments about its intended approach. An open forum will be held January 28, 2009 in Washington, DC to receive input from the public.

New study confirms: restaurant meals have more calories

In the new issue of the Review of Agricultural Economics, agricultural economist James Binkley of Purdue University confirms that restaurant and fast food meals have many more calories than home meals do (see abstract).

For example, for a typical adult, and holding constant other variables, a lunch in a table-service restaurant has on average 184 more calories (kcal) than a lunch made at home. A lunch at a fast-food restaurant has on average 121 more calories than a lunch made at home.

A difference of 120 to 180 kcal per day is enough to contribute to weight gain over time.

Two concerns about restaurant meals are their energy density and their total calories. Binkley found that fast-food meals were the most energy dense, while table-service restaurant meals had the most total calories. Meals from home scored better on both counts.

From the Wiley-Blackwell press release:
“It is misleading to focus concerns about the nutritional effects of increased food away from home primarily on fast food. All food away from home should be considered,” Binkley concludes.

The King Corn guys spoof HFCS ads

Have you seen the corn refiners' ads defending high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from its critics? Then you may enjoy the spoof by Ian and Curt, the guys from King Corn (reviewed earlier on this blog).

Vilsack to be appointed Agriculture Secretary

The New York Times online yesterday evening reported that former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack would be appointed Secretary of Agriculture. I read the news on the Ethicurean, which was disappointed ("AgSuck," said the headline). John Crabtree from the Center for Rural Affairs gave an earlier more favorable review of Vilsack on the Blog for Rural America.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is the NPPC telling the truth about the pork checkoff referendum?

Following our earlier coverage of the pork checkoff referendum request, I read with interest Brian Depew's blog post on the Rural Populist.

Brian was a hog farmer himself at the time of the 2001 referendum on the pork checkoff, in which pork producers failed to approve the program's continuation, but nevertheless had their vote overturned in a deal between the National Pork Producers Council, the checkoff program, and USDA. He calls upon all pork producers to send in USDA's form requesting a new vote before the Jan. 2 deadline.

Then, I read the comment on Brian's post, by Dave Warner. Here is my comment in response at the Rural Populist:
I read Dave Warner’s comments with astonishment. Is this the same Dave Warner who is a director of communication for the National Pork Producers Council?!

Dave writes, “The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) does NOT receive Checkoff funds.”

That astonished me, because I thought the NPPC received millions of dollars in checkoff funds each year as a contractor to the checkoff program, carrying out checkoff-sponsored activities. In addition, I thought the NPPC in 2006 won an especially sweet backroom deal, in which the checkoff program agreed to pay the NPPC $60 million ($3 million each year for 20 years!) — with no work required at all — for the use of the property rights to the “other white meat” brand. I thought this deal was dreadful from the point of view of pork producers, because they had themselves already paid for most of the advertising that built the “other white meat” brand. And I thought it was a travesty that nobody at the NPPC, the checkoff, or the USDA would share with the public the dubious “appraisal” on which this sale was based.

See this link for details:

Dave writes, “NPPC has nothing to do with the Checkoff.”

That astonished me, because I thought the NPPC was a major player in the deal that overturned the democratic outcome of the last pork referendum in 2001, when pork producers failed to approve the continuation of the checkoff and yet are still to this day forced to pay the “mandatory assessment” (please, nobody call it a “tax,” even though it is collected involuntarily using the federal government’s powers of taxation). The NPPC was one of the parties to the “agreement” with the checkoff and USDA which ended a lawsuit over the 2001 referendum and led belatedly to the current request for producer input.

See this link for details of how the NPPC was involved in that agreement:

I think of the NPPC and the checkoff as closer to each other than tweedledee and tweedledum, with just the thinnest veneer of official separation.
In the end, I fear the tricky maneuver of scheduling the request for producer input over the Christmas season will succeed in denying pork producers a vote yet again. I notice that the independent organizations that were actively involved in the 2001 referendum still have up only a forlorn timeline whose last entry is 2004. It seems doubtful that anybody is getting organized to represent pork producers' interests vigorously before January 2. And both the mainstream press and the agricultural press gave little coverage to this issue.

[Update: For producers who want to request a vote, here is the link to the USDA site. Please post to the comments here if you have any trouble with internet access.]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Soybean association alleges misuse of checkoff funds

Today's press release from the American Soybean Association (ASA), a private-sector trade association for the soybean industry:
"Serious ethical, legal, and financial allegations have been raised about how farmer checkoff funds and program activities are being conducted," said ASA President John Hoffman, a soybean producer from Waterloo, Iowa. "These significant allegations have caused ASA to ask the Inspector General to conduct an investigation and audit so that the basis of the allegations can be impartially investigated to find the truth."
Allegations include the improper and wasteful expenditure of both checkoff and federal funds; potential evasion of mandated salary and administrative spending caps by [the United Soybean Board (USB)]; conflicts of interests at USB; use of checkoff funds for prohibited purposes by USB; and wasteful and excessive spending by USB. There are additional allegations concerning improper USB oversight and tolerance of actions that have taken place at the [United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC)], an entity created by USB and ASA in October 2005. These allegations include improper conduct by a USSEC employee at USSEC functions; the firing of whistleblowers; improper employee relationships; contracting violations; management malfeasance and the inability of ASA Directors serving on USSEC Board to obtain an independent and objective investigation of the allegations.
See also links to the Association's longer summary (.pdf) of the controversy, and today's articles at AgricultureOnline and the Des Moines Register.

Similar to the checkoff programs for beef, pork, and dairy, the soybean checkoff program uses the federal government's powers of taxation to collect more than $100 million per year in mandatory assessments to support industry marketing and promotion efforts, but it is controversial with many producers.

These large and influential programs deserve greater attention than the minimal oversight they get from government authorities, public interest groups, and the major media.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Downsizing and mouse print

As part of a series of reports called "Squeezed at the Supermarket," NBC's Today Show this morning featured Edgar Dworsky, the longtime consumer advocate and blogger behind Consumer World and Mouse Print (discussed in an earlier post). Matt Lauer and Janice Lieberman have great fun going over examples from Skippy peanut butter to Tropicana orange juice. At the end, they read a list of explanations from the manufacturers.

Monday, December 08, 2008

National and international developments in melamine


Walgreens is recalling 173 teddy bears with chocolate bars sold in stores since late September 2008. Analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that certain samples of the chocolate provided with the teddy bears were contaminated with melamine. Customers who purchased any of the 173 teddy bears should return them immediately to the Walgreens stores where they were purchased for a full refund. Walgreens already has instructed stores to stop selling the product, which is specifically described as an approximately 9-inch high Dressy Teddy Bear with 4-oz. Chocolate Bar.


The World Health Organization has released a tolerable upper limit of 0.2 milligrams of melamine per kilogram of body weight per day. A meeting of food safety experts held by WHO in Ottawa, Canada, made the decision Friday noting that there is no good reason to have any melamine in food products at all.

According to the Associated Press:

Jorgen Schlundt, WHO's director for food safety, said that threshold is lower than the European Union's limitation of 0.5 milligrams. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which originally set its limit at 0.63 milligrams, later reduced its tolerable daily intake to 0.063 milligrams.

WHO's guidance is used by governments to set their minimum food safety standards.Melamine, a nitrogen-rich chemical used in the production of plastics, was first discovered to be a major problem when it appeared in Chinese infant formula in September. Since then traces have been found in milk products around the world.

Last month the FDA said tests found traces of melamine in the infant formula of one major U.S. manufacturer and cyanuric acid, a related chemical, in the formula of a second major maker. Schlundt stressed that the threshold the WHO has set — which stipulates that a 50 kilogram (110-pound) person could tolerate 10 milligrams of melamine per day — is not a "safe" level for melamine, but merely the amount a human being can consume without higher health risk.

Melamine is used in some food packaging and can rub off into packaged food products. It also is part of a cleaning solution used on some food processing equipment.

Cross posted from www.epicureanideal.blogspot.com

Who will be the next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture?

The Washington Post on Thursday offered three names: Kathleen Sebelius (Governor of Kansas), Charles Stenholm (lobbyist and former Representative from Texas), and Dennis Wolff (Pennsylvania agriculture secretary).

The Ethicurean blog and Kim Severson's blog at the New York Times highlight candidates proposed by the sustainable agriculture community. From the Ethicurean's report (and photograph):
  • Gus Schumacher, Former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture.
  • Chuck Hassebrook, Executive Director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, NE.
  • Sarah Vogel, former two-term Commissioner of Agriculture for the State of North Dakota, attorney, Bismarck, ND.
  • Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer, Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Ames, IA and President, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, NY.
  • Mark Ritchie, current Minnesota Secretary of State, former policy analyst in Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture, cofounder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
  • Neil Hamilton, attorney, Dwight D. Opperman Chair of Law and Professor of Law and Director, Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, IA.

    (Photos of the six are arranged above in order of this list)

  • "Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough"

    The Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment (CFFE) today released a report by Elanor Starmer, entitled "Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough: How Large Hog and Dairy Operations are Subsidized by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program":
    The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was approved by Congress in 1996 with the backing of many family farm and conservation-focused organizations. Designed to provide cost-share and incentive payments to agricultural producers to address resource concerns on their farms, it has been used over the years by thousands of farmers nationwide to make environmental improvements that benefit the land and their communities.

    The 2002 Farm Bill opened up EQIP for use by industrial livestock operations, which house thousands of animals and generate massive quantities of manure. They often lack sufficient farmland on which to apply animal waste or make irresponsible management decisions in applying it, generating air or water pollution; the burden of addressing the pollution often falls on public services or community members living near the operations. When Congress made EQIP funds available to these operations in 2002, stakeholders worried that it would further subsidize an environmentally destructive method of production and that the share of funding available for the program’s original targets – small and mid-sized operations – would be diminished.

    The 2002 Farm Bill also severely restricted public access to information about the size of EQIP contracts and the practices that they fund. Moreover, the administrator of the program, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, lacks the funding and mandate to track EQIP payments by the size of livestock operation receiving them. As a result, even though animal waste is now a priority issue for the program, there is no way for the public or policymakers to know how industrial operations are using the funds or to assess whether EQIP is subsidizing their expansion.

    This report uses the limited data that is publicly available to investigate the use of EQIP by industrial hog and dairy operations nationally and in the states of Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri. It finds that nationwide, these operations receive far more than their fair share of EQIP funding.

    Although industrial hog operations comprise only 10.7% of all hog operations nationally, they receive an estimated 37% of all EQIP contracts to the hog sector. In contrast, mid-sized hog farms represent roughly 15% of all operations but receive only 5.4% of EQIP hog contracts.

    Similarly, the report finds that industrial dairies make up only 3.9% of all dairy operations nationally, yet they receive an estimated 54% of all EQIP dairy contracts. Meanwhile, mid-sized dairies, which account for 13% of all dairies nationally, receive only 7% of EQIP dairy contracts.

    This report estimates that between 2003 and 2007, roughly 1,000 industrial hog and dairy operations have captured at least $35 million per year in funding through the EQIP program....

    While EQIP continues to be used by many livestock and crop producers to carry out environmentally beneficial practices, a disproportionate share of funds now flows to highly polluting livestock operations. This is a fundamental flaw in the policy and may jeopardize the goals and long-term effectiveness of the program. Moreover, the program suffers from a lack of oversight and insufficient record keeping. As a result, it lacks public accountability.

    Sunday, December 07, 2008

    Purchasing power for peace

    I was elated this morning as I smeared Eggplant & Tomato Tapenade on my toast, that I was doing more than nourishing myself, I was helping to bring peace to a region of the world that has been at war for decades.
    MEDITALIA™ Tapenades and Pestos are produced in Israel through cooperation between Israelis, Arabs and other neighbours. The olives are grown in Palestinian villages, the glass jars are made in Egypt, and the sun-dried tomatoes come from Turkey. PeaceWorks believes that personal contact between these groups will shatter cultural stereotypes and help people live together peacefully. Five percent of the profits from MEDITALIA™ Pestos and Tapenades go to support the PeaceWorks Foundation to foster peaceful co-existence in the world.
    Meditalia is a brand under Peaceworks Holdings LLC pursues profits through our sales of healthful food products that are produced by neighbors on opposing sides of political or armed conflicts, whose cooperative business ventures we facilitate.
    Mission And Impact

    PeaceWorks is guided by the Theory of Economic Cooperation which states the following:

    Mutually beneficial economic initiatives can create good relations between rivaling peoples in the same way that business partners anywhere profit from cooperation in today's marketplace. In this manner, cooperative business ventures that capitalize on the strength of each partner can enable the conditions necessary to achieve long-lasting cultural understanding and eventually even bring prosperity to regions of conflict around the world. PeaceWorks acts at the catalyst for profitable economic interdependence.

    Our Cooperation Ecosystem, below, illustrates both levels at which the model works, and the resulting impacts:
    • Commercial Cooperation
    • Businesses profiting from joint ventures gain a vested interest in maintaining and cementing these valuable relationships.
    • Peoples and countries prospering through these cooperative activities gain a stake in the system, furthering stability.
    • Human Interaction
    • People working together under conditions of equality learn to shatter cultural stereotypes and humanize their former enemy.
    And this all results in...
    • Job Creation and Export-led Growth
    PeaceWorks connects local producers with manufacturers, and buys the food products they create for export. The increased demand thus created results in new jobs, which stimulates local economies and contributes to a rise in the standard of living for their region.

    Employment & Technology

    Increasing output through exports generates economies of scale and reduces costs, making ventures in regions of conflict more competitive. Export initiatives with overseas partners also benefit from enhanced professionalism, technology transfers and subsequent technical know-how. Peace Building As groups learn to work together, cultural stereotypes are shattered and the former enemy is demystified, and humanized.
    Never before have there been so many decisions and impacts on what food you buy. Buy local to support your local economy, buy fair-trade to help farmers get a fair market price, buy organic to preserve traditional farming methods and biodiversity, buy free range for animal rights, buy grass-fed because it has more conjugated linoleic acid, buy what's on sale, buy Kosher for personal beliefs, buy what tastes good. We have a lot of choices to make significant changes in our world through the food we eat. Never before has a social movement been more entrenched in our everyday decisions as what to buy at market. Choose wisely.

    Cross-posted from www.epicureanideal.blogspot.com.

    Friday, December 05, 2008

    Food retail in rough places

    Continuing a series of walks through urban U.S. neighborhoods that have been identified as food deserts, I journeyed in November on foot through the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles and the Anacostia neighborhood of my hometown of Washington, DC.

    Skid Row

    At least from an outsider's perspective, Skid Row seemed bleak beyond words. It is a defining failure for a prosperous society to tolerate such poverty. The food retail situation looked poor, but it would be naive to think food retail policy on its own would make much difference in such a setting. I carried a camera, but, despite being a hardened veteran of urban living in the United States, I felt so much like a tourist from another planet that I could not bear to pull it out. So, I have to link to Wikipedia for an image.

    My destination, after passing through Skid Row on my way along 7th Street from a conference hotel downtown, was the produce terminal for Los Angeles, an absurdly immense, congested, and seemingly run-down transportation facility. I can just imagine all the Southern California families, buying their fruits and vegetables in pleasant grocery stores and eating them on the dining tables in their pleasant homes, having no idea of the journey their food has taken through this bleak urban wasteland adjoining Skid Row. I told my students later that it is not much done any more for university teachers to quote Karl Marx, but I found the term "alienation" from his philosophical manuscripts running in circles around my head. Here is an image from the University of Southern California's geography department site describing walking tours in Los Angeles.


    In Anacostia, I met up at the lovely historic Frederick Douglass Home with David Garber, who keeps a fine blog called And Now, Anacostia. Historically a food desert, the poor neighborhoods in Ward 8 east of the Anacostia River in DC have benefited from a new Giant supermarket in Congress Heights (on Alabama Avenue just off the left edge of this Google map), but David pointed out that Congress Heights is more than a mile removed from the heart of the Anacostia neighborhood, which could still be considered a retail desert. Moreover, others have complained that Giant's strip mall grocery format was poorly matched to the needs of the neighborhod.

    View Larger Map

    On the walk, I was intrigued especially by this fairly rough store front (photograph by David Garber), which, on close inspection claimed in its overhead sign to be the "Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket," (point C in the Google map). In a year of living in the neighborhood, David said he had never been in once. Inside, it turned out to be a real mid-sized grocery store with a full line of food, from packaged manufactured food to fresh fruits and vegetables of adequate if unimpressive quality.

    I am sure this store is nobody's ideal. At the same time, a policy of tax breaks or other incentives to bring in a new supermarket to this neighborhood would raise a number of questions. Would the tax breaks and incentives be good public policy in tight fiscal times? Would a new retailer drive the Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket out of business, and would that be a net benefit or loss for the neighborhood? Would the new supermarket fail, because of competition with the Congress Heights store a short drive (or long walk, or one metro stop) away? I don't know the answers. Like the other walks in this series, this walk offered a lot to think about on the topic of diagnosing retail deserts.

    Interstate countercyclical potato pricing policy

    From the Onion News Network (ONN).

    Suggested by Yoni of Weighty Matters and seen also on the Blog for Rural America.

    The Agriculture and Public Health Gateway

    The Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has introduced the Agriculture and Public Health Gateway, a new website on connections between agriculture and public health. The highlights section features direct links to source documents, such as journal articles and United Nations reports. A search element in the right sidebar draws on major literature databases such as Agricola (much as if one entered search terms directly, I think, without a specific screener for public health relevance). There is an RSS feed, for keeping track of updates.

    Flood tolerant rice breakthrough

    An article in the Sacramento Bee reveals that a geneticist at UC-Davis is receiving an award for her work developing a flood-tolerant rice. What is most exciting is that the research, which was funded partly by USDA, did not use genetic engineering. Scientists identified a gene, called Sub1A, that is responsible for flooding tolerance in rice. "Identifying the gene allowed plant breeders to use "precision breeding" to create new rice varieties that could recover after severe flooding and "produce abundant yields of high-quality grain," the release says.
    Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology, Julia Bailey-Serres, a UC Riverside genetics professor and David Mackill, of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, will be given the 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture National Research Initiative Discovery Award Friday at UC Riverside.
    Other than their flood tolerance, the new plants are virtually identical to popular high-yielding varieties.

    Flooding in Bangladesh and India reduces rice yields by up to 4 million tons each year, enough to feed 30 million people.

    Researchers anticipate the flood-tolerant rice plants will be available to farmers within the next two years.

    The plants are not subject to the regulatory testing that can delay release of genetically modified crops because they are the product of precision breeding, not genetic modification, the release states.
    Study Background
    Ronald led the effort to isolate the gene, and her lab showed that the gene is switched on when rice plants are submerged in water. The project took 13 years to complete.

    "To be part of this project as it has moved from my lab in California to rice fields in Asia has been inspiring, and the project underscores the power of science to improve people's lives," Ronald said in a written statement.

    The research that led to the gene's isolation was funded by USDA grants to Ronald, Mackill and Bailey-Serres. The breeding work was funded by the USDA and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

    All told the USDA allotted nearly $1.45 million to the research project, a UC Riverside news release states.
    Cross posted from http://epicureanideal.blogspot.com/

    Sunday, November 30, 2008

    Do pork producers want the right to vote on their checkoff program?

    Pork producers and importers who want the pork checkoff program to be subjected to a referendum must submit a form to USDA between Dec. 8 and Jan. 2.

    If 15 percent of producers and importers say they want a referendum on the Pork Checkoff Program, a referendum would be held within one year after the results are announced. But, conveniently, the whole thing is set up so that failing to express a view counts the same as voting against a referendum.

    A USDA press release, website, and Federal Register announcement (.pdf) summarize the procedures for pork producers and importers to let their views be heard. Although the Federal Register announcement includes a link to the form producers and importers are supposed to use, I cannot find the form at the link given, or any other obvious place on USDA's website. Unless I have missed something, this will make it very difficult for producers to exercise their rights.

    The 4-week window for submissions was announced by USDA on Nov. 13, giving producers who want the opportunity to vote a very short time to spread the word, especially given the timing over the holiday season.

    The pork checkoff program used the Federal Government's powers of taxation to collect $63 million in mandatory assessments in 2008 from pork producers and importers, to fund advertising and promotion efforts, including those using the slogan "Pork. The Other White Meat." The money is overseen by the National Pork Board, a semi-public entity that gives most of it in contracts to the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), the industry's private-sector trade association. All Pork Board supported advertising messages must be approved by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which oversees the program and has part of its resulting administrative expenses paid by pork producers' checkoff money.

    There are many reasons why pork producers and importers might feel they deserve the chance to vote on whether the mandatory checkoff program should continue. For example:

    1. The pork checkoff program is an ineffective way of increasing consumer demand for pork. The program's own official estimates find that a 10% increase in generic pork advertising leads to a 0.21% increase -- one fifth of 1% -- in the quantity of pork consumed.

    2. The pork checkoff program is bruising for a fight with the nutrition and health community, which may come to a head early in the new administration. It may turn out to be a terrible liability for pork producers to have their advertising program controlled by the federal government. For example, under the slogan "Counting Carbs? Pork's Perfect," the pork checkoff program's website promoted low-carb fad weight loss diets until 2007, when I filed a petition to have this slogan removed on grounds that it contradicts the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The slogan was removed from the websites, and USDA said the program is no longer using the slogan, though without exactly confirming that the change was in response to the petition. If producers were less dependent on the federal government for approval of advertising programs, the producers would have more control over their own marketing messages. There may be similar reasons why pork producers would not want to rely so heavily on a new federal government administration with an increasingly environmental outlook.

    3. A well-designed voluntary checkoff program, which would not require federal powers of taxation to force unwilling producers to pay up, might be reasonably successful at raising funds anyway. A recent article in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics explored clever voluntary payment mechanisms.

    4. The NPPC, the National Pork Board, and USDA have never given a public accounting to producers or anybody else, explaining in detail how they arrived at the $60 million dollar price tag for the property rights to the "Other White Meat" brand, which the NPPC sold to the National Pork Board in 2006. My Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request yielded highly censored documents, which showed only that somebody has something to hide in this whole unseemly affair. Insufficient information has been provided to verify that this appraisal was correct and legitimate.

    5. Producers were denied their rights to approve the checkoff program in 2000, so the current program has only the window-dressing but none of the substance of a voluntary program. I asked USDA recently if there wasn't supposed to be some evidence of continuing producer support for the checkoff program. The reply by email said, "The Pork Board is only required by the Act to have an initial referendum within 24 to 30 months of the onset of the program. The last referendum for the Pork Checkoff program was conducted in September 2000, as a result of a petition by producers. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman determined the results as non-binding." Just like that.

    If you hear anything more about this issue, please post it in the comments. I have seen just about no coverage of this issue in the mainstream press or the agricultural press. I couldn't find anything prominently posted on the website for Pork magazine. Is there some code of silence thing going on here?

    Oh, how COOL

    Many of you may have noticed yet another “thing” on your food labels. While Country Of Origin Labeling (or COOL) was already printed on wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, the 2008 Farm Bill has expanded the list to cover some muscle cuts of meats, ground meats, perishable agriculture commodities, ginseng and nuts. The implementation is the responsibility of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and so far, as expected, their job has been far from cool.

    The legislation has roots in the 2002 farm bill. On January 27, 2004, Public Law 108-199 delayed implementation of mandatory COOL for all covered commodities except wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish until September 30, 2006. On November 10, 2005, Public Law 109-97 delayed implementation of mandatory COOL for all covered commodities except wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish until September 30, 2008.

    The bill has been framed as effort to provide consumers with information to make informed decision regarding where their food comes from, partially due to the recent attention to local food movements. What they tried to avoid was the ‘elephant in the room’ to all of us, food safety. The reason to avoid food safety? Maybe it is admitting that there is a problem with food safety in this country? Or maybe we don’t want to offend the countries we trade with? Whatever the reason, you are now going to know if you cow was a Canadian or if your tomatoes have been on further vacations then you.

    Like most pieces of legislation there are a few exemptions to rule:

    1. Non-PACA licensed stores. The Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA) is a federal law that regulates the produce industry (this could be butcher shops, convenience stores, etc.).

    2. Food Service Establishments.

    3. Certain processing methods:
    - any covered commodity that has undergone processing that results in a change (cooking, curing, smoking, restructuring);
    - any covered commodity that has been combined with another food product that is not water salt or sugar (does this mean a rise in peas and carrots? Oh dear!).

    And it is these “exemptions” that seem to be causing a lot of ruckus. Say for instance: mixed salad versus bagged spinach? Mixed salad wouldn’t be covered, but the spinach would require labeling. How about a fruit cup that contains melons and strawberries? Nope, does not require a COOL label.

    Dried fruit is not subject to COOL labeling requirements since the drying process changes the character of the fruit. Mushrooms, if fresh, are covered. Dried mushrooms are not covered. Packages of different colored sweet peppers (green, yellow, and/or red), combined in a package, will require country of origin notification because there is one U.S. Grade Standard for sweet peppers, regardless of the color.

    And if you think the produce industry is confused on how to implement, the coolness continues for the meat industry responsible for muscle cuts beef, veal, pork, lamb and chicken and the ground counterparts.
    a) Product of the U.S.—meat from animals born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States or from animals present in the United States on or prior to July 15, 2008.
    b) Product of the U.S., Country X—meat from animals born in Country X and raised and slaughtered in the United States.
    c)Meat from these animals were not exclusively born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States or imported for immediate slaughter -- meat from animals imported into the United States for immediate slaughter.
    d) Product of Country X—foreign meat imported into the United States

    Attempt at implementation has been revealing how meat is carried through the supply chain. From birth, to stockyard, to feedlot, to slaughter, animals can have quite a stamped passport and these complexities of the livestock industry may have some product labels listing multiple countries. That's especially true of ground beef, because some meat processors combine cuts from a number of countries to make ground meat and hamburger patties.

    Meat packers and large agribusinesses initially opposed the rule because they want continued access to imported (often cheaper) meat, without facing a penalty in the marketplace from consumers who may think American meat is safer. They also argued that the label is unnecessary, too expensive and would be a record keeping nightmare (in this case, "they" was Tyson vice president testifying against COOL at USDA education session).

    Proponents for the bill consider COOL a feather in their cap. They believe the greatest advantage is knowing exactly where your food comes from. They argue that COOL gives consumers the ability: to support more local economies, to choose fresher food, and could ultimately prevent food safety problems associated with imported foods.

    Some caveats, because what would policy be without them?

    1. There is a loophole: Food further processed in foreign countries, may still receive US determination i.e. baby carrots

    2. Commingled commodities: goods from mixed countries require all countries to be identified i.e. a mixed bin of tomatoes

    Whether you are for or against Country Of Origin Labeling, what this bill teaches us is that these laws are never cut and dry. Once the rule making and regulation begins, what sounded like a great idea can sometime turn into something that is not-so-COOL.

    Note: cross-posted from Epicurean Ideal.

    Sunday, November 23, 2008

    Meet the Bloggers

    Brave New Foundation's Meet the Bloggers recently had on guests: Marion Nestle blogger on Food Politics; Catherine Gund of Whats on Your Plate; and Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally. The Bloggers all discussed a hot issue in the food world: Food Safety. Trueman also plugs the good people at the Eat Well Guide and how to find a "natural turkey" and local foods in your area.

    From Wall Street to Main Street

    As Congress moves to bail out some of the largest corporations in order to prop up the economy, Main Street is jumping on the bandwagon to ask for a little help in these hard times. Is this the 'new New Deal?'

    Democratic Senators are working to pass the Reid-Byrd Econ Stimulus Bill. In response to higher unemployment, rising food costs, higher energy costs, State budgets in crisis, and increased dependence on foreign oil, President-Elect Obama has called for a second stimulus bill to jump start the economy and help Americans recover from the recession.

    It is well known that the hits on Wall Street take a few months to trickle down to Main Street. The bill focuses on the areas of society that are being hit the hardest:

    Unemployment: "The U.S. economy has lost jobs every month this year, a total of 1.2 million jobs, with almost half of the job losses coming in the last 3 months alone." The bill would extend unemployment benefits by seven weeks in all states.

    State Economies: The package includes $37.8 million to help States reduce their share of Medicaid, in order to ease the budget shortfalls affecting local economies.

    Auto-Industry Assistance: $25 billion in loans with required long term financial plans.

    Tax Relief for New Car Purchasing: to help tax payers afford new cars, while propping up the automobile industry.

    High Food Costs: "$445 million for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program (which would allow 600,000 women and children to receive WIC benefits, meet some of the rising demand due to a faltering economy, and allow states to avoid creating waiting lists). $50 million is included for Food Banks, $8 million for the Commodity Supplemental Food program, and $60 million for senior meals programs (18 million more meals)."

    High Energy Assistance: In order to help Americans cope with spiraling energy costs, $500 million is included for weatherization programs.

    Energy Independence: The stimulus makes major investments in electrifying vehicles with $300 million for advanced battery research, and $1billion for the advanced battery manufacturing loan guarantee program which will authorize over $3.3 billion in loan guarantees. In addition, the stimulus includes $500 million to help local governments improve energy efficiency; $500 million for additional energy efficiency and renewable energy research, development and deployment; and $140 million for electricity transmission improvements.

    Caring for the Environment: Over $5 billion is included for environmental clean up, urban and rural clean water systems, and for maintenance of our parks, forests, and wildlife refuges.

    Building Infrastructure and Creating Jobs: The stimulus package includes: $13.5 billion for building and repairing highways, bridges, mass transit, airports, and AMTRAK, creating 470,000 jobs.

    Housing: The Committee bill includes $700 million for capital funding grants to public housing agencies and $200 million to provide housing agencies with additional funding to alleviate the increased costs of energy.

    Improving the Quality of Life for Military Families: $175 million for the construction, replacement, and improvement of military family housing at Army and Air Force installations, and an additional $75 million for the construction of child development centers at Navy installations.

    Education and Job Training: $2.5 billion is included for school repairs, $600 million for youth training and dislocated workers, $200 million for the Community Services Block Grant, and $36 million for homeless education.

    Health: $1 billion to restore some of the purchasing power of NIH that was lost because of inflation in the past five years and allow NIH to award as many as 2,700 new research project grants that could lead to cures and treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and many other devastating diseases.

    Small Businesses: The stimulus provides $615 million to support $22.5 billion in zero-fee loans to small businesses under the 7(a) program and the 504 program. The bill also provides $1 million to support $10 million in new microloans for small businesses and $4 million for critical technical assistance for these “micro” borrowers.

    Border Security and Crime Fighting: The bill includes over $1 billion for border security and other homeland security investments.

    Science: $675 million for NASA, Department of Energy and Cyber Security.

    Disaster Assistance: Relief support for farmers facing crop damage, and community disaster loans.

    Consumer Protection: 13.1 million to permit prompt implementation of new authorities enacted in the 2008 Farm Bill (P.L. 110-246), $75 million for the FBI for agents to investigate rising claims of mortgage fraud, and $10.5 million for the Treasury Inspector General to conduct critical reviews of bank failures.

    ADA: National Food and Nutrition Conference

    At the end of October 10,000 Registered Dietitians gathered in Chicago for the National Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. The conference revealed movements in dietetics and educational sessions discussing the latest field research.

    As a dietitian, I am grateful for the opportunity to meet up with old friends, network and hear the latest in the nutrition world. I am happy to see a movement in dietetics that seems to be taking a more holistic approach to the field, and the dietitians role in hunger and environmental nutrition.

    As you can image, there is no shortage of food products in the Expo center. Why would industry want to exhibit at FNCE? According to the ADA website: to increase access, visibility and time and money.
    THE FOOD & NUTRITION CONFERENCE & EXPO (FNCE) gives you the most cost-effective way to meet face-to-face with thousands of qualified foodservice, nutrition and healthcare decision makers. You’ll develop solid new business leads while building on existing relationships.

    Every sector of the food industry is represented at over 2200 booths: beverages, supplements, snack foods, 'functional foods', meal bars, as well as trade groups: The Almond Board of California, Peanut Institute, National Cattleman's Beef Association, National Dairy Council, National Chicken Council, even the National Beer Wholesalers Association. Dietitians can be seen ravenously filling their "eco friendly bags" with free samples of protein chews, appetite suppressant pills, gluten free snack foods, pastas, sweeteners, bakery products, cereals.....you get the picture, as well as nutrition information pamphlets and handouts that can be used to educate RD's clients.

    Here is an example of the one from Frito Lay:

    The highlight of the conference for me was Organic Valley Farm Tour, Elkhorn, Wisconsin sponsored by Organic Valley in conjunction with the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. A fabulous, day-long organic farm tour with a host of activities, including a milking parlor and milk house tour and demonstration; a pasture tour and discussion about organic grazing systems; a visit with Dr. Paul Dettloff, Organic Valley staff veterinarian, about herd health and animal well-being; and discussions about the current research and health benefits of organic foods. Lunch was provided on the farm followed by a cooking demonstration by Chef Monique Hooker, author of Cooking with the Seasons.

    Some of the topics of the sessions I attended were: Food Access & Community Partnerships - Steps to Reducing Health Disparities, Food or Fuel: The Economic Facts , and the session: The Science of Organics: Nourishing the Land, Animals and People, was co-presented with Helen Costello MS, RD, LD, who currently works at the New Hampshire Food Bank and a former Friedman School graduate, was standing room only.
    Food (and Water) For Thought Film Feastival, was a special event Co-hosted by HEN DPG & American Overseas Dietetic Association (AODA) at the Chicago Cultural Center. We viewed films on water conservation, water access, and global food security. After the films, a discussion with expert panelists including one of the filmmakers about how these issues affect our planet, our nation, and our communities.

    Attending the session Sustainable Food Systems: Opportunities for Dietitians by speakers: Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD Environmental Nutrition Solutions and Alison Harmon PhD, RD, LN Montana State University was pivotal for me as a dietitian. I was pleased to see the room, young and old, captivated by the session. It is refreshing to me to see dietitians interested in how their food system is so connected to health and how excited they are to be exploring solutions.

    Wednesday, November 19, 2008

    Award for McDonald's ad

    The Association of National Advertisers, Inc., gave an award this week to Mcdonald's for multicultural advertising, for the following commercial. According to Laurel Wentz on the ANA site: "Tony Suarez, McDonald's VP-multicultural marketing, said the spot was done by DDB, Chicago, with input from Hispanic shop Alma DDB, Coral Gables, Fla."

    Because the commercial is clearly marketing McDonald's to children, it offers insight into the boundaries of the company's voluntary pledge on the website of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

    Will such pledges materially affect the food marketing environment facing our children? That is the key question during the current trial period of industry self-regulation.

    Tuesday, November 18, 2008

    11.1% of U.S. households were food insecure in 2007

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week estimated that 11.1% of U.S. households were food insecure at some point in 2007. In a 30-day period, 6.3% of households were food insecure.

    USDA estimated that 4.1% of U.S. households experienced "very low food security" at some point in 2007. USDA used to call such housheolds "food insecure with hunger." A simpler single survey question showed that 3.3% of respondents reported being "hungry" at some point in the previous 12 months, because of not being able to afford food.

    The estimates were based on a set of questions about symptoms of food hardship on the Current Population Survey in December, 2007. Anti-hunger groups noted that the new USDA estimates do not capture likely recent increases in poverty and hunger due to the financial crisis.

    To put the statistics in context, the United States will fail to achieve national targets for reductions in food insecurity.

    Household food insecurity, 1995-2007
    Data source: USDA. Graphic: Parke Wilde.

    As part of the department's criteria for evaluating food assistance programs, USDA strategic plans set targets for 2005 and 2007 in the rate of "very low food security" among households with incomes below 130% of poverty. In a 2004 paper (.pdf) for the Center for National Statistics at the National Academies, I discussed some ways these evaluation targets might or might not work as intended. After establishing these targets, USDA has not followed up and reported progress toward meeting them, and is considering changes to its evaluation approach in light of the CNSTAT report on food security measurement.

    One complication is that the prevalence of "very low food security" is much worse for households that participate in the Food Stamp Program (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), than among low-income nonparticipants, presumably because people who face greater hardship are more likely to participate. The detailed tables of the USDA report this week show, furthermore, that the prevalence of "very low food security" among participants actually appears to be increasing over time.

    At the very least, this trend makes it difficult to use such data to demonstrate the beneficial effect of SNAP in reducing food insecurity and hunger. I have been using every opportunity to encourage USDA to pilot and evaluate possible program changes, such as twice-monthly benefit delivery, which might increase the effect of SNAP on measured rates of household food insecurity by reducing the episodes of hardship toward the end of the month.

    Data source: USDA. Graphic: Parke Wilde.

    Tuesday, November 11, 2008

    Unanswered questions about children's food and beverage advertising

    In July, based on information collected through federal subpoena, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) produced a detailed report on the massive extent of children's food and beverage advertising (see earlier post).

    A concurring statement (.pdf) by Commissioner Jon Leibowitz most strongly criticized two industries whose practices "leave a tinge of heartburn": the beverage and fast food restaurant industries.
    First, the disproportionate amount ($474 million) to market sugary carbonated beverages to adolescents is striking – that’s nearly $20 per American teenager in 2006. The marketing efforts must be working; on average, adolescents get eleven percent of their calories from soft drinks. Studies show that those who drink more soda are more likely to become overweight. To their credit, the major carbonated beverage marketers entered an agreement with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and have committed to phase out the sale of full-calorie sodas in schools, shifting to lower calorie and more nutritious beverages. Wouldn’t a responsible next step be to extend this effort beyond the schoolhouse door, and curtail at least some marketing of full-calorie soft drinks to school-age youth – including teens – whether on television, via the Internet, in stores, or elsewhere?

    Second, the big dollars to promote fast food restaurants to children are also somewhat hard to stomach: the $520 million for advertising and the toys included with fast food children’s meals was more than twice the amount spent by any other food category to target children under twelve in 2006. Some inner city low-income neighborhoods have numerous quick service restaurants but few grocery stores or markets that sell nutritious foods, so many of the children most at risk for obesity rely on fast food as a mainstay of their diets. Studies show that over-consumption of fast food likely contributes to overweight and obesity. I recognize that McDonald’s and Burger King are working to develop new, lower calorie menu items for children. But surely more can be done to add options to fast food menus and improve families’ incentives to order healthier choices.
    Some leading soda and fast food restaurant companies have refused to participate in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a Better Business Bureau project that hopes to forestall legislative action by demonstrating that the food and beverage industries can regulate themselves voluntarily.

    Why isn't Yum Brands, including Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, on the list of participating companies? Stare at these brand logos and ask, "Why do they insist on unrestrained marketing to children during an epidemic of obesity?"

    Why isn't Schweppes, including the Dr. Pepper and Snapple brands, part of the Initiative? An early press release from the Initiative listed Cadbury Schweppes as a founding member, but after a corporate reorganization, only the Cadbury Adams candy part is currently listed in the Initiative's website. The Initiative's six-month progress report (.pdf) covers some trivial issues at great length, but steers so far clear of criticizing companies that it never once mentions the absence of the major beverage company that was listed as a founding member of the Initiative. Stare at this brand logo, and ask yourself, "Did Schweppes commit to restrained advertising to kids, but then change its mind? If so, why?"

    And what about Nestle? Just as the FTC report was coming out in July, the Better Business Bureau heralded the last-minute participation of the multinational food corporation, which has a long history of controversial marketing practices. The Initiative has lenient standards for company pledges, as a condition of participation, but Nestle has not yet made public any standards on the Initiative's list of pledges. It is unseemly for the Initiative to give Nestle such an eager press release last July while simultaneously accommodating months of continued foot-dragging on the details of the company pledge. In response to an email query, the Initiative expresses "hope" that the company's pledge should be posted later this month. Stare at this logo, and ask, "How strong will Nestle's pledge be when it is finally shared with the public?"

    Half-hearted and long-delayed participation, as well as outright non-participation, undermine the incentives facing competitors that do participate and weaken the prospects for meaningful self-regulation as an effective response to concerns about unhealthy food and beverage advertising to children.

    Sunday, November 09, 2008

    ADA, Dietitians, Corporate Sponsorship & HFCS

    Some developments this year in the debate over high-fructose corn syrup: December 14, 2007: assistant editor at In These Times, Jacob Wheeler wrote an article called Corporate Potluck: Dietitians and their company sponsors make strange buffet fellows which highlighted the corporate industry partners attending the American Dietetic Association's 2007 Food and Nutrition Conference(FNCE). March 1, 2008: American Dietetic Association Welcomes The Coca-Cola Company as an ADA Partner. The press release says:

    The program provides Partners a national platform via ADA events and programs with prominent access to key influencers, thought leaders and decision makers in the food and nutrition marketplace. About the time the dietitians were becoming critical of their own association, criticism was coming from the very influential and proficient author and renowned food policy advocate Marion Nestle. She quotes on her blog
    Respected ADA colleagues: as long as your organization partners with makers of food and beverage products, its opinions about diet and health will never be believed independent (translation: based on science not politics) and neither will yours.
    Furthermore, an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History or Four Meals and more recently In Defense of Food, An Eaters Manifesto, Micheal Pollan had this to say:
    Well, nutrition science is very compromised by industry. Organizations like the American Dietetic Association take sponsorship from companies who are eager to find -- you know, be able to make health claims.
    Soon the Corn Refiners Association launched a PR campaign that took Dietitians along with them with a full page ad in the Washington Post: "Registered Dietitians agree that HFCS is the same as table sugar and can be enjoyed in moderation."

    This year at the American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference in Chicago, The Corn Refiners Association had an exhibit that included information about "the many ways corn based ingredients are contributing to great-tasting food and beverage choices and to innovations that enhance nutrition and help reduce calories and fat."

    I guess the question is, who is supposed to be teaching who about nutrition?

    Saturday, November 08, 2008

    Food Fight, the documentary

    Filmaker Chris Taylor's new documentary, Food Fight, casts the inventors of California cuisine as captains of the revolutionary overthrow of the industrial food system.

    The most fun comes when the film is least reverential to its champions, famous restauranteurs Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, and Wolfgang Puck, taking them down a peg. There is an amusing sequence where several interviewees find themselves at a loss for words trying to describe the towering ego that accompanied Towers' innovations in the kitchen of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse during the 1970s. One interview explains that the famous restaurant's wonderful daring could at times lead to failures in between its successes:
    Most of the time it was excellent. Sometimes it was inedible. There was this episode with eel ...
    Based on a DVD viewing, Bonnie at Ethicurean gives the film a fairly rough review. At times, I agree, it risked pretention. How did the filmakers catch the down-to-earth Grist editor and farmer Tom Philpott in a sentence where "de-contextualized" wasn't even the longest word? The interviews have Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, who in real life always offer something new to think about, saying instead the same things they said in other documentaries, like King Corn. And of course King Corn had a more entertaining premise and more charming everyman protagonists in place of the now-prosperous chef heroes.

    Still, I sure had fun at the film's North American premiere in Los Angeles this afternoon. I can imagine that the highly appreciative audience and after-movie question and answer period with the filmaker and several high-profile guests all contributed energy and excitement that might be missing from a DVD viewing. I almost didn't get let in to the full theater on Hollywood Boulevard (itself a fun flamboyant scene for a visitor from Boston!), arriving a couple minutes late from the APPAM meetings.

    The movie has many other strengths. There is a particularly nice sequence with Will Allen and collaborators in Milwaukee. A compelling account of the 2008 Farm Bill included terrific good guy / bad guy interviews with Ron Kind (D-WI) who sought reform and Collin Peterson (D-MN) who defended the interests of low-cost industrial production.

    Plus, nobody makes a movie like this to get rich. I can enjoy seeing King Corn, Fast Food Nation, Affluenza, Food Fight, and all the good movies by people who want to make a better world, without quibbling too much over the details.

    Friday, November 07, 2008

    Calorie label round-up

    Perhaps in response to the many critics of menu labeling skeptical that the average consumer even knows how many calories they should be eating in a given day or meal, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has started advertising what could be considered general nutrition information-- how many calories adults should consume in a day-- in NYC subway cars. The three-month campaign, which began this past Monday, also includes the number of calories for a few example foods like a giant muffin and a chicken burrito.

    Following on the calorie labeling scheme for chain restaurants implemented in July in NYC, Californians will also be receiving even more calorie information. Last week, the state was the first in the nation to require calorie labeling for standard menu items at restaurant chains.

    Yum Brands, the owner of Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell, has announced that it will voluntarily add calorie labeling to all of its menu boards, but not its drive through menus. Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest thinks this a national "game-changer" due to the size of the Yum Brands' franchises.

    It will be interesting to see how consumers respond to the mandatory and voluntary provision of calorie information, in addition to how restaurant chains respond, perhaps by increasing their low-calorie options if they find changes in trends of consumer food choices.

    (Example of ads in NYC subway)

    Wednesday, November 05, 2008

    Blueprint to End Hunger

    In conjunction with Bread for the World, a coalition, called National Anti-Hunger Organizations (NAHO), has released the 2008 Blueprint to End Hunger, outlining the steps needed to fight hunger in America. The blueprint emphasizes a commitment from all sectors of society- government, businesses, nonprofits, and individuals—and specifies the actions needed from each sector.
    As the Blueprint makes clear, Americans have the ability and the means to end hunger. The fastest, most direct way to reduce hunger is to strengthen and expand the federal nutrition programs. These programs weave a nutritional safety net and serve as a major bulwark against hunger. By strengthening the programs and improving people’s access to them, the United States could do much more to reduce hunger.

    But the Blueprint goes beyond outlining what is needed from Congress and the President to strengthen these programs. It describes the actions state and local governments can take to make the most effective use of the programs. The Blueprint also illustrates how government, businesses, schools, and nonprofits can work together to connect hungry people with the assistance they need, and explains why it is important for everyone to raise awareness of hunger and advocate for policies to end hunger.

    Tuesday, November 04, 2008

    The diversity of state experiences with food stamp caseload dynamics

    I will be in Los Angeles later this week, to give a paper on the Thrifty Food Plan research at one Saturday session of the annual meeting of the Association of Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM).

    While there, I hope to see first hand some of the food retail hardships in the car-centered city, which have been getting a lot of coverage lately. See, for example, the report "Shopping for a Market" about new food retail entry (by researchers at Occidental), and the report "Designed for Disease" linking food retail to health conditions (by researchers at UCLA). Send any suggestions for places to visit or good food movement people to meet.

    Meanwhile, I will be moderating another Saturday session, about how state-level differences in economic conditions and food stamp policies are related to differences in food security, hunger, and other outcomes. Nader Kabbani and I did a study a few years ago, investigating the importance of state-level variations in food stamp policies -- such as the length of the certification period for proving continued eligibility -- which turn out to be surprisingly influential in the Food Stamp Program, despite the program's reputation as a last bastion of national level rules in a sea of federalism.

    Here is a fun illustration of the data from Nader's and my study. The basic static pattern in the opening picture is that states with higher unemployment tend to have higher food stamp participation. Hit play to see the dynamics of food stamp caseloads over the course of the 1990s, during a period just before (blue) and after (red) the adoption of welfare reforms. By clicking, you can select particular states to follow over time. Or, by selecting different variables from the triangle symbols, you can look at different variables, such as the certification periods discussed above.