Tuesday, July 11, 2017

By the numbers: word counts in CDC nominee Brenda Fitzgerald's column for Coca-Cola

The Trump administration last week named Georgia Public Health Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald as the next leader of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a crucial federal public health agency. The CDC is based in Atlanta, so she won't have to move far.

Politico's Morning Agriculture briefing today noted that Dr. Fitzgerald has previously worked with projects that received $1.4 million dollars from the Coca-Cola Company, also based in Atlanta. Politico gives credit to a tweet from Russ Greene for noting her contribution of a 2013 column on childhood obesity to the Coca-Cola website.

Dr. Fitzgerald's column on childhood obesity follows the traditional sugar-sweetened beverage industry script with perfect rectitude, to an extent that seems remarkable for a public health official. The industry's story line prefers to emphasize physical activity rather than sugar or beverage intake as risk factors for childhood obesity, and in particular never to mention the association between sugar intake and Type II diabetes. Here are my word count statistics for Dr. Fitzgerald's column:
  • obesity: 4
  • health or healthier: 6
  • movement or moving: 7
  • physical activity: 6
  • diabetes: 4
  • beverage: 0
  • soda: 0
  • sugar: 0
  • sweet or sweetened: 0
  • calories: 0
  • intake: 0
  • consume or consumption: 1 (a reference to fruits and vegetables!)
From a sugar-sweetened beverage industry perspective, it's a perfect score.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Major media spread strange dairy checkoff story about Americans thinking chocolate milk comes from brown cows

The Washington Post on June 15 reports the story, good for a laugh at stupid Americans and their ignorance about where their food comes from:
Seven percent of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, according to a nationally representative online survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy.
It was then covered by a dozen other media sites, but the reporting is mostly weak. The whole thing seems like an industry organization's attempt at humor that went awry when it was picked up and taken seriously by more major media than intended.

None of the stories that I read noted that the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy is a checkoff organization -- part of the network of dairy and fluid milk checkoff organizations loosely overseen by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service and funded by more than $100 million each year in mandatory assessments that the federal government forces dairy farmers to pay into a common fund for marketing, promotion, and other purposes. The Innovation Center has an interest in educating Americans about real dairy products, so they think well of sweetened dairy beverages (chocolate milk is real milk) and don't think so well of soy milk and other non-dairy alternatives.

The Washington Post and other media imply that 7% of American adults are so dim that they think chocolate milk comes from brown cows, because chocolate is the same color as the cow. Before accepting this account of the survey result, we should all demand to read the actual questions and response frequencies, because this may be an exaggeration. For example, many cows actually are brown, so if the survey question asked whether chocolate milk can come from brown cows, a large fraction of Americans might answer "yes" -- and they would be right. If the survey question was at the end of a long survey and many people were clicking quickly by that point, it is easy to imagine 7% of respondents clicking this response at random. The context would clarify.

But none of the stories report the actual survey questions. Hilary Hanson at Huffington Post did better than most reporters in noting this:
One problem ― it’s tough to gauge the survey’s reliability. It’s possible, for instance, that some people were simply trying to be funny while answering the question.... The center, though, was unable to provide a full copy of the survey. And when asked about the survey’s methodology, McComb only said it was “conducted online.”
If you read the NPR version of the story, an interview by Audie Cornish, it sounds as if the interviewee Jean Ragalie-Carr is imprecise about the actual content of the question, leaving a listener to wonder if there was a multiple choice question with non-sensical options.
JEAN RAGALIE-CARR: When we asked them, where does chocolate milk come from, they indicated that they thought it came from brown cows.
SHAPIRO: Seven percent of Americans thought that.
CORNISH: Jean Ragalie-Carr is president of the National Dairy Council, which commissioned the survey. She says they put that question to a thousand people and gave them several options for how to answer.
RAGALIE-CARR: Well, there was brown cows or black-and-white cows, or they didn't know.
Cornish did quote another person with a bit more skepticism, but without really questioning the initial dubious story line:
CORNISH: Registered dietitian Lisa Cimperman says while she thinks some people were having a little fun with their answer, she's also not surprised that some might think chocolate milk comes from a brown cow.
Oddly, NPR reported interviewing the president of the National Dairy Council, which also is a checkoff organization (a fact that many Americans probably don't realize). But, the Washington Post article now has a correction at the bottom:
Update: This story originally said the survey in question was commissioned by the National Dairy Council. It was actually commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy, its sister organization. The Post regrets the error.
This update made me wonder if one checkoff organization (the National Dairy Council) requested a little more distance from a statistic that another checkoff organization (the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy) was promoting.

The media should go a little slower in sharing a self-serving dairy industry meme, and we should all wait for more information about this survey before taking this result seriously.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Choices Magazine explores 3-way connections between farm labor, immigration, and health care

Choices Magazine, the outreach magazine of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has a special issue exploring the triangle of connections between farm labor, immigration reform, and health care policy. Philip Martin at UC Davis writes:
The Trump Administration has promised to make it more difficult for unauthorized foreigners to enter and work in the United States and for undocumented workers to access health care services. Such policies, if implemented, could have serious negative repercussions on the agricultural sector, which relies heavily on immigrant workers. Replacing foreign workers could be complicated due to difficulties in sourcing and hiring domestic workers to replace displaced undocumented workers. Additionally, the health deterioration of farm workers could negatively impact labor productivity, the sector’s viability, and the nation’s domestic food supply.
Cesar L. Escalante and Tianyuan Luo focus on the implications for laborers -- and the farmers who hire them -- of reducing access to health care. Thomas P. Krumel, Jr., has an interesting article about immigrant labor supply in the meatpacking industry, including its implications for meat prices.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Storm Lake Times wins Pulitzer for courageous reporting about agriculture and political power

The Storm Lake Times, a tiny newspaper in rural Iowa, became the topic of headlines around the world this week after it won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the local political power of agricultural interests.

In this piece by Art Cullen, for example, the paper explored how the Farm Bureau funded the county-level legal defense against accusations that excessive fertilizer use had polluted local water supplies. The Farm Bureau's "generosity" came with a catch.
Buena Vista County officially is a Farm Bureau county. The Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers have pledged to cover the legal bills of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties as they defend themselves against a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works over pollution of the Raccoon River. The supervisors are expected to happily agree. The BV supervisors looked like the cat that just swallowed the canary upon announcing the deal.
They are happy that Farm Bureau is setting the terms of the legal defense and not the elected officials of our county. We have given up our franchise.
The supervisors believe they have no choice but to allow Farm Bureau to pay the bills and thus call the shots. They already called one shot: In the Farm Bureau engagement letter proposed to the counties, it states that the counties shall not claim that farmers are liable for pollution claims in the lawsuit in order to hold drainage districts or the county itself harmless.
Let us pause for a moment of appreciation for everybody whose work requires them, on occasion, to speak a hard truth.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Tufts/UConn RIDGE concept papers due March 13 (reminder)

The Tufts/UConn RIDGE Program supports innovative economic research on domestic nutrition assistance programs.

As a reminder, the 2017 submission cycle concept paper deadline is Monday, March 13, 2017 by 5PM EST. Slides and a recording are available for a February 2 informational webinar for potential applicants. Additional details are available below and on the RIDGE funding page

The RIDGE Program aims to broaden the network of researchers applying their expertise to USDA topics. We seek applications from a diverse community of experienced nutrition assistance researchers, graduate students, early career scholars, and established researchers who bring expertise in another research area.

Full details are available in the 2017 Request for Proposals (RFP)

Important Dates for the 2017 Submission Cycle
Concept paper due:                                 March 13, 2017
Full proposal (by invitation) due:                May 15, 2017
Funding period (up to 18 months):             July 11, 2017 – January 10, 2019

For additional questions, contact ridge@tufts.edu

How much does a nutritious diet cost?

Jeremy Cherfas, host of Eat This Podcast, led this lively conversation about the cost of a nutritious diet:
Recently I’ve been involved in a couple of online discussions about the cost of a nutritious diet. The crucial issue is why poor people in rich countries seem to have such unhealthy diets. One argument is about the cost of food. Another is about everything other than cost: knowledge, equipment, time, conditions.
My own opinion is that given all those other things, the externalities, a nutritious diet is actually not that expensive. But that’s just an opinion, so I went looking for information, and found it in a paper entitled Using the Thrifty Food Plan to Assess the Cost of a Nutritious Diet, published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs in 2009. The very first sentence of that paper is:
How much does a nutritious diet cost?
Parke Wilde, author of that paper, is an agricultural economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, and I really enjoyed talking to him for the podcast.

Friday, January 27, 2017

U.S.-Mexico agricultural trade helps the U.S. economy and nutrition for consumers

For the United States, trade with Mexico offers many benefits for the economy and dietary quality for American consumers. 

Regarding the economic benefits, a recent August 2016 article in the magazine Amber Waves, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- by USDA economists Steven Zahniser, Adriana Moreno, and Arturo Ruanova -- emphasizes the contribution of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Gradually, from 1994 to 2008, they write, NAFTA removed tariffs and quotas, while at the same time reconciling rules on both sides of the border about how food safety is protected:
Together, this sweeping trade liberalization and ongoing regulatory cooperation made possible a dramatic increase in U.S.-Mexico agricultural trade.
The results included an enormous jump in export sales to Mexico, benefiting U.S. farmers. A chart in the Amber Waves article shows that agricultural trade with Mexico is nearly in balance, with agricultural exports equal to or exceeding imports in most years.

USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service has a page devoted to agricultural exports to Mexico, with statistics, links to agricultural trade offices in Mexico City and Monterrey, and a guide for exporters who seek to do business in Mexico. The top 5 U.S. export industries are dairy ($1.3 billion), pork ($1.3 billion), beef ($1.1 billion), poultry ($1.0 billion), and prepared food ($707 billion). Producers in these industries are important to the U.S. agricultural economy, and they are politically influential.

Like the Amber Waves article, USDA's FAS notes the role of NAFTA in this trade:
Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico and the United States have eliminated all tariffs and quantitative restrictions on agricultural goods and have strengthened scientific ties to eradicate diseases and pests, conduct research and enhance conservation.
Moving beyond just agricultural products, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has a web page devoted just to trade with Mexico. For U.S. producers, Mexico was the second-biggest export market in the world. Total U.S. trade with Mexico is more in balance than trade with several other countries. In 2015, U.S. exports to Mexico were an astonishing $240 billion, almost double our exports to China. Meanwhile, U.S. imports from Mexico were $294 billion, much less than our imports from China. Our trade deficit with Mexico is just $54 billion (much smaller than our deficit with China, Germany, or Japan, for example).

For nutrition, federal government sources place a heavy priority on increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. For example, the Healthy People 2020 initiative lists fruit and vegetable consumption as "Leading Health Indicators" and proposes ambitious goals for increased consumption.

USDA data on food imports show that fruit imports from Mexico increased almost 6-fold from 2000 ($0.8 billion) to 2014 ($4.7 billion). Similarly, vegetable imports from Mexico increased 3-fold from 2000 ($1.7 billion) to 2014 ($5.4 billion). With increased tariffs or reduced trade with Mexico, fruit and vegetable prices in the United States would be much higher. The consequence of reduced agricultural trade with Mexico would be that Mexicans would have more fruits and vegetables (and less beef, pork, and processed food), while U.S. consumers would have less fruits and vegetables (and more beef, pork, and processed food).

I always read with great care the large literature by public interest advocates who raise serious concerns about agricultural trade with Mexico. For example, Tom Philpott at Mother Jones describes conditions for agricultural workers in Mexico as "heartbreaking." Food and Water Watch argues that provisions for sanitary/phytosanitary rules in existing and proposed trade agreements are too weak. I hear the point of each, and yet think that reduced trade is not the remedy. I do not think the workers in Tom's story are helped by shutting down the U.S. Mexico border, and I think Mexico is capable of producing food to the same standards as producers in Florida or California. Looking forward beyond the hardships that excellent public interest sources have noted, we can improve labor and food safety standards without exaggerating differences across the border as if we had our own house fully in order.

In short, U.S.-Mexico trade is important and beneficial to the U.S. economy and nutrition. You can hear this view from me, and (as of this writing) you can hear it from the steady, sober online data sources maintained by the federal government.