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

Friday, November 13, 2015

Is the Center for Consumer Freedom no longer working on soda?

The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) is a classic industry-funded front group, secretive about its funding sources and utterly mercenary in its writing.

I once enjoyed debating soda policy in New York City with J. Justin Wilson from CCF in Episode 1 of a series of roundtables organized by the Museum of Food and Drink.

The Center was on my mind recently, after watching the the excellent 2014 documentary Merchants of Doubt on Netflix. There is a related book by the same title.

The Center's once-lively website now seems moribund. Here is a chart of its number of Headlines posts in the past year. The remaining activity seems focused only on attacking animal welfare organizations, not on other old favorite topics such as defending soda.

The last mention of sugar sweetened beverages that I could find was almost a year ago, covering some trivial beverage industry victory in Howard County, Maryland.

From the topic coverage, we can guess who the CCF's current funders are. Perhaps, with increased scrutiny, other industries have been providing less funding to CCF. One imagines that this organization operates on a strictly "pay to play" basis. It is hard to picture CCF continuing to cover a topic based merely on principle.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Marion Nestle's Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)

Marion Nestle's new book is Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) (Oxford University Press, 2015).

The book is thorough, balanced, hard-hitting, and motivating. It covers health effects, industry structure, marketing to adults, marketing to children, marketing overseas, policy responses, and advocacy movements.

The writing is clear, unassuming, and terse.

The coverage of health effects is persuasive. Nestle discusses cutting edge concerns without overstatement or exaggeration (additives and cancer, particular properties of fructose). She more strongly emphasizes the main established links with even-handed and authoritative force (tooth decay, liquid calories, links to overweight and obesity, and type II diabetes).

Nestle avoids many possible pitfalls in such a book. Though she quotes industry propaganda that paints her as a shrill critic of the modern food system, her own writing shows her to be a careful listener and reader of diverse perspectives. She calls out what is wrong, yet never demonizes opponents. Her chapter on Derek Yach, one-time World Health Organization public health champion and later PepsiCo vice president, is insightful and understanding.

Some radical authors of critical books on a particular industry seem ready not just to reform that industry, but perhaps to do away with all other such industries. One gets the sense that the author is using one industry as a vehicle for more broadly condemning the modern global capitalist economy, but the implied alternative remains blurry.

Other more mainstream authors of critical books find themselves lost for something sensible and upbeat to say in the final chapter. I most dislike it when these final chapters resort to empty hopes that well-meaning people in the industry will just see the light and change their ways.

With Nestle, instead, the reader can picture just what would happen if her book becomes influential: leading health organizations would wean themselves from soda industry money, public opinion would become more demanding, state and local advocates would win new policies on marketing, taxation, and school environments, soda consumption would follow tobacco's downward path, and the United States would enjoy lower rates of obesity and chronic disease.

This will mostly happen because of actions outside of the soda companies.
Like businesses in general, food businesses -- even the most socially conscious -- must put profits first. To be effective, advocates must understand that soda and other food corporations are willing to spend fortunes to influence political processes. Without anywhere near that kind of funding, it becomes necessary to find smarter methods for using the political process to counter soda industry marketing.
Nestle delivers a steady stream of advocacy-related diagnosis and suggestions in short well-organized paragraphs at the end of chapters throughout the book. The final chapter then seamlessly provides conclusions that feel consistent with the whole work.

The book is above all informative. For those readers who share Nestle's critical perspective on the food industry, it is obvious that this book would be informative. But here is the greater surprise: this solid book is by far the best source on this topic for any reader, with any perspective on economics or politics.

If I worked for a trade association, or an industry front group, or an esteemed professional association that relies on soda industry funding, or the House Agriculture Committee, or a sugar manufacturer, or a high-powered corporate law firm, I might store this book in my desk drawer rather than my book shelf ... yet I would read it word for word.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Faculty searches at Tufts in (a) food industry marketing and management and (b) food policy implementation and evaluation

The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston is hiring at the associate professor and full professor level in (a) food industry marketing and management and (2) food policy implementation and evaluation, among other areas. Applicants may include researchers in business, economics, psychology and law, as well as public health and nutrition. The Friedman School brings together biomedical, social, behavioral, public health, economics, and food systems scientists to conduct work that improves the nutritional health and well-being of populations throughout the world.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Not yet resurrecting Malthus

In Health Affairs this week, I review The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World (W. W. Norton, 2015), by agronomist and journalist Joel K. Bourne Jr.

In an amusing passage, Bourne visits Bath Abbey in England and looks for the grave of 19th Century economist and minister Thomas Robert Malthus, who was famously pessimistic that food supplies would suffice to feed an overpopulated world.
Indeed, Malthus has been a central figure in this book as Bourne travels the globe, witnessing bread riots in Egypt, interviewing a pesticide-poisoned woman suffering from breast cancer in the Punjab, asking about the environmental sustainability of an industrial-scale pork facility in China, inspecting depleted irrigation systems in the American Southwest, and drinking vodka with farm employees in Ukraine as they reflect on the collapse of the agricultural infrastructure there. Bourne paraphrases the account by the Cornell University economist Chris Barrett of the long-term imbalance between global production and consumption this way: “In other words, the world is running out of food.”

Yet such pessimism is balanced in The End of Plenty by thoughtful attention to promising technological advances and social changes.
Bourne never did find Malthus' grave, which he later heard had been hidden under a pew. After reading this book, one may be concerned about the world food prospect, but perhaps not yet ready to resurrect Malthus.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Nanotechnology will revolutionize the food system (and other familiar sentences)

There appears to be a large literature using the same words to say that "nanotechnology" is an "enabling" technology that will "revolutionize the food system".

A 2008 book by Ajit Kumar Roy and Niranjan Sarangi says:
Nanotechnology, as a new enabling technology, has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems....
The first sentence of Norman Scott's chapter in a 2006 book says:
Nanotechnology, as a new enabling technology, has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems in the United States and the World.
The second sentence of a chapter by B. Singh, S. K. Gautam, M. S. Chauhan, and S. K. Singla in a 2005 book says:
Nanotechnology is an enabling technology that has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems.
In a 2012 book, M.E. Popa and A. Popa write:
As an enabling technology, nanotechnology has vast potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems.
A twist on the typical wording is the idiosyncratic use of the word "enable" instead of "enabling." The first sentence of the abstract for a 2010 article by Q. Huang, H. Yu, and Q. Ru in Journal of Food Science is:
Nanotechnology is an enable technology that has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems.
And that was presumably the source for the first sentence of the abstract for a new 2015 article in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, by Harleen Kour, Anisa Malik, Naseer Ahmad, Towseef Wani, Raj Kaul, and Anju Bhat.
Nanotechnology is an enable technology that has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems.
Before we judge too harshly, I should acknowledge that I make little effort to develop novel language for routine background information. It would not shock me if a sentence akin to the following appeared in more than one publication: "The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation's leading anti-hunger program and an important part of the social safety net." But that is a different issue from reusing language for the main point of an article.

The final sentence of the abstract of the 2015 Kour et al. article in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition is:
In fact, nanotechnology introduces new chances for innovation in the food industry at immense speed, but uncertainty and health concerns are also emerging.
This is the same as the abstract for a 2010 article by Sekhon in Nanotechnology Science Applications:
In fact, nanotechnology introduces new chances for innovation in the food industry at immense speed, but uncertainty and health concerns are also emerging.
For the 2015 Kour et al. article in particular, the indebtedness has risen sufficiently high that the good journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition should probably look into the similarities.

More generally, does there seem to be too large a literature parroting the same not-too-skeptical claims about nanotechnology?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson is asked about his endorsement of dubious Mannatech supplement company

Presidential candidate Ben Carson was asked during debate this week about his ties to Mannatech, maker of a dubious nutrition supplement based on "glycoscience."

Carson responded:
I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda, and this is what happens in our society. Total propaganda. I did a couple of speeches for them, I do speeches for other people.
Jim Geraghty, who thoroughly covered these ties already last January in the National Review, yesterday pointed out that Carson's response appears to be untrue, or in Geraghty's words, "bald-faced lies." Geraghty explains how the paid speeches were compensated highly enough that reasonable people will recognize this as a paid sponsorship arrangement.

Indeed, that point becomes obvious with even a brief look at Carson's video about Mannatech, in which he praises the company for "trying to find a way to restore the natural diet as a medicine, as a mechanism for maintaining health." Carson says:
The wonderful thing about a company like Mannatech is that they recognize that when God made us, he gave us the right fuel, and that fuel was the right kind of healthy food.
Geraghty describes the company's "long, checkered past" in the National Review.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Yelp experiments with warning labels for restaurants that have low health inspection scores

A 2014 post in this blog noted that food safety problems are fundamentally about lack of public information.
If consumers had magic sunglasses that displayed the presence of Salmonella on chicken in the grocery store, there would be no need for government regulation. Immediately, faced with market consequences for distributing chicken with Salmonella, the companies would clean up their product.
The Washington Post's Wonkblog this week reports on Yelp's San Francisco restaurant review site, which is conducting an experiment with the online equivalent of these magic sunglasses.
Yelp, the popular Web site that lets consumers review everything from bistros to body shops to yoga studios, quietly began running an experiment in San Francisco over the past week. The pages for a small fraction of the city's restaurants on the site now bear a new consumer alert.
The warnings are shown for the review pages of restaurants that received very low scores from health inspectors. One feels bad for the restaurants, but this idea is intriguing. The National Restaurant Association mentioned concerns. Yet, if the inspections use standards that all restaurants really can satisfy, this ought to help consumers get access to safer and cleaner restaurants without doing the restaurants much lasting harm.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

An Idaho farmer reflects on health, advertising, and the dairy checkoff

USDA https://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/ CC BY-ND.

Rebecca Lampman lives and works with her husband and three children on their 250 cow dairy farm in Bruneau, Idaho. In addition to the cows, the family has an assortment of other farm animals that they enjoy. Rebecca also writes regularly for The Progressive Dairyman. Her published articles and a link to the farm's Facebook page can be found at the Feminist Farmer
All That I Have I Owe to Udders: Checking Out the Checkoff

 By Rebecca Lampman

Our dairy is forced to participate in the porking of the populous. I regularly find articles in the local farm paper with titles such as, “Dairymen’s Check Off Dollars Do Double Duty”. These articles are fed to farmers to explain how partnerships between fast food and the dairy checkoff program have fattened our wallet, causing some to smile. As a dairywoman and mother, however, I frown, knowing that our farm participates in America’s obesity crisis. I love dairy products and believe they can be part of a healthy diet. What I don’t love is being forced to pay an assessment that is used to encourage Americans to over-consume dairy products that are a major ingredient in many processed foods.

Despite having farmed for 20 years, it wasn’t until attending an industry meeting that I began to understand how this mandatory dairy checkoff program started. In the early 1980s, America was swimming in milk, so Congress passed the Dairy Product Stabilization Act -- a federal program to encourage consumption of dairy in an effort to deal with over production -- paid for by the farmer in the form of a mandatory assessment or tax.

I learned the “Got Milk” ads that the checkoff program used to sponsor are yesterday’s news. The dairy industry now invests our checkoff dollars in partnerships with food companies like Domino’s, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut -- all restaurants I avoid out of concern for my family’s health. I realized that good news for the industry was bad news for our nation’s waistline.

After the meeting I couldn’t help but think, “Wait a minute. How can we as an industry tout the health benefits of dairy on one hand, and on the other, partner with fast food to produce some of the unhealthiest foods, in order to promote increased sales of our product?”

I have since been more acutely aware of the many ways in which my product is used and marketed with my money. A bizarre partnership with Coca Cola has been announced. McDonald’s is switching from margarine to butter.

And what about those articles telling us how grateful we should be for the checkoff program? Why is our support courted so heavily? Is someone concerned that farmers will begin to see that we are part of an industrial food and marketing system that is contributing to the obesity crisis in America, a crisis that touches so many of our families in personal ways in the form of diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease?

Industry leaders may dismiss my concerns with the argument that people have the freedom to make any food choices they want, and that the dairy industry and its partners are simply supplying the public with the kind of food that they demand.

If it is all about personal choice and marketing has no influence on what is consumed, then why must I pay 15 cents for every 100 pounds of milk our cows give for dairy product promotion? If personal choice is what is so vital to protect and preserve, then I would like the freedom as a dairy farm to choose not to participate in a dairy checkoff program that contributes to obesity.

Our dairy farm is our life. My family believes that I am worrying about something that I cannot change. My husband and I have spent twenty years working with our children to build our farm. We enjoy dairy products and hope to continue to provide them for those that would like to enjoy dairy in healthy forms and amounts.

The sign on our barn says, “All that we have we owe to udders.” It is true. Our farm is about animals and people. I owe it to others to share the misgivings I have about the system of which I am a part. Our food system doesn’t have to remain stagnant or entrenched in its practices. We can make this better.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Angus Deaton wins the Nobel in economics

Angus Deaton earlier this month won the Nobel Prize in Economics (or, more formally, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel).

In the entire field, Deaton is one of the top three or four economists I admire most and read most closely.

It has been fun to watch the news reports struggle to pin down exactly what Deaton's topic area is. He has made major contributions to the theory and methodology of analyzing consumer demand, development economics, analysis of government policies, the analysis of decision making under risk and uncertainty, and survey measurement.

Many years ago, I faced a similar struggle in reviewing Deaton's book The Analysis of Household Surveys: A Microeconometric Approach to Development Policy for the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. I felt Deaton had made the book more difficult to read by using real-world examples rather than simplified hypothetical examples. It would have been easier on student readers if he had cleaned up the extraneous details. Yet, the real-world experience is ultimately more rewarding and deserving of study. Here is the first paragraph of that review.
Like a safari, this text is a rugged tour through a broad swath of author Angus Deaton’s intellectual countryside. It succeeds admirably as a teaching tool about contemporary research methods using household surveys. Moreover, the author has a distinctive vision of economically sound and fundamentally empirical research, yoked to the service of important policy questions. The entire book will interest agricultural economists with a focus on developing countries, but many topics will interest any economist who studies household surveys. The book is sometimes eccentrically organized, prone to digression on any topic in applied economics, and— by the author’s own admission—it is incomplete as a manual on the analysis of household surveys. It relies on detailed real-world examples, which require lengthy explanations that might initially seem unrelated to the author’s main points. However, while more artificial examples might have helped some of this book’s teaching purposes, they would have done a disservice to its implicit vision of honest empirical research. I would rather encounter this material on Deaton’s safari than at the zoo, where the ride is smoother and the animals are easier to see, but where the habitat is make-believe.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Calling on universities and professional associations to greatly reduce flying

For several years now, some academic friends and I have been reflecting on frequent flying in university communities during a time of climate change. This is not about any particular colleague's personal flying behavior, but instead about collective action to improve the climate profile of our academic communities.

We finally have gotten organized for action and are releasing a new petition campaign to encourage universities and professional associations to greatly reduce flying.

We realize that we cannot ask academics to change their own behavior in isolation, because so much depends on the professional world we live in, including expectations to attend meetings and conferences. So, we deliberately address the petition to universities and professional associations at the same time.

Please support this petition through this link at change.org and see our petition project web page at www.flyingless.org.

In addition, supporters who are academics should email us at academicflyingpetition@gmail.com to have their name added to our public List of Academic Signatories. We have a great list of more than 50 initial supporters, from diverse disciplines, in countries all around the world.

Please share this widely in person, by email, and through your social networks. Follow the Twitter handle @flyingless and hashtag #flyingless or add your name to the change.org petition for news and updates.

I have drafted an extensive Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page. For example, the questions include:

  • What is the global and U.S. environmental impact of flying? 
  • Is it sometimes important for academics to fly? 
  • Is my decision to fly irrelevant, because the plane would have flown anyway? 
  • Is it okay to fly if I purchase carbon offsets? 
  • Is reduced flying an individual-focused agenda that undermines more important policy change?

You may wonder why I tackle this topic in a blog about U.S. Food Policy. Questions of environmental sustainability arise all the time in food policy. A key dynamic in U.S. food policy is the deep suspicion and skepticism that many Americans working in agriculture and the food industry have toward university-based scientific experts who discuss environmental issues. In part, academics can address these issues just by stating the science clearly. Yet, we may enhance our moral authority to speak hard scientific truths about sustainable food production if we also apply the same fearless scrutiny to our own industry of higher education. That, in turn, requires us to speak frankly about flying.

The petition is modest and reasonable, not shrill. Please feel free to comment here.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ethanol mandate fails to help the environment

A report (.pdf) this week from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture argues that over-reliance on corn-based ethanol in the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) has caused environmental problems.

The authors, Daniel G. De La Torre Ugarte and Burton C. English, found that the RFS not only fell short of goals for current-generation biofuels technology, it may also have failed to serve as a stepping stone to environmentally superior approaches. Dr. De La Torre Ugarte said:
“Our analysis shows that the RFS has created more problems than solutions, particularly with regard to hampering advancements in biofuels. Corn ethanol was presented as a ‘bridge’ to advanced biofuels and a means of reducing GHG emissions. However, the reality is clear that this policy has been a bridge to nowhere.”
Corn-based ethanol increases global food prices by diverting an important food source to fuel. USDA data show that ethanol for fuel now uses more than 40% of all U.S. corn production.

The RFS is the topic of a new video advertisement by opponents who encourage faster progress toward more advanced biofuels technologies.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

USDA and DHHS decide not to include sustainability in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell issued a joint statement this afternoon, which appears to say that sustainability issues will not be considered in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
In terms of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), we will remain within the scope of our mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRRA), which is to provide “nutritional and dietary information and guidelines”… “based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.” The final 2015 Guidelines are still being drafted, but because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.
The announcement follows months of public debate after the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee this year included some discussion of environmental sustainability in its report, which provides the scientific basis for the guidelines that will be released later this year by USDA and DHHS.

As noted on Thursday, several colleagues and I recently had published a commentary in the journal Science, arguing that sustainability issues are just as much relevant to dietary guidance as physical activity or food security, both of which are widely accepted as in scope.

Even in today's announcement, the citation from the 1990 legislative authority broadly defines the scope as "nutritional and dietary information" (not merely nutritional information alone) based on "the proponderance of scientific and medical knowledge" (not merely medical knowledge alone). The decision makes sense primarily as a response to intense political pressure. As a result of today's decision, USDA and DHHS will enjoy some shelter from criticism in Congress this month.

The scientific community and the public will continue to discuss food choices and the environment together in the same breath. It is unavoidable to do so. The main impact of today's announcement is to make the 2015 DGA less relevant, uselessly silent on some of the most important food guidance questions of our time. The public will turn elsewhere for authoritative information on sustainability and diet.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Science commentary: It makes sense to include sustainability in dietary guidelines

In a commentary today for the journal Science, several colleagues and I explain why we think it is fine to include considerations of environmental sustainability within the scope of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
The challenge is how to produce the most healthful foods in a way that sustains employment in the agricultural sector and minimizes adverse impacts on the environment. All major constituencies concerned with food security and health must wrestle with sustainability and dietary choices together. It is right and proper for the DGA process to lead the way.
The commentary, which may be gated (sigh), grew out of a fall 2014 workshop initiated by the first author, Kathleen Merrigan, who was until 2013 the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, and who now leads the sustainability program at George Washington University. Other authors include Tim Griffin, myself, Kim Robien, Jeanne Goldberg, and William Dietz. This issue also had been the focus of an earlier workshop, to which I contributed, for the Food Forum of the Institute of Medicine in 2013.

In an era of global climate change, the issue of sustainability is so important to the food system as a whole that policy-makers and the general public will inevitably find themselves considering environmental issues as part of almost any discussion of food choices. See for example the recent article in Nature by David Tilman and Michael Clark.

There is no way for the U.S. government to avoid having people talk about sustainability and dietary guidance jointly. That matter is already settled. The only question on the table is whether we will all need to struggle to compile multiple authoritative sources on these issues or instead whether -- as seems more sensible -- both issues will be addressed together in the same coherent federal guidance document.

Other countries include sustainability issues in their dietary guidance. For example, dietary guidelines in Brazil and the Netherlands take a comprehensive approach.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), whose report provides the scientific basis for the upcoming release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, already discusses sustainability in a sober and moderate way. It seems wise for the actual Dietary Guidelines to do likewise.

Unfortunately, some in Congress have taken steps to instruct federal agencies to limit the scope of the guidelines to "diet and nutrient intake" only. It would be absurd to limit guidelines to just those two topics. Along with preventing discussion of sustainability, the proposed language from Congress would prevent the guidelines from discussing physical activity. Yet, we all recognize that food and physical activity should be discussed together.

It is already within the mandate of the Dietary Guidelines to consider food security -- access by all people at all times to enough food. Far from being a loose cannon, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recognized environmental sustainability as sufficiently important to food security to deserve at least a brief and restrained mention. It would be silly to reverse that persuasive and sensible approach.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

British Medical Journal (BMJ) gives low-carb journalist Nina Teicholz an outlet to blast the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC)

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) this week published an article/editorial by journalist Nina Teicholz blasting the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) for recommending diets with less saturated fat, red meat, and salt. In it, Teicholz offers a powerful stew of selective scientific evidence and blistering attacks on the integrity of opponents.

Teicholz is a journalist and author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. Her disclosure statement in the BMJ mentions honorariums for medical, restaurant, financial, meat, and dairy industries. She slams DGAC committee members for conflicts of interest with vegetable oil producers and, in one case, some funding from the California Walnut Commission. This tit-for-tat focus on conflicts might come out in Teicholz' favor ... if we lived in some upside-down universe where walnut growers and vegetable oil manufacturers controlled U.S. agriculture policy and the meat and dairy industries were oppressed and powerless minions.

Teicholz is most upset with the DGAC for "not only deleting meat from the list of foods recommended as part of its healthy diets, but also actively counseling reductions in 'red and processed meats.'" But the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee never has and never would recommend deleting meat. I have no idea what passage of the report she thinks recommended deleting meat.

As for eating less meat, the context for the DGAC recommendation is that per capita annual meat consumption in the United States is a remarkable 120 kg, far higher than the average amounts consumed globally (42 kg) or in other rich countries that have lower rates of chronic disease than we do, such as Japan (46 kg). The United States has plenty of room to improve healthy diets without eating as much meat as we currently do.

Teicholz never mentions why leading health authorities recommend moderating our consumption of red meat and processed meat in particular. For example, the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) advises less processed meat because of concern about colon cancer. Teicholz mentions "heart disease" 11 times, but ignores cancer (the two occurrences of the word "cancer" are later off-hand dismissals of concerns about saturated fat). It's not that Teicholz disputes the evidence, she simply never mentions it.

Teicholz offers rich and sanctimonious criticism of the DGAC for sometimes using its own best summary of the evidence without the formality of a systematic review. A systematic review is a process through which a research team with relevant expertise carefully defines the diet-health relationship under study, prepares a written protocol in advance for choosing eligible research articles, and systematically classifies and reports the results. The striking thing about the DGAC is that -- more than with any other such work that I know -- it is usually easy to trace the committee's reasoning from its conclusions, back to systematic reviews in the government's free online Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) and other authoritative research associations, such as the American Heart Association (AHA). But, wow, does Teicholz really hate the AHA, describing the respected association as mere pawns of, once again, the vegetable oil industry.

The contrast between DGAC and Teicholz in transparency of selecting and reporting evidence is striking. A systematic review is precisely the opposite of what Teicholz does in her own work, as a journalist deep-diving willy-nilly into idiosyncratically selected sub-sections of a vast and complex literature, choosing those studies that support her argument and agree with the conclusions of her best-selling book.

Others have already prepared a line-by-line evisceration of the Teicholz article, and committee members submitted a response to the BMJ online site. Here, more broadly, for your comparison with Teicholz' article in BMJ, consider the reasonableness of the approach and conclusions used by the DGAC.
The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.
That won't sell so many books, but it makes sense to me. I hope it earns a more fair reading from you than it has from Teicholz.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Vanity beverage name: "Just Sugar Water"

Let's have a little fun with a major beverage manufacturer's website that allows you to order soda bottles with vanity names printed on them.

Update (11:42am): Twitter friends point out that ... of course ... others have already been experimenting with the limits of the words the website will accept. And here is CSPI's contribution.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

U.S. household food insecurity remained high in 2014

The U.S. Department of Agriculture today reported that the rate of household food insecurity in 2014 was 14%, still far higher than historical averages and a sign that robust economic recovery has not yet reached low-income Americans.

For Politico's Agenda today, I reflected on the role of poverty reduction -- and not just food provision -- as a solution to household food insecurity. Here is the conclusion.
It may be that anti-hunger groups and political leaders focus on food because they’ve lost confidence that the United States really can make progress against the deeper problem of poverty. But this is doubly wrong. Food alone cannot eliminate the spectrum of food-related worries and shortfalls—and reducing poverty is not really beyond the capacity of the American people, their government, and their economy.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A boring post with quiet opinions about GMOs

Here is a forlorn too-boring-to-notice list of quiet positions on recent Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) controversies.

1. I never say "GMOs are safe."

Not all GMO traits are safe. The most widely-used GMO trait in American agriculture is the "Roundup Ready" or "glyphosate-resistance" trait, which allows farmers to apply the pesticide glyphosate to corn and soybeans. This pesticide is generally thought to be safer than many others. Yet, GMO technology has encouraged such rapid increases in its use that there are strong concerns about environmental consequences (pesticide resistance) and less settled but still relevant concerns about health consequences (cancer risk).

Indeed, any revolution in food and agriculture technology has good and bad consequences. The central Green Revolution technologies for corn, rice, and wheat were developed with conventional non-GMO science. They saved the world from famine. Yet, just like the new GMO "glyphosate-resistance" trait, the non-GMO Green Revolution technologies encouraged increased use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, which have environmental and health consequences. If it were up to me, I would support the Green Revolution again, but let's be honest: no revolution in food and agriculture ever is "safe."

2. I never say "GMOs are dangerous."

The fact that a technology is GMO does not make it dangerous. For example, a second major GMO trait is the "Bt" trait, which allows crops to produce the Bt toxin. Bt is widely thought to be harmless for vertebrates, and so natural that it is permitted in "organic" production. You may choose to worry or not worry about Bt. If you do worry, you should avoid both GMO food and organic food.

Other GMO traits have nothing to do with pesticides at all. If a new technology confers drought resistance or increased content of a precursor to vitamin A, my judgment of safety is pretty much indifferent to whether the technology is GMO or non-GMO.

3. I do not support mandatory GMO labels.

The "Just Label It" campaign and other anti-GMO organizations seldom emphasize the mandatory character of their labeling proposals. A mandatory labeling proposal is not just about meeting the needs of curious consumers. It also is about using the government's own authority to stand behind the value of distinguishing between GMO and non-GMO foods.

In the earlier examples, a mandatory GMO label was useless for helping consumers avoid the environmental and health consequences of pesticide overuse, because some GMO technologies (such as drought resistance) have little to do with pesticides and some non-GMO technologies (such as Green Revolution varieties) very much encourage increased pesticide use. Similarly, the GMO label cannot help consumers identify the products of the industrialized food system, because non-GMO foods are almost as likely as GMO foods to come from modern industrial-scale agricultural production.

Many consumers are confused on this point, believing that the non-GMO label distinctly identifies better safety, environmental, and economic qualities. You may think me undemocratic for saying that government policy should not enforce a mandatory GMO label merely because it is popular with a slight majority of citizens in our divided nation. It would be a more profound practice of representative democracy to directly strengthen food policies that provide safe and environmentally sustainable food. The mandatory GMO label will just undermine this endeavor, provoking an inevitable backlash three years down the road as people catch on to how useless it is for achieving their real goals.

4. I do not support stripping states of labeling authority.

Congress should not pass a law, which critics have called the "DARK" act, to strip states of the authority to pass a mandatory GMO label. The proposed law really is undemocratic, and its sponsors corroborate every wild claim ever made by GMO critics. For example, the DARK act's supporters repeat endlessly the claim that GMOs are safe (see #1 above). The "Just Label It" campaign wishes to frame the debate not as a question of government enforcement of a dubious distinction, but instead as a question of our "right to know what is in our food." There is no better way to justify that framing than to try to take away state rights to inform people about what is in their food.

The current state of argument over GMOs in the United States is like a hurricane, blowing first one way and then the other, yielding nothing but destruction. I recognize that the only way to be heard above the storm would be to shout and scream. Yet, here I sit in the storm shelter, reading a day-old newspaper and quietly muttering to myself, "Really, I do think we should be able to talk more sensibly about GMOs."

Thursday, September 03, 2015

New emails illuminate the egg checkoff program's campaign against a vegetarian alternative to mayonnaise

Attorney and advocate Michele Simon yesterday posted a remarkable story based on emails from the egg checkoff program, acquired through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The emails describe the egg board's campaign against "Just Mayo," a vegetarian alternative to mayonnaise that may not meet the federal government's "standard of identity" for "mayonnaise," which requires eggs.

(U.S. Food Policy first discussed this standard of identity question in February, 2014, long before it had generated any litigation. It was covered recently in the Washington Post's Wonkblog.)

In the emails, egg checkoff program officials -- who are not allowed to seek to influence policy -- try to persuade FDA to crack down on "Just Mayo." They also discuss their efforts to place stories favorable to eggs on blogs that cover diet issues, such as this one in Fooducate.

Simon writes:
One of the most important ways that industrial animal agriculture promotes its products is through Congressionally-mandated “checkoff” programs. Each industry member pays into a collective fund that is controlled and managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The American Egg Board is the egg industry’s checkoff program. Very specific rules govern how it operates, all supposedly overseen by the USDA. The Egg Board’s stated mission (which stems from federal law) is “to allow egg producers to fund to carry out proactive programs to increase demand for eggs and egg products through research, education and promotion.”

And yet, USDA’s recent response to a Freedom of Information Act request reveals a number of highly questionable activities that likely violate federal law. The documents (summarized here) are mostly email exchanges between Egg Board executives and others in the egg industry, or with PR consultants, and reveal a disturbing pattern of attacks on Hampton Creek over a two-year period from 2013-2014. (There’s no indication that the campaign has stopped.)

Monday, August 31, 2015

Danny Vinik in Politico reports on pork "Other White Meat" sale

Danny Vinik in Politico's Agenda today:
Pork hasn't been "the other white meat" for years—after a 24-year run as the centerpiece of billboards and the butt of jokes, the slogan was retired in 2011 and replaced with "Pork: Be Inspired," a logo you might have seen on the apron of Ted Cruz as he grilled pork chops at the Iowa State fair last week.

But the National Pork Board, a government-sponsored entity funded by a tax on hog farmers, still writes a check for $3 million every year to license the unused slogan—a bewildering payout that only makes sense, critics say, when you realize the money goes straight to an industrial pork lobby that has long been closely tied to the board. Farmers who pay for the board are crying foul, saying the deal amounts to a scheme to let the board skirt anti-lobbying laws and promote an agenda directly against their interests.
My question, quoted in the article:
“Are the artichoke producers competing for the slogan "Pork: The Other White Meat"? No, I don't think so.”
I recognize that many pork producers are hesitant to criticize the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), but I think that any who do look over the history of this slogan sale will be upset at how their mandatory payments are being spent.

For additional background, here is some past reporting in U.S. Food Policy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Where is the dairy checkoff Report to Congress?

Each year, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) sends an official Report to Congress summarizing the activities of the dairy checkoff program. Through this program, milk and dairy producers must pay a mandatory assessment -- like a tax -- to semi-public federal checkoff boards that use the funds for advertising and promotion.

As this blog has reported in the past, the annual reports make lively reading, laying bare the program's ambitions for raising dairy consumption through healthy and unhealthy methods alike. For example, in Feb 2014, we noted that the report described the program's partnerships with Domino's and other restaurant chains to get Americans -- who already consume astonishing amounts of pizza -- to yet further increase their average pizza consumption. The pizza partnerships appear in tension with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which also is overseen by USDA (jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services).

Recently, the AMS website has been redesigned. The dairy checkoff annual reports that formerly were posted there can no longer be found, at least for now. USDA may be intending to repost these reports as the website redesign proceeds. [Update Aug 20: AMS writes by email today that a link is now available to the archived reports from the website's pages for the fluid milk checkoff program and the dairy checkoff program. Thanks!]

Moreover, even though the annual Report to Congress is required under dairy checkoff program rules, AMS has not released a report for any year of program activities since 2012. The most recent report I have was a 2013 report covering the 2012 activities. When they become available, I look forward to reading the reports covering 2013 and 2014 activities. 

Dairy farmers may wonder at the scarcity and untimeliness of transparent information about the hundreds of millions of dollars they are forced to pay into these advertising and promotion programs. 

Yet, perhaps it is better to be a dairy farmer than a pork or beef producer. The other leading checkoff programs have no independent USDA Report to Congress at all. The only annual reports for beef and pork come straight from the checkoff programs themselves. In my experience, the dairy checkoff Report to Congress from AMS has always been more frank than the internal annual reports from the other programs, so the lack of timely posting seems like a loss for sound U.S. food policy-making.

Monday, August 17, 2015

U.S. Court of Appeals revives lawsuit over $60 million sale of "Pork the Other White Meat" slogan

In a setback for the federal "checkoff" generic advertising and promotion program for pork, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on August 14 revived a lawsuit (.pdf) brought by Iowa pork farmer Harvey Dillenburg and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Dillenburg and the HSUS objected to a 2006 deal in which the semi-public federal pork checkoff program agreed to pay $60 million to the National Pork Producers Council (a private-sector trade association). The U.S. Food Policy blog began investigating this strange transaction shortly afterwards, and I eventually filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to acquire the appraisal documents that supposedly justified this large payment. To this day, the checkoff program pays $3 million in producer money each year to the NPPC for the "Pork the Other White Meat" slogan, even though the slogan is barely used any more.

A lawsuit by Dillenburg and HSUS was dismissed in 2013, on grounds that Dillenburg lacked standing. The new ruling this week by the federal appeals court reversed the ruling, saying that it is plausible that Dillenburg and other pork farmers were harmed by the "sweetheart deal" between the pork checkoff program and the NPPC.

Some pork industry organizations may want to revise their smug 2013 press statements about the lawsuit's earlier dismissal. The lawsuit will proceed in the lower court on its merits. The U.S. Court of Appeals did not tell the lower court how to rule, but it did give an eloquent and coherent summary of the problems with the $60 million sale.

Some pork producers who follow this story may wonder about the way their money has been spent. Quite understandably, producers may not be too vocal in endorsing a lawsuit in which the Humane Society is a party, because the society has been critical of the pork industry on several grounds in the past. Still, I imagine that some pork producers who read the new ruling (.pdf) will find it sensible.

Read additional coverage by Jack Bouboushian at Courthouse News Service ("Pork Board Must Answer for Spending Millions on Dead Slogan") and by Agri-Pulse:
In court documents, the plaintiffs of the case claim the Pork Board “did not buy the slogan (from NPPC) for its value as a marketing tool.” Rather, they say the purchase - to be doled out in $3 million increments for the next 20 years - was used “as a means to cut a sweetheart deal with (NPPC) to keep (NPPC) in business and support its lobbying efforts.” They say the board “overpaid for the slogan” and that the Pork Board's shift to the “Pork: Be Inspired” campaign “makes the initial slogan all but worthless.”

U.S. pork producers and importers pay $0.40 per $100 of value when pigs are sold and when pigs or pork products are brought into the U.S. to fund the checkoff. It is a violation of the federal orders that established checkoffs to use funds for lobbying interests. In a blog post, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle called the ruling “a potentially enormous win for animal welfare groups, small farmers, and environmentalists - since they've all felt the wrath of the NPPC's intense lobbying efforts.”

Friday, August 07, 2015

Seeking your input on Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction

Please send any input as we take early steps toward planning a possible future second edition of Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan, 2013).
  • What topics would you like to see enhanced?
  • What new topics would you like to see introduced?
  • What current material should be corrected or clarified?
  • Where have you previously seen this book used in courses, and what were its strengths and weaknesses?
  • What new courses might this book serve with the right improvements?
Already on my "to do" list for possible development:
  • New online instructor materials,
  • Updated information about the 2014 Farm Bill and other recent legislation,
  • New material about food waste and food justice, and
  • Updated statistics for figures and tables, along with current hyperlinks to the data sources.
The new edition may retain the same basic "pitch" as the first edition (but do send advice on possible modifications):
This book offers a broad introduction to food policies in the United States. Real-world controversies and debates motivate the book’s attention to economic principles, policy analysis, nutrition science and contemporary data sources. It assumes that the reader's concern is not just the economic interests of farmers, but also includes nutrition, sustainable agriculture, the environment and food security. The book’s goal is to make US food policy more comprehensible to those inside and outside the agri-food sector whose interests and aspirations have been ignored.

The chapters cover US agriculture, food production and the environment, international agricultural trade, food and beverage manufacturing, food retail and restaurants, food safety, dietary guidance, food labeling, advertising and federal food assistance programs for the poor.
In revision, I would seek to preserve features that have been well-received in the first edition. Here is some of the intelligence we have about that reception after publication:
Your input will be influential. Please feel free to use my Tufts email, the comments field for this post, and/or Twitter @usfoodpolicy . Thanks!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Timothy Lytton on the role of litigation in constructive food safety policy

In this recent video interview with Food Safety News, legal scholar Timothy Lytton envisions a more constructive role for litigation in the next stages of development in food safety policy.

Lytton, previously the author of Kosher, describes the three main systems in food safety as (1) regulation, (2) private sector supply chain management, and (3) the liability system (or the tort system). He points out that engagement between regulators and industry supply chain managers has in some ways become more respectful and mutually beneficial. He sees potential in a similar conversation about the role of litigation in food safety policy, including industry managers, the tort system, and insurers at the table.

This topic needed a readable systematic summary. I look forward to Lytton's forthcoming book: Outbreak: the Evolution of the U.S. Food Safety System.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

What crops to grow in California?

In drought-ridden California, 80% of managed water supplies are used for agriculture.

You might think that California must consider severe cuts in agricultural production to conserve water. That would be painful, because agriculture is important to California. Just for starters, think of all the farmers and farm-workers whose livelihoods depend on agriculture.

Fortunately, it would be possible for California to reduce water use by a lot while reducing total agriculture production by just a little.

A new brief (.pdf) from Heather Cooley at the Pacific Institute has two highly relevant figures.

Figure 2 shows that alfalfa is responsible for the most total water use (5.2 million acre-feet). Rice (ranked fourth) and corn (ranked sixth) are also major drinkers of total water.

Figure 2. Applied Water for California Crops in 2010. Source: Cooley (2015). Data: CA Department of Water Resources.

Figure 5 shows that these same three crops -- alfalfa, rice, and corn -- offer the lowest agricultural value per unit of water consumed ($ per acre-foot).

Figure 5. Economic Productivity of Water in 2010 for Select Crops Grown in California. Source: Cooley (2015). Data: CA Department of Water Resources.

Though Cooley's accompanying narrative makes the point exceedingly gently, this report has an important implication. If California agriculture reduced water use in alfalfa, rice, and corn by a large volume (in millions of acre-feet statewide), the value of agricultural production in California would fall by a comparatively small amount (in millions of dollars statewide). Alfalfa and corn are important animal feeds in California, so this change would require dairies and meat producers to bring in feed from other states, or reduce their own production. Yet, that could make more sense than growing water-intensive animal feeds in a dry state.

How could California reduce the assignment of water to alfalfa, rice, and corn? Having some type of government board make the change would be highly controversial. It makes more sense for the state to remove policies that allow these crop producers to claim water at far below its proper economic cost. These three crops would not disappear from California (certainly not!), but this sensible policy change would reduce production in these three crops to a degree.

If there were unlimited water, we would not need to make difficult choices. But there is not enough water, and hard choices are required. For California, reducing total water for alfalfa, rice, and corn seems like one of the least painful approaches.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Making a living as a farmer?

In a commentary titled, "A Farmer's Double Life," in the new edition of Tufts Nutrition, my Friedman School colleagues Jennifer Hashley and Samuel Anderson reflect on whether it is right or wrong that most small farmers also rely on off-farm income.

They discuss the experience of farmers they met through the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts:
While they’d love to scale up to be full-time farmers someday, they know that it will take years to reach that point. In the meantime, they need to keep an off-farm job in order to maintain a livelihood, like the two New Entry graduates who farm their leased land but also work 30 or more hours a week as certified nursing assistants. Many may not have full-time farming income as a goal in the first place, instead seeking to farm parttime for supplementary income and to contribute to their local food system. Perhaps the American small-scale farmer is most often a part-time farmer—but is that necessarily a problem?
The commentary reminded me of a tweet this week, torn between desire to encourage young people in farming and concern about the dubious income prospects.
As always, it's useful to bring some real numbers into the discussion. It is widely recognized that national average farm income statistics can be misinterpreted, because they intermingle such diverse farms of all sizes. Fortunately, USDA provides a helpful typology.
  • Residence farms: Farms with less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income and where the principal operator is either retired or has a primary occupation other than farming.  
  • Intermediate farms: Farms with less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income and a principal operator whose primary occupation is farming.
  • Commercial farms: Farms with $350,000 or more gross cash farm income and nonfamily farms. 
In my rough summary of the USDA data using this typology: (a) "residence farmers" get by with non-farm income, (b) "intermediate farms" with annual farm revenue less than $350k have it most rough, and (c) "commercial farms" with annual farm revenue greater than $350k do well with farm income.

Somewhat in the spirit of Hashley and Anderson's commentary, I find this income table realistic rather than highly distressing. Many small farmers may find they need off-farm income to get by. If you want to go into farming full-time -- whether organic, conventional, or something in between -- it is good to contemplate your capacity for reaching close to the commercial scale in the third column.