Thursday, December 27, 2007

Marilyn Manson's Food Pyramid

I had never seen this. The goth rocker offers nutrition advice:
Three servings of yogurt, milk, and cheese, will help your bones and subsidize the cattle industries....

When you eat your sweets, make sure you try to limit your servings or you'll die (break for yelling and screaming "DIE!!!").

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tufts Nutrition Magazine on the Farm Bill

Tufts Nutrition Magazine has posted current issues and several years of archives to the internet. Aliza and I both have short pieces on farm policy in the latest issue, for Fall 2007. From Aliza's column:
Compared to some of the food and agriculture lobbies debating farm subsidies and food stamps, we were a small team working on small issues. But to many people, the local procurement victory [allowing school lunch programs to request locally grown foods from their suppliers] is a significant one. The ability of school food service directors to request local foods opens up great opportunities for local food systems. Schools can be important customers for small farmers. And schools that try to link local agriculture with their curricula have greater success when students can make a field trip to a local farm and then eat that farm’s apples (rather than ones shipped in from across the country) in the school cafeteria.
From my column:
Mind you, political theater can be entertaining. On the last day of debate, Republicans claimed to be surprised that part of the farm bill’s funding would come from a tax increase. The response from Charlie Rangel, Democrat of New York and chairman of the House’s taxwriting committee, was sarcastic. He reminded the critics that they had agreed to ask Rangel’s committee to find the additional money. “You didn’t go to the chairman of the Transportation Committee,” Rangel admonished them.

But after the chuckles die down, we have to wonder whether the right questions were asked about farm policies themselves. The 700-page farm bill authorizes nearly every aspect of federal policy administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from food stamps to conservation to farm subsidies to rural development, at a cost of about $286 billion over five years. It seems there should be more there to discuss than whether a funding source should be called a tax.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

NYC Proposes "Green Carts"

The same week that residents of the Lower East Side and Chinatown gathered to protest the closing of a Pathmark store in their neighborhood, Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn proposed legislation to issue permits for "green carts" - which would offer fresh and processed fruits and vegetables from mobile food carts in designated neighborhoods with low fruit and vegetable consumption. With the goal of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption in these neigborhoods, the legislation would issue 500 permits each to the Bronx and Brooklyn, 250 to Queens and Manhattan and 50 to Staten Island- for the neighborhoods. More information about the green carts is available on the NYC DOHMH website.

While some have praised the green cart initiative,
a resident of Fort Greene told City Limits “We need a store where it has a variety of foods like canned goods and bread – a cart won't do. It’s a nice gesture,” said McDaniel-McCadney of the carts, but “it just wouldn't be sufficient for the community."

Perhaps to promote this more systemic change in access -- a $175,000 grant from the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman Foundation-- the very Friedmans for whom the Tufts Friedman School is named-- to the Food Trust to work with the Food Bank for NYC and the grocery industry to improve access to fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods with inadequate access. The Food Trust has a strong track record of strengthening development and renovation of supermarkets in Philadelphia in the past four years.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Stuffed and Starved, by Raj Patel

Here's an interesting book title and blog: Stuffed and Starved, by Raj Patel. HarperCollins Canada has a book trailer. To be released in the United States in 2008. From Time Magazine:
Today, soy shows up in about 75% of the food on offer at the supermarket, from chocolate to margarine, and the industry responsible for its ubiquity has left footprints everywhere — in the Amazon rainforests and in the bellies of America's corpulent masses. The soybean's ascendancy is one of many pieces of a global puzzle that author Raj Patel aims to fit together in his new book

Stuffed and Starved — a sweeping look at the development of the international food chain that delivers calories from nation to nation with an alarmingly uneven hand. As its title promises, the book tackles one of the chief dysfunctions of our unique era in alimentary history: that 800 million people are getting too little to eat and are malnourished, while over 1 billion are getting so much they've become overweight or obese.


While playing with network sites recently (Linked in, Flickr, Facebook), I recalled a book by Duncan Watts in 2003: Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. The book was written, paradoxically, just on the eve of the rise of all the network sites. Watts was a professor at Columbia, but recently moved to Yahoo!, to lead that company's research in "human social dynamics, including social networks and collaborative problem solving." More paradoxically, for a reflection on electronic networks and degrees of separation, Duncan and I were networked by just one degree of separation long before the invention of Facebook. Just the smelly-socks dirty-dishes pre-electronic old-fashioned networking technology: we shared a crowded house in grad school.

Hershey's regular milk

Yesterday, Mark Frauenfelder at boingboing had a funny post about an incompetent fast food restaurant poster, with an incomprehensible offer of some sort of two-for-one deal at Checkers and Rally's. The related links section at the bottom referenced an earlier Frauenfelder post about Hershey's selling regular milk.
I was walking down Van Nuys boulevard with my daughter, enjoying the 103 degree weather over the weekend, when she demanded milk. We went into a Burger King and I ordered a milk. When the employee handed me this bottle,... I told her I didn't want chocolate milk. She said it wasn't chocolate milk. I had to look at the ingredients to make sure.

Three questions come to mind. 1) Why is Hershey's in the business of selling regular milk? 2) And why would it insist on making the label look chocolately? -- it would be like Lipton selling a bottle of water with pictures of tea leaves and a lemon on it. 3) And why Hershey's they make the label opaque so you can't tell at a glance if the milk is flavored or not?
I don't think the Hershey's label is an accident. Milk manufacturers are purposely blurring the distinction between flavored milks with added sugar and regular milks. They want your mental filing system to file flavored milk in the "healthy" folder instead of the "sugary drinks" folder. Voluntary industry guidelines for marketing beverages in schools are written specifically to permit sweetened flavored milk, so long as the sugar content meets a certain standard.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Congress passes funding bills

Barbara Vauthier's selective and tightly written Foodlinks America newsletter from the TEFAP Alliance now seems to be in blog format, with RSS feed and everything.

Here is Foodlinks' latest news on program funding in Congress:
Congressional Democrats and the White House ended a months-long impasse on federal spending on December 19, 2007 with passage of an omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2008. The legislation combines 11 of the 12 spending bills Congress is required to approve each year to determine government outlays. “Given the President’s refusal to compromise and given the inability of the Senate to produce the 60 votes necessary to move legislation forward, this is the best we can do,” commented Representative David Obey (D-WI), chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

With this final action, Congress exited town for the holidays, ending the first session of the 110th Congress. The House will be gone until January 15, 2008 and the Senate is now scheduled to reconvene on January 22, 2008.

The huge $516 billion compromise package included an additional $11 billion over the President’s spending limit, with some of the funds designated as “emergency” needs that were not offset by cuts in other programs or new revenues. The legislation continued most nutrition assistance programs at current levels, though there were some notable exceptions.

The WIC Program, beset by potential shortages from higher food costs, growing caseloads, and declining rebates, was allocated a full $6 billion for fiscal year 2008, an increase of $815.6 million ($400 million of which was designated as emergency spending) over last year. The $6 billion will help WIC maintain a national caseload of 8.55 million participants throughout the year. The omnibus measure also increased funding for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which the Administration had proposed to eliminate entirely. The CSFP will receive $139.7 million in fiscal 2008, $32.5 million above the fiscal year 2007 appropriation.

Other provisions of the bill: expand, effective immediately, the Simplified Summer Food Service Program to all states, easing paperwork and increasing reimbursements for sponsors; provide an additional $23 million for elderly nutrition programs this year; support a $10 million expansion in the 2008-2009 school year of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, making it available to all states; provide secure funding of $2.475 million annually to the Congressional Hunger Center’s Bill Emerson and Mickey Leland Hunger Fellowship Programs; and fund a Supper Pilot Program in West Virginia under the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

Though Democrats felt the bill could have been better, they expressed satisfaction with the final outcome. “While the President’s stubborn opposition will deny Americans the full investment they deserve in these priorities, the Democratic budget begins to reverse seven years of neglect and charts a new direction,” concluded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Food stamp asset test

In food policy class this Fall, I explained how eligibility for food stamps is determined: gross income below a certain threshold (130 percent of the poverty standard), net income below a certain threshold (100 percent of the poverty standard), an asset test ($2,000 or $3,000 asset limit), special rules if you already receive cash assistance or SSI or are disabled or elderly, and so forth.

"Can that be right?," a student asked, upon hearing the part about the asset test. "I know for certain that there is no asset test in Massachusetts, at least not for families with children."

Sure enough. In Massachusetts, families with a child under age 19 benefit from more lenient rules, including a more permissive income cutoff (200% of the poverty standard) and no asset test. Asset rules for the Food Stamp Program vary substantially from state to state.

Good sources of information about the details of food stamp rules in Massachusetts include Massachusetts Legal Services and Project Bread, and good sources at the national level include the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research and Action Center.

What is this?

This request for a report to Congress (see page 15661) was apparently buried in the manager's amendment to the Senate Farm Bill.

Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Comptroller General of the United States shall submit to Congress a report that contains--

(1) a complete list of all Federal programs that seek to alleviate hunger or food insecurity or improve nutritional intake, including programs that support collaboration, coordination, research, or infrastructure related to these issues;

(2) for each program listed under paragraph (1)--

(A) the total amount of Federal funds used to carry out the program in the most recent fiscal year for which comparable data is available;

(B) a comparison of the amount described in subparagraph (A) with the amount used to carry out a similar program 10 and 20 years previously;

(C) to the maximum extent practicable, the amount of Federal funds used under the program to provide direct food aid to individuals (including the amount used for the costs of administering the program); and

(D) a review to determine whether the program has been independently reviewed for effectiveness with respect to achieving the goals of the program, including--

(i) the findings of the independent review; and

(ii) for the 10 highest-cost programs, a determination of whether the review was conducted in accordance with accepted research principles;

(3) for the 10- and 20-year periods before the date of enactment of this Act, and for the most recent year for which data is available, the estimated number of people in the United States who are hungry (or food insecure) or obese; and

(4) as of the date of submission of the report--

(A) the number of employees of the Department of Agriculture, including contractors and other individuals whose salary is paid in full or part by the Department; and

(B) the number of farmers and other agricultural producers in the United States that receive some form of assistance from the Department.

Congress can strengthen food assistance programs by calling for and funding high quality evaluation research with strong research designs, but simply asking for the results of independent reviews that one can easily verify have not been done would be a tactic for undermining the food assistance programs. What's the angle here?

Welcome Aliza

It is time for an introduction. For several months, my occasional collaborator on U.S. Food Policy has been Aliza R. Wasserman, a graduate student at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, whose studies focus on food policy and environmental health. You may have read her posts on the Senate Farm Bill and the Wansink appointment. Aliza also writes sometimes for The Jew and the Carrot, a blog about Jewish food and contemporary life. Welcome, Aliza.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The front-runners: Mike Huckabee

Speaking of Huckabee, Washington Post writer Liz Clarke fielded a question from me as the first item in her online discussion about the GOP candidate today at
Arlington, Mass.: In part because of his own experience with successful weight loss, Gov. Huckabee paid more attention than most governors do to food policy -- how public policy can support a healthy food environment, for example. This fall, we just suffered another disappointing reformless Farm Bill. Do you think Huckabee would be more likely than other candidates to support a new direction in food and farm policy?

Liz Clarke: That's an interesting question. Let's start here. In my time speaking to Gov. Huckabee, reading his books and interview transcripts, this didn't come up. But from what I learned, I would guess that he would be more proactive than some others. Largely because of his own experience, having been diagnosed with Type II diabetes and warned that his lifestyle and eating habits were on the way to sending him to an early grave, he did become more pro-active about how public policy can help steer people to a healthier lifestyle. He favors a shift in health-care spending to preventive care. And has spoken about finding ways to reward people for healthy lifestyles--lifestyles, specifically, that will save taxpayers money in the long run.

Huckabee's views on food policy

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) is the flavor of the day in the national news media. MSNBC this morning describes him as the closest thing the GOP has to a front runner now. For background, the Washington Post has a recent biographical feature, focusing largely on Huckabee's religion, and an account of Huckabee's successes in Iowa grassroots politics, which led in turn to his national surge in the GOP presidential race.

Huckabee's distinct history of interest in U.S. food policy has received less attention. Motivated in part by his own experience with successful weight loss, Huckabee gave a lot of attention to obesity prevention and related issues while governor. Huckabee discussed these views at length in the introduction to a 2007 book on Obesity, Business, and Public Policy (to which I contributed a chapter about the federal government's checkoff programs). Here is an excerpt:
[H]aving considered the relationship between personal responsibility and government regulation, I arrived at several conclusions, and these conclusions have guided my Healthy Arkansas Initiative.

First, from a moral perspective, I believe we are called to be stewards of everything God has given us -- whether it is the environment, our finances or our health....

The second conclusion that's driven my health policy is the fact that, in America, people have the right to make choices that some might consider stupid. Americans jump bikes over buses, drive golf carts off cliffs, skateboard down stairs and bungee from bridges. While we can't regulate all behavior, we must promote wise choices in hopes of preventing expensive consequences for which we all have to pay.

To help parents make wise choices for their children, in Arkansas we now measure each school child's Body Mass Index and send it home in a private health report. This report is not intended to be a diagnosis, but it is serving as a way to inform parents when their child may have a problem, whether it's too much weight or too little, and they are given information about local resources where help can be found. Again, we believe that, given the information, people will more often than not make the right choice.

Third, our policies have been tempered by the understanding that Ronald McDonald is not Joe Camel. We have refused to make villains of the food industry for giving us what we demand. This means we have not attempted to regulate what people eat by advocating price controls and unhealthy options or by threatening restaurants with lawsuits. I know this puts me at odds with some of the more vocal public health crusaders, but I believe in the wisdom of the free market and we are already starting to see an evolution of the food industry as consumers begin to demand more healthy options.

Fourth, we recognized an obligation to protect consumer and employee safety. If property rights were absolute, the state would have no business enforcing health codes in restaurants to protect our unsuspecting bodies from invaders like E.coli. Just as we find it acceptable to protect workers from asbestos, radiation exposure or loud noises, it seems reasonable that we would find it appropriate to protect them from exposure to the toxic fumes of secondhand smoke. Like personal liberty, property rights are tempered when the exercise of those rights puts others in harm's way.

Finally, and this is a truly groundbreaking point, our policies have been driven by the belief that being well is better than being sick. Whether we are talking about our personal budgets or quality of life, it is more fun and less costly to be well.
Agree or disagree, that's a longer record of thought and reflection about food policy than you will hear from most candidates. Comments are open.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Farm payment reforms fail in Senate

Both amendments--Lugar-Lautenberg's "Fresh Act" and Dorgan-Grassley's payment limits-- that would have included meaningful farm subsidy reform in the 2007 farm bill failed in the past two days, the latter falling only 4 votes short of the 60 it needed to be adopted.

The Environmental Working Group and the Center for Rural Affairs blogs have some interesting analysis of how the Democrats sabotaged reform by playing politics with the vote's parliamentary procedure, in order to prevent Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) from embarrassing her own party. They place blame for the failure of Dorgan-Grassley squarely on the Democratic leadership and those reform-touting Senators who voted against the amendment.

A number of other amendments to reform agriculture policy remain to be voted on, including Sen. Tester's (D-MT) attempt to "beef up" the new Livestock Title by adding a "packer ban" to check the power of industrial meatpackers and processors by reinforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act's rules against market manipulation. Apparently, the meat industry has been hard at work preventing this amendment from passing.

You can watch here. Update 12/20/2007: fixed broken link.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Crop insurance fraud

Given that a Republican sits in the Presidency, which has the power of the veto, it is not easy for the Democratic leadership in Congress to pass legislation. Hence, one of the main consequences of the return to Democratic Party leadership in the Congress is heightened oversight from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA).

Bloggers have been bubbling with enthusiasm for the committee's increased information sharing on its website, including new copies of hearing transcripts. To take a U.S. Food Policy example, here is Waxman's introduction to a hearing (.pdf) last Spring on crop insurance fraud:
The Federal Crop Insurance Program has become a textbook example of waste, fraud and abuse in Federal spending. Under this program, farmers received $10.5 billion over the last six years, but it has cost the taxpayers almost $19 billion to provide this financial protection to farmers. Over $8 billion in taxpayer funds have been used for excess payments to insurers and other middlemen. Somehow, about 40 cents of every dollar that the taxpayers have put into the crop insurance program has been for unproductive expenses.
Here's the full explanation of the problem with crop insurance (.pdf), from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.

Here's an interesting image and article from NASA last year, showing how satellite images of farmland can be used to prevent crop insurance fraud.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Well Fed Network blog awards

In the running for the Well Fed Network's poll for best food blog covering the food industry:
Eggbeater. A talented pastry chef in San Francisco. Recently served Al Gore, who cleaned every morsel from his plate.

Michael Ruhlman. Chef and writer. Author of the well-received new book: The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen.

The Food Whore. Very funny. Most entertaining of all the nominees.

Word of Mouth. From Guardian Unlimited.

U.S. Food Policy. "But is it really a food blog?" you might ask. What, haven't you tasted my bread machine bread or plum torte? Well, okay, it may not quite steal your vote away from that pastry chef in San Francisco!
Voting is open until December 14.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Meat cloning as art

Xeni Jardin from boingboingtv today tries her hand at cloning meat, under the tutelage of a crew of artist/scientists.

If you're interested in meat that is not so much cloned as merely processed nearly beyond the point of recognition, see another boingboing post recently from Cory Doctorow, which links to a particularly clever and usable web-based display of nutrition facts for hamburgers and other fast food offerings. The application comes from a calorie counter, which also allows easy searches of the USDA database of nutrition facts for other foods.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Should FDA give waivers to panel members who have conflicts of interest?

Two recent analyses offer opposing views about whether the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should give waivers to outside experts, allowing them to participate on important government panels despite conflicts of interest.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relies on expert scientists as advisers on a host of panels, which strongly influence the agency's oversight of important issues ranging from food safety to the approval of new drugs and medical equipment. The advisers may have conflicts of interest, such as having received research funding from a company whose products are being reviewed by the panel. In some cases, FDA grants waivers to the rules prohibiting conflicts of interest, on grounds that the conflict is minor or that the adviser offers unique expertise that outweighs the concern about conflict.

Last spring, the FDA proposed new rules that would limit such waivers. According to a summary from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI): "Those guidelines would ban anyone with greater than $50,000 a year in financial ties to industry from advisory committees and deny a vote to anyone with lesser conflicts."

However, more recently FDA has emphasized the value it places on waivers, arguing that it would be difficult to replace the expertise of many advisers who have conflicts of interest. FDA cited a report (.pdf) from the Eastern Research Group, which reviewed a number of panels and argued that FDA might not be able to make do without the experts who received waivers (the report's first author, Nyssa Ackerley, is a former student of the food policy program here at the Friedman School).

By contrast, according to CSPI's Integrity in Science newsletter, a coalition of public interest groups including CSPI analyzed the same data and reached the opposite conclusion:
For each of the four advisory committees analyzed in the study, it would have taken a single FDA official just one week to replace all the advisers who had conflicts of interest with experts who do not have conflicts of interest, according to CSPI's analysis of the ERG data. Moreover, the FDA would be able to choose from nearly two potential unconflicted experts for every open slot. And, based on the same criteria for the expertise of potential committee members used in the study, these easily identifiable unconflicted experts would be more qualified than the ones eventually chosen, whether they had conflicts of interest or not.
Do you think FDA should grant waivers to conflict of interest rules to recruit expert panelists who would otherwise be ineligible? Comments are open.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Nova's Marathon Challenge

This Nova program uses the story of a group of non-athletes who train for the Boston Marathon as the vehicle to introduce a lot of other great material about nutrition and health, the interaction between genetic and environmental influences on fitness and athletic potential, the possibility of changing health behaviors in mid-life, and (perhaps unintentionally) about the ridiculous difficulty of running a marathon. You may find it motivating even if it doesn't make you want to run a marathon in particular. The show features Professor Miriam Nelson, from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, in a starring role as both team scientist and inspiration.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Wansink Appointed Director of CNPP

Dr. Brian Wansink, who was recently interviewed on this blog for his receipt of the Ig Nobel prize, was appointed Executive Director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) last Wednesday.

According to the USDA press release:
At CNPP Dr. Wansink will be responsible for overseeing the planning, development and review of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the food pyramid known as and programs including the Healthy Eating Index, the USDA Food Plans, the Nutrient Content of the U.S. Food Supply, and the cost of raising a child.
Praise comes from Marion Nestle, the Ethicurean and Eating Liberally for USDA's appointment of a university researcher, as opposed to recent appointments that have come directly from various industry positions. Wansink's novel research on home and restaurant environmental triggers for unhealthy eating and overeating informs his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think- about how to modify immediate environments in order to change nutrition behavior, without creating new regulations or directly attacking individual behavior.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Grocery stores in poor neighborhoods

Economics webloggers such as Tyler Cowen and Mark Thoma are covering Nathan Berg's argument that low-income neighborhoods lack good grocery stores because grocery executives don't happen to know those neighborhoods well.

But, before we move on to diagnosis, can we ask first just how ill the patient is? Some of the best research I know on this topic comes from various USDA surveys of Food Stamp Program participants and low-income nonparticipants. For example, Ohls and colleagues (.pdf) reported in 1999 that one third of low-income respondents shop within a mile of their home and another third within one to four miles. Ninety percent use supermarkets as their major source for food shopping. Almost two thirds reported that their round trip to a grocery store required less than 30 minutes of travel time, and another quarter required between 30 minutes and an hour. In low-income neighborhoods of the East Coast cities I know best, food retail has improved since this report came out.

How can we square the USDA data on the moderately agreeable retail experience of a typical food stamp participant or low-income family with the widespread concern about food deserts in low-income urban neighborhoods? Consider first the low-income urban food desert you know best (I'll hold Anacostia in DC, or eastern Baltimore, or South Bronx in my thoughts). Then, ask yourself what fraction of low income people in the corresponding metro area live there.

For example, here's a map of DC from USDA's Economic Research Service around 2000. Consider not just Anacostia, but also the low-income neighborhoods with good retail. Dark green is highest poverty, and dots are grocery stores. Likewise, fiddle around with this wonderful interactive GIS map from the New York City Coalition Against Hunger last year.

Think both about what particular neighborhoods have the worst retail (it's pretty bad), and also about what fraction of low-income New Yorkers probably have pretty good retail access. I don't recommend writing off the most desolate neighborhoods, but fixing retail in those neighborhoods should be part of broader anti-poverty strategies. Certainly, a low-income New Yorker has other things to worry about besides this!

Good empirical work on the scale of the problem is important for clear thinking about policy remedies. I worry, for example, about tax giveaways to supermarket chains, at least without some hard consideration of other policy options -- including those that give a greater role to healthy food sales from smaller store formats.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

USDA reports 10.9% of U.S. households are food insecure

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported today that 10.9% of U.S. households were food insecure in 2006. This measure of hardship is essentially unchanged from the previous year.

Food insecurity is determined from a survey battery of 18 questions about food-related hardships. About 50,000 randomly selected households around the country respond to the survey each year. Those households who answer affirmatively to 3 or more of the 18 survey items are classified as "food insecure."

Rates of food insecurity decreased from 11.9% in 1995, when national data collection began, to a low of 10.1% in 1999. Food insecurity worsened in the current decade, reaching 11.9% in 2004. Despite several recent years of economic expansion, rates of food insecurity remain high. The benefits of economic growth have not been reaching those Americans at greatest risk of food insecurity.

USDA reported today that the rate of "very low food security" was 4.0%, which is no better than the rate of 3.9% for the preceding year. USDA formerly described this level of hardship as "food insecurity with hunger," but the terminology was changed last year in response to disagreements over the appropriate official meaning of the term "hunger."

The lack of progress in the new report, authored by Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews, and Steven Carlson, contrasts with the federal government's national objectives for reducing food insecurity (see my illustration below based on USDA data).

In another previous goal-setting effort, the USDA Strategic Plan for 2002-2007 proposed that food insecurity with hunger among low-income Americans (with income below 130% of the poverty line) should be reduced to 7.4% by 2007. The corresponding figure for very low food security among low-income Americans in the most recent USDA data is much worse at 13.1%. It appears unlikely that the goals of USDA's Strategic Plan will be met.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Canada joins Brazil in challenging U.S. farm programs

Although the United States recently claimed that our farm subsidy programs meet existing trade commitments, Canada yesterday joined Brazil in claiming that U.S. farm programs violate those commitments. From the press release:
“Canada believes that the United States has breached its international obligations by providing agricultural subsidies that exceed the levels allowed by the WTO,” said Minister Emerson. “This panel request complements our efforts in the Doha negotiations to further discipline and reduce trade-distorting agricultural subsidies.”

“The government expects the United States to live up to its WTO commitments,” said Minister Ritz. “By requesting this panel, we are trying to level the playing field for Canadian farmers who have to compete against the large distorting agricultural subsidies provided by the U.S.”

It is Canada’s view that when trade-distorting domestic support is properly accounted for under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture, the United States exceeded its WTO commitment in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005.

Canada’s concerns are shared by Brazil. Brazil is also announcing today that it is requesting a WTO dispute settlement panel on U.S. agricultural subsidies. Canada and Brazil have been working together to coordinate their challenges. Given the similarities, it is expected that their cases will be heard by a single panel.
The United States has agreed to report to the WTO the amount of its farm subsidies that is "trade-distorting." For example, a trade-distorting subsidy encourages farmers here to produce more than they otherwise would produce, which can lower the world price for a commodity and harm the interests of farmers in other countries. The United States has traditionally excluded some farm programs from these reports to the WTO. For example, our "direct payments" are several billion dollars worth of government checks to farmers who produced a crop at some previous point in history, regardless of whether they currently produce that crop.

Brazil and Canada have pointed out that these "direct payments" are still trade-distorting, because U.S. rules prevent our farmers from growing fruits and vegetables if they receive these direct payments. One upshot of the new Canadian complaint may be to increase pressure on the United States to stop restricting fruit and vegetable production. An end to these restrictions could save the United States grief in trade negotiations and at the same time make fruits and vegetables more affordable, especially for low-income Americans.

Here is the AP report about Canada's announcement. I first read the news at FarmPolicy.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Quiznos posts nutrition facts information

After several years of refusing to respond to consumer requests for nutrition facts information, the Quiznos restaurant chain recently began posting such information on the corporate website. Until now, Quiznos was the largest national restaurant chain that would not share nutrition facts information for most of its products online or in response to consumer queries.

It is not clear exactly when the nutrition facts were first posted. Apparently, this news has not been reported elsewhere yet. I first read about it from a comment yesterday on U.S. Food Policy (thanks Melissa!).

The federal government's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) encourages restaurants to post nutrition information on a voluntary basis, but federal rules do not require such disclosure. Yet, the federal government's beef checkoff advertising program -- sponsors of the "beef check" symbol and the slogan "Beef. It's What's for Dinner" -- has participated in at least two partnerships with Quiznos to promote high-calorie high-fat beef sandwiches. My efforts to request more information about these promotions from USDA, the Beef Board, and Quiznos have been stonewalled in the past.

Finally, U.S. Food Policy can report the nutrition facts information for a large Quiznos Steakhouse Beef Dip Sub with cheese and dressing, pictured below in a print ad endorsed by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (notice the beef check symbol in the corner indicating the federal government endorsement):
  • 1030 calories
  • 480 calories fat
  • 55 grams fat
  • 11.5 grams saturated fat
  • 70 miligrams cholesterol
  • 2415 miligrams sodium.
To find this information on the Quiznos website, one must go to the company's menu page, then click on a small link at the bottom to "Show Nutrition Information," then click on a particular product, then click on "large," and then click the two selection boxes for the sauces (even though I have been served the sauces as standard parts of the sandwich... oops, did I just admit eating there? ... well, it was part of this investigation).

A rule proposed in New York City would require chain restaurants to post calorie information on menu boards. After a court challenge from restaurants, this proposal is currently under revision and may yet be put into practice. In a sensible effort to avoid burdening independent restaurants and even small chains, the new rule was at first designed to apply only to restaurants who already share nutrition facts information for their standardized products. Reporters covering this controversy had commented on the fact that, paradoxically, this effort might allow a chain like Quiznos to avoid the impact of the new rule. A revised version of the New York City rule would more clearly apply to Quiznos along with other chain restaurants.

Update 11/9/2007: See also the news coverage and additional data at Fast Food News.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Time Magazine on the Senate Farm Bill

In the House of Representatives this summer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) supported the non-reform bill from the Agriculture Committee, calculating that the political gain from trying to purchase political support in marginal Democratic districts in the heartland outweighed the loss from failing to stand up for good government.

After all, how many people outside of farm districts pay attention the Farm Bill anyway?

Well, perhaps more people than you think. To a greater extent than I ever recall in previous Farm Bills, the public is paying attention now, just in time for the Farm Bill debate on the floor of the Senate.

Consider Michael Grunwald's lengthy article in that obscure trade weekly, Time Magazine. He says that "if you eat, drink, or pay taxes," you should think of the Farm Bill as a big deal.
It's also a horrible deal. It redistributes our taxes to millionaire farmers as well as to millionaire "farmers" like David Letterman, David Rockefeller and the owners of the Utah Jazz. It contributes to our obesity and illegal-immigration epidemics and to our water and energy shortages. It helps degrade rivers, deplete aquifers, eliminate grasslands, concentrate food-processing conglomerates and inundate our fast-food nation with high-fructose corn syrup. Our farm policy is supposed to save small farmers and small towns. Instead it fuels the expansion of industrial megafarms and the depopulation of rural America. It hurts Third World farmers, violates international trade deals and paralyzes our efforts to open foreign markets to the nonagricultural goods and services that make up the remaining 99% of our economy.
I hope the Senate is paying attention to the fact that the public is paying attention.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Watchdogging the organic label

Economists use the term "credence attributes" to describe qualities that the food consumer must take on trust, because it is impossible to verify by inspecting the product in the grocery store. For example, the consumer must trust that the organic label truly reflects adherence to a certain set of standards about production processes and chemical inputs.

Maintaining the credibility of a credence attribute requires a fairly vigorous level of watchdogging. For example, here is a press release from the Government Accountability Project (GAP) last month:

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) requested that the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP) initiate an investigation into violations of organic standards allegedly committed by a mushroom production company based in California. A formal complaint from GAP was submitted earlier today against Golden Gourmet Mushrooms, Inc. (GGM) of San Diego County.

According to documents acquired by GAP, the specialty mushroom company may have violated organic standards and public confidence in several ways, including:
-- The sale of conventional mushroom products as organic
-- The manipulation of organic certification documents
-- Making false claims regarding the nature and origin of its mushroom products.

A copy of the complaint can be viewed on GAP’s Web site (.pdf).

GAP urges the NOP to immediately begin investigating GGM’s alleged violations of the organic standards and whether its supplier, Japan’s Hokuto Corporation (Hokuto), participated in fraudulent practices. GAP further asks the NOP to review the performance of private organic certifier Quality Assurance International (QAI) to determine if it is capable of and intent on fulfilling its obligations as a certifying agent.

“Every violation of the standards reduces public confidence in the organic label. It is critical that the National Organic Program thoroughly investigate complaints and weed out any bad actors now while the program is still young,” says Jacqueline Ostfeld, GAP Food and Drug Safety Officer.

An earfull about earmarks for grape research

See Katie Couric for the prosecution:
Congress has earmarked more than $11 million dollars so far for the building and hundreds of thousands more for research. That’s not to be confused with the $2.6 million they've earmarked to study grapes out in California.

It's not as if Uncle Sam wasn't already investing millions a year in grape research: there are 25 full-time federal scientists working on nothing but grapes. The special earmarks are tax dollars added on top of that by individual members of Congress.
And Dr. Vino for the defense:
A “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric” story is shocked, shocked! to learn that $11 million of “your tax dollars” have been allocated to conduct research on wine grapes including a $2.6 million research facility at Cornell.

But they have it wrong: it’s not shockingly bad news, it’s new news. And it’s good news.

Ever since the repeal of Prohibition, the federal government has been reluctant to fund grape research. In fact, in the 1930s, after Repeal, FDR’s Department of Agriculture proposed a wine research facility to be funded with federal funds and help the industry get back on its feet. However, an influential Dry congressman unilaterally vetoed the project wanting to prevent the evil “fermentation.” Since then the federal government has been reluctant to fund wine grape research.

So this $11 million should be seen as a real breakthrough, evidence that the federal government is actually doing something to support wine.

What is in the federal government's dairy advertising report?

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is required to give a report to Congress each July, explaining the activities and budget of the federal government's fluid milk and dairy checkoff advertising programs, sponsors of the "Got Milk?" slogan, the "Milk Mustache" ads, and the "Real Seal."

Last year's report, which was finally made public in October 2006, emphasized the government advertising program's use of dairy weight loss claims, which are controversial in nutrition science circles and are not consistent with the government's own Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The weight loss claims were especially odd when set against the dairy programs' heavy promotion of high-fat cheese through marketing collaborations with restaurants such as Pizza Hut.

Just a few months later, the Federal Trade Commission contacted USDA to raise questions about this advertising message, and USDA agreed to discontinue the high-calcium weight loss marketing. The campaigns have many other good messages they could use instead, such as the possible role of low-fat dairy in protecting against weak bones, but their marketing research had shown consumers to be especially responsive to weight loss messages.

It will be interesting to read how AMS describes these developments in the July 2007 report. While July is long past, the report is not yet being shared with the public. AMS folks tell me it is "still in Departmental clearances."

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Food stamps twice monthly?

Most Food Stamp Program families operate on a sharp monthly food spending cycle. The greater part of food stamp benefits are spent within a few days of being credited to the EBT card, the debit-style card used by the program to issue benefits. Colleagues and I have written about this cycle in articles for the American Journal of Agricultural Economics (2000) and Journal of Consumer Affairs (2001). At the same time, many food stamp families report food insecurity and hunger at some times of the month, generally near the end of the food stamp cycle.

For a couple years, I have been following the progress of a proposal in Michigan to have benefits issued twice a month, which might help families budget more smoothly over the course of the month, perhaps leading to healthier choices and less hardship in the second half of the month. See coverage in the New York Times and NPR.

The twice-monthly distribution is similar to what happens when your 401k plan adopts adequate levels of savings as the default option, but still allows you to opt for lower savings if you desire. Research suggests that many workers will accept the wiser default savings position. Similarly, with food stamp distribution, a family that prefers to shop once monthly is still welcome to do so, on the occasion of the second benefit credit each month. The twice monthly benefit delivery does not force people to shop twice monthly. If needed to keep some participants from being inconvenienced, one could even allow a more formal "opt out" mechanism, which would allow people to receive traditional once monthly benefit delivery on request. My own hunch is that many participants would like the new twice-monthly delivery schedule.

Advocates for the Michigan proposal, including grocers who would like to spread their sales more efficiently over the month, think they may be nearing success in the Michigan state legislature. Yet, they fear their efforts may be overturned by the U.S. Senate, which is reported to be considering language that would forbid twice-monthly benefit issuance. I haven't been able to track down the exact language of concern in the Senate's Farm Bill under debate. It seems twice-monthly benefit delivery should be considered, at least on a pilot basis. Certainly, it seems like a bad idea to cut off exploring this program innovation by federal fiat.

Update 11/6/2007: A reader sends the relevant text, which is available in section 4203 of the bill on the Senate agriculture committee's site: "MULTIPLE ISSUANCES.--The procedure may include issuing benefits to a household in more than 1 issuance only when a benefit correction is necessary." Thanks!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Senate Farm Bill

Friedman School alum Aimee Witteman from the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition writes at Gristmill that one needn't tar all Farm Bill programs with the same brush. She speaks up for the Sodsaver proposal, which protects grassland, and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which subsidizes sustainable conservation practices but which has been funded at only a fraction of its authorized levels since the program was created in 2002.

Attractive and politically astute reform proposals would steer clear of fatal cuts to the farm programs across the board, but instead use payment caps and income limits to establish sensible and substantial reductions (say, 20-40%?) in the row crop subsidies, with the savings split evenly between deficit reduction and new funding for nutrition programs and the types of conservation programs Aimee recommends.

The Blog for Rural America from the Center for Rural Affairs tries hard to maintain an upbeat attitude on the Farm Bill overall, but comes down very hard on Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), who crosses both party and regional lines to back Southern Republicans in their efforts to pressure committee chair Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) to maintain the status quo and resist stronger reform proposals.
As my colleague John Crabtree pointed out recently, “Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, thinks it is better for his state to work with Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, to defeat the ideas of Tom Harkin, the chair of the committee from Iowa and a member of his own party. Iowa is practically neighbors with North Dakota, for God’s sake. What the hell is wrong with him?”
Perhaps reform-minded, nutrition-minded, conservation-minded, and deficit-reduction-minded residents of North Dakota should make their views heard.

The Senate committee deliberations will be webcast today.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Upcoming talk about checkoff programs

The Department of Health, Behavior, and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has a lively seminar series this Fall, entitled "Changing the Big Picture." At noon on Thursday, Nov. 1, I'll speak about the federal government's commodity checkoff advertising and promotion programs. If you are in Baltimore, or even in DC, I hope you will visit and introduce yourself.

Upcoming talk about the food industry and nutrition

I'll be speaking this Monday, Oct 29, in the afternoon session at the annual Friedman Symposium here in Boston. My talk will offer a food economist's perspective on what type of voluntary measures can reasonably be expected from the food industry in response to nutrition and public health concerns.

Perhaps for balance -- though surely my views are sober enough standing on their own -- I'm being paired opposite a gentleman from Unilever.

There is a fairly high registration fee, despite the symposium's generous support from DSM Nutrition Products, The Coca-Cola Company, Frito-Lay, Mars North America, United Soybean Board, Wyeth, Cadbury-Schweppes, Dannon, National Fisheries Institute, Ocean Spray, Safeway, U.S. Potato Board, Wrigley Science Institute, Blue Cross/BlueShield of Massachusetts, Egg Nutrition Center, Kraft, National Yogurt Association, and the Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition. I will offer a free U.S. Food Policy TV post with a condensed version of my talk. Still, I hope you will attend if you can.

Senate Farm Bill news

The Senate Agriculture Committee has scheduled its consideration of the Farm Bill for tomorrow, Wed, October 24. The committee chair, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), is holding a press conference today to describe his draft (view online).

The FarmPolicy blog reviews major media reports on several of the key issues to be decided.

One issue is whether farm subsidies will continue to go disproportionately to the largest and richest farmers. Sen. Harkin is expected to propose an income eligibility limit of $750,000 per year, which would not affect many farmers. For comparison, the House earlier passed a limit of $1 million per year (and double that for married couples), which would affect even fewer farmers. A stronger reform proposal to watch comes from Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Charles Grassley (R-IA), who propose an income cap of $125,000 (and double for married couples). Under this proposal, the federal government would help subsidize low-income, middle-income, and upper-middle-income farmers. High-income farmers would still get our admiration, good wishes, and food dollars, but not our tax money.

An even more dramatic reform proposal is summarized in the Washington Post this morning.
An alternative exists, in the form of a bill being prepared by Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.). Their proposal would replace the existing array of subsidies for favored commodities with government-funded crop insurance that would cover all farms and ranches, whether they grow strawberries or soybeans. Farmers would get paid if, but only if, their incomes in a given year dropped at least 15 percent below the previous five years' average in their respective counties. This is still an incredibly sweet deal; what other American industry can count on federally funded protection from the vicissitudes of capitalism? But it would save $20 billion over five years, money that Mr. Lugar and Mr. Lautenberg propose to spend on deficit reduction, nutrition and a soil conservation program that pays farmers to restore wetlands and wildlife habitats.
The Post editorial's subheading today was: "Congress gets ready to flub farm subsidy reform again." I'm neither naive nor hopeless. The status quo proposal in the House seemed politically fragile, barely squeaking through the floor vote with great gobs of bacon grease. It is not obvious to me what will happen in the Senate.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

National Pork Board removes "Counting Carbs?" slogan and logo from websites

The federal government's National Pork Board recently removed its low-carb marketing slogan and logo from its websites, following my petition to the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service in August.

Although the federal government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee strongly criticized low-carb marketing, and the Dietary Guidelines themselves emphasize calorie balance rather than fad dieting, the government's beef and pork checkoff programs have skirted the edges of low-carb diet promotion for several years.

The Pork Board's low-carb slogan and logo were still on the Pork Board's websites last month.

The explicit low-carb marketing cannot be found there now.

Lloyd Day, administrator of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, responded to my petition in a letter dated October 11.
In response to your concerns regarding the "Counting Carbs? Pork's Perfect" slogan, which you identified on a Board Web site, AMS contacted the Board and determined they are no longer using this slogan or symbol in any advertisements. This 1-year campaign ran in 2003 in conjunction with the low-carbohydrate diet trend, and the Web site you referenced has been inactive since 2003 and consequently removed.
The Pork Board’s website for food services formerly recommended low carb marketing: “There’s no denying that the low-carbohydrate/high-protein phenomena has taken the food world by storm. According to some reports, up to 50 million consumers have tried some type of low-carbohydrate diet plan.” The website favorably quoted a “leading” chef, Marlin Kaplan, saying, “There’s no denying this diet. If you are a restaurant operator not offering high-protein, low-carb options on your menu, then you are not listening to your customer.”

In his response to my petition this month, Mr. Day said that the Pork Board's campaign did not promote a low carb diet or lifestyle.
Regarding all of the Board's campaigns, AMS takes special precaution to review promotional materials before they are released to the public. In the case you referenced, AMS concluded that the Board was not promoting a low-carbohydrate diet or lifestyle, but instead promoting pork as an alternative to other protein products for consumers that have elected a low-carbohydrate diet or lifestyle.
The success of this recent petition, and an earlier public-interest group petition to end high-calcium fad-diet marketing for dairy products, is likely to be followed by further public interest in making sure the USDA-sponsored checkoff programs are consistent with the federal government's Dietary Guidelines.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Removing the Red Tape from the Carrots

Yesterday, the NYTimes reported on the difficult and rewarding nature of trying to get local foods into schools, by overcoming tangible barriers and bureaucratic obstacles in Local Carrots with a Side of Red Tape.

The article illustrates the large example of the NYC School System which has tried to use its tremendous purchasing power to help many of the struggling fruit and vegetable farmers of New York state. This video features a smaller scale example in MA.

The article makes brief mention of the policies which currently make it difficult for the 10,874 [and counting] schools across the country that are part of the Farm to School movement to source school food locally, which brings us back to...drumroll, please: THE FARM BILL

In case readers of this blog don't have enough other reasons to care about the Farm Bill--which is scheduled to be debated by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee next Tuesday, Oct 23--with farm and conservation payments, organic research, food stamps and the myriad other items up for negotiation, the ability for schools to request local foods for school meals is a small item of great import to be included in the draft of the Farm Bill due out any day now.

Specifically, all schools that receive federal dollars for school meal (lunch, breakfast, after-school, summer, etc.) purchases must follow a federal bidding process, also called procurement, and therefore have historically needed to comply with a federal ban on geographic preference for procurement. In the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress included language encouraging schools to purchase local foods. Yet, apparently the law was not clear enough in its intent to exempt schools from the ban on geographic preferences, and it has been difficult (.pdf) for many schools to prove to the USDA that they should be allowed (.doc) to do so.

Therefore, the House included in its Farm Bill a provision which a) encourages schools to purchase local foods when "practicable and appropriate" and b) makes this exemption from the ban on geographic preferences clear for all school meals. This provision does not provide any kind of mandate for local food-- only the option to request it if this is in the interest of the school food service program. Clearly, this is not the only action needed to change the nature of school meals, but many believe it is an important step in the right direction. More info here or at

YouTube coverage of food policy and marketing

What works and what doesn't for children's nutrition and marketing awareness-raising on YouTube?
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine on school nutrition reform (a reader submission by email).

Jeepers Media on Shrek marketing (from Shaping Youth).

A report on the "Nag Factor" study (parts one and two), centering on an extended interview with a marketing strategist.
And for farm policy?
Oxfam on farm subsidy reform (from Mulch). Here's an earlier longer more understated piece from Oxfam, focusing on what's at stake for African farmers.

Robert Reich on the Farm Bill

Here's Robert Reich's blog under the headline, "Nix the Farm Bill":
I’ve got a way to reduce global poverty, decrease the number of workers crossing our borders illegally, save American taxpayers money, and cut your supermarket bill -- in one fell swoop. How? Get rid of US farm subsidies and tariffs.

They were supposed to be a temporary remedy for small farmers during the Depression. But, renewed every five years regardless of which party controls Congress, farm subsidies keep going and going. They've been costing taxpayers some $11 billion a year. The Senate is now considering the latest version, and it's hardly better than what's come before.

Look, I have no problem insuring small farmers against major losses. But farm subsidies go mostly to big agribusinesses that hardly need them.

But the big problem isn't just the waste of taxpayer money. Americans -- including the US media and even Washington politicos -- tend to regard agriculture policy as the exclusive domain of legislators from farm states. Yet our farm policy is the single most damaging thing we're doing to the world's poor. Ending farm subsidies and tariffs would be the single most important thing we could do to reduce global poverty.
I found Reich's commentary on the inquisitive nutrition-oriented food blog, Fanatic Cook.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

WTO rules against U.S. policies that discourage fruit and vegetable production on land that gets crop subsidies

From a nutrition perspective, the most blatantly counter-productive U.S. farm subsidy policy may be the prohibition against growing fruits and vegetables on land that is eligible for direct subsidy payments.

This is a bit complicated, so bear with me.

Farm subsidies used to be criticized for encouraging overproduction of major row crops, such as corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton, because farmers could earn more subsidies by growing more of the crop. The overproduction harmed the environment and immiserated poor farmers in developing countries by suppressing world prices for these crops. To partly -- and only partly -- remedy these problems, beginning in the 1996 and 2002 farm bills, a portion of the subsidies were converted to "direct payments," which were based on a farmer's historical production rather than current production. These direct payments were supposed to solve the problem of encouraging overproduction, because farmers could earn billions of dollars of these welfare-style payments even without growing the crop.

However, fruit and vegetable lobbyists were concerned that corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton farmers would begin growing fruits and vegetables while collecting direct payments. This would increase the supply of fruits and vegetables and suppress their prices.

From a nutrition perspective, that would be great! But, the fruit and vegetable industries are more powerful than the nutrition lobby, so they convinced Congress to prohibit farmers from growing fruits and vegetables on land that qualified for direct subsidy payments.

This prohibition is just one of the issues at stake in the important Brazil cotton case. See today and an excellent Congressional Research Service (.pdf) report last month for the full story. Brazil argued that the fruit and vegetable prohibitions meant the direct payments continued to distort U.S. farmers' planting decisions and harm the interests of farmers in Brazil. The WTO agreed. The United States took half-steps toward fixing problems with the cotton subsidy programs, but these half-steps did not include repealing the fruit and vegetable prohibition. Even the new House-passed Farm Bill fails to repeal the prohibition.

This week, news reports say a compliance panel of the WTO has ruled that the half-steps taken by the United States do not suffice. The fruit and vegetable prohibitions continue to violate our country's world trade commitments. The consequence may be that the WTO will allow Brazil legally to impose trade barriers against U.S. export industries.

So here's my question. How many Americans in these export industries will lose their jobs so that Congress can protect this grand principle: preventing farmers from growing fruits and vegetables?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Shrek, the two-headed ogre

To my grandmother, "schreck" meant something frightful. The newer word "Offul" means a media message so bad, you just want to turn it off.

The cartoon character Shrek last week won the "Offul" award from Common Sense Media for his participation in dozens of awful junk-food marketing messages and, simultaneously, the Ad Council's public health commercial promoting physical activity.

See the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Boston Globe for more coverage of the charming green ogre's two-headed character. Hat tip to the Shaping Youth blog.

See the cereal with 15g sugar in a single one-cup serving!


World Food Day

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

U.S. Food Policy TV (episode 2): Interview with Brian Wansink

Brian Wansink is author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. In this interview, we discuss the Ig Nobel Award in Nutrition, the Bottomless Soup Bowl, the McSubway Study, the misleading power of the "Halo Effect," and whether it is hopeless to seek to change food and nutrition policy.

The first episode of U.S. Food Policy TV appeared in August. We are still on the steep part of our learning curve here.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Spin time: nutrition research sponsored by National Pork Board

Women on a normal-protein no-meat diet lost weight at least as quickly as did women on a high-pork-protein diet, according to research that was funded, paradoxically, by the federal government's National Pork Board.

In the study, published in the February issue of the journal Obesity, 46 women were randomly assigned to either a normal protein diet with no meat or a high protein diet with above-normal amounts of pork protein. For both groups, the diet had very low amounts of total calories, 750 kcal per day below estimated energy needs for weight maintenance. [Update 11/18/2008: corrected statistic on calorie deficit].

The authors of the study were Heather J. Leidy, Nadine S. Carnell, Richard D. Mattes, and Wayne W. Campbell of Purdue University.

The women with normal-protein no-meat diets lost 9.5 kilograms of body weight in 12 weeks. Those with the high-pork-protein diet lost only 8.1 kilograms of body weight in the same period. The difference in weight loss was not statistically significant.

The new study corroborates a large body of research showing that drastic calorie-reduction diets of any flavor can show weight loss in a 12-week period, but such diets offer most women little hope for long-term weight loss.

For both groups of women in the study, most of weight loss was due to losing something other than lean body mass. Presumably, they lost fat or water mass. A much smaller amount of the weight loss was due to losing lean body mass. The normal protein no-meat group lost 2.8 kilograms of lean body mass (from 43.3 kg to 40.8 kg), while the high-pork-protein group lost 1.5 kilograms of lean body mass (from 43.0 kg to 41.5 kg).

How would you spin these results if you were the National Pork Board?

See the headline: "Checkoff-Funded Study with Lean Pork Reveals Protein’s Power to Preserve Lean Body Mass during Weight Loss."

It gets worse. The checkoff program's press release claims that women on the high-pork-protein diet "retained nearly double the amount of lean body mass." You might look at the numbers above -- showing lean body mass of 40.8 kg for the normal protein no-meat group and 41.5 kg for the high-pork-protein group -- and ask, in what sense did the latter group retain nearly double the amount of lean body mass? But you just lack the right amount of imagination: the high-pork-protein group retained nearly "double" the lean body mass, because its lean-body-mass loss of 1.5 kg is slightly more than half the loss of 2.8 kg for the normal protein no-meat group.

This nonsense just contributes to the public confusion. By supporting this type of scientifically empty public relations campaign, administered by the semi-governmental checkoff programs, the federal government tragically undermines its own respected research program in human nutrition.

What happened to the VERB program?

A report from the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies earlier this year sharply criticized the federal government for its failure to support a major social marketing campaign to encourage physical activity among "tweens" -- the age group just before teenage years.

According to the report -- Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity: How Do We Measure Up? -- the Center for Disease Control's VERB campaign had some early signs of success. Kids who were aware of the campaign had higher levels of physical activity. More definitive evaluations were ongoing.

Yet, federal support for the program was reduced in the early part of the current decade, even as concern about childhood nutrition and physical activity was increasing.
Federal funding for the campaign was $125 million in FY 2001, reduced to $68 million in FY 2002, $51 million in FY 2003, $36 million in FY 2004, and increased to $59 million in FY 2005. Over the 5-year period the VERB campaign, the average cost was $68 million/year.
Other reports indicated that the program was in danger of losing funding altogether, and I can't find recent funding statistics on the Internet. Here's a 2006 report from the Wall Street Journal.

In unusually severe language for a National Academies report, the authors wrote this year:
The termination of an adequately funded, well-designed, and effective program to increase physical activity and combat childhood obesity calls into question the commitment to obesity prevention within government and by multiple stakeholders who could have supported the continuity of the VERB campaign through diverse representation.
Do any of you know the rest of the story of the VERB campaign?

Unlimited estate tax exemption for farmers?

Under current law, farmers who leave $4 million per-couple in nominal farm assets to their heirs do not have to pay any estate taxes. Because of provisions that let them value their farms at less than full market value, some farmers can leave farms whose full value is almost $6 million to their heirs without paying estate taxes. Despite the rhetoric of estate tax opponents, there is no evidence that any farmers nationwide have to sell their land to pay estate taxes.

Yet, estate tax opponents in the House and Senate have proposed an unlimited estate tax exemption for farmers. In other words, farms would be treated differently from all other assets, and farmers could leave to their heirs even the largest landed estates without paying estate taxes.

If farmers are already well protected under current law, what motivates the estate tax opponents behind this proposal?

The answer is: it's not about the farmers. This proposal offers a loophole for billionaires in other lines of work to leave great wealth to their heirs, without paying estate taxes, by buying up farmland. The foreseeable consequence will be higher farm land prices and, paradoxically, greater challenges for young farmers who want to take up their parents' and grandparents' honorable work on the land.

Read the report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for the full story.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Should the government improve food safety regulations for leafy greens?

At industry request, as a result of the E. coli outbreak in leafy greens last fall, the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA announced Thursday its intention to create future regulation of leafy greens to supplement the FDA's food safety regulations. It is unclear what the actual nature of this regulation would be, but the ANPR (advanced notice of proposed rule) describes:
the establishment of a marketing program to address the handling of fresh and freshcut leafy green vegetables. The program would allow packers, processors, shippers, and marketers (collectively referred to as handlers) to maintain the quality of their products by reducing the risk of pathogenic contamination during the production and handling of leafy greens.
and is soliciting public comments about whether they should create such a program and if so, what the implementation would look like, by December 3, 2007. Comments can be submitted to

Friday, October 05, 2007

Meat Inspection Roundup

After learning about food safety in Parke's U.S. Food Policy course last week, I've been seeing it rear its head everywhere, from the supermarket to Capitol Hill. Much of what makes the news involves problems with regulation of food safety- yet nobody seems to have the perfect solution:

The much maligned USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) seems to be falling down on the job of federal meat inspection:
  • Topps frozen hamburgers is going out of business due to the September 25th recall of its meat, which was announced 18 days after USDA authorities recognized an outbreak of E.coli 0157:H7.
Farm Bill to Allow Interstate Meat Shipment?
While Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) plans to propose an amendment to the farm bill to streamline federal food safety regulation by phasing out the current system in two years, the issue receiving the most attention is interstate shipment of state-inspected meat, which Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) added to the House farm bill and wants to be included in the Senate bill. According to supporters like Peterson, the provision would help smaller meat processors, many of which serve growing niche markets like organic and grass-fed.

Opponents, including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Food & Water Watch are concerned that the provision will weaken food safety standards, despite the fact that state inspections are required by law to meet the same standards as federal inspection, according to Elanor (a recent Tufts Nutrition Alum) over at the Ethicurean. Boxer has threatened to block the Senate farm bill if this provision, which Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) does not currently have in his bill, is included. More on the debate from Ethicurean and DanOwens at the CFRA.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

An okay part of Barbara Kingsolver's recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, is the author's perspective on the big issues of the day:
"How do you encourage people to keep their hope," Joan asked, "but not their complacency?"
But the more memorable passages are the simpler telling anecdotes.

The Kingsolver family of four left drought-stressed Arizona, where lack of rainfall prevented environmentally sound food choices, for the old family farm in Appalachia, where they could spend 12 months eating and growing local food. The first stop on the road trip was, paradoxically, to buy fuel.

Here is the conversation between the cashier at the gas station food mart and Kingsolver's husband, Steven:
"Dang," she said, it's going to rain."

"I hope so," Steven said.

She turned her scowl from the window to Steven. This bleached-blond guardian of gas pumps and snack food was not amused. "It better not, is all I can say."

"But we need it," I pointed out. I am not one to argue with cashiers, but the desert was dying, and this was my very last minute as a Tucsonan. I hated to jinx it with bad precipitation-karma.

"I know that's what they're saying, but I don't care. Tomorrow's my first day off in two weeks, and I want to wash my car."

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Advertisements against commercialism?

What do you make of advertisements that mock or criticize commercialism?

For example, there's a funny REI print ad in magazines recently, picturing a couple whose tent is pitched in front of a gorgeous mountain panorama. The sarcastic text recounts the supposed virtues of the plasma screen TV owned by the couple's friend. It's almost like you're there, the friend says of the TV.

Or consider this advertisement from Dove, mentioned by the adrants blog. The link was accompanied by this striking reflection addressed to the author's fellow marketing professionals:
After watching Dove's new Ogilvy-created commercial, Onslaught, a follow up to Evolution, you might become a bit sickened you work in an industry that forces impossible ideals down the throats of innocent children. Now if you think that's overstating things a bit, just watch the new commercial. You know it's true.
The tag line is "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does."

A different kind of promotion

I've been promoted to associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, where I direct the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition Program and teach classes in food policy and statistics or econometrics. The blogosphere had a lot of discussion a couple years ago about whether blogging harms the career prospects of junior faculty. In my case, I think the blog neither helped nor hurt, but I am relieved that it is tolerated and was not held against me at this university. After leading international policy scholar and blogger Daniel Drezner had his "bad day" at the University of Chicago, he was quickly snapped up by a university with a strong ideal of civic engagement: Tufts again.

Monday, October 01, 2007

How effective is generic pork advertising?

Generic pork advertising, such as the “Other White Meat” campaign, is far less effective at increasing consumer demand than had previously been reported, according to a new official economic evaluation (.doc) of the National Pork Board released this year. According to the previous official evaluation, released in 2000, a 10% increase in generic pork advertising would lead to a 1.1% increase in the quantity of pork consumed, holding other factors constant. By contrast, the new official evaluation estimates that a 10% increase in generic pork advertising would lead to a 0.21% increase -- one fifth of 1% -- in the quantity of pork consumed.

Because domestic pork consumption is very large, amounting to perhaps $40 billion per year, even a small percentage increase in consumer demand would reflect a large dollar amount. The report's best estimate is that producer benefits equal 10.39 times as much as the promotion costs. However, there was a wide range of uncertainty about that estimate: "We found benefit-cost ratios to be positive for all point estimates of Program activities and combinations of
activities, but some of our return measures can be measured only imprecisely." The authors reported that the true benefit-cost ratio could be anywhere from 58 to no benefit at all. They estimated a 78 percent probability that the checkoff promotions had a favorable benefit-cost ratio for producers.

The benefit for producers comes partly from an increase in the quantity demanded and partly from a modest increase in the price of pork, which of course is a harm to consumers rather than a true net gain for society. The net social benefit or loss -- reflecting the program's consequences for consumers as well as producers -- was not reported in the conclusions of the report.

The new evaluation used data for 1987 to 2005, while the previous evaluation used data from the years 1987 to 1998. For comparison, the new study broke out separate results for the earlier years. The new study estimated that in 1987 to 1998 a 10% increase in generic pork advertising would lead to a 0.18% increase in the quantity of pork consumed, less than one fifth as big an effect as had previously been estimated. The authors of the new study, commissioned by the National Pork Board from the Research Triangle Institute and North Carolina State University, said the earlier official economic evaluation had been cited in the economic literature as “a case of implausibly high promotion elasticity.”

The National Pork Board is a semi-governmental industry organization called a “checkoff” program, created by the U.S. Congress, overseen by a board appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and funded by a tax of about $60 million per year on pork producers. The board’s marketing messages are approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In a 2001 referendum, a majority of pork producers did not vote to approve the continuation of the checkoff program, but a deal between the leading pork industry trade association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture led to the program’s continuation in any case. Congress has required that checkoff programs conduct official economic evaluations every five years. The National Pork Board had widely used the more optimistic estimates from the older 2001 economic evaluation to defend the effectiveness of the pork advertising.

In 2006, the National Pork Board agreed to purchase the intellectual property rights to the “Other White Meat” brand from the pork industry’s private sector trade association, the National Pork Producers Council, for $60 million. In past reporting, U.S. Food Policy has questioned the appraisal on which that payment is based. Both the National Pork Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have refused to share details about the appraisal with U.S. Food Policy. Separately, I have petitioned USDA to stop approving the National Pork Board’s “low carb” fad weight loss diet promotion, which is inconsistent with the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The new study found that generic pork advertising had a bigger effect in reducing consumer demand for beef than it did in increasing consumer demand for pork. The report estimated that a 10% increase in generic pork advertising would lead to a 0.23% decline in consumer demand for beef, all else equal. Agricultural economists call this pattern the “beggar thy neighbor” consequence of generic commodity advertising.

The National Pork Board shared the full economic evaluation in response to my email request. I shared a draft of this post with the board for comment. Michael Wegner, the vice president of communications for the National Pork Board, forwarded a response from an economist who consults for the board. He disagreed with the post. He suggested it is misleading to report elasticities such as those reported in the lead paragraph, because they compare a percentage increase in advertising expenditure to a percentage increase in the much larger dollar value of total demand for pork. These elasticities were included among the "key results" in the executive summary of the report. He also advised that I add the figure in the second paragraph, showing that there is a 78 percent probability that the benefit-cost ratio is favorable to producers, which he described as "not bad at all." He objected to my description of the 2001 referendum, which "make it sound like this was some sort of backroom deal." Instead, he described USDA's conduct of that referendum as "ridiculous" and corrupted. Mr. Wegner added in a subsequent email that the board's public opinion polling suggests that 73 percent of producers support the checkoff program.