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Updated: 9 hours 29 min ago

What’s up with Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL)?

Wed, 05/27/2015 - 6:01am

The attack on Country-of-Origin-Labeling (COOL) is a good example of why international trade agreements require close scrutiny.

In my book What to Eat, I had this to say about COOL (among other things):

In 2002, Congress passed a law requiring Country of Origin Labeling (the apt acronym is COOL) that was to take effect in 2004.  Later, under pressure from the food industry, Congress postponed the deadline until the end of September 2006…In America, food industry opposition to COOL is just about universal.   The industry complains that tracking the origin of foods is difficult, but also would prefer that you not know how far food has traveled before it gets to you.   The Grocery Manufacturers of America, an especially vigilant trade advocacy group, called the 2002 bill “a nasty, snarly beast of a bill,” but even stronger opposition came from the meat industry.   Its lobbyists argued that COOL would be “extraordinarily costly with no discernible benefit,” but their real objection was that meat producers would have to track where animals and products come from—another sensible idea that they have long resisted.

Nevertheless, COOL was supposed to go into effect for meat in 2008 and finally did so in 2014.  In the meantime, Canada and Mexico went to the World Trade Organization to argue that COOL unfairly discriminated against meat produced in those countries.

The Hagstrom Report lists Canada’s threatened trade retaliation (if the U.S. keeps COOL, Canada will raise tariffs on these products).

The WTO agrees that Canada and Mexico have the right to do this.

Now the House has introduced a bill to repeal COOL.  The House Agriculture Committee voted for the repeal.

So much for consumers’ interest in knowing where foods come from.

I’ll be posting more about trade agreements this week and next.  Stay tuned.

Q and A: Should we eat vegetables from parched California?

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 5:39am

Q.  Marion, have you seen the NY Times article? It is about how what we eat is contributing to the CA drought. Leaves me confused. If we don’t eat these foods, the farmers will go out of business and that state will suffer. Also, it is mostly fruits, nuts and veggies mentioned. Any thoughts???        –Julie Kumar

A.  The story, in case you missed it, is summarized by its headline: “The average American consumes more than 300 gallons of California water each week by eating food that was produced there.”

California farmers produce more than a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. To do that, they use nearly 80 percent of all the water consumed in the state.

The Times also says:

Americans consume the most water by eating meat and dairy products, primarily because a lot of water is needed to grow the crops to feed the animals. Not all of this water comes from California; about half is imported in the form of crops, like corn, from the Midwest.

What to say about this?

California has a good climate for growing vegetables year-round.  What it does not have is rain.  Even in non-drought years, the rainy season is short.  California gets virtually no rain in summers when the vegetable-growing Central Valley is at its hottest.

Nevertheless, the powers that be decided long ago that money was to be made diverting water from the Sierras to promote the growth of cities (see, for example, Chinatown and any number of documentary films)—and to irrigate California farmland.

The current drought brings the greed and lack of foresight in these decisions to public attention.  California farmers have now agreed to cuts in their water allotments, but that still leaves proponents of sustainable agriculture with the dilemma described by Julie’s question:

Does it make ethical or moral sense to boycott California vegetables, nuts, and fruits as a means to encourage producers to move their businesses to wetter locations?

In the long term, it might.  I keep thinking of Iowa, which used to be the major producer of specialty crops, but which now produces corn and soybeans under industrial conditions that are ruining municipal water supplies with nitrates from their runoffs.

We need to develop agricultural policies that promote sustainable production methods and take water use, climate change, and other such matters into serious consideration.

In the meantime, you are on your own to figure out your personal method for helping California with its water problems and for encouraging such policies as quickly as possible.

California’s water problems, by the way, are anything but new.   It’s worth digging up the 1949 study by Carey McWilliams, who edited The Nation for 20 years.  His book, no surprise, focuses on the politics.

Or if you prefer a more historical approach, there’s this one from University of California Press in 2001.

Where I live, it’s suddenly summer and time for putting in tomatoes.

Weekend reading: Organic Struggle

Fri, 05/22/2015 - 8:05am

Brian K. Obach.  Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States.  MIT Press, 2015.

Here’s my blurb:

Brian Obach has written an important book for everyone who produces, buys, or considers buying organically produced foods.  This is a well-researched and utterly riveting history of the issues that unite and divide organic farmers and consumers, firmly grounded in the political context of classic social movements.   If you want to advocate for healthier and more sustainable food systems, you must read this book.

This week’s post on industry-sponsored research

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 6:18am

As promised, I am posting examples of industry-sponsored research every time I collect five.  These, like the others, produce results favorable to the sponsor’s interests.

I am happy to post examples of sponsored studies that do not favor the sponsor’s interests, and this first one comes closest.  This Unilever-sponsored study found that consuming the product had no effect on blood flow in people with high blood cholesterol levels, although it did lower their levels of LDL (the “bad” cholesterol).

The effect of a low-fat spread with added plant sterols on vascular function markers: results of the Investigating Vascular Function Effects of Plant Sterols (INVEST) study. By Rouyanne T Ras, Dagmar Fuchs, Wieneke P Koppenol, Ursula Garczarek, Arno Greyling, Christian Keicher, Carole Verhoeven, Hakim Bouzamondo, Frank Wagner, and Elke A Trautwein.  Am J Clin Nutr 2015; 101:733-741 doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.102053.

  • Conclusion: The intake of a low-fat spread with added PSs [plant sterols] neither improved nor worsened FMD [flow-mediated dilation]or other vascular function markers in hypercholesterolemic men and women. As expected, serum LDL cholesterol decreased, whereas plasma PSs increased after PS intake.
  • Sponsor: Unilever Research and Development

The next four are more typical:

Dairy proteins, dairy lipids, and postprandial lipemia in persons with abdominal obesity (DairyHealth): a 12-wk, randomized, parallel-controlled, double-blinded, diet intervention study. By Mette Bohl, Ann Bjørnshave, Kia V Rasmussen, Anne Grethe Schioldan, Bashar Amer, Mette K Larsen, Trine K Dalsgaard, Jens J Holst, Annkatrin Herrmann, Sadhbh O’Neill, Lorraine O’Driscoll, Lydia Afman, Erik Jensen, Merete M Christensen, Søren Gregersen, and Kjeld Hermansen.  Am J Clin Nutr 2015; 101:870-878 doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.097923

  • Conclusion:  We found that a whey protein supplement decreased the postprandial chylomicron response compared with casein in persons with abdominal obesity, thereby indicating a beneficial impact on CVD risk.
  • Sponsor: Arla Foods Ingredients Group P/S, and the Danish Dairy Research Foundation, among some independent sources.

Policy Statement: Snacks, Sweetened Beverages, Added Sugars, and Schools. Council on School Health, Committee on Nutrition, American Academy of Pediatrics.  Pediatrics Volume 135, number 3, March 2015.

  • Conclusion: A positive emphasis on nutritional value, variety, appropriate portion, and encouragement for a steady improvement in quality will be a more effective approach for improving nutrition and health than simply advocating for the elimination of added sugars.
  • Conflicts reported: One of the members of the committee writing this statement is supported by the National Dairy Council and the American Dairy Association.  Another receives support from the Nestle Nutrition Institute.

Maternal long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid [omega-3] supplementation in infancy increases length- and weight-for-age but not BMI to 6 years when controlling for effects of maternal smoking. L.M. Currie, E.A. Tolley, J.M. Thodosoff, E.H. Kerling, D.K. Sullivan, J. Colombo, and S.E. Carlson . Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 2015.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j. plefa.2015.04.001

  • Conclusion: Our results… suggest that LCPUFA [omega-3s] could have positive effects on stature without negative effects on weight status; and that LCPUFA could mitigate lower stature and higher BMI associated with maternal smoking, particularly in boys.
  • Sponsor: Mead Johnson Nutrition, the maker of the LCPUFA omega-3 supplement

Mediterranean Diet and Age-Related Cognitive Decline:  A randomized Clinical Trial. Cinta Valls-Pedret, MSc; Aleix Sala-Vila, DPharm, PhD; Mercè Serra-Mir, RD; et al.  JAMA Intern Med. Published online May 11, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.1668.

  • Conclusion: In an older population, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts is associated with improved cognitive function.
  • Conflicts reported: Dr Salas-Salvado reports receiving research funding and is a nonpaid member of the scientific advisory committee of the International Nut Council. Dr Ros also reports receiving research funding and is a nonpaid member of the scientific advisory committee of the California Walnut Commission.

Let me comment on this last one, which may seem like pushing things, given that the study itself was funded by the agency for biomedical research of the Spanish government.  I would have left it off this list had I not read an article about it in the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal interviewed Dr. Ros, the lead author:

The diminished decline in cognitive function likely stems from the abundance of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents found in the supplemental foods…He recommends that, to decrease age-related cognitive delay, people should add 5 tablespoons of olive oil as a well as a handful of nuts a day into their diet.

But the Journal also interviewed a clinical neuropsychologist who was not involved in the study:

The changes observed in cognition were very small and didn’t actually show that those diets improved cognition, they just showed less decline. Based on the research…people shouldn’t rush out to buy lots of olive oil and nuts.

My point here is that the sole purpose of this study was to prove the health benefits of olive oil and nuts.  Yes, these are healthy foods, but so are many others.  Like virtually all such studies, this one seems designed to produce the desired answer.

On his Weighty Matters blog, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff explains how biases play out in supposedly unbiased research journals, in this case, the British Journal of Sports Medicine.  Dr. Freedhoff talks about the journal’s temporary withdrawal of a paper arguing that diet is more important than physical activity in weight loss on the grounds that the authors did not disclose conflicts of interest.  In contrast, an editorial arguing the opposite, by authors who also did not disclose conflicts, went unchallenged and was not withdrawn.

Dr. Freedhoff asks: “Are these sorts of conflicts important to disclose?”

On the basis of today’s and many other examples, my answer is an unqualified yes.

Case study on why regulation matters: salt reduction in the UK

Wed, 05/20/2015 - 5:30am

Thanks to Courtney Scott, a doctoral student at University of North Carolina, for sending me this account of the fate of Britain’s salt reduction strategies, published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal).

The lead author on the article is Dr. Graham MacGregor, Britain’s leading advocate for diets lower in salt.  It is about the derailing of Britain’s remarkable successful salt reduction strategy.

Under the auspices of Britain’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), the salt reduction program initiated in the early 2000s—getting companies to slowly but steadily reduce the salt in their products—was working well.

Most impressive: salt intake, blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke declined in parallel with the decline in salt in the food supply.

But in 2010, Britain elected a more conservative government.

Andrew Lansley was appointed secretary of state for health, and he moved the responsibility for nutrition from the FSA to the Department of Health. This disrupted the salt reduction programme, making it unclear who would be responsible for the policy. In 2011 Lansley launched the responsibility deal, whereby he made the alcohol and food industries responsible for reducing alcohol consumption and improving nutrition, respectively. As a result, salt reduction lost momentum.

The key points of the article:

  • Most of the foods that industry currently provide are very high in salt, fat, and sugars and are therefore more likely to cause cardiovascular disease and predispose to cancer than healthier alternatives.

  • The UK’s salt reduction programme…led to a significant reduction in population salt intake, accompanied by reductions in blood pressure and cardiovascular mortality.

  • The programme has been set back by the coalition government’s decision to hand power back to the food industry as part of the responsibility deal.

  • An independent agency for nutrition with a transparent monitoring programme is urgently needed to improve the food that we eat.

As I’ve explained previously, most salt—80% or more—in American diets is already in processed and prepared foods when they are presented to us.  That’s where the salt reduction has to come from.  As the authors explain,

Members of the food industry have said that they are keen to reformulate their foods to make them healthier. All they require is to be on a “level playing field” with the other major companies, so that they can make their foods healthier in a structured, incremental way. They need to be assured that there are proper reporting mechanisms in place and that all of the companies are being monitored equally. Enforcement is required, and if it doesn’t work, regulation or legislation must be enacted.

The debates over salt may be the most contentious in the field of nutrition (as the Washington Post puts it), but the parallels between the British decline in salt intake and in salt-related disease are impressive.

On a population basis, eating less salt is healthier.

This is something you can’t easily do on your own.  The food industry has to do it.  And food companies don’t want to, for obvious reasons.

Hence: the need for regulation.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines: the saga continues

Tue, 05/19/2015 - 5:39am

I am indebted to Pro Politico Morning Agriculture for this tidbit:

HOUSE AG COMMITTEE PRIES INTO DGAC COMMENT REVIEW: The chairman and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee have requested that the USDA and HHS supply an accounting of how they intend to review the more than 29,000 public comments on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s report, as well as an accounting of the staff maneuvering that’s been required to review those thousands of comments in a timely manner.

In a letter sent by Reps. Michael Conaway and Collin Peterson, the committee has also requested more information on whether the departments will be able to deliver the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans document by the end of the year, as originally intended.

“Have you reconsidered that goal given the overwhelming number of comments that now need to be reviewed,” the letter states. “If not, do you intend to incorporate the review of the 29,000+ comments received into this work product, and how do you intend to complete that process?” You can read the full letter, which the lawmakers expect a response to by June 10, here: http://1.usa.gov/1EJcrSM

OK.  Let’s review the process here.

  • Congress, in its infinite wisdom, wants the Dietary  Guidelines reviewed and redone every five years.
  • We’ve had Dietary Guidelines every five years since 1980.  Their basic messages have not changed much.
  • The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) reviewed the research and issued a lengthy report.
  • The report was released for public comment.  More than 29,000 comments came in.
  • Now the agencies—USDA and HHS—must deal with the comments are write the actual Dietary Guidelines.

Until 2005, the DGACs wrote the actual guidelines with minimal editing from the agencies.  That was certainly how it worked in 1995 when I was on that committee.

We did the research and wrote guidelines based on that research.  The agencies published them pretty much as we wrote them.

That changed in 2005 under the Bush II administration.

By now, nutrition advice has become so politicized that the public—from individual consumers to corporations—has a say in them.

Which method helps the public eat healthier diets?

You decide.

I withholding judgment until I see how the agencies extract guidelines from the 650-page DGAC report and its 29,000 comments.

I’m guessing that after all this fuss, the guidelines will still basically say:

  • Healthy diets are based largely on foods from plant sources (eat your veggies)
  • Don’t eat too much sugar, salt, or saturated fat (avoid junk food)
  • Don’t gain excess weight if you can avoid it (balance calories)

Good advice.  Too bad that following it does not increase profits for the food industry.

The American Beverage Association’s latest anti-obesity effort?

Mon, 05/18/2015 - 5:24am

It’s tough to be a soda company these days, what will sales of both sugary and diet drinks falling steadily.  Hence, this May 15 press release:

Alliance for a Healthier Generation and America’s Beverage Companies Start Work In Los Angeles Area Neighborhoods As Part of Community Initiative To Help Reduce Beverage Calories Consumed 

(LOS ANGELES) –The Alliance for a Healthier Generation and America’s beverage companies announced today that work will begin in four Los Angeles area communities as part of a highly focused initiative to help reduce beverage calories consumed by 20 percent per person by 2025 in neighborhoods where there has been less interest in or access to lower-calorie and smaller-portion beverages.

…The beverage companies will utilize a range of marketplace activities in these neighborhoods in an effort to help people reduce their calories, such as making lower-calorie and smaller-portion beverages more available in stores, providing incentives for consumers to try these options and displaying new calorie awareness messages at points of sale. These activities will allow companies to test and learn in order to develop the best practices that can be implemented elsewhere.

Here’s what people in these neighborhoods will see:

The press release says nothing about:

  • Less marketing targeted to African- and Hispanic-Americans
  • Less marketing targeted to low-income children and adolescents

Is this public relations or something meaningful?  I’m skeptical but do try to stay open-minded about such things.

Let’s wait and see how this plays out.

Weekend reading: Barry Estabrook’s Pig Tales

Fri, 05/15/2015 - 5:55am

Barry Estabrook.  Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat.  WW Norton, 2015.

I was happy to be asked to blurb this one.  It’s a great read:

Estabrook tells two powerful stories here.  The first is about the appalling ways in which Big Pig raises animals, pollutes the environment, and uses the political system to avoid and fight regulation.  The second is about how skilled animal husbandry and respect for the intelligence of pigs produces calmer animals, more delicious meat, and a far more satisfying life for farmers and pigs alike.  Pig Tales is beautifully written.  It is also deeply touching.

Milan Food Expo: A highly preliminary assessment

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 4:55am

Throughout my travels in Italy the last couple of weeks, I was constantly asked for an assessment of the Milan Food Expo.

My answer: it’s too early to tell.  It’s only been open for two weeks and has lots more to do between now and the end of October.

In my posts on the Expo, I’ve talked about the logistics and a few of the pavilions.

But what about the overall content and take-home messages?  Expos are trade fairs, but this one is about feeding the planet—adequately and sustainably.

The U.S. Pavilion carries out this theme:

Most countries created exhibits based on these themes.  Many displayed vegetable gardens in raised beds or, in the case of the US pavilion, on a long, undulating wall.

It’s useful to start with the United Nations’ Zero Hunger Pavilion.  Its gigantic ticker-tape display tells you the price of food commodities throughout the world in real time.

The scrolling messages in English and Italian:

  • The food sector: reality vs. abstraction.
  • Extreme price volatility is a threat to food security.
  • The gap between supply and demand is mainly caused by increasing food consumption, climate variability, expansion of agro-energy production, and financial speculation.
  • Lack of transparency and profits for a few speculators intensify inequality in food distribution.
  • New rules are needed for agricultural governance.

Like most of the exhibits, this one states the problems and says what is needed to solve them.  But it leaves it up to you to figure out how to set or obtain the new rules for agricultural governance.

My view from this brief visit: The very existence of Milan Food Expo 2025 is a strong statement that food issues are worthy of serious public attention, worldwide.

For that alone, it succeeds magnificently.