Thursday, December 29, 2005

Mandatory labeling of trans fat begins

Happy New Year, food consumers! The Food and Drug Administration begins on Jan 1, 2006, to require food manufacturers to list trans fat on their "Nutrition Facts" panels.

Many manufacturers have already begun to report the amount of trans fat, which increases the risk of heart disease much as saturated fats do. Trans fats are found in baked goods, french fries, and hydrogenated vegetable oils. To a smaller extent, these fats also occur naturally in meat and dairy products. Leading scientific panels have encouraged consumers to select products with as little trans fat as possible.

The Food and Drug Administration has bent over backwards to act deliberately -- even slowly -- and to make sure that this decision is economically sound. The law that authorized the agency to add new lines to the nutrition Facts panel dates to 1990, and a citizen petition demanding the listing of trans fat dates to the early 1990s. A draft rule was published in 1999, and the final rule in July 2003 gave manufacture another 2-3 years to comply. The agency recently offered to let many companies delay implementation for a reasonable period after January 1, just to make sure they can use up their existing stocks of food labels and avoid needless duplicate printing costs.

The agency's analysis of costs and benefits, published in the Federal Register, is exhaustive. In such studies, seemingly minor changes in the assumptions can sometimes lead to major changes in conclusions, but this rule was not a close call. The agency estimates that even a small reduction in consumption of trans fats would prevent 600 to 1200 heart attacks per year, and save 200 to 480 lives per year. The economic savings over several years (discounted to present value) would be $900 million to $1.8 billion each year. By contrast, even when you sum all the testing, labeling, and product reformulation costs, the total is about $140 million to $250 million one time only.

The policy is very respectful of first amendment issues and consumer sovereignty. Rather than banning trans fat, FDA merely requires that consumers be provided with the information they need to make their own best choice. Judging by the response of leading food manufacturers, such as Kraft, the food giants suspect that consumers very much want to protect their health and avoid trans fat.

In the new label, there is no daily value for trans fat, because there is no recommended level -- better to avoid these fats whenever feasible. FDA considered requiring a footnote saying that health experts recommend "as little as possible," but the agency responded mercifully to industry complaints about this language. The best way to use the label is to add the value for trans fats to the value for saturated fats in your head, and compare that sum to the daily value.

The most important shortcoming of the current rule is that it doesn't apply to restaurant chains -- who use gobs of trans fat in their fried foods.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

"Move more, eat less"

On an exam question this month, I asked students to describe ways that the new food guidance illustration, MyPyramid, graphically encourages physical activity (easy -- the graphic has a person walking up steps along the side of the Pyramid). I also asked students to describe ways that the illustration encourages moderation in food intake (this is more difficult -- one might talk about how the widths of the colored triangles favor foods with lower caloric density).

One student wrote with great confidence that the graphic communicated the caloric moderation message clearly through the words "Move more, eat less." Wow, I thought. Does it really say that? I searched on the MyPyramid site using the key words "eat less," and got the following message:
Results for: "eat less"

No results were found for your search.

Your query is too restrictive.

A quick Google search shows that this motto actually is sometimes used by the healthy living program, America on the Move.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Guest blogging at Calorie Counter News

In addition to writing here, I am guest blogging for about three weeks at Calorie Counter News. Mark has also invited a couple fine writers to contribute while he is away: PastaQueen of Half of Me and Tanya Taylor of I Ate a Pie. Make a visit.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

He has filled the hungry with good things!

Here's a tract so radical that I am astonished it survives in the current political environment. The traditional reading in the Christian tradition for today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, is Mary's song of praise:
And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.... He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away."
How long has this crazy mumbo-jumbo been around? It certainly didn't start with Mary. She was inspired by the Israelite heroine Hannah.
Hannah also prayed and said, "My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in the LORD.... Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.... The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor."
Happy holy days to you and your family.

Becker and Posner on obesity and junk food advertising for children

The Becker-Posner Blog, a leading economics weblog by University of Chicago Nobelists Gary Becker and Richard Posner, tackles the obesity epidemic this week. The authors had just read the new Institute of Medicine report criticizing junk food advertising for children. As one might expect from these writers, they point out that much of the economic burden of obesity is carried by the overweight persons themselves, so the writers suggest there is little grounds for a government response.

I encourage Becker and Posner to reconsider their view with an open mind. They point out that there is only a comparatively weak "externality" argument for government interest in this problem (although one could talk about how many Americans share the same risk pools, due to medical insurance). However, the market failure that motivates a sensible government response to the obesity epidemic is an information failure. Just for starters, see here for a discussion of nutrition disclosure in restaurants, and here for a discussion of government communication about diet, health, and obesity. Because the federal government actively promotes advertising campaigns to get people to eat more beef, pork, and cheese, at a cost of several hundred million dollars each year, it would be far too timid to suggest that a laissez-faire response will suffice. Policy reform is required.

Still, I enjoyed the exchange of views. Gary Becker criticizes the IOM report:
Some persons at the Institute of Medicine went further and raised the prospect of possible Congressional regulation of TV ads oriented toward children, even though, as we will see, the evidence provided by the report is weak and not persuasive....

If children nowadays are heavier because they are less physically active than they used to be, or because their parents find fast food cheap and convenient, it is difficult to see how advertising by food and beverage companies are to blame. And despite the hype the study received, the Institute of Medicine's report on obesity and advertising did not present any convincing evidence that television advertising oriented toward children has been responsible for the increase in children's obesity during the past quarter century.
Posner adds:

Not only would banning television advertising of fattening foods on programs oriented to children and teenagers not reduce obesity, but it might increase it. To the extent that, as Becker suggests, such advertising has a much greater effect on brand shares than on aggregate demand for the products, the advertisers as a whole might be better off if forbidden to advertise. With higher profits, and an important form of nonprice competition eliminated, advertisers might compete more on price, resulting in lower prices to consumers and therefore greater competition.
Both posts generated a wealth of comments on the Becker-Posner Blog, including some comments from leading writers on these topics. The authors respond today. Becker suggests one more provocative explanation for the obesity epidemic:

One reasons seldom mentioned as a general factor partly behind the rise in obesity is the expectation that new drugs will greatly reduce the adverse consequences of being obese. I am not claiming that many teenagers are conscious of this consideration. However, any one who has observed the development of blood pressure and cholesterol lowering drugs during the past few decades can rationally believe that in twenty years or so still newer drugs that control diabetes and other diseases will be developed. Then for anyone who likes to eat sugary and fat foods, it does not seem so irrational to do so when the consequences will be much less harmful to health than they are at present.
Seems far-fetched, but clearly reflects the imagination of a true blue economist.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Hong Kong WTO trade talks near failure

With tear gas in the streets and little substantial progress in the halls where trade talks are held, the WTO negotiations in Hong Kong look like a failure (see the report by Keith Bradsher in tomorrow's New York Times).

Important provisions sought by the United States were not included in the draft. The agreement did not set a clear date for an end to most subsidies for agricultural exports and did not require countries to lower their tariffs on farm goods....

Before the talks, [United States trade representative Rob] Portman persuaded Congress to support an offer of deep cuts in American farm subsidies and the lifting of many barriers to agricultural imports. He promised to seek corresponding cuts from other countries, and especially from the European Union....

"The business community was encouraged by Portman's offer on agriculture, and the Congress accepted that on the understanding that he would bring back an agreement of corresponding value," said Thomas J. Donahue, the president and chief executive of the United States Chamber of Commerce....

Inside the hall, many ministers from developing countries voiced unhappiness that the European Union had not agreed to set a date for the elimination of export subsidies, despite an international agreement in July 2004 to phase them out.

The draft text set two possible dates for eliminating farm export subsidies: either 2010, or five years after a global trade agreement begins. Such an agreement could be far away, given the pace of negotiations, trade specialists warned. Leaders of the European Union agreed on Friday to a budget that maintains farm subsidies through 2013 at more than double American levels.

Export subsidies help rich countries sell food in poor countries, depressing income that some of the world's poorest people get when they sell in local markets the food they produce. "For them, an end date is absolutely essential," said Foreign Minister Celso Amorin of Brazil.

European Union officials vowed not to accept a deadline of 2010 and complained that not enough had been done on services.

This failure may well mean that farmers in developing countries face another decade of striving in vain against the blasting current of subsidized American and European grain, which washes their markets away like a flood. Weblogger (and soon-to-be Fletcher School faculty colleague at Tufts) Daniel Drezner provides a first-hand account of being in lockdown in Hong Kong, and also refers readers to this "link-rich post" from the weblog Simon's World for the latest news.

Feast of Babulu Aye, December 17

In Cuban tradition, today's feast of San Lazaro also honors Babalu Aye, the being who protects against fearsome diseases. He is honored with African drumming and special offertory food. Anderson Allen has a charming report yesterday for Public Radio International's program The World (link here for the audio), about the song "Babalu." This song became famous in the United States through the television show "I Love Lucy," but it actually has a rich Cuban tradition. Anderson is a Washington, DC, area musician -- especially a Cuban drummer -- and an old friend from a group house on P Street in the early 1990s, where we cooked communally and hence shared many dozen a vegetarian meal together.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Are religious conservatives complacent about poverty and hunger?

According to Jim Wallis of Sojourners, in a Washington Post article today, conservative religious leaders "have agreed to support cutting food stamps for poor people if Republicans support them on judicial nominees.... They are trading the lives of poor people for their agenda. They're being, and this is the worst insult, unbiblical."

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

High dairy intake is linked to prostate cancer

High levels of dairy and calcium consumption are associated with increased risk of prostate cancer, according to research published this month in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The authors, Xiang Gao, Michael LaValley, and Katherine Tucker used data from the the best already existing prospective scientific analyses. The research was part of Xiang Gao's recently completed dissertation (I served on his Ph.D. committee and discussed one of the other papers from the dissertation here).
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommends that Americans increase their intake of dairy products. However, some studies have reported that increasing dairy product intake is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer. We conducted a meta-analysis to examine associations between intakes of calcium and dairy products and the risk of prostate cancer.... High intake of dairy products and calcium may be associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer, although the increase appears to be small.
The authors place these results in the context of the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommended increased dairy intake. That new recommendation was controversial, in part because of the possible link between dairy and prostate cancer (see Newsweek, for example, which quoted Harvard's Walter Willett raising these concerns). This dairy and prostate cancer connection motivated an earlier satirical advertising campaign by animal rights groups, featuring former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani without his permission, along with the slogan, "Got Prostate Cancer?." The federal government heavily promotes dairy through checkoff advertising programs, which make no effort to provide balance about the respective advantages and disadvantages of the advertised products.

The new research by the Tufts researchers received extensive press coverage this month (see WebMD and ABC's affiliate).

Marketplace commentary on food stamps

Josh Miner offers an eccentric but interesting opinion piece on Marketplace today about food stamps, commodity programs, and nutrition subsidies. After some rough introductory comments at the expense of food stamp recipients, his main policy proposal is to reduce field crop supports and replace them with a subsidy for healthy food.

Congress nears vote on cutting food stamps

It's a democracy. Speak up!

Perhaps you think this December would be the wrong time for cutting food stamps (even a modest cut). Or, perhaps you are a fiscal conservative who believes such a cut is essential for prudent government. Or, maybe you favor these cuts because you feel that legal immigrants do not deserve protection from hunger. Or, perhaps you want Congress to implement these cuts in order to have more money left to finance a tax cut for yourself. Don't let me tell you WHAT to think or what to say.

Do let me tell you that NOW is the time to think it and say it. Congress expects to finalize the current reconciliation bill before the holiday recess. The Coalition on Human Needs provides a menu of actions to take, including a free telephone line to Congress this week only, if you want your view to be heard.

Monday, December 12, 2005

GAO encourages better transparency in livestock price reporting

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) this week recommended (.pdf) that USDA "improve the transparency of its market news reports [for the beef and pork industries], and its auditing of packers' transactions."

Consumers and farmers both lose when meat packers can behave oligopolistically and anti-competitively. Frequently, in a particular market for beef or pork, there will be many farmers and many consumers, but only a small number of packers in the middle. Through a variety of anti-competitive practices, these intermediate players can pay the farmers a low price, charge the consumers a high price, and maintain higher profits for themselves. Sometimes, the farmers trade with a particular packer because they do not have the information they need about the prices that alternative packers are offering.

One of the best remedies, without heavy-handed government intervention, is simply to ensure that the farmers have complete and timely information about the prices that diverse packers are offering. With such information, farmers can make the packers compete against each other for the farmers' product. There is a federal law requiring packers to provide price information, but GAO this week found fault with the resulting USDA reports. GAO also pointed out that USDA responsibilities in this area are fragmented between two USDA agencies, which do not always work together successfully to ensure competitive markets.

MiPiramide -- Federal dietary guidance in Spanish

Jessica Gresko of the Associated Press describes USDA's publication this week of MiPiramide, the Spanish language version of the department's popular pyramid-shaped dietary guidance graphic:
MIAMI – Alarmed by the high rate of obesity among Hispanics, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a Spanish translation Wednesday of the food pyramid, the government's handy guide to good nutrition.

"MiPiramide: Pasos Hacia Una Mejor Salud" is the counterpart to the USDA's "MyPyramid: Steps to a Healthier You." Among other things, "grains" have become "granos," and "meat and beans" are "carnes y frijoles" on the diagram of the major food groups.

The nation's Hispanic population is booming, and almost three out of every four Hispanic adults in the U.S. are overweight, according to a 2002 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Two out of three U.S. adults overall are overweight.

"Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, especially in children and adolescents. Those statistics are even more alarming among Latin populations," Roberto Salazar, administrator for the USDA's food and nutrition service, said in Spanish at a news conference.

Tufts report questions whether farm programs do any good for farmers

The Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts University this month released a new report by Timothy Wise, Identifying the Real Winners from U.S. Agricultural Policies.

Who are the real winners from U.S. agricultural policies? It may not be the farmers who receive the billions of dollars in annual farm subsidies.

There is little evidence that farmers as a group are reaping significant gains from current U.S. agricultural subsidy programs, even though they are the direct recipients. Low prices and high costs have left farmers with stagnant or declining net farm incomes. Furthermore, there is little conclusive evidence that the removal of U.S. subsidy payments would significantly reduce production or raise prices, though there is significant disagreement on this point. There is wider agreement that U.S. farm policies contribute significantly to depressed prices for agricultural commodities. Among the beneficiaries of those low prices are the consumers of U.S. grains and oilseeds, among them the concentrated animal feeding operations that now dominate the U.S. livestock industry. These industrial operations get feed that is generally sold at below farmers’ costs of production.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Accidental Hedonist calls for weblog nominations

The "Best Food Weblog" award program at Accidental Hedonist has several categories. For example, one category will honor weblogs that cover the food industry. Barbara from Tigers and Strawberries and Jack from Fork & Bottle both nominated U.S. Food Policy in this category.

Elise nominated Life Begins @ 30, which tackled local food issues with an engaging campaign last summer. I don't know if Accidental Hedonist and Calorie Lab are excluded from eligibility, due to their role in hosting the awards, but these are both important relevant weblogs. I also like Fast Food Facts. Tom Philpott's Bitter Greens Journal would be a good choice, but it has been dormant, as Philpott has an even more interesting gig writing for Grist.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

National Academies release report on Food Marketing to Children and Youth

Congress should enact legislation mandating a shift in the emphasis of advertising for children, away from high-calorie low-nutrient food and beverages and toward more healthful alternatives, the Institute of Medicine advised today.

In its new report, entitled Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity, the highly esteemed panel of the National Academies recommended this unprecedented Congressional action, unless the same change in advertising emphasis is accomplished voluntarily without legislation.
If voluntary efforts related to advertising during children's television programming are unsuccessful in shifting the emphasis away from high-calorie and low-nutrient foods and beverages to the advertising of healthful food and beverages, Congress should enact legislation mandating the shift on both broadcast and cable television.
This striking recommendation is rather buried in the new report, and it stands somewhat in contrast to the mild tone and emphasis on public-private partnership in much of the report. The document is available for free online.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Journal editor reminds Zemel to disclose dairy weight loss patents

The International Journal of Obesity published a sharply-worded letter from the editor in November, reminding Dr. Michael Zemel that the journal requires its authors to report any conflicts of interest.
The Editor confirmed Dr Zemel's patents and patent applications and requested of him that in any future submissions to IJO, their presence be noted.
Dr. Zemel is the author of a diet book, The Calcium Key, and holder of a patent on dairy weight loss claims, along with several additional related patent applications. In a letter to the Journal, DS Kalman had written to observe that recent research in the same journal had not corroborated some of the dairy weight loss claims, and to question the non-disclosure of Zemel's patents.
Finally, it is disheartening that Dr Zemel did not reveal in this paper that he has one United States Patent granted for calcium as a weight loss agent (see 'Materials and methods for the treatment of obesity') and eight more pending United States Patent Applications. All of these patents and patent pending 'inventions' are for calcium as a weight loss/fat loss aid either through food or dietary supplements in addition to a plan for how to promote calcium consumption for weight loss. While obtaining patents or applying for patents is not wrong, the lack of disclosure of the possible conflict of interest should be reported to the readers. Given the concerns expressed above, it may be premature to accept the theory of calcium as a weight modifier.
Zemel's patent is quite bold. It claims intellectual property rights on a method for achieving weight loss by -- hold your breath for the novel technology -- administering milk.
The subject invention provides methods of inducing the loss of adipose tissue by providing a diet high in calcium. In one aspect of the invention, the calcium is provided in the form of dairy products. In yet another aspect of the invention, calcium is provided in the form of a dietary supplement, such as calcium carbonate, of vitamin supplements.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, commissioned by the federal government to assess the current state of scientific evidence on nutrition issues for purposes of dietary guidance policy, considered and declined to endorse the dairy weight loss message. Yet, the federal government's checkoff advertising campaigns rely on these weight loss claims as a central marketing theme.

House and Senate disagree on food stamp cuts

Legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on November 18 would cut $700 million from the Food Stamp Program over five years, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported today based on analysis conducted by the Congressional Budget Office. If corresponding language is accepted by the Senate and signed by the President, it will cut off about 255,000 otherwise-eligible people from participation in the nation's largest anti-hunger program.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

John Brown's Body: "Bread"

Some of my happiest musical moments in the past decade have been listening to, of all things, the upstate New York Reggae band, John Brown's Body. My concert-going time was limited for a couple years until child #2 turned three years old this summer, but now we have been having a lot of fun again introducing the kids to our favorite music. We took the family to the Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance in Trumansburg in July, where John Brown's' Body played delightful headline sets on their own and with the Meditations. We will go again this coming year.

The homespun soldier's song that inspired the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the original "John Brown's Body" is on the playlist at my untalented but enjoyable nightly bedtime singing sessions with my kids. You might think that's morbid, but consider the competition -- all of the more typical children's songs on the playlist are also about death anyway. Rock-a-bye Baby, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Freight Train, the Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night, Cockles and Mussels, and dozens more. The title, "John Brown's Body," makes a witty name for an upstate New York Reggae band, given the abolitionist's political message, the song's history, and the fact that Brown's corpse actually is buried in upstate New York.

Why write about this in U.S. Food Policy? I occasionally write about related music and songs, and hope to do more. Today's occasion was simply that my foot was tapping as I worked to the song "Bread" from the band's latest album, Pressure Points: "Oh, the people they must all eat bread!"

2006 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference

The 2006 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) will take place February 26-28, 2006 at the Washington Court Hotel in Washington, DC.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

After fierce debate: WIC still works

The Fall 2005 issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management has a great debate over WIC.

Ted Joyce, Diane Gibson, and Silvie Colman argue provocatively that previous research exaggerated the effectiveness of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. They have great data, from 800,000 births to women on Medicaid in New York City, over many years. But their interpretation is unusual. They find -- as most studies do -- that the children born to women on WIC appear heavier and less likely to be underweight than children born to seemingly comparable women not on WIC. Nevertheless, they tie themselves into knots trying to cast doubt on what is at least one leading explanation for this finding -- that WIC makes for healthier new babies.

Their doubt stems from their belief -- really, an assumption -- that WIC could not possibly affect the length of the pregnancy and the chance that the mother carries the baby to full term. Under their assumption, it makes sense to control for gestational age in seeking to assess the effect of the WIC program. Their regression analyses that do control for gestational age fail to find that WIC is effective. Hence, they doubt that WIC is effective.

In a rebuttal in the same issue, Janet Currie and Marianne Bitler (whose previous work on WIC we reviewed here), argue that Joyce and his colleagues were wrong to reject the possibility that WIC influences the length of the pregnancy. The data certainly seem to indicate that WIC does have such an effect, and moreover, this effect seems plausible based on the array of services that WIC provides.

I know this question about whether to control for gestational age may seem arcane. Think of it this way. If Joyce and colleagues are right, it makes sense to investigate whether WIC women who give birth at 38 weeks have heavier babies than non-WIC women who give birth at 38 weeks. On the other hand, if Currie and Bitler are right, one might find that WIC women tend to have pregnancies 40 weeks long and heavier babies, while non-WIC women tend to have pregnancies 38 weeks long and lighter babies. If WIC may in principle affect the length of the pregnancy, as seems reasonable, then Currie and Bitler seem to have the stronger case.

The debate is so heated that the journal took the unusual step of inviting a third, neutral commentary by two competent social scientists who are not WIC experts, Jens Ludwig and Matthew Miller. As writers, these two are more more polite and less frank than Currie and Bitler. But they agree with Currie and Bitler: "Our reading of the medical literature suggests that there is no conceptual or theoretical reason why the bundle of services provided by WIC could not affect preterm birth rates."

As far as I could tell, none of the three papers sufficiently acknowledged that this debate has all been hashed out previously, as well. In a 1998 book, Feeding the Poor, noted program evaluation expert Peter Rossi rather criticized WIC on much the same grounds as Joyce and colleagues. But, generously, Rossi gave space to Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for his characteristically lucid response: "Rossi accords too much significance to the fact that findings of WIC's effects in improving birthweight appear to be lessened when one controls for gestational age. The problem here is that controlling for gestational age necessarily understates WIC's effects on birth outcomes."

It is in many ways too bad that the federal government has not supported the clearest type of (ethical!) random-assignment research on WIC. Still, the solid conclusion of all these debates over the non-experimental evidence on birth outcomes is, as always, that WIC works.

Two postscripts. First, related to the question of ethical random-assignment studies, see the interesting discussion in the same issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management -- a very tough ethical critique of current practice by Jan Blustein, and rebuttals by Peter Schochet at Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., and others. My own conclusion is that researchers should read Blustein attentively, and then instead of giving up, seek to use ethical random-assignment research designs whenever possible.

Second, let me boast a bit about my department's history on WIC. At President Nixon's White House Conference on Nutrition in 1969, the chair (and later Tufts University president) Jean Mayer and a colleague Stanley Gershoff (later the first dean of the Friedman School when Mayer was university president) were involved in the discussions that led to the formation of the WIC program in the early 1970s. Current dean Eileen Kennedy also did substantial research on WIC. In the 1980s, David Rush (now emeritus at the Friedman School at Tufts) led the major National WIC Evaluation -- including overseeing the private publication of the unedited conclusions in a special supplement to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1988 after the Reagan administration edited and censored the original favorable conclusions about the effectiveness of WIC.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Local food for Thanksgiving

Dan Barber's op-ed today for the New York Times lays out the interesting case for supporting mid-sized American farms, in preference to large corporate farms (of course) and small farms (surprisingly). With a Thanksgiving turkey hook:

THIS Thanksgiving there's something to be really thankful for: more and more Americans - at least 250,000 of them in New York alone this week - are shopping for their turkeys and sweet potatoes at local farmers' markets.

They're doing so because the food is fresher, less processed and generally tastes better than what you'd find in a supermarket. But there are also political and social considerations: supporting small farmers, these shoppers believe, will preserve farmland, reduce the number of industrial farms and help us move away from an agricultural economy that encourages the production of commodities like corn, soy and sugar at the expense of just about everything else.

Thanks to Jack from Fork & Bottle for the link.

In our home, I am looking forward to cooking the turkey, stuffing, and gravy for the whole extended family tomorrow, while my wife runs in Somerville's 4 mile "Gobble, gobble, gobble" race -- perhaps in the snow! Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

McDonald's nutrition labels

McDonald's Corporation announced in October that it would begin printing nutrition facts information on food packages (see Associated Press). Facing a number of legal challenges, and long a focus of public interest group attention, the leading fast food company now does better than any of its major competitors in sharing detailed information about its products with consumers.

Some public interest groups are still pressing the company to put calorie information on its menu boards. Michele Simon, who publishes the Informed Eating newsletter, recently noted in an AlterNet column that the labels on food packages will not be read until after purchase -- which one might think is too late.
Upon closer inspection, the move is a thinly veiled attempt at deflecting government intervention that could have even greater impact. How effective is seeing the calories on the wrapper of a cheeseburger you've already purchased?
Still, most McDonald's patrons are repeat customers, and by choosing an accessible format for the key nutrition information, the company has really taken a fascinating step forward. Far from criticizing, I'm saving my ammunition for a post on the (likely but not certain) forthcoming occasion of the removal of this information.

Much of the information has already been available at somewhat greater distance from the point of sale. CalorieLab, for example, provides an accessible summary of the restaurant chain's nutrition facts. The publishers of the Fast Food Facts weblog also link to nutrition information for McDonald's and other companies that make these facts public.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

AAEA president Per Pinstrup-Andersen shouts for justice from a high podium

In his presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Agricultural Economics Association (AAEA) in Providence last July, Cornell professor Per Pinstrup-Andersen began with almost half an hour of scholarly discourse on the role of ethics in economic analysis. Bentham. Aristotle. The first law of welfare economics. Stigler. Comparing utility across people. And so on.

He never increased the cadence or raised the volume of his gently accented European voice.

I laugh to imagine a poor audience member, whose mind wandered in this early discussion, returning to focus on his quiet voice some time later, realizing with a shock that the words themselves were by this time shouting and yelling.

The point of the early discussion was to shake a large ballroom full of economists out of their complacency about the moral inadequacy of their usual discourse. Slowly and methodically, Pinstrup-Andersen knocked one leg after another out from under the table holding the usual banquet of apologies and excuses for government inaction against the world's greatest injustices.

By the time his words started pushing a little harder, Pinstrup-Andersen, who for many years led the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, was quoting statistics about child hunger around the world:
6 million of the 10 million child deaths could be avoided by known interventions in each of 42 countries at a recurrent annual cost of ... $1.23 per person in these countries. Could the richest 10% of the populations of these countries afford to pay $12.30 annually without sacrificing anything of comparable moral or material significance? Of course. Do they? No.
By the time his words really got shouting, Pinstrup-Andersen was asking whether there is any moral difference between killing 6 million children and standing by idly while 6 million children die.
Is it genocide when millions of children die because of neglect by the state? Is failure by governments to take action as promised on various occasions, a crime against humanity? Not according to the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. The terms "genocide" and "crime against humanity" apply only when certain acts are committed. Failure to act to save lives is not covered, even when states have the means to act (United Nations 1948, and International Criminal Court).
A reasonable person may doubt that we are all quite so directly culpable for children's deaths around the world as Pinstrup-Andersen implies. For we Americans in particular, there are wise reasons, including the preservation of peace, to better remember that not every injustice around the world is our problem to solve. But this post is not a critical review. This post is all praise. I can't recall a previous occasion in which the speaker from the plenary session podium at the AAEA annual meetings quoted Nelson Mandela.
Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.
The presidential address was published this month in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

GAO exposes fraud in federal crop insurance program

The Government Accountability Office has shined brightly in reports from the press and some sectors of the blogosphere this month. GAO labeled the Food and Drug Administration's decision on the Plan-B morning after pill as "very unusual." For a federal government agency in the legislative branch, which is nonpartisan but which answers to a Republican Congress, that is pretty loud criticism.

With similar understated conviction, the GAO recently reported (.pdf) on serious fraud in the federal crop insurance program. USDA's Risk Management Agency (RMA) administers the insurance program in cooperation with private insurance companies. GAO reported:

RMA does not effectively use all the tools it has available. Specifically:

• Inspections during the growing season are not being used to maximum effect. Between 2001 and 2004, FSA [the Farm Service Agency] conducted only 64 percent of the inspections RMA had requested. Without inspections, producers may falsely claim crop losses.

• RMA’s data analysis of the largest farming operations is incomplete. According to GAO’s analysis, in 2003, about 21,000 of the largest farming operations in the program did not report individuals or entities with an ownership interest in these operations. As a result, USDA should be able to recover up to $74 million in claims payments. FSA did not give RMA access to the data needed to identify such individuals or entities.

• RMA is not effectively overseeing insurance companies’ quality assurance programs. GAO’s review of 120 cases showed that companies completed only 75 percent of the required reviews and those that were conducted were largely paper exercises.

• RMA has infrequently used its new sanction authority to address program abuses. RMA has not issued regulations to implement its new sanction authority under ARPA. RMA imposed only 114 sanctions from 2001 through 2004. Annually, RMA identifies about 3,000 questionable claims, not all of which are necessarily sanctionable.

For more colorful detail on how the fraud works, see National Public Radio's reporting. The report has a nice interview with one cotton farmer who was caught (and later got to see a new slice of life playing cards in prison with a table full of drug dealers -- where his nickname was "Cotton"). He explains that the fraud becomes tempting if the potential insurance payments become high enough relative to what one would get selling a crop. In such situations, a farmer finds ways to make sure the crop doesn't come up -- "either planting substandard seed, plowing too deep, planting too shallow. I mean, if you don't want it to come up, you can pretty well make it to where it won't come up." The thrust of the GAO report is that neither insurance companies nor "captured" federal agencies had sufficient interest in protecting the taxpayer from such schemes.

This issue is significant for U.S. farm policy more broadly. From an economic perspective, it is sometimes tempting to support insurance arrangements to reduce the exceptional earnings risk of farming, relative to other occupations. Some might defend such insurance plans, even while criticizing chronic subsidization. The GAO takes one plank out of this platform. If farmers and the financial industries that service them abuse such insurance arrangements, it will push reasonable people toward an even more severe stance on farm programs.

U.S. Food Policy housekeeping

First, a warm round of applause for everybody who has been commenting at this site. You turn this work into a memorable conversation.

Second, please let me humbly apologize for the disappearance of the comments to date. Now that Google's Blogger service has implemented backlinks, I have resigned from the HaloScan service I was using in order to consolidate my site management tasks in one place. By switching services, I seem to have omitted existing comments.

Third, I know my posting schedule has been light during the mid-semester crunch. Junior faculty around the country who are also webloggers have been careful with their blogging time, following the denial of tenure to a couple much-admired webloggers, such as Daniel Drezner at the University of Chicago. I should add, though, that I have less cause to fear Dan's particular adventures than some faculty webloggers have. Following his rather distressed post in early October ("So, Friday was a pretty bad day"), I thought to myself that perhaps some universities were less oriented toward dusty journals and more oriented toward the civic engagement and passion for real world communication that Drezner exemplifies. A month later, I was delighted and truly not much surprised when he was offered a position as associate professor at Tufts University, at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy ("So Friday was a pretty good day"). Fletcher has a tenure system, but the Friedman School at Tufts does not. Dan and I have already agreed to go out for a coffee or beer when he gets here. Way to go, Tufts.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Opposition to food stamp cuts delays House budget reconciliation bill

Opposition by moderate Republicans has derailed efforts to cut food stamps for some 300,000 participants as part of the budget reconciliation bill on the House floor. Under this bill, House Republican leaders had hoped to cut more than $800 million from the Food Stamp Program over five years.

Charles Abbott of Reuters reports:
Some moderate Republicans have said they may not vote for a bill that cuts welfare programs. Meanwhile, conservatives complain the bill does not go far enough on energy issues, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

Republicans control the House by a narrow majority and cannot afford to have many party members vote against the bill.

Two anti-hunger groups said they hoped Republicans would abandon the plan to cut food stamps, used by some 25.8 million poor Americans each month to help buy food, according to government data.

The $844 million in proposed cuts would affect 300,000 food stamp recipients and, in a ripple effect, make 40,000 children ineligible for free school lunches.

The Senate's version of a budget-cutting bill would reduce $35 billion in federal spending, but does not touch food stamps or health care to the poor and elderly.

"I'm sure they (House Republicans) are looking at a lot of things," said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson (news, bio, voting record), the Democratic leader on the House Agriculture Committee. "They're in a real box."

House staff workers said modification or deletion of the food stamp cuts appeared to be a prime topic in efforts by Republican leaders to amass the 218 votes needed to pass the budget bill. One staff worker said some sort of reduction seemed the most likely outcome.

Defenders say this summer's hurricanes showed the value of federal food aid to struggling citizens. Blunt said cuts would "reform the system so you get better results" by sharpening the focus of the program "for the people you intended to help instead of just adding on to the edges."
Meanwhile, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a nice analysis showing that the "SUPPOSED EASING OF HOUSE FOOD STAMP IMMIGRANT CUT TURNS OUT TO BE LARGELY COSMETIC."
The House Rules Committee change would make two modest exemptions to this rule that would apply to limited number of current food stamp recipients. These exemptions, however, would simply result in a phasing-in of this cut over a two-year period. After that period, the full cut would be in effect.

The Rules Committee would exempt from the cut those legal immigrants who both are participating in the Food Stamp Program at the time of enactment and either are age 60 or older or have applied to naturalize for citizenship.[1] Contrary to what some Members of Congress seem mistakenly to believe, the Rules Committee change does not exempt those poor non-elderly legal immigrants with serious disabilities whom the Agriculture Committee provision would disqualify. These people would be terminated immediately.

The Rules Committee change reduces the overall savings from this cut from $275 million over five years to $255 million over five years — a reduction of 7 percent. Thus, some 93 percent of the food stamp immigrant cut remains. This change would reduce the bill’s total food stamp cuts from $844 million over five years to $824 million, a reduction of just two percent.

Detective work uncovers restaurant nutrition secrets

Many restaurant chains hide their nutrition information from the public. Perhaps, with a little detective work, we can offer the nanny-free market-based solution to this information failure. All we need to do is to shine a flashlight in the restaurant industry's darkest cave.

According to this post from CalorieLab Counter, food reporter Rebekah Denn was frustrated that Claim Jumper restaurants would not disclose the nutrition information for their products. So, she bagged a typical meal and shipped it off to a lab for analysis.

Ms. Denn skipped the extras and the monster dishes and simply ordered what looked to her to be an average Claim Jumper entree: the fried chicken dinner, which includes a biscuit and mashed potatoes.

Portland-based Food Products Laboratory reported back the results: 2,032.5 calories, 105.4 grams of fat, and 3,713 milligrams of sodium. The U.S. government daily reference values used in the Nutrition Facts labels on packaged food suggest no more than 2,000 calories, 65 grams of fat, and 2,400 milligrams of sodium for an entire day (these requirements vary by person).

Would anybody like to pitch in and begin a project to continue these investigations? I will be the first contributor.

To be polite -- and to be a good steward of the laboratory expenses -- the project should begin each campaign with a letter to the restaurant chain asking for voluntary disclosure. (We would only do this for major chains with standardized products; nobody wants to bully small restaurant owners). If the information is disclosed, we would file it on a public internet site. Perhaps CalorieLab would volunteer to host. If the information is not disclosed, we would send the food to a laboratory, and then post the information to the same public internet site, along with some graphic icon indicating the special shame of being a restaurant that "hides its nutrition facts from its customers."

A good place to start would be the nutrition information for the Quiznos Steakhouse Beef Dip sandwiches that the federal government supported through a beef checkoff promotion. Then, we could move on to the 3-cheese stuffed crust pizza that the federal government supported through a dairy checkoff promotion in collaboration with Pizza Hut (no, wait, we already reported the nutrition information for that one here).

High-calorie fast food monstrosities promoted by the government are a good place to begin, because there is no laissez-faire argument to suggest that these sponsorships simply respond to consumer demand. But, even moving on to the chain restaurant sector more generally, there is an excellent pro-market case to be made that more consumer information would be better.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Did you know you eat that stuff in nails?

Yeah, real metal carpentry nails. Here is a nice weblog post from Gary King at Harvard, emphasizing the importance of having a control group in social science inference. He says his classroom demonstration works well with students ranging in age from kindergarten kids to graduate students.

To start, I hold up some nails and ask "does everyone likes to eat nails?" The kindergarten kids scream, "Nooooooo." The graduate students say "No," trying to look cool. I say I'm going to convince them otherwise.

I hand out a little magnet to everyone. I ask the class to figure out what it sticks to and what it doesn't stick to. After a few minutes running around the classroom, the kindergardners figure out that magnets stick to stuff with iron in it, and anything without iron in it doesn't stick. The graduate students sit there looking cool.

From behind the table, I pull out a box of Total Cereal (teaching is just like doing magic tricks, except that you get paid more as a magician). I show them the list of ingredients; "iron, 100 percent" is on the list. I ask by a show of hands whether this is the same iron as in the nails. 3 of 23 kindergarten kids say "yes"; 5 of 44 Harvard graduate students say "yes" (almost the same percent in both classes!).

I show the students that the box is sealed (and I have nothing up my sleeves), Then, I open the box, spill some cereal on a cutting board, and smash it up into tiny pieces with a rolling pin. I take the pile of cereal around the room and let the kids put their magnet next to it and see whether the cereal sticks to the magnet. To everyone's amazement, it sticks!

The students are all delighted and now believe that the iron in the food is sticking to the magnet. But, like a good mystery, the story still has two more twists and turns.

King points out that perhaps the cereal is simply sticky, like gum or tape. The graduate students clap their palms to their foreheads and think they have been duped. This gives King the chance to explain the importance of having a control group -- in this case a box of cereal without the iron fortification.

But, in the final twist, the control group cereal fails to stick to the magnet. It really is the iron in the fortified cereal that makes it stick to magnets.

King's moral:
Everyone gets to take home a cool fact (they love to eat the stuff in nails), I get to convey the point of the lesson in a way they won't forget (the central role of control groups in causal inference), and everyone gets a free magnet.
Thanks to the excellent economics weblog Marginal Revolution for the link.

Food Safety and Nutrition Section of the AAEA

The American Agricultural Economics Association (AAEA) has sections -- somewhat like subsidiaries -- on several topics, including a Food Safety and Nutrition Section. This is one of several professional organizations whose work in the borderlands between the main disciplines of economics and nutrition I find most interesting. I will be the chair-elect of this small hard-working group of scholars in the coming year. In this role, I am helping to plan the section's "track" sessions at the AAEA's annual meeting in Long Beach next July. If you have any ideas for symposia or brief scholarly papers on topics related to the economics of food safety or nutrition, please see the call for input on the section website.

Upcoming research on food stamps, food spending, and household food security

USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) recently announced its food assistance research grants for fiscal year 2005. These eight projects will study many topics in food and nutrition assistance, including: the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (Kenneth Finegold at the Urban Institute), recertification policies and Food Stamp Program participation dynamics using administrative data from South Carolina (David Ribar at the George Washington University), the effective tax rates on cash income induced by Food Stamp Program regulations (Jim Ziliak at the University of Kentucky), and a study of how food stamps affect food spending in grocery stores and restaurants, and how food spending in turn affects household food security (Parke Wilde at the Friedman School at Tufts University -- hooooray!). I'll give you an update in several months.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Eric Bost hears recommendations from New England public

Speakers from throughout New England delivered their suggestions for improving food assistance programs in person to USDA Under Secretary Eric Bost, at the Farm Bill Forum in Boston on Friday. Friedman School graduate student Kelly Horton has this report:
There were many common themes between the speakers at the forum, many of which pertained to the Food Stamp Program (FSP).

Several speakers asked that the minimum benefit be raised from $10 – some organizations suggested raising the minimum to $25 while others recommended as much as $50 for the minimum monthly benefit. One speaker suggested that benefit be calculated using the USDA moderate cost meal rather than the Thrifty Food Plan to calculate the benefits. Another speaker suggested that the benefit amount be attached to inflation.

There were many suggestions made for regarding the Food Stamp Program among them included:
  • Simplify the application process, i.e. extend the SSI combined application;
  • Advertise the option for a face-to-face interview waiver;
  • Implement mandatory elimination of face-to-face interviews;
  • Increase FSP office hours to increase accessibility and convenience;
  • Design a web-based best practices guide;
  • Enable beneficiaries to establish their EBT pin codes remotely;
  • Expand the farmer’s market FSP;
  • Increase the asset limit – some speakers suggested to set the limit at $5,000, while others suggested a $10, 000 limit;
  • Increase the housing cap;
  • Remove the work requirement;
  • Restore immigrant and permanent resident eligibility;
  • Develop a system of reciprocity between FSP and the Fuel Assistance Program;
  • Preserve categorical eligibility; and
  • Rename the program to “Eat Better Today” (based on the EBT card usage).
The food stamp program was not the only program of interest. To provide further support of making changes to the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, a representative from Mantrose-Haeuser Co., Inc., located in Westport, Conn., spoke about the value of NatureSeal. NatureSeal is a product that was developed in partnership with USDA to help preserve the freshness of sliced apples provided in schools. Several other speakers emphasized the success in providing children with sliced as opposed to whole fruit in school – that children will eat the sliced fruit but will most often discard whole apples and oranges.

Helen Mont-Ferguson, Director Food and Nutrition Services of the Boston Public Schools stated that USDA fails to realize that not all schools are the same – some schools have full kitchens while others receive foods from elsewhere. She went on to say that when fruit was cut up children will eat it but will more that likely not eat it when it is whole. She encouraged USDA to create packaging that is appealing to children, such as providing packages of dried fruits, because children will take them.

A representative from Sunkist Growers spoke on behalf of fruit producers to also encourage USDA to implement program policy changes that would help schools provide healthier meals based on the dietary guidelines, e.g. changing the school menus to reflect an increase in the amount of fruit and vegetables provided in each school meal

The USDA will continue to reviews comments submitted via its website by December 30, 2005.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Food insecurity worsens and House Ag Committee cuts food stamps

Charles Abbott of Reuters has the story:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - On a party-line vote, a Republican-run U.S. House of Representatives committee voted to cut food stamps by $844 million on Friday, just hours after a new government report showed more Americans are struggling to put food on the table.

About 300,000 Americans would lose benefits due to tighter eligibility rules for food stamps, the major U.S. antihunger program, under the House plan. The cuts would be part of $3.7 billion pared from Agriculture Department programs over five years as part of government-wide spending reductions.

Agriculture Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte defended the decision, saying only a sliver of food stamp spending was affected and, for the most part, the cuts would eliminate people not truly eligible.

"This is not a giveaway program that results in windfall profits," said North Carolina Democrat G.K. Butterfield in opposing the cuts. "That is not moral. That is not American."

Antihunger activists said hunger rates were up for the fifth year in a row, so the cuts were a mistake.

Abbott's story quotes me about how this year's new USDA food security statistics compare to previous years' numbers.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Household food insecurity deteriorated in 2004 by a record amount

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported today that household food insecurity increased by a record amount in 2004, and now equals the worst levels since data collection began. Household food insecurity improved from 1995 until 1999, and then worsened steadily every year from 1999 until 2004. USDA said today that 11.9 % of U.S. households were insecure in 2004, up from 11.2 % in 2003. This increase represents the largest one-year deterioration in U.S. food insecurity since data collection began in 1995.

USDA reported that 3.9 % of U.S. households experienced "food insecurity with hunger" in 2004, up from 3.5 % in 2003.

Household food insecurity is measured with a battery of 18 survey questions about symptoms of food-related hardship. According to the official definition, "food security" means access by all household members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. "Food insecurity" means the household was not classified as food secure.

In the Fall of 2004, the Bush administration delayed release of food insecurity numbers from October until after the election in November. In this Friedman School policy point last October, I tried to press USDA to make the results public before the election, but with no success. This year, the statistics were released in October as scheduled.

The 37 references in today's USDA report do not include this 2002 USDA report about progress toward the official federal target of 6 percent food insecurity by the year 2010. The omitted 2002 report described the solemn commitment the United States made to improve food security:
At the World Food Summit in 1996, the United States, along with 185 other countries, adopted the “Rome Declaration,” which begins with this commitment:

"We pledge our political will and our common and national commitment to achieving food security for all and to an ongoing effort to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015."
Here below is a chart showing how today's new statistics compare to the federal government's official goals, as expressed in the "Rome Declaration," the Healthy People 2010 objectives, and USDA's strategic goals.

Moving in the WRONG Direction:
Household Food Insecurity Deteriorates
Faster than Ever

The top line shows actual rates of household food insecurity, and the bottom line reproduces the trend line contained in the 2002 USDA report describing intended progress toward the national goals. Because the .jpg image did not work so well, here is a better Acrobat version of the same image.

For more information on how household food security measurement can be used by federal policy makers, see my report to a panel of the National Academies last summer. For information on food stamps and food security, see this conference paper, published in the Review of Agricultural Economics, which I wrote in collaboration with Mark Nord, the lead author of today's USDA report.

Update: I think this story may be a U.S. Food Policy scoop. It does not appear to be on the wires yet. But this AP story was posted to the Fox website a couple hours ago -- the Agriculture Committee in the Republican controlled House of Representatives apparently is considering a cut in food stamps today.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Befuddle an economist

I am drafting a two-minute “stewardship moment” speech that I have been asked to give in church this coming Sunday.
Some of you know that I am by profession and training an economist. It is not always something I am eager to mention in church.

Many lay people think economics is the study of money or finance. Economists themselves define their science as a particular outlook on the social world. For example, one of the best and simplest ways to understand the behavior of businesses is to imagine that the business owners seek to pay as little as possible for their raw materials, and to earn as high a price as possible for their products, thereby making as much profit as possible within the constraints of existing technology. Similarly, economists typically imagine that families like yours and mine seek to maximize our happiness by buying as much as possible within the constraints of our budgets. Everybody wants to maximize something as much as possible within their constraints.

Sometimes this thinking is carried to extremes. An economist got a Nobel Prize in part for an economic model in which men and women choose between marriage and divorce based on a comparison of their likely earnings as married people or single people, with some adjustment for whatever pleasure they might take in each other’s company.

So you can imagine that economists have sometimes been befuddled by our common practice as people of faith, in synagogues, mosques, and churches, of giving away large fractions of our money – larger fractions, I believe, than people give away in the wider secular society. Perhaps, our donations are a form of assistance to our extended clans, frequently related to us by blood. Perhaps, some economists have suggested, these donations are part of a quid pro quo, in which I help you now in return for your help later. Perhaps, some have suggested, these donations are just part of an informal mutual insurance scheme. The problem is that some people are giving more money away, to more distant beneficiaries, than can be explained by these theories.

Perhaps, some economists have suggested, some people just get happy giving their money away, so that’s why these selfish church people give and give and give. But even other secular economists realized this argument had become a tautology, begging the question of why some people are happy giving their money away.

Two weeks ago, in one of these “stewardship minutes,” Mike P___ eloquently offered some of the most common reasons why people of faith say they give generously. He explained that his wife gives simply out of heartfelt gratitude for the many gifts she has been given. He explained that he himself gives from a feeling of the importance of stewardship, knowing that God wants these gifts to be used for God’s purpose.

Since the important reasons have already been taken by Mike, let me offer my own humble additional reason. Have some fun! Befuddle an economist! Give generously! Somewhere, some day, in some windowless room, in front of a flickering computer screen, some economist will scratch her head and wonder what she is missing.

Former FDA chief Lester Crawford held biotech stocks

Following on our earlier coverage of Lester Crawford's sudden resignation from FDA, Reuters reported yesterday that the former administrator or his wife had owned stock in companies regulated by his agency. Reuters cited a Wall Street Journal article that we cannot find free online, so we quote the Reuters report:

An ethics official sought more information on the June disclosures and noted on the form that Crawford's broker would be sending more information, the report said.

Unlike prior disclosures, the June form lacks an ethics official's signature. A signature would indicated that the information complied with laws and regulations, the paper reported.

It is not known whether ethics officials viewed the holdings as a conflict of interest or whether these transactions were a cause of Crawford's decision to leave the agency.

Both the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the FDA, and Crawford declined to comment, the paper said.

And in other surprising news ....

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

"Cheeseburger Bill" passes the House of Representatives

The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed the federal "Cheeseburger Bill," to protect restaurants and other food sellers against obesity related litigation. Sponsors say the bill would still permit lawsuits when manufacturers or advertisers broke a contract or a law in selling their product, such as by lying in nutrition information provided about the product. Critics fear the law is drawn too broadly and will protect companies from legitimate lawsuits in addition to its intended effect of preventing frivolous lawsuits. The bill is supported by the administration, but may not have sufficient support to pass in the U.S. Senate.

The bill's lead sponsor in the House, Rep. Rick Keller (R-FL), "was unable to vote on his own legislation because he was in an Orlando hospital for treatment of a heart condition," according to an article by Bob Dart in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"There are no plans in the works for lawsuits against the fast food restaurants" that his boss has frequented, joked the congressman's spokesman, Bryan Malenius. He said the surgical insertion of a heart monitoring device was "non-cheeseburger related."
Thanks to the CalorieLab weblog for the link. According to the weblog:

“I have a choice to make when I visit my favorite fast food restaurant,” the rotund, 41-year-old Rep. Keller has said. “Do I order the triple cheeseburger and ice cream sundae? Or do I order the grilled chicken salad and Diet Coke? Obviously, my waistline tells you which choice I make more often. But that’s the point — it’s my decision to make.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Associated Press: Senate rejects food stamp cuts

The House and Senate Agriculture committees were under instructions to find $3 billion in cuts over five years from programs under their jurisdiction. This led to suggestions by the farm lobby that the cuts should come disproportionately from food stamps. As recently as yesterday, there was talk that the fiscal conservatives were gaining the upper hand over W. Bush conservatives in budget arguements. Yet, today, the more sober house of Congress seems to have rejected these food stamp cuts.

According to an AP report this morning (via the Washington Post):

Senate Republicans have dropped plans to cut the popular food stamp program, as the chamber's leaders scrambled to assemble a $35 billion spending cut measure to implement the budget plan it adopted in April.

After protests from Agriculture Committee members Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and James M. Talent (R-Mo.), panel Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) dropped more than $500 million in food stamp cuts from a farm and food subsidy measure coming to a committee vote today. The cuts could have meant a loss of benefits for 300,000 working families benefiting from more generous eligibility rules in some states.

No more "donkey bollocks"

Following up on an earlier post, New York Magazine reported recently:
‘Naked Chef’ Cafeteria Duty
No more “donkey bollocks” for kids! Jamie Oliver’s on NYC schools recon mission.

Naked Chef *Jamie Oliver* is thinking of bringing his school-lunch crusade to New York. Earlier this year, he did a four-part TV show in England called /Jamie’s School Dinners/, during which he blendered entire chickens to show where nuggets come from and danced around in a corn-on-the-cob costume. Eventually, he got *Tony Blair* to set aside $536 million to improve school meals. “America’s kids have some of the worst health issues because of eating junk and not exercising,” he says. “I thought maybe we could help here. Help them eat real food instead of packaged lies. You know, turkey which is real turkey and not donkey bollocks.” Brokers at Mark David rented him a five-story West Village townhouse (at over $35,000 a month) as his headquarters for a monthlong recon of the city’s cafeterias (most of which are presumably far from Greenwich Village). —Beth Landman

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Timothy Wise argues for "a little more rigor and a little more honesty" on farm statistics

In an earlier post, U.S. Food Policy discussed with great interest Timothy Wise's working paper (.pdf) on "Six Common Errors in Presenting Farm Statistics." I defended the traditional conclusions many readers draw from these statistics -- farmers are as prosperous as the average American, while farm programs benefit the few and fail to serve the many.

In correspondence today, Wise offers a response. He takes to heart some of my comments, and is tough on others: "In general, people seem to want to cite statistics that bolster their policy arguments, and dismiss statistics that don’t. I’m arguing for a little more rigor and honesty about the presentation of farm numbers as they relate to family farmers."

Here is the response in full:

Parke Wilde’s response to my working paper on the uses and misuses of farm statistics echo those of a few others I received. That either means I was unclear and/or imprecise in my own presentation, or we are each using the data to show different things. I would suggest that it is a little bit of both.

As to my own imprecision or lack of clarity, several people in addition to Prof. Wilde commented to me that they thought I was devaluing the contributions of part-time farmers. Indeed, that was not my intention, and I may have been unclear or misleading in trying to rebut the overgeneralizations about the farm sector that come from the predominance of part-time farmers in the sector. As I responded to those people (including two part-time farmers) directly, I mean no devaluing of such work, nor the subsidy payments – especially conservation payments – that seem very well-placed among part-time farmers, who are in a position to be excellent stewards of the land precisely because they are free of the market-driven impetus to make as much off their land as they can.

As to the uses of the data to show different things, it seems Prof. Wilde wants to show that current US farm policy is flawed and that the critiques of it are valid. Though he and I might not agree on the specific flaws or the policy reforms that might correct them, we can agree that current policy is a disaster – for family farmers, for the environment, for the federal budget, for developing country farmers. My paper, though, took no position on those issues, only on the misleading presentation of data in regards to family farmers. Those commonly heard myths are:

1. Farmers are better off than the rest of the population, so they don’t need farm programs. Analysts regularly cite data on the farm sector that include the 65% of farmers who don’t farm as their principal occupation. I argue that when most of us hear the first statement, we envision full-time family farmers, not hobby farmers, and that looking more closely at the data gives us a better picture of how those farmers are doing, and they are not doing as well as the aggregate numbers suggest. If the question is, how are family farmers doing, the answer should not rest on data heavily skewed by part time farmers, and to some extent by large commercial farms. I think that point stands.

2. Because farmers are relatively well-off, the farm economy must be working pretty well. I argue that incorporating off-farm income in an analysis of the functioning of the farm economy is misleading. That’s fine for a discussion of income policy, but not farm policy. It’s a little like saying that US dumping of corn on Mexico hasn’t hurt Mexican families much because the migrants they’ve sent to the US send a lot of money back home. That’s interesting for income policy, but not for trade or agricultural policies. It’s misleading, since it hides the way the farm economy is truly functioning. It is important to know that even large family farm households are getting only half of their disposable income from farming, the other half coming from off-farm sources. Many honorable people may think that is just fine, and they are entitled to that opinion. I would argue they are not entitled to present farmers who are making half a living from their farming as if they were making a full living, as if the farm economy were sustaining them well.

3. Only a minority of farmers get payments, mainly the rich ones (and absentee ones, as Prof. Wilde repeats from the large base of anecdotal evidence). Again, I argue that this is overstated. Many part-time farmers don’t get payments, but why should they? A significant majority of full-time farmers do, and that makes some policy sense. Payments are indeed skewed at the very top 2%, but even that data is misleading. If we want to know if full-time family farmers are benefiting from federal farm programs, they are, more than the aggregated numbers would suggest. That’s no endorsement for current programs, but things aren’t as skewed as Environmental Working Group and others might suggest.

Those are not circular arguments, but they are a reinterpretation of the available data to answer the questions that I think many people are asking: How are family farmers doing? And how are US farm programs affecting them? The message is fairly simple: If the question is about family farmers, use the data about family farmers.In general, people seem to want to cite statistics that bolster their policy arguments, and dismiss statistics that don’t. I’m arguing for a little more rigor and honesty about the presentation of farm numbers as they relate to family farmers. Those figures still suggest the need for a major overhaul in farm policy, in my estimation. But I do not think they support the easy arguments some make about getting the federal government out of the farm sector because there is no further need for US farm programs.

Tim Wise
October 18, 2005

Monday, October 17, 2005

Undersecretary Eric Bost to speak at 2007 Farm Bill forum in Boston, October 28

USDA's Under Secretary for Food and Consumer Services, Eric Bost, will participate in one of the 2007 Farm Bill forums, on October 28 at the Boston Public Library, from 10 am to 1 pm. This event has received almost no publicity from USDA (for example, it was only recently added to this press release). Under Secretary Bost oversees the U.S. Food Stamp Program, other federal nutrition programs, and the USDA agency that produced the Dietary Guidelines and the new MyPyramid.

Sample questions to ask:
-- Will you, Mr. Bost, formally ask that all USDA-sponsored advertising messages be reviewed by USDA/CNPP for consistency with the Dietary Guidelines?
-- Do you, Mr. Bost, approve of high-calorie soda sales to school children, while in school, in direct competition with the healthier offerings of the National School Lunch Program? If not, then why did USDA recently refuse to enforce existing regulations against selling foods of minimal nutritional value during lunch time in schools?

Transcripts of Farm Bill forums are being posted to the USDA website. Here is the president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation in a forum with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns recently in Florida:
MS. ELIZABETH PIVONKA: Good afternoon. My name is Elizabeth Pivonka, and I'm president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation. We're a national organization who works in partnership with the federal government to try to increase fruit and vegetable consumption nationwide for better health. I hope you're familiar with it, because USDA is one of our partners, and we really appreciate that.

I'm also speaking as a dietician, and I'm speaking as a mother, and I'm speaking as a taxpayer, and I will submit formal comments at a later point in time. But my point today really is the fact that we have now, thanks to USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, the strongest dietary guidelines that we've ever had. I'm very excited about that as a dietician. What's terribly frustrating to me, however, is that so little funding is actually spent on the promotion and consumption of fruits and vegetables. And you probably will hear a little bit more about that as you go over the next few months about the fact that in our country today the one big gap between what people eat and what they should eat -- the biggest gap is with fruit and vegetable consumption. It is the one food group that you can eat almost as much as you want and not gain weight. So given the obesity epidemic that we have in the country, given the rising health care costs we have in the country, it's really in your best interests and the country's best interests to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. In fact, we know that people who eat more fruits and vegetables spontaneously eat fewer other foods. So it's a really positive message and one that is important for our country.

Friday, October 14, 2005

A tough choice: payment limits for the best-paid farmers or cuts to conservation programs?

Aimee Witteman, a family farm activist and student in my U.S. Food Policy class, has a commentary yesterday in Rodale's New Farm. In a budgetary environment where something must be cut from the agriculture account, Witteman compares the merits of limiting payments to the farmers with the largest subsidies or cutting the Conservation Security Program (CSP).

Payment limits --
Payment limitations are not an elimination of subsidies; rather, they are a way to discipline the $10 billion-$20 billion dollar a year commodity programs in a way that targets only those farmers already reaping well over $250,000 from the government. The savings from payment limitations could ease the pressure on food stamps and conservation programs while also preserving rural communities and keeping family farmers on their land by reducing land-price inflation. Utilizing payment limitations is clearly a more equitable and rational way to produce the needed budget savings.
Cutting the CSP --
The CSP represents a positive example of an alternative direction in agriculture. Unlike any other federal program, the CSP payments are available to all farmers and ranchers who develop a plan to protect resources of concern. We have hardly begun to see how this new program, passed in the 2002 Farm Bill, can flourish if implemented and funded adequately so that farmers can actually take advantage of it. Environmental and energy costs, strengthening hurricane storms, and pressure from our World Trade Organization (WTO) trading partners are impacting and being influenced by the way we produce food in the United States. The CSP seeks to achieve energy conservation and riparian protection, and is also accepted by the WTO for its non-trade-distorting status. Perhaps most importantly, the CSP is supported by a growing number of consumers who are demanding food that is produced by farmers taking concrete steps to ensure the sustainability of the land for future generations.
Tough choice!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

What is missing from USDA's 2007 Farm Bill Forums?

USDA Secretary Mike Johanns and his senior deputies are attending listening sessions around the country in advance of the 2007 Farm Bill debate in Congress. The Farm Bill reauthorizes programs under USDA jurisdiction, including federal farm programs, rural development programs, food safety oversight, and -- with the largest budget -- food assistance and nutrition programs.

Please attend the listening session closest to you and speak up for the public interest in U.S. food and agricultural policy, including nutrition policy. You may also submit written comments to USDA electronically here. Read our archives to jog your memory of the policy issues at stake. If the cynic in you suspects these inputs are ignored by the powers in Washington, then at least ask yourself why the industry lobbies take them so seriously and speak as much as possible. The USDA website is posting transcripts of the oral comments, but it is somewhat difficult to get to the reading room in Washington to see the written comments. If you send electronic comments to USDA, please save them first and use the comment feature in U.S. Food Policy to share them here.

I notice something funny missing from USDA's request for comments. Here are the five strategic goals in USDA's strategic plan (.pdf):
1: Enhance economic opportunities for agricultural producers,
2: Support increased economic opportunities and improved quality of life in rural America,
3: Enhance protection and safety of the nation's agriculture and food supply,
4: Improve the nation's nutrition and health, and
5: Protect and enhance the nation's natural resource base and environment.

Now, for comparison, here are the topics for the six questions on which USDA requests written comments in advance of the 2007 Farm Bill:
Question 1: The challenges facing new farmers and ranchers as they enter agriculture.
Question 2: The competitiveness of U.S. agriculture in global and domestic markets.
Question 3: The appropriateness and effectiveness of the distribution of farm program benefits.
Question 4: The achievement of conservation and environmental goals.
Question 5: The enhancement of rural economic growth.
Question 6: The opportunities to expand agricultural products, markets, and research.

Which strategic goals get double-counted in the six questions? Which strategic goals are missing? Right. But feel free to share your views on how the Farm Bill can influence progress on USDA's strategic goals for food safety and nutrition, even if USDA officials seem to have forgotten to ask about them. I hope USDA will add additional questions on these topics to the department's request for input.

Boston Vegetarian Food Festival

On October 22 at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center in Boston:
The Boston Vegetarian Food Festival is a full day of fun, good food, and learning! It brings together exhibitors of vegetarian natural foods from across the country and locally, offering free food sampling and "show special" discounts. It provides a welcoming environment in which to explore a wide variety of delicious, healthy, and readily available vegetarian foods.

Boston Vegetarian Food Festival, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2005

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

New York Times tackles food aid policy

The New York Times has been hammering away at the poisonous politics of food aid, in which Uncle Sam's charitable donations partly support the economic interests of U.S. producers and shippers at the expense of program goals. As in Philpott's article in the previous post, the Bush administration is the protagonist of Celia W. Dugger's hard-hitting opinion piece today:

It seemed like a no-brainer: changing the law to allow the federal government to buy food in Africa for Africans facing starvation instead of paying enormous sums to ship it from the American heartland, halfway around the world. Not only would the food get to the hungry in weeks instead of months, the government would save money and help African farmers at the same time. The new approach had an impeccable sponsor in Republican-dominated Washington. The Bush administration, famous for its go-it-alone style, was trying to move the United States - by far the world's biggest food donor - into the international mainstream with a proposal to take a step in just this direction. A lot of rich countries had already done so, most recently Canada.

So why is this seemingly sensible, cost-effective proposal near death in Congress?

Fundamentally, because the proposal challenges the political bargain that has formed the basis for food aid over the past half century: that American generosity must be good not just for the world's hungry but also for American agriculture. That is why current law stipulates that all food aid provided by the United States Agency for International Development be grown by American farmers and mostly shipped on United States-flag vessels. More practically, however, it is because the administration's proposal has run into opposition from three interests some critics call the Iron Triangle of food aid: agribusiness, the shipping industry and charitable organizations.

Wait a minute (sound of rustling class notes while I find my place).... The political scientist's "Iron Triangle," a predecessor of the more contemporary if less eloquent "policy subsystem," usually refers to the executive agency (USDA), the Congressional committee, and the industry lobbyists. That's pretty bitter rhetoric to for Dugger to include charitable organizations in an "Iron Triangle"! Charitable organizations that work with donated funds face a painfully high standard for serving the needs of the beneficiaries alone, but that is fair enough. In the case of food aid, all participants must be acutely aware of the ways the aid can harm as well as help.

The New York Times article quotes Christopher Barrett (a prolific and thoughtful agricultural economist at Cornell). Barrett and Daniel Maxwell (from CARE, but visiting the Famine Center at the Friedman School at Tufts this Fall) released an important new book on food aid this year. In their article for Choices magazine last Fall, the two writers addressed current food aid regulations, which require the food to be purchased in the United States and shipped in U.S. ships, even if there are more efficient, affordable, or beneficial ways of supplying food assistance. A figure from that article shows how little benefit goes to the destination market under these rules.