Monday, August 27, 2012

My blog on food reform and physical activity advocacy has moved to my new consulting website:

Please join me there!

Nancy Huehnergarth
Nancy F. Huehnergarth Consulting

Friday, June 1, 2012

Has Mayor Bloomberg Outsmarted the Beverage Industry?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a gutsy guy. Thwarted twice in his efforts to cut sugary drink consumption (the Mayor supported, unsuccessfully, a New York state tax on sugary drinks and a New York City proposal to restrict the use of food stamps to buy sugary beverages), Bloomberg has come up with a new, controversial plan. And this time, the deep-pocketed, politically powerful soda industry may not be able to derail the measure.

Bloomberg proposes to amend New York City Health Code to establish a maximum size of 16 ounces for sugary drinks offered or sold in restaurants, theaters, stadiums, delis and food carts. The proposal would apply to fountain drinks (including self-service cups) as well as to those sold in bottles or cans. Sugary drinks are defined in the proposal as beverages that have added sugar, contain less than 51% milk or milk substitute by volume and have more than 25 calories per 8 fluid ounces.

The Mayor's proposal to limit the size of sugary drinks is right on target. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the average size of a fast-food soda is six times larger than a soda 60 years ago. Studies have confirmed that sugary drinks are a big driver of the obesity epidemic because of the way our bodies process them. They are non-nutritious, fail to create a sensation of fullness and therefore can stealthily add hundreds of additional calories each day. Americans consume 200-300 more calories daily than 30 years ago, with the largest single increase due to sugary drinks according to a 2005 study in the Annual Review of Public Health. Numerous studies have linked sugary drink consumption with long-term weight gain as well as an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. In New York City, thousands of deaths each year and close to $4 billion in direct medical costs are due to obesity.

The soft drink industry is in a full-blown panic over this proposal because the measure requires only the approval of the New York City Board of Health. And whatayaknow, the board's chairman is New York City's health commissioner Thomas Farley, who strongly supports the measure, while all other board members are Bloomberg appointees. Unlike elected legislators dependent on campaign contributions and public opinion, the beverage industry's threats, manipulations and deep pockets will hold little sway over the Bloomberg-appointed Board of Health.

Of course, history tells us that Big Beverage will fight tooth and nail to try to kill the portion cap. Already, some New York state politicians, who no doubt receive generous donations from the soft drink industry, are promising to introduce legislation that will prohibit Bloomberg's measure. You can be sure that there will be lawsuits and that industry will take to the airwaves to enlist the public in protesting the measure. In 2010, the American Beverage Association spent close to $13 million dollars in New York in a six-month period, lobbying against a proposed penny-per-ounce statewide soda tax. No expense was spared, from the brilliant anti-soda tax TV campaign (created by the agency that spawned the notorious Harry and Louise anti-healthcare reform ads in 1993), to soft-drink industry worker protests (while workers were on the clock and provided with lunch), to an industry-sponsored 'grass roots' coalition called 'New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes,' to PepsiCo's threat to move its Purchase, New York headquarters to Texas, if the measure passed. The no-holds barred campaign did the trick. State legislators caved and the measure died.

But this time around, Mayor Bloomberg has ensured that his sugary drink portion cap won't be so easy to kill. And it already has the country talking, initiating a national discussion about sugary drink portion sizes, obesity and how far government should go to protect the health of its citizens and the health of our fragile economy.

Cutting portion sizes to reduce food or drink consumption makes sense because research has consistently shown it works - far better than education or depending on "personal responsibility." As noted by Sarah Kiff in the Washington Post, a 2005 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that movie patrons who were given a large, rather than a medium-sized container of two-week old popcorn, ate 34 percent more popcorn, even though it was stale. A recent study in Belgium, published in the May 2012 Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, found that children offered cookies split in half consumed 25 percent less than children offered the exact same amount of cookies served whole. Noted Cornell University researcher, Brian Wansink, PhD has suggested that not only do oversized portions create our consumption norms but that even people trained in nutrition underestimate the calories in large portion sizes.

Let's be realistic. Education alone has been a miserable failure, neither halting nor reversing the nation's deadly rate of obesity. Industry holds the upper hand, manipulating the amount of food and drink people consume through portion sizes and marketing, as well as setting consumption norms that are not compatible with healthy living. Anyone who believes they are capable of exercising personal responsibility for what they eat in the face of supersizing, industry marketing and hard-to-resist combinations of flavors and sensations that make certain less than nutritious foods/drinks irresistible, is fooling him/herself. Does anyone really think the soft drink industry spends billions yearly on marketing because it doesn't strongly influence consumer choice?

It takes a bold leader to introduce a controversial proposal like a soft drink portion cap - a measure that Mayor Bloomberg knew would not be popular with the public and would incite the wrath of fellow politicians and the powerful beverage industry. Consumers need more help than nutrition education and being told to take "personal responsibility" for making the right choices. Bloomberg has come up with a worthy plan that deserves to be implemented.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Perfect Storm: How the Pink Slime Debacle Created Food System Change

Something remarkable happened recently in the world of food reform.

The pink slime debacle created the perfect storm of food system change, thanks to a combination of evocative language, consumer activism, arrogant industry behavior, viral social media, relentless mainstream media reporting and scientists willing to go on the record. In less than a month, the pink slime story - in essence, that the meat industry had been surreptitiously mixing a cheap filler into America's ground beef supply - managed to incite a massive grass roots uprising of angry, repulsed American consumers, who voted with their voices and their wallets, forcing major changes in both meat industry practices and USDA school lunch policy.

The people most responsible for this successful uprising - reporters David Knowles of The Daily and Jim Avila of ABC News, whistleblower Kit Foshee, former USDA microbiologists Gerald Zirnstein and Carl Custer, and blogger Bettina Elias Siegel whose petition to ban pink slime in school food went viral, deserve our deepest gratitude. Collectively, they managed to accomplish in a few short weeks what the food reform movement has been hoping to do for years -- highlight a food system problem, incite consumer activism and create rapid, sustainable change in both policy and practice.

Inciting grass roots involvement in food system issues is critical - yet, until the pink slime debacle, consumer uprisings have mostly eluded the movement. Why did this issue and confluence of events create such a powerful consumer reaction? How can we incite more grass roots activism to support policies that will make our food system healthier and safer?

Some of the answers may lie in what we've learned from the perfect storm surrounding the pink slime issue. Here's my take on the lessons learned:

1. We need to engage consumers on the issues they care about if we want their attention. Many food reformers were quick to dismiss the Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) debacle because they felt it was the least of our worries when it comes to our broken food system. But pink slime clearly struck a nerve with consumers and that's reason enough to sit up and take notice. If we want grass roots support for improving our food system, we must be in tune with the issues that resonate with consumers. Whether you think pink slime was a critical food reform issue - or not - it's clear that consumers now have a new level of awareness of unsavory food industry practices and how industry doesn't hesitate to include unappetizing ingredients in America's food supply without informing the public. It was a powerful lesson for many consumers and one that will make them more open to new information about food industry misdeeds.
2. Language counts. The moniker "pink slime" clearly caught the public's attention and helped fuel the grass roots uprising. The food industry has known for decades how important language is in marketing their products. That's why they spend billions yearly naming and marketing food and drink, and wording dubious health claims. Food reformers need to use language to our advantage as well, crafting more carefully worded, evocative descriptions of unsavory ingredients and unhealthy industry practices.
3. Big Meat's arrogance helped turn public opinion against them. The meat industry's response to the pink slime debacle can be best summed up, as public health attorney Michele Simon put it, as "Shut up and eat your hamburger." Their damage-control campaign "Beef is beef," somehow manages to both insult consumers' intelligence and highlight industry arrogance by conjuring up images of workers tossing any part of the cow into the grinder. The meat industry has, inexplicably, never managed to grasp the obvious: consumers feel duped by industry and find LFTB unappetizing. Yet, rather than apologize, Big Meat seems to think they can bully the public into eating LFTB by insisting that the consumer is "misinformed" and ensuring us that LFTB is safe. Let's make sure that the American public remembers the arrogance.
4. Instead of preaching to the choir let's get our food reform messages out to a larger audience. The mainstream media, particularly television network news, brings food reform messages to a much broader audience. Jim Avila's excellent pink slime reports on ABC World News were key to inciting consumer outrage and activism. Food reformers should develop stronger relationships with mainstream network reporters and news shows.
5. Highlight how government, more often than not, seems to protect industry rather than the consumer. Many consumers were astonished that the government allowed LFTB to be added to ground beef without mention on the label. Why is it that the economic well-being of big industry often seems more important to the USDA than the consumer's right to know and make informed choices? This is a good question and one we should keep asking loudly and publicly.
6. We need a national grass roots network of concerned consumers willing to take frequent action on food reform and food safety issues. Nothing changes policy and practice faster than an outpouring of anger and disgust from consumers who also vote with their wallets. Bettina Elias Siegel's petition proved that point on LFTB in school food. And consumer rejection of pink slime at the nation's grocery stores proved the point in the marketplace. Why haven't we yet developed a national grass roots network of consumer activists who can be counted on to speak out on a variety of food reform and food safety issues?
7. Social media can help level the playing field for food reformers. Food reformers will never be able to compete with Big Food or Big Ag's deep pockets, massive marketing campaigns, lobbying prowess, campaign donations or their ability to hire the best PR, messaging and marketing firms money can buy. But we can effectively use inexpensive social media techniques to reach a much broader and deeper audience.
8. Consumers despise being deceived, yet a deliberate lack of transparency appears to be a standard food industry business model. The beef industry clearly worked hard to hide the fact that inexpensive pink slime had been added to 70 percent of America's ground beef, no doubt fearing that consumers would be turned off. We all know that industry works overtime to ensure that other information is hidden from the consumer. From ag-gag bills to misleading/impossible to decipher ingredient names; to fraudulent or shaky health claims; to industry's attempt to derail front of package labeling; to food poisoning cases where the restaurant name is withheld indefinitely; we can do a better job of highlighting to a wide audience how Americans are being misled, duped, bamboozled and just plain lied to by the food industry, often with the help of government agencies.

My final "radical" takeaway is this. If food reformers ever hope to improve America's food system through policy change, we're going to have to become much more active in demanding and supporting campaign finance reform at the local, state and national level. Big Food and Big Ag's ability to use campaign donations and aggressive lobbying to influence legislators' votes and opinions has stalled important food policy all across the nation. It has also influenced government agency rulemaking and the regulatory process - as BPI's campaign contributions over the past decade have demonstrated.

The pink slime perfect storm was one of those rare and wonderful events where consumers were able to hear the truth before the big money industry spin machine could control the message. We won't see a food reform perfect storm again, any time soon, unless we learn to create our own.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Americans Have a Beef with Food System Transparency

The best summation I've heard of the pink slime debacle comes from blogger and petitioner Bettina Elias Siegel. The use of lean finely textured beef (LFTB) in ground beef," said Ms. Siegel, is "one of those practices that can thrive only in obscurity."

And therein lies the crux of the issue. At almost every turn, it seems, we find the food industry working to thwart food system transparency. From lobbying to exempt LFTB from labeling, to industry's fight against the labeling of genetically engineered foods; from gamesmanship designed to forestall or weaken FDA's long awaited front-of-package nutritional labeling system, to ag gag laws; from relentless lobbying to weaken the 2010 federal menu labeling law, to industry's refusal to label meat and dairy products that contain antibiotics and hormones, the food industry appears to be working overtime to hide information from the consumer. Public health attorney and author, Michele Simon likens the pink slime catastrophe to the Wizard of Oz - the curtain has been pulled back for all the world to see the reality behind this process. "A true free market assumes equal access to information," says Simon. "We are far from it when it comes to our food."

Not long ago, a certain level of transparency in our food system was expected, even demanded by the consumer. Older Americans can recall when beef was freshly ground at the butcher shop, in front of the customer, to ensure that the butcher didn't pull a fast one by grinding an inferior cut of meat or slipping in offal. But today, virtually all ground beef comes pre-packaged, produced by a handful of mega-corporations that have all but put the local butcher out of business. And Americans are discovering that transparency is not high on their list of priorities.

Now that the veil has been lifted on BPI's product and beef industry practices, consumers are getting over the shock that the 100 percent ground beef they thought they had been purchasing is actually 85 percent ground beef and 15 percent low-grade beef scraps prone to pathogens, simmered at a low heat, spun in a centrifuge and sprayed with ammonia gas. BPI's explanation so far, to the bamboozled American public, has been the curiously inflammatory statement, "Beef is beef," even though it conjures up images of workers tossing any part of the cow into the grinder -- behind the closed gates of beef processing plants, who will ever know?

If the beef industry wants to undo the damage it has inflicted upon itself, and restore trust and confidence in its products and practices, it must alter its business model that seems to flourish on an imbalance of information. To date, the beef industry, in collaboration with the USDA, have made all the decisions about what is acceptable in our beef supply, leaving consumers entirely in the dark. Since it's now clear that consumers don't agree, the industry can begin to restore its reputation with full disclosure of all ingredients, additives and processing agents, in understandable English, on product labels. Then, the media, concerned parents, Congress and savvy consumers can turn their focus to why our USDA regulations and laws seem to protect the beef industry's profits rather than champion the consumer's right to know what's in our meat.

Now that BPI has shuttered three plants for 60 days and several governors are rushing to the beleaguered company's defense, numerous dire warnings are being issued: 1.5 million head of cattle, that don't exist, are needed to replace the LFTB that consumers have rejected; ground beef prices are sure to rise; shortages of ground beef could occur during the summer grilling season.

A temporary ground beef shortage is hardly an unreasonable price to pay for transparency. Michael Moss reported in the New York Times in 2009 that, "School lunch officials said they ultimately agreed to use the (LFTB) treated meat because it shaved about three cents off the cost of making a pound of ground beef." An increase of three cents per pound certainly sounds like a fair trade off for those wanting a more pure product. And I fully suspect that if BPI changes its strategy and agrees to label LFTB, a significant number of Americans will choose to buy ground beef that contains the filler.

If the beef industry wants to think outside the box during a shortage, there are other healthy, more palatable fillers that can be added to ground beef (labeled, of course) that could help bring down the price according to Andrew Gunther, Program Director of Animal Welfare Approved, an organization that audits and certifies family farms raising pastured animals for food. "Why don't we add oats or barley filler like the Europeans do," said Gunther. " That way, Americans could produce less beef of a higher quality, add a healthy filler that provides fiber and sell it to the consumer at a lower price."

Food safety attorney, Bill Marler, while praising BPI for its commitment to extensive pathogen testing of LFTB, was forthright on the issue of transparency in the beef industry. "BPI made a huge mistake by withholding information from the consumer. Nothing should trump the consumers' right to know."

No doubt the entire food industry has been paying close attention to the pink slime/LFTB fiasco, as well as emerging grassroots consumer activism demanding a more transparent food system. While the industry continues to hold most of the cards, no food company is immune to consumer outrage when the curtain is drawn back and people feel duped.

I have one final piece of advice for the beef industry. Stop blaming the media, anti-meat activists, elitist foodies, stupid city-slickers who know nothing about agriculture and pesky liberals for your industry's predicament. The reality is, American consumers have had a peek behind the barriers to transparency that you erected, and they don't at all like what they saw.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

USDA to Americans: You'll Eat Pink Slime Whether You Want It or Not

Have Americans been slimed, again? The USDA's announcement on Thursday that school districts will be able to opt out of an ammonium-hydroxide treated ground beef filler known as both Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) and "pink slime," is not exactly inspiring confidence.

According to the USDA news release:

...due to customer demand, the department will be adjusting procurement specifications for the next school year so schools can have additional options in procuring ground beef products. USDA will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef.

The USDA release doesn't elaborate on the type of choices schools will have. However, numerous news outlets have reported that schools ordering commodity ground beef will now get to choose either pre-made patties that contain LFTB or bulk ground beef, which does not. No information was provided about whether there is a price differential between the two options and the USDA did not respond to my query.

It should be noted that USDA commodities are only about 20 percent of the food purchased by the nation's schools. The other 80 percent are purchased through USDA-approved vendors. Today's news release did not specify that these vendors will have to carry LFTB-free ground beef. Apparently, pink slime isn't leaving our school system so quickly.

Longtime school food advocate Ann Cooper, the Director of School Food Services for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, believes pink slime will continue to be rampant in school ground beef next fall, in spite of the USDA's announcement. She notes that there are numerous obstacles to overcome.

First, almost every school in the nation has already ordered their USDA commodity foods for next year (ground beef included) and Cooper wonders if the USDA will actually allow schools to change their orders.

Second, Cooper believes that market limitations and peculiarities in how the USDA commodity food system works practically ensure LFTB beef in schools for the foreseeable future. "If a school district wants to purchase ground beef from an approved vendor, without LFTB, it's practically impossible because it's just not available - most of the beef contains the low-grade filler," Cooper says. "Plus, if the school purchases bulk ground beef without pink slime, they still have to send it out to a third party processor like Tyson to be made into hamburgers, meatballs, etc. Currently, the third party vendors do not have to use the actual beef ordered by the school - they could use any beef. So a school could order LFTB-free beef sent to the processor, and it could get back hamburgers and meatballs with the ammonium-hydroxide processed filler."

Even if the USDA can fix the third party processor problem, Cooper doesn't think that every school will be able to afford the processing cost of the filler-free bulk ground beef. This raises the specter of less affluent districts having to opt for the LFTB pre-made patties while the more affluent can afford to send the bulk ground beef for processing.

While the National School Lunch Program serves over 5 billion meals yearly, there's a much larger problem that the USDA failed to address in their announcement. After learning last week from an ABC News report that 70 percent of supermarket ground beef contains pink slime, consumers have been trying to learn if their grocery stores sell ground beef with LFTB filler. While the USDA has been mum on the issue, Congress has taken an interest. New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez today reiterated that he wants to work toward a labeling requirement for LFTB so that consumers can avoid it if they wish, according to The Lunch Tray blogger and pink slime petitioner, Bettina Elias Siegel.

The past week's pink slime blow-up was likely a wake up call for many Americans unfamiliar with Big Food's sway over the contents of our food supply. It's mind-boggling that the USDA, lobbied heavily by the beef industry, never mandated a labeling requirement for LFTB. We now know why industry fought so hard. Americans are repulsed by pink slime and would avoid it in droves if it were labeled. It's pretty clear that in the U.S., the economic well-being of the food industry trumps the consumer's right to know and the wholesomeness of our food.

John Turenne, the president and founder of Sustainable Food Systems LLC, which works with schools to create healthier, sustainable food programs, nicely summed up this past week's collective anger: "Agribusiness is corrupting society with processed garbage," said Turenne. "The fact that chemicals like ammonia are being used on so much of our food, without our knowledge, is infuriating. Let's stick to real food."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why Americans are Angry About Pink Slime

The meat industry and the USDA just don't get it.

Americans are repulsed to learn that "pink slime," an unappetizing industrial slurry of cow connective tissue and low-grade beef scraps, is being added, surreptitiously, to supermarket ground beef as well as meat served in the National School Lunch Program. These ground-up tissues and scraps, formerly used for dog food, have been quietly included in our nation's ground beef supply since the 1990's thanks to a process invented by Beef Products Inc. (BPI). Since beef tissues used in pink slime are predisposed to E. coli and salmonella contamination, the filler is treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill the pathogens, before being mixed into ground beef as an additive.

After chef Jamie Oliver went on a televised tirade about the substance, also known as "finely textured lean beef," McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King announced in January, 2012 that they would no longer use pink slime as filler in their ground beef.

But this past week, to the horror of consumers, ABC News reported that the pink slime is even more ubiquitous than we think. 70 percent of supermarket ground beef contains the gelatinous additive, even though no mention of this filler is required on the label.

All of this begs the question, is it ethical for the meat industry and USDA to force consumers to ingest pink slime? Why isn't inclusion of this ingredient revealed on ground beef labels? And why on earth would our National School Lunch Program purchase for the nation's schoolchildren, ground beef that contains this unsavory filler? Anger over pink slime has dominated the news all week. Last Tuesday, "The Lunch Tray" blogger, Bettina Elias Siegel, started a petition to remove pink slime from school food. As of today, nearly 150,000 people have signed.

The responses from both the meat industry and the USDA to this controversy have been telling. The American Meat Institute (AMI) issued a statement through Food Safety News in support of pink slime:

The fact is, BPI's Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT) is beef. The beef trimmings that are used to make BLBT are absolutely edible. In fact, no process can somehow make inedible meat edible; it's impossible. In reality, the BLBT production process simply removes fat and makes the remaining beef more lean and suited to a variety of beef products that satisfy consumers' desire for leaner foods.

In fact, BLBT is a sustainable product because it recovers lean meat that would otherwise be wasted. The beef industry is proud to efficiently produce as much lean meat as possible from the cattle we raise. It's the right thing to do and it ensures that our products remain as affordable as we can make them while helping to feed America and the world.

I find that statement remarkable in that the AMI doesn't even address what I think is the major issue. How can the beef industry silently include an ammonia-treated slurry of cow connective tissues and beef scraps in our ground beef supply -- beef parts that few Americans would willingly choose to consume? And as far as AMI's contention that they are ensuring that ground beef is lean, sustainable and affordable, I suspect that the addition of this cheap filler actually helps the meat industry increase its profit margin.

The USDA's remarks on the pink slime debacle, as reported by many news outlets, are equally curious:

"All USDA ground beef purchases must meet the highest standards for food safety," the agency said in a statement. "USDA has strengthened ground beef food safety standards in recent years and only allows products into commerce that we have confidence are safe."

Safe? Let's assume, for argument's sake that pink slime is safe (although the New York Times reported some disturbing findings about the slurry in December, 2009).  Just because the USDA has deemed a food ingredient safe, doesn't give the agency the right to include it, secretly, in our nation's food supply.

Our industrial food system and the government agencies that police it, have been allowing questionable ingredients in our food supply for some time. These ingredients would turn consumers off in droves, if labels provided more detailed or clearer information. Just this week, Coca-Cola and Pepsi announced a change in the recipe of the caramel coloring used in their beverages, to avoid placing a cancer warning label on their products. The change was spurred not by the FDA but by a California law as well as lab tests performed by Center for Science in the Public Interest. Not surprisingly, the FDA maintains the chemical is safe.

In the case of pink slime, the additive isn't even required to be mentioned on ground beef labels. Normally, food ingredients -- many with long chemical names -- are required to be listed on food labels. However, most consumers would need a degree in chemistry to decipher the lists. That's why so many food reform advocates and medical professionals recommend that consumers stop purchasing processed food products that contain a long list of unidentifiable, unnatural substances.

The pink slime uproar shows that Americans are finally fed up with unsavory ingredients/additives in their food. Congress should mandate the labeling of ALL food ingredients, in simple and understandable English. Consumers should always have the information they need to make fully-informed decisions about which additives, if any, they feed their families.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

32 Million Reasons to Cheer the USDA

There are 32 million reasons why the USDA's new school meal standards are good news. That's the number of children who participate in the National School Breakfast and Lunch programs in the U.S. and who will soon be served far more nutritious, and hopefully delicious school meals.

Announced by First Lady Michelle Obama, who was instrumental in getting the new rules written by ensuring that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010, the updated meal standards are a huge improvement, in spite of last minute meddling by Congress. The standards are based on 2009 Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations and they include:

• Doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables offered;
• Increasing the variety of vegetables served to include dark greens, red/orange and legumes;
• Increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods - half the grains must be whole grain-rich by July and all must be whole grain-rich by start of the school year in 2014;
• Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties (flavored must be fat free);
• Limiting calories based on the age of children being served, to ensure proper portion size; and
• Reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

The total cost of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act will be $3.2 billion over five years (down from $6.8 billion in the USDA's proposed rule). Since it does cost more to serve healthier meals, the increased costs have been covered by program changes and funding provisions such as:

• Eliminating the meat/meat substitute requirement at breakfast;
• Lengthening the timeline for adding fruit to breakfast;
• Providing an additional 6 cent federal reimbursement per meal for lunches that meet the new standards;
• Ensuring that a la carte offerings are no longer subsidized by school meals (in some schools, this means that a la carte food prices will rise); and
• Allowing students to opt for smaller servings of fruits and vegetables to help eliminate "plate waste."

Margo Wootan, Director, Nutrition Policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has led the fight to improve school food over the past decade, was happy with the final standards. "These are the first ever school meal standards for whole grains, trans fat and sodium," said Wootan. "The only disappointments I have are the ones Congress forced on the USDA -- continuing to count pizza as a vegetable and allowing French fries to be served every day."

So what does this all mean for America's children?

As a long time school food reformer who has watched countless children consume high calorie, low-nutrition school meals that I wouldn't serve to my dog, I believe that this is a giant step forward. Just the fact that every student who purchases a school lunch will soon have to take a fruit and/or vegetable as a component of their meal is revolutionary. And in one fell swoop, the USDA has eliminated full fat and 2% milk from school meals - high fat beverages that our increasingly overweight children don't need. The USDA has provided a sample before and after elementary school menu.

Next on the horizon, thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, is the USDA proposed rule for school a la carte or competitive foods, scheduled to be released in the next few months. If Congress doesn't meddle again and the USDA proposes science-based standards for these foods sold outside the meal programs, our nation's schools could become places where mostly healthy choices reign. What a refreshing thought - that our schools could actually model the nutrition habits that our government recommends in the Dietary Guidelines - rather than continually contradicting them and undermining parents.

But a la carte/competitive foods like sugary drinks, chips, ice cream and candy are big business for Big Food and Beverage. So expect more deep-pocketed lobbying of Congress by their friends in the food industry in an attempt to maintain the status quo (e.g., their profits) at the expense of our children's health.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Top Six Food Politics Lessons Learned in 2011

This hasn’t been a banner year for improving America’s food system, food environment or food policies. A look back demonstrates that not only have we failed to make any new progress in food and nutrition policy, but we actually appear to be moving backwards in some instances. Here’s why:

1. Congress is in bed with Big Food and under five layers of blankets- One of the most remarkable things food reformers learned this year was just how much influence deep-pocketed Big Food corporations exert over the current Congress. The answer – when it comes to proposed nutrition policy, if Big Food talks, Congress listens and does what industry wants – America’s kids be damned. Big Food successfully derailed or has worked overtime to weaken National School Lunch Program (NSLP) nutrition standards (pizza is a vegetable!), voluntary guidelines for foods that can be marketed to kids (see Marion Nestle’s insightful post on this development), the 2012 Farm Bill (a scary version of which was drafted behind closed doors) and federal menu labeling requirements. And the food industry is already taking aim at the rules being written by the USDA as mandated by the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act – rules that would improve the nutritional content of competitive foods (foods that are not sold as a part of the NSLP). 2012 should bring more of the same thanks to our anti-nutrition policy Congress.

2. The First Lady is a Strong Advocate for Food Policy, Except When We Get Close to an Election Year- Michele Obama’s wonderful Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity has veered sharply away from supporting policies to improve the food environment for children (the First Lady was instrumental in getting the Healthy, Hunger Free Kid’s Act passed in 2010) to brokering voluntary agreements with food corporations and focusing on physical activity. Now there’s nothing wrong with voluntary agreements to improve nutrition – unless they’re in lieu of policy, which is the only truly sustainable way to improve our food system and food environment. The First Lady has been conspicuously and painfully silent as Big Food spent millions to successfully weaken the Healthy, Hunger Free Kid’s Act, attacked the IWG voluntary guidelines for foods marketed to kids (Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has done a wonderful job of leading the fight to get these voluntary guidelines passed) and the Farm Bill was negotiated in secret. The closer we get to election year, the more Mrs. Obama seems to shy away from supporting policies that may inflame Big Food. She recently announced a new focus on getting kids to move which Michele Simon brilliantly questioned in “Sorry Mrs. O, but Jumping Jacks Aren’t Enough.” Will the feisty, policy-supporting Mrs. Obama, please come back in 2012?

3. Big Food Will Go to Great (and Humorous) Lengths to Try to Reframe the Message on Food Reform- If the health problems in this country weren’t so serious and costly, we could actually have a good laugh at some of Big Food’s more memorable attempts to reframe themselves as champions of a healthy, sustainable food system. Big Ag formed a new alliance, the United States Farmer’s and Rancher’s Alliance (USFRA), which introduced a new marketing campaign to mend its tattered image. Funny thing is that while USFRA describes itself as representing the average farmer, it appears that the groups’ funding this heartwarming campaign are mostly Big Ag concerns including Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Dupont and dozens of Big Ag trade organizations, which are often at odds with the needs of the average farmer. In another wacky development, Andy Bellatti informed us of McDonald’s new “farmwashing” campaign, where America’s largest fast food corporation, in a fit of McChutzpah, tries to portray their menu as “farm to fork.” How about telling the truth, McDonalds? It’s Big Ag farm to factory to fork at the golden arches.

4. Big Food and Conservatives Have their Antenna Up for Any “Proof” that Food Policy Doesn’t Work- Food industry and conservative critics have jumped on a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) report about participation decline in their school lunch program since healthier food replaced junk. These critics claim that the LAUSD experience proves that kids won’t eat healthier food and in the case of one conservative blogger, Michele Malkin, that the LAUSD experience is indicative of government waste and the “nanny state” (see Bettina Elias Siegel’s fine rebuttal). Similarly, critics gleefully report that the Seattle public school system may bring back unhealthy foods into their vending machines due to a drop in vending revenue, which hurts after-school programs. Reality-check time. Does anyone really think that Los Angeles’ and Seattle’s children who have been raised, since birth, on a steady diet of unhealthy junk and processed foods and are shockingly unfamiliar with vegetables, fruit, whole grains and other healthy fare would change their palates easily and rejoice at the healthy changes in schools? It took decades to teach America’s kids to prefer unhealthy food. Yet we’re ready to throw in the towel and serve kids the same garbage that has made them the first generation in history that may see a drop in their life expectancy thanks to the epidemic of obesity and related chronic diseases? Conservatives have had no problem being patient for 8 years as the U.S. fought a deadly and costly war in Iraq to root out terrorism. I guess our kid’s health isn’t as important.

5. Big Food is Cleverly Using Philanthropy to Silence Potential Critics- If you’ve ever wondered why fine health organizations like the American Dietetic Association, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Save the Children, Susan G. Komen For the Cure or the American Academy of Family Physicians accept funding from Big Food behemoths such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Hershey’s, McDonald’s, or KFC, your hunch is probably right. Funding is always tight for non-profits and Big Food knows it. That’s why they dangle huge sums of money in front of public health and health organizations that many seem unable to refuse – even if the money is clearly tainted. And once a health organization accepts Big Food money, they rarely will criticize the food or beverage industry. There needs to be an aggressive campaign to convey how damaging it is to the food reform movement when health organizations accept Big Food philanthropy. And groups that take this tainted money should be publicly shamed. The “good” that they can do with that money is miniscule in comparison to the damage they do with their apparent public support of unhealthy food and drink.

6. Food Reformers Need to Get Tough and Use Different Tactics if We Want to Win - Earlier this year, I wrote about how food reformers’ focus on science and evidence is easily trumped by Big Food’s money and messaging. If ever a year demonstrated how food reformer’s need to “up their game” it was 2011. The food industry’s clever advocacy, marketing, lobbying and messaging tactics torpedoed or weakened several important food policies (see Lesson #1, above) that would have made a huge difference in the lives of both kids and adults. We can’t win policy fights with industry if we don’t use similar tactics. It’s also critical that food reform funders start funding counter-marketing, advocacy and messaging campaigns. Yes, Big Food and Big Ag will always have more lobbying/advocacy money than public health advocates. But as the tobacco wars demonstrated, advocacy funding and a strong counter-marketing campaign (the Truth Campaign) can make a huge difference and change public perceptions of industry. Michele Simon’s recent post 2012: The Year to Stop Playing Nice, should be a wake-up call to the world of public health.

This was first published in the Huffington Post on December 27, 2011.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Paula Deen at the Crossroads: Punch Line or Role Model?

American’s foremost peddler of excessive butter, cream, salt and sugar, chef Paula Deen, has finally confirmed rumors that she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years ago. Her timing for this announcement was clearly no accident as she also revealed that she is now a paid spokesperson for the Novo-Nordisk diabetes drug, Victoza.

Ms. Deen, whose high-calorie recipes and super-sized portions have made her both a Food Network favorite and a public health nightmare, appears appallingly opportunistic for simultaneously revealing both her diagnosis and a deal with a pharmaceutical company. But could this announcement by one of America’s most high-profile chefs actually be a blessing in disguise, particularly for her devoted fan base? Could her diagnosis act as a wake up call to those in denial about the relationship between what you eat and your health? It certainly could, if Ms. Deen chooses the right path.

In a rocky start, Ms. Deen demonstrated a healthy dose of both denial and damage control on the Today Show when she refused to acknowledge that her weight and/or eating habits contributed to her illness. “On my show I share all these yummy, fattening recipes but I tell people (to eat) in moderation,” Ms. Deen said. She claimed she’s always eaten in moderation and reminded Americans that, “I’m your cook, not your doctor.”

No one I know would go to Ms. Deen for medical advice. However, on the cooking front, this charming and up-from-the-bootstraps southern chef is an inspiration to many. And that’s why her diagnosis with a serious, chronic disease that is heavily related to unhealthy food choices may actually resonate with Americans.

For those unfamiliar with why diabetes is such a devastating ailment, here’s a brief primer. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), Type 2 diabetes is a major cause of heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, amputation, and blindness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death listed on U.S. death certificates in 2007. And if current trends continue, 1 of 3 U.S. adults will have diabetes by 2050. The good news? More than 85 percent of people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight and weight reduction can prevent onset.

No question that there’s been a collective haze of denial hovering over America for decades as waistlines increased dramatically along with hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol counts. With Big Food refusing to play a meaningful role in the overhaul of our disease-producing food system, and federal legislators unable to pass important policies that would help reshape the nation’s food environment, Americans have been lulled into a sense of complacency about what we eat. Enter Ms. Deen, America’s most visible cheerleader for unhealthy eating habits, who even after her diagnosis said diabetes won’t change how she cooks. Imagine the impact she could have if she renounced her old lifestyle and began publicly modeling a healthier one.

As it stands, Ms. Deen is at a crossroads. Her fame and diagnosis have presented her with a unique opportunity, which can create a legacy as either a role model or a punch line. So far she’s hurtling down the punch line path – encouraging Americans to pop a pill for their diabetes while continuing to hawk fare like deep-fried cheesecake, deep-fried lasagna, deep-fried stuffing on a stick (are you sensing a pattern here?) and her notorious Lady’s Brunch Burger which consists of a burger topped with bacon and fried egg on a sliced glazed donut.

But it’s not too late for her to toss out the deep fryer, modify her recipes and admit she was wrong. A reinvented Paula Deen, cooking wholesome, tasty, healthier food and modeling a physically active lifestyle would be an inspiration to her legion of trusting fans. Everyone loves a celebrity resurrection, and Ms. Deen sure could use one right now.

So if Ms. Deen is reading this, let me sum up my advice. Ditch the Novo-Nordisk gig, admit you’ve seen the light and become America’s dietary savior. You’ll save lives. You’ll earn new respect. You won’t even miss those Twinkie Pies or Fried Butter Balls as you bask in your newfound role of Dietary Role Model in Chief. And as an added bonus, you’ll increase the likelihood that you’ll live to see your grandchildren grow up.

Could this be the true meaning behind the expression, “the South will rise again?”