Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Anti-ethanol advocacy fuels an exchange of letters

Sabrina Wu, a graduate student in my class on U.S. Food Policy, contributes this blog post:
On October 28, 2008, Senator Chuck Grassley sent a letter to Grocery Manufacturers Association’s (GMA) CEO and President C. Manly Mopus (.pdf) demanding to know when and how GMA and the trade association’s 300+ member companies plan to reduce retail food prices to reflect recently lower input costs.

From the letter: “When oil prices and commodity prices rose earlier this year, food processors and grocery stores reflected their higher input costs almost immediately, passing them onto consumers. However since commodity prices have declined over the past three months, we have seen retail food prices continue to rise.”

This letter is the latest correspondence in a back-and-forth between Grassley and GMA, which started in May 2008. At that time, GMA was outed by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, for spearheading a multi-million dollar anti-ethanol campaign (.pdf).

The GMA campaign launched a website, providing consumer information on ethanol’s impact on food prices and an opportunity for visitors to express opposition to ethanol policies via an online petition; formed a broad-based advocacy coalition with largest representation from the food industry and livestock associations and a smattering of environmental and anti-hunger organizations; and funded research, including an economic analysis on ethanol’s long-term effects on commodity and retail food prices (.pdf) and a telephone survey to assess taxpayers’ concern about food price increases and opinion on ethanol policies. Results from both support GMA’s position of reducing or eliminating ethanol subsidies and mandates.

Grassley, senior U.S. senator from the corn state of Iowa and strong supporter of ethanol, vociferously opposes the GMA campaign. A few days after the Roll Call article came out, he delivered a statement about the “smear campaign” on the Senate floor and posted documents from GMA and Glover Park Group, the public relations firm with whom GMA contracted to coordinate the campaign, on his website. “They’ve outlined their strategy of using environmental, hunger and food aid groups to demonstrate their contrived ‘crisis,’” Grassley said. “I think it’s important for policy-makers and the American people to know who’s behind this effort.”

One week prior to Grassley’s letter, the major U.S. livestock trade associations—American Meat Institute, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Meat Association, National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation, and United Egg Producers—sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer objecting to proposed plans to provide rural development loans to ethanol plants, who are struggling to pay above-market rates on corn purchased through futures contracts. They write, “High commodity prices have been wreaking havoc in animal agriculture for almost two years. Yet no one at USDA has suggested that the government could provide loan funds to cover our members’ losses in the corn market.” And: “We urge you to rethink your intention of selectively lending taxpayer funds to private facilities that are having difficulty with the price of commodities.” This objection marks a departure from the livestock industry’s long-standing support of selective subsidies, namely commodity payments, which also address “difficulty with the price of commodities” and as some have argued, indirectly subsidize livestock producers by keeping the price of animal feed low.

The New York State "fat tax"

New York State Health Commissioner Richard Daines has endorsed Gov. David Paterson's revenue-generating budget proposal to create a so-called "fat tax" - an 18 percent levy on sugary drinks like non-diet soda. His endorsement, published on You Tube December 26th, is a five minute dialog which describes the increased consumption of sugar laden drinks, the concurrent rise in obesity, and the cost and impact of the obesity epidemic on the public. The tax is arguably focused on health care policy as opposed to revenues. Elizabeth Benjamin of The Daily Politics covers the issue in her blog post The Doctor is in (Cyberspace).

Daines also quotes a research editorial from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association called How Discretionary Can We Be with Sweetened Beverages for Children which concluded: "Only one high-risk dietary practice emerged as being linked to overweight in children: the intake of sweetened beverages."

[Note from Parke: Cool video, Ashley. I like Daines' effective use of props for data visualization. Because of this New York proposal, I've been getting questions from consumer advocates about the economics of soda consumption. In a nutshell, if people greatly change their consumption in reaction to such a tax, their response is called "elastic." If consumers don't change their consumption much, the policy does better for revenue generation. In a 2004 study of low-income Americans, in the journal Agribusiness, Steven Yen, Biing-Hwan Lin, David Smallwood, and Margaret Andrews estimated the price elasticity for soft drinks to be -0.8, which means that a 10% increase the soft drink price leads to about an 8% fall in soft drink consumption. At the same time, the price increase for soft drinks makes milk and juice products comparatively more attractive to consumers.]

Friday, 26 December 2008

Human fat for fuel

According to an article in Forbes Magazine, a Beverley Hills doctor has been transforming the fat from his liposuction operations into biodiesel to power him and his wife's SUVs. According to the article:

Fat--whether animal or vegetable--contains triglycerides that can be extracted and turned into diesel. Poultry companies such as Tyson are looking into powering their trucks on chicken schmaltz, and biofuel start-ups such as Nova Biosource are mixing beef tallow and pig lard with more palatable sources such as soybean oil. Mike Shook of Agri Process Innovations, a builder of biodiesel plants, says this year's batch of U.S. biodiesel was likely more than half animal-derived since the price of soybeans soared.

A gallon of grease will get you about a gallon of fuel, and drivers can get about the same amount of mileage from fat fuel as they do from regular diesel, according to Jenna Higgins of the National Biodiesel Board. Animal fats need to undergo an additional step to get rid of free fatty acids not present in vegetable oils, but otherwise, there's no difference, she says.

Greenies like the fact that waste, such as coffee grounds and french-fry grease, can be turned into power. "The vast majority of my patients request that I use their fat for fuel--and I have more fat than I can use," Bittner wrote on lipodiesel.com. "Not only do they get to lose their love handles or chubby belly but they get to take part in saving the Earth." Bittner's lipodiesel Web site is no longer online.

Using fat to fuel cars might be environmentally friendly, but it's definitely illegal in California to use human medical waste to power vehicles, and Bittner is being investigated by the state's public health department.

Although it's unclear when Bittner started and stopped making fat fuel or how he made it, his activities came to light after recent lawsuits filed by patients that allege he allowed his assistant and his girlfriend to perform surgeries without a medical license.

Crossposted from EpicureanIdeal.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Stevia sweetener gets FDA salute

Two agency response letters posted on the FDA site, confirmed to Cargill, Incorporated and Whole Earth Sweetener Company LLC that Rebaudioside A (a sweetener derived from the Stevia leaf) is, in fact, Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), thus giving the companies the green light for use in the US food supply. According to FoodProcessing: A Home Page for the Food and Beverage Industry, "Rebaudioside A's natural sweetening capacity makes it ideal for the food and beverage industries."

According to Food Navigator USA, “within hours Coca-Cola and PepsiCo announced that their first drinks sweetened with Reb A will be hitting US shop shelves shortly. Coca-Cola partnered with Cargill to develop their rebiana brand called Truvia, and PepsiCo, along with Whole Earth Sweetener Company (a subsidiary of Merisant Company) and PureCircle, have their own product under the PureVia brand."

Many are still critical of the industry sponsored research and FDA's seemingly hastily 'midnight' decision, including Marion Nestle at What to Eat, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and
Based on the information provided by Cargill (Whole Earth), as well as other information available to FDA, the agency has no questions at this time regarding Cargill’s(Whole Earth) conclusion that rebaudioside A purified from S. rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni is GRAS under the intended conditions of use. The agency has not, however, made its own determination regarding the GRAS status of the subject use of rebaudioside A purified from S. rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni. As always, it is the continuing responsibility of Cargill(Whole Earth) to ensure that food ingredients that the firm markets are safe, and are otherwise in compliance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

School lunch and school breakfast standards

The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, today released a report on meal patterns and nutrient standards for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP).

There is a request for public comments.
The National School Breakfast Program feeds 10 million children each day, and the National School Lunch Program feeds more than 30 million students. Yet the national nutrition standards and meal requirements for these meals were created more than a decade ago, making them out of step with recent guidance about children's diets. With so many children receiving as much as 50 percent of their daily caloric intake from school meals, it is vital for schools to provide nutritious food alongside the best possible education for the success of their students.

At the request of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Institute of Medicine assembled a committee to recommend updates and revisions to the school lunch and breakfast programs. The first part of the committee's work is reflected in the December 2008 IOM report Nutrition Standards and Meal Requirements for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs: Phase I. Proposed Approach for Recommending Revisions. Phase II of the report is expected in Fall 2009. This first report provides information about the committee's approach as it reviews the school lunch and breakfast programs. In the report's second part, the committee will share its findings and recommendations to bring these meals more in line with today's dietary guidelines.

The committee welcomes public comments about its intended approach. An open forum will be held January 28, 2009 in Washington, DC to receive input from the public.

New study confirms: restaurant meals have more calories

In the new issue of the Review of Agricultural Economics, agricultural economist James Binkley of Purdue University confirms that restaurant and fast food meals have many more calories than home meals do (see abstract).

For example, for a typical adult, and holding constant other variables, a lunch in a table-service restaurant has on average 184 more calories (kcal) than a lunch made at home. A lunch at a fast-food restaurant has on average 121 more calories than a lunch made at home.

A difference of 120 to 180 kcal per day is enough to contribute to weight gain over time.

Two concerns about restaurant meals are their energy density and their total calories. Binkley found that fast-food meals were the most energy dense, while table-service restaurant meals had the most total calories. Meals from home scored better on both counts.

From the Wiley-Blackwell press release:
“It is misleading to focus concerns about the nutritional effects of increased food away from home primarily on fast food. All food away from home should be considered,” Binkley concludes.

The King Corn guys spoof HFCS ads

Have you seen the corn refiners' ads defending high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from its critics? Then you may enjoy the spoof by Ian and Curt, the guys from King Corn (reviewed earlier on this blog).

Vilsack to be appointed Agriculture Secretary

The New York Times online yesterday evening reported that former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack would be appointed Secretary of Agriculture. I read the news on the Ethicurean, which was disappointed ("AgSuck," said the headline). John Crabtree from the Center for Rural Affairs gave an earlier more favorable review of Vilsack on the Blog for Rural America.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Is the NPPC telling the truth about the pork checkoff referendum?

Following our earlier coverage of the pork checkoff referendum request, I read with interest Brian Depew's blog post on the Rural Populist.

Brian was a hog farmer himself at the time of the 2001 referendum on the pork checkoff, in which pork producers failed to approve the program's continuation, but nevertheless had their vote overturned in a deal between the National Pork Producers Council, the checkoff program, and USDA. He calls upon all pork producers to send in USDA's form requesting a new vote before the Jan. 2 deadline.

Then, I read the comment on Brian's post, by Dave Warner. Here is my comment in response at the Rural Populist:
I read Dave Warner’s comments with astonishment. Is this the same Dave Warner who is a director of communication for the National Pork Producers Council?!

Dave writes, “The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) does NOT receive Checkoff funds.”

That astonished me, because I thought the NPPC received millions of dollars in checkoff funds each year as a contractor to the checkoff program, carrying out checkoff-sponsored activities. In addition, I thought the NPPC in 2006 won an especially sweet backroom deal, in which the checkoff program agreed to pay the NPPC $60 million ($3 million each year for 20 years!) — with no work required at all — for the use of the property rights to the “other white meat” brand. I thought this deal was dreadful from the point of view of pork producers, because they had themselves already paid for most of the advertising that built the “other white meat” brand. And I thought it was a travesty that nobody at the NPPC, the checkoff, or the USDA would share with the public the dubious “appraisal” on which this sale was based.

See this link for details:

Dave writes, “NPPC has nothing to do with the Checkoff.”

That astonished me, because I thought the NPPC was a major player in the deal that overturned the democratic outcome of the last pork referendum in 2001, when pork producers failed to approve the continuation of the checkoff and yet are still to this day forced to pay the “mandatory assessment” (please, nobody call it a “tax,” even though it is collected involuntarily using the federal government’s powers of taxation). The NPPC was one of the parties to the “agreement” with the checkoff and USDA which ended a lawsuit over the 2001 referendum and led belatedly to the current request for producer input.

See this link for details of how the NPPC was involved in that agreement:

I think of the NPPC and the checkoff as closer to each other than tweedledee and tweedledum, with just the thinnest veneer of official separation.
In the end, I fear the tricky maneuver of scheduling the request for producer input over the Christmas season will succeed in denying pork producers a vote yet again. I notice that the independent organizations that were actively involved in the 2001 referendum still have up only a forlorn timeline whose last entry is 2004. It seems doubtful that anybody is getting organized to represent pork producers' interests vigorously before January 2. And both the mainstream press and the agricultural press gave little coverage to this issue.

[Update: For producers who want to request a vote, here is the link to the USDA site. Please post to the comments here if you have any trouble with internet access.]

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Soybean association alleges misuse of checkoff funds

Today's press release from the American Soybean Association (ASA), a private-sector trade association for the soybean industry:
"Serious ethical, legal, and financial allegations have been raised about how farmer checkoff funds and program activities are being conducted," said ASA President John Hoffman, a soybean producer from Waterloo, Iowa. "These significant allegations have caused ASA to ask the Inspector General to conduct an investigation and audit so that the basis of the allegations can be impartially investigated to find the truth."
Allegations include the improper and wasteful expenditure of both checkoff and federal funds; potential evasion of mandated salary and administrative spending caps by [the United Soybean Board (USB)]; conflicts of interests at USB; use of checkoff funds for prohibited purposes by USB; and wasteful and excessive spending by USB. There are additional allegations concerning improper USB oversight and tolerance of actions that have taken place at the [United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC)], an entity created by USB and ASA in October 2005. These allegations include improper conduct by a USSEC employee at USSEC functions; the firing of whistleblowers; improper employee relationships; contracting violations; management malfeasance and the inability of ASA Directors serving on USSEC Board to obtain an independent and objective investigation of the allegations.
See also links to the Association's longer summary (.pdf) of the controversy, and today's articles at AgricultureOnline and the Des Moines Register.

Similar to the checkoff programs for beef, pork, and dairy, the soybean checkoff program uses the federal government's powers of taxation to collect more than $100 million per year in mandatory assessments to support industry marketing and promotion efforts, but it is controversial with many producers.

These large and influential programs deserve greater attention than the minimal oversight they get from government authorities, public interest groups, and the major media.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Downsizing and mouse print

As part of a series of reports called "Squeezed at the Supermarket," NBC's Today Show this morning featured Edgar Dworsky, the longtime consumer advocate and blogger behind Consumer World and Mouse Print (discussed in an earlier post). Matt Lauer and Janice Lieberman have great fun going over examples from Skippy peanut butter to Tropicana orange juice. At the end, they read a list of explanations from the manufacturers.