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FDA Revises Fish Recommendations: Is Something Fishy?

by | Dec 17, 2008

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is asking the White House to amend its own previous warnings that children and pregnant women avoid seafood for fear of mercury poisoning, the Washington Post reports. The agency argues that the neurological benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and other minerals are worth the risk of mercury poisoning.

But not everyone is happy about this.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other consumer advocate organizations are outraged by the proposed change, accusing the FDA of catering to fishing industries and ignoring public health. The EPA has called the FDA document “scientifically flawed and inadequate” and an “oversimplification” of the health concerns involved.

There is a large body of scientific evidence that mercury can cause problems in the developing nervous system, so the new recommendations would have to be careful to educate consumers about both the positive and negative aspects of consuming more fish.

I have not seen the report myself, so I cannot pass judgement immediately. However, as I have explained in Synapse the dynamics of fish consumption and mercury contamination are very complicated, particularly for children and pregnant women.

My advice is to be careful with fish regardless of what the FDA report says. While it is extremely important to consume adequate omega-3 fatty acids as well as vitamin D from fish sources, mercury contamination is a serious concern that should not be overlooked.

To get the maximum benefit from fish and minimize mercury consumption

  • Eat fish at least twice per week
  • Avoid large fish such as tuna, shark and swordfish
  • Seek fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel
  • Take vitamin D and omega-3 supplements (fish oil based) when fish is not available
  • Enjoy vegetarian sources of omega-3s like soy, flax and walnuts

Recently I have been experimenting with canned sardines and anchovies and they are much better than I expected them to be. I also enjoy canned salmon as well as smoked salmon or lox (but watch your nitrate intake!). If you can afford it, fresh fish is always wonderful.

Do any of you have strong opinions about the FDA report or know if it is available to the public yet?

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Secretary of Food?

by | Dec 11, 2008

An article by Nicholas Kristof today in the New York Times calls on president-elect Barack Obama to rename the Secretary of Agriculture cabinet position, suggesting the new title “Secretary of Food.”

The US Department of Agriculture was originally set up at a time when over one third of Americans were involved in farming. Now less than 2 percent of Americans are farmers. Kristof makes the case that the US needs to completely restructure the way government intervenes in food policy, reflecting the new issues that confront our nation.

Changing the title of Secretary of Agriculture to Secretary of Food (in essence, changing the name of the entire agency) would imply that government interest would be for consumers and food supply rather than for industrial agriculture.

Through government subsidies, health standards, farming practices and nutrition guidelines USDA policy has a tremendous impact on how Americans eat, in terms of both quality and quantity. This is particularly important because data on how America’s eating habits are affecting the health of our citizens and climate are staggering.

Currently, USDA policies are profoundly influenced by industrial agriculture lobbyists resulting in a collection of preposterous rules and regulations aimed to boost agriculture at the expense of, well, everything else.

One of my favorite examples of this is the USDA food pyramid. That milk represents nearly 25% of your recommended daily intake (of anything) is absolutely ridiculous and a perfect example of the strong influence of the dairy industry. From a nutrition science perspective, it is impossible to see how such recommendations are in the best interest of American eaters (aka you and me). The economy is important, but our health is equally if not more important.

Whether you agree with Kristof’s argument or not, it is good to be aware of what is at stake when you think about US agriculture and food policy.

On a related topic, Michael Pollan sat down with Bill Moyers recently to discuss his article “Farmer in Chief.” The interview is available for viewing on the PBS website.

Do you trust the current USDA to set food policy?

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The Food Industry’s Approach to Public Health

by | Nov 6, 2008

Obesity is quickly becoming America’s number one public health concern, and there is little doubt our changing food landscape is largely responsible. To combat negative press and present an image of public responsibility, food industry giants like McDonalds’s and Coca-Cola have announced policies that seem aimed to help consumers make healthier, informed lifestyle choices. However, leading nutrition and public health experts charge that these policies are disingenuous and are closer to advertising than sincere social responsibility.

In the October 15 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), David Ludwig, MD, PhD, and Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, published a commentary on the role of the food industry in public health. The question they seek to answer is, “Should the food industry be welcomed as a constructive partner in the campaign against obesity?”

The answer, they argue, can be found in the analysis of scientific data on food industry practices. One such study published in 2006 investigated United States food corporation practices in school nutrition and concluded that food companies “make public promises of corporate responsibility that sound good, but in reality amount to no more than [public relations].” Another study found that McDonald’s continued to use trans fats in their cooking oil until at least 2005, even though they claimed otherwise. (They were required to pay a settlement for deceptive advertising).

Trans fat! There is no amount of trans fat in the diet that is considered safe.

The food industry also heavily funds an independent firm, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), that aggressively lobbies against “obesity-related public health campaigns, legislation to regulate marketing of junk food to children and scientists who advocate for healthier diets.” It is difficult to understand how these practices meet the proclaimed agenda of these companies to increase the health of society.

These issues then raise an interesting question. Why would a food company care about the health of society? Isn’t a food company’s primary goal to make profits for their shareholders? Of course it is, and that is fine. The problem is that the most healthful foods—unprocessed vegetables, fruits and grains—are not nearly as profitable as highly refined and processed foods. This fact makes the industry’s claims to promote health somewhat dubious.

The obvious answer to why a food company might claim to have concern for public health even if health is at odds with its product is that companies must work to maintain a positive image. Advertisers know very well that image and branding have a tremendous impact on sales. Generally our society does care about health and is willing to pay a premium for products they consider to be healthful. Thus these public health campaigns are indeed a form of advertising because they help shape the public image of a company and its products.

How then do these campaigns manifest in society? One example is the voluntary efforts of beverage companies (in conjunction with the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation) in 2006 to curb the sale of sugary drinks in schools, one of the largest sources of excess calories for children. Though at first glance this seems like a noble effort by the companies, after much negotiation the agreement ultimately permitted several caloric drinks to remain on campuses, including sweetened vitamin waters and sports drinks. So much for getting those sugary drinks out of schools.

Also, the food industry invests enormous amounts of money to fund nutrition research. However a study published last year in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journal found that studies fully funded by industry are 4 to 8-fold more likely to have conclusions favorable to industry compared to those with no industry funding. This raises the possibility of a “systematic bias” in scientific research when industry is involved.

Thus the authors conclude that the interests of the food industry are at odds with public health and should be separated from policy decisions. They go on to argue that while market-driven supply and demand works splendidly for many industries, it must be more carefully regulated when public health and safety are involved. This, they say, is the primary reason there are so many safety requirements on cars, and our food supply should be held to similar rigorous standards.

“Modifiable dietary factors cause substantially more illness and death than automobile crashes. Left unchecked, the economic costs associated with obesity alone will affect the competitiveness of the US economy.”

The authors recommend several courses of action. First, the government must “ensure that nutritional policies are based on solid science, rather than special interests.” Second, congress should provide more funding to nutrition research to “help counter the influence of the industry money.” Third, allow an independent body such as the Institute of Medicine to draft dietary guidelines (this task is currently under the control of the United States Department of Agriculture, which is primarily concerned with the well-being of the food industry and not public health). Fourth, restructure agriculture subsidies to “support public health, not commodity producers.” And finally, “reform campaign finance laws to prevent corporate political donations from leveraging the legislative process.”

These recommendations would be a good start to combating obesity in America, but it is important to remember that ultimately the responsibility for your health is in your own hands. If we as consumers decide we would rather buy healthier, less processed foods and purchase them in larger percentages than processed foods, the food industry will certainly notice.

This article can also be found at Synapse.

What role do you think the food industry should play in public health policy?

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Polls Close: Brussels Sprouts Win!

by | Nov 5, 2008

Voting finally closed on last week’s poll question: Do you like Brussels sprouts?

Asked whether individuals “love em!”, “hate em!”, are “skeptical, but willing to try”, or are a “recent convert,” the most votes (37%) were tallied for love em! Add to this the 25% who claim to be recent converts and another 25% who remain skeptical, but willing to give them a try, and today is an overwhelming victory for Brussels sprouts on the dinner plate.

A mere 12% of voters claim to hate em.

Voters have spoken clearly that Brussels sprouts are no longer considered second class vegetables. They can proudly sit on the dinner plate next to traditional favorites like broccoli and potatoes, without being banished to a side plate to get cold and soggy. Brussels sprouts can rest easily knowing that they will be accepted for who they are, no longer having to disguise themselves under cheese or bacon bits. The myth of separate but equal has finally been put to rest.

It remains to be seen if this verdict will prevail in state and federal courts across the nation.

In other news, for the first time in American history a beet has been elected president of the dinner plate, defeating the turnip in a landslide victory. The beet won over voters by promising to bring change to dinner, and maybe even lunch. With this victory, the culinary landscape of the United States is certainly being redefined.

Also, with the passing of Prop 2 in California yesterday, some animals that share our dinner plates also notched a victory. Despite efforts of the opposition, Salmonella outbreaks may fall to dangerously low levels by the year 2015.

Thanks to all of you who made your voices heard in this election. The final results are listed below.

Poll: Do you like Brussels sprouts?

Love em! 37%
Hate em! 12%
Skeptical, but willing to try 25%
Recent convert 25%

n = 8
(not a scientific poll)

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Considering Prop 2

by | Oct 29, 2008

Ask people what they think about Proposition 2, the California ballot initiative specifying “Standards for Confining Farm Animals,” and you will quickly find that few people know the details of the measure or what it might mean for Californians if it passes. As someone who cares deeply about what we eat and how it affects our health, I decided to investigate Prop 2 myself.

The initiative is only about 750 words. I encourage you to read the measure on your own, but I will summarize it here:

  • It applies only to egg-laying hens, pregnant pigs and veal calves in a farm setting.
  • It prohibits confinement of these animals in a way that prevents them from “lying down,” “standing up,” “fully extending” limbs and “turning around freely.”
  • Exceptions are made for research, veterinary care, transportation, rodeo, state fairs or 4-H programs, lawful slaughter and the seven days before a pig is expected to birth.
  • Compliance will be enforced beginning January 1, 2015.
  • Enforcement involves either a fine of less than $1000 or less than 180 days jail time.

There is no fine print or other dubious language in Prop 2. Nowhere does it demand a “cage-free” environment. Specific numbers on space requirements are not given. However, the vague language of the measure may be what is worrying some opponents.

In essence, this measure is about egg hens. Other states (Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon) have already passed measures to regulate the pig and veal industries, and there is little opposition to these elements of the California initiative. It is the $337 million egg industry that is at the center of this issue.

Supporters of Prop 2 offer several convincing arguments. As would be expected, cruelty to animals housed in crowded, unsanitary conditions is high on their list. They point to the industry’s practice of painfully removing the beaks of chickens to keep them from injuring each other, as well as the inability of hens to perform “natural” movements such as perching and dust bathing.

Supporters also point to the recent scandal at a Southern California egg ranch as evidence that the egg industry is not doing a good job of self-policing its practices.

Opponents argue that it is actually healthier for animals to remain in cages, because chickens sometimes choose to jump on top of each other when allowed to roam free (a phenomenon called “hysteria”). This, they say, makes the hens more likely to be smothered, injured and killed in cage-free settings compared to conventional cages. It is not obvious how much (if at all) this behavior may decrease the animals’ quality of life compared to existence in more confined quarters, though it may lower egg production to some extent.

Prop 2 does not specifically require a cage-free environment, but neither is it clear that bigger cages would meet the requirements of limb extension. As written, the measure may require current “battery cages” be replaced by larger “furnished” or “enriched” cages, but it could also demand the elimination of cages altogether. This confusion is why some call the initiative modest and others call it extreme.

There are certainly some supporters who argue that the egg industry is not required to entirely convert to cage-free practices, while other supporters (including the Yes! on Prop 2 Web site) simply argue that switching to cage-free will not be as burdensome as industry suggests. That cage requirements are not directly specified in the measure is one of its key weaknesses.

Proponents of Prop 2 also make a strong case for food safety issues, arguing that crowding, unsanitary and stressful conditions make hens and their eggs more susceptible to infection. Their argument acknowledges the tremendous progress in egg safety that was enacted in the 1970s, but purports that current crowding conditions have created new threats that make the measures inadequate, especially in regard to Salmonella.

Those against Prop 2 argue that the industry is already held to the highest standards. They also claim that free-range systems result in eggs that are even more likely to be contaminated than conventional eggs due to their potential contact with wild animals. Again, because Prop 2 does not specify if specific kinds of cages are permitted it is difficult to assess the validity of these arguments.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of Prop 2 is that it will likely strengthen small, family farms that do employ humane, safe practices. Currently, many small farms easily comply with the stipulations required by Prop 2. It has been difficult for some of these farms to compete with large industrial agriculture, which keep prices low with high production efficiency—the driving force behind animal overcrowding. Indeed, most of my personal favorite small farmers support Prop 2 (Bill Niman, Prather Ranch, Eatwell Farms, etc.).

Despite this, some opponents to Prop 2 including the San Francisco Chronicle suggest that the measure is in fact harmful to small farms. Specifically the Chronicle points to their conversation with Steve Mahrt of Petaluma Farms who argued that the “rigid language” of Prop 2 would be detrimental to his business. It is important to note, however, that Petaluma Farms is one of the largest industrial organic farms in California and does have financial motivations to keep other large industrial farms from competing with it in the cage-free egg market. Smaller farms do not threaten Petaluma Farms financially.

In my opinion, the best argument I have read against Prop 2 was outlined in a report issued in July by the University of California Agriculture Issues Center at Davis. The goal of the report was to assess the economic impact of Prop 2. They cite no financial conflict of interest in their analysis.

The authors of the report make a compelling case that Prop 2 will do little to change the way animals are housed in California. Instead, they suggest that the increased production cost for California egg farmers would result in the industry being unable to compete with other states that have more lenient animal standards. The consequence would be that the California egg market would be flooded with cheaper out-of-state eggs and most of the California egg industry would be eliminated. Currently California imports about one third of its eggs, suggesting that this issue of out-of-state competition is indeed a real threat to our egg industry.

This argument is persuasive because if the egg industry moves out of California it is more likely to reduce animal standards than increase them, thereby nullifying the objectives of Prop 2. It could also hurt local economies and potentially eliminate jobs for approximately 3,000 California employees. These are very serious risks for our state.

However, I am skeptical of many elements of the report. For instance, an assumption is made early on that neither conventional nor European-style “furnished” cages would be permitted under Prop 2. If this is the case it would effectively mandate cage-free systems for California egg growers. It is not clear to me if supporters of Prop 2 agree with this interpretation. Presumably an extended cage system (as opposed to cage-free) would have a substantially smaller impact on the production costs for egg farmers and the California economy as a whole.

Supporters of Prop 2 argue that the egg industry is not likely to leave California. Instead they claim this report is a scare tactic used by Prop 2 opponents. In 2006, an animal welfare measure for pigs and veal was passed in Arizona with similar economic arguments against it. The Arizona initiative ultimately passed with overwhelming support and, according to supporters, turned out to be a “catalyst for national reform.” Major pig and veal producers remained in Arizona and other large producers in the United States and Canada began phasing out inhumane practices within three months of the measure’s passing.

Whether or not a similar trend would begin in the egg industry is not clear. Something to consider is that major retailers such as Safeway and Burger King are already demanding higher animal standards because of consumer demand for improved safety, taste and nutritional value.

I also doubt the assertions in the report that health risks to animals and humans are increased under cage-free conditions. Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and stress are almost always more likely to foster disease than more humane conditions, so I question the credibility of this research. Additionally, the costs cited in the report are disputed by Prop 2 supporters who argue prices would go up only one cent per egg.

Honestly I do not trust the opponents of Prop 2. Much of the funding against the measure comes from industry giants who have themselves been found guilty of malpractice, animal cruelty and threats to public safety.

On the other hand, it is questionable if a California ballot initiative is the best place to combat issues with industrialized agriculture.

Regardless of your personal, philosophical or political reasons to support or oppose Prop 2, I encourage you all to remember that every day you make decisions that impact the food industry when you decide what to eat. We all vote with our forks whether we think about it or not. Prop 2 reminds us how important it is for us to ask ourselves if our choices are helping or hindering the growth of the world we want to live in.

This article is also available at Synapse.

For the record, I will be voting yes on Prop 2. I do not find the arguments against it convincing enough to let this opportunity pass. Industrial agriculture practices threaten our health in many ways including risk of disease outbreak, environmental pollution and decreased nutritional value. Restricting these irresponsible practices will ultimately make all our lives better and is worth the investment.

What do you think about Prop 2?

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On Food and Politics

by | Oct 16, 2008

This week the New York Times Magazine—centerfold of the New York Times Sunday edition—was dedicated to my favorite subject, food. As grain prices continue to rise and food safety comes under increasing scrutiny, food politics has emerged as a volatile, heated topic in the United States and around the globe.

In this issue Michael Pollan, best-selling author and UC Berkeley professor of journalism, pens an open letter to the next president of the U.S., “Farmer In Chief,” addressing the issue of food policy and painting it as a critical component of national security.

Pollan begins by pointing out the notable absence of food policy from the campaign trail and suggests that the time has come to give it due attention, because food will inevitably be central to the agenda of the next White House administration. The reason, he argues, is because our entire system of food production and distribution is critically dependent on inexpensive fuel, a luxury we “can no longer count on.” Furthermore, without crafting a new, sustainable agriculture and food policy the next administration will be unable to make meaningful progress on issues that have been central to the campaigns: energy independence, health care and climate change.

Our food system is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gases emitted by the U.S.—as high as 37 percent—thanks to agriculture practices, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, packaging, processing, distribution and those stinky cows. It is also the second largest consumer of fossil fuels—second only to automobiles—since chemical fertilizers are made from natural gas and pesticides from petroleum. As Pollan bluntly states, “when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

This same food system is also a significant contributor to our nation’s current health care crisis, as the largest increases in expenses are coming from diet-induced chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke (hypertension), type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Pollan asserts that a new food agenda is necessary for global trade as well, since cheap industrial food has caused the collapse of agriculture economies in dozens of developing countries. International trade will be stymied because these nations will now be forced to close their doors to American goods in order to rebuild their own systems.

In other words, food is a national security issue that is central to meeting the needs of the 21st century.

But while Pollan describes the current state of the agriculture and food industries as a crisis, he also strikes an unambiguous note of optimism by emphasizing this as a time of tremendous opportunity that can be seized by the incoming administration. Pollan proposes several goals for the new food agenda, with the primary message being that “we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.”

Our current system, Pollan argues, is not a product of free market enterprise, but rather reflects government policies that have supported quantity over quality from farmers. Massive government subsidies reward high output from the corn, soy bean, wheat and rice industries, resulting in artificially low food prices. Subsidies also discourage farmers from growing more diverse crops, while petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers allowed for the creation of vast monocultures on U.S. farms. Combined, these forces have dramatically increased U.S. agriculture productivity with just a handful of different crops.

This government-sponsored increase in production flooded our economy with artificially cheap processed grains and ultimately, cheap meat. The shift to monocultures on farms forced animals like cows to be moved off the land to feedlots. There cattle are bred to consume the inexpensive surplus grain (traditionally cows feed on grass), and undergo unnaturally quick weight gain.

The removal of animals from the farm has had several unfortunate side effects, not the least of which is the transformation of animal waste from a valuable fertilizer to an environmental pollutant. It also meant animals needed to start being treated with antibiotics “in order to survive their crowded, filthy and miserable existence.” Note that it is precisely these unsanitary feedlot conditions that lead to food safety issues such as E. coli outbreaks in our meat supply, as well as outbreaks of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Thus Pollan recommends the new administration focus on 1) Providing a healthy diet for everyone by advancing quality and diversity (rather than simply quantity) in growing practices, 2) Aiming to improve safety, security and resilience in our food supply by promoting regional, de-centralized food economies, and 3) Supporting agriculture as a solution to environmental problems such as pollution and climate change.

He goes on to outline an extensive agenda designed to answer these concerns. Key to Pollan’s proposal is shifting government subsidies away from monoculture crops to rewarding farmers for crop diversity and year-round farming practices (currently farms lay dormant from October to April). He also recommends the Food and Drug Administration ban the use of antibiotics in feedlots, thereby encouraging ranchers to use healthier and more environmentally friendly practices.

Pollan directly addresses the question of whether these new policies will be able to meet global food demands and admits that the future is uncertain, since such sweeping changes have never been tried. However he makes a compelling case that his policies can work, and that failing to try is not a practical option.

He argues that organic farmers today can produce nearly 80 to 100 percent yield compared to conventional farms on normal years and even exceed conventional farm production in drought years (since organic soil is more resilient). Moreover, worldwide production does not yet match that of organic farmers in the U.S., so there is much room for improvement globally.

But yield does not need to be the primary concern, because currently many of the calories produced in the U.S. are devoid of nutrients, such as those from high fructose corn syrup (from corn) and trans fat (from soy oil). Additionally, 40 percent of U.S. grain output is fed to animals (cattle, not humans) and 11 percent of the corn and soy bean crop is “fed to cars and trucks, in the form of biofuels.” Reducing demand for these items increases the amount of food available for human consumption.

Importantly, Pollan acknowledges that sweeping changes must be made in every step of the food chain, from farming to distribution to the American dinner plate. A new food culture must be developed in our nation and this effort ought to be headed by the new White House administration and the first family.

Pollan invokes images of President Reagan’s T.V. trays and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden on the White House lawn, urging the next president to step up and present his own family as an example for 21st century habits that the United States and the rest of the world must learn to embrace.

UPDATE: This article can also be found at Synapse.

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