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food safety

Food Policy News: Week of March 27

  • The USDA recently conducted a study of SNAP-based incentive programs, those which increase the value of SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets through matching funds or another mechanism. The goal of the Farmers Market Incentive Provider Study was to explore who is funding, operating, and supporting these programs in communities across the US. Wholesome Wave provided a nice summary of the findings, largely from a series of interviews, demonstrating that these programs rely heavily on steady funding streams and partnerships with community organizations to sustain them. [USDA Economic Research Service]
  • Early evidence suggests that Mexicans are drinking less sugary drinks in the wake of the country’s recent soda tax, which took effect in January. In response to the peso-per-liter tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, beverage companies like Coca-Cola have passed the tax burden down to consumers by raising prices. Beverage sales are predicted to fall by 6-7 percent as a result. [Bloomberg]
  • A recent community poll in Berkeley, CA demonstrated community support for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages – 66% of voters surveyed would support a penny-per-ounce tax if revenue went into the city’s general fund, and 64% would support a tax if the funding were devoted to nutrition and other community programs. The UC Berkeley student government also recently passed a tax on sugary drinks on campus to raise revenue for the student health center. [Berkeleyside]
  • The country of Denmark was able to eliminate salmonella in raw chicken by taking an upstream approach to food safety and adopting a “zero tolerance” policy. Human illness from salmonella is a huge problem in the United States, but taking a similar approach to Denmark isn’t feasible given the sheer size of our poultry industry (we processed 8.5 billion chickens in 2013), and the fractured nature of our food safety and inspection systems. A food safety overhaul in the U.S. is long overdue – but, in the meantime, I’d steer clear of chicken. [Food Safety News, Food Politics]

Nutrition & Health News, week of December 30th

  • Scientists  in Rotterdam funded by the U.S. have discovered a genetic process that makes the H5N1 (avian flu) virus airborne. Because the potent virus has over a 50% death rate in humans in its non-airborne form, government officials are hesitant to let the scientists publish their findings in order to “prevent the work from being replicated by terrorists, hostile governments or rogue scientists.” If released, the airborne virus could cause the most deadly flu pandemic yet. [New York Times]
  • Influential voices in health policy made their predictions on the fate of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and health care in 2012. The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision in early 2012 on whether or not the individual mandate (requiring everyone to have health insurance) is constitutional. The individual mandate is believed to be the linchpin of Obamacare. [Commonhealth]
  • Last week, the FDA withdrew a proposal that would prevent antibiotics from being put in animal feed. The proposal had been sitting in Congress since 1977, waiting indefinitely for more research to be conducted. Antibiotics given to farm animals are a well-known health risk to humans because, as Mark Bittman explains, “the animals become perfect breeding grounds for bacteria to gain resistance to the drugs, and our inadequate testing procedures allow them to make their way into stores and our guts.” Apparently the FDA doesn’t think this is a problem. [New York Times]
  • The USDA released the MyPlate SuperTracker, an online tool meant to help Americans maintain healthy weight by keeping track of their diets and physical activity. The tool allows for personalized recommendations and goal-setting based on meeting the 2011 Dietary Guidelines and the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines. It sounds cool – but will people actually use it? Check it out at [Obama Foodorama]

Nutrition & Health News, week of Sept. 16th

  • According to The Atlantic, the average American consumes a whopping 42 pounds of corn syrup every year. Yikes! Check out the graphic above to see what else we eat. [The Atlantic]
  • Yesterday, Michelle Obama announced a major commitment by Darden Restaurants (parent company of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Longhorn Steakhouse) to her Let’s Move! campaign. Darden will revamp its menus to create healthier options for kids’ meals and reduce sodium and overall calories by 10% in the next five years, with a long-term goal of 20% reduction. As FLOTUS said, this is an important step for the restaurant industry to take in making healthy options available for consumers. [Obama Foodorama]
  • SNAP (food stamps) beneficiaries in some states can use their benefits at fast food restaurants and Yum! Brands (which owns Taco Bell and KFC, among others) is attempting to expand this aspect of the program. The SNAP program is meant to provide supplemental foods to low-income families and, ideally, such foods would be nutritious. The issue prompted Marion Nestle (food policy expert) to chime in on how to prevent expansion from happening. [The Atlantic]
  • A new regulation by the USDA bans the sale of some cuts of beef known to be contaminated with potent strains of E. coli bacteria. These 6 strains (dubbed the “Big Six”) can cause extreme illness, sometimes resulting in death. Labeling them as adulterants is meant to protect the public by improving food safety. However, ground beef won’t be tested under the new rules despite the fact that it is a frequent source of foodborne illness. [Obama Foodorama]
  • Also in food safety news, the FDA announced the creation of the CORE Network (Coordinated Outbreak, Response & Evaluation), “created to manage not just outbreak response, but surveillance and post-response activities related to incidents involving multiple illnesses linked to FDA-regulated human and animal food and cosmetic products.” This is a change from the FDA’s previous approach to food safety – which entailed responding to outbreaks, but not doing an adequate job of preventing them – to more vigilant monitoring by full-time staff. [FDA]

Nutrition & Health News, week of July 1

  • The USDA has launched a new food safety ad campaign. While the information is nothing new (avoid cross-contamination while cooking, use a meat thermometer to ensure meats are fully cooked, etc), spreading the word via social media and television is new – and it’s about time! [USA Today]
  • Speaking of the USDA, food writer Kristin Wartman provides a MyPlate version emphasizing the “real food” diet rather than the industry-driven selection of foods provided by the USDA. While I agree with most of her selections, not all of them seem feasible for the average American and some are over-the-top (e.g. avoiding frozen vegetables). You can find her original critique of MyPlate here. [Kristin Wartman]
  • In an opinion piece in the New England Journal of Medicine, Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, weighs in on the food industry’s redesign of nutrition labels (called the Nutrition Keys), and concludes they are overall useless, potentially confusing, and untrustworthy. Instead of providing useful nutrition information, the redesigned labels allow companies to pick and choose which nutrients to highlight on the front of packaging. [GOOD]
  • Monday marked the start of the 2011 Boston Bounty Bucks Program, which allows participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps, to redeem their dollars for double value at Boston farmers’ markets. The Red Sox’s Big Baby and Mayor Menino were on hand to promote the program. [Herald]
  • Another cupcakery has opened in Downtown Crossing, right around the corner from recently opened Sweet. Will a cupcake war ensue? [Herald]

Enjoy your 4th of July!

Food Safety News: April 1st

In recent food policy and food safety news:

1. Will Americans be getting paid for backyard farming? Today, President Obama announced the Food Security and Sustainability Stimulus (FSASS), which will encourage Americans to engage with their food by providing tax credits for backyard farming. The FSASS would also establish a farm-worker safety program by combining the efforts of the USDA and Homeland Security.

2. The source of the pistachio salmonella contamination may have been found: raw nuts infected with the bacteria may have mingled with roasted pistachios at a processing plant. However, it’s unclear where the contaminated nuts ended up: “We know that the [pistachio] farm in California shipped its products to 36 wholesalers…But what we don’t know yet is what those wholesalers did with them — whether they were repackaged for consumers, or whether they were sold to manufacturers making ice cream or cookies or candies.” This outbreak could affect many food products in the end. [via NPR]

3. A look at the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 (HR875) reveals that yes, food safety improvements are planned (namely, the creation of a separate Food Safety Agency within the FDA and a stricter regulation and inspection protocol for food processing plants) but no, backyard gardening will not be outlawed. If you don’t feel like reading the 117 page HR875, read this summary about the bill and other related bills, such as the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act (HR759), which aims to completely restructure the FDA.

Read more:

“New Food Security and Sustainability Stimulus (FSASS) Announced” [Civil Eats]
“Stop the Hysteria! A Closer Look at HR875” [Civil Eats]
“Background on HR875” [Food & Water Watch]

The State of Food Safety in the U.S.

Well, here’s one more food you should avoid: pistachios. Today, a California company voluntarily recalled all pistachios shipped since Sept. 1, 2008 because they are thought to be contaminated with salmonella. This incident marks the second food scare of 2009 – after a year of multiple outbreaks of foodborne illness.

The past couple of years have been rife with outbreaks of foodborne illness – salmonella in peanuts, salmonella in jalapenos, E. coli in spinach – which should have led the FDA to reconsider it’s food safety procedures by now. Or, so you would think. Alas, the FDA and the rest of the big guys responsible for keeping our food supply safe and sanitary can’t seem to get their act together. A recent article in the NYT indicated that many food companies cannot identify who or where their supplies are coming from – just one reason that the Peanut Corporation of America is still recalling products nearly 2 months after they first discovered an outbreak of salmonella. So, what’s Obama to do about food safety?

read on…

Salmonella Update: Blame the Jalapenos!

Last week, the FDA lifted the salmonella warning on tomatoes, convinced that they were not to blame for the outbreak that has now infected people over 1,200 people in 42 states.

Since then, FDA officials have matched a strain of Salmonella Saintpaul to a strain found on jalapeño peppers packaged in Texas. However, it remains unclear whether the peppers were contaminated in the packaging plant or in Mexico, where they are grown. That the FDA is still searching for the source of contamination after four months of outbreak does not exactly inspire confidence in our food safety system.

Read more: “Salmonella Strain in Jalapeños is a Match” (NYT)

Salmonella Outbreak continues, FDA fumbling

“As Outbreak Affects 1,000, Experts See Flaws in Laws” (NYT)

The FDA and CDC are still looking for the source of the salmonella outbreak that has now sickened over 1,000 people 41 states. Only 25 of the cases were reported in Massachusetts. A couple weeks ago, tomatoes were the culprit – now it could be anything.

“It’s clear that the F.D.A. is not equipped to deal with a trace-back of the magnitude that they are dealing with right now,” said Mike Doyle, director of the center for food safety at the University of Georgia….But Dr. David A. Kessler, the F.D.A. commissioner in the Clinton and first Bush administrations, said the agency has the authority to require the industry to trace produce as it travels from “farm to table,” but has lacked “the impetus” to do so.

Good to know that the FDA will be there for us in the case terrorists get to our food supply – oh, wait, they might “lack the impetus to do so.”

And on the E. Coli front…

“Has Politics Contaminated the Food Supply?” (NYT Op-Ed, 12.11.06)

Since August, it seems that accounts of food poisoning have been in the news more often than not. With the Spinach and E. Coli outbreak in September, and another E. Coli outbreak (of the same strain) traced to green onions, it’s no surprise that the public is concerned about the state of food inspection in the U.S. Most Americans don’t realize that food inspection responsibilities are split between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and not very well regulated by any higher power in the government. So will the government step up and improve food inspection? We can only hope.

On that note, is E. Coli now being found in Iowa?
“14 hospitalized after dining at Iowa restaurant; E. Coli suspected” (

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