Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Where is the dairy checkoff Report to Congress?

Each year, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) sends an official Report to Congress summarizing the activities of the dairy checkoff program. Through this program, milk and dairy producers must pay a mandatory assessment -- like a tax -- to semi-public federal checkoff boards that use the funds for advertising and promotion.

As this blog has reported in the past, the annual reports make lively reading, laying bare the program's ambitions for raising dairy consumption through healthy and unhealthy methods alike. For example, in Feb 2014, we noted that the report described the program's partnerships with Domino's and other restaurant chains to get Americans -- who already consume astonishing amounts of pizza -- to yet further increase their average pizza consumption. The pizza partnerships appear in tension with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which also is overseen by USDA (jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services).

Recently, the AMS website has been redesigned. The dairy checkoff annual reports that formerly were posted there can no longer be found, at least for now. USDA may be intending to repost these reports as the website redesign proceeds. [Update Aug 20: AMS writes by email today that a link is now available to the archived reports from the website's pages for the fluid milk checkoff program and the dairy checkoff program. Thanks!]

Moreover, even though the annual Report to Congress is required under dairy checkoff program rules, AMS has not released a report for any year of program activities since 2012. The most recent report I have was a 2013 report covering the 2012 activities. When they become available, I look forward to reading the reports covering 2013 and 2014 activities. 

Dairy farmers may wonder at the scarcity and untimeliness of transparent information about the hundreds of millions of dollars they are forced to pay into these advertising and promotion programs. 

Yet, perhaps it is better to be a dairy farmer than a pork or beef producer. The other leading checkoff programs have no independent USDA Report to Congress at all. The only annual reports for beef and pork come straight from the checkoff programs themselves. In my experience, the dairy checkoff Report to Congress from AMS has always been more frank than the internal annual reports from the other programs, so the lack of timely posting seems like a loss for sound U.S. food policy-making.

Monday, August 17, 2015

U.S. Court of Appeals revives lawsuit over $60 million sale of "Pork the Other White Meat" slogan

In a setback for the federal "checkoff" generic advertising and promotion program for pork, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on August 14 revived a lawsuit (.pdf) brought by Iowa pork farmer Harvey Dillenburg and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Dillenburg and the HSUS objected to a 2006 deal in which the semi-public federal pork checkoff program agreed to pay $60 million to the National Pork Producers Council (a private-sector trade association). The U.S. Food Policy blog began investigating this strange transaction shortly afterwards, and I eventually filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to acquire the appraisal documents that supposedly justified this large payment. To this day, the checkoff program pays $3 million in producer money each year to the NPPC for the "Pork the Other White Meat" slogan, even though the slogan is barely used any more.

A lawsuit by Dillenburg and HSUS was dismissed in 2013, on grounds that Dillenburg lacked standing. The new ruling this week by the federal appeals court reversed the ruling, saying that it is plausible that Dillenburg and other pork farmers were harmed by the "sweetheart deal" between the pork checkoff program and the NPPC.

Some pork industry organizations may want to revise their smug 2013 press statements about the lawsuit's earlier dismissal. The lawsuit will proceed in the lower court on its merits. The U.S. Court of Appeals did not tell the lower court how to rule, but it did give an eloquent and coherent summary of the problems with the $60 million sale.

Some pork producers who follow this story may wonder about the way their money has been spent. Quite understandably, producers may not be too vocal in endorsing a lawsuit in which the Humane Society is a party, because the society has been critical of the pork industry on several grounds in the past. Still, I imagine that some pork producers who read the new ruling (.pdf) will find it sensible.

Read additional coverage by Jack Bouboushian at Courthouse News Service ("Pork Board Must Answer for Spending Millions on Dead Slogan") and by Agri-Pulse:
In court documents, the plaintiffs of the case claim the Pork Board “did not buy the slogan (from NPPC) for its value as a marketing tool.” Rather, they say the purchase - to be doled out in $3 million increments for the next 20 years - was used “as a means to cut a sweetheart deal with (NPPC) to keep (NPPC) in business and support its lobbying efforts.” They say the board “overpaid for the slogan” and that the Pork Board's shift to the “Pork: Be Inspired” campaign “makes the initial slogan all but worthless.”

U.S. pork producers and importers pay $0.40 per $100 of value when pigs are sold and when pigs or pork products are brought into the U.S. to fund the checkoff. It is a violation of the federal orders that established checkoffs to use funds for lobbying interests. In a blog post, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle called the ruling “a potentially enormous win for animal welfare groups, small farmers, and environmentalists - since they've all felt the wrath of the NPPC's intense lobbying efforts.”

Friday, August 07, 2015

Seeking your input on Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction

Please send any input as we take early steps toward planning a possible future second edition of Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan, 2013).
  • What topics would you like to see enhanced?
  • What new topics would you like to see introduced?
  • What current material should be corrected or clarified?
  • Where have you previously seen this book used in courses, and what were its strengths and weaknesses?
  • What new courses might this book serve with the right improvements?
Already on my "to do" list for possible development:
  • New online instructor materials,
  • Updated information about the 2014 Farm Bill and other recent legislation,
  • New material about food waste and food justice, and
  • Updated statistics for figures and tables, along with current hyperlinks to the data sources.
The new edition may retain the same basic "pitch" as the first edition (but do send advice on possible modifications):
This book offers a broad introduction to food policies in the United States. Real-world controversies and debates motivate the book’s attention to economic principles, policy analysis, nutrition science and contemporary data sources. It assumes that the reader's concern is not just the economic interests of farmers, but also includes nutrition, sustainable agriculture, the environment and food security. The book’s goal is to make US food policy more comprehensible to those inside and outside the agri-food sector whose interests and aspirations have been ignored.

The chapters cover US agriculture, food production and the environment, international agricultural trade, food and beverage manufacturing, food retail and restaurants, food safety, dietary guidance, food labeling, advertising and federal food assistance programs for the poor.
In revision, I would seek to preserve features that have been well-received in the first edition. Here is some of the intelligence we have about that reception after publication:
Your input will be influential. Please feel free to use my Tufts email, the comments field for this post, and/or Twitter @usfoodpolicy . Thanks!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Timothy Lytton on the role of litigation in constructive food safety policy

In this recent video interview with Food Safety News, legal scholar Timothy Lytton envisions a more constructive role for litigation in the next stages of development in food safety policy.

Lytton, previously the author of Kosher, describes the three main systems in food safety as (1) regulation, (2) private sector supply chain management, and (3) the liability system (or the tort system). He points out that engagement between regulators and industry supply chain managers has in some ways become more respectful and mutually beneficial. He sees potential in a similar conversation about the role of litigation in food safety policy, including industry managers, the tort system, and insurers at the table.

This topic needed a readable systematic summary. I look forward to Lytton's forthcoming book: Outbreak: the Evolution of the U.S. Food Safety System.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

What crops to grow in California?

In drought-ridden California, 80% of managed water supplies are used for agriculture.

You might think that California must consider severe cuts in agricultural production to conserve water. That would be painful, because agriculture is important to California. Just for starters, think of all the farmers and farm-workers whose livelihoods depend on agriculture.

Fortunately, it would be possible for California to reduce water use by a lot while reducing total agriculture production by just a little.

A new brief (.pdf) from Heather Cooley at the Pacific Institute has two highly relevant figures.

Figure 2 shows that alfalfa is responsible for the most total water use (5.2 million acre-feet). Rice (ranked fourth) and corn (ranked sixth) are also major drinkers of total water.

Figure 2. Applied Water for California Crops in 2010. Source: Cooley (2015). Data: CA Department of Water Resources.

Figure 5 shows that these same three crops -- alfalfa, rice, and corn -- offer the lowest agricultural value per unit of water consumed ($ per acre-foot).

Figure 5. Economic Productivity of Water in 2010 for Select Crops Grown in California. Source: Cooley (2015). Data: CA Department of Water Resources.

Though Cooley's accompanying narrative makes the point exceedingly gently, this report has an important implication. If California agriculture reduced water use in alfalfa, rice, and corn by a large volume (in millions of acre-feet statewide), the value of agricultural production in California would fall by a comparatively small amount (in millions of dollars statewide). Alfalfa and corn are important animal feeds in California, so this change would require dairies and meat producers to bring in feed from other states, or reduce their own production. Yet, that could make more sense than growing water-intensive animal feeds in a dry state.

How could California reduce the assignment of water to alfalfa, rice, and corn? Having some type of government board make the change would be highly controversial. It makes more sense for the state to remove policies that allow these crop producers to claim water at far below its proper economic cost. These three crops would not disappear from California (certainly not!), but this sensible policy change would reduce production in these three crops to a degree.

If there were unlimited water, we would not need to make difficult choices. But there is not enough water, and hard choices are required. For California, reducing total water for alfalfa, rice, and corn seems like one of the least painful approaches.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Making a living as a farmer?

In a commentary titled, "A Farmer's Double Life," in the new edition of Tufts Nutrition, my Friedman School colleagues Jennifer Hashley and Samuel Anderson reflect on whether it is right or wrong that most small farmers also rely on off-farm income.

They discuss the experience of farmers they met through the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts:
While they’d love to scale up to be full-time farmers someday, they know that it will take years to reach that point. In the meantime, they need to keep an off-farm job in order to maintain a livelihood, like the two New Entry graduates who farm their leased land but also work 30 or more hours a week as certified nursing assistants. Many may not have full-time farming income as a goal in the first place, instead seeking to farm parttime for supplementary income and to contribute to their local food system. Perhaps the American small-scale farmer is most often a part-time farmer—but is that necessarily a problem?
The commentary reminded me of a tweet this week, torn between desire to encourage young people in farming and concern about the dubious income prospects.
As always, it's useful to bring some real numbers into the discussion. It is widely recognized that national average farm income statistics can be misinterpreted, because they intermingle such diverse farms of all sizes. Fortunately, USDA provides a helpful typology.
  • Residence farms: Farms with less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income and where the principal operator is either retired or has a primary occupation other than farming.  
  • Intermediate farms: Farms with less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income and a principal operator whose primary occupation is farming.
  • Commercial farms: Farms with $350,000 or more gross cash farm income and nonfamily farms. 
In my rough summary of the USDA data using this typology: (a) "residence farmers" get by with non-farm income, (b) "intermediate farms" with annual farm revenue less than $350k have it most rough, and (c) "commercial farms" with annual farm revenue greater than $350k do well with farm income.

Somewhat in the spirit of Hashley and Anderson's commentary, I find this income table realistic rather than highly distressing. Many small farmers may find they need off-farm income to get by. If you want to go into farming full-time -- whether organic, conventional, or something in between -- it is good to contemplate your capacity for reaching close to the commercial scale in the third column.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Let's call these ingredients "Sometimes Considered as Mostly Safe" (SCAMS)

New reports by the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Science in the Public Interest suggest that some food ingredients have been falling through the cracks, with nobody in authority confirming that they are safe [slight edit 4/21].

By law, the federal government has long accepted food ingredients that are "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS), without the need for elaborate testing. For example, GRAS rightly allows long-accepted ingredients such as vinegar to be used without unnecessary testing procedures.

The new reports note many examples where ingredients that are classified as GRAS have been allergenic, have been suspected of being carcinogens, or never were submitted for FDA review (becuase such review is sometimes optional). In some cases, ingredients were submitted for FDA review for consideration as GRAS, and then withdrawn because FDA had questions, but these ingredients ended up in the food supply anyway.

The Center for Public Integrity writes:
Critics of the system say the biggest concern, however, is that companies regularly introduce new additives without ever informing the FDA. That means people are consuming foods with added flavors, preservatives and other ingredients that are not at all reviewed by regulators for immediate dangers or long-term health effects.
Overall, most food safety officials with the companies involved quite probably are mostly confident the food ingredients are safe for most people (especially those without allergies), and felt it would be overkill to subject the ingredients to a large volume of testing. In most cases, the companies probably are correct.

In such cases, though, let's stop calling such food ingredients "GRAS." From now on, more truthfully, let's call new ingredients that lack FDA review: Sometimes Considered as Mostly Safe " (SCAMS).