Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Still here, but Hands Dirty

The stoop labour at Red Lane (and trying to catch up with digging and shipping after all the bad weather), and getting the vegetable garden up and going,  has kept me from the keyboard, and exhaustion means I haven't got much to say, other than my gratitude to all who get their hands dirty  for all they do to keep people fed. We have about six weeks of heavy going through the year, and I know I'm better off physically because of it, and it's a choice, so don't take any of this as a complaint.

Thankfully others are thinking and writing about food, so a couple of pieces of interest.


Food prices to double by 2030, Oxfam warns
May 31, 2011 •

The average price of staple foods will more than double in the next 20 years, leading to an unprecedented reversal in human development, Oxfam has warned.

The world's poorest people, who spend up to 80% of their income of food1, will be hit hardest according to the charity. It said the world is entering an era of permanent food crisis, which is likely to be accompanied by political unrest and will require radical reform of the international food system.

Research to be published on Wednesday forecasts international prices of staples such as maize could rise by as much as 180% by 2030, with half of that rise due to the impacts of climate change.

After decades of steady decline in the number of hungry people around the world, the numbers are rapidly increasing as demand outpaces food production. The average growth rate in agricultural yields has almost halved since 1990 and is set to decline to a fraction of 1% in the next decade.

A devastating combination of factors – climate change, depleting natural resources, a global scramble for land and water, the rush to turn food into biofuels2, a growing global population, and changing diets – have created the conditions for an increase in deep poverty3.

"We are sleepwalking towards an age of avoidable crisis," Oxfam's chief executive, Barbara Stocking, said. "One in seven people on the planet go hungry every day despite the fact that the world is capable of feeding everyone. The food system must be overhauled."

Oxfam called on the prime minister, David Cameron, and other G204 leaders to agree new rules to govern food markets. It wants greater regulation of commodities markets to contain volatility in prices.

It said global food reserves must be urgently increased and western governments must end biofuels policies that divert food to fuel for cars.

It also attacked excessive corporate concentration in the food sector, particularly in grain trading and in seed and agrochemicals.

The Oxfam report followed warnings from the UN last week that food prices are likely to hit new highs in the next few weeks, triggering unrest in developing countries. The average global price of cereals jumped by 71% to a new record in the year to April last month.

Drought in the major crop-growing areas of Europe and intense rain and tornadoes in the US have led to fears of shortfalls in this year's crops.

The World Bank warned last month that rising food prices have pushed 44 million people into poverty since last June.


Toll climbs in European E. coli outbreak
by JESSICA LEEDER  •  May 31, 2011 •

An E. coli outbreak that is ravaging Germany and other parts of Europe – and has prompted government officials there to issue a warning to consumers tempted by raw salad vegetables – is on pace to set a global record.

At least 14 people have died and more than 1,200 have been sickened – 329 seriously – by a rare strain of E. coli that has been linked, although not definitively, to cucumbers imported from Spain. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has described the outbreak as “one of the largest worldwide and the largest ever reported in Germany.”

Food safety officials have been struggling for more than two weeks to pin down the precise source of the adulterant, which first surfaced in Hamburg and has since hit people in Britain, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, most of whom travelled recently in northern Germany.

The ambiguity, coupled with the continuing flood of fatalities, prompted Belgium and Russia to ban vegetable imports from Spain outright while Germany continues its investigation into the source. Fears have prompted the removal of Spanish cucumbers from shelves in the Czech Republic, France and Austria. The boycott prompted Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar to lash out in denial on Monday and to suggest her producers ought to be compensated.

“Our understanding is that the problem does not come from the [country of] origin,” Ms. Aguilar told Agence France-Presse. “The image of Spain is being damaged, Spanish producers are being damaged and the Spanish government is not prepared to accept this situation,” she said.

The bug

Unique to the outbreak is the rare strain of E. coli, called 0104. More common in cases of food-borne illness is E. coli 0157:H7, the culprit in recent cases of tainted hamburger, cookie dough and lettuce affecting the United States and Canada.

Both strains of E. coli produce Shiga toxins, one of the most potent toxins in existence known to cause full-blown haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a disease that causes bloody diarrhea, liver and kidney damage and in some cases, death. Doctors everywhere struggle to treat the illness.

E. coli has several characteristics that make the organisms dangerous. Present in the intestines of animals and humans, they can survive for long periods on non-sterile surfaces – think countertops, vegetable skins or anywhere from field to table. It takes only a small dose of them to wreak havoc on an immune system.

The carriers

Second to beef, leafy vegetables are the most common sources of E. coli-related illnesses. While beef is often contaminated during processing (manure-coated cowhide can come into contact with raw meat, providing a gateway for E. coli into the supply chain), the bacteria is usually killed during high-temperature cooking processes.

With raw vegetables, it’s a different story. If grown outdoors, vegetables can become contaminated with E. coli carried by chicken, deer, sheep, cattle or pigs snacking in the spinach patch, or with water that has itself been contaminated by feces from one of those animals.

While washing vegetables well usually removes bacteria, sometimes it can grow right into the plant structure. In those rare cases, washing the lettuce or vegetable is a futile effort. The bacteria will remain unless the vegetables are cooked at a temperature hot enough to kill them off. Eaten raw, contaminated vegetables can be deadly. This can occur in any country, regardless of the rigour of its food-safety system.

A problem in need of a global solution

German food safety officials have yet to pinpoint where E. coli entered their food chain. Regardless of where the weak point lurks, food-safety experts say the solution is a more robust global recall system.

A 2008 study done by AMR Research found that, on average, it takes 18 days for large food manufacturers to sense the need for a recall and issue one. There is no question of the need to narrow that timeline – cutting it down would potentially reduce the number of sicknesses in a given outbreak. Robert Tauxe, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s deputy director of food-borne, bacterial and mycotic diseases, said during a talk last year that there is no consensus on how to do this.

Governments cannot force retailers or manufacturers to issue recalls. Establishing the need and scope of a recall hinges on how many cases of a particular illness have been recorded by public health authorities. But the system of collating records of those cases is imperfect: Not all doctors are aware of the importance of reporting food-related illnesses to regional health authorities; not all regional authorities that get the information send it on to the appropriate provincial, state or national officials given the task of identifying illness clusters that are less concentrated in our increasingly global food system.

When illness clusters are identified and recalls are issued, few proceed smoothly. There is no universal labelling system for food; a wholesaler might work with 10 different labelling or packaging systems customized to the likes of 10 different suppliers who may or may not repackage the product for an end customer. With unbranded fresh fruit and vegetables that come unmarked in large boxes and are mixed with other similar-sized vegetables from different suppliers before being loaded onto grocery shelves, recalls are extremely tough to manage.

John Keogh, senior vice-president responsible for product safety and recalls for GS1, a global non-profit industry standards group, said the solution is a global standard for product recalls.

Developed by GS1 over the past two years, the system is being implemented by Australia and New Zealand this year. The hope is that other countries, including Germany, where officials met with Mr. Keogh recently, will follow suit.

Without one, the international community will continue to struggle through outbreaks. “They’re not all talking the same language,” he said.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

It's Time for Some Good News... But Not Just Yet

I admire writers who try to take a "big picture" look at things, and when it comes to some of the serious environmental challenges we face like climate change,  use sarcasm (humour??) to get people to think. I think Bill McKibben has done both here.

Stay Calm and Carry On
May 24, 2011 •

Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble from this week's shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history)? No, that doesn't mean a thing.

It is far better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning across Texas -- fires that have burned more of America at this point this year than any wildfires have in previous years. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they've ever been -- the drought is worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if they're somehow connected.

If you did wonder, you see, you would also have to wonder about whether this year's record snowfalls and rainfalls across the Midwest -- resulting in record flooding along the Mississippi -- could somehow be related. And then you might find your thoughts wandering to, oh, global warming, and to the fact that climatologists have been predicting for years that as we flood the atmosphere with carbon we will also start both drying and flooding the planet, since warm air holds more water vapor than cold air.

It's far smarter to repeat to yourself the comforting mantra that no single weather event can ever be directly tied to climate change. There have been tornadoes before, and floods -- that's the important thing. Just be careful to make sure you don't let yourself wonder why all these record-breaking events are happening in such proximity -- that is, why there have been unprecedented megafloods in Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan in the past year. Why it's just now that the Arctic has melted for the first time in thousands of years. No, better to focus on the immediate casualties, watch the videotape from the store cameras as the shelves are blown over. Look at the news anchorman standing in his waders in the rising river as the water approaches his chest.

Because if you asked yourself what it meant that the Amazon has just come through its second hundred-year drought in the past five years, or that the pine forests across the western part of this continent have been obliterated by a beetle in the past decade -- well, you might have to ask other questions. Such as: Should President Obama really just have opened a huge swath of Wyoming to new coal mining? Should Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sign a permit this summer allowing a huge new pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta? You might also have to ask yourself: Do we have a bigger problem than $4-a-gallon gasoline?

Better to join with the U.S. House of Representatives, which voted 240 to 184 this spring to defeat a resolution saying simply that "climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare." Propose your own physics; ignore physics altogether. Just don't start asking yourself whether there might be some relation among last year's failed grain harvest from the Russian heat wave, and Queensland's failed grain harvest from its record flood, and France's and Germany's current drought-related crop failures, and the death of the winter wheat crop in Texas, and the inability of Midwestern farmers to get corn planted in their sodden fields. Surely the record food prices are just freak outliers, not signs of anything systemic.

It's very important to stay calm. If you got upset about any of this, you might forget how important it is not to disrupt the record profits of our fossil fuel companies. If worst ever did come to worst, it's reassuring to remember what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told the Environmental Protection Agency in a recent filing: that there's no need to worry because "populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations." I'm pretty sure that's what residents are telling themselves in Joplin today.

This piece originally appeared in Tuesday, May 24th's Washington Post.

Follow Bill McKibben on Twitter: www.twitter.com/billmckibben

Monday, 23 May 2011

Taking Responsibility

I've highlighted some of  the columns of George Monbiot before. He had a particularly good one today. It shows how we all have to think a little harder about personal and national responsibilities. The politicians may be a little unfamiliar, but the dishonest effort to "solve" problems will feel familiar.


Cameron's 'green growth' policy looks naive today. It will look cynical in 2027

The Good, the Bad, and Definitely the Ugly

It's been stooped labour time at Red Lane Gardens. We're weeks behind digging and shipping because of the rain, now a postal strike could be a further difficulty. I have three posts half way done, but they need more work. An aching back isn't helping.

But a couple of things worth noting:

One of the smartest things I heard about food safety is that it's not the food you trust, but the farmer. That's the case if you're lucky enough to be close to where the food is produced, much more difficult living in a city with supply lines that can run thousands of kilometers. That's when the the big food retailers stand in for farmers, and they know they have a lot at stake if things go wrong.

One story comes from an increasing effort by the media in China (with the support of the Communist Party) to be investigate and report on dangerous farming practices (the exploding watermelons got a lot of press, but there's more going on.) The story even says that the Chinese who can afford it look for imported food.

The second story is more positive, the continued growth of organic farming in Europe.


Exploding watermelons put spotlight on Chinese farming practices

Monday, 16 May 2011

More on the Marketing Chain (and Claims)

I wrote last time about the difficulty people at the bottom end of the "marketing chain" (farmers, fishermen, initial processors) have to recover their costs, even think about making a profit.  In the last few years people trying to fix this have started referring to what's called "the value chain" instead.  This is from the Commission on the future of agriculture on PEI:

"Agriculture is not an entity unto itself, of course,
but an integral part of broader society. Agricultural
profitability requires that all of the links in the agrifood
value chain find strategies to ensure long-term
economic health, and especially at the primary
production level where return on investment has
been inadequate for farm viability."

"The Commission found that, historically, the
PEI agriculture and agri-food industry had great
success cultivating traditional, mixed-farm agrarian
agriculture. This “first wave” of the industry was
rooted in the agrarian models of the 19th and early
20th centuries. However, by the 1990s, farms had
grown in size to industrial scale, and the industry
adopted a “second wave” characterized by a trend
toward fewer but more specialized farms, and a
concentration of processing and retail, declining
economic viability, and environmental degradation.
This wave is unsustainable; PEI farmers have found
themselves unable to prosper by competing in these
globalized, efficiency-driven commodity markets.
Today, the sector must embark on a “third wave”
based on innovation and re-forged relationships
between farmers and suppliers, researchers,
processors, consumers, and governments."

As I wrote in earlier posts,  it's the loss of relationships in the marketing chain that in my mind is an under-reported  cause of the economic deterioration on farms and fishing boats. Food wholesalers and retailers have moved to centralize their buying and distribution, usually in large centres, with tough-minded buyers with a very clear message, find out where you can get the cheapest price, and make sure your normal suppliers aren't charging a penny more.  It sounds quaint, but there was a time when vegetable growers, dealers, and buyers say themselves as part of a larger "family", where there was some sense of shared interests and values. I'm told that has completely disappeared, that only the bottom line rules.

Whenever I had to cover speeches at various "service clubs" like Rotary, Lions or  Kinsmen (people who do an enormous of good let me add), I was always struck by the strong business connections at play too, people who obviously looked for opportunities to help each other over time. It's not always fair to newcomers, but it's a crucial function in any successful economy, and the newcomers can earn trust and build their own relationships over time.   It's those understandings, trust really, that can make a good business relationship. Simply demanding the lowest price, knowing if this person won't give it to you someone else will, is something completely different. If "value chain" means re-kindling positive relationships, knowing what your customer wants and supplying it, but getting a fair price in return, then I'm all for it.

As for "marketing claims", we know that supermarket aisles have come to look almost like a pharmacy. Here's a piece from the New York Times on reading the fine print.


Foods With Benefits, or So They Say

by NATASHA SINGER  •  May 14, 2011
START in Aisle 2, third shelf from the bottom: here is grape juice for your heart. Over to Aisle 4: there are frozen carrots for your eyes.
In Aisle 5: vitamin-packed water for your immune system. In the dairy case: probiotic yogurt for your insides and milk for your brain.
Push a cart through the D’Agostino store in Midtown Manhattan, or any supermarket anywhere in America, and you just might start believing in miracles — or at least in miracle foods.
In aisle after aisle, wonders beckon. Foods and drinks to help your heart, lower your cholesterol1, trim your tummy, coddle your colon. Toss them into your cart and you might feel better. Heck, you might even live longer.
Or not. Because this, shoppers, is the question: Are all these products really healthy, or are some of them just hyped?
The answer to that question matters to millions of Americans who are wagering their money and their waistlines on hot new products in the grocery aisles called “functional foods.”
Food giants like Dannon, Kellogg and General Mills don’t claim these products actually prevent or cure diseases. Such declarations would run afoul of federal regulations. Nor do they sell them as medical foods, which are intended to be consumed under a doctor’s supervision.
Rather, food companies market functional foods with health-promoting or wellness-maintaining properties. Such claims are perfectly legal, provided that they are backed up by some credible science.
All those heart-healthy red hearts on your box of Quaker Oats cereal or that can of Planters peanuts? That happy-colon yellow arrow on the tub of Activia yogurt? It’s all part of the marketing of functional food.
Over the past decade, despite all those sales pitches for “natural,” “organic” and “whole” foods, functional food has turned into a big business for Big Food. And more Americans are buying into the functional story. Sales of these foods and beverages totaled $37.3 billion in the United States in 2009, up from $28.2 billion in 2005, according to estimates from the Nutrition Business Journal, a market research firm.
But as sales soar, federal regulators worry that some packaged foods that scream healthy on their labels are in fact no healthier than many ordinary brands. Federal Trade Commission officials have been cracking down on products that, in their view, make dubious or exaggerated claims. Overwhelmed regulators concede that they are struggling to police this booming market, despite recent settlements with makers of brands like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Dannon’s Activia, which the authorities say oversold their health benefits.
Consumer advocates and some nutritionists are equally blunt. They say shoppers are being bamboozled by slick marketing. Many people grab products with healthy claims on the front of the package and overlook crucial nutritional information, like calorie counts, in the small print on the back.
“Functional foods, they are not about health,” says Marion Nestle2, a professor of nutrition3, food studies and public health at New York University. “They are about marketing.”
Walk through any supermarket, and you’ll see what Ms. Nestle means.
Here in Aisle 2 is a box of Quaker Oatmeal Squares cereal, made by the Quaker Oats Company. The front of the box, in large white print, proclaims: “Oatmeal helps reduce cholesterol!” Scientists generally agree that fiber4 can be good for your heart. But read the adjacent smaller print, which the Food and Drug Administration5 requires, and you’ll find that one serving of Quaker Oatmeal Squares contains only a third of the amount of soluble fiber needed daily to help reduce the risk of heart disease. In other words, you may have to eat three bowls of cereal daily — 630 calories6’ worth, without milk — to benefit.
Down the aisle is Welch’s 100% Grape Juice, with no fat and emblazoned with a red-heart certification from the American Heart Association. An eight-ounce glass has 36 grams of sugar; a regular-sized Snickers, by comparison, has 30.
No one is saying that these products are unsafe or unhealthy, or that there isn’t science behind them. But nutritionists like Ms. Nestle contend that the kaleidoscopic array of functional foods on offer, with all those different claims, has left many consumers confused about the products’ actual health value. And, in some cases, regulators say, manufacturers are bending, or even breaking, the rules about how they market these products.
“If people can’t rely on even the most trusted food brands to have good science backing up their claims, who can they rely on?” asks Mary K. Engle, the director of the advertising practices division at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington.

“LET food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food,” Hippocrates said 2,500 years ago. We’ve always known that some foods are better for us than others. But it took a little science and a lot of marketing to turn the concept into a global, multibillion-dollar industry.
The idea isn’t new. Coca-Cola was first sold as a nerve tonic. In 1897, C. W. Post pitched Grape-Nuts as “a food for brain and nerve centers.” Over the years, manufacturers have added iodine to salt to combat goiter, and Vitamin D to milk to fight rickets. The 1960s turned bean sprouts and nuts into health food. In the ’70s, Dannon, in a commercial that seems tame by today’s standards, said people in Soviet Georgia ate a lot of yogurt and, guess what? Many of them lived past 100.
Today, companies promote myriad processed foods that have been loaded with vitamins and nutrients, or contain a potentially beneficial ingredient, as wellness aids. For many, these healthified foods have become the new health food. Many Americans are willing to pay a premium for ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat and on-the-go foods that seem to promise shortcuts to healthier living.
Manufacturers prefer to think of their products as foods with added benefits, from reduced-fat snacks and desserts to enhanced dairy items.
In Mexico, for example, Nestlé has introduced a fermented milk drink called Svelty Gastro Protect to help control certain bacteria that can cause stomach inflammation. In the United States, the company markets Dreyer’s Slow Churned, a reduced-fat ice cream designed to increase satiety.
“We are not adding a small magic compound that is going to have health activity,” says Laurent Fay, head of the nutrition and health department at the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland. “We are targeting our science toward benefits and, for each of these benefits, we develop a research program.”
Economists have a term for these sorts of products: credence goods. Most people can’t evaluate the claims for such products, like functional foods and medical treatments. So they rely on experts and regulators.
“The majority of American consumers really believe in the concept that certain foods provide benefits that go beyond basic nutrition or reduce the risk of disease,” says Wendy Reinhardt-Kapsak, the senior director of health and wellness at the International Food Information Council, an industry-financed group specializing in health and nutrition information. “Most of the big companies are making those claims within the letter of the law.”
Most, regulators say, but not all. Over the last two years, the F.T.C., which oversees food advertising, has filed complaints of deceptive marketing against Kellogg, Dannon and a subsidiary of Nestlé.
None of the companies have admitted wrongdoing. But each has separately settled with the agency, agreeing to certain restrictions on health-related claims.
The agency’s concern, says David C. Vladeck, director of its bureau of consumer protection, is not only that people might be paying more for foods that are no more healthful than other brands. At a time when millions lack health insurance, he also worries that people who buy foods that, for instance, claim to bolster immunity or reduce the risk of prostate cancer might forgo a flu shot or a doctor’s visit.
“If people are going to spend their money for health benefits,” Mr. Vladeck says, “they ought to get them.”
Still, regulators at the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees food labeling, say it has been hard to curb every questionable claim.
Michael R. Taylor, the F.D.A.’s deputy commissioner for foods, has acknowledged that the agency is acutely aware that as soon as it proves that one claim is misleading, savvy market-types may dream up another. “Going after them one by one with the legal and resource restraints we work under is a little like playing Whac-A-Mole, with one hand tied behind your back,” Mr. Taylor wrote last year on TheAtlantic.com.
JAMIE LEE CURTIS, with an I-feel-your-pain expression, sits on the couch and rubs her tummy.
“Eighty-seven percent of this country suffers from digestive issues like occasional irregularity,” Ms. Curtis says. “Now the good news: I just discovered a yogurt called Activia that can help.”
This TV commercial — which was later mercilessly spoofed on “Saturday Night Live” — featured an animated diagram in which yellow dots were superimposed over a woman’s abdomen. At first, they all clumped together; then, as if by magic, they transformed into a yellow-dotted downward arrow. “Activia eaten every day is clinically proven to help regulate your digestive system in two weeks,” the voiceover explained.
Regulators later concluded that the commercials, and similar claims on Activia packages, were deceptive. The F.T.C. said Dannon exaggerated its science about the yogurt’s effect on what is delicately known as “intestinal transit time.” Many of the company’s scientific studies actually found that Activia helped no more than a placebo, Ms. Engle says. And while probiotics in Activia may support digestion, the studies that reported an improvement involved people eating the yogurt three times a day, Ms. Engle says — something not mentioned in the ads.
“That was a false claim,” Ms. Engle said of the “improved transit time.”
Dannon agreed to a settlement with the F.T.C. in December. While Dannon did not admit any wrongdoing — standard procedure in such cases — the F.T.C. prohibited it from marketing Activia to relieve temporary irregularity or improve “transit time” unless it also says to consume three servings a day.
Dannon also agreed to drop certain claims on DanActive, a dairy drink, and to pay $21 million to states to resolve related investigations by 39 state attorneys general.
Miguel Freitas, Dannon’s director of health affairs, says that, taken together, the studies on Activia demonstrate that the yogurt can benefit digestive health.

Activia’s main claim — that the yogurt helps support the digestive system — is accurate and will remain on the product labels, says Philippe Caradec, Dannon’s vice president for regulatory and corporate affairs. “We feel very confident that, after a long review, the essence of the claim we are making remains intact,” he says.
Last month, Activia packages with the prohibited “intestinal transit” claim and May expiration dates were still on sale in some supermarkets, alongside updated Activia packages without the claim and the yellow arrow.
Michael Neuwirth, a Dannon spokesman, says that the company began changing Activia packaging in March and that, as of April 15, all packaging leaving factories had been revised.
Ms. Engle of the F.T.C. disagreed, saying the agency’s order, finalized in January, does not allow Dannon to use up old Activia packages with “violative claims on them.”
THE classroom teacher had just lost her place in the lesson when a child in the back row piped up.
“We were on the third paragraph of Page 57,” the boy volunteered, “and you were explaining that the stone structures made by ancient Romans were called aqueducts.”
Why so attentive? The voiceover in the TV ad explained: “A clinical study showed kids who had a filling breakfast of Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal improved their attentiveness by nearly 20 percent.”
Sounds great. But regulators weren’t so sure. They said the Kellogg ad, like Activia’s, was deceptive. Kellogg had indeed commissioned a study that compared children who ate Frosted Mini-Wheats for breakfast with children who had only water for breakfast. But only about half the children in the Mini-Wheats camp showed any improvement in attentiveness after three hours, compared with their baseline before breakfast, according to the F.T.C., which filed its complaint in 2009.
Kellogg agreed to a settlement with the agency, which has prohibited the company from marketing breakfast or snack foods to improve cognitive health unless it has reliable scientific evidence that they do.
Celeste A. Clark, senior vice president for global public policy and external relations at Kellogg, said in an e-mail that the company stands behind the validity of the clinical study and adjusted its marketing more than two years ago to reflect the F.T.C. guidance.
But last June, the agency cited Kellogg again, this time alleging that Rice Krispies cereal had made questionable health claims about children’s immunity. Regulators cited cereal boxes that featured Snap, Crackle and Pop, dressed in superhero capes, standing in front of a shield that says, “Helping to support your family’s immunity.”
In an expanded order, the F.T.C. prohibited Kellogg from making claims about any health benefit of any food — again, unless they are backed by rigorous science and are not misleading.
Dr. Clark, the Kellogg executive, said the company voluntarily discontinued use of the claim on Rice Krispies packages more than a year ago.
To protect consumers, the F.D.A., which oversees food labels, has a variety of rules on label claims. It maintains a short list of bona fide “health claims” that are backed by generally accepted science and have regulatory preapproval. These include statements like “diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.”
The F.D.A. also permits more general package claims about how a nutrient can promote the normal functioning of the body, like “calcium supports strong bones.” The more general claims don’t require agency preapproval.
Conventional foods, though, are prohibited from being marketed like drugs to prevent, mitigate or cure disease.
But regulators say they are concerned about incidents in which marketing crossed a line.
Last year, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the commissioner of the F.D.A., wrote an open letter to the food industry in which she warned that “misleading ‘healthy’ claims continue to appear on foods” that are not by definition healthy.
The situation is clearer in Europe, where the European Food Safety Authority has set up an independent panel of experts to vet every health claim. Food makers submit applications with scientific evidence for a specific claim — about whether, say, a proprietary strain of bacteria improves intestinal well-being. The panel then reviews each case and issues an opinion on whether the evidence shows that eating the food indeed causes the advertised effect.
The group is currently finishing its review of some 2,700 claims, says Albert Flynn, a professor of nutrition at University College Cork in Ireland who is chairman of the panel. Next year, the agency is expected to issue a list of approved health claims, making food shopping less confusing — at least for consumers in Europe.

“The only claims that will be approved are those that have been shown to be backed by science,” Professor Flynn says, “so consumers can be confident that the claims can be believed.”
POM WONDERFUL has long championed the power of pomegranate juice.
“Cheat death,” one of its billboard ads exhorted, as Pom’s zaftig little bottle sported a noose.
“Death defying,” said another, on which the bottle balances on a tightrope.
“Drink to prostate health,” urged a magazine ad, which then described a small, preliminary study that found that men who had been treated for prostate cancer experienced a decline in a telltale blood protein after drinking pomegranate juice daily for two years. “Sometimes, good medicine can taste great,” the ad concluded.
Pom Wonderful says it has spent about $34 million to sponsor pomegranate research. Sixty-five of those studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals, says Lynda Resnick, a California entrepreneur who founded Pom with her husband, Stewart Resnick.
“Our research has indicated that it’s good for circulation and reducing inflammation,” Mrs. Resnick says. “It has shown benefit with prostate cancer, enormous benefit with prostate cancer, and general heart health, cardiovascular health, erectile dysfunction.”
But last year, the F.D.A. accused the company of violating of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by marketing its juices and supplements as treatments for disease.
The F.T.C., meanwhile, said the company employed misleading marketing, contending that Pom had exaggerated or overstated research results in advertising, on the Web and in press communications. The prostate cancer study cited in the ad, for example, concluded that further research was needed to determine whether the improved blood scores would result in a concrete medical benefit, according to the agency’s complaint.
Pom denies that it is misleading anyone. The First Amendment protects commercial speech that is truthful and not misleading, Mrs. Resnick says. Companies have a constitutional right to publicly discuss their research results. A second study, she says, also suggested that the juice holds promise for people with prostate cancer.
“We believe the manner in which we have communicated the results of our science research is truthful and appropriate,” Mrs. Resnick says.
Besides, she says, Pom should not be considered a functional food. “It’s a natural food,” she said.
Pom Wonderful has filed a federal law suit contending that the F.T.C. is overstepping its authority and setting new standards for advertising of foods and dietary supplements.
The agency has filed its own claims, which an administrative law judge in Washington is scheduled to hear on May 24.
SO what’s a shopper to do?
“This is very confusing to consumers. It’s confusing to a lot of health professionals,” says Wahida Karmally, the director of nutrition at the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Columbia University Medical Center. “Just because they call it functional, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be good for you.”
Regulators agree.
Jennifer Thomas, director of the division of enforcement at the F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, recommends that consumers take a close look at nutrition panels and ingredient lists, and not just read marketing claims. People may also want to peruse the F.D.A.’s Web site.
“Unfortunately, there are cases where claims are overstated,” Ms. Thomas says. “To the extent that they come to our attention and we can take action, then we do.”
Then again, many people just want to believe. Buying foods marketed as healthy may satisfy our yearning to feel we are doing something healthy for ourselves and our families. At least, that’s why many people thirst after Pom Wonderful, Mrs. Resnick writes in her book on branding, “Rubies in the Orchard.”
As she put it: “Lots of people drink Pom because it makes them feel healthier — data or no data.”

Friday, 13 May 2011

Lessons From the Marketing Chain

It was a Spring ritual that in the end was probably a waste of time, but taught some valuable lessons. The lobster season would start and my colleagues and I at CBC radio and later television would try to make some sense of the shore price for fishermen, and what consumers are paying.  Two things became apparent: the price fishermen got had nothing to with the cost of going fishing, and the rest of the marketing chain would charge whatever they could get away with. There’s nothing like a guilty son or daughter going to buy lobster for Mother’s Day. They’ll pay anything if that’s what’s expected for supper.

The potato racket was even worse. The psychological impact on growers if there was even a perception of a glut on the market was unbelievable. The fear of dragging unsold potatoes to the woods (buried actually) meant farmers were very reluctant to say no to a buyer. What is even more discouraging for growers is the fallout if someone just offers potatoes at a lower price (the sale wouldn’t even have to be made) for that price to become the benchmark everyone had to meet.  (Well-dressed Toronto buyer working in an air conditioned office: ”Well I can get potatoes 25 cents a bag cheaper from (whomever), do you want the sale or not?”  That’s all it takes).

What became apparent to me over the years is that there are two types of players in the marketing chain: producers (including many processors)  who have real costs that have to be covered, and care a lot about what they’re paid, and secondly the “volume and margin” folks (they’re the ones with the nice houses and cars).  The “v and m” bunch look for some difference (and it can be very small) between what they’ve paid for something and what they sell it for (the margin). The challenge then is to drive the volume, that’s where the profit is (search  Walmart in earlier posts). 

The worst of this (from a primary producer’s viewpoint anyway) is that there’s little incentive for the “v and m” folks to get a price from the next person up the marketing chain that will ensure a fair return to farmers and fishermen, as long as they (middlepeople)  can get their margin.  It’s surprising how often you’ll hear consumers say they wouldn’t mind paying another ten or 20 cents for a bag of potatoes if they knew the money would get back to the farmer. The current system, and the many hands farm output goes through before getting to the consumer makes that very difficult.

We can see the impact of this in Ocean Choice’s decision to not open its lobster plant in Souris (at the front end of the lobster marketing chain), BUT it still wants to buy finished product from someone else to market (that’s where  easier money can be made). 

There’s also a much bigger role for brokers in the Maritime lobster business. They give processors (including the various co-ops that are owned by fishermen) access to U.S. and other export markets,  but again they’re iin the margin and volume business, and  much more interested in “the sale” than getting the best price out of the marketplace. There have been some attempts by fishermen (and others)  to take a more direct role in marketing  products, but it’s usually ended badly. The marketing chain likes business just the way it is thank you very much.

The oil business gives us a good comparison. Demand is  considered to be what economists call inelastic (there’s sufficient demand (China, India, etc)  that people will pay almost anything to get it). This gives oil producers and refiners room to make money (and lots of it), and that’s why oil companies like Irving have gotten out of the retail side of the business (where there’s sufficient competition) and margins are small.  It does make you wonder if the Irvings will dust off their plans to build a second refinery in Saint John (considered when there was a world wide recession) if the outlook stays bullish.

Bottom line: there’s not much wisdom to be gained by linking what consumers pay, to what primary producers get (other than in regulated markets like dairy and eggs). The hard reality is that the very people who assume most of the risk of producing or harvesting are the ones with the least clout in the marketing chain. It can get better when primary producers work together, but they're a pretty independent bunch, and brokers and wholesalers will always put up a lot of impediments to maintain the status quo. My mantra, and I think I've mentioned it a few times in this blog, buy from as close to  primary producers as you can, and make sure they get paid fairly. No one else in the marketing chain will.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Someone is Paying Attention

Paul MacNeill, in his various roles as newspaper editor, and CBC commentator on radio and TV, has spoken more forcefully about the crisis in rural PEI than anyone else. Like his late father Jim, Paul doesn't take any prisoners, but it isn't just raw criticism, he's got a good feel for what has to change for things to get better. This week he writes about a very innovative  approach to giving primary producers a bigger stake in the food system.


How to save RURAL PEI

Second Opinion by Paul MacNeill, publisher

It is an all too familiar scene. Farmers forced to sell their land to pay the bills, paving the way for once productive land to be replaced by cottage sub-divisions, or even worse left to simply grow over. Many other farmers barely eke out a meager living.
The flow of people and money from rural Canada is staggering. Our population is aging; our ability to produce products to sustain our nation in the long term is eroding. The vibrancy of rural Canada is hemorrhaging.
And our politicians are unable to grasp the crisis. Just read the Ghiz government’s glossy Rural Action Plan as a prime example of a simplistic non-solution to the real issues.
The real issues are simple. Our farmers are paid too little. Our population is aging and we are not creating jobs to attract new residents, let alone keep the youth we have.
It’s an issue that impacts all of Prince Edward Island and rural Canada, but one that has stymied politicians in search of a quick fix that will never work.
Our agricultural model is built around the reality that farmers produce commodities and are paid for commodities. How much it costs to produce has nothing to do with the price paid. That is entirely a product of supply and demand. In real terms it means potatoes selling for less than the cost of production or fishermen selling canners for $2.75.
It is a system that guarantees the most important cog – the farmer - receives the least. A loaf of bread costs in the neighbourhood of $3, of which the farmer receives only pennies and has no capacity to increase the price of the loaf. The final cost is defined only after everyone else - the bakers, millers, middlemen, storage providers, grocery store conglomerates and trucking companies – have taken their share.
It is here that farmers should target their focus, not out of frustration or envy but as the only place to significantly improve their own bottom line.
Collectively farmers have the capacity to pool resources to invest in all those other businesses that add value to the commodity they produce.
Each year farmers go cap in hand seeking bank financing for input costs, items such as fertilizer, fuel, and seed. This is this model that has largely created the massive struggle in Canadian agriculture. Farmers use their assets, such as land, to guarantee the costs of their inputs.
But what if the true value of farm land was utilized to create seed funding for an agriculture focused, professionally run and independently managed mutual fund that would invest on behalf of Island farmers into those companies adding value to farm commodities.
I can hear you now ... but the farmers are broke and barely able to pay their own bills, how in the hell can they afford to invest in other companies?
Surprisingly easily.
Most farmers do owe money. But most also own land unencumbered of debt. This property is key to the creation of the mutual fund. The sole requirement of government is to place a fair market value on that land, and then loan that amount to the farmer, payable to the mutual fund. Collectively this is the seed money for the fund.
Government then gets out of the way and lets private enterprise do the rest. The fund invests in the value added chain. The farmer uses his mutual fund asset to guarantee inputs. And dividends paid from the fund will allow the farmer to repay government and diversify. It’s good for the land and the bottom line.
The potential benefits to the farmer and rural communities are striking. As farmers prosper the value of land will increase which means greater tax revenue. Vibrant farms infuse communities with cash. New businesses will open that will require workers. The population decline seen in rural PEI will cease. Residential properties will increase in value.
The concept is the idea of New Zealand native Steve Nixon, who now calls Saskatchewan home. He has long ties with agriculture and communities and believes something dramatic must be done to protect our rural way of life. If we keep doing what we have always done, we will get the same disappointing results.
His idea turns the traditional farm business model on its head. It is exactly what PEI and rural Canada needs.
This is neither a co-operative nor a government managed program. It is simply a strategy to pool the collective assets of Canadian farmers to allow them to put more dollars in their pockets.
Perhaps the closest model is the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund, one of the largest investors in the country. It invests in companies, such as the parent company of the Toronto Maple Leafs, with the sole purpose of growing the wealth of teachers.
Take that model and transfer it to agriculture. Grow the wealth of farmers and we will grow rural Canada.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

Climate Change Good??

I'm going through my first bout of blogger guilt. My partner and I  been trying to get started on outdoor work, digging and shipping plants to awaiting customers across Canada, and I had deadlines for another publication, but I still felt an obligation to get something written in this little space. What was scary was that there seemed to be more visits to the blog when I wasn't writing.  (see what guilt can do).

There are so many obvious things to say about the terrible weather.   Farmers hope that days lost in the Spring can be added on in the Fall (frost and wet weather are the enemies then too).  This uncertainty and the anxiety it can create is obviously one of the big differences between farming and most other occupations. Unsettled, unpredictable weather is certainly one of the characteristics predicted from climate change, maybe even more important, in the Northern Hemisphere anyway, than global warming. 

You can always tell when you're reading the business section of the paper. A story  this week headlined that global warming will be good for Canadian farmers. You're thinking that there will be longer seasons, opportunities to grow other crops, but no, it's that warming will decrease production of major crops like wheat and corn elsewhere, driving up the price of these important commodities. My head tells me that's what business does, separates the winners from the losers, but it still feels a little cynical.


Warming trend could prove boon to Canadian farming
by MARTIN MITTELSTAEDT  •  May 10, 2011 •

Investors in agricultural commodities have always had to keep an eye on the weather. But maybe they should keep a watch on the climate too.

That’s because global warming has the potential to be a boon for profit seekers. The reason: a hotter climate could undermine crops, leading to smaller harvests and higher prices.

Up until now, it’s been hard to prove that global warming could put a dent into agricultural output, but a U.S. research team says it has done just that. The findings are good news for those buying agricultural commodities and related investments, such as Canadian farmland. The biggest upside potential might be in wheat and corn.

By studying temperature and yield records from 1980 to 2008, the team of academics from Columbia University and Stanford University estimated that the global trend to warmer temperatures has led wheat yields to be 5.5 per cent lower than they would have been had the climate been stable, and corn yields to be 3.8 per cent lower. The reduction spread out over the world was the equivalent to losing the annual corn harvest from Mexico and the wheat harvest of France. Soybean and rice crops were also studied, but exhibited no overall trend change.

The smaller harvests of wheat and corn have helped push crop prices up an estimated 20 per cent, according to Wolfram Schlenker, one of the researchers and a professor in the economics department at Columbia.

The “20 per cent is a sizable amount,” Dr. Schlenker said, but he cautioned that it’s just part of the equation that explains the approximate tripling in prices of the key foodstuffs over the last four years. Other factors have played a part, including rising populations and government incentives to convert corn into gasoline additives.

Crop yields are one of the critical variables for determining agricultural prices. On a year-to-year basis, yields fluctuate sharply because of such factors as droughts and floods, but over the long term, they’ve risen because of the use of more fertilizers, better seeds, and other innovations. It’s the reason farmers have been able to feed the world’s burgeoning population.

The research team’s findings, which covered trends in the world’s four most important staple crops, appeared Thursday in the journal Science. The crops they studied–corn, wheat, rice and soybeans–directly and indirectly account for about 75 per cent of the calories people consume.

Dr. Schlenker said that diminished harvests for wheat and corn prompted consumers to buy the other two grains, forcing their prices up was well. The finding suggests that a changing climate has the potential to raise the prices of many crops, even some whose output isn’t actually sensitive to higher temperatures.

There was upside for Canadian farmers from the research. In their number crunching, the researchers noted no effect on yields in Canada and the U.S., because temperatures haven’t risen in those countries as they have elsewhere around the globe.

Negative impacts have been observed in other agricultural regions, such as those in Russia. For some crops, such as soybeans, warmer weather caused offsetting harvest pluses and minuses, depending on the extent of temperature changes. For instance, Dr. Schlenker said, yields rose in Argentina, but fell in Paraguay, which lies slightly further north of it in South America.

“Pretty much every climate model says that [North American farmers] will get warming too,” but it has not yet been affected by the trend, Dr. Schlenker said.

This has been “doubly good” because farmers have had larger crops and higher prices, he said.

While the research is some of the first to confirm that global warming affects crop levels, some agricultural-related investment vehicles have already been twigging to the theme.

This is “one of the reasons why when we looked around the world at agricultural investing, we just thought Canada is where you have got to be, and we’re seeing more and more people reach that conclusion,” said Tom Eisenhauer, president of Bonnefield Financial, a firm that invests in farmland.

Mr. Eisenhauer says most warming is likely to occur at latitudes to the south of Canada’s prime agricultural lands.

Warming damages crops because plants have a Goldilocks relationship to temperature, thriving when conditions are neither too hot or too cold. By studying crop results and temperature readings, the researchers determined that a one-degree rise lowered yields by up to 10 per cent.

Higher amounts of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, do stimulate plant growth, although this benefit has been outweighed by the crop damage from higher temperatures.

Friday, 6 May 2011

This Could Change Things

I've often written about the huge subsidies enjoyed by American farmers. Combined with other large incentives underpinning the production of biofuels, U.S. producers have enjoyed almost a decade of record incomes. This money that comes through the mailbox has a perverse impact on commodity prices. Farmers grow not what the market wants, but what the government will pay for, and even worse for Canadian farmers competing in a North American marketplace,  the subsidies allow food processors and consumers to pay less, because tax dollars make up the difference.

The effort now to contain the massive U.S. debt and deficits has these farm subsidies in its sights. This is an interesting part of the story: " The most controversial of these programs are the $5 billion in annual so-called direct payments to farmers of corn, soybeans and other crops, awarded simply for owning tillable farm land, even if they do not plant on it."

Here's the whole story:   http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/07/us/politics/07farm.html?hp

Farm Subsidies Become Target Amid Spending Cuts
by JENNIFER STEINHAUER  •  May 6, 2011 •

WASHINGTON — When it comes to spending cuts, members of Congress like to say that “everything is on the table.” Except, generally, food. But now federal farm subsidies, long decried by policy makers as wasteful and antiquated but protected by powerful political interests, appear to be in serious danger.

This week, Representative Paul D. Ryan1, Republican of Wisconsin and the chairman of the House Budget Committee2, told reporters, “We shouldn’t be giving corporate farms, these large agribusiness companies, subsidies. I strongly believe that.”

His budget proposal would take $30 billion out of the farm program over the next decade.

Representative Eric Cantor3, Republican of Virginia and the majority leader, attended the first session of debt-limit negotiations on Thursday with a list of areas where he saw a potential agreement between Republicans and the White House, including farm subsidies.

A confluence of factors have lined up against the farm programs. While the rest of the economy remains largely stagnant, commodities prices and farm incomes have remained at a protracted high. The House Agriculture Committee4, while still dominated by farm state members, is now peppered with freshmen who view cuts to these programs as an essential part of the broader attack on the federal deficit, the centerpiece of their campaigns.

Further, after taking a beating from constituents concerning their Medicare5 proposal last month, Republicans are eager to find an area of common ground with Democrats. Farm subsidies seem to fit the bill; conservatives condemn them as intrusions into the free market, liberals denounce them for encouraging environmentally harmful overfarming, and both sides see them as a form of corporate welfare.

What is more, some subsidies have placed the nation in violation of trade agreements, and members from both sides of the aisle have questioned why, with biofuel mandates creating such demand for ethanol, the government needs to subsidize it.

Powerful interests and political traditions continue to constrain efforts to cut subsidies. While all the free-market Republicans back reducing subsidies in general, some continue to support targeted aid like the subsidies long enjoyed by ethanol. Newt Gingrich6, the former Republican House speaker and likely presidential candidate, has been assertively arguing in favor of maintaining ethanol subsidies in the face of intense criticism from backers of market reforms like the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal.

But in both parties there is a sense that support for subsidies is waning. This year, Senator Richard J. Durbin7, Democrat of Illinois, one of the nation’s biggest farming states, told the state’s farm bureau to expect cuts. Senator Debbie Stabenow8, Democrat of Michigan and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry9, told reporters at a state agriculture conference that “making sure that we’re doing our part in being fiscally responsible” would be the biggest challenge in the next farm bill10.

Others are thinking in a similar vein.

“I have been telling folks that the pie is getting smaller,” said Representative Reid Ribble, a Republican freshman from Wisconsin who sits on the House Agriculture Committee. “I am hearing from constituents back home that they want to see the government have less involvement in the pricing. There is a kind of a tenor right now that will allow us to have a significant change.”

Farm advocates say they hope they can stave off the worst.

“The scrutiny of farm programs is stronger than ever,” said Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives11. “It’s not that farmers don’t want to participate in deficit reduction,  but at the same time, we hope people appreciate that all other federal programs have skyrocketed, which is why we are in this mess, and farm subsidies have not.”

Historically, federal farm subsidies have operated like piles of laundry: there are constant efforts to make them go away, but they always rise right up again.

The program is rooted in the response to the Great Depression12, when the nation enjoyed a largely agrarian economy and the federal government recognized that farmers lacked a safety net.

The program has evolved over the years into a series of direct payments, insurance programs, low-cost loans and other benefits. The programs come up for reauthorization every five years, and farm advocates lobby hard against efforts to meaningfully reduce them, though some have been reformed over the years.

“Substantial cuts to agriculture have already been made,” Ms. Stabenow said in an e-mail. “And we’ll continue measuring the performance of every program to reduce the deficit and maximize effectiveness.”

In 2011, taxpayers are projected to pay roughly $16 billion in aid to farmers through various programs, according to figures from the Congressional Budget Office13.

The most controversial of these programs are the $5 billion in annual so-called direct payments to farmers of corn, soybeans and other crops, awarded simply for owning tillable farm land, even if they do not plant on it.

“If we can’t figure out a way at this point to trim these payments,” said Representative Ron Kind, Democrat of Wisconsin, who has long fought against farm subsidies, “then it is just embarrassing.”

Large cuts to the agriculture subsidies will not go far in taming federal spending.

“Cutting farm subsidies doesn’t bring that kind of ongoing savings,” said  Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, comparing cuts to farm programs with longer term restructuring to entitlement programs like Medicare. “Still, it is a great one-time gain, and it means lower prices for consumers and is a good idea all around.”

Farmers and their advocates insist that the subsidies have been demonized and overstated.

“Every time you read an article saying Congress better be looking at farm programs I am scratching my head,” Mr. Conner said. “When people think of the U.S.D.A. budget they think of farm programs, but it is really more a rounding error.”

But Mr. Kind and others say the push for broad budget cuts is working in their favor.

“The political dynamics have shifted in light of deficit reduction,” he said. “I am cautiously optimistic.”