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May 27, 2010

Endocrine Disruptors Really Do Suck

Danger signU.S. manufacturers and agribusiness are addicted to endocrine disruptors -- dangerous chemicals that alter the natural function of the body's hormones. They are frequently used in plastics, in pesticides, and in personal care products and act in the human body as a "false" version of estrogen. They appear to be linked to a variety of diseases, including sexual dysfunction, heart disease, metabolic disorders, and cancer. New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wrote a frightening summary of the health and evironmental risks of this class of chemicals about a year ago that's still timely.

Although the controversial plastic ingredient bisphenol-A, used in canned foods and baby bottles, is certainly the poster child for endocrine disruptors' ubiquity, it is merely one of many. The pesticide atrazine, banned in the European Union but still widely overused in the U.S., is also a potent endocrine disruptor, as is the chemical oxybenzone, one of the most common ingredients in U.S.-sold sunscreen, though it too is banned in the E.U.

These, of course, are only the high-profile examples. For each one, industry threatens the End of Civilization in the event that the FDA attempts to restrict one or another.

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Let's Move Needs to Get Real with the Food Industry
Michelle Obama's anti-obesity initiative, Let's Move, has kicked into high gear. The Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity released a landmark report documenting the scale of the problem, complete with a list of 70 recommendations and a set of benchmarks, including the goal of returning the childhood obesity rate to its 1972 level of 5% by 2030. And
this week came the announcement that a new industry partnership called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, which includes most of the major food companies, agreed to reduce the number of calories in its members' products by 1.5 trillion calories by 2015.

It would be churlish of me to downplay the significance of either the report or the industry announcement. As nutritionist Marion Nestle observed, whatever skepticism one may rightly have regarding industry self-regulation, the fact that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation -- whose public health credentials in general and anti-obesity efforts in particular are beyond reproach -- will be auditing the calorie-cutting plan should keep industry shenanigans to a minimum.

But what will a 1.5-trillion calorie cut look like? In an article that helpfully explains how companies might go about reaching their goal -- lower-calorie Lunchables! Smaller Kraft Cheese slices! -- former food industry executive Hank Cardello puts
the cuts into context
:

...[T]his is a drop in the bucket and represents only a 0.5 percent reduction in the 300 trillion calories available for Americans to consume each year. That translates to less than 1.5 pounds of added weight per person. Hardly enough to resolve an obesity crisis.

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May 26, 2010

Let's Move Needs to Get Real with the Food Industry
Michelle Obama's anti-obesity initiative, Let's Move, has kicked into high gear. The Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity released a landmark report documenting the scale of the problem, complete with a list of 70 recommendations and a set of benchmarks, including the goal of returning the childhood obesity rate to its 1972 level of 5% by 2030. And
this week came the announcement that a new industry partnership called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, which includes most of the major food companies, agreed to reduce the number of calories in its members' products by 1.5 trillion calories by 2015.

It would be churlish of me to downplay the significance of either the report or
the industry announcement. As nutritionist Marion Nestle observed, whatever skepticism one may rightly have regarding industry self-regulation, the fact that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation -- whose public health credentials in general and anti-obesity efforts in particular are beyond reproach -- will be auditing the calorie-cutting plan should keep industry shenanigans to a minimum.

But what will a 1.5-trillion calorie cut look like? In an article that helpfully explains how companies might go about reaching their goal -- lower-calorie Lunchables! Smaller Kraft Cheese slices! -- former food industry executive Hank Cardello puts
the cuts into context
:

...[T]his is a drop in the bucket and represents only a 0.5 percent reduction in the 300 trillion calories available for Americans to consume each year. That translates to less than 1.5 pounds of added weight per person. Hardly enough to resolve an obesity crisis.

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May 17, 2010

Scientists Link ADHD to Common Pesticide Exposure

Pesticide sprayingWriting in The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan detailed how, following World War II, nerve-gas factories were converted en masse into synthetic pesticide factories. These weapons reborn as pesticides are organophosphates, as are both Sarin and VX gases. For farmers, they work by, as Wikipedia tastefully puts it, "irreversibly inactivating" an essential neurotransmitter within insects -- just as they worked for military generals by irreversibly inactivating the same equally essential neurotransmitter within soldiers.

The dangers of organophosphates are thus nothing new, though industrial agriculture continues to drop tens of millions of pounds of them on fields across the country every year. The argument in favor of their use has always been that, whatever their devastating effects at high doses, general exposure through the environment was far too low to do any harm.

The BPA fiasco has, of course, taught us that low-level exposure to supposedly "nontoxic" doses can indeed be a problem. And now researchers from Harvard and the University of Montreal report in the Journal of Pediatrics that low-level exposure to organophosphates may significantly increase the risk of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. "The findings are based on data from the general U.S. population, meaning that exposure to the pesticides could be harmful even at levels commonly found in children's environment," says Reuters.

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Farm Bill Follies
Rep. Collin Peterson, powerful Chair of the House Ag Committee and one of the main players in the coming debate of the future of farm subsidies, loves to tout his respect for local food. He even holds an annual local food conference in his district back in Minnesota. And at the moment, he's holding hearings across the country to start the "conversation" on the next Farm Bill, which is due to be re-authorized in 2012. Today, he let his true colors show (via Nation Journal $ub req'd):
House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson said today he would like to eliminate all limitations on government payments to farmers due to their size of payments or incomes.

"I hope we can make changes so we don't have to have payment limits in the future," Peterson said after a hearing on the 2012 farm bill, where several witnesses criticized USDA's implementation of the 2008 farm bill's rules on payment limitation rules regarding corporations.

Peterson said that he is "all for" local foods and organic production and big farms "should be treated equally" with small farmers in getting payments. Noting that most of the food produced in the United States comes from the 300,000 to 350,000 biggest farms, Peterson said those operations still need a safety net.
Let's do it! Each according to his needs, my eye! So what if current law allows you to receive subsidies if you make up to $750,000 a year from your farm. So what if 60% of farm payments already go to the largest commercial farms?

My offer assumes, of course, that we also eliminate payment limits on social security payments, welfare payments and unemployment payments. Do we have a deal, Collin? Or is this another case of "caps for me but not for thee"? Agribusiness lackeys do seem to specialize in shamelessness, don't they?

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May 14, 2010

E. Coli at Your Desk

What's gross about this New York Daily News item on the Royal Chemistry Society's "office hygiene" intitiative isn't just the fact that there's E. coli and other disease-causing bacteria infesting your keyboard. The fact is there's E coli pretty much everywhere. It's the litany of depressing workplace habits reported by officeworkers. Just read this tale of woe:
"I eat at my desk a lot. I've never cleaned my keyboard. Most of the crumbs just fall in between the keys," said graphic designer Jean-Pierre Chery, 27, who lives in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

"I've got a whole ecosystem going on at the bottom of my keyboard right now."

...New York office worker Eiesha Earlington, 30, says she got a big scare after getting a rash on her face from using her office phone. She now wipes her workspace after eating at her desk, and uses compressed air spray to blow any lunch leftovers from her computer keyboard.

"You always have to be careful," said the financial planner, who lives in Woodbridge, N.J.

"On some desks you can see the germs and the dirt creates a little fingerprint, and that's just gross," she said.

"It's disgusting. I usually don't like to have anybody else at my desk except for me."

Other New Yorkers reluctantly admitted their keyboards are a perfect haven for rodents looking for a bite to eat.

"I'm definitely the one with the worst desk in the office," said Dawn Bruent, 40, a claims adjustor who lives in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. "I found ants on my desk once."

"I eat at my desk every day and spend about seven hours at my keyboard," she added.

"I haven't cleaned my desk in about eight months.
These people should definitely talk to their shop stewards about getting better working conditions. Oh, right. Americans hate unions because they do so much better bargaining as free agents. Sorry, I forgot.


Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall

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Rush Hour, Dutch Style
This is Utrecht in the Netherlands during the morning rush hour. Awesome.



Congressman Earl Blumenauer, author of the Bicycle Commuter Act and the nation's most "powerful" bike advocate, definitely has his work cut out for him.

Via Grist

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May 13, 2010

Soda Lobby Offers to Pay Philly Not to Pass Soda Tax

The fight over a soda tax here in Philly is coming down to the wire. The city council is debating Mayor Nutter's 2 cents per ounce tax on sweetened beverages as we speak. The prospects for the full tax aren't very good. Councilmembers already have stated a preference for raising property taxes on wealthier residents rather than something like a soda tax which might hit low-income residents harder.

And the fact is that Nutter's tax would be messy to implement in any case. As the Philadelphia Inquirer has explained, only the state can levy an excise tax, i.e. a tax on a specific item. Philly would require merchants to report sales of sweetened beverages and then pay an amount calculated from that figure. As a result there's no guarantee that a merchant would even add the tax to sodas. They could raise the price of any product and treat soda as a loss leader, if they so chose. But with negotiations over revenue in full swing, the possibility of a one cent or even 1/2 or 3/4 cent per ounce tax apparently still exists. In fact, it's serious enough to convince the soda lobby, that group you love to hate, to engage in a bit of bribery incentivizing of its own:
Councilman Frank DiCicco in Council Thursday afternoon said the "soda industry" has offered to pay the city $10 million over two years if officials backed off on a proposal to tax sweetened beverages by the ounce.
Stay classy, guys! I just hope the city council does the math and realizes that a single $10 million payment does not equal annual, thus ongoing, revenues from even a 1/2 cent per ounce tax.

The good news? Nutter doesn't appear to be kidding about his commitment. According to reports, he's unwilling to consider any further service cuts unless the council agrees to a soda tax. Who, I wonder, will blink first?

UPDATE: According to the Philly Daily News, property tax, yes. Soda tax, no -- although Nutter has another week to get the votes for one before the final budget is approved. No word yet on whether the soda lobby will pony up its $10 mil. Maybe they'll wait to see if Nutter can pull this out in the end.

Photo credit: Poolie

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May 12, 2010

Obesity Task Force Report: Where There's Will There's a Way

Kids on White ouse lawnKids exercise in an online video from LetsMove.gov, Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity. Michelle Obama's Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity released its findings yesterday. It's encyclopedic in scope and has something for everyone -- from school lunch, to sugar taxes, to veggie subsidies, to dietary guidelines, to obesogenic chemicals. Even farm-to-school programs get a prominent shout-out. The Letsmove.gov blog breaks the 70 recommendations down into these categories:

1. Getting children a healthy start on life, with good prenatal care for their parents; support for breastfeeding; limits on “screen time”; and quality child care settings with nutritious food and ample opportunity for young children to be physically active.

2. Empowering parents and caregivers with simpler, more actionable messages about nutritional choices based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans; improved labels on food and menus that provide clear information to help make healthy choices for children; reduced marketing of unhealthy products to children; and improved health care services, including BMI measurement for all children.

3. Providing healthy food in schools, through improvements in federally-supported school lunches and breakfasts; upgrading the nutritional quality of other foods sold in schools; and improving nutrition education and the overall school environment.

4. Improving access to healthy, affordable food, by eliminating “food deserts” in urban and rural America; lowering the relative prices of healthier foods; developing or reformulating food products to be healthier; and reducing the incidence of hunger, which has been linked to obesity.

5. Getting children more physically active, through quality physical education, recess, and other opportunities in and after school; addressing aspects of the “built environment” that make it difficult for children to walk or bike safely in their communities; and improving access to safe parks, playgrounds, and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities.

I recommend the blog Obamafoodorama for a detailed look at the report's contents and Jane Black of the Washington Post's piece for a good perspective on what the administration's approach to reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act might tell us about its real commitment to addressing obesity aggressively.

However, what struck me in particular was the overall goal of the anti-obesity effort: A return of childhood obesity rates* to the 1972 level of 5%, down from 19.6%, by 2030. The report targets a real cut of 2.5% in obesity rates by 2015 and another 5% by 2020. But like the administration's proposals to cut carbon emissions, the obesity benchmarks leave an awful lot of work to be done in the final decade -- by these numbers the obesity rate will need to drop by well over half from 2020 to 2030.

The report, indeed the whole approach to childhood obesity, is pure Obamaism -- not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that.

*For the record, the task force is using a slightly different definition of obesity than is common. They define it as a "BMI greater than gender- and weight-specific 95th percentile from the 2000 CDC Growth Charts" rather than simply a BMI greater than 30.

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May 11, 2010

You Want Some Antibiotics With That?

Shinkwrapped hamburgerA few years ago, scientists released one of the first studies to examine how diet can affect your exposure to toxic substances. In that case, researchers had a group of Seattle schoolchildren eat an organic diet for five days a week. Almost immediately, pesticide levels in the children's bodies dropped to almost undetectable levels -- and returned to "normal" after they resumed eating a conventional diet.

Now, a group of Korean scientists have looked at what kind of toxins disappear when research subjects stopped eating conventional meat:

People who adopted a vegetarian diet for just five days show
reduced levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies. In particular,
levels of hormone disrupting chemicals and antibiotics used in
livestock were lower after the five-day vegetarian program. The pilot
study suggests that people may be able reduce their exposure to
potentially dangerous chemicals through dietary choices, such as
limiting consumption of animal products like meats and dairy.

Whoa. (Read the Environmental Research article.)

Little work has been done on the intersection of diet and toxic chemical exposure, so I'm sure there are many such happy surprises out there waiting to be discovered. But with controversy raging over routinely feeding livestock sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics, this study provides both fear (that we are indeed exposed to antibiotics through meat consumption) and relief (that we can reduce our exposure by changing our diet).

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May 7, 2010

Keeping the farmer in farmers markets

farmers marketPhoto: Natalie MaynorEarlier this week, the Wall Street Journal aired a bit of dirty laundry that was hiding out in local food's hamper -- the ongoing fight over who gets to sell in farmers markets. Many markets require that sellers be actual growers, rather than "resellers" of some form or another.

At a certain level, this makes perfect sense: despite the dropped apostrophe, they're not called farmers markets for nothing. And once you open the door to resellers, you also open the door to things like "farmwashing" -- sellers falsely claiming they grew their wares -- or even California produce beating out locally grown products at, say, a Wisconsin farmers market.

Of course, the heart of the WSJ piece is a nasty fight over price, as it always seems to be with food:

Local farmer Ronald Waege, who grows his own apples and blueberries just outside of town, says resellers are buying up produce at an auction and peddling it here, sometimes undercutting his own prices. Mr. Waege, who insists he's looking after the interests of consumers, has prodded the Tomah City Council to decide whether or not to ban resellers from the market. The council plans to vote on the issue next month.

Resellers, some of whom have been operating here for years, are furious. Ralph Wendland, a vendor who grows his apples but also resells pumpkins, made "verbal threats to bash my head in while swinging a cane in my direction," Mr. Waege wrote in a letter to city officials in January.

Mr. Wendland says he told Mr. Waege, "if he didn't keep his nose out of my business, I'd knock him on his a--."

Whose business is it?

Good question. And we'd best answer it soon, because the numbers of farmers markets are exploding. Many people think that the USDA's 5,000+ number is far under the actual total: farmers market managers should go to the USDA's site and fill out their survey so we can know how many markets are really out there. Plus, as consumers -- especially parents with young children -- continue to shift their buying away from supermarkets, it's important to remember that many farmers markets do far more than sell produce.

Direct farmer-to-consumer sales are the quickest, easiest, and cleanest way to increase farmers' share of consumer spending. Right now that's a mere 7 cents on the dollar. And farmers markets also represent a relatively easy way to improve access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods. While more and more farmers markets accept food stamps, groups like Wholesome Wave provide "coupons" that then double their buying power. Ladies and gentlemen: I give you subsidized vegetables!! And though that particular program is privately funded, there's no reason that the USDA couldn't in its wisdom decide to launch a similar one on its own. Farmers markets are, in a word, important.

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No Help from the Plant Kingdom

For those of you hoping that plants would somehow come to our rescue and save us from global boiling by sucking all that extra carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, I'm afraid you're out of luck (via Science Daily):
Trees and other plants help keep the planet cool, but rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are turning down this global air conditioner. According to a new study by researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science, in some regions more than a quarter of the warming from increased carbon dioxide is due to its direct impact on vegetation.

This warming is in addition to carbon dioxide's better-known effect as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. For scientists trying to predict global climate change in the coming century, the study underscores the importance of including plants in their climate models.

Plants give off water through tiny pores in their leaves, a process called evapotranspiration that cools the plant, just as perspiration cools our bodies. On a hot day, a tree can release tens of gallons of water into the air, acting as a natural air conditioner for its surroundings. The plants absorb carbon dioxide for photosynthesis through the same pores (called stomata). But when carbon dioxide levels are high, the leaf pores shrink. This causes less water to be released, diminishing the tree's cooling power.
That is what's a called a negative feedback loop -- and it's not helpful. Do note that current climate models don't take plants' effects on climate into account -- which means we continue to underestimate the pace of climate change. The good news? There is one plant that seems to respond to higher levels of carbon dioxide by growing more enthusiastically and thus absorbing more of our emissions: Poison Ivy. What, you're not one of the 15% of people with natural immunity? Ah, well. I guess you're really out of luck then.

Photo credit: Noel Zia Lee

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May 6, 2010

Food Safety Reform is A Mess
Author and New York Times Contributor Mark Bittman graciously invited me to contribute to his relaunched website at markbittman.com. An excerpt from the first post appears below. Read the rest of it here:

My considered analysis of food safety in the U.S.? It’s an unmitigated disaster.

Salmonella in peanut butter made by a single manufacturer causes deaths, sickness and the recall of thousands of different products from store shelves. Over ten million pounds of beef have been recalled since President Obama took office. Indeed, the ongoing food safety crisis that is industrial ground beef inspired NYT writer Michael Moss to write a piece that won a Pulitzer.

New strains of microbes like the deadly E coli O157:H7 and antibiotic resistant salmonella -- bugs that didn’t exist thirty years ago -- raise the stakes much higher. With food safety laws more or less unchanged since the 1930s, the long overdue push for reform seemed, compared to other legislative priorities, easy. What could be more of a no-brainer than safe food?

And yet, the food safety bill passed by the House and the one under consideration in the Senate are becoming, well, perhaps not an unmitigated disaster, but certainly a mess. I’m still trying to decide if I have an opinion on the merits of the bill.

Take the current fracas over Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s amendment to the Senate food safety bill which would ban the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A from all food packaging. BPA is a chemical used in not only in plastic bottles but in the linings of canned food and beverages (not to mention in many unexpected places such as register receipts). Yes, the industry still clings to its own research showing BPA is perfectly safe. But independent research has shown the danger of BPA for years – in fact the first warning signs were found 75 years ago -- and the FDA itself, while moving slowly, is considering its own ban.

But the idea that Congress might protect us from a hazardous chemical has forced the food industry’s hand. They are now threatening to turn into fierce opponents of food safety legislation. And if they do, they will find unexpected allies. Since the bill’s initial introduction in the House last year, some of the loudest opposition has come from small and organic producers. As they see it, the bill leaves the core of our food safety problems intact (via the SF Chronicle):

The legislation does not address what some experts suspect is the primary source of E. coli contamination: the large, confined animal feeding operations that are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the FDA.

"[The bill] does not take on the industrial animal industry and the abuses going on," said Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms in Madera, an organic grower of Mediterranean vegetables. "The really dangerous organisms we're dealing with out here, and trying to protect our produce and other foodstuffs from, are coming out the rear end of domestic animals."

For all their issues, animals are largely left out of current food safety legislation. The USDA has responsibility over meat, eggs and poultry and, while the current legislation significantly strengthens the FDA's powers over everything else, it leaves the USDA's authority over meat safety -- authority that has spawned recall after recall -- virtually untouched.

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Soda Lobbyists Say the Durndest Things

Boy sipping soda and wateriStockphotoFor sheer shark-jumping, fridge-nuking outrageousness, you just can't beat the American Beverage Association. In a must-read/listen NPR report, the ABA's senior vice president for science policy, Maureen Storey, made the claim that soda should play a crucial role in children's hydration needs:

...Children who have been exercising may not drink enough water to get back to the hydration point that they need to be at. So with a little bit of flavoring and a little bit of sweetness, they will drink enough then to get back to where they need to be.

Are you kidding? Kids don't drink enough water, so they should drink soda to make sure they don't get dehydrated?

Have these people no shame?

Oh, and, by the way, Storey wanted to make sure we realize that soda is positively healthy because it's 99% water, and water is an important nutrient. Anyone else spot the egregious circular logic at work there?

If only NPR host Michelle Norris had expressed a bit more incredulity. This stuff doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.

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