Amazon and other retailers launch program allowing SNAP beneficiaries to order food online

Shaunice Wall is NCL’s Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

On April 18, 2018, Amazon and other retailers launched a two-year test (pilot) program to boost food access to some of New York’s 2.7 million Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants. Beneficiaries will be able to use their SNAP benefits to order groceries online and have them delivered directly to their door.

photo of supermarket produceSNAP is one of the most efficient and important public benefit programs,” said Shaunice Wall, NCL’s Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow. “SNAP helps reduce food insecurity and improves the nutrition of millions, especially among the most vulnerable Americans. For many Americans living in food deserts, online food retailers are sometimes the only way to stock refrigerators,” NCL supports this collaboration between USDA and Amazon.

“People who receive SNAP benefits should have the opportunity to shop for food the same way more and more Americans shop for food–by ordering and paying for groceries online,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. As technology advances, it is important for SNAP to advance too, so we can ensure the same shopping options are available for both non-SNAP and SNAP recipients.

Stats on the rise of e-commerce sales in America in 2017

The pilot will test both online ordering and payment. It will also work to ensure that orders are processed safely and securely, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). SNAP participants will be able to use their benefits to purchase eligible food items, but not pay for service or delivery charges. 

The program will also add a new SNAP redemption option, with broad selection, low prices, and the convenience of home delivery without requiring a membership fee. As Amazon expands participating areas throughout the life of the pilot, they believe the program will dramatically increase access to food for customers living in rural and remote locations.

The USDA defines food deserts as communities where one-third of the population lives at least one mile away from a supermarket in an urban area and 10 miles away in a rural area. For SNAP beneficiaries, it is often the simplest – or sometimes the only – option to use their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card at convenience stores or gas stations, which often have only a sparse supply of produce and fresh protein.

The pilot will start with SNAP households with EBT cards issued by New York. Online retailers will only be able to deliver in New York. The plan is for the pilot to eventually expand to other areas of New York as well as Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. Lessons learned will then allow expansion of online purchasing in SNAP.

“The ultimate goal of this pilot is to pave the way for a national rollout once the USDA identifies the best path to large-scale implementation,” says Amazon. NCL recognizes that the advancement of SNAP takes on a larger significance because of the argument by conservatives that the program “costs too much, has grown too quickly, encourages government dependency and discourages work.” NCL supports SNAP and this exciting online system, if it works, well, will address the dearth of healthy food options for millions of Americans in food desserts or who cannot, for lack of transportation, health or disability reasons, get to a supermarket and choose from healthier options.

For more information, please visit the SNAP Online Purchasing pilot webpage.

Multi-agency initiative invites public and private partners to collaborate on strategy to reduce food waste

Shaunice Wall is NCL’s Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

An estimated 40 percent of food goes uneaten in the United States. Between 2007 and 2014, American consumers wasted nearly 150,000 tons of food per day. Yet, 40 million Americans struggle with hunger, including 12 million children.

The massive amount of food waste has far-reaching consequences on food security, the economy, and our environment. On April 9, 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted an event NCL attended for its Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, a multi-agency effort created to tackle the burgeoning problem of food loss and waste through combined and agency-specific action.

Led by the EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the purpose of the initiative is to work with communities, organizations, and businesses along with state, tribal, and local governments to reduce food loss and waste by 50 percent over the next 15 years.

In attendance were state, local, and community leaders and other stakeholders to discuss how all levels of government can work together to reduce food waste. A strategy that includes six key action areas–such as improving consumer education and food labeling–was introduced.

“We need to feed our hungry world, and by reducing food waste, we can more wisely use the resources we have,” said Secretary Sonny Perdue of the USDA.

A panel titled “Lessons Learned from States, Cities and Organizations in Reducing Food Waste” discussed various efforts to combat food waste. One effort mentioned was a recycling assistance program in Massachusetts called RecyclingWorks. The program was designed to help businesses and institutions maximize recycling, reuse, and composting opportunities. Another successful program that was discussed was the Save the Food Campaign, a program developed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Ad Council to encourage Americans to make simple lifestyle changes like creating shopping lists, freezing food, and using leftovers to reduce waste in their own homes.

Mr. Trump recently designated the month of April as Winning on Reducing Food Waste Month and is encouraging participation from all sectors.

The actions of the USDA, EPA, and FDA will include research, community investments, education and outreach, voluntary programs, public-private partnerships, tool development, technical assistance, event participation, and policy discussion. These three agencies invite public and private partners to participate in Winning on Reducing Food Waste Month through the following:

  • Join the conversation: Share your efforts with the #NoWastedFood hashtag in your social media posts throughout the month.
  • Educate your community: Learn about USDAEPA, and FDA programs and resources to reduce food loss and waste.
  • Be a U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champion: Join other corporate and business leaders who have made a public commitment to reducing food loss and waste in their U.S. operations by 50 percent by the year 2030.

The National Consumers League (NCL) has been a longstanding advocate for reducing food waste. Most notably, NCL has produced a and collaborated with like-minded organizations to conduct research on household food waste.

NCL believes that the strategies undertaken by the three agencies will be a critical measure to combatting food waste and we look forward to continuing our work to achieve the goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030.

For more information on the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, visit the following webpages:

Why nutrition labeling on alcoholic beverages can reduce binge drinking – National Consumers League

Shaunice Wall is NCL’s Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Alcohol – like everything else we eat and drink – is best enjoyed in moderation. If consumed to excess, drinking alcoholic beverages can lead to addiction and increased risk of certain chronic diseases, but also weight gain, because these drinks are often dense in calories and devoid of nutrients.

One of the problems consumers face, however, is that there is virtually no information on the nutritional content in the alcoholic beverages they consume. NCL has been working to change this for more than 30 years, but progress on this front has been very disappointing. Does lack of a label cause binge drinking? Of course not, but evidence indicates that caloric and nutritional labeling encourages healthier choices when consumers read and understand the labels.  

What is binge drinking anyway? 
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. For men, it means consuming 5 or more drinks – and for women – it’s consuming 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours. 

A “drink” defined 
A drink” refers to half an ounce of alcohol (e.g., a 12oz. beer, a 5oz. glass of wine, or a 1.5oz. shot of distilled spirits). 

The impact of alcohol consumption and binge drinking 

In 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 86.4 percent of people in the United States aged 18 or older drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States. More than one in six U.S. adults, or 38 million people, are binge drinkers, and they binge an average of four times a month.

In 2010, alcohol consumption cost America an estimated $249 billion in workplace productivity losses, health care expenditures, criminal justice costs, and other expenses — binge drinking was responsible for 77 percent of these costs, or $191 billion.  

Some nutritional consequences of binge drinking 
In 2018, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that young adults who frequently binge drink were more likely to have cardiovascular risk factors, including higher blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar at a younger age than non-bingers. In addition to malabsorption of several nutrients in the gut, binge drinkers are at risk of malnutrition because alcohol contains calories that may substitute for those in more nutritious foods. Another more common consequence of binge drinking is weight gain, which in turn contributes to the nation’s obesity epidemic.   

The link between alcohol and obesity 

Researchers suggest a positive correlation between calories derived from alcohol and obesity. Alcohol also has an effect on hunger levels and food preferences.  

Alcohol cannot be stored in the body, however, its conversion to acetate in the liver and subsequent release into the bloodstream inhibits the amount of fat the body burns.  

The problem with binge drinking and misleading nutrition labels 

pint of beer may contain as much as 200 calories – the same as a doughnut. Yet, in the United Kingdom, one study found that 85 percent of the population is unaware of or underestimates calories from alcohol. This problem is universal, and–in the United States–this is due in part to misleading nutrition labeling proposals by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which regulates and collects taxes on trade and imports of alcohol. 

Labeling of alcohol can reduce binge drinking 

As noted above, one strategy to increase awareness and reduce the risk of excessive alcohol use is to label alcoholic beverages with serving facts. Listing the ingredients alerts consumers to the presence of any potentially harmful or problematic substances while providing nutritional informationsuch as energy contentallows consumers to monitor their diets and makes it easier to maintain a healthy lifestyle.  

The impact that such a move could have was illustrated by a small experiment conducted in a UK pub, in which customers presented with caloric information consumed on average 400 fewer calories than those who had access to no such information.  

Obstacles for nutrition labeling of alcohol in the United States 

Labeling requirements for alcoholic beverages are woefully inadequate. The proposals offered by TTB are too little, and they don’t support public health.  

In 2003, a petition by several special interest groups (including NCL) to TTB, claimed that there were substantial disparities in the labeling requirements applicable to different kinds of alcoholic beverages. Wine and distilled spirits labels are required to reveal the beverages’ alcohol concentration – expressed as a percentage of alcohol by volume (additional proof-level statements are optional) – but labeling alcohol content on beer and other malt beverages is entirely optional. Only those alcoholic beverages that make nutritional claims, such as “light” or “lite” beers must disclose calorie content and certain nutrition information. 

There has been no rationale published by TTB for these differences.  

The National Consumers League’s petition  
NCL, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and 67 other organizations continue to advocate for mandatory content and nutritional labeling on all alcoholic beverages. While it may not eradicate binge drinking, consumers who want to consume alcohol in moderation deserve to know what’s in that drink. A label like the Nutrition and Supplement Facts on alcoholic beverages is long overdue.

Are the olives used to make your olive oil contaminated with herbicides?

Shaunice Wall is NCL’s Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Olive oil and the Mediterranean are almost synonymous. Extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO, has been an unrivaled staple in the gastronomy of the health conscious. It has also been long time dubbed as “heart healthy” due to its high antioxidant and monosaturated fats, which can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” HDL cholesterol. In fact, the Mediterranean diet was recommended as one of the healthiest diets in the latest edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

However, fraud in the marketing of EVOO has plagued consumers for decades. Too often, EVOO on the shelves of our grocery stores are low quality and falsely marked as high-quality virgin or extra-virgin olive oil. An additional common fraudulent activity of olive oil production is the mixing of fresh extra virgin olive oil with inferior, cheaper olive oils or oils of another botanical origin. In 2015, the National Consumers League (NCL) tested 11 different olive oils purchased at various supermarkets and discovered that six of them, despite being labeled “extra virgin,” in actuality did not meet the standards set by the International Olive Council (IOC).

Though the mislabeling of extra virgin olive oil is cause for major health concern, this year, a court in France has sketched an alternative alarm for consumers as they have now banned the use of the world’s most widely used weed killer in its country’s olive groves.

The controversy

Roundup Pro 360, which is the product brand name developed by Monsanto and now owned by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, has grown to dominate the herbicide market and lists glyphosate as its active ingredient. A French court has ruled that based on scientific studies, Roundup Pro 360 is “a potentially carcinogenic product for humans, suspected of being toxic for human reproduction and for aquatic organisms.”

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) had classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Despite this warning, the European Commission had approved a 5-year license renewal for the substance in November 2017. Partial and total bans of glyphosate also have been issued in about a dozen other countries since the release of that statement, including several other members of the European Union, Brazil, Canada and New Zealand.

Bayer (used interchangeably as Monsanto throughout this article) is appealing the French court’s decision, citing studies that prove glyphosate is safe. Bayer is currently facing more than 9,300 lawsuits over the negative health effects of Roundup and related products.

A European Parliament report revealed that the European Commission’s 2017 decision to extend the license for glyphosate was based on text that had been copied and pasted from Monsanto studies and included in an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that concluded the substance is safe to use.

What one Greek study revealed 

The persistence of glyphosate and its primary metabolite AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid) was monitored in two areas in Southern Greece with a known history of glyphosate use, and the levels of residues were linked to spray operators’ activities. During a 3-year monitoring study, a total of 170 samples were collected and analyzed from both areas. Differences in the level of residues between areas, as well as sampling sites of the same area, were identified. AMPA persisted longer than the parent compound glyphosate in both areas. To translate: the olives contained residual amounts of Roundup Pro 360.

Infographic of Olive Oil imports to the U.S. and the use of herbicide.

How widespread is herbicide use? 

Weed control in olive groves is needed to prevent weeds from soaking up the moisture the olive trees need to thrive. As a result, herbicide use has become a common practice, especially in Spanish olive groves, and has rapidly increased in the past 20 years. In very mountainous regions, close to 90 percent of the olive groves are in a system using no-tillage and herbicides for weed control.

Why should the American consumer beware?

Olive oil is made by crushing olives into a paste with steel blades. The olives are stirred to release the oil droplets in a process called maceration before being spun in a centrifuge to pull out the oil and water. After the water is removed, what is left is olive oil. If the olives used in this process are contaminated with Roundup Pro, the consumer may be potentially ingesting dangerous cancer-causing (otherwise known as carcinogenic) chemicals.

Each year Americans consume more than 300,000 tons of olive oil and less than 5 percent of it is produced in the United States. The bulk of U.S. olive oil imports come from Europe, North Africa, and especially Spain, which accounted for 62 percent of all olive oil imports in 2016.

The EPA’s alleged collusion with Monsanto 

Studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. agency that regulates the use of herbicides and pesticides, claims the effects of glyphosate dietary exposure contradicts the declaration that it poses carcinogenic hazards by the World Health Organization. This inconsistency in study findings is subject to an ongoing investigation by EPA’s watchdog that is currently investigating allegations that former agency official Jess Rowland colluded with Monsanto during the review process to counter suggestions it endangers human health.

Exactly how much glyphosate is needed to pose the risk of cancer?

The limit in Europe is currently set at 0.5 milligrams (or 500 mcg) of glyphosate daily per kilogram of body weight, which works out to about 34 milligrams, or 34,000 mcg, for a 150-lb. person. The U.S. daily limit, set by the EPA, is 3.5 times as high as Europe’s, although some have called for a lower limit. We think the United States should adopt the stricter standards embraced by Europe.

What is NCL doing?

While regulatory agencies come to a common consensus on the use of Roundup Pro in the cultivation of olives, we at NCL continue to hold olive oil producers accountable for truth in labeling violations. We endorse the use of authentic organic products and believe in its long-term value. NCL aims to monitor product safety and continues to foster the economic protection of the consumer.

Kosher labeling and the importance of independent food safety checks – National Consumers League

Kosher food made headlines last week in the aftermath of a multi-state Salmonella outbreak that killed one person and sickened 17 others. Illnesses spanned September 25, 2017 to June 4, 2018 – a shockingly lengthy amount of time in the food safety world. The CDC is not taking any further action, and no products have been recalled.

The tainted brand, Empire Kosher chicken, issued a statement that read, in part, “We take food safety and the health of our consumers very seriously and any illness, even potentially linked to our products, is unacceptable. We continue to very aggressively work to ensure the quality and safety of our products.”

This statement piqued an interest – aggressive quality assurance and …Kosher? Even as an infrequent consumer of Kosher foods, I began to dig, and what I found surprised me: A study from Mintel estimated 21 percent of Americans eat Kosher foods, a market trend driven in large part by consumer confidence in food safety procedures in both the Kosher and Halal (i.e., religious) certification schemes. Further, Kosher certification systems have been described as a model for private agencies that audit food production and processing facilities globally.

But beyond the basics of religious doctrine, what are the specific benefits of Kosher certification, particularly in this day and age? What can the secular world learn from the largest religious labeling scheme in the world – one that appears on half of all packaged food products?

First, some basic terminology is necessary. Hundreds of hechsher (Hebrew: seal of approval) labeling schemes exist – including text in Hebrew or English, symbols, and even decorative logos. The labels serve to illustrate adherence to religious dietary laws by differentiating between meat, dairy, or neutral foods. They are also used to denote the utensils used for preparation, other production process, and even food service venues with specific kashrut-related needs. Generally, dairy foods have a small “D” or the word “dairy” next to the Kosher label, though meats usually do not have extra labels. Neutral foods, those that are neither meat nor dairy, include a P for Pareve.

Just as there are hundreds of Kosher labeling schemes, there are thousands of Kosher certification agencies, in fact, 1,400+ as of July 2018. The agencies span regional to international food systems and include specialty as well as Israeli-specific foods. However, agencies known as the “Big Four” certify over 80 percent of kosher food sold in the US: Orthodox Union (“OU,” designated by a U inside a circle), Organized Kashrut (“OK,” designated by a K inside a circle), Star-K Kosher Certification (a K inside a star), and Kosher Certification and Supervision (“KOF-K,” ). In any given secular grocery store, the most frequently seen symbols are OU and OK, respectively, the two biggest kosher certification agencies.

Above all else, the Kosher certification process enhances traceability – allowing consumers to know where their food was sourced, processed, packaged, and finally, distributed. Quite unlike federal regulatory food safety systems, Kosher labeling is notable for fulfilling consumers’ most desired traits in their food products: traceability and transparency. The lack of traceability, monitoring, and enforcement is a systemic problem in today’s global food system, and can easily be called the culprit in the lengthy process to identify the source of E. coli contamination in the recent Romaine lettuce outbreak.

The agency responsible for overseeing the Kosher certification process at Empire Kosher chicken was OU, .  But given that OU is a private, independent certification agency that oversees 1 million products at 8,500 processing plants, we can only expect pathogen risk to be reduced, not eliminated. If anything, the recent outbreak of Salmonella linked to Empire Kosher chicken ultimately shows the strength of Kosher labeling and safety regimes, given how few outbreaks have been linked to Kosher foods in the last decade. Moreso, it provides a much needed model for the federal government to modernize using systems-based approaches (i.e., from farm to fork) for all measures of food safety testing, public communication, and importantly, compliance.

While Kosher certified products do have a better safety record with less risk of being involved food safety outbreaks, even Kosher certification is not perfect, as we see from the Empire chicken outbreak. Clearly as this story shows, we have a lot of work to do to get our entire food system up to a level where all of us can be sure that we are safe from dangerous foodborne illness. 

A lesson in sautéing up nutrition: the coconut oil debacle – National Consumers League

Last week, a Harvard professor made headlines after calling coconut oil “pure poison.” I can’t help shaking my head at such an outlandish statement. The idea that foods can cause cancer—or the opposite, that one superfood can cure disease—is a false claim we see time and again in news. We see it particularly in headlines, serving as “clickbait.” Food is neither a pure poison nor a panacea.

Like the many food “scandals” before (remember 2015’s bacon-gate?), the coconut oil debacle does reflect substantial data on its potential dietary fat harms. Before describing the data on coconut oil, it’s necessary to describe changes in the study of dietary fat over the last few years. In June, the British Medical Journal published a consensus statement on dietary fats. The image below from BMJ captures the evolution of the relationship between nutrition science, dietary fat intake, and heart disease. Essentially, eating foods high in saturated fats is not what causes high LDL (the “bad” blood cholesterol) or coronary heart disease—what most people had thought for decades. Instead, it’s a combination of nutrients, dietary intake, and other health conditions that lead to heart disease.

Amid these developments, consumers gained unprecedented access to new cooking oils in the food marketplace. It is now commonplace to see avocado, cottonseed, groundnut, and other vegetable oils alongside canola and olive oils in the grocery store; and the growth in demand is even stronger in Asian countries. Globally, the market is expected to grow by 5.5 percent from 2017 to 2026, representing $65 million annually.

As the market boomed, researchers began testing the differences in the nutritional profiles between the many new varieties of cooking oils available for mass consumption. Coconut oil stood out, high in saturated fat content and, coincidentally, touted by many media influencers as a cure all to everything from skin and hair care and as an alternative to canola oil for frying foods.

Several longitudinal studies found that coconut oil raised LDL to levels similar to those found in butter, beef fat, and palm oil. In 2017, the American Heart Association awarded coconut oil a presidential advisory warning against its consumption. Alternatively, coconut oil also has the lowest polyunsaturated fat among the many varieties of cooking oil—a mere 2 percent, as compared with the 78 percent of safflower oil.

But authors reporting on the coconut-oil-is-poison story seemed surprised at the notion that the popular item could be detrimental to health. This makes sense, given that we—broadly as consumers—generally think coconut oil is … healthy. According to Cargill’s annual FATitudes survey (see table below), perception of coconut oil healthfulness grew from 44 percent in 2015 to 52 percent in 2017. At the same time, canola oil—tying with olive oil for first place in monounsaturated fat levels, which is linked to HDL (the “good” cholesterol in the bloodstream)—hovered around 35 percent.

The good news is that any consumption of vegetable oils seems to be preferable to animal cooking sources (e.g., lard, butter, or red meat). As the cooking oils market continues to grow, we must do a better job at reducing the power of clickbait. Flashy headlines should not take the place of facts.

The role of technology in meeting consumer demands for product info – National Consumers League

Entering the grocery store, more than 40,000 products are right at your fingertips. As our Food Policy Fellow Haley Swartz has written about previously, choice overload and the “tyranny of too much” are increasingly common for consumers in grocery store aisles.

In an age when nutrition, health, and product safety are major consumer priorities, it becomes increasingly important to know what are in the items you purchase, and how they compare to the many other options on the grocery shelf.

Transparency itself is in high demand, as some have even called it the must-have ingredient for successful food companies in the modern era. Substantial consumer research data also indicates consumer demand for industry transparency, particularly in food and beverage manufacturing. The 2016 Label Insight Food Revolution Study found that 71 percent of consumers believed product transparency influences their purchasing decisions at the grocery store. A July 2017 survey found even more striking results, that 70 percent of purchases were influenced by transparency content.

A more recent survey from May 2018 found that if consumers were provided with additional information about a product, 80 percent said they would be more likely to buy it. In fact, more than two-thirds of respondents said that their interest about the information on product labels has increased over just the past two years.

Shoppers across the country are hungry for detailed information about what is in a product, why it is there, how it is produced, and what impact it has on the environment and their health. This call for more product information could be a result of the increasing complexity of food manufacturing, occurrence of allergies in the United States, and heightened awareness about the effect food has on our health.

A variety of tools aim to help anxious consumers wade through the noise to find the information they seek. But product packaging is becoming increasingly complex, enough so that some have called it a “competitive piece of real estate.” Only some of the information consumers want can be available directly in sight during grocery shopping experiences or when they are at home making out their shopping lists.

One tool that answers this question is SmartLabel, a digital disclosure tool which makes more information than can ever fit on a label available to consumers. SmartLabel works using a smartphone to scan barcodes or QR codes on food, beverages, personal care, and household products in the grocery store. Once the barcode is scanned, a SmartLabel website page provides detailed information about a range of things: ingredients, nutritional facts, allergens, usage instructions, third-party certifications, such as Kosher, and other information such as whether a food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The information can also be found by going to on a computer while you’re at home.

As of June 2018, SmartLabel is being used on nearly 28,000 food, beverage, personal care and household products in grocery stores, with many more products on the way.

The National Consumers League food policy team applauds the grocery manufacturers and retailing industry for responding to consumer demand and working to create a way for consumers to find more transparent information about the products they are purchasing. We hope that the industry will continue to roll out similar initiatives that promote the best interests of consumers and respond to demand in the marketplace.


Cheesy distractions … – National Consumers League

Amid all the craziness of the last few weeks – the hurricanes that destroyed so much of Puerto Rico and the islands, the earthquake in Mexico City, the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas – I find myself gravitating to anodyne parts of the newspapers I love to read daily. Case in point, the Food Section of the Washington Post

And I happened to come upon a most interesting article on American cheeses – not the orange kind in cellophane wrapped slices, but intensely aged flavorful artisanal cheeses that are now competing with their European counterparts for the first time.

Why is this relevant to NCL? I’m getting there! The article appeared on the front page of the food section with the headline “All American contenders, At an International Cheese Festival, experts deem US-made varieties on par with Old World Stalwarts.” There they were in Bra, Italy with cheese aficionados from across the world touting the qualities of great new American cheeses. But when I looked inside for the jump page, all I could find was a headline that said “Raw milk producers look to make their case to wary American consumers.”  Wait, that wasn’t what I was reading about!

All of a sudden the article morphed into a discussion on the superiority of raw milk cheeses and the FDA’s rules about them, about which I know very little. Well, raw milk is important to NCL because, it’s dangerous to consume: it hasn’t been pasteurized. 

The American Cheese Society’s Nora Weiser was quoted: “ In the United States, we’re still in the phase where we’re trying to prove the safety of raw-milk cheese.”  NIH found that 90 outbreaks attributed to raw milk between 1998 and 2011 had caused 1,1882 illnesses, 230 hospitalizations, and six deaths. Forty-two percent of those were from raw milk cheese. And two people died eating cheese just this past March in New York, according to the article. That’s pretty scary! Ms. Weiser has an uphill battle, it appears. 

I learned that there’s a way to make raw cheeses safe to consume: age them for 60 days, per FDA rules. But then no soft, young raw milk cheeses allowed like those you find in Europe. Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese in the United States complained that the FDA’s processes are opaque and not based on science. I don’t know if he’s right or not. I do know that for the consumers’ sake, anything made with raw milk should be made safe. Where the FDA is going to land on this is anyone’s guess. That said, this is why I LOVE newspapers, because at least for a few moments, this trip to an international cheese festival and celebration of new American artisanal cheeses – and discussion of raw milk  – took my mind off the depressing news of the week. 

The poultry industry wants to speed up production – but at what cost? – National Consumers League

poultry_production-crop.jpgBeef consumption in the U.S is on the decline. The red meat that once played a central role in the American diet is disappearing off of consumers’ plates by the rate of about 20 pounds of beef per person, per year. Increased awareness of obesity and other weight-related diseases linked to red meat, and a public health push to persuade Americans to choose leaner options are likely some of the causes of this drop in demand. As beef consumption has decreased, poultry has steadily risen to become the most popular meat product in the U.S., and the poultry industry isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

Earlier this month, the National Chicken Council (NCC) submitted a petition to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)–the food safety regulatory arm of USDA–requesting a lift on a 2014 Obama Administration rule that limits processing speeds to 140 birds per minute. In their petition, the NCC requests that FSIS initiate a waiver program allowing chicken slaughter establishments “to operate without the arbitrary line speed limitations.” This means processing speeds would likely increase to at least 175 birds per minute. The NCC argues that limiting processing rates is putting the U.S. chicken industry at a competitive disadvantage, as some countries are able to process over 200 birds per minute.

Despite their argument, it’s hard to feel sorry for the NCC when the U.S. is currently the world’s top producer of poultry meat. In fact, this year consumers are expected to consume a record amount of chicken, about 91.3 pounds per person. Not only is poultry production dominating nationally, but according to the USDA, the U.S. is also the second largest exporter of poultry meat in the world.

Since the NCC’s petition became public, animal rights groups, workers unions, and consumer advocacy groups (including NCL) have spoken up about the increased safety risks associated with faster processing. Removing speed line limits makes birds susceptible to harsher slaughtering conditions, including violent removal of limbs, drowning, scalding, and other egregious abuse. On top of inhumane slaughtering practices, the poultry industry is notorious for the poor treatment of their workers. Without processing rules, poultry workers are even more vulnerable. According to the director of Oxfam America’s U.S. Domestic Program, Minor Sinclair, “Bumping up the poultry processing line speed to 175 birds per minute – or striking 3 birds per second – will only invite more worker amputations, hospitalizations, and injuries – not to mention increasing the risk of meat contamination.”

The National Consumers League advocates for the health and safety of workers and consumers. We stand with the other consumer and worker rights organizations objecting a lift on speed line limits. The health and safety of workers and consumers is far more important than any potential economic gain for the poultry industry. Consumers should remain informed about the changes happening in food processing, and speak out against policies that put workers and public health at risk. There is already so much progress to be made in the poultry industry. If NCC’s petition is accepted, it will become even more difficult for the poultry industry to meet the needs of workers and consumers whose best interest they claim to serve.   

High school students shocked at waste uncovered during cafeteria food waste audits – National Consumers League

“Schools are a place of learning. The cafeteria should be too!”

I’m willing to guess that if you ask almost any student their favorite school period, the resounding answer will be “lunch!” My memories of school lunch involve scarfing down a peanut butter sandwich and quickly catching up with friends before our 30 minutes were up. The cafeteria is hectic, lines are long, and many students rush through their meals in order to preserve time to socialize.  So too often, a hasty lunch period leaves trash bins overflowing with half-eaten sandwiches and other barely touched food items.

Food waste in American schools is a major problem. Studies have found that U.S. schools waste a total of about $1.2 billion annually. There are many theories as to why schools produce so much food waste, but in order to really identify the root causes, we have to get our hands dirty. And who better to dig into a messy issue than energetic high school students?

In the spring of 2017, students participating in LifeSmarts, NCL’s signature consumer literacy program, were given the unique challenge of conducting a food waste audit in their school cafeterias. Throughout the 2016–2017 academic year, LifeSmarts students studied the impacts of food waste that infiltrate almost every aspect of consumers’ lives. Students learned about the humanitarian and environmental impact of food waste. Having this background knowledge helped the students contextualize the auditing challenge within the discourse of the national and global food waste problem.

The terms of the challenge required students to conduct one audit in their cafeteria during one lunch period. Students worked with their peers to separate waste into five separate bins: unopened food, organic waste, liquid waste, recycling, and landfill waste. Students recorded the weight of each bin and answered a series of data-related and critical thinking questions, which gave them an opportunity to connect their real-life results with the national and global impacts of food waste.

Students’ reactions were diverse, and their suggestions inform insightful structural and policy solutions for preventing and reducing food waste in schools and communities.

One student shared:

“Before the food audit, we predicted that the amount of food wasted would peak at around 70 percent of the total weight of food received, however when we combined the total weight of food thrown away and the unserved cafeteria food we were astonished to find that the true amount of food wasted was around 85 percent.“

Some students went an extra step to try to understand why food was being thrown out:

“Additionally, we were interested in evaluating the variety, amount, and nutrition within the available choices and determine how healthy students are eating at our school. This data will be shared with the food distributer for our high school as well as the School Committee.”

Students were also confronted with limitations from their school board:

“Unopened food cannot be shared, saved, or removed from the school per BOE directives.”

“Prepared cafeteria foods that were untouched had to be disposed of as food waste.”

As students became aware of the issue, they presented next steps for increasing efforts to reduce waste:

“Our LifeSmarts Team could encourage the administration to make a student lunch advisory board to review the lunches and see which meals students are reluctant to consume.”

One of the most striking findings from the audit challenge is the combined metrics of waste generated.

Instead of throwing away unopened food, it could have been recovered or donated. The potential for food rescue is detailed in the table below. Amounts were calculated using Food Rescue’s conversion tool.

Items rescued 2,444
Meals rescued 488
Pounds of CO2e rescued (the amount of carbon dioxide which would have the equivalent global warming impact) 305.5

The feedback from students who completed this challenge demonstrates the value in conducting food waste audits. Many students expressed interest in conducting more audits to dig deeper into the issue. Others were energized to move forward with engaging community members and school administrators to experiment with new solutions.

In the 2017–2018 academic year, LifeSmarts students will build on the momentum from the first audit challenge and test strategies for reducing waste in their cafeterias. Students will be encouraged to run longer audits, implement solutions, and conduct a second series of audits to measure their success. By collaborating with school administrators, food service workers, and community partners, students will navigate our complex food system, providing opportunities for solution-making from the ground up.