President’s budget brings good news to food safety advocates – National Consumers League

Monday, the president released his budget and with it, a proposal to create one single federal agency focused on food safety. The proposal came days after Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced bills to create an independent federal food safety agency. Both the budget and this legislation seek to reallocate food safety inspections, labeling, and enforcement into a single agency cutting government costs and overlap.  

As it presently stands, most food safety responsibilities are split between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The current setup is redundant and fragmented. FSIS is responsible for meat, poultry and eggs while FDA regulates everything else. The system becomes confusing for some foods like eggs where FDA is responsible for the health of the hens but FSIS must ensure that the eggs are safe for consumption.

Food safety advocates have long called for the consolidation of these agencies into one. Streamlining the food safety operations would reduce unnecessary overlap between the agencies. The proposed new food safety agency would also be responsible for coordinating with state and local health departments after a food borne illness outbreak, a job the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently is responsible for. Moving this responsibility to the new agency could allow for faster reaction times and better trace back to contaminated food sources.

The food safety policies presented by the President and Congress in the past week are cause for celebration among both food safety advocates and consumers. While these policies have only just been proposed, they are a promising sign of positive changes for our food safety. Members of Congress should make implementing a new agency similar to the one President Obama laid out a priority.

You committed to being healthier in 2015. Now what? – National Consumers League

A new year is upon us and once again the time has come for New Year’s Resolutions. Making goals can be a rewarding or loathsome experience based on your ability to achieve them. By making extreme resolutions you could be setting yourself up for failure. It might not be feasible to exercise every day or never eat another cookie. Instead try making small changes and staying committed to those changes. By devoting yourself to something that doesn’t seem like that big of a change for a whole year, you can make a huge difference in your health.  

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Scale back on portion sizes: Instead of embarking on a full diet, cutting your portion sizes to 2/3 or 3/4 of what you would normally eat can have a significant impact over the course of a year. It can be difficult to know what a normal serving size should look like as restaurants often serve big portions so consumers feel like they are getting a good deal. In reality, it’s a bad deal for the environment if you waste the food and a bad deal for your health if you overeat. More information on appropriate portion sizes can be found here.
  2. Limit consumption of processed foods: These foods tend to have more added salt, fat and sugar.  Spotting processed foods at the grocery store is easier than it might seem. Avoid foods in boxes, bags or other packaging that list unfamiliar ingredients.
  3. Eat more meals at home:  Meals prepared in the home tend to be lower in calories fat and sodium. It can be challenging to make a fresh meal every night but cooking food in large batches a couple times a week helps provide ample homemade lunches and dinners. 
  4. Decrease soda consumption:  Soda is a large, nutrient-void source of calories. Drinking too much can increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease and other obesity related diseases. It can be difficult to cut back if soda has become a part of your daily food routine. Try limiting the amount you drink each week until it becomes a treat enjoyed on special occasions.
  5. Cut back on alcohol:  Similar to soda, alcohol is a large source of empty calories in many American’s diets. Alcohol doesn’t need to be completely eliminated from your diets. Instead put a cap on how many drinks you will allow yourself each week or each day. It will make the drinks you do consume that much sweeter. And remember, the Dietary Guidelines recommend no more than one alcoholic drink a day for women and two a day for men.
  6. Increase the amount of fruits and vegetables at every meal:  USDA’s “My Plate” recommends making half of each meal fruits and vegetables. Doing so is one simple way to ensure you are filling up on nutrient dense low calorie foods instead of those that are high in calories but neglect to provide adequate vitamins and nutrients.   
  7. Incorporate whole grains into your daily food routine: Try to switch the grains you eat on a daily basis to whole grains, substituting white rice for brown rice or buying whole grain bread instead of white bread. Experiment with baking with whole grain flour instead of white flour. If using all whole grain isn’t palatable to you, use half white and half whole grain. Consuming more whole grains provides more naturally occurring fiber and other vital nutrients. 
  8. Eat less meat:  Cut back especially on fatty processed meats like bacon, pepperoni and prosciutto. Instead, try replacing the meat in your favorite dishes with tofu or fish, both of which are high in protein but low in fat. 
  9. Commit to being active, not to exercise: Setting out to exercise daily can be a daunting. While it is still good to hit the gym or go on a run a few days a week, signing up for a class like dancing, rock climbing or kick boxing ensures you get plenty of movement in an enjoyable way.  Develop a new active hobby such as kayaking, biking, or hiking. Taking more walks, committing to taking the stairs, or parking at the furthest corner of the parking lot can all make a difference.
  10. Accept yourself as you are:  Imagine how hard life would be if you had someone following you around constantly criticizing you every minute. That’s what happens sometimes when we are displeased with ourselves.  If you accept and love yourself you will make achieving your new year’s goals that much easier. 

Changes do not need to be extreme to matter. Only create new goals that seem sustainable for a lifetime otherwise you may eventually give up and reverse the positive progress you have made. Have a happy and healthy 2015!

An early holiday gift from the FDA: menu labeling – National Consumers League

Ever wonder just how caloric that notorious grande mocha frappuccino is or how many calories are lurking in your Auntie Anne’s cinnamon pretzel? Well those questions just got a lot easier to answer.  Today, the FDA released final menu labeling rules for retail food chains and vending machines with 20 or more locations. Movie theaters, pizza parlors and convenience stores are also covered under these new regulations. While some cities and states already have menu labeling requirements (New York required chain restaurants to start labeling in 2006), the FDA’s rule is nationwide making it a huge win for consumers.

What really made us consumer advocates giddy though was the inclusion of alcohol beverages on restaurant menus, an unexpected and tough measure. Alcohol is the six largest source of calories among Americans, with the average individual consuming a shocking 3.8 percent of all calories from alcohol. The rules also applied to convenience stores and grocery stores for foods that are intended to feed one person. Foods like bread and rotisserie chicken, which constitute as more than a meal, were not included.

The jury is still out on how menu labeling affects total calorie consumption, with some studies showing reduced consumption and others showing no change. What has become very clear is the consumer desire to make calorie amounts more visible. The National Restaurant Association had great foresight in advocating for the federal standard alongside consumer advocates in an effort to avoid varying laws put in place by cities and states.

Labeling calorie counts on menus is a strong consumer education tool. According to the FDA, one third of the calories American’s eat or drink are consumed away from the home. While the long term outcomes of menu labeling are unknown, consumers’ ability to access information that affects their health is the first step in the direction of a healthier America.

Consumers can expect to see the rule take effect a year from now for restaurants and two years for vending machines.  It is likely these rules will continue to face legal and political challenges in some parts of the food industry.

Happy Food Day! – National Consumers League

Food day is an annual celebration of healthy, affordable and sustainable food aimed to motivate Americans to change their diets and our food policies. That’s why we’ve chosen Food Day to release a report, Wasted: Solutions to the American Food Waste Problem, examining ways retailers and consumers can minimize America’s food waste problem.

The report details the ethical, environmental and financial costs of food waste, demonstrating how far reaching and severe the problem is. In the past year, 49 million Americans were unable to consistently put food on the table, a shocking number considering some 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten.  American’s aren’t just throwing away food, they are throwing away 35 MILLION tons of food every year. This costs a family of four somewhere in the ballpark of $1,350 to $2,275 each year. When wasted food finds its final resting place in the landfill, it decomposes releasing methane, the second most common greenhouse gas with twenty times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Worldwide, 35 percent of food waste takes place at the consumption level, making retailers and consumers responsible for the largest portion of food waste along the supply chain. NCL’s report addresses behaviors and actions that promote waste by both retailers and consumers, providing concrete actions to minimize food waste.   We’ve assembled a “To Do List” for stakeholders with the top 10 food waste reducing behaviors.

So this Food Day take a moment to consider how you can have a positive impact on food waste through your own actions and requests made to your favorite restaurants and grocery stores. Events like the National Geographic Harvest Festival with cooking demonstrations and taste testing are happening nationwide.

Better poultry practices start with consumer demand – National Consumers League

Last week, Perdue, one of the nation’s largest poultry producers, announced the removal of antibiotics in its hatcheries.  It is the latest action in their 12 year plan to reduce antibiotics in poultry production.  Perdue has been a leader in the industry’s antibiotic reduction efforts, with 95 percent of its chickens never receiving human antibiotics and the remaining 5 percent administered human antibiotics for limited time periods, when prescribed by a veterinarian.  

In hatcheries, eggs are injected with drugs that can prevent common poultry diseases. A common practice is to use antibiotics to prevent infections that come from the hole in the shell left by the injection. Five years after implementation, Perdue eliminated antibiotics by improving cleaning procedures and administering vaccines to laying hens that improved eggs immunity. 

Perdue’s decision comes on the heels of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidance for industry recommending the removal of antibiotics used in food for growth promotion.  Perdue already eliminated the use of human antibiotics in feed in 2007.  The guidance, put out in December, is part of a larger plan to reduce antimicrobial resistance.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have quantified the toll antibiotic-resistance infections have on Americans annually, concluding that at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths are a result of antimicrobial resistance.

Perdue’s decision to eliminate antibiotics in their hatcheries goes beyond any of the FDA’s present industry guidelines. Setting new standards based on consumer demand holds other companies in the industry to improve their procedures.   

There is always more work to be done in ensuring the safest, healthiest animal production.  Antibiotics are still grossly overused in many circumstances and the government has yet to mandate eliminating antibiotic use for growth promotion let alone other practices such as those in hatcheries.  Progress requires engagement not only from government and industry but from consumers who demand safe and healthy foods.

Political battles have no place in our schools’ cafeterias – National Consumers League

92_kelsey.jpgWhen you think of controversial policies, school lunch isn’t the first thing that should come to mind. As a nation fighting a childhood obesity epidemic, school lunches play an important role in getting us back on track. Schools provide one, and sometimes two, of the three meals kids eat each day, packing the biggest punch for kids who depend on these meals for nourishment. How can we justify serving anything but wholesome, nutritious food when that is the case?

The House Appropriations Committee begs to differ.  Tomorrow they are expected to approve a 2015 spending bill for the Agriculture Department granting a waiver from nutrition standards required by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  The requirements set limits on sodium and substitute whole grain foods for those that are not.  The Senate Appropriation Committee’s bill does not include the waiver setting this up to be a drawn out fight.

Tuesday, Michelle Obama came out strongly opposing the House Republican led attempts to scale back healthier school lunch standards saying we can’t afford to play politics with nutrition standards. Prior to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, there were no standards for what could be served in schools. Hiring criteria for food service personnel and annual nutrition education training as well as grants for upgrading kitchen equipment and providing farm to school education to students are a few of the major proponents of the original bill.

The School Nutrition Association, an industry backed trade association representing cafeteria administrators, argues the new requirements are unduly expensive and lead to food being wasted by students.  Since issuing their statement in opposition of the regulations, nineteen former presidents of the School Nutrition Association have publicly opposed the group’s platform and urged Congress to keep the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act regulations intact. As Michelle Obama said, “ the last think we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health.”

When it comes to GMOs, how much do we really know? – National Consumers League

kelseyJust last week, Vermont took the initiative to pass a state bill requiring GMO labeling. While Connecticut and Maine have also each passed GMO labeling acts, that legislation will only go into effect once a certain number of other states have passed similar labeling requirements. Vermont’s law won’t go into effect for two years — and only if lawsuit doesn’t knock it down first!

State legislators expect pushback from major genetically engineered seed producers, like Monsanto. An extra $1.5 million legal fund was added into the legislation to help cover any costs a lawsuit may incur in court.

gmoThe recent GMO labeling buzz has got me thinking. What do we, as a nation, really know about GMOs? Turns out we know surprisingly little. Only 26 percent of consumers believe that they have eaten genetically modified foods and 60 percent believe they haven’t. For anyone who has taken the time to research this issue, they would know that it is incredibly unlikely that someone has never eaten genetically modified foods. Ten years ago in 2004, 85 percent of soybeans and 45 percent of corn grown in the U.S. were genetically modified. It is very likely that these numbers have only grown since then. What I find most disturbing is that among consumers who claimed to know the most about GM foods, 43 percent still thought that they had never eaten any GMOs.

If we as a nation are so uneducated about how much of our food is genetically modified then it is a good idea that GM foods be labeled as such. The sheer volume of GM foods in this country might disturb some consumers and lead to self-education about GMOs. Some consumers might conclude that they aren’t as detrimental as some anti-GMO activists make them out to be. Many argue these modified foods have the capacity to feed the ever-growing, ever-hungry population of this planet.

What’s more, I doubt that consumer habits will greatly change based on GMO labeling.  The people who are passionately anti-GMO likely know which foods contain GMOs already and avoid them. The people who don’t care, well they might not even notice the labels, and those that are curious might read up on genetic modification and learn more about what genetically modified really means. It is important that food producers include robust labels on their products so consumers know exactly what they are eating. For this reason, labeling food that contains GMOs is the right decision for consumers.

A step in the right direction with new nutrition facts labels – National Consumers League


You may have heard about the Food and Drug Administration’s recently released proposed revisions to the Nutrition Facts label. The results were resoundingly positive, with only a couple points of contention. Nutrition Facts labels first came about thanks to the passage of a 1990 law requiring them. Since, they have only been significantly updated once, to include trans fat in the list of required nutrients. Needless to say, they were due for an update.

One of the most notable changes is the emphasis on calories.  The increased font size and bolding of the calories amount play an important role in consumer decision making and contribute to addressing the obesity epidemic in America.  FDA also proposed to add a line to the required nutrients for “added sugars”.  Added sugars are a good means of determining which food options are healthiest.  While added sugars do not affect the body any differently than those that occur naturally, they indicate that a food is likely more processed and most likely contains unnecessarily large amounts of sweetener.

The FDA would also like to see that all fiber listed on the Nutrition Facts label exclude purified processed fibers like maltodextrin and inulin.  Processed fibers are not as beneficial as those that are unprocessed and frequently found in whole foods.  A few other high points to the proposed changes are removing the “calories from fat” section and getting rid of the table that lists nutrient labels for 2,000-2,500 calorie diets and replacing the required amounts of vitamins A and C listed with potassium and vitamin D.

The largest concession was that the Daily Value of sodium was only lowered from 2,400mg to 2,300mg.  Ideally it would have been lowered to 1,500mg as is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for people that are over 50, have hypertension, or are African American.   Daily Values are typically based on the most vulnerable populations.  It would be ideal if that applied to this proposed change.

If you are as excited as I am about seeing these new Nutrition Facts labels hit the shelves, you might want to check your enthusiasm.  We shouldn’t expect to see them until 2018 as it may take a while to finalize the rule and industry has two years for implementation.

Getting in touch with your inner farmer – National Consumers League

kelseyIt’s unseasonably warm this week, and I’ve found myself longing to populate my deck with plants despite the cold that may lie ahead. Growing up, my parents spent summer weekends landscaping and planting, and I feel a deep satisfaction in caring for plants. We never had a successful garden exactly, maybe some tomatoes or herbs in pots — but there was something beautiful and amazing about creating something sustaining and useful from tiny seeds.

I worry that Americans are becoming less and less connected with their food. What we buy in the grocery store can be so vastly different than its origins.  Lately there has been some buzz about micro-gardening.  It’s perfect for people who have very little land to grow on, such as those of us who live in cities or apartments.  Micro-gardening focuses on fitting as many plants, and thus produce, into as few square feet as possible.

Companies like Earth Starter are creating aids to achieve maximum space use.  Their creations, the Nourishmat and Herbmat may soon be available for purchase but are currently only available through donation to the Kickstarter Campaign.  The mats come with “seed bombs” that are planted in designated spots. Window gardening is an even better, yet somewhat involved, solution for apartment dwellers.  If you’re able to set up one of these hydroponic window systems, kudos to you.

Encouraging the average American to cultivate his or her green thumb could, through education and assistance, help the urban poor get more fresh food to their tables.  Maybe if we all grew fruits and veggies, we’d feel a little more connected to them, more motivated to eat them.  Its reason enough for me to give it a try.  And for those of you who have absolutely no interest in gardening but still long for extremely fresh locally grown fruits and vegetables, there’s always Community Supported Agriculture which allows consumers to buy directly from farmers and in some cases affords you the opportunity to visit the farm.

Love and food: Old friends – National Consumers League

kelseyFood is a cornerstone of love. Think of all the ways we use food to bond: cooking for loved ones, eating together as a means to share conversation, gifting food. I grew up in a family for whom food was a form of love, and while this might not be every person’s experience, I think we can all understand the association. This Valentine’s Day, couples will flock to restaurants, cookies will be baked for families, and young valentines will exchange candy at school.  

It has me thinking about what are our most loving/loveable/love inducing foods.

Some foods that we associate with love are comforting. Peanut butter and jelly, for example, might have been what your mom made you for lunch every day growing up. Other foods, commonly called aphrodisiacs, supposedly evoke passion. As defined by Webster’s Dictionary, aphrodisiacs are “something that excites” but scientific evidence doesn’t necessarily prove that aphrodisiacs work as we intend. Despite their somewhat ambiguous nature, many aphrodisiacs have other positive health effects.

  • Some of the most notorious aphrodisiacs are oysters. They are known to have high levels of zinc, a mineral proven to increase testosterone in men, and iron, which can increase energy in people with an iron deficiency (most commonly women).
  • Hot peppers, another common aphrodisiac, are packed with vitamins and an antioxidant called capsaicin which may fight cancer, suppress appetite, burn calories and relieve pain.
  • Honey is known for its antibacterial properties (one of the many reasons a hot toddy is so good for a cold) and it contains boron which aids in estrogen and testosterone regulation. The term honeymoon comes from an old tradition of giving mead, fermented honey, as a gift to newlyweds.
  • Strawberries, cherries and pomegranates are all juicy red fruits packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants. Both strawberries and pomegranates have plentiful vitamin c which improves blood flow and cherries are high in melatonin, an antioxidant that’s helps to regulate the heart.
  • Chocolate is a Valentine’s Day favorite and has been proven to release phenylethylamine and serotonin, two brain chemicals that produce a euphoric feeling like that of falling in love.  Keep in mind it doesn’t take very much chocolate to reap its antioxidant and mood enhancing benefits so try to keep consumption to a minimum.

So friends if you’re looking for food to get in the mood this Valentine’s Day, I can’t make any promises but these might help. Even if they don’t, each has positive health benefits — and you really can’t argue with that.