Political battles have no place in our schools’ cafeterias

kelseyBy Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

When you think of controversial policies, school lunch isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.  As a nation fighting an obesity epidemic greatly impacting youth, school lunches play an important role in getting the nation back on track.  Schools provide one, sometimes two, of the three meals kids eat each day.  These meals pack the biggest punch for kids who live in food insecure households and depend on school provided 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?

kelseyBy Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

Just last week Vermont took the initiative and passed a state bill requiring GMO labeling.  While Connecticut and Maine have both passed GMO labeling acts, that legislation will only go into effect when a certain number of other states have passed similar GMO labeling requirements. Vermont’s law won’t go into effect for two years, that is if a lawsuit doesn’t knock it down first.  State legislators expect push back 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.

Fishy labeling harming consumers’ health and pocketbooks

By Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

A new study was recently released, reaffirming something those of us who work on food fraud have known for a while: adulteration and food fraud is rampant, especially in the most vulnerable products. This most recent study addresses fish products sold in the D.C. metropolitan area, NCL’s backyard. The study found that one-third of seafood sold in both restaurants and grocery stores is mislabeled as a different type of fish. For some types of fish, like snapper, as much as 87 percent of the fish sold nationwide may be mislabeled.

The motivation for mislabeling fish is the same as the motive for any food fraud: economic profit. Whenever a cheaper product can be sold in place of a more expensive one, this increases the potential profit margin for the producer. Unfortunately, economically motivated adulteration can hurt consumers. First and most obviously, customers are not getting what they paid for. Secondly, when products are adulterated, consumers are unaware of what they are consuming and thus cannot avoid ingredients that they do not want to consume. This is particularly harmful when these ingredients are allergens. Finally, one major concern revolves around food safety. If a producer is breaking the law by substituting products, it is certainly possible that they are cutting corners in other areas. In particular, they may not be following the most up-to-date food safety practices.

Unfortunately for consumers, identifying when a product has been adulterated is very difficult. Prices that seem too good to be true can be one indicator that a product isn’t what it claims to be. Beyond that, consumers who are concerned about this issue should let the FDA know that enforcement and testing should be a high priority.

Animal and consumer activists join egg producers in fight for better treatment of hens

It is often said that Washington can make for strange bedfellows. A great case in point is the recent agreement between The Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers to improve the treatment of the nation’s 280 million egg-laying hens by supporting H.R. 3798.  The legislation would modernize the egg industry by phasing in larger, enriched colony cages that would improve hen health by allowing for natural hen behavior such as turning and nesting. What’s the consumer angle? Studies show that stressed hens have higher rates of diseases such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, illnesses that are passed through their eggs and on to consumers.

The bill also has a food labeling component that would require egg produces to include information on whether packaged eggs come from  hens that were housed in battery cages, enriched cages, or cage-free. To learn more about the consumer choice and safety implications of improving hen health, read NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg’s guest blog over at the Humane Society’s Animals & Politics Blog!