- Author: Rose Hayden-Smith
This morning found me at the National Food Policy Conference. The keynote speaker was Kathleen Sebelius, former governor of Kansas, and now serving in the Obama administration as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
In her brief tenure, Sebelius has been busy framing a response to H1N1 influenza, and dealing with a host of food system issues for the new administration, an administration that is focusing seriously on food safety.
She got right to the point about childhood obesity. Sharing government statistics that medical treatment for all cancers in the U.S. tops $93 billion each year, she pointed out that the medical costs associated with treating obesity DOUBLE that, exceeding $186 billion per year. She indicated that chronic diseases cause 70% of deaths in America, and that their treatment represents 75% of all health care costs. She attributed much of America’s battle with obesity to poor childhood nutrition. Her conclusion? There will be huge benefits to both human health and the economy by addressing both childhood obesity and food safety.
Sebelius promised to “focus relentlessly on prevention,” viewing it as a “great investment.” There will be a national initiative, and American Recovery and Investment funds to support prevention efforts.
Sebelius is working closely on this effort with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. They served as governors together (Sebelius in Kansas, Vilsack in Iowa). The idea that DHHS and USDA will be working closely together – along with the Department of Education – is somewhat novel. This administration is emphasizing inter- and intra-agency cooperation to a degree seldom seen previously.
Food safety is a major area of focus for Sebelius. The national food safety workgroup she sits on has identified three core principles:
- Prioritizing food safety, not in response to specific crises, but to anticipate and prevent crises from occurring;
- Building partnerships and casting a wider net, sharing best practices across the nation, and building partnerships across agencies. Specifically, Secretary Sebelius spoke of the DHHS partnering with USDA on food safety, and with the Department of Education playing a role in childhood nutrition education.
- Being proactive.
Secretary Sebelius stated that along with the USDA, the DHHS strongly supports the pending WIC and Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization and the pending Senate food safety bill.
Like yesterday, imports were referenced in terms of food safety. Per Sebelius, 20% of food is imported, and more than 1/3 of produce and ¾ of seafood are imported. She spoke of the need to develop a 21st century food policy that emphasizes safety.
The morning’s big announcement was the launching of www.foodsafety.gov This website represents a significant effort to better serve American consumers by serving as a clearinghouse for all food safety issues. Recall and safety information is provided here, and you may sign up for email updates and feeds. There is a widget that enables individuals and agencies to link the website to their own sites. Mobile phone alerts regarding important food safety information will soon be available.
I visited the site today, and noted something interesting: the collaboration. This site is a joint effort between the White House, the USDA, the Centers for Disease Control, the FDA, DHHS, National Institutes of Health, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services Division. This site is truly a valuable resource, and I urge you to visit it.
Sebelius noted that the “highest mission of any government is keeping its citizens safe.” The government’s new food safety website will help accomplish this.
Around lunchtime, I went with four colleagues over to the USDA for a meeting about the People’s Garden Initiative. While walking by the garden – which looks very different from when I saw it in March, a scant five weeks after it was planted – I saw Bob Snieckus. Bob is a landscape designer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is one of seventeen USDA agencies. I met Bob last March at the People’s Garden Partnership Forum, when he shared design plans. Today, Bob was working in the garden on his lunch hour, doing some volunteer work to perfect what already looked wonderful in preparation for the USDA’s Harvest BBQ, an event for members of Congress that was being held tonight, before the President’s address on health care.
Our group of gardening advocates had a wonderful and productive meeting with USDA staff about national gardening efforts and the USDA’s work in this area. I’ll post tomorrow what I learned about the green and sustainable efforts being undertaken by the USDA. The great work being done there deserves its own blog posting!
- Breakfast meeting with the Executive Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to learn more about federal ag policy and legislation, including the Farm Bill.
- Meeting with Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the USDA (gardening is one of three agenda items).
- Visit to the White House Garden. We have learned we will also be given a tour of the kitchen. New restrictions prevent us from taking any bags or cameras, but we believe that the White House staff will provide us with some pictures of our visit.
- Evening reception to present policy ideas to press and policy makers. Bet you can guess what my policy idea is….yes, a national gardening initiative like the WWI and WWII Victory Garden campaigns!
Random observations: High seventies today, scattered sprinkles. Warm and humid, but absolutely lovely this evening. We are staying at an historic hotel off of DuPont Circle, with a tiny lobby. As we crowded into the lobby this evening, preparing to walk to dinner, Madeline Albright and Tom Daschle came through the door, and headed up the flight of narrow stairs for a meeting. We ate dinner tonight at a restaurant called Founding Farmers. Founding Farmers is an unusual restaurant: it is owned by a collective of family farmers who are committed to serving sustainable food in a sustainable environment (the restaurant is LEEDS certified). The food was excellent, reflecting seasonal availability and a perfect mix of classic American dishes (cornbread and fried green tomatoes were appetizers we shared) and more eclectic offerings. The food is reasonably priced. I had a wonderful grilled cheese sandwich, tomato soup, and coffee. Six of us shared an enormous slice of red velvet cake and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
My tablemates were Jim and Rebecca Goodman, Wisconsin dairy farmers; Lisa Kivirist, organic farmer/eco-preneur/writer/innkeeper from Wisconsin; Abigail Rogosheske, Institute of Ag and Trade Policy, Minnesota; Zoe Bradbury, young farmer/writer from Langlois, Oregon (and her husband, Danny, who is from Ventura!); and Roger Doiron, gardening hero and founder of Kitchen Gardeners International. Roger’s influence has made the White House visit possible. Thanks, Roger!
- Author: Rose Hayden-Smith
When first we practise to deceive!"
These oft-quoted lines, written by Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), have a great deal of relevance when applied to the latest food system crisis. The current crisis, which involves the adulteration of dairy products originating in China, is having worldwide repercussions.
The adulterating substance is melamine, which should ring a few bells for pet owners, who will certainly remember the wide recall of numerous brands of pet food in the spring of 2007. This recall eventually involved products in the human food supply. The recalls in the United States came largely as the result of clusters of pet deaths due to renal failure from exposure to the tainted foods.
Melamine is sometimes added to products to increase the appearance of their protein content. It is a chemical that poses serious and long-term health implications for humans and other animals.
The list of implicated products is growing by the day, and already includes cheese, infant formula, cookies, creamer, candy, instant coffee and tea, and baby cereal. The implicated products - and the list of potentially contaminated products - have affected major consumer outlets, including Pizza Hut. While most of the tainted products have been discovered in Asian countries, some products have been pulled from American shelves. The recall will continue to grow, because the tainted products are ingredients in many processed foods.
How can we even know that the processed food products we buy aren't implicated? It's difficult to ascertain. Foods are so highly processed, and the aggregate nature of this processing means that food streams from all parts of the world often come together to form a single product. So while the manufacturers of my favorite processed food indulgence (a not-to-be-named cream filled chocolate cookie) have assured consumers that their cream filling doesn't contain any dairy product from China, I can't help but be concerned. Food labels simply don't contain enough information for me to accurately determine where a product's many ingredients originate.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a muckraking novel which highlighted - among other social ills - unsanitary practices in the meatpacking industry. While it wasn't Sinclair's primary intent, national response to the graphic descriptions of tainted food led to major federal legislation directly impacting food safety. These legislative pieces included the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which resulted in the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.
As an historian who has read The Jungle as both a piece of literature and as one of the first major commentaries on the American food system, I marvel at the impact a single book made. And I marvel at the lack of outrage at this latest food crisis, and the unquestioning way many of us purchase processed food products.
One of my favorite World War II posters encourages Americans to "be sure" by growing their own. Sounds better and better to me. If you can't grow your own, try to buy locally, and if you can't do that, buy minimally processed foods as often as possible.
Food processors intentionally sought to deceive consumers by cutting corners and adulterating food products. But the tangled web that has facilitated the spread of these tainted food products - a dysfunctional food system - is one entirely of our own making.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."