Think Forward blog

Step Right Up! China Passes Food Safety Law

Posted March 2, 2009

Pollution free food Xinhua reports that in the wake of numerous domestic and international tainted food scandals, China enacted a sweeping new Food Safety Law on Saturday.

Of course, announcing that a law has been passed in China doesn’t tell you what’s going to actually happen. First, the general language of the law needs to be turned into detailed implementation procedures. (In the words of Tom Waits from his song Step Right Up, “The large print giveth and the small print taketh away!”) And even when the right words are in place, there is still implementation. Despite the image of China as a totalitarian state, enforcement of central directives in the provinces has gotten more and more difficult following the devolution of many governance responsibilities to localities in the 1990s.

That being said, the country was in desperate need of a revision to its food safety law, which has not been updated since 1996. I excerpt its main provisions below, with commentary:

“…the State Council, or Cabinet, would set up a state-level food safety commission to oversee the entire food monitoring system, whose lack of efficiency has long been blamed for repeated scandals. Departments of health, agriculture, quality supervision, industry and commerce administration will shoulder different responsibilities.”

The requirement that a food safety commission be set up under the State Council is a response to the problem of overlapping, unclear or conflicting responsibilities for food safety among the relevant government agencies. It also shows how seriously the National People's Congress (NPC) regards the situation. The State Council oversees the provincial governments and all of the ministries, and commissions are set up under the Council only for major, cross-cutting issues for which overarching powers are needed. This one will have the authority to divide up resources and clarify responsibilities among the ten different ministries and agencies charged with ensuring food safety.

“The law stipulated a ban on all chemicals and materials other than authorized additives in food production, saying that ‘only those items proved to be safe and necessary in food production are allowed to be listed as food additives.'. . .Health authorities are responsible for assessing and approving food additives and regulating their usage.”

This sounds like progress, but the devil is in the details. Critics of the U.S. law on food additives, for instance, point out that many questionable chemicals were grandfathered in because they were already in use when the law passed, and that the burden of proof is always on those seeking to stop approval of new additives rather than on the food companies.

“Producers of edible farm products are required to abide by food safety standards when using pesticide, fertilizer, growth regulators, veterinary drugs, feedstuff and feed additives. They must also keep farming or breeding records.”

Stated in such general terms, this one is nearly impossible to interpret. Since “producers of edible farm products” includes almost all of China’s 300 million farmers, this could simply be—like many of China’s laws—a regulation that sounds sweeping and strict but is unenforceable in practice. Worse, if record-keeping or sanitary requirements are onerous, enforcement of food safety regulations will be a huge additional burden for China’s beleaguered farmers, yet another mechanism for corrupt local governments to extract rents or control production.

“Offenders could face maximum fines which would be 10 times the value of sold products. If businesses are found producing or selling a substandard foodstuff, consumers can ask for financial compensation which is 10 times the price of the product. That's in addition to compensation for the harm the product causes to the consumer.”

This market-based approach to enforcement has precedent in China. In the 1990s, China passed a consumer protection law mandating that anyone who sold counterfeit goods should be compensated by the manufacturer at double the sale price. Uncovering fraud in order to claim compensation became a cottage industry, with some high-profile success stories such as Wang Hai, who was known (or dubbed himself!) as “China’s Ralph Nader.” But while Nader’s goal was to promote more effective government action on behalf of consumers, the Chinese government is essentially asking consumers to take over the job of law enforcement entirely. The law made no measurable dent in the spread of counterfeit goods, because there is little legal or administrative power to back up consumer grievances.

Perhaps the added incentive of a ten-fold compensation measure is in recognition of the earlier law’s weakness, and perhaps there will be stronger enforcement support for this measure, but unfortunately, China’s consumer rights movement still has a long way to go!

“To better protect consumer rights, the law bans food safety supervision and inspection agencies, food industry associations and consumers' associations from advertising food products.”

This is a response to the corrupt practices and conflicts of interest that plague the agencies and associations mentioned. (Imagine Consumer Reports or the FDA being paid by KFC to declare Extra Crispy a “heart-healthy” food!)

“Individuals or organizations are prohibited from advertising substandard food products. Those advertising such products would face joint liability for damages incurred.”

Permit me a short digression. Ultimate power in China has always been in the hands of the Communist Party, but there is also a legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC). Despite acting as a rubber-stamp for Party decisions for most of its history, the NPC has in the past two decades grown if not independent then at least a bit more feisty. (Only a few laws have been defeated, but others have been withdrawn due to strong opposition from delegates.) It has also emerged as a forum for genuine debate over questions on which there is no consensus, and a place where new issues get raised.

This article prohibiting “individuals or organizations” from “advertising substandard food products” is an example of how public opinion gets expressed through the NPC in ways that would not otherwise be taken up by the government. It is clearly a direct response to the public outrage at celebrities such as actress Deng Jie who endorsed Sanlu Milk products that turned out to be contaminated with melamine.

The Bottom Line: Details, Teeth, Money

A lot will depend on how the law gets fleshed out, presumably by the new State Council Food Safety Commission. What does it mean to say that an additive must be “safe and necessary” to be approved for use? How will food safety standards be set throughout the supply chain, and by whom? Will the Commission or an agency under it have independent enforcement powers, or will these still fall to other agencies?

That one is BIG: enforcement. Laws are made centrally in China but enforced locally, and whether it’s because they’re in cahoots with local lawbreakers, lack capacity or disagree on principle, local leaders often simply don’t carry out Beijing’s orders. To counter the unwillingness of local governments to carry out environmental laws, the Chinese Ministry of Environment set up five regional enforcement offices in 2006. Is this the direction that food safety enforcement is moving?

If so, it will be very costly. In 2007, an industry consulting firm estimated that China will need to invest more than $100 billion by 2017 to build a modern food safety infrastructure. This was extrapolating demand growth that has subsequently slowed considerably, and is based on assumptions about what a “modern food system” should look like that I don’t agree with—centralized, highly processed, energy-intensive—but it gives a flavor for the magnitude of the investment that is needed.

Finally, let’s pull back from the new Food Safety Law itself for a second. Ultimately, China’s food safety problems are unintended consequences of a set of decisions the country’s leaders made about food production, technology, economic growth and China’s insertion into the global system. Those decisions have set the country on a path that is fundamentally unsustainable, and as the U.S. financial crisis has gone global, the wheels are starting to come off. It’s time for a more basic re-think of how and what to feed China.

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High Fructose Corn Syrup Redux

Posted February 25, 2009

A few weeks ago we published research on the presence of mercury in many common food products that list high fructose corn syrup as their first or second ingredient. The paper was released in conjunction with a peer-reviewed article that reported on testing by the Food and Drug Administration, which found that nearly 50 percent of HFCS tested contained mercury.

In an article last week, Grist's Tom Philpott does a great job debunking efforts to discredit and downplay these findings by the Corn Refiners Association (aka ADM, Cargill, and so on) and the Food and Drug Administration

As we outline in a short FAQ about the report, we believe the smart way forward is simple and straightforward:

  • Congress should enact legislation proposed by then Senator Barack Obama two years ago to phase out the use of mercury cell technology in U.S. chlorine plants.
  • Corn refining companies that produce high fructose corn syrup should demand that their suppliers of caustic soda do not use mercury cell technology.
  • The Food and Drug Administration should begin testing high fructose corn syrup for mercury and make those findings public.

In the larger context of trying to eliminate preventable exposures of mercury there is some hopeful news. Last week, 140 nations agreed to develop a legally binding international treaty to reduce the use of mercury. And for the first time in a long while, the U.S. was actually a leader in pushing for the global treaty. Eliminating mercury from high fructose corn syrup seems the least we can do.

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Radio Sustain on Food Chemicals and the Global Food Crisis

Posted February 23, 2009 by Alexandra Spieldoch   Alexandra Strickner         

Check out our latest Radio Sustain podcast including interviews with:

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Organic Agriculture in Africa

Posted February 20, 2009

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) issued a remarkable little briefing paper last week titled "Sustaining African Agriculture: Organic Production." Right out of the gate, the brief directly takes on proponents for a "Green Revolution" in Africa—a recipe for more investment in genetically engineered seeds and chemically-intensive agriculture being pushed by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA),

The UNCTAD brief states that a Green Revolution "cannot be sustainable in Africa, a continent that imports 90 percent of its agrochemicals, which most of the small-scale farmers cannot afford. It will increase dependencies on foreign inputs (agrochemical and seeds of protected plant varieties) and foreign aid. Africa should build on its strengths—its land, local resources, indigenous plant varieties, indigenous knowledge, biologically diverse smallholder farms and limited use (to date) of agrochemicals."

Instead, the brief called for an "African Sustainable Green Revolution" to "increase agricultural productivity by using sustainable agricultural practices that minimize harm to the environment and build soil fertility."

UNCTAD's research reported field trials finding that organic agriculture's production was equal to or better than conventional systems. UNCTAD's analysis looked at 114 cases in Africa that had converted or near-converted to organic and saw an overall increase in agricultural productivity of 116 percent.

The brief cited other benefits of organic agriculture for Africa, including: enhanced food security (because it is suited to smallholder farms and increases diversity in food crops, resulting in more varied diets and improved nutrition); protection of natural resources, including soil and water quality; less dependency on price volatility related to external inputs; and reduced illness and death associated with agrochemical exposure,

The UNCTAD brief echoed many of the recommendations set forth last year by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, with input from over 400 experts from around the world (including IATP's Steve Suppan).

Africa is currently home to 20-24 percent of the world's organic farms, according to UNCTAD. And while organic has the potential to bring in premium earnings to farmers, it also faces many challenges, including a lack of government investment, policies that support agrochemical subsidies, the lack of extension services and general misinformation.

The UNCTAD missed another big obstacle to organic agriculture in Africa: The big agrochemical and biotech companies haven't figured out how to profit from it.

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What Would Henry Wallace Do?

Posted February 20, 2009

In this time of turmoil in our food system—commodity prices going up and down like a yo-yo, food contamination cases becoming more commonplace, environmental and climate effects on agriculture becoming more serious, and the world's hungry growing at a startling rate—how would would the United States' greatest Agriculture Secretary, Henry Wallace, respond?

In a commentary published last weekend in the Des Moines Register, IATP's President Jim Harkness reflects on the challenges that Wallace faced during the Great Depression (another economic and farm crisis, combined with the Dust Bowl) and how he created a series of integrated programs to stabilize prices and transition farmers toward environmentally sustainable practices. Jim called on new Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to take bold steps: Rather than tinker around the edges, we must transform our food system.

M4C%20badge%20copy Jim and I have co-authored a chapter in the great new book, Mandate for Change, that outlines nine policy proposals for Vilsack and the Obama administration to start building a new food system—many of them updates of principles outlined by Wallace's vision.

It's impossible to guess how Wallace would have responded to today's situation. But you can bet his approach would have been creative and bold, with a reverence for farmers and the land.

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What MN School Food Service Directors Think About Local Food

Posted February 18, 2009

As demand for local food continues to grow, K-12 schools are looking for ways to incorporate food from local sources into their food and nutrition programs. A new survey, developed by the Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA) and IATP, assesses Minnesota K-12 Food Service Directors’ interest in purchasing and serving locally grown food. The online survey was conducted over a one-month period, and roughly 20 percent of Minnesota School District Food Service Directors responded.

Key findings include:

  • Overall interest in buying local foods is high;
  • Thirty-five percent of respondents said that they purchased local foods directly from a grower during the 2007-08 school year;
  • Respondents were very interested in the potential local foods “tools” identified in the survey to help with Farm to School efforts.

The results will inform the work of the MSNA Farm to School Task Force in the coming year. We can expect school nutrition to be an important issue in 2009, as the Child Nutrition Act is due for congressional review in September.

Read the full findings from the survey here.

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Biofuels Policy: What's Sustainable?

Posted February 17, 2009

What does renewable energy really mean? And while we’re at it, what’s sustainability, anyway?

Seemingly simple questions, but they’re ones that crop up again and again as I get started in my work with the Rural Communities program.

Take, for instance, a set of biofuels policy recommendations released last week by a coalition of five green NGOs, headed up by the Environmental Working Group. I’ve pasted them below.

The proposals amount to a series of safeguards to ensure that federal policy incentives—things like tax credits and subsidies—are tied to environmental performance standards. In other words, if the ethanol or biodiesel isn’t actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions or our dependence on foreign oil, its producers won’t get federal money for it.

Sounds pretty sensible, right? Indeed, the proposals are sensible. But in our view, they’re also too narrow.

Sustainability standards for biofuels and other rural-based renewable energy policies must take into account the economic concerns of family farmers. If we lose them—and overly aggressive (albeit well-intentioned) policy moves like eliminating the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) probably won’t help—we lose our best shot at both environmental sustainability and maintaining vibrant rural communities.

We applaud this group’s efforts, but we propose a couple of tweaks:

1. Policy incentives should be tied not just to environmental performance standards, but also to local and regional economic benefits.

2. Rather than eliminate the Renewable Fuels Standard, let’s view it as an opportunity to create and ensure a market for sustainably produced agricultural products. Mandates for local production and sourcing are a first step, along with a gradual shift of focus away from quantity, and toward economic and environmental quality.

I’ll be posting regularly about IATP’s bioeconomy work and analysis—check back soon.

From Environmental Working Group's Web site.

1. Ensure that all policy incentives for renewable fuels, including mandates and subsidies, require attainment of minimum environmental performance standards for production and use, to ensure that publicly supported “renewable fuels” do not degrade our natural resources. Such standards would: certify net life-cycle greenhouse gas emission reductions through 2050, taking into account direct and indirect land use change; and do not cause or contribute to increased damage to soil quality, air quality, water quality, habitat protection and biodiversity loss. Compliance with these standards must be verified regularly.

2. Restrict the RFS to fuel options that do not cause environmental harm, adverse human health impacts or economic disruption.

o Cap the RFS at current levels and gradually phase out the mandate for biofuels, unless it is clearly demonstrated that such fuels can meet minimum environment, health and consumer protection standards.

 o Establish feedstock- and technology-neutral fuel and environmental performance standards for all biofuels and let the market devise ways of reaching them.

 o Periodically reevaluate the sustainability and performance of renewable fuels.

 o Provide a mechanism and requirement to mitigate unintended adverse effects, including authority to adjust any mandate downward.

3. Tie the biofuels tax credits to the performance standards

o Phase out the biofuels tax credit to blenders while phasing in tax credits or subsidies for renewable fuels that are scaled in accordance to the fuels’ relative environmental, health and consumer protection merits.

4. Rebalance the U.S. renewable energy and energy conservation portfolio to reflect the relative contribution these options can make to reducing fossil fuel use, enhancing the environment, spurring economic development and increasing energy security.

o Subsidies to renewable energy and conservation should be distributed more evenly between alternative energy sources, and should be allocated in a manner that is fuel- and feedstock-neutral; biofuels, particularly corn ethanol, must no longer receive the lion’s share of federal renewable energy subsidies.

 o New policy must:

         * Emphasize energy conservation; we cannot drill or grow our way out of the energy crisis.

         * Create a level playing field among renewable energy options; set fuel-, feedstock- and technology-neutral standards, so as to reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, improve environmental quality and biodiversity, and reduce pressure on agricultural markets.

5. Support research to improve the analysis of net climate impacts, net non-climate environmental impacts, commodity price impacts and other social factors that are substantially affected by policies that promote biofuels. All of the previous policy asks must be based on better research on the impacts from biofuels; understanding these impacts are crucial to developing sound policies.

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North American Livestock Producers Reclaim Power

Posted February 14, 2009

Press conf I've just returned from an incredible, energizing meeting of livestock leaders from Mexico, Canada and the United States. The meeting was co-sponsored by IATP, the National Farmers Union in Canada, the Asociacion National de Empresas Comercializadores de Producores del Campo (ANEC), Food and Water Watch (FWW) and hosted by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) in Billings, Montana from February 12-13.

We converged around the immediate need to challenge corporate-led livestock markets in order to prioritize producers and healthy food systems in North America. The facts are that since NAFTA, a few corporations now control and own the livestock industry. Companies like Cargill, based out of Minneapolis, Archer Daniels Midland, Smithfield and Tyson have been major beneficiares of NAFTA. And small producers in all three countries have lost their domestic and regional markets, while overall export dumping has increased.

Dennis O We heard reports from livestock producers In Canada and the U.S., where exports have doubled since 1989, but cattle ranchers’ incomes dropped dramatically during that period. Four corporate packers own the large majority of the U.S. cattle industry. Cheap cuts of U.S. meat are being dumped into Mexico and Mexican cattle and pork producers ultimately lack access to U.S. markets. Food safety inspections are not working for producers or consumers. And producers have been pitted against one another, while rural communities in all three countries have been hurt.

You can read a press release and statements from key participants at our NAFTA Watch web site

I also want to share some of the concrete proposals from the meeting that are being put forth by livestock producers from all three countries in response to President Obama’s promise to support the rural sector, to regulate corporations, and to renegotiate NAFTA:

  • A tri-national system to implement captive supply reform to force packers who own cattle to sell in an open, transparent market and without price manipulation.
  • Tri-national regulation to analyze mergers so that markets, prices and contracts are developed in a way that is transparent and provides equal access.
  • Tri-national rules and a political commitment to prohibit dumping and to allow for special safeguard measures to block import surges.
  • The removal of NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which allows investors to sue governments for lost profits.
  • Tri-national rules to allow for national standard-setting such as labeling and other food safety regulation. COOL II – Company of Origin Labeling was also proposed.

It is this kind of forward looking vision for food and agriculture that is so needed at this time. We are all ready for change.

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Food Dyes and Valentines

Posted February 12, 2009

Hearts Just about every corner store and grocery has its Valentine's Day candy on full display this time of year. And if you take a close look at the ingredients in those candy hearts, you'll likely find a number of petroleum-derived, synthetic food dyes like Yellow No. 5 and Red No. 3. Unfortunately, many of these purely cosmetic food dyes have been linked to hyperactivity and other disturbed behavior in children by a number of recent studies.

Last year, Britain's Food Standards Agency advised the food industry to voluntarily ban the use of six common synthetic food dyes, and many food companies are following suit. For example, Mars has removed its artificial colorings from Starburst and Skittles.

To help parents who want to reduce their child's intake of synthetic food dyes, IATP launched a new Web tool today called the BrainFoodSelector. The tool allows parents to search by food company, product or synthetic food dye. We also put together a Smart Guide to Food Dyes that outlines which food dyes have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the health concerns for children and what you can do to avoid them.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has filed a petition with the FDA calling for a ban on the use of synthetic food dyes in the United States. CSPI has also set up a Web tool where consumers can report any health reactions they may have experienced from synthetic food dyes to the FDA.

"The good news is that there are safer alternatives to synthetic food dyes and many food companies are already making the switch,” said IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., in our press release. “We need the food industry and U.S. government agencies to catch up with the latest science and start protecting our children. Until then, parents need to be armed with information when they go to the supermarket.”

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Yoplait Joins the no rBGH Club

Posted February 11, 2009

Kudos to General Mills, who announced Monday that its Yoplait brand would stop using milk from cows injected with the synthetic hormone, recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH).

"Yoplait joins the growing number of companies that have listened to consumers and rejected dairy from cows injected with rBGH," said David Wallinga, M.D., Director of IATP's Food and Health program in our press release. "The marketplace is following the public health community, which has long been cautioning about the unnecessary use of routine hormones and antibiotics in animals used for food."

When rBGH arrived on the market as Posilac in 1994, it was one of the first genetically engineered agriculture products. Posilac was marketed as a way for dairy farmers to improve income by slightly increasing milk production. But the economic benefits never materialized for farmers. Fifteen years later, U.S. dairy farmers are experiencing the largest price drop in 50 years.

And the cows didn't react too well either. A side effect (listed on the rBGH label) is the propensity for the hormone to make cows sick with udder infections, forcing farmers to increase their antibiotic use. There is now a scientific consensus that heavy antibiotic use in farm animals increases antibiotic resistance, often transmitted back to humans. Health Care Without Harm has put together an excellent, well-referenced fact sheet on public health concerns with rBGH.

Consumers have consistently rejected rBGH, with almost 60 percent stating that they would pay a premium price for dairy products coming from cows not treated with the hormone. This consumer sentiment has driven the rejection of rBGH by a host of food companies. Monsanto, the original manufacturer of rBGH, was finally forced to sell the product last year to Eli Lilly. We blogged on Monsanto's decision and the 15-year history of rBGH last year.

For Minnesota consumers, IATP has produced a new Smart Guide to Minnesota Dairy Without rBGH, which lists milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream and restaurants that do not source from cows injected with rBGH. Sustainable Table and Food and Water Watch have also put together a great rBGH-free Dairy Map that covers the country.

General Mills' announcement was another nail in the coffin of rBGH. Who will be the next food company to join the no rBGH Club?

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