Category Archives: USDA

Seaweed-based stabilizer/emulsifier Banned for Organic Foods in U.S.

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It’s called carrageenan, and if you closely read content labels, you’ll notice it’s in a lot of things – as a thickener, an emulsifier (to help hold other ingredients in the appropriate mix), and as a stabilizer. It’s also said to increase shelf life – a feature of questionable value, given that food processors often are best-guessing the long-term viability of their products when they put ‘best by’ or ‘use by’ dates on them.

(I still have a too-large bottle of dry curry that is in the neighborhood of 20 [or more!] years old. While it no doubt is not as potent as it once was, it’s still a viable product in my kitchen – able to contribute both flavor and heat to dishes without resulting in, as an un-viable spice might, stomach distress or worse.)

The U.S.D.A.’s National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) ruled last week that, as of 2018, carrageenan will no longer be allowed in products labeled as ‘organic’.

Does that mean carrageenan is ‘dangerous’, or that it potentially poses some kind of threat to consumers? Not necessarily. For all intents and purposes, that ruling simply acknowledges that, because it is exposed, during processing, to chemicals that fall outside the definition of ‘organic’. Carrageenan will continue to be used as a product-building aid in processed foods not, as no ‘processed food’ could be, described as ‘organic’.

Carrageenan is derived from a type of seaweed harvested primarily in the Philippines, Indonesia and East Africa. During commercial processing, it is exposed to assorted chemicals so it ends up as a fine powder, in no way resembling seaweed one might encounter ‘in the wild’.

CivilEats.com has a highly informative article on carrageenan here.

I can’t help but wonder what what kind of ‘organic’ product would need a stabilizer or an emulsifier. So I also can’t help but wonder why the U.S.D.A.’s National Organics Standards Board agonized – as they apparently did, not over just months, but years – as to whether carrageenan should in any way be associated with something said to be ‘organic’.

I don’t, as my wife would say, git it.

Organics now represent in the neighborhood of 11% of all produce sold (at retail) in the U.S. And organics’ share-of-market is growing – just as, hardly coincidentally, processed foods sales are slipping down an icy slope. The reason is simple: Not just Millennials, but older generations, too, are fed up with ingredients labels full of ‘stuff’ they can’t even pronounce and have no clue what it is or why it’s there. A sizable number of them have taken stands against the likes of Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Blue No. 1 – synthetic colorings used to make food look better. They have, so far as we know, no effect on taste, but opposers of them contend they might affect us in some other, nefarious way.

(A quick aside: Why, pray tell, do forty or more shades of red exist, as food colorings? Or five or more shades of yellow? And not one of them a pastel!)

It is truly frightening to think of the tens of bunches of money being wasted on [1] developing all those odd colors and their counterparts in other food ingredients and [2] investigating and regulating same. Part of the problem is, of course, we have more people than viable jobs.

When I lived in England, from 1971-76, in the first of the offices I worked (for a year), every so often – I think it was weekly, but perhaps it was bi-weekly – an employee of a contractor came in and wiped down all the telephone handsets, probably aided by something less potent than the sprays restaurant servers use on tables between guests. On the first such visit I witnessed, I was astonished, and I was astonished again every time I saw this ritual repeated. It seemed perfectly pointless, and a waste of my employer’s money, to engage someone to provide this ‘service’.

Yet here we are in 2016, when a significant majority of U.S. supermarkets have a sanitary lotion dispenser available just inside the door – so no one should have to (heaven forbid!) touch a cart handle they haven’t subjected to a sanitary wipe-down after wiping down their own hands! (What have the most obsessed of those shoppers been doing/touching before entering their local food dispenser’s shop?)

It’s partly because some shoppers/consumers do think that way that the NOSB has banned carrageenan from ‘organics’. That seaweed—sourced ingredient probably poses no harm to humans, but better safe than sorry, right?

Litigation lawyers would, of course, disagree.

Parents Get Baked Junk Food Banned From Schools

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A parents group in the Montgomery County, Maryland school district has been struggling, cajoling, begging and fighting hard to improve the quality of food served – and made available, ala carte – to students in their area’s schools.

They recently had a noteworthy success, first reported on their own Real Food For Kids – Montgomery (RFKM) web site then, for good measure, on the wonderful web site called The Lunch Tray.

The latter, a creation of Bettina Elias Siegel, does nationally what the RFKM folks do a mere few miles from the headquarters the federal agency – the U.S. Department of Agriculture – that could be doing more than it already is to boost the quality of what kids are given to eat in schools.

The RFKM folks have managed to convince their school district to eliminate Baked Doritos and Baked Cheetos from the list of foods kids can choose from an ala carte menu. Their argument was, simply, that these products, as TheLunchBox.com put it, “are so-called “copycat snacks” –  i.e., junk foods tweaked to meet the USDA’s new Smart Snacks nutritional standards but which otherwise look just like their less-healthy supermarket counterparts.

“Specifically, in this case, Cheetos and Doritos sold at school (in cafeterias and for fundraising) are baked instead of fried, [and] have a reduced fat content and are considered ‘whole-grain rich’.”

The LunchBox.com article continued:

RFKM particularly objected to these snacks because they contain certain artificial food dyes and other additives which the group has deemed problematic. According to a quote in RFKM’s newsletter, the head of the district’s nutrition services department agrees, saying “Cheetos and Doritos were products that we elected to remove for sale because the ingredient label had such a plethora of additives and preservatives. We are continuously seeking to purchase food and beverages with cleaner labels.”

This is a nice victory for RFKM parents, but the group’s experience is also instructive for all parents seeking to make change in their district’s school food program.

According to the RFKM newsletter, the group first requested that the district ditch various food additives three years ago. It then doggedly kept on top of the issue in an organized fashion, refusing to give up even after various set-backs. Here’s the group’s own account:

RFKM first brought the issue of food additives to the attention of MCPS in 2013. In response to a parent petition and testimonies before the Board of Education in June of 2014, MCPS developed a policy prohibiting from future bids for school food many of the chemicals that RFKM had requested be removed (including MSG, trans fat, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Aspartame, Acesulfame-Potassium, Saccharin, Butylated Hydroxyanisol (BHA), Potassium Bromate, Propyl Gallate, Sodium Tripoly Phoshate, and TBHQ). However, right before that policy was put into effect, a 3-year contract for a la carte foods, many of which contain these additives, was signed by MCPS. Last March, RFKM helped pass a resolution through the Montgomery County Council of PTAs asking, among other things, that MCPS not serve foods with artificial food dyes.

In the meantime, at many individual schools, parent representatives of RFKM had stepped forward to ask for healthier a la carte options. As a consequence, some schools, such as Somerset Elementary School . . . had already replaced Cheetos and Doritos with 51% whole grain pita chips, SmartFood Popcorn and Tostitos, all clean label products with whole grains. However, almost all MPCS middle and high schools, and many elementary schools continued to sell these chips until this year. While Doritos and Cheetos may not have disappeared completely (there are reports that they are still available in vending machines), we are thankful to MPCS for making them less accessible to students by removing them from a la carte options. And we look forward to the time when no MCPS foods will contain artificial colors and other harmful ingredients.

The upshot, TheLunchbox.com reported:

Reforming school food from the grassroots level is not always easy. It often takes considerable persistence, time, effort and some highly dedicated individuals to coordinate the campaign. And, as my recent, dispiriting experience in Houston ISD well illustrated, even after requested reforms are implemented, parents may still need to act as watch dogs to make sure their district doesn’t backslide on its promises.

Kudos to RFKM for its continued progress. You can read more about the group’s history and mission here.”

This is a mission that should be taken up elsewhere – in a lot of ‘elsewheres’ . . . school districts across the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world).

USDA Spending Big to ‘Grow’ New Farmers

 

This long post is a reprint of a press release issued today by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a function of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While it is of little direct interest to consumers, this release does provide a lot of information about the efforts the U.S. Government is making to ensure the country has ‘crops’ of farmers and ranchers down the road – and that, incidentally, they will be well-trained, too!

AMES, Iowa, Aug. 17, 2016 – In a meeting with new and beginning farmers at Iowa State University today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new investment of $17.8 million for 37 projects to help educate, mentor, and enhance the sustainability of the next generation of farmers. The investment is made through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). Since 2009, USDA has invested more than $126 million into projects targeting new and beginning farmers and ranchers through BFRDP.

In order to build upon the strong foundation of programs available to new and beginning producers, Vilsack also announced a series of Fall Forums that USDA will host in the coming months to highlight the progress made on the top issues facing the future of agriculture and set the stage for the next Administration to continue to support a strong future for American agriculture. The series of USDA Fall Forums will be hosted in partnership with leading universities across the country. Each forum will focus on a pressing agricultural issue, including land tenure and the next generation of agriculture, climate change, export markets, local and regional food systems, and groundbreaking agricultural research. High-ranking USDA officials will lead the forums and facilitate discussions with regional stakeholders to lay the groundwork for the next Administration to build on the progress USDA has made over the past seven years.

“Looking back on the past seven years, I am extremely proud of what USDA has accomplished for rural America. Even as this Administration ends, the important work of USDA will continue for the next generation and beyond,” said Vilsack. “We see new and beginning farmers and ranchers as a critical force in sustaining food security, food safety, and many other aspects of agriculture that will become even more challenging as our global population grows. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and the forums that we are planning, will be important steps in helping young people, returning veterans and others access the tremendous opportunities in the agriculture sector.”

With the average age of the American farmer exceeding 58 years, USDA recognizes the need to bring more people into agriculture. Over the course of this Administration, USDA has engaged its resources to provide greater support to the farmers of the future by improving access to land and capital; building new markets and market opportunities; extending new conservation opportunities; offering appropriate risk management tools; and increasing outreach, education, and technical support.

Through lending assistance programs, like the Farm Service Agency’s new microloan program, USDA prioritized support for new farmers, providing improved access to credit, land, and equipment. USDA has also provided greater access to quality crop insurance coverage to over 13,500 new and beginning farmers and ranchers with special crop insurance benefits designed just for them. Thanks to this program, beginning farmers and ranchers have saved more than $14 million in premiums and administrative fees. More information on USDA’s assistance for beginning farmers and ranchers can be found at www.usda.gov/NewFarmers.

BFRDP, administered through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), has been a key part of this effort and supports educational programs to assist beginner farmers and ranchers who have less than 10 years of experience in the industry, including veterans and socially disadvantaged farmers. The program supports workshops, educational teams, training, and technical assistance throughout the United States.

This year’s awards will be made in 27 states and the District of Columbia to help fund a range of projects by partner organizations, like the Iowa-based National Farmers Organization (NFO) that will use $588,948 in funding to assist 900 beginning organic dairy and grain producers over the next three years. NFO will provide workshops, mentoring and other assistance in 11 states, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

New Mexico State University and the Institute of American Indian Arts will partner to use $598,030 to provide education, mentoring and one-on-one technical assistance to American Indian Pueblo beginning farmers. The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, based in North Carolina, will use $513,959 in funding for Farm Pathways, a program to deliver whole farm training, farmer-to-farmer networking and farmland access.

2016 grants include:

  • Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, Fairbanks, Alaska, $369,500
  • Arkansas Land and Community Development Corporation, Brinkley, Ark., $481,080
  • ALBA Organics, Salinas, Calif., $600,000
  • Colorado Economic Development Office, Denver, Colo., $239,970
  • University of Connecticut, Storrs, Conn., $597,598
  • National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Washington, D.C., $150,000
  • North-South Institute, Inc., Davie, Fla., $330,828
  • The Kohala Center, Inc., Waimea, Hawaii, $564,000
  • Jannus Inc., Boise, Idaho, $597,867
  • Angelic Organics Learning Center, Caledonia, Ill., $600,000
  • National Farmers Organization, Ames, Iowa, $588,948
  • Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, Overland Park, Kan., $380,433
  • Wolfe`s Neck Farm Foundation, Inc., Freeport, Maine, $573,256
  • Third Sector New England, Inc., Boston, Mass., $249,657
  • Tufts University, Medford, Mass., $599,796
  • Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, South Deerfield, Mass., $595,533
  • Future Harvest Inc., Cockeysville, Md., $597,599
  • ECO City Farms, Edmonston, Md., $352,095
  • Minnesota Food Association, Marine St. Croix, Minn., $159,626
  • Land Stewardship Project, Minneapolis, Minn., $384,649
  • Stone Child College, Box Elder, Mont., $265,179
  • National Center for Appropriate Technology, Butte, Mont., $238,441
  • National Center for Appropriate Technology, Butte, Mont., $231,679
  • Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Asheville, N.C., $600,000
  • Foundation for Agricultural and Resources Management, Medina, N.D., $513,959
  • New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, N.M., $598,030
  • National Young Farmers Coalition, Hudson, N.Y., $574,150
  • Just Food, New York, N.Y., $593,930
  • Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, Columbus, Ohio, $566,141
  • The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, $599,715
  • Southside Community Land Trust, Providence, R.I., $596,517
  • Clemson University, Clemson, S.C., $595,133
  • Tennessee State University, Nashville, Tenn., $470,083
  • Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, $600,000
  • National Immigrant Farming Initiative, El Paso, Texas, $541,950
  • Greenbank Farm Management Group/Organic Farm School, Greenbank, Wash., $598,850
  • Viva Farms, Mount Vernon, Wash., $599,999

Abstracts for this year’s funded projects can be viewed on NIFA’s reporting website.

Since BFRDP’s 2009 inception, the agency has invested more than $126 million through 256 projects across the country. Previously funded projects include the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association which trained 75 new farmers who established 68 new farms. A University of the Virgin Islands project trained 304 crop and small livestock farmers with less than 10 years of experience, increasing their agricultural knowledge and skills. Additional information about USDA support for new farmers and ranchers is available at www.usda.gov/newfarmers.

BFRDP also supports USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) Initiative, which coordinates the Department’s work to develop strong local and regional food systems. Over the last seven years, USDA has invested close to $1 billion in 40,000 local food-related projects on farms and in communities across the country. You can find local and regional supply chain resources on the KYF2 website and use the KYF2 Compass to locate USDA investments in your community.

NIFA invests in and advances innovative and transformative initiatives to solve societal challenges and ensure the long-term viability of agriculture. NIFA’s integrated research, education, and extension programs, supporting the best and brightest scientists and extension personnel, have resulted in user-inspired, groundbreaking discoveries that are combating childhood obesity, improving and sustaining rural economic growth, addressing water availability issues, increasing food production, finding new sources of energy, mitigating climate variability, and ensuring food safety. To learn more about NIFA’s impact on agricultural science, visit www.nifa.usda.gov/impacts, sign up for email updates, or follow us on Twitter@usda_NIFA#NIFAimpacts.

This month USDA is celebrating historic progress over the last eight years to improve the quality of life and access to opportunity for all Americans. Learn more online in The People’s Department: A New Era for Civil Rights at USDA.

 

 

USDA Grants To Fund At Least 80 Research Projects Concerned With Food Safety, More

 

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The USDA has awarded $30.1 million in competitive grants to fund 80 research projects to improve food safety, reduce antibiotic resistance in food, and increase the resilience of plants in the face of climate change. The grants are made possible through USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the nation’s peer-reviewed grants program for fundamental and applied agricultural sciences.

In addition to the awards, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Dr. John P. Holdren, President Obama’s Science and Technology Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, announced that the President’s 2017 Budget will invest a total of $700 million for AFRI, the fully authorized funding level established by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill.

In the seven years since AFRI was established, the program has led to discoveries in agriculture to combat childhood obesity, improve and sustain rural economic growth, address water availability issues, increase food production, find new sources of energy, mitigate the impacts of climate variability and enhance resiliency of our food systems, and ensure food safety.

“In the face of diminishing land and water resources and increasingly variable climatic conditions, food production must increase to meet the demands of world population projected to pass 9 billion by 2050,” said Secretary Vilsack. “Funding in research to respond to these challenges should be considered as an investment in our nation’s future, an investment which will pay big dividends in the years to come.” Since its creation, AFRI has been funded at less than half the levels established in the 2008 Farm Bill, and USDA has only been able to fund one out of 10 research proposals presented.

While grants awarded to universities, non-profits, community groups, businesses, foundations, associations, and federal agency and international partnerships have led to significant achievements that address critical issues related to agriculture, food, the environment, and communities, thousands of innovative research proposals have been left unfunded.

“Science, technology, and innovation are essential to meeting virtually every challenge our Nation faces, which is why the Administration has consistently supported increasing Federal investments in R&D,” said Dr. Holdren. “Further strengthening our investments in agricultural research will be essential for U.S. farmers to be able to keep the Nation’s food supply abundant, healthy, reliable, and sustainable through the 21st century. That’s why the President’s forthcoming 2017 budget request doubles funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative to the full authorized level of $700 million.”

AFRI grants are administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which is making the awards through funding provided in fiscal year 2015. NIFA is awarding $15.1 million to fund 35 projects in AFRI’s Food Safety area, focused on enhancing food safety through improved processing technologies, effective mitigation strategies for antimicrobial resistance, improving food safety, and improving food quality. $3.4 million of this funding will be used to address antimicrobial resistance throughout the food chain.

Since 2009, more than $82 million in food safety research and extension grants has been awarded through AFRI.

NIFA is also awarding $15 million to universities, laboratories, and research organizations to fund 45 projects in AFRI’s Plant Health and Production and Plant Products area. These grants focus on plant breeding for agricultural production; plant growth and development, composition, and stress tolerance; and photosynthesis and nutrient use in agricultural plants.

Since AFRI’s creation, NIFA has awarded more than $89 million to solve challenges related to plant health and production. Additional grants for studies and outreach that address plant protection against microbes, insects, and weeds will be announced later this year.