Tag Archive | USDA

Rising Prices, Food Fraud and Regulatory Redundancy

A few things caught my eye looking over this piece from CNBC on food fraud and rising prices.
Number one:

The Department of Agriculture predicts food prices will rise between 2.5 and 3.5 percent this year. And while the consumer price index was up 0.1 percent in February, the food index rose more sharply, at 0.4 percent.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely noticed sticker shock at the check out aisle. Little wonder. According the the USDA ERS, while the CPI rose 1.1% in 2013 it rose 1.4% for food. That 1.4% broke out into .9% for groceries (the same rate as 2012) and 2.2% for restaurant spending. But it’s since the beginning of the year that I’ve noticed the pinch and the numbers bear that out, especially for the kinds of foods I buy. Last year theose items went up faster than the rest of the CPI basket. Since the beginning of this year that trend has accelerated, especially since February and the forecast is for more of the same as we recover from the drought in California and the economic recovery returns inflation to normal historical levels.

Relative to 2012, prices rose considerably for poultry, eggs, fish, and fresh vegetables; however, prices fell for nonalcoholic beverages, sugar and sweets, fats and oils, and other meats. For the remaining food categories, prices were mostly unchanged. From February to December 2013, average supermarket prices fell by 0.2 percent.

Looking ahead to 2014, ERS forecasts that food price inflation will return to a range closer to the historical norm. The food-at-home CPI has already increased more in the first two months of 2014 than it did in all of 2013, but given its current trajectory, it is on track for normal annual inflation. Since 1990, grocery store prices have risen by an average of 2.8 percent per year. Inflationary pressures are expected to be moderate, given the outlook for commodity prices, animal inventories, and ongoing export trends. Retailer margins, having contracted since the drought, may expand in 2014 if input prices rise, which should contribute to inflation. The food, food-at-home, and food-away-from-home CPIs are expected to increase 2.5 to 3.5 percent over 2013 levels.

. . . Eggs continued their recent surge, increasing 0.7 percent from January to February. The CPI for eggs is now 5.7 percent above the February 2013 level. ERS has revised the forecast for egg prices upward to 3.0 to 4.0 percent in anticipation of increased exports as well as strong domestic demand (due in part to high meat prices) in 2014.

Painful reading for someone who leans heavily on eggs and vegetables.

Look at that spike in February. Ouch !!!

Number two:

I knew about fraud in the olive oil and honey markets, (check out this groovy, animated slideshow the New York Times put together on olive oil fraud) but this jumped out at me:

Up to 59 percent of tuna is mislabeled, according to a study by advocacy group, Oceana. Customs and Border Protection chemist Matt Birck said escolar is often mislabeled as tuna and could cause digestive issues.

59% !!! That’s a lot of fake tuna. I had to wonder if a lot of non-tuna tuna was winding up in the pet food market, but it turns out that fish fraud in the fish counter and restaurant trade is widespread.

Meanwhile in the TMI departemnt, I love escolar and have never had a problem with it, but apparently lots of people do.

Number three:

But a Government Accountability Office review found problems in the overlap between the agencies charged with stopping food fraud. For example, while the FDA regulates eggs in the shell, the USDA regulates them once they are in products.

At first I thought that had to be backwards, wouldn’t the USDA inspect eggs and the FDA egg products? But it turns out to be correct. But that all the more underscores the crossed wires of having US Customs, the FDA and the USDA involved in regulatory overlap in vouchsafing the food supply.

The FDA inspects shelled eggs, while the USDA is responsible for egg products, including liquid, frozen and dehydrated eggs. The FDA regulates the feed chickens eat, but the laying facility falls under USDA jurisdiction.

If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is. This year’s investigation into the Salmonella outbreak in Iowa eggs was complicated by the fact that the USDA was responsible for the pile of manure next to the laying facility, but the FDA was accountable for the danger of the eggs themselves.

Let’s construct a primitive infographic on the topic, shall we.

[Chicken feed – FDA] –> [Egg laying operation – USDA] –> [Eggs – FDA] –> [Egg products – USDA]


It seems like that’s the kind of project that could make for a great bipartisan project in Congress, or a non-cabinet level tsar position in the executive branch. That seems like a better place to start than trying to place more burdens on a dysfunctional system.

Rising prices aid $15B food fraud problem
Jennifer Schlesinger, Sheila Dharmarajan | CNBC | 13 April 2014

Food Price Outlook, 2013-14
Economic Resarch Service | USDA

Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: Food and Beverages
FRED | St. Louis FED

Olive Oil Fraud Rampant, Trade Agency Finds
Alan Farnum | ABC News | 25 September 2013

Extra Virgin Suicide
Nicholas Blechman | The New York Times

Honey Laundering
Tom Philpott | Mother Jones | 7 November 2011

The Ex-Lax Fish
Mother Jones | November 2009

Accountability lost in murky fish supply chain
pecial Investigation | Boston Globe | 2011

Who Inspects What? A Food Safety Scramble
Gretchen Goetz | Food Safety News | 16 December 2010

Kimberly Kindy reports on the attempt by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to call bullshit on the conclusions that the USDA is drawing from a report on the effect of a pilot program to speed up poultry production lines.

In a March 26 blog post, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service director Al Almanza said the study shows line speed increases are “not a significant factor in worker safety.” USDA officials have offered a similar interpretation to members of Congress and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights over the past several weeks.

However, NIOSH Director John Howard chastised USDA officials, last week, saying he was “quite surprised” by the agency’s assertions. “It’s impossible to draw a conclusion about the impact of line speed changes on worker health” from the NIOSH study,” Howard said in a letter to Almanza, adding that to do so “is misleading.”

Howard said NIOSH “found an alarming 42% prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome” among workers during its first assessment at a plant in South Carolina. When NIOSH returned a second time, some 10 months later, they were not surprised to find the injury rates were about the same.

What’s stunning is that the USDA felt that a 47% rate of carpal tunnel was an acceptable base rate against which to judge the effect of a speed up. Wow.

Race and the Proletarianization of the American Farmer

A recent discussion I had brought to mind this post from SciAm’s Food Matters blog on the low numbers of African American organic farmers and efforts to increase those numbers:

Despite contributions made by African Americans, the most recent Census of Agriculture found that of the 2.2 million farms in the United States, 83 percent have white males as principal operators; African Americans constitute only 1.4 percent of principal farm operators and are particularly underrepresented within organic farming.

This wasn’t always the case; in 1920, the number of African American farmers in the US was at its highest when they constituted 14.3 percent of farm operators. Several factors contributed to this decline, including the general decrease in small farms, the shift to the mechanization of cotton, New Deal farm programs that mainly favored white landowners and, more recently, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture used discriminatory policies against black farmers from 1981 to 1996.

Organizations like the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON) are working to address the disparity that exists for African Americans within organic farming. SAAFON was founded by Cynthia Hayes and Dr. Owusus Bandele nearly six years ago, following a training on organic production and sustainable agricultural practices.

What I had been discussing has to do with the unique challenges farmers face as yeoman producers in an industrial market.

Here is how R.C. Lewontin put it in the essay The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture: Farmer as Proletarian:

Like any other industrial processes, the production of farm machinery, chemicals, and seeds, and the turning of threshed wheat into a box of breakfast cereal at the supermarket checkout counter are completely controlled by capital and its demands. The problem for capital, however, has been that sitting in the middle of the transformation of petroleum into potato chips is an essential step, farming, in the hands of two million petty producers. They cannot be dispensed with, they own certain essential means of production whose ownership cannot be concentrated (land in particular), and, while they are economically rational, they consume their surplus rather than turning it into capital. Agriculture is unique among all the sectors of capitalist production by possessing at its productive center an essential process organized around large numbers of independent petty producers. It is as if the spinning of yarn, the weaving of cloth, and the sewing of garments were in the hands of a few large capital enterprises (as they are), but the dyeing and finishing of the raw woven material were unavoidably the exclusive province of hundreds of thousands of home producers who bought the unfinished cloth and sold their product to clothing factories.

Farm producers have historically been in possession of two powers that stood in the way of the development of capital in agriculture. First, farmers could make choices about the physical process of farm production, including what was grown and how much, and what inputs were to be used. These choices, of course, were always constrained, partly because of local conditions of climate and soil, and partly because of the local nature of markets for farm products. Second, farmers were themselves traditionally potential competitors with the commercial providers of inputs, because they could choose to produce seed, traction power, and fertilizer themselves. The problem for industrial capital, then, has been to wrest control of the choices from the farmers, forcing them into a farming process that uses a package of inputs of maximum value to the producers of those inputs, and tailoring the nature of farm products to match the demands of a few major purchasers of farm outputs who have the power to determine the price paid. Whatever production risks remain are, of course, retained by the farmer. As the farmer loses any power to choose the actual nature and tempo of the production process in which he or she is engaged, while at the same time losing any ability to sell the product in an open market, the farmer becomes a mere operative in a determined chain whose product is alienated from the producer. That is, the farmer becomes proletarianized. It is of little import that the farmer retains legal title to the land and buildings and so, in some literal sense, is the owner of some of the means of production. There is no alternative economic use for these means. The essence of proletarianization is in the loss of control over one’s labor process and the alienation of the product of that labor.

In the U.S. there are a number of policy interventions through the Farm Bill in place to help give farmers agency and stability in the marketplace. They mostly have to do with access to credit and managing risk. Co-ops exist to pool economic power in the marketplace.

It’s not hard to see how African American farmers, already at a historical disadvantage, would have been especially vulnerable, if not mortally crippled by in being cut off from institutional support. Discrimination in extending credit by the USDA was at the heart of Pigford vs. Glickman, the discrimination case referenced in the SciAm post. Already shut out from private sources of credit, under capitalized by historic circumstance, denied membership to co-ops, being denied the credit and other USDA programs was decimating to beleaguered African American farmers.

Ben Jealous of the NAACP summarizes the history that the Pigford settlement attempted to address:

Like so many great ideas in our nation’s history, the USDA farm loan program was the product of compromise. Mired in the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt developed a plan to help struggling farmers pay off their debts and stave off bankruptcy. But the initiative first had to earn the blessing of White southern senators who dominated Congress.

These senators insisted the federal funds should funnel through southern plantation owners and wealthy white farmers. The white farmers would then distribute the loans to their black tenants and sharecroppers.

In practice, they were often not inclined to pass the funds along.

This dynamic only grew more toxic in the 1960s. As civil rights protests rocked the nation, USDA staff intentionally withheld loans from black farmers who voted, helped register other voters, or joined the NAACP.This discrimination continued in the years that followed, and it had a devastating effect on farmers of color. According to the Census of Agriculture, between 1920 and 1992 the number of African American farmers declined from 925,000 to only 18,000.

Despite this history of flagrant discrimination, President Ronald Reagan abolished the USDA Office of Civil Rights in 1981, leaving farmers with no options for legal recourse. The office remained shuttered until 1996.

That 16-year period of lax oversight was the basis of the Pigford v Glickman lawsuit. During that time, thousands of farmers of color were denied access to loans, information on farm programs, technical assistance, and adequate loan servicing from the USDA. Some were denied loan applications outright, while others were asked to fill out an application only to watch the local USDA supervisor throw it in the trash.

I also had to wonder though, if there wasn’t another less sinister factor where systemic racism played a more indirect, subtler role. As modern farming has become more sophisticated, a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Sciences has become increasingly crucial to success for many farmers. I can’t help but think that if you were an African American kid coming off a farm in the last 40 years and you did beat the odds and overcome the obstacles you faced, when you got to college there would have been a lot of social pressure to take up an area of study that would get you off the farm instead of positioning you for greater success there.

There have been a major contributions to American agriculture by African Americans, most notably by George Washington Carver as the SciAm post noted. Carver spent 47 years heading up the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute. But by the time African Americans started to achieve something resembling real opportunities in higher education, the vocational philosophy of Carver’s boss Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute had fallen out of favor. The vocational training of Tuskegee was eclipsed by the philosophy of W.E.B. Dubois and a push, first towards liberal arts degrees and then towards business degrees. For the 1996-97 school year 19% of African American undergrads choose Business as a major as opposed to 0.3% for Agricultural Sciences. In 2004 Business majors had increased to 25% of African American students, while Ag students continued to make up just 0.3% of the black student population.

That wouldn’t match the impact of systemically being shut out from the institutional support necessary for success in modern farming, but it’s likely one more vector to consider in understanding and addressing the absence of African Americans in the U.S. farming system.

1. Organic Synthesis: Towards An Inclusion Of African Americans In Organic Farming
Layla Eplett | Food Matters – Scientific American | November 5, 2013
2. The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture: Farmer as Proletarian
RC Lewontin | Monthly Review | July 7, 2006
3. Pigford vs. Glickman
4. Black farm ownership overcoming decades of discrimination
Ben Jealous | The Sun Sentinel | March 20, 2013
5. The Solid Progress of African Americans in Degree Attainments
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education | 2006
6. Business Remains the Preferred Degree of African-American College Students, but Black Students Are Looking to Other Fields
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education | Spring, 2000
7. George Washington Carver

Daily Essentials | Tuesday | 1 October 2013

Sam Brasch | Modern Farmer

The USDA Can’t…

Help pregnant women or women with new children buy healthy food. Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) doesn’t have funding to continue during the shutdown. The $6 billion dollar program buys healthy food for pregnant women or new mothers if they are poor or at risk of buying unhealthy food. The Huffington Post reports that states can step in for a few days, but if the shutdown goes on too long, mothers and kids could be turned away.

Keep in touch with consumers. In the event of a shutdown, the USDA will basically shutter its office of communications. The website will go dark, reporters won’t have anyone to contact, and all USDA publications and press releases will stop. So even if the agency can find a listeria outbreak, it’s won’t have all channels available to let you know about it.

Keep their databases open. This might not seem like a big deal, but for farmers, it’s huge. Markets rely on reports from the USDA to set the price of soy, wheat, corn, beef, etc. Without an October report traders would be adjusting prices in the dark and farmers would be selling without knowing the real value of their crops.

Noah Davis | Pacific Standard

Dr. Scott H. Sicherer, a professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at The Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, told me that his team conducted a random calling in 1997. It showed one in 250 children were allergic to peanuts. When they did the same study in 2008, the number jumped to one in 70. “That sounds crazy, because it’s a tripling, but the numbers from other countries are similar,” the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) fellow said, pointing to similar studies with similar results from Canada, the U.K., and Australia.


Dana Woldow | BeyondChron

How many of Saunders’ imagined able-bodied childless moochers can possibly be getting SNAP benefits? According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, as recently as 2011, children and elderly or disabled adults comprised 64% of SNAP recipients. Of the remaining 36%, 22% are adults in families with children; just 14% of SNAP recipients are able bodied, childless adults of working age. With about 48 million individuals getting SNAP, that would be about 6.7 million potential “deadbeats”.

But according to the USDA, “Generally, able-bodied adults aged 18 to 50 who do not have children and are not pregnant can only get SNAP benefits for 3 months in a 3-year period unless they are working or participating in a work or workfare program.”

Jason Mark | Civil Eats

“Earlier this year people were getting very worried, because they weren’t seeing monarchs very far north,” says Lincoln Brower, a research professor of biology at Sweet Briar College and a butterfly expert. “Our predictions have proven to be true. There have been very few sightings in August and now into September. Right now things are looking very grim. I have seen a total of five monarchs in my garden since October 2012. I would normally see a couple of hundred, at least.”

Several species of native bumblebees are also suffering.

“As dramatic as the honeybee declines have been, they pale in comparison to what we have seen with our native bumblebees,” says Eric Mader, a program director at the Xerces Society, an Oregon-based group working to raise awareness about the role of native pollinators. “Honeybees are not going extinct, and that’s the crucial difference with our native pollinators.”

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

A bipartisan group of Representatives delivered a “Dear Colleague” letter to House leadership on Friday September 27th, calling for House farm bill conferees to support key programs for organic agriculture in any upcoming negotiations.

Thanks to the leadership of Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Richard Hanna (R-NY), Sam Farr (D-CA), and Ron Kind (D-WI) , as well as strong grassroots pressure from NSAC members and partners in the organic sector, dozens of Representatives from both parties and all parts of the country have joined together in calling for key investments in the future of organic agriculture as an essential part of the 2013 Farm Bill.

Martha Rose Shulman | The New York Times

Shell beans and tomatoes are still available at the end of September in farmers’ markets, and I’ll continue to make pasta with uncooked tomatoes until there are no sweet tomatoes to be found. Shell beans are a rare treat, soft and velvety, to be savored during their short season.