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Archive for May 2011

Combating Childhood Obesity: Taking Down Competitive Foods

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By A.Blackler on May 26, 2011 8:06 PM


Rates of obesity have been increasing for years and have now reached epidemic proportions in the United States, among children and adults.  Currently 1 in 3 children are considered either overweight or obese.   While many factors and lifestyle changes have contributed to the obesity problem over the decades, one that has had a noticeable impact on childhood obesity is the ubiquitous presence of competitive foods in schools today.

What is a competitive food?  Competitive foods are foods sold at school that are not part of the standard cafeteria lunch line, such as vending machines, the ‘a-la-cart’ line, and booths that sell commercially branded food (usually fast-food and pizza chains).  The school cafeteria food is part of the National School Lunch Program and regulated for nutritional content by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  However, competitive foods are not nationally regulated and are generally high in calories, sugar and fat and low in nutrients.

How much damage can a little junk food do to a child’s health?  Consider this; consuming an extra 200 calories a day for a year will add up to 20 extra pounds gained that year.  That’s the equivalent of a single 20-ounce bottle of Coke a day.  A daily trip to the school vending machine or a cookie from the a-la-cart line can quickly add up to a lot of extra pounds.

Studies have shown that increased availability of low-nutrient competitive foods leads to a decrease in consumption of fruits, vegetables and milk.  When faced with a choice between a cookie and an apple, most children will (unsurprisingly) choose the cookie.  But when the cookie is removed from the equation, children will happily eat the apple.

In 2010, the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act was signed into law as part of the Affordable Care Act.  This act not only extensively retools USDA school nutritional standards (the new requirements include maximum calories and minimum percentages of whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables per meal), but also requires any competitive food sold in school to meet these standards.

As these new USDA requirements are phased in, hopefully restricting access to junk food at school will have a noticeable impact, not just on body weight, but also on classroom attentiveness and chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and high cholesterol (conditions previously seen as adult issues).

Will taking junk food out of schools solve the child obesity epidemic?  My guess is no.  This is a battle our society is going to be fighting for a long time and will require a multifaceted approach of education, increasing physical activity and working with parents and communities to improve overall childhood nutrition and health.  Is this a significant step in the right direction?  Yes, definitely!  The next generation deserves to eat better than we did growing up, not worse.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 26, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Essays

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Food Safety: From Farm to Fork

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By clarita on Morguefile. Used with permission.

By K. Shmueli

Food-borne diseases, such as Salmonella or Norovirus, sicken 1 in 6 Americans each year and kill more than 3000, all on a background of $1 trillion USA food expenditure. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in January 2011, aims to reduce these statistics by improving the safety of food throughout its journey from farm to fork. The FSMA shifts the emphasis of US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) efforts from response to prevention of food-borne illness via risk-assessment and monitoring of the food supply. It also places much of this preventive burden on food suppliers: the Act tasks them with identifying and evaluating “known or reasonably foreseeable hazards” associated with food facilities and with implementing preventive controls to minimize those hazards. Small companies and farms selling less than $500,000 worth of food in a year will be exempt.

Key challenges of implementing the FSMA include a lack of staffing at the FDA, which has approximately 170 scientists, a food inspection force of ~2800 nationwide, and at least 57,000 food manufacturers requiring periodic inspection. There are also tight timelines. The FDA has been granted mandatory recall powers immediately and has 1-2 years to publish detailed guidance, standards and regulations, for example for science-based hazard analysis. The ultimate limitation is the estimated $1.4 billion cost of the FSMA mandates over five years. The $370 million increase in the FDA 2011 budget over 2010 is less than half the increase requested to enable the FDA to begin full FSMA delivery.

The complexity of modern food supply chains will also make FSMA implementation difficult. Consider a contaminated supermarket salad: the ingredients may all be grown in different places. The components could take different transportation and handling routes through various storage facilities and a processing plant before the packaged salad finally reaches the supermarket shelf. To add to the complexity, the US food protection system operates at both state and federal levels. It is split between multiple government agencies in addition to the FDA, including the US Department of Agriculture which is responsible for regulating the safety of meat, poultry and egg products. The FSMA has not addressed calls for increased coordination and consolidation of the federal food safety system. However, the Act does take into account the global nature of the food supply: it gives the FDA new tools and responsibilities to ensure that importers verify that their foreign suppliers have adequate preventive controls in place. The FSMA even mandates “building capacity of foreign governments with respect to food safety”. This may be a tall order in a world of economically motivated adulteration such as the addition of melamine to milk powder or animal feed.

With limited funds and in this context of complex global food chains, the FDA must surely be asking where it can be most effective in deploying food safety policy. Which foods should be tested, how, where and when in the supply chain to minimize risk? This is where research into low-cost, rapid, highly sensitive and specific food assays is needed and tools to assess critical points in the food supply chain are essential. An example is the Food and Agriculture Sector Criticality Tool (FASCAT) developed by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) National Center for Food Protection and Defense to help identify crucial components of the food infrastructure and improve reporting to the DHS.

So how will the FSMA affect us? It seems inconceivable that these provisions will not raise the already rapidly increasing cost of food. The record-keeping and monitoring requirements of the Act are also likely to stimulate vertical integration of the food supply, following the lead of large fast-food companies who can already trace where and when the potatoes in each box of french fries were harvested and processed. Clearly there is no detection strategy that can completely eliminate food-borne sickness or guarantee that no contamination is present, but will all this extra legislation lead to safer food? We’ll have to wait for the next decade of statistics and hope that the FSMA hastens the downward trend (20% reduction in food-borne illnesses) seen over the past 10 years.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 4, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Posted in Essays