Can Grazing Animals Save the World?: A Report From the Slow Meat Symposium

Photo Credit: USDA – Photo taken by Wink Crigler for X Diamond Ranch

(This story originally ran on Civil Eats July 14, 2014. A similar version was posted on the Slow Food USA blog.)

Years ago, The Zimbabwean biologist and environmentalist, Allan Savory of the Savory Institute, believed that large roaming animals, such as elephants, were destroying Africa’s great plains, leading to desertification.

In the years that ensued, some 40,000 elephants were killed in hopes of saving the plains. But, much to Savory’s dismay, the culling of these animals didn’t make a significant difference. After years of additional research, he determined it was poor management–not overgrazing–that led to desertification. In fact, Savory explained, he found that by allowing livestock to graze and roam across the plains, the natural cycle of what he describes as “birth, growth, death and decay,” actually has the potential to restore the world’s grasslands.

Savory gave the keynote address at the inaugural Slow Meat symposium last month, which brought together more than 100 ranchers and farmers, butchers, chefs, scientists, animal welfare experts, and eaters–representing both vegetarians and meat eaters alike– in Denver, Colorado. The event was hosted by Slow Food USA, the domestic arm of the international movement to ensure food is good, clean, and fair for all. The goal was to begin to examine some of the mixed and controversial messages about today’s meat supply – from it’s environmental impact to its ethics — and agree on solutions.

Livestock management, and in particular the question of whether the benefits of grazing animals on pasture can ever balance out the destruction caused by today’s industrial systems, is at the heart of these debates. And that’s why Savory’s keynote was so resonate. Although the stately, congenial academic said of agriculture, “I cannot picture a more destructive industry in the world,” he was quick to point out that casting blame is counterproductive.

His solution to repairing the damage caused by poorly managed agriculture is to disperse holistically-managed livestock across the world’s grasslands. Savory argued that large herds of grass eating animals will replenish the soil, preventing and reversing desertification. He noted that allowing the continuous roaming of these herds packs their nutrient-rich manure into the earth and promotes deeper root growth of grasses, which in turn absorbs and retains both water and carbon dioxide, and makes soils richer.

Savory’s presentation moved Ted Trujillio, a rancher, lawyer, and member of the Rural Coalition from northern New Mexico. Trujillio and his fellow Latino and Native American ranchers are in a long-standing disagreement with the U.S. Forest Service, which is restricting ranchers from grazing their cattle on large portions of federal lands. Their families have previously used those same lands to graze cattle for hundreds of years.

“Allan’s work is so appropriate to our situation in northern New Mexico, I couldn’t believe it,” said Trujillio. He believes Savory’s findings validate his understanding, as a native rancher, of the role that animals play to protect the fertility of the lands and forests. Where he lives, the Forest Service has restricted cattle from many parts of the forest because they worry grazing competes with mixed-use priorities, including recreation, timber and wildlife protection. As a result, Trujillio fears the land that he and his fellow ranchers depend on is in danger of drying up, similar to the way New Mexico’s Valles Caldera National Preserve degraded after the land was bought buy Congress in 2000. For centuries before the purchase, as many as 6,000 head of cattle roamed throughout the 89,000-acre preserve every year. Today only 300 head remain and the land has turned into a virtual tinderbox. Before the government began managing the land, the area had never experienced fires as intense as they are now.

There have been attempts to change federal and state laws to allow ranchers in Trujillio’s community greater access to the forestland, with little success. Until the tensions between all special interests eases and each group can work together, Trujillio says a truly holistic land management policy will never exist.

Whether you agree with Savory’s claims or not, it’s difficult to argue that the loss of grazing buffalo and agriculture didn’t play a role in turning the Great Plains into a giant Dust Bowl in the 1930’s. In a 1987 article by Deborah Epstein Popper and Frank J. Popper in Planning magazine, the authors noted that homesteaders failed to heed the warnings of the native people of northeast Colorado and experienced their own dust bowl in the early 19th Century.

“Grass no good upside down,” said a Pawnee chief in northeast Colorado as he watched the late-nineteenth-century homesteaders rip through the shortgrass with their steel plows. He mourned a stretch of land where the Indians had hunted buffalo for millennia. It grew crops for a few years, then went into the Dust Bowl; farmers abandoned it. Today, it is federal land, part of the system of national grasslands. Like most of the Plains, it is an austere monument to American self-delusion. 

Savory ended his talk on a hopeful note and he believes it is possible to restore the world’s grasslands. Instead of pointing fingers he said we must start sharing solutions. “We can unite around the idea that [agricultural] management needs to be holistic,” he said.

Diet Tricks Are Not Tricking Your Body, They’re Changing Your Eating Behaviors

What started out as a quick Facebook post about a NYT’s oped, which offered an interesting theory on why we overeat, turned into a long-winded comment. So, I figured I’d expand on it a little here. The authors David Ludwig, Director, New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Mark Friedman, Vice President of Research, Nutrition Science Initiative, hypothesize that by consuming all of those concentrated sugars and carbs that easily turn into sugar we are overloading our digestive system, which in turn leaks out the sugar we need into our body, triggering our brain to request more of the stuff, because its not getting to the places it needs it. It’s kind of a complicated theory, but it seems to makes sense. All that said, I doubt their recommendation to cut back on refined grains, concentrated sugar and potato products is the magic answer to our obesity epidemic. We’re hungry for many other reasons, and we need a realistic way to cut back on our sugar-centric diets.

Yes, cutting most carbs out your diet is a good way to shed a few pounds. The weight loss diet that helped me lose 200 lbs. not only cut out carbs and added sugars it eliminated almost all fat as well. Our bodies like to burn sugar before burning fat and protein. I like to think of foods that easily convert into sugar quickly like bread, cereals, or pasta as instant fuel. If I’m planning on working out or just starting the day eating carbs is a good thing. When I am paying attention to my diet (Yes, I fall off the wagon often.), I cut back on all sugary foods like sweets and even juices and do my best to eat very little carbs at night. I stick to veggies, some fruits, and high protein foods and skip the breads or pastas. Since I rarely exercise after dinner I always fear much of the carbs or “instant fuel” I eat are more likely to get stored as fat. This has long been a game that I play with myself in an attempt to control my weight. But that’s just it. It’s a game or trick. Is it really the answer? It is always a good idea to be cognizant of the foods you are eating and knowing which contain more sugar or can turn into sugar quickly. However, I believe in moderation. Cutting carbs completely out of your diet forever is not realistic, especially for people living in communities where processed foods are the most accessible and often most affordable choices.

There really is no magic pill or perfect weight loss diet. At the end of the day it is still calories in, calories out. It’s basic thermodynamics. There’s no getting around the laws of nature. All of these diet tricks or fads are not tricking your body, they are tricking your mind by altering your eating and exercise behaviors.

The most critical lesson I learned about maintaining or losing weight is being aware of what I’m eating at every moment. Mindless eating is a huge problem. Realizing that my desire or compulsion to eat was rarely connected to true hunger was a watershed moment for me. It allowed me to ask myself whether a craving to eat was based on habit, boredom, sadness, happiness etc. If am aware of why I want to eat something and it is based on something other than true hunger I purposefully distract myself by doing something as simple as walking outside or calling a friend. 9 times out of 10, by the time I get back I’m not hungry. Another trick I use to slow down while I’m eating is to tighten my belt one notch. It’s amazing how quickly you feel full when you do this. Drinking a large glass of water before a meal is a good way to help you feel fuller faster. Steering clear of processed foods and sticking to only whole foods will help you feel fuller faster too.

We can’t get mad at ourselves and listen to people who believe we don’t have willpower for feeling hungry all the time. I believe it’s just human (animal) nature, and if Ludwig and Friedman’s theory is correct, a biological reaction to an overabundance of sugar in our modern diet. When there is edible tasty food in front of us, our instincts are to eat it. Additionally, you can’t ignore the strong “nurture” influence on our desires to eat. Culturally we are conditioned to associate food (often calorie-rich) with happiness, pleasure, and comfort. Once high-calorie food became plentiful and companies figured out how to manipulate our eating instincts and behaviors into consuming the cheap processed foods that are most profitable to them, it’s no wonder many of us are obese.

In the end, the only way to lose weight is to consume fewer calories. I believe the best way to maintain a healthy weight and not restrict yourself from eating specific foods is to eat moderately and be active. That’s not to place blame on anyone who is overweight – I still am – or to say it’s ok to get most of your calories from sugar. I try to stay away from sugary foods because they do act as “hunger” triggers for me, making it more difficult to eat moderately. It’s all so complicated, and like I said, there is no one magic answer. My weight is always going to fluctuate, but I do feel comforted in knowing that I have broken the behavior code and learned how to overcome my caveman and conditioned urges and at least won’t eat myself into oblivion.

Reflections on the New Year and a Challenge for Leaders of the “Food Movement”

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I’m writing from my almost native state of Florida to wish everyone a Happy New Year!

It’s kind of a peculiar tradition, isn’t it? Every January 1 wishing people- many of whom you haven’t spoken with in months or perhaps only communicate with once a year – that they are happy, or at least begin their year happy. I suppose it’s a projection of oneself to be happy.  It’s also part of basic human nature that goes back to the beginning of civilization, recognizing the beginning and closing of a natural cycle.

I read that the first known New Year revelers were the Babylonians, who more than 4,000 years ago chose the spring equinox (mid-March) to ring in the New Year.  The Egyptians preferred celebrating at the start of fall (September 21) and the Greeks preferred the winter solstice (December 21). According to Britannica.com the Roman’s started celebrating the New Year on Jan. 1 in 153 BC. For European Christians that date moved around from March 25 and December 25 for hundreds of years until the Roman Catholic Church made January 1 the official New Year’s Day in the Gregorian calendar in 1582. European countries slowly adopted January 1 as the day to celebrate the New Year over the next few centuries. England didn’t make it official until 1752 and Russia waited until 1918. The Jewish New Year is still celebrated on Rosh Hashanah, which is determined through the lunar calendar and falls between September and October every year. Chinese New Year celebrations last for a month, which start in late January or early February. I can go on with all the different celebrations, but the point is, globally, we all recognize that the Earth has revolved around the sun one more time and we’ve all gotten a year older.

As the Earth starts its newest solar orbit, I suppose now is as good a time as any to reflect on the past year and look forward to the New Year. For many of my colleagues entwined in the so-called “Good Food Movement,” 2012 saw modest improvements in the food system and some significant setbacks.  In 2012, the Organic Trade Association reported that the US organic food market outpaced conventional food sales growth and the organic food industry created more than half a million jobs. We saw a steady increase in farmers markets across the country. Many are now accepting SNAP (food stamps) and other federal nutrition benefits, such as WIC.  Sadly, on the political front, we’ve seemed to hit a roadblock with a stalled Farm Bill and the defeat of California’s Proposition 37, which would have required all genetically modified food sold in stores carry a label.

Instead of focusing on the specific challenges we have ahead of us, I wanted to remind all of my friends that like every “movement for change,” it takes perseverance, patience, and time to make any significant headway. As for those who think we’re all a bunch of ivory tower elitist tilting against windmills, we would all do well to remember the words of Mark Twain who said, “A man with a new idea is a crank — until the idea succeeds.”

Which reminds me of a Mahatma Gandhi quote, which Dr. Robert Lawrence, Director, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, often repeated to the staff while I was there. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” It’s a great quote, and when Dr. Lawrence said it, I always found it inspiring. However, like so many things, the quote may not be as accurate as we all thought. While searching for the exact wording of the quote, I came to find out that there is a dispute over whether Gandhi actually said this. The cool thing is (this might be of great interest to Dr. Lawrence who has lived in Baltimore for decades) a close variation of the quote was made in Baltimore during a 1914 US trade union address by Nicholas Klein.  “And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that, is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.”

I’m not sure that by quoting Mark Twain, Mahatma Gandhi and an early 20th Century union leader actually helps ward off any elitists barbs, but I do believe now is a good time to take a close look at the people who are working for change in the food system. I haven’t been privy to any national surveys, but my unscientific polling shows that the “movement” continues to lack significant diversity.  I believe we lack diversity, not only among many cultural groups, but also among the people who make up the so-called Middle America. This means we need to be willing to talk and work with people who don’t agree with us. We need to help everyone understand that the way large industrial-style farms are producing the so-called cheap food that they’re eating now is decimating the environment – polluting our water, our air and destroying our disappearing and what used to be plentiful rich soil.  We need to explain that responsibly grown whole foods are not just healthier for us to eat, but over the long term they will help protect public health and the environment for generations to come.

Will the U.S. Hog Industry Ever Kick Its Reliance on Low-Dose Antibiotics?

The editors of Scientific American recently encouraged U.S. hog farmers to “follow Denmark and stop giving farm animals low-dose antibiotics.” Sixteen years ago, in order to reduce the threat of increased development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in their food system and the environment, Denmark phased in an antibiotic growth promotant ban in food animal production. Guess what? According to Denmark’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries the ban is working and the industry has continued to thrive. The government agency found that Danish livestock and poultry farmers used 37% less antibiotics in 2009 than in 1994, leading to overall reductions of antimicrobial resistance countrywide.

Courtesy: Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, July, 2010

Except for a few early hiccups regarding the methods used in weaning piglets, production levels of livestock and poultry have either stayed the same or increased. So how did Danish producers make this transition, and why isn’t the U.S. jumping to follow suit? Like many things in industrial agriculture, the answer is not clear.

If any country knows how to intensively produce food animals, particularly pigs, it is Denmark. In 2008, farmers produced about 27 million hogs. In fact, the Scandinavian country claims to be the world’s largest exporter of pork. Thus Scientific American editors argue that the Danish pork production system should serve as a suitable model to compare to ours. U.S. agriculture economists from Iowa State University agree. In a 2003 report, Drs. Helen Jensen and Dermot Hayes stated that Denmark’s pork industry is “…at least as sophisticated as that of the United States… and is therefore a suitable market for evaluating a ban on antibiotic growth promotants (AGPs).”

Based on Denmark’s experience, concerns that an AGP ban in the U.S. would cripple the industry appear to be overblown. A study published last year in the American Journal of Veterinary Medicine by Danish researchers suggested that Denmark’s AGP ban in food animals reduced overall antibiotic use and did not significantly impact production. In fact, recent numbers from Denmark show production levels of hogs increased by roughly 50% between 1992 and 2008.

So what additional changes did Danish hog producers make in their methods of production to ensure that the AGP ban did not negatively affect their bottom line to a significant degree? Robert Martin, Senior Officer of the Pew Environment Group and former Executive Director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, visited several Danish hog farms in 2009 to see first hand what producers were doing to compensate for not being able to use antibiotics as growth promoters. Martin listed some of what he describes as the most important changes:

  • Switching to lower density models of housing pigs
  • The use of open pen & deep bedding systems
  • Cleaning barns more frequently and systematically
  • Improved ventilation systems
  • Improved quality of feed
  • Extending weaning period for piglets

Martin explains that many of these changes were phased in as farmers adopted a set of new best practices. Martin says immediately following the ban, Danish producers did see an increase in mortality of young pigs. “But instead of reverting to using antibiotics as a crutch,” Martin continued, “they initiated changes in their system.” For example, Martin learned that many producers extended the piglet weaning times by about 10 days, allowing maternal antibodies in milk to provide increased immunity. Martin also pointed out that reducing the crowded conditions and switching to a dry, deep bedding system, “allowed them to manage waste more effectively.” He said the changes are also “more humane for the pigs.” Moreover, Martin says, “They also paid more attention to feed mixtures instead of relying on antibiotics for weight gain.”

Dr. Jensen and Hayes’s report, published in the Iowa Ag Review, determined a ban similar to Denmark’s could cost the U.S. industry more than $700 million dollars over 10 years and increase the price of pork by about 2 percent at the grocery store. Hayes noted, in recent email exchanges with the Center for a Livable Future, that in the long run a ban would not keep producers from making money. He also wrote, “hog farmers would reduce production until prices recovered, so there is no profit impact.” When it comes to the study’s findings Hayes believes the economics are secondary:

“The key take away for me from our studies was that the ban at the finishing stage worked as planned and reduced antibiotic use by a lot. However, when they extended the ban to the weaning state they ended up using more antibiotics and these were stronger human-use antibiotics. So a ban at the weaning stage did not work in terms of its original intent.”

It is worth noting that recent Denmark data shows weaner mortality is significantly lower since the ISU study was published in 2003. Despite that fact, Hayes is correct. The therapeutic use of antibiotics has increased since the ban was instituted. According to the latest Danish Integrated Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring and Research Program (DANMAP) report, therapeutic antibiotic use rose by almost 13% from 2008 to 2009. DANMAP also found the occurrence of resistance in Danish pork increased during that time period, “and is not significantly lower than in imported pork.” However, resistance to the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, an important antibiotic in human medicine, was very low in E. coli from Danish pork in contrast to imported pork. It is important to point out that therapeutic use poses much less antibiotic resistance risk than low-dose application. Don’t forget, Denmark’s overall antibiotic use in all food animal production remains nearly 40% lower then when the ban was first initiated.

If the AGP ban is, at the very least, reducing overall antibiotic use and Danish pork production levels are increasing why wouldn’t U.S. producers follow suit? The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) lobbyists publicly maintain they still don’t believe antibiotic use in food animals poses a risk to human health. In a presentation prepared for the World Pork Expo 2010, Chelsea Redalen, the NPPC’s Director of Government Relations, maintained that there is “little to no evidence that restricting or eliminating the use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals would improve human health or reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to humans.”

Statements like these, repeatedly made by hog industry representatives, leave many public health experts exasperated. Numerous peer reviewed research studies including in the U.S. and the Netherlands clearly demonstrate the transmission of antibiotic resistant bacteria from food animals to people. Studies out of the Netherlands published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Annals of Clinical Microbiology and Antimicrobials, demonstrate that MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) was transmitted from pigs to a farmer, and between pig farmers and their family.

Despite industry claims, U.S. government health officials have concluded there are direct links between antibiotic use in food animal production and the risk of antibiotic resistant infections in people. Responding to a letter from Drs. Robert Lawrence and Keeve Nachman of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas Frieden, confirmed that the CDC, “feels there is strong scientific evidence of a link between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.”

CLF helped bring to light recently released FDA data showing that 80% of the antibiotics produced for human and animal use in the U.S. are sold for use in food animals. Even if significant portions of those antibiotics are used to treat disease, Dr. David Love, CLF scientist, says he finds that statistic, “astounding.” Love believes, “if producers are reliant on the use of antibiotics to produce animals in a highly concentrated way, it means that the design of these farms makes them breeding grounds for diseases.” “Even more troubling to me,” Love says, “is the unwise use of antibiotics for growth promotion in animal production, which compromises antibiotics, a precious resource used to protect the public’s health.”

Currently there is proposed federal legislation that would greatly limit antibiotic use in U.S. food animal production. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) recently reintroduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, better known as PAMTA. The bill would ban the routine use of antibiotics “deemed” critical in human medicine to promote growth in healthy animals.

So, should the U.S. follow Denmark’s lead and stop all food animal producers from dishing out low dose-antibiotics? Public health experts say it appears that those with a higher priority on limiting health risks are at loggerheads with those unwilling to change or corporations more concerned about the risks of increased costs. One thing is clear – most large pork producers do not plan on instituting a ban voluntarily.

Story was first published in Grist Magazine.

New FDA Numbers Reveal Food Animals Consume Lion’s Share of Antibiotics

Antibiotics, one of the world’s greatest medical discoveries, are slowly losing their effectiveness in fighting bacterial infections and the massive use of the drugs in food animals may be the biggest culprit. The growing threat of antibiotic resistance is largely due to the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in both people and animals, which leads to an increase in “super-bacteria”. However, people use a much smaller portion of antibiotics sold in this country compared to the amount set aside for food animals. In fact, according to new data just released by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), of the antibiotics sold in 2009 for both people and food animals almost 80% were reserved for livestock and poultry. A huge portion of those antibiotics were never intended to fight bacterial infections, rather producers most likely administered them in continuous low-dosages through feed or water to increase the speed at which their animals grew. And that has many public health experts and scientists troubled.

For years scientists concerned about the threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria in food animal production have been trying to figure out just how much antibiotics producers are using each year. The best they could do was come up with rough estimates. That is because the data was never publicly available, until now.

In accordance with a 2008 amendment to the Animal Drug User Fee Act, for the first time the FDA released last week an annual amount of antimicrobial drugs sold and distributed for use in food animals. The grand total for 2009 is 13.1 million kilograms or 28.8 million pounds. I found the stories covering this revelation interesting, but they did not convey the whole picture. It is important to understand how this amount compares to the total available for people. So, I decided to find out for myself and contacted the FDA for an estimate of the volume of antibiotics sold for human use in 2009. This is what a spokesperson told me:

“Our Office of Surveillance and Epidemiology just finished an analysis based on IMS Health data. Sales data in kilograms sold for selected antibacterial drugs were obtained as a surrogate of human antibacterial drug use in the U.S. market. Approximately 3.3 million kilograms of antibacterial drugs were sold in year 2009. OSE states that all data in this analysis have been cleared for public use by IMS Health, IMS National Sales Perspectives™.”

3.3 million kilograms is a little over 7 million pounds. As far as I can determine, this is the first time the FDA has made data on estimates of human usage public. Below is a breakdown of the FDA numbers prepared by my colleague, Dr. David Love, also from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which compares the estimated amounts of human usage with food animal usage.

Take a look at the data for tetracycline. More than 10 million pounds of the antibiotic were sold for the use in food animals. That’s more than all of the antibiotics combined set aside for humans in 2009. Many studies suggest the high use of tetracycline in food animals, particularly in pigs, has lead to the increased rates of bacterial resistance to the antibiotic, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA.

Despite this new information, the hog industry denies the suggestion that it is overusing antibiotics. In response to the FDA’s report, the National Pork Producers Council also pointed out to Food Safety News’ Helena Bottemiller that, “ionophores … are not used in human medicine, they don’t have anything to do with the effectiveness of antibiotics in people.” That statement is inaccurate. All uses of antibiotics have the potential to decrease the effectiveness of antibiotics in people. Ionophores are no exception. While several industry funded studies determined that ionophore use in animals is “not likely” to transfer resistance from animals to people, researchers couldn’t come to a definitive conclusion because ionophores can lead to bacterial resistance to the antibiotic bacitracin, which is commonly used to treat skin and eye infections.

Every time an antibiotic is used there is a risk of adding to the growing pool of antibiotic resistance. LivableFutureBlog readers might recall an October blog post in which Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, warned that, “Bacteria respond to chemical structures, not brand names, and resistance to one member of a pharmaceutical class results in cross resistance to all other members of the same class.” Silbergeld says when bacteria develop resistance to one member of that class of antibiotics it can be resistant to all.

So, what is the government doing to ensure we don’t squander the effectiveness of antibiotics for human use on the production of food animals? Since President Barack Obama took office, the FDA says it has taken several steps. Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Principal Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, took a stand last year by stating that the Administration, “supports ending the use of antibiotics for growth and feed efficiency” in food animals. However, instead of requiring industry take action, the FDA released a draft-guidance last June that essentially asks industry to voluntarily end the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in food animals and include veterinary oversight or consultation on all antibiotic use.

Lawmakers such as Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and Senator Barbara Boxer have been introducing versions of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) for more than a decade that would mandate antibiotic use changes in food animals. Earlier this year it looked like the bill had a good chance of passing, but the bill failed to make it to the floor of the House or Senate. While not perfect, PAMTA would ban the use of medically important antibiotics as growth promoters. Passage of PAMTA would be an important step in saving the potency of antibiotics for human use. However, the current version of the bill could be stronger if it followed more closely the recommendations from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production final report, which calls for a ban on the non-therapeutic use of all antibiotics, not just those considered medically important, in food animals.

Now that we officially know that food animals use an overwhelming majority of our antibiotics, I hope it is more clear to everyone that legislation limiting the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in livestock and poultry must be passed. The next battle, which industry has already begun, is defining what non-therapeutic use will constitute. Producers are already claiming that the use of antibiotics for growth promotion has decreased, maintaining current low-dose usage is aimed at disease prevention. Regardless, all low-dose usage of antibiotics can lead to a significant increase in antibiotic resistance. As Dr. Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin warned, “It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body.”

Public Health Campaign & Celebrity Chef Help Franciscan Center Serve Dignity With Its Meals

I had to share a news release that the Franciscan Center of Baltimore sent out today regarding its launch of a Healthy Monday campaign.

For Immediate Release:

September 27, 2010

Public Health Campaign & Celebrity Chef Help Franciscan Center Serve Dignity With Its Meals

The Franciscan Center of Baltimore, in partnership with The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), kicked off its own Healthy Monday campaign today to promote healthy food choices among its clients. The goal: to ensure that everyone, regardless of their socio-economic status, has access to safe, nutritious and delicious meals. With the help of celebrity chef Kim O’Donnel and CLF’s two outreach projects, Baltimore Food and Faith and the Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project, the Franciscan Center wants to show that providing a large variety of high quality foods for Baltimore’s hungry not only promotes dignity among its clients, but may also improve their health.

The Franciscan Center has a long legacy of feeding the poor and homeless in Baltimore. The Center serves as many as 500 meals a day. So far it has served 78 thousand meals this year alone. In an effort to promote personal dignity through healthy and sustainable living, the Franciscan Center has partnered with various local farmers, businesses, groups and organizations like CLF, the Abell Foundation, Campus Kitchens, First Fruit Farms and Wegmans Supermarket to bring healthy, organic produce and vegetables to Baltimore’s most needy in an attempt to increase the personal health of an at risk population.

According to Baltimore’s Food Policy Task Force Final Report, “Many Baltimore City residents are affected by health problems associated with a poor diet.” The Task Force also found that one in every three adults in Baltimore is obese and two out of three is considered overweight. Ed McNally, Franciscan Center Executive Director, believes that, “if we can increase the nutrition content in the food served to the City’s poorest and most disadvantaged citizens — many with or at risk for contracting disease — then we will positively impact public health.

Saint Francis of Assisi said, “It is not fitting, when one is in God’s service, to have a gloomy face or a chilling look.” McNally added today that the Franciscan Center believes, “that you can’t serve an unhealthy meal with a smile. It is the next step; there is nothing more dignified than a nutritious meal.” Rev. Dred Scott, Pastor of St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Turner Station agrees. “At St. Matthew we are always looking at quality of life issues,” says Rev. Scott. He believes that, “if you are what you eat, then eating healthy and having access to healthy, nutritional food is a must. Our community garden has provided fresh produce to a substantial number of people in the community over the past several years at no cost.” Rev. Scott and McNally are both members of CLF’s Baltimore Food and Faith advisory board.

O’Donnel, a trained chef and author of the newly released “Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook,” took time off from her book tour to share recipes and some cooking tips with the Franciscan Center’s two full-time cooks today. O’Donnel says, “I was proud to take part in today’s event. Food is such an integral part of everyone’s life. Helping to promote the idea that everyone deserves access to healthy delicious food is very important to me.”

“Launching Healthy Monday has been a challenge,” says Kim Greggory, Franciscan Center cook. “But by bringing in experts, like Chef O’Donnel, to teach us how to prepare healthier balanced lunches, I’ve been able to not only better prepare fresh vegetables, but I take that knowledge home and feed my own family better,” added Greggory.

O’Donnel has long supported Healthy Monday and Meatless Monday through her columns at the Washington Post and several popular blogs. Healthy Monday is a public health initiative whose goal is to prevent chronic diseases by offering people weekly prompts to start and sustain healthy behaviors, such as making healthy food choices. The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, serves as technical and scientific advisor for Healthy Monday and its sister campaign Meatless Monday. McNally says Meatless Monday is just the first of many Healthy Monday programs the Franciscan Center plans to promote throughout the year.

Additional information can be found on the following web pages:

The Franciscan Center: http://www.franciscancenterbaltimore.org/
Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future: http://www.jhsph.edu/clf
Healthy Monday: http://www.healthymonday.org/
Kim O’Donnel: http://www.kimodonnel.com/

Monday, September 27, 2010

Antibiotic Resistance in Food Animals: FDA Takes Strong Stance, But Public Health May Remain At Risk Until Congress Acts

Leadership at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made it abundantly clear last week that the low-dose usage of antibiotics in food animals, simply to promote growth or improve feed efficiency, needlessly contributes to the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria and poses a serious threat to public health. Despite the fact that the FDA is taking a hard-line stance on the issue, I find it frustrating to see that the agency appears to be hamstrung from taking the necessary steps to mandate industry end the risky practice. Even more exasperating, is that it appears that the FDA may actually relax a current directive that already regulates antibiotic use. However, unlike many critics I don’t believe that this is an example of the Obama administration buckling under industry pressure. Rather, I view it as a loud and stern call for Congress to take action. Producers concerned more about profit than protecting public health are not going to cut their dependence on non-therapeutic antibiotic use in food animals unless lawmakers pass strict legislation.

On June 28, the FDA fired a serious warning shot across the bow of industrial food animal producers stating in a new draft guidance that it expects industry to change its antibiotic use practices. The draft guidance asks for two simple things: stop using “medically important” antibiotics as growth promoters, limiting use to only treating sick animals; and ensure that producers do not administer these drugs without veterinary supervision. Unfortunately, the FDA says guidance documents, “do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities.” Why didn’t leadership go a step further and issue a proposed rule? I’ll address the possible answer in a moment. But what has me scratching my head are discussions about potentially changing a current medicated animal feed rule that’s already on the books.

The FDA recently sent out a notice warning that it might modify its veterinary feed directive (VFD), citing informal complaints that the rule is “overly burdensome.” The VFD was issued 10 years ago in response to the passage of the Animal Drug Availability Act of 1996, which required the FDA to regulate the approval and marketing of new animal drugs and medicated feeds. Any medicated feed that falls under the VFD category can only be used under the supervision of a veterinarian. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s website “the purpose of the added professional control is to reduce the rate of development of [antimicrobial] resistance and thereby prolong the period of effectiveness of the medication.” It is important to note that the VFD only applies to new drugs and that feeds containing approved antibiotics before 2000 can and are sold over-the-counter without a prescription or supervision of a veterinarian.

So, if the FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein went out on a limb to call the overuse of antibiotics in food animals, “an urgent public health issue,” why would the FDA consider changing a 10-year-old rule that could relax regulation of antibiotic use even further? That’s exactly what the American Academy of Pediatrics, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Union of Concerned Scientists, Institute for Agriculture and Trade, Food and Animal Concerns Trust and Humane Society of the United States want to know. Back in May the organizations sent a list of specific questions to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg regarding the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR):

· From whom did the [overly burdensome] comments come – the industrial farming industry, veterinarians, or other stakeholders?

· The FDA suggests that the ANPR is being undertaken to help “improve the program’s efficiency.” Since the primary requirement of the program is that veterinarians provide oversight on the use of certain drugs, does improved program efficiency simply mean less meaningful oversight from licensed veterinarians?

· How is the ANPR consistent with Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein’s July 13, 2009, testimony that, “protecting public health requires the judicious use in animal agriculture of those antimicrobials of importance in human medicine…FDA also believes that use of medications for prevention and control should be under the supervision of a veterinarian?” (emphasis added)

Late last month the FDA decided to extend the comment period on the ANPR for an additional 60 days, after receiving complaints that the original 90-day comment period was not enough time to develop “meaningful or thoughtful response.” That means the public now has until August 27 to speak up. If you’re interested in writing a response you may first want to read a new study published in PLoS One which links antibiotic use on veal calf farms in the Netherlands to a new strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – ST398 (a.k.a. Staph superbug.) The authors say this is the first study that shows “direct association between animal and human carriage of ST398,” and that this latest revelation warrants the prudent use of antibiotics on the farm.

While I don’t want to see the VFD weakened in any way, I am more concerned about the medicated feeds that are not covered under the directive. Which is pretty much everything except the two drugs that have been placed under the VFD category. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimated in 2001 that as much as 70 percent of all the antibiotics sold in the U.S. were used to promote growth in food animals. And yes, there are plenty of cases of irresponsible antibiotic use going on in people, but it doesn’t compare to the amount in animals. The UCS claims “nearly 13 million pounds [of antibiotics] per year – are used in animal agriculture for these non-therapeutic purposes. This amount is estimated to be more than four times the amount of drugs used to treat human illness.”

Of course industry disputes this claim. The Animal Health Institute – an organization that lobbies for pharmaceutical companies such as Bayer, Pfizer and Novartis – told the New York Times that it estimated only “13 percent of agricultural antibiotics were used to promote growth.” As Times reporter Gardiner Harris keenly pointed out, if the FDA, “some day bans growth promotion as a use, there is a chance producers would simply relabel such uses as preventative.”

While serving as the communications director for the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production my colleagues and I met with AHI staff in 2006 to discuss antibiotic use in food animals. They were trying to “redefine” therapeutic and non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics even back then. They presented us with similar statistics. It wasn’t until we started discussing the use of antibiotics to prevent production diseases, such as liver abscesses in feedlot cattle (ruminants, designed to eat forage such as grass or hay, that are finished on grain can develop several metabolic and infectious diseases), that we began to realize they were lumping the use of antibiotics to make up for poor living conditions and animal husbandry in the same therapeutic category. There are some hard-liners who would argue medicating animals to prevent “production diseases” should not fall under the “therapeutic” category as well. Keep in mind, regardless of the definition, these low-dose treatments can still lead to the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. And FYI, studies reveal cattle switched from grain-based diets to hay were less likely to shed the deadly antibiotic resistant bacteria E. coli O157:H7.

So, why hasn’t the FDA called for an outright ban? Industry has thwarted the agency’s attempts to end the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics for more than three decades. If history were any indicator, a call for a new ban would most likely end with the same fate. I am certain that if FDA leadership decided to release a draft directive last week, rather than a draft guidance, industry would already be preparing to take the FDA to court. At best, a court action could tie up any rule for years; at worst, it could set back future regulations by another decade or more. That’s why public health will remain at risk until Congress takes action and passes legislation designed to end the practice once and for all.

While it is not perfect, there is proposed legislation on the table right now entitled the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA). Congresswoman Louise Slaughter introduced the latest version of PAMTA last March. The bill calls for:

· Phase out the non-therapeutic use in livestock of medically important antibiotics;

· Require this same tough standard of new applications for approval of animal antibiotics;

· Does not restrict use of antibiotics to treat sick animals or to treat pets and other animals not used for food.

More than 300 organizations including the Center for a Livable Future, American Public Health Association, American Medical Association, and National Association of County and City Health Officials support the passage of the PAMTA.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is vehemently opposed to PAMTA. Dr. Michael Blackwell, public health veterinarian and vice chair of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, says that to his knowledge, “the AVMA remains the only major medical or public health organization not recommending changes in agriculture practices to help ensure sustainability where the use of antimicrobials is concerned.”
Dr. Raymond Tarpley, AVMA member and retired Texas A&M professor, recently submitted a post for the Livable Future Blog imploring the AVMA to change its stance on antimicrobial use in food animals. The AVMA and industrial food animal producers claim that the benefits of low-dose antibiotic use to efficient production and food safety outweigh the risk of developing more antibiotic resistance. Dr. Tarpley says that view, however, is only valid in the context of the current unhealthy industrial animal production environment:

… where disease risks can be heightened and growth rate performance reduced by stressors such as poor ventilation and hygiene, inadequate temperature regulation and animal crowding interfering with natural behaviors. Elevated risks have led to a dependence on low-dose antimicrobials to compensate for these suboptimal husbandry practices made worse by large numbers of animals producing large quantities of untreated wastes that often trigger respiratory distress in a microbially rich environment.

When it comes to the FDA’s draft guidance on antibiotic use in food animals, the fact that FDA leadership is willing to take a hard-line stance on such a politically charged issue is commendable. I understand the argument that change takes time and that the agency must be methodical in its approach, especially when the powerful food animal and pharmaceutical industries will do everything they can to thwart it. However, timing is everything. If the FDA believes it cannot take a stronger stance now, then Congress must move on PAMTA. As Congress faces another potential shift in control, if PAMTA fails passage this year, I fear it could be another decade before we see an end to the irresponsible use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, and by then it might be too little too late.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Eat Less Meat, Eat Better Meat

The list of Meatless Monday supporters continues to grow across the globe, and surprisingly to some, many of the latest enthusiasts make their living either cooking meat, such as chef Mario Batali or producing it, like rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman. What makes Meatless Monday so successful is its simple and inclusive message which promotes moderation with the goal of improving public health and the health of the planet.

Nicolette and her husband Bill run the BN Ranch in Northern California near the seaside raising heritage turkeys and beef cattle on pasture. Bill knows a thing or two about ranching. He founded the famous Niman Ranch Inc. known for its sustainable and humanely raised meats. Nicolette is a Renaissance woman of sorts—new mom, writer, environmental lawyer, and interestingly, a vegetarian.

I recently was able to catch Nicolette for a few minutes by phone to ask her why she and Bill support Meatless Monday. She made it clear that she didn’t have much time; she was in the midst of a writing project, running the ranch (Bill was traveling) and taking care of her 14-month-old son who I could hear in the background chatting and occasionally clinking the keys of their piano. Knowing that time was short; I got straight to the point:

RL: A lot of people mistakenly believe that the Meatless Monday campaign is promoting the demise of all meat production, while it has always maintained that its message is simply one of moderation and inclusion of omnivores and vegetarians alike. As a rancher yourself, what would you say to any farmer who is threatened by the MM campaign?

NHN: Bill and I are very supportive of the Meatless Monday campaign and here’s why: We think that to really improve the way food is being produced and the way people are eating in this country people should eat less meat but eat better meat. All food from animals—meat, dairy, fish, eggs—should be treated as something special. Anyone who is raising food animals in the traditional healthy way, without relying on industrial methods, drugs and chemicals, is someone who will benefit from people embracing that approach. We think the Meatless Monday campaign is part of a shift in attitudes about meat, towards something that is precious not something that is consumed without thought or in enormous quantities.

RL: You just wrote an interesting piece in the Atlantic entitled “Can Meat Eaters Also Be Environmentalists?” Well, can they?

NHN: Yes, definitely. The idea that it is a contradiction to be a meat eater and an environmentalist is just a misunderstanding of the most ecologically sound food production systems, which, in my view, definitely involve animals. There has been a lot of media attention to the idea that meat [production] is environmentally damaging. That’s because of bad practices that are rampant and widespread, such as total confinement systems with liquefied manure, use of hormones, feeding of antibiotics. The evidence is now irrefutable that these practices endanger the environment and public health. I’ve spent most of the last 10 years highlighting those problems to the public. But that is totally different than saying that raising farm animals is inherently environmentally damaging, which just isn’t true. I’ve been doing a lot of research into the role that animals play in rebuilding soils, and how grazing pastures are far better than any other agricultural land use in terms of erosion and in carbon sequestration. One thing I’ve become convinced of is that the best farming mimics nature, and natural ecosystems are all built on the relationships of sunshine, water, plants, and animals. So, I would say that actually the most environmentally sound diet includes some meat, dairy, and eggs.

RL: Is it important to point out that the majority of the meat products people eat in America are produced on industrial farms? Would you agree with that?

NHN: Much of the meat—most, actually—that is being produced and consumed in the United States today is being produced in environmentally damaging ways. I do not endorse any of those systems. In fact, I explicitly and strongly oppose them. That’s totally different than the fundamental question of whether or not meat is environmentally damaging per se and people are confusing those issues all over the place.

RL: Back in November you posted a must-read eater’s guide on how to avoid industrially produced foods in the Huffington Post. Could you give us a few quick pointers or the most important things you would tell people?

NHN: Yes. It was a long article, and hard to summarize in just a few words. But I’d say the most important thing is to try to just get closer to the source of your food, try to learn how and where your food was produced. The easiest ways to do that are to try to buy directly from farmers through farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture programs [CSAs], farm stands, and any place where you can get food directly from a farmer. Even in those places, I still encourage people to talk with the farmer about how the food is being produced, not to assume that it’s being raised in the way that you want it to be. Recently I’ve been saying, “I try to get all my food from a place I’d enjoy visiting.” That kind of sums up my approach. I also think that growing some of your own food is a great way to get out of the industrial system. So, people can have a vegetable garden, even if they just have a terrace or a fire escape where they can have a flowerpot with some tomatoes and some herbs. You know, just starting to do a little bit. And if you have a yard why not have a garden, maybe have a flock of egg-laying hens? I think it makes a big difference to just start taking baby-steps away from the industrial food system. Anything to get involved with how your food is produced. Eating is something that most of us tend to do without much thought. The more you start paying attention to it you realize it’s something worth investing time in. Building delicious, healthy meals ends up being something that is incredibly rewarding and not a chore.

RL: What is your advice to people who would rather not eat industrially produced foods but are limited either by higher costs or easy access?

NHN: Well, that is challenging because the whole industrial model has been successful at creating food that is cheap in terms of its cost at the grocery checkout. But our food is also cheap in the other sense of the word, in that it’s lacking in quality; these days it’s less nutritious, less safe, and less healthful than ever before. Generally one does pay more for food that is raised on traditional and/or organic farms. Here again, raising some of your own food to the extent possible is one way to eat good food affordably. Also, doing more of your own cooking and baking as opposed to buying prepared foods helps make good food affordable, because whole ingredients tend to be cheaper than prepared foods. And then some tricks for [saving money on] vegetables and fruits especially [includes] eating things when they are in season. In the season of abundance the cost tends to go down. You especially notice that when you are buying directly from farmers, because in the season of plenty they usually have more than they can handle and the prices are lower. When you are talking about things like meat, learning how to use some of the less popular cuts, cuts that are no less flavorful or nutritious, is a great way to save some money. My husband, Bill, who really knows meat, always talks about that. He says that some of the tastiest and most nutritious cuts of meat are some of the most underappreciated. They are often a lot cheaper.

RL: You’ve gained quite of bit of praise for your book, “Righteous Porkchop, Finding A Life And Good Food Beyond Factory Farms.” Michael Pollan is quoted as saying your book is, “A searing, and utterly convincing, indictment of modern meat production. But the book brims with hope, too, and charts a practical (and even beautiful) path out of the jungle.” You couldn’t have paid for a better endorsement. Instead of focusing on the indictment part, could you tell me more about the hope that he mentioned?

NHN: Yes, I like focusing on the hope, too. A lot of my book is about farmers that are doing things the right way from the standpoint of the environment, animal welfare, and human health. I firmly believe that it’s a myth that this country cannot feed itself with traditional, non-industrialized farming. A lot of my book is dedicated to disproving that myth and proving that traditional, sustainable farms are economically viable. And I just tell the stories and describe what a lot of those farmers are doing, as well as presenting the economic data to show that it’s an economically viable system. But I think it is really important to keep in mind that our country is heavily subsidizing with public dollars the current form of industrial agriculture. If we really want a sustainable healthful food system we need to take the dollars that we are putting into agriculture and shift it towards good methods. I support the use of public funds for agriculture, but I don’t understand why we’re not putting it towards a food system that is environmentally benign and producing healthy food.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ensuring Every American Child Has Access to Healthy and Affordable Food: A “Gentle” Wish For a New Decade

Knowing that the obesity epidemic in the United States has some scientists predicting that for the first time in history American children will live shorter lives than their parents, my wish for the next decade is to see First Lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama and his administration succeed in their mission to ensure that every American child has access to healthy and affordable food. A recent gathering of Obama Administration officials invited to discuss their efforts to improve America’s food system left me hopeful that my wish will come true.

Last month in D.C. Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Dora Hughes, Counselor to the Secretary of Health, and Sam Kass, White House assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator for the First Lady each shared their goals for the next year during an event for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Community Program. Surprisingly it wasn’t their words that left me so inspired; rather it was the words of 10-year-old David Martinez-Ruiz. Kass shared with the audience a letter that the D.C. elementary school student had presented to the First Lady following his class visit to the White House Garden.

One of the things that I want to say about being at the White House was how gentle the feeling was. It felt surprisingly natural to be there. We planted on a warm day. The sun was out and there was a little breeze. The grass was beautiful and green. The people made us feel good. I liked the way the staff person who helped me was very gentle with the worms we found. I think about the garden as being gentle: gentle with nature, gentle to your body, and gentle with each other.

There was not a dry eye in the house after Kass finished reading that letter. David’s sentiments regarding the White House Garden were shared by many of his Bancroft Elementary School classmates. Kass says it is experiences with kids like David that continue to spur the First Lady to champion new and creative ways to help children regain a healthy connection to food and physical activity. By doing so, Mrs. Obama hopes she can help her husband’s administration lead the way in the fight to end the childhood obesity epidemic in America.

The obesity rate in the U.S. has doubled since 1980. According to Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelious, “over two thirds of American adults — and almost one out of every five American children — are obese or overweight.” Shockingly the CDC found that the number of adolescents who are overweight has actually tripled in the last 30 years. Being overweight increases a child’s risk of developing a laundry list of preventable diseases including: heart disease, asthma, and type 2 diabetes. In fact, one in three kids born in 2000 are at risk of developing diabetes in their lifetime — for children of color that rate is even greater.

So what’s going on? Why are our children so heavy? Ostensibly, the answer seems to be simple — kids are consuming too many calories and not moving enough. However, obesity experts Drs. David Kessler and Kelly Brownell argue that the root cause is much more complicated. Both point to underlying forces that have powerful influence over what our kids are eating and craving — namely the abundance of easily accessible and inexpensive processed foods.

Dr. Kessler, a pediatrician, former FDA Commissioner and author of, “The End of Overeating,” claims that the way food companies process, package and market foods plays a key role in the obesity epidemic. Many of these processed foods contain significantly higher levels of fat, sugar and salt, and when consumed it is believed that they trigger primal cravings to eat more. Dr. Kessler calls it, “conditioned hypereating.” Dr. Kessler says research has found in both animals and humans that, “eating foods high in sugar, fat and salt makes us eat more foods high in sugar, fat and salt.”

Processed foods have become ubiquitous in the American diet and make their way into almost every meal. Dr. Brownell director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, argues that these “nutrient-poor, calorie-dense foods cost less and are more accessible than more healthful choices.” Nothing exemplifies this more than the number of low-cost high-volume fast-food restaurants located on the Main Streets of every town in America. Dr. Brownell also warns that marketing practices targeted at kids and adults alike encourage overconsumption of calories. There are plenty of other theories as to why processed foods lead to overeating. For instance, some claim synthetically produced sugars like high fructose corn syrup fail to trigger satiation hormones that tell your brain to stop eating.

Mrs. Obama admits that she didn’t pay too much attention to how food can affect her health until she became a mother. While speaking to David’s class during a White House Garden harvest party she shared what she learned about the benefits of eating healthier foods:

… with the help of our kids’ doctor, I became much more aware of the need for my kids to eat healthy… I’ve learned that if it’s fresh and grown locally, it’s probably going to taste better… And that’s how I’ve been able to get my children to try different things, and in particular fruits and vegetables. By making this small change in our family’s diet and adding more fresh produce for my family, Barack, the girls, me, we all started to notice over a very short period of time that we felt much better and we had more energy.

Now with the help of several Administration agencies including the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Education and Health the First Lady is leading an initiative to tackle America’s childhood obesity epidemic by making sure kids are eating healthier and moving more. Dr. Hughes, who is a physician board-certified in internal medicine and earned a Master of Public Health degree at Harvard, said she believes the collaborative efforts to fight childhood obesity will be a hallmark of the Obama Administration.

Ironically, as the waistlines of America’s children continue to expand, statistics show that food-insecure households have reached record numbers. The latest 2008 U.S. food insecurity survey found that 49 million people had difficulty meeting basic food needs. President Obama, who has pledged to end child hunger by 2015, said he was particularly troubled to learn, “that there were more than 500,000 families in which a child experienced hunger multiple times over the course of the year.” Kass claims that too often health and nutrition issues are considered to be unrelated to hunger issues. He argues that, “if we assure that all children have equal access to healthy and affordable foods, we will make great strides in tackling both issues.”

Since government numbers indicate that 60 percent of the nation’s public school students receive the majority of their nutrients at school, a keystone to Mrs. Obama’s healthy kids initiative is efforts to encourage improvements to the National School Lunch Program. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says that providing school children with fruits, vegetables and more nutritious food is a priority for the USDA. There are a few encouraging examples of school districts across the country that are making remarkable strides in school lunch reform without significant government assistance. From Baltimore, Maryland to Berkley, California school districts have adopted progressive programs to teach kids where their food comes from and to encourage them to eat healthy foods. Most recently Washington, D.C. Council members introduced a bill that would require public schools to establish a farm-to-school program and to “create a monetary incentive to serve foods that are locally-grown, locally-processed, and minimally-processed from growers engaged in sustainable practices.”

Helping to improve every American’s relationship with food will not be easy. A fact that Dr. Merrigan, who is leading the, Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, understands all too well. The initiative’s goal is to build strong local and regional food systems, which includes creating opportunities for farmers to supply local schools with their harvests. Merrigan admitted that moving the initiative forward in a huge government bureaucracy “is really difficult” and confusing to navigate. She says equally difficult is determining how to establish priorities and deciding what to do first.

If Dr. Merrigan were to ask me for my advice, I would suggest a good place to start is opening a dialogue with America’s parents — the people who purchase and monitor the food kids eat every day. Each parent who walks into a supermarket has the right and should expect better access to healthy and affordable whole foods for their kids. Michael Pollan, journalist and author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and most recently “Food Rules” would argue that most of the foods we buy in the grocery store today are not food at all, but rather “edible food substances” designed by food scientists to mimic “real foods.” One of my favorite food rules that Pollan offers in his new book is, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” As savvy American consumers, parents should be able to buy foods that they know are healthy for their children. Price conscious parents on a limited budget shouldn’t be forced to buy foods that are more likely to make their children sick simply because a healthier alternative costs more. Likewise, parents looking for convenient prepackaged or easy to prepare meals, which their kids often find more palatable, shouldn’t have to compromise their child’s health just because a healthier alternative is not available or too expensive.

Parents must also demand more of the schools that provide lunches for their children. Very few schools across the U.S. prepare their students’ meals with fresh ingredients anymore. Instead, they depend on prepackaged meals made up of those tasty but much less healthy processed foods that are chock-full of sugar, fat and salt like chicken nuggets or pizza. And now we’re learning that many of those processed foods may pose greater food safety issues. It was shameful to read in the USA Today that most fast-food chains impose more stringent food safety standards for their processed beef, “than those set by the Agricultural Marketing Service for beef supplied to the National School Lunch Program.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge of increasing demand for healthy foods is ensuring that every American child prefers to eat them and find them just as or even more satisfying than the processed foods that they eat. Sam Kass — speaking with his chef’s hat on — offers his own food rule on that topic. While creating satisfying and tasty meals is important, Kass says, “anybody who cooks for somebody else has the responsibility to safeguard the health and well-being of the people that they are feeding.” I would take it a step further and assert that any company that prepares, serves or advertises food for children is ethically bound to ensure that it is just as healthy as it is palatable. It is also incumbent upon the government to assure that food companies do the right thing for children’s health and make it easier for them to do so.

I believe that if America’s food supply shifts from one that is primarily made of processed foods engineered to encourage overeating to one composed of more balanced healthy and whole foods along with a change in the American appetite that enjoys smaller portions and finds whole foods just as satisfying and tasty, we will then begin to see an end to the childhood obesity epidemic and the chronic diseases associated with it. Dr. Kessler says, “Our greatest gift to future generations of young people would be to find a way to prevent the cue-urge-reward habit cycle from ever taking hold.”

It’s a tall order, but young people like David Martinez-Ruiz continue to give me hope. If his simple experiences with the White House Garden helped him recognize the “gentle” effects of freshly grown foods on his body and on the environment then it is possible to encourage every American child to better appreciate and demand healthy foods.

So what can we do to maintain a healthy weight until then? It’s not easy, but one way is to focus on changing our eating behaviors. Next Monday I’ll take a look at encouraging research out of Dr. Brownell’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity that found calorie labels at restaurants, “result in the consumption of significantly fewer calories.” And I’ll introduce you to a new Healthy Monday awareness campaign entitled Monday 2000, designed to remind people that the average person should keep their daily caloric intake to about 2,000 calories a day.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010