Washington Insider -- Wednesday

Benefits of Tracking Calories

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

USDA Sends Final GMO Disclosure Rule to White House For Review

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has sent a final GMO disclosure rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a move that suggests the much-anticipated regulation may be finalized this year.

AMS sent the final rule to OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) on Aug. 31, and the White House budget staff's approval should be the final step before the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard is published in the Federal Register.

The 2016 law created the first federal standard for disclosing the presence of GE crops in foods and ingredients.

OMB is required to wrap up its review of the rule, which is a "significant regulatory action" with annual economic effects of more than $100 million, within 90 days, but that deadline often slips, particularly in the case of controversial rules.

With the scope and impact far from certain, the final GMO disclosure rule has left food and agriculture industries in a difficult position.

The 106-page draft plan released by AMS in May left many questions about the regulation unanswered, including what foods will be covered and how food companies must comply.

The uncertainty has prompted food and ag interests to urge AMS to delay the pending deadline for compliance with the rule. The agency had proposed a deadline of Jan. 1, 2020 in order to coordinate the changes with FDA's mandatory revisions to the Nutrition Facts Panel.

But the food industry says that timeframe is overly aggressive and wants at least two years from the date of the final rule to comply.

ERS Expects Lower Farm Income For 2018

After the US net farm income rose slightly in 2017, USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) forecasts it will fall this year, though remain slightly above the 13-year low seen in 2016.

Overall, net farm income for 2018 is forecast at $65.7 billion, down $11.4 billion (14.8%) from 2017. However, it remains above the $64 billion seen in 2016, which was the lowest level since 2002. All figures are adjusted for inflation (given in real dollar terms).

The total value of U.S. agricultural production in 2018 is expected to decrease compared with last year, with a combination of lower cash receipts higher production costs, lower government payments and other factors also weighing on net farm income.

Meanwhile, 2018 net cash income is forecast to come lower year-over-year at just $91.5 billion. That total compares with net cash income of $106.1 billion seen in 2017 and $98.7 billion recorded for 2016. It would represent the lowest level of net cash farm income recorded since 2009, in real dollar terms.

However, as was expected the 2018 forecasts for U.S. farm sector income and finances do not include payments under the Market Facilitation Program (MFP), announced on July 24, 2018. "ERS forecasts are developed assuming a continuation of existing policies," the agency noted. "At the time the August forecast was released, it was too early to tell how many producers would complete the MFP enrollment process and receive a payment in 2018 versus 2019, or how the eligibility criteria would impact the total level of payments issued (which would change calendar-year 2018 farm income totals)."

Washington Insider: Benefits of Tracking Calories

The New York Times reports from time to time about the U.S. obesity epidemic and wonders what the cause might be, as well as possible solutions. One of the “usual suspects” is the very large portions that are offered at restaurants—as you might suspect, these usually turn out to be chains. The most recent report focused on the “Heartbreakers at Chain Restaurants,” and was carried in the Times science section recently.

The Times cites the latest Xtreme Eating Awards bestowed by the Nutrition Action Health letter, published by the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. And it has a different theme this time—it says “McDonald’s is far from the worst offender and cites new data.” For example, it points to the Cheesecake Factory’s Breakfast Burrito and reports that this serving includes more than a day’s worth of calories, two days’ worth of sodium and more than three of saturated fat.

It examines data for other chains, and notes that “McDonald’s is no longer “even in the running.” In fact, when you compare the fare under the Golden Arches with many of the dishes served at chain restaurants around the country, a Big Mac with large fries and soda “begins to sound like health food,” the Times says.

By contrast, there is the Cheesecake Factory’s Breakfast Burrito: “warm tortilla filled with scrambled eggs, bacon, chicken chorizo, cheese, crispy potatoes, avocado, peppers and onions, over spicy ranchero sauce.” Nutritional information: 2,730 calories (more than a day’s worth), 4,630 milligrams of sodium (two days’ worth) and 73 grams of saturated fat (more than three days’ worth).

The “gee whiz stats go on and on and reveal more examples.” You’d have to eat seven Sausage McMuffins from McDonald’s to equal the cardiovascular and waistline damage done by one burrito, it says.

Another 2018 awardee: Chili’s Honey-Chipotle Crispers & Waffles that dishes up Belgian waffles topped with battered fried chicken, bacon, jalapeños and ancho-chili ranch sauce and fries with honey-chipotle sauce. With 2,510 calories, 40 grams of saturated fat, 4,480 milligrams of sodium and 105 grams (26 teaspoons) of sugar, it’s like eating five Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts with 30 McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets and five packets of barbecue sauce, the article says.

For reference, the article notes that 2,000 calories is the amount the average person should be eating for an entire day including snacks, not just at a single meal. Still, the Times sees good news in the fact that since May chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets have been required to post calories on menus and menu boards for all their offerings—and that a number of big chains, including Panera Bread and Au Bon Pain, did not wait to be required to post calories, and in 2012 McDonald’s became the first fast-food company to do so.

And, while there have been come complaints, NYT thinks there’s a better chance that, as a result of the menu listings, diners who care will have an easier time and a greater incentive to choose lighter fare, and restaurants may start competing to offer lower-calorie options of similar dishes.

In New York City, menu calorie postings have been required since 2008 and the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that some customers ordered food with fewer calories, on average, likely as a result. The changes have been small, and may not sound like much, “but over time they add up,” the Times says. It asserts that the nation’s obesity epidemic can be explained by a mere 100 extra calories a day for each person.

The Times emphasizes one reason why this is so important: a third or more of the calories Americans now consume come from foods eaten in or purchased from restaurants and most people have been unaware how many calories they are consuming as a result.

It also argues that menu titles and even descriptions can’t be trusted. “You might think the original version of the Ruby Tuesday dish made with white meat chicken and fresh steamed broccoli was heart-healthy and low in calories without realizing what the added cheese and cream did to the calorie count,” NYT says.

Finally, it says that the “obesity crisis” has now reached epidemic proportions and is showing no signs of abating in Americans older than 5. The more often people are forced to confront the reality of what they are putting in their bodies, the more likely they will be make healthier choices, in turn prompting recipe changes to better suit consumer demand.

So, we will see. A brief review of recent TV ads shows continued emphasis on the size of food portions, suggesting that far greater consciousness of this important public health threat is needed to turn around the current crisis, Washington Insider believes.

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