Washington Insider-- Thursday

The Fight Over Diet Advice

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

CFAP 2 Still Aimed for Early September

A second installment of farmer payments via the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) is still on tap to be unveiled in early September, according to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.

In a briefing with reporters on an unrelated topic, Perdue was asked about how USDA would be utilizing the additional $14 billion in authority available to the agency under the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC).

The additional CCC monies “will be used in the CFAP 2,” Perdue said, echoing comments he made previously on AgriTalk that a second round of the program was on tap.

While there has been pressure on USDA for the dates it used to determine payments under the initial CFAP effort, Perdue suggested one reason for the April 15 cutoff was “to get money out quickly.”

He said USDA is looking at the cutoff going forward and also highlighted moves by the department to cover more commodities under the program and the recent decision issue the final 20% payments to producers under the initial CFAP effort.

Information on the second CFAP effort could come “very shortly after Labor Day,” Perdue said.

Rise in Food Prices Pauses, But Still Above-Average For 2020

Consumers caught a break at the grocery store as food at home prices were down 1% in July compared with June, even though they still are up an average of 3.1% so far this year compared with 2019. Even as food prices have fluctuated, USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) still forecasts the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for food at home will increase from 2.5% to 3.5% in 2020 versus 2019, unchanged from their month-ago outlook. But that is still considerably above the 20-year average of a 2% increase.

Food away from home (restaurants) rose 0.5% in July from the June level, the ERS said, and they are up an average of 2.4%. For all of 2020, USDA forecasts an increase of 1.5% to 2.5%, below the 20-year average for an increase of 2.8%.

Overall food prices are forecast to rise 2% to 3% in 2020 from 2019 levels, slightly above the 20-year average of 2.3%. The prices for all food fell 0.3% in July from June but have increased an average of 2.8% so far this year.


Washington Insider: The Fight Over Diet Advice

Food Safety News is reporting this week that suggestions that meat alternatives such as plant-based burgers should be included in the National Dietary Guidelines would be extremely unpopular in some quarters. Still, others already extol the benefits of vegetables and fruits — and that it would only be a modest step for the government to recommend meatless products for use in school cafeterias and nursing homes.

Such a change would certainly cause fireworks among groups that raise livestock and who believe that meat is the “backbone of a healthy diet.” However, the report also notes that while the role of meats in U.S. diets has long been central, “without a doubt, people's eating preferences do change as time goes by. Doctors' advice also changes.”

FSN says that while consumers do not often follow the guidelines precisely, they affect federal nutrition policies and form the basis for changes to programs such as the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. And, the government hopes “that people will substitute healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and lean meats for junk food — at least for some of it.” This, in turn, is expected to improve people's health.

FSN notes that the most recently released advisory report took place against a backdrop of significant and worsening health issues related to nutrition in the United States — including overweight and obesity. More than 70% of Americans are overweight or obese and these cause both public health problem and are linked to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.

In addition, 6 in 10 Americans have a chronic health condition and 4 in 10 have 2 or more. And while various conditions contribute to the prevalence of these diseases, unhealthy dietary patterns and a lack of physical activity are especially important.

Another health-related problem is that many low-income people simply don't have access to healthy food. FSN says that in 2018, more than 37 million people, including 6 million children, lived in households that were uncertain of having or unable to acquire, enough food to meet their needs.

The federal guidance already advises consumers to choose diets higher in vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, lean meats and seafood, appropriate dairy foods and unsaturated vegetable oils while reducing red and processed meats, saturated fatty acids and cholesterol, and beverages and foods with added sugars.

Still, FSN notes that the guidelines don't recommend cutting out meat altogether but that meats should be lean and the portions small — no larger than the palm of your hand or your cellphone. However, some nutritionists note that alternative meats like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat burgers are highly processed and made with a lot of ingredients. And they contain a lot of sodium, which is often linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, a major cause of stroke and heart disease.

FSN says American consumers are increasingly seeking out “natural” foods — that is, foods without a long list of ingredients and choosing “nutrient-dense” foods that provide substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) and relatively few calories compared to forms of the food that have solid fat and/or added sugars.

FSN also points out that Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown argues that that the critics of plant-based meats are missing the point and that “our product is substantially better for the consumer than what it replaces,” he said.

These new plant-based burgers and other meat options are actually directed toward meat-eaters, especially since vegetarians make up only 3% of the U.S. population. According to a long-term study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, swapping only 3% of total calories in the diet from animal to plant protein was found to be linked to a 10% decrease in the risk of death.

As for the guidelines, Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant-Based Foods Association said she is pleased to see the Advisory Committee follow the science and recommending a mostly plant-based diet while reducing saturated fats as well as red and processed meats. But when asked if the dietary guidelines should include recommendations in favor of plant-based meats, she thinks that the ball is in the consumer's court. “We are pleased that the recommendations follow the science that we should all reduce our meat intake,” she said, “however consumers should choose whether to make that change in their diets.”

So, we will see. The current crop of alternative meat products seem to be much more competitive with livestock and meat products than those developed earlier. Still, it will be necessary for them to compete economically as well as on the basis of taste and nutrition — a process that will take some time, and which producers should watch closely as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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