Washington Insider --Wednesday

Wrong Views on Food Labels

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

Monsanto Seeks to Halt California from Listing Glyphosate as a Carcinogen

A lawsuit challenging the ability of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to list glyphosate as a carcinogen under the state’s Proposition 65 “right-to-know” know has been filed by Monsanto Co. in California State Court in Fresno County. Monsanto’s suit claims that the state’s move to list glyphosate is flawed, baseless and constitutionally illegal.

California is relying on a tactic that uses the labor code listing mechanism of Proposition 65 to list materials found by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to be human or animal carcinogens. OEHHA regulations prohibit the agency from considering IARC’s underlying scientific basis for determining if any given material is carcinogenic when using the listing process.

The suit specifically challenges the listing process for delegating authority to “an unelected, undemocratic, unaccountable, foreign body,” and calls the process unconstitutional under the US and California state constitutions.

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ERS: US Ag Trade Surplus Falling

A narrowing of the U.S. agricultural trade surplus was seen last year and is forecast to continue this year, as US agricultural imports continue to grow and U.S. agricultural exports continue to decline, according to the Economic Research Service (ERS).

U.S. ag imports and exports have grown each year from Fiscal 2009 through Fiscal 2014, propelling the U.S. ag trade surplus to a record $43.1 billion for Fiscal 2014. The value of ag exports then declined by 8.3% in Fiscal 2015, while U.S. ag imports continued to grow by 4.5%, reducing the trade surplus to $25.7 billion.

U.S. ag exports are forecast to decline again in 2016 and ag imports are expected to continue growing, leading to an expected trade surplus of under $10 billion for the first time since 2006. Lower commodity prices and a stronger dollar are the primary driver in the decline in the value of US ag exports, while the strong dollar is also a driver in the increase in US ag imports thanks to increased American purchasing power.

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Washington Insider: Wrong Views on Food Labels

The Washington Post reports this week that there are serious misconception about what we think of as “the food movement,” and that at least part of that is due to “polling bias.”

The article takes genetically modified organism labeling as an example with polls that “routinely show that 90% of the respondents say they want GMOs labeled. This is interpreted as overwhelming support for labeling GMOs, the Post says. But if, instead, you ask consumers what they’d like to see identified on food labels that isn’t already there, “a paltry 7% say ‘GMOs,” suggesting almost no support for labeling GMOs.

That “7% study” was done by William Hallman, professor and chairman of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University. Hallman undertook a study that asked consumers about information on labels using both methods: first, “What would you like to see on labels?” and second, “Would you like to see X on labels?” The difference between the responses is so large, it leads the group to conclude that “it’s at the heart of why the food movement seems so much bigger than it actually is,” Hallman says.

The Post notes that when subjects were asked what they would like labels to identify, 7% (the highest number) said GMOs; 6% said where the food was grown or produced; 2% said chemicals; 1% said pesticides. A survey by the International Food Information Council in 2014 asked a similar question; 4% of respondents cited biotechnology and 4% cited source or processing information. “Those are very small numbers,” the study concluded.

But when the Rutgers study asked the question the second way, the vast bulk of the respondents said other factors were much more important to them than GMO content.

The moral of this story is that it’s easy to make it look like people care a whole lot more than they do, so the Post asks whether there even is such a thing as a food movement. It cites data on the foods people actually buy that indicate that sales growth for organics has outpaced the rest of the market for many years, but “still accounts for only 5% of the total market.”

Local food sales make an even less compelling case, the Post says sales at farmers markets, the venues most closely associated with the food movement, peaked in 2007 and haven’t grown since holding the total local-foods market “at about 1% of total food sales.”

Meanwhile, consumption of highly processed foods has held steady. “We’re buying more fresh and less canned, so the ‘fresh’ message may be resonating the Post says. And, we’re eating fruit 7% more often than we did a little over a decade ago, although we drink considerably less fruit juice. However, vegetables are consumed 6% less often, which holds total fruit and vegetable consumption below 2004, the Post says.

The Post then argues that “food movement” concerns are described by their leaders to include pollution and greenhouse gases, conditions for farmworkers and livestock, as well as consumer access to safe, affordable, nutritious, “real” food and concludes that in reality farmworker and animal welfare concerns take a back seat to consumers’ first priority: their family’s health.

Nevertheless, rather than focus on declining vegetable consumption or the dietary dominance of highly processed foods, consumers “are focused on a sense that they’ve been misled by the people and companies selling them food.” While there’s not much evidence that switching from additives that are artificial to those that are natural will be a public health win, but natural sounds better than artificial, the Post says.

The bottom line, the Post says, is that consumers are focusing on “deck-chair rearrangement exercises” that probably won’t make our food more healthful and “could both encourage consumption of the targeted processed foods (because they’re natural!).

The Post says that Prof. Hallman at Rutgers thinks that there is a food movement, but that “it is much smaller than is assumed by many in government and the food industry.” As long as consumer concern about additives, chemicals and preservatives overshadows concern for the environment, workers and livestock, progress on those fronts may be stymied, the Post concludes.

Perhaps it is inevitable that the food “movement” will disappoint some advocates, and that it will fall short of the heroic goals claimed by foodies. And, the article doesn’t even notice the heavy hit the recent outbreaks of food borne illness among consumers at a restaurant chain that based much of its appeal on the “healthfulness” of its products.

In addition, critics note that the food movement is often willing to largely ignore the economics of food competition, but that mainline producers and retailers have not. Also, costs may be at least part of the reason that the food movement is expanding less than advocates hoped, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)