Cutting through the bullshit.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

You are what you eat

Yesterday I posted an item about the increase in the Black infant mortality rate in Mississippi and another about US food aid. Well, it turns out that there’s a closer link than might appear.

As there was some discussion of the IMR issue on the Marxmail list, I posted ‘Delta blues’ there. There were a couple of responses. One of them linked to the Qando site, which made an interesting point. According to the author, the reason the US IMR appears so much higher than other industrialised countries is that the US is the only one that actually implements the approved WHO definition of a live birth. Understanding definitions and collection methods at a detailed level is crucial to interpreting statistics, a point I always make myself. I was not aware of the differences the Qando author mentions, although they sound plausible. However, as it only cites newspaper articles and US government sources, I can’t really be sure either that it’s true that the US does, in fact apply the WHO definition, and if so, uniformly, nor that any other countries, much less every other country, does not. So I reserve judgment. If Qando were serious, I would expect links to sources in the countries mentioned, or at least UN statistical metadata sources, to back them up.

In any case, while the estimates from US sources may not be strictly comparable with those from other sources, they are strictly comparable with each other. And the principal points of the article were that IMR for Black babies is much much higher than for white babies, both nationally and in Mississippi, and that they are rising.

Another response pointed out that it wasn’t the fault of the US health system that the Black IMR was so high when these grossly obese mothers refused to attend clinics in far off localities without adequate transportation or to access other prenatal care for no reason at all.

Yesterday’s NY Times Magazine had a really fascinating article that goes some way towards explaining why those poor Mississippi women have become so overweight. I’d like to thank Lou Proyect for the link to the article from marxmail.

Michael Pollan, Knight professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, writes,

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.”…the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.

This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

…A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives. And the subsidies are only part of the problem. The farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.

To speak of the farm bill’s influence on the American food system does not begin to describe its full impact — on the environment, on global poverty, even on immigration. By making it possible for American farmers to sell their crops abroad for considerably less than it costs to grow them, the farm bill helps determine the price of corn in Mexico and the price of cotton in Nigeria and therefore whether farmers in those places will survive or be forced off the land, to migrate to the cities — or to the United States. The flow of immigrants north from Mexico since Nafta is inextricably linked to the flow of American corn in the opposite direction, a flood of subsidized grain that the Mexican government estimates has thrown two million Mexican farmers and other agricultural workers off the land since the mid-90s. (More recently, the ethanol boom has led to a spike in corn prices that has left that country reeling from soaring tortilla prices; linking its corn economy to ours has been an unalloyed disaster for Mexico’s eaters as well as its farmers.) You can’t fully comprehend the pressures driving immigration without comprehending what U.S. agricultural policy is doing to rural agriculture in Mexico. [my emphasis]

So it’s not just the starving of the developing world that Uncle Sam’s policies are out for, ordinary poor Americans, and n ot so poor Americans, and American schoolchldren, and Mexican farmers, and many others are in their sights, as well.

But that’s not all. It’s not just a question of making sure many Americans can’t afford to eat healthful food, a proportion of it is actually poisonous, as Elizabeth Williamson reports in today’s Washington Post.

The Food and Drug Administration has known for years about contamination problems at a Georgia peanut butter plant and on California spinach farms that led to disease outbreaks that killed three people, sickened hundreds…

Overwhelmed by huge growth in the number of food processors and imports, however, the agency took only limited steps to address the problems and relied on producers to police themselves, according to agency documents.

Congressional critics and consumer advocates said both episodes show that the agency is incapable of adequately protecting the safety of the food supply

"This administration does not like regulation, this administration does not like spending money, and it has a hostility toward government. The poisonous result is that a program like the FDA is going to suffer at every turn of the road," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.)…

In the peanut butter case, an agency report shows that FDA inspectors checked into complaints about salmonella contamination in a ConAgra Foods factory in Georgia in 2005. But when company managers refused to provide documents the inspectors requested, the inspectors left and did not follow up.

In a letter sent to California growers in late 2005, [director of the FDA's food-safety arm Robert E.] Brackett wrote, "FDA is aware of…approximately 409 reported cases of illness and two deaths."

"We know that there are still problems out in those fields," Brackett said…

According to Caroline Smith DeWaal, who heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer-advocacy group, "When budgets are tight . . . the food program at FDA gets hit the hardest."

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