When to be grateful for an oligarchy—Or, why the Ag Committee chairs writing the Farm Bill now without a normal democratic process is likely better for public health

Rumor has it the next Farm Bill (minus a few titles) will be completed by the Ag Committee Chairs and handed to the “Super Committee” as early as today. The blogosphere has been atwitter with concern over this undemocratic process and there is a bipartisan effort in Congress to demand the Farm Bill be written through the more usual process—i.e. hearings on Capitol Hill and in the field, numerous briefings by interests groups, many meetings with advocates and Hill staff, etc., all taking place over months and months with the resulting bill being a true representation of the full populace’s input. Read More >

Food and Farm Policy: this is not the image and style that you’re used to

HFHP Summit 2011

HFHP Summit 2011

Recently, my boyfriend offered to give me a dollar for every blog I started with, “Stop what you’re doing, ’cause I’m about to ruin the image and the style that you’re used to.” I responded to his idea with a barrage of reasons why it was ridiculous and certainly not appropriate in my line of work to write blogs citing The Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.” On second thought, however, those 18 words are an oddly apropos summary of the overarching goals of the Healthy Farms, Healthy People (HFHP) Summit, recently held in Arlington, VA, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and hosted by Public Health Institute. The Center for a Livable Future was a co-organizer of the Summit-along with American Farmland Trust, California Food and Justice Coalition, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Public Health Law and Policy-which brought together interests from conventional and sustainable agriculture with public health professionals, physicians and health insurers to discuss potential shared issue-areas in food and agriculture policy. The goals of the Summit were to: Read More >

Health experts worldwide agree, people who eat a lot of red and processed meat should cut back

As physicians we recognize that lean meats may be a healthy part of almost anyone’s diet. However, based on the preponderance of evidence compiled by scientists and health experts across the globe, there is little doubt that a diet high in red and processed meats is linked to serious health risks and that we would all be wise to keep our consumption down. New dietary guidelines, recently released by the United Kingdom’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) bolsters this conclusion. The SACN’s Iron and Health 2010 report advises that Britons can reduce their risk of colorectal cancer while maintaining healthy levels of iron by keeping their red meat and processed meat consumption to 70 grams or about 2 ½ ounces a day.

Cutting back on red and processed meat could do more than just ward off colorectal cancer.  Research has linked it to other diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer’s. A landmark United State’s study, published in 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Meat Intake and Mortality, which included data from more than half a million members of the AARP, concluded red and processed meat intakes were associated with modest increases of “total” mortality in addition to cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality. An equally important Harvard study, published in Circulation in 2009, that followed more than 84,000 female nurses, found that red meat intake increases the risk of coronary heart disease. More importantly researchers concluded that shifting sources of protein from meat based to plant based could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

The Washington Post reports that cutting down on red meat could save an estimated 3,800 Britons from dying of bowel cancer every year. However, SACN researchers made it clear that their report did not address other potential health risks associated with meat consumption, which means many more lives could be saved from other preventable diseases. Read More >

Leading U.S. Food Service Provider Introduces Meatless Monday to Potentially Millions of Customers

The national non-profit Meatless Monday campaign is proving to be “The Little Engine That Could” in the environmental public health world. In just the last two years national awareness of Meatless Monday more than doubled. According to a commissioned survey by FGI Research more than 30 percent of Americans are aware of the public health campaign, compared to 15 percent awareness in 2008. No doubt the announcement last week that Sodexo, a food service company which serves more than 10 million North American customers a day, has adopted the campaign will only help to increase Meatless Monday’s popularity.

A number of Sodexo facilities including the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Cobblestone Cafe′ conducted their own Meatless Monday campaigns. However, starting this month Sodexo expanded the initiative to all of its more than 900 hospital clients, “as part of its ongoing effort to promote health and wellness.” In the spring, the company will offer menus and materials to all of its corporate and government clients and in the fall it will officially implement Meatless Monday at its “Sodexo-served” colleges and schools.

Sodexo joins a growing list of Meatless Monday supporters. Some of the most recent high-profile Meatless Monday converts include Moe’s Southwest Grill; Mario Batali, Celebrity Chef and restaurateur; Laurie David, An Inconvenient Truth producer and dozens of municipalities, universities, colleges, and restaurants. Read More >

Straight Talk About The Risks of Feeding Antibiotics to Food Animals

Courtesy: CDC

Courtesy: CDC

It is time for some straight talk about the risks of using massive amounts of antibiotics in livestock and poultry. I don’t know one infectious disease expert who would disagree that there are direct links between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in people. Period. If you don’t believe me just ask Rear Admiral Ali Kahn, Assistant Surgeon General and Acting Deputy Director for the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Disease. Just this summer, during a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dr. Kahn testified that, “there is unequivocal evidence and relationship between [the] use of antibiotics in animals and [the] transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacteria causing adverse effects in humans.”

Knowing this, I continue to be frustrated with the fact that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack does not publically recognize that the industrial food animal production system is a leading contributor to the increase of antibiotic resistance in pathogens that infect people and animals. Earlier this month at a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association meeting, Vilsack reportedly responded to a question about the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) by saying the, “USDA’s public position is, and always has been, that antibiotics need to be used judiciously, and we believe they already are.”

That quote had me scratching my head when I read it in a New York Times Op-Ed a couple of weeks ago. The Times’ editors interpreted the statement as saying Vilsack believes there is no need to change antibiotic use policy among food animal producers. That contradicts the positions of both the FDA and CDC. The Times pointed out that while neither regulatory agency is doing enough to address the problem both, at least, recognize that current antibiotic use should change. Read More >

Baltimore City Data Day Aims to Empower Baltimore Communities through Democratization of Data

As I intend to dedicate the better part of my career to research, I am often confronted with the fear that even the highest quality data can end up out in the ether of peer-reviewed publications that never make their intended splash, seen by a limited few and impacting even fewer. Last Friday I attended Baltimore City Data Day, held at the University of Baltimore, which was the product of the work of AmeriCorps Vista volunteers, in collaboration with the Baltimore City Department of Planning and Health and the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance – Jacob France Institute (BNIA-JFI). The goal of the free-to-register conference was to inform community organizations and residents about how to access different neighborhood-based data in order to “help communities expand their capacity to use technology and data to advance their goals.” The idea of allowing data that is collected at all tiers to be used for bottom-up action and advocacy sits well with me. Filtering data back to the communities that they are collected from, in order to strengthen the communities’ own agendas, begins to quell my fears about an academic research career and the uneasiness I feel about the town-gown tension that has historically plagued Johns Hopkins University.

The conference crowd was a mix of community organization representatives, interested citizens and data collectors and researchers. All in attendance received a binder of references for data resources, organized by neighborhood resources, economic development, crime and public safety, public health, housing, environment and 2000 Census information. In addition, there was a grants section with lists of diverse grants available for community organizations and residents to apply to and tips on writing strong grant applications. In this post, I will summarize some of the key resources I encountered throughout the day. For more information on the conference, the agenda, and some of the final presentations, click here.

The morning started with a poster session, followed by a panel discussion on Perspectives on Exploring Your Community Through Data. Kathryn Pettit, Co-Director of the National Neighborhoods Indicators Partnership (NNIP) and Senior Associate at the Urban Institute, highlighted the need to spend resources wisely and to look at communities as a whole, to avoid the warring between silos that may fight for different causes, but share the goal of improving their community. NNIP is a collaboration between the Urban Institute and 34 local partners nationwide that focuses on direct data use by stakeholders to advance the state of practice, build and strengthen local capacity and influence local and national policy. In 2004, they were instrumental in repealing a Rhode Island ban that stopped felons convicted of selling drugs and the felons’ families from ever receiving benefits from the Family Independence Program or Food Stamps. They did so by using data on how many children of felons were being adversely affected by the ban. Read More >

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

cattle-grazing-usda-copyLeadership 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.

Read More >

Transforming and Rewriting Baltimore: How the city’s new zoning code may affect your health and what you can do about it.

Baltimore's Food Deserts

Baltimore's Food Deserts

Baltimore is currently in the process of revising its zoning code for the first time since 1971. Since this process only happens once every 30-40 years, this is your once in a lifetime chance to influence what development in this city is going to look like for the next 40 years. Here’s a little info on what zoning has to do with health and what changes related to health are in store the newly released draft code which is open for public comment until September 10, 2010. Read on to get a sense of what to look for from the health perspective in the rewrite and how to participate in the rewrite process as a resident of Baltimore.

What does zoning have to do with public health?

If you are someone who cares about health in Baltimore, then you should care about the zoning code rewrite. Zoning influences the way a city looks from what kinds of houses and businesses can locate where, how big they can be, and often what the design of those buildings has to look like. Zoning codes comprise two pieces: a document that lists the categories of uses and a zoning map that assigns the zoning categories do different parts of the city. This is probably not news to you…but zoning is actually much broader than this. It dictates how much external lighting buildings can have, if and where farmers markets and urban agriculture can operate, how much parking both businesses and homes must offer, and also influences how “walkable” the city is.

The original goal of zoning was to protect ‘public health and welfare’ by separating healthy and unhealthy land uses – like keeping industry and manufacturing away from where people lived and went to school. Today, ‘public health and welfare’ encompasses much more than it used to – from safety from crime to mental health to food access. With this in mind, one can see how other aspects of the built environment and city-scape, such as green space, distribution of housing options and proximity to daily services, can play a role in influencing residents’ ability to lead healthy lives. Read More >

Response to the President of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association: Use of Roxarsone in poultry and swine feed defies “sustainability.”

Responding to Congressman Steve Israel’s (D-NY) proposed ban on roxarsone – an arsenical growth-promoting additive to swine and poultry feed – John Starkey, President of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, claimed use of the antimicrobial drug in poultry feed “…increases sustainability of production.”  Mr. Starkey’s use of the term “sustainability” requires clarification – is he associating roxarsone use in feed with a form of sustainable agriculture, or is he suggesting the practice is necessary to sustain the cost-effectiveness of a poultry operation?  Both claims are unsupported, if not wholly contradictory to the evidence. Read More >

What’s all the Buzz about CSAs?

Fresh strawberries from One Straw Farm, a CSA-participating Farm in White Hall, MD

Fresh strawberries from One Straw Farm, a CSA-participating Farm in White Hall, MD

In an age where large scale industrial farming operations dominate our food system, a counterrevolution focused on local and sustainable agriculture is growing. Data collected in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that 12,549 farms in the United States reported marketing products through a community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement. One of the primary ways this counterrevolution is manifesting itself is through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. CSAs are operations in which consumers pay a fixed fee at the beginning of a growing season in exchange for local, often organic, produce (and sometimes meat and dairy products as well). While reports about global warming and climate change, and the U.S’s astronomical ecological footprint (calculate your own) can make the problems we face today seem overwhelming, CSAs provide an opportunity to be part of the solution, to help make one’s lifestyle more sustainable, more healthy, and frankly, more fun.

As a CSA member, I receive eight local, seasonal, types of produce every week (though some CSAs also sell partial shares at farmers’ markets, where members can pick a given number of items from those available each week). Each week, I am surprised by at least one vegetable I’ve never heard of (e.g. garlic tail). The challenge, as in the Food Network show, Chopped, is to conjure something delicious out of this basket of unknowns. Thanks to some tips from experienced locavores, I’ve enjoyed a decent amount of success (as measured by the approval of my family, as strict a panel of judges as any on the show). Read More >