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Sunday November 19, 2017

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture urged shoppers to help celebrate National Farmers Market Week in late August by visiting one of more than 8,000 local farmers markets in the nation, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called them "a critical part of our nation's food system." In promoting the government's efforts to further such direct-to-shopper local and regional markets, Vilsack said farmers markets are needed to "help fill a growing consumer demand for fresh, healthy foods."

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Anne Alonzo said, "Due to consumer demand for local food we are seeing an increase in the diversity of market offerings, and more participation from small businesses and farms. This year we are focusing on the sustainability and maturity of farmers markets- keeping new and old markets thriving and improving. Farmers markets around the country continue to be popular social events for families and communities."

But are they really filling the holes supermarkets are leaving in the demand for healthier food, as USDA implies? Here's what one recent study, published in October's American Journal of Agricultural Economics, found:

Washington State economics professors Jeremy Sage and Vicki McCracken, along with human development research associate Rayna Sage, used mapping software to plot the location of both supermarkets and farmers markets in that state, and then attempted to evaluate whether the present distribution of farmers’ markets fills in holes where supermarkets have left so-called food deserts--areas where the poor presumedly don't have access to a supermarket within a reasonable distance. Or, the Washington State researchers asked, do farmers markets simply duplicate and expand the food choices more traditional retail establishments already offer?

After comparing the presence and relative proximity of supermarkets and farmers markets in Washington's urban centers, along with the income level and demographics of the neighboring populations, the economists noted these results:

  • In urban areas, the team found farmers’ markets are often located close to grocery stores, especially in larger urban areas like Seattle, where roughly half of the 57 farmers markets lie within two-thirds mile of a grocery store, with many others not much farther away than that. They point to other research showing farmers markets say they pick a location for much the same reason other retailers do: because it draws shoppers. When competing for both shoppers and farmer-suppliers, Sage noted, potential gains in food access for the poor farmers markets bring are often at risk by the same economic realities supermarkets face. "...it should be of little surprise that we see so many of these markets locating close to established grocers, which are generally in areas of more retail activity," they said.
  • Of the 1,004 census tracts in the state, 64 were identified as an urban food desert, because it lacked the presence of a supermarket without a "reasonable" walking distance. However, of those tracts, fully 92 percent were no more than two-thirds of a mile from a retail food outlet that wasn't a grocery store--typically a convenience store. Surprisingly, when they accounted for poverty level, the average distance a shopper would have to travel to a food source--whether supermarket, convenience store or farmers market--actually went down, not up. In other words, people in poor urban areas are actually closer to food sources than those in more affluent areas.
  • Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program dollars do appear to play an important role in farmers market usage in food deserts. Farmers markets within food deserts had at least triple the dollar amount of low-income senior and WIC vouchers redeemed compared to markets outside food deserts--regardless of the size of the market. Ten of the 15 markets found in urban food deserts were accepting WIC and Senior Food Vouchers, and collected them at "rather impressive levels," the study team found. Their results imply public support dollars may be a necessary lure to bring the poor to farmers markets.
  • "Nearly a quarter of high-poverty residents of food deserts can be considered to have high access to a healthy food source," the study noted, but it's not necessarily because a farmers market exists in place of an absent grocery store. It's because a farmers market exists in conjunction with a grocery within a managable distance.

With today's "health conscious," "local oriented" and "highly educated" shopper, producing, cooking, selling and serving "good food" is not just added value, it's a necessity, correct? "Everyone has an “inner locavore” you can tap into for 2013," gushes one Midwestern on-line green-grocer guide, "...you can’t go wrong if you increase your support of local and artisanal, it is a good thing!!!"

Maybe. But these three examples demonstrate the dangerous ground that can be created when retailers try to redefine "good food," particularly when they do so by proclaiming them better and more wholesome because they don't contain some traditional elements of the bigger food chain. It's a learning experience for "absence labeling," and the caution it should warrant for any retailer participating in it:

Chipotle recants on antibiotics

So sorry for feeding you antibiotics?

Chipotle restaurants, following nearly a decade of touting its "no anbitiotics" pledge, floated a trial balloon last week announcing it could start buying beef that came from cattle treated for a disease using antibiotics.

Citing an inability to source a reliable supply of beef that meets its no-antibiotics policy, the chain said it was reviewing its commitment to only selling beef that had "never-ever" been given an antibiotic. Instead, it may now allow beef suppliers to treat an animal "when necessary."

Despite openly marketing its products as antibiotic-free, Chipotle has always hedged its commitment in the fine print, saying its "Food With Integrity" and "Responsibly Raised" campaigns mean the company avoids antibiotics or added hormones "whenever possible."

But such on-again/off-again commitment to a marketing claim based on food safety uncovers the catch-22 nature of this kind of absence labeling: If it’s not OK to feed what you've clearly identified as a potentially hazardous ingredient to your customers when you can afford to pay a higher price to avoid it, why is it suddenly OK to feed it to them when you can’t?

Panera says farm antibiotics for the lazy?

Panera calling farmers lazy?

Panera Bread Co. raised the social-media backlash of some farm advocates earlier this month when one popular blogger discovered the heart of the company's new "antibiotic-free" chicken campaign featuring a chicken shaped like an antibiotic capsule. Dairy farmer turned blogger Dairy Carrie wrote of the campaign's promotional materials:

It doesn’t take a genius to understand what you’re really saying here. I mean surely Panera Bread Company’s new campaign isn’t actually calling farmers and ranchers lazy?

Who in the world would approve this message? This idea sounds more like one of those interns who gets pissed off and tries to take down a company via twitter. I mean really, who in the world would approve a marketing campaign that insults the very people that provide every scrap of ingredient that makes your product?

But wait you say, Panera isn’t calling all farmers and ranchers lazy! They are just calling the ones that use antibiotics lazy! I used antibiotics to help a sick calf get better last week, my friends the organic farmers had a cow with pneumonia and they gave that cow antibiotics to make her better. They had to sell her, but she lived. Does that mean we are lazy? Is it lazy to take care of our sick animals?

Panera quickly reacted to her post and the accompanying #pluckEZchicken Twitter campaign, promising to remove the offending images from the campaign. Social media response to her campaign was strong and vocal. Dairy Carrie pledged to keep pushing until the entire no-antibiotics campaign was gone.

"When I said it was time to #PluckEZChicken I didn’t just mean to ax the bird. I want to see this kind of fear driven marketing stopped dead, starting with Panera," she said.

Hyatt Regency: The White Table-clothed Chipotle?

Chipotle's message, just dressed better?

Hyatt Regency earned the description as the "white tablecloth Chipotle" when its Food Thoughtfully Raised marketing campaign was criticized by the online publication TruthInFood.com. Food Thoughtfully Raised promotes Hyatt's in-house restaurants' use of "hormone-free" milk, "cage-free" eggs, sustainably raised farm products and others. Truth in Food author Kevin Murphy took the hotel chain to task for casting doubt on the safety and wholesomeness of food derived from the traditional food chain.

"I voiced my criticism of the Hyatt’s Food Thoughtfully Sourced campaign," he writes, "arguing that, like Chipotle’s Food with Integrity, it created a false dichotomy dividing our food system in two, with one side being the pristine, natural and organic side and the other technological, conventional and ultimately evil. I reminded [Hyatt VP of Food and Beverage Susan] Santiago of the positive impact “conventional” agriculture has on the...world. She agreed and sought to assure me Food Thoughtfully Sourced was not meant to pick sides in today’s food battles but simply reflect customer demand."

Santiago's response, related in a follow up story here, was less than conciliatory. "Your readers’ comments were duly read," she said. "...however I must decline the opportunity for further interviews.  We are passionate about our F&B philosophy. We are constantly listening to our guests, and responding to their dining needs and wants through the many options we make available at our hotels."

Those comments, which you can read here, were almost universally critical of the honesty and credibility of Hyatt's marketing campaign.

"Please stop the current state of your food marketing, Hyatt," one farmer pleaded. "The food you serve is from animals who are treated no better than animals in other systems. Sensational news stories can lead us to believe that there are a set of good farms and a set of bad farms, but in fact the vast majority of farms are great families working to produce healthy food in a humane manner."

"'Food Thoughtfully Sourced' is a slap in the face to every farmer in America, and an insult to the intelligence of Americans in general.... Farmers don't tell Hyatt how to run their hotels. Why should Hyatt tell farmers how to run their farms?" asked Mischa Popoff, author of Is It Organic?

So far, Hyatt has clung steadfastly to its campaign, despite the flood of comments and an online petition urging them to Thoughtfully Reconsider, which you can find here.

Despite some recent food-borne illness outbreaks dominating the evening news, the real story your shoppers may not have heard is this: Overall, food is safer now than it likely has been in history, and for the most part, it continues to get safer. Here are a few success stories your customers may not have heard:

■ The number of food-borne disease outbreaks reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2009 and 2010 — the latest years for which tracking summaries are available — was down almost one-third compared to the yearly average for the five-year period before, according to the Center’s latest report on common food-borne illness outbreaks.

The 675 and 852 outbreaks reported to CDC for, respectively, 2009 and 2010, resulted in about 30,000 cases of illness, 1,184 hospitalizations and 23 deaths.  (CDC defines an outbreak as any reported disease that can be traced back to a common food and agent that sickens at least two people.) Only about two-thirds of the reported outbreaks were pinned on a specific cause—and of that two-thirds, only about three-fourths went beyond merely suspected to confirmed by labwork. Of those confirmed causes, norovirus was the most common cause of an outbreak, accounting for more than four in 10 outbreaks and nearly four in 10 illnesses.

Norovirus, which typically causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain is estimated to affect around 267 million people every year. Although it does kill more 200,000 people annually worldwide—generally those in less developed countries and the very young, elderly and immuno-suppressed—in healthy people it usually cures itself without hospitalization or treatment. CDC notes the reported decline in food-borne disease outbreaks reported came largely because of a drop in norovirus outbreaks. Because norovirus can be spread in many ways, including not just food and water but also direct contact between persons and even contact with a table or floor that’s been contaminated by someone carrying the virus, pinning down a source of outgreak can be difficult and demonstrates the complexity of tracking, reporting and eventually controlling disease outbreaks that may or may not be foodborne. In 2009, the CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System transitioned to a new online data entry system. That system began taking reports of outbreaks attributable not only to food and water, as the previous system, but also to disease transmitted through water, person-to-person contact, contact with animals, environmental contamination, and indeterminate means. That change in reporting, CDC suspects, may have led to more appropriate classification of outbreaks that were previously blamed on food when in fact they were caused by other sources.

Outbreaks per million people

Among outbreaks in which CDC was able to confirm both a cause and a food vehicle, the largest number of outbreaks was attributed to the bacteria Campylobacter in unpasteurized dairy products, followed by Salmonella in eggs, and E. coli O157 in beef. The pathogen-food pair most responsible for number of sicknesses were Salmonella in eggs, Salmonella in sprouts and Salmonella in vine-stalk vegetables. CDC notes the large number of outbreaks caused by unpasteurized dairy products is consistent with findings that more outbreaks occur in states that permit the sale of unpasteurized dairy products; 60 percent of states now permit sales of raw milk in some form.

Among the 766 outbreaks with a known single setting where food was consumed, only 21 percent were caused by food consumed in a private home. In contrast, nearly half were blamed on food consumed in a restaurant or deli.

■ CDC's latest report, in April, from its Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, or FoodNet, reports the results of surveillance in 10 U.S. sites for all laboratory-confirmed infections caused by selected germs that are commonly spread through food. With one notable exception--vibrio, a bacterial infection usually associated with eating undercooked seafood--all other foodborne pathogens remained below target levels set by CDC for reduction based on levels from 1996 through 1998.

Longterm trends in foodborne illness

The incidence of infections caused by Cryptosporidium, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli O157, and Yersinia all remained essentially unchanged from the previous two years. After substantial declines in the early years of FoodNet surveillance, the incidence of Campylobacter infection has increased to its highest level since 2000.

As shoppers race toward health consciousness and healthier food choices, writes University of Nevada’s Patricia Alpert, fancy packaging and the utilization of  buzz words—like organic, multigrain and zero trans fats--may lead them astray. Writing in February’s issue of the academic journal Home Health Care Management & Practice, the doctor of nutrition and head of the university's physiology department cautions against 7 food categories that have become "imposter" foods. These formerly healthy foods have now been hijacked by other ingredients that may increase their fat, sodium, sugar and empty calorie content to the point they may disappoint and even shock those health-conscious eaters should they discover the truth. Here are Alpert’s top imposter health foods to be wary of:

YogurtYogurt. Although a rich source of calcium and vitamin D (if fortified), often low in fat, and containing bacteria that help digestion, a closer look at the ingredients may show a large amount of processed ingredients and sugar, especially for the yogurts with the fruit on the bottom. Some contain as much as 26 grams to 8 teaspoons of sugar per serving, which can deactivate those friendly bacterial cultures. Worse yet, if yogurt is sold as a parfait with granola and fruit, the fat and sugar content increases phenomenally, Alpert warns. Some carry up to 45 grams of sugar. Frozen yogurt may be dosing shoppers with as much as 20 grams of sugar for every half cup consumed. Many also contain hydrogenated oils such as palm, soybean or cottonseed oils.

GranolaGranola cereal. When granola debuted in the ‘60s, Alpert writes, it was in fact a healthier choice than other, heavily sugared cereals that lined shelves at the time. But by today’s standards, the fat and calorie count actually makes granola a poor breakfast choice. Just a quarter cup can add 130 calories, a high-fat, high-calorie count that comes from added oils that may include saturated coconut oil, nuts and added sugar. Supplement it with the typical dried-fruit addition and you’ve added even more sugar and calories, she warns. Her caution applies to granola and cereal bars, too. Many contain saturated fats, sodium as a preservative, high sugar and artificial flavoring—without even adding the perceived benefit of adequate fiber. “Many of these bars contain such a small amount of granola that it should be considered a candy bar,” she notes.

Protein barsProtein bars. Here’s another bar which time-strapped shoppers increasingly reach for as a lunch alternative that may be a health imposter. Protein bars are not all created equal--many have between 300 and 400 calories per bar and may contain more protein than necessary, especially if shoppers eat more than one bar at a time.

SushiSushi. This traditional Japanese food benefits from the category’s aura of healthy, low-fat, high omega-oil content of dark fish. However, sushi has now been so successfully “Americanized,” Alpert says, that the healthy typical tuna or salmon California roll and bowl of miso soup is now often complemented with a large serving of rice, seaweed, tempura battering, mayonnaise or cream cheese, avocado, sauces and fried shrimp. Suddenly then, the formerly 35-calorie dish transforms into a 320-calorie roll with as much as 17 grams of fat. Add the high sodium content in soy sauce and you have a health-imposter disaster in the making.

Dried fruitDried fruit. A half cup of dried fruit provides a daily serving of fruit and makes a great snack—high in fiber, providing many necessary vitamins and minerals, convenient to pack, not constrained by need to refrigerate, and even providing a bit of sweetness to cooked cereals or trail mix. But when manufacturers add sugar to the dried fruit—especially cherries and cranberries in order to counter the tartness—those added sugars can increase the calorie count of dried fruit by as much as 50 additional calories. The difficulty in decoding dried fruit labels comes, Alpert says, because manufacturers don’t have to disclose how much added sugar has been used to increase the fruit’s natural sugar. Corn or fructose-corn syrup, juice concentrates, malt sugars, dextrose, sucrose, maltose and lactose tend to hide the sugar content in plain sight for consumers who can’t decode the meaning of those terms. Add a yogurt-covering, and you’ve only heaped on the sugar without adding any of the healthy components of yogurt found in containers.

WrapsWraps. Lunchtime shoppers have been successfully conditioned to select the wrap over a traditional sandwich as the healthier choice, believing them a substitute for the two slices of bread that aren’t good for you. But, the white flour and hydrogenated oils actually make a 10-inch wrap equivalent to adding an additional slice of bread to a traditional two-slice sandwich. And spinach tortilla wraps? They may sound healthier in theory, but they’re typically really made from white flour wraps mixed with a combination of blue and yellow dye and only a sprinkle of spinach powder. Adding a prepared vegetarian or chicken patty to replace the old-fashioned red-meat sandwich? Not so fast, she warns: Many vegetarian meat substitutes are highly processed, high-additive and high-sodium.

Fruit smoothiesSmoothies. It’s not clear when fruit smoothies became associated with health, Alpert writes, but today’s commercially sold smoothies are typically pure sugar, no-fiber, no-protein drinks served in oversized cups disguised as healthful bevarages. They typically contain a small portion of healthy fruit ingredients, overwhelmed by empty calories and supersized until they contain anywhere from 95 to 125 grams of sugar—somewhere in the neighborhood of a candy bar containing 750 to 1,000 calories.

Photo credits:
Yogurt: Flickr/Lynda Gliddens
Granola: Flickr/Stef Noble
Protein bars:Flickr/TheImpulseBuy
Sushi: Flickr/Paul Mayne
Dried fruit: Flickr/Kristof Abrath
Smoothies:Flickr/Rusty T. Anton

All is not as it appears in this debate, new studies suggest

Three myths about food deserts

The March issue of the peer-reviewed journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy is a special issue on healthy lifestyles, particularly focused on the perennial issue of obesity. It has several interesting studies that refute some common assumptions, including:

No time for fast food?

USDA researcher Karen Hamrick, working with Ohio University Economics Professor Charlene Kalenkoski, examined numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey data, which measures all activities in sampled households over a 24-hour period, matched against results from adults 20 years or older who had completed the the Eating and Health Module of the BLS survey. Hamrick discovered that consumers who face “time poverty,” that is, those who had a shortage of discretionary time left over after taking care of the necessities like sleeping, personal grooming and work, had as you might expect, different eating patterns than not-time-poor individuals. The surprise in her findings? Being time-poor was associated with a lower likelihood people would purchase fast food. Those time-poor individuals were 4 percent less apt to turn to fast food. Though Hamrick’s study didn’t attempt to gauge the stated reasons for choosing fast food or not, she guesses her seemingly illogical finding may owe to the fact that fast food involves losing time by waiting in line. She did find that time-poor people tended to eat less, which helps support her hypothesis, eating and drinking about 2.6 times per day vs. 2.9 for the full sample. One bit of good news: Hamrick suggests that if time-poor consumers are too rushed to either prepare meals or to stand in line at a fast-food restaurant, the next logical source of their meals may in fact be prepared meals from grocery stores.

Food stamps in food deserts…where they end up.

USDA researchers looked into whether increasing the amount of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefit levels would incentivize inner city poor to travel to outlying areas to shop for food at supermarkets and big boxes, or simply spend the additional funds at local alternatives. The authors used monthly county-level data on SNAP redemptions by store type over a three-year period and mathematically modeled the percentage of SNAP redemptions at superstores as a function of maximum monthly benefit levels, after accounting for confounding factors like food prices, store density by store type and other economic and policy factors. They found that increasing SNAP dollars can potentially encourage SNAP participants to make use of lower-cost, less accessible food shopping alternatives, however that willingness is heavily influenced by the cost of getting to the stores. Their suggestion? In light of the apparent lack of political will to increase SNAP funding, government should consider expanding flexibility to convert a portion of their benefits as “access dollars”—that is, allowing them to use them to buy gas, bus fare and other transportation costs.

Are school kids fatter in food deserts?

Arkansas ag economists examined the relationship between food deserts and child obesity, using data on obesity rates in a panel of 230 school districts in Arkansas, determined from school children’s measured height and weight. The school districts were classified as food desert districts by developing district-level measures of food access based on food store location data. Controlling for a variety of other factors that could confound the results, the researchers estimated there was no statistically significant difference in childhood obesity between schoolkids in food deserts or not in food deserts. “So should private and public initiatives targeting the food desert and childhood obesity issue be discarded, given our results?” the researchers asked. On the contrary, they argue exactly the opposite: “Given the importance and enormous attention this issue has received, not only from researchers from various fields but also from policy-makers and the current First Lady of the United States, there is no question that more work is needed….”

Do more groceries equate to more fruits and vegetables?

Research by ag economists at University of Nebraska-Lincoln analyzed how changes in income and food access affected actual purchases of fruits and vegetables by households. The authors used a the Nielsen Home-Scan panel data set to study the actual shopping patterns of households and attempt to disentangle the effects of food access from the effects of income. Their results suggest that improving access to food would, in fact, make the non-poor residents in a food desert buy slightly more fruits and vegetables. However, increasing access to food stores, according their study, would only be expected to cause the poor people in the former food desert to increase their consumption of unhealthy foods, with no change—or even a decrease—in consumption of healthier foods like fruits and vegetables. Government policy actions aimed at alleviating healthy food accessibility or affordability problems in isolation are not likely to be effective, the authors caution.

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