What a week for food; there was even a bit of the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good came in the form of the USDA’s new MyPlate icon and U.S. Dietary Guidelines program that will replace the hard-to-use and downright confusing Food Pyramid,. The latest version, known as MyPyramid, was comprised of a rainbow-striped pyramid with stair-steps on one side and a human figure simulating running. Yep, the message was clear as mud.
At least the new MyPlate icon simulates a common, relatable item—the dinner plate—divided into sections sized to represent portions of food types in a “balanced meal.” For example, half of the plate should be committed to fruits and veggies, with one-quarter each allotted to grains and protein. Dairy is represented off to the side by a glass of milk.
Okay, not bad, pretty easy to grasp the concept, except that portion size is not part of the initial message. What I consider half a plate and what you consider half a plate could be vastly different, and portion control is what Americans can’t quite figure out. Sure advice on portion size is available if you dig deeper, along with much more information and guidance. But that relies on consumers to gather, learn and apply the information to make healthy food choices. We’ve all seen how successful nutrition, fat and calorie labels on food products have been in addressing America’s obesity and health challenges. Of course, dieticians and nutritionists will find it more useful.
I’m not saying food education and labels are irrelevant—such efforts are certainly important, especially to our youth, and consumers should pay more attention to the food they eat. Today, most everyone, especially youth, could exercise more. But the bottom line is it’s still the individual’s choice, responsibility and issue to address.
Another bit of good news is that the recommended amount of daily protein for “healthy adults” did not change. USDA’s Dietary Guidelines still recommends consuming 5.5 ounces of protein a day. Certainly, today’s lean pork cuts fit easily into that recommendation.
In the bad category—sort of—was a Pew-commissioned poll (actually released on May 19, but I just had a chance to review it) “by the bipartisan team of Hart Research and American Viewpoint.” It reported that among “likely voters” surveyed across the nation, 66 percent support additional funding for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “to carry out new responsibilities related to food safety.”
First, who are “likely voters” really? Second, who wouldn’t support additional funding for FDA to carry out more food safety responsibilities? Americans have an impressive track record of committing empty checks to programs, projects and ideas—but are less inspired to commit to higher taxes or cutting programs that impact them in order to find the extra dollars.
Now, according to this survey, 74 percent of respondents felt it would be worth a 1 percent to a 3 percent increase in the cost of food to pay for new food safety measures. I question that commitment. We’ve all seen similar polls for any number of efforts, and when it comes down to paying the bill people tend to change their tune. Especially today when everywhere consumers turn, prices are rising (except for houses and wages.)
Just this week, a IBOPE Zogby interactive poll of homeowners reported that 37 percent have cut back on normal expenses such as food, transportation and home maintenance in order to make their monthly mortgage payment.
Also this week, the International Food Information Council Foundation 2011 Food & Health Survey, reported that while taste remains the top consideration (87 percent) in making food selections, 79 percent of consumers say price influences their decision on which foods and beverages to purchase, up 6 percent from 2010 and 15 percent increase since 2006.
I won’t argue that FDA could use more funds, but I would argue that America’s food safety efforts are world class. Absolutely people want and deserve continued improvements in food safety and it must always be a priority. (For those interested, the full survey results are available here.)
Now, the truly ugly event this week was the serious E.coli outbreak in Europe, primarily in Germany, although people in 10 countries have been affected. As of Thursday evening, 18 people had died, 1,500 people were ill-- many critically— including possibly two Americans. The exposure source remains unknown, although European officials have cited a “strong link to salad vegetables,” such as lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.
The villain was thought to be a new E.coli strain, but researchers now report having seen it before, although it is rare and extremely virulent. The search continues for the contamination source, which in such cases often leads to accusations of animal agriculture and manure. However, the European Union has staunch, restrictive regulations in that area. Another prospect researchers are now investigating is slugs, which may be able to harbor the bacteria for days.
This is a devastating, confusing and downright scary situation; and it reminds all of us that it’s not easy to outsmart microbes, money isn’t simply the answer and it’s everyone’s role—from the food producer and farm worker to the processor and transporter to the handler and preparer (in or out of the home)—to be committed to continuous food safety and education.