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OpenMarket: Food and Beverage Regulation

  • If You Don't Eat Your Meat, They Can't Have Their Taxes

    August 3, 2015 8:29 AM

    If you think the brainless health nannies in the United States are bad, you should read up on the absurd proposals bursting from the cranial voids of Australian nannies. From plain packaging on cigarettes, which may or may not have actually increased smoking, to a proposal that would give cops the power to raid pubs and breathalyze patrons, the Aussie nannies seem to be quite innovative in their exercise of petty authoritarianism. But a recent proposal to tax meat really takes the cake.

    Tim Andrews, executive director of The Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance, has the herculean (or Sisyphean if you’re a pessimist) task of defending the people from government overreach. He wrote an amusingly caustic piece on those proposing the tax. An excerpt:

    What outrages me the most is the fact that it’s our taxes that pay for all of this. All of it. Our taxes pay the salary for these ‘academics’. Our taxes pay for the website this was published on. Everything about the lifestyle tax nanny state industry is paid for by our taxes…Professor Marinova’s salary is $177,345 a year.  And yet she feels compelled to call for further taxes on the most hard up in society.

    This is a good example of the phenomena economist Bruce Yandle dubbed “bootleggers and Baptists,” wherein two dissimilar groups want the same policy; one for moral reasons and the other for personal gain. The Baptists provide a cloak of morality so that politicians can grant personal gain either directly or by doing a favor for their supporters. In this case, the Baptist—public health advocates—provide the public good argument that allows a politician to fleece taxpayers while looking like a really good guy just trying to protect Australians. The researchers calling for the 10 to 15 percent tax on meat claim it is needed to help people repent their carnivorous ways and switch to what they believe is a healthier diet for both people and the planet. It’s just icing that the government gets to rake in billions more in desperately needed revenue and maybe send some of the plunder to these publicly-funded researchers.

  • Slate Exposes Deceitful Heart of the Anti-GMO Movement

    July 17, 2015 9:13 AM

    Will Saletan has an exhaustively researched and cogently argued piece at Slate on the dishonesty of the anti-biotechnology activists and the harm they have caused. He lays out, for all to see, the naked truth about their efforts. It has nothing to do with the truth. They only care about pushing their agenda, even if it comes at the cost of human lives. As Saletan writes, “[t]hey want more studies. They’ll always want more studies. They call themselves skeptics. But when you cling to an unsubstantiated belief, even after two decades of research and experience, that’s not skepticism. It’s dogma.”

    Saletan describes the tactics employed by activists to hoodwink the public and politicians. Fear-mongering, misinformation, and information-overload are particular effective. Fear-mongering is the easiest one: they can simply say, “We don’t for sure that this thing is safe.” And because science is hard and usually involves reading long, boring blocks of text, few people will bother to dig deeper. Those who do will find plenty of intentional misinformation or manipulation of research. As Saletan points out in this passage:

    Schubert systematically distorted the evidence…Schubert said the study found that “smokers who supplemented their diet with beta-carotene had an increased risk of lung cancer.” He neglected to mention that the daily beta carotene dose administered in the study was the equivalent of roughly 10 to 20 bowls of Golden Rice. He also failed to quote the rest of the paper, which emphasized that in general, beta carotene was actually associated with a lower risk of lung cancer.

    One feature of their methods Saletan left out is the role played by the media. Anti-biotech activists rely on journalists to create an echo-chamber for their baseless claims. In this digital age it’s all about them clicks. And putting up a headline like “Study Finds Golden Rice Causes Cancer!” will get a lot more attention than a title like “Study shows smokers who supplement diet with beta carotene at increased risk for lung cancer, but for everyone else beta carotene has benefits.” For one thing, it is way too long (fire that headline writer), but it is simply not as shocking and therefore less likely to motivate someone to read it. So, most journalists just republish whatever was written in a study’s press release; few have the time to slog through entire research papers.

    And this is what activists count on. They count on individuals and media outlets being too limited in time and interest to actually verify their claims. Sometimes this gets them into trouble, like when a clever journalist published a bunk paper on how chocolate can help people lose weight and then wrote a piece about reporters being gullible. But most of the time, nobody is the wiser and the misinformation gets filed away in the back of peoples’ minds, slowly building a basis for them to “instinctually” share the activists’ bogus claims.

  • More Unintelligible Gibberish on GMO Risks from Nassim Nicholas Taleb

    July 16, 2015 12:47 PM

    A few months ago, statistician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb, known mostly for his intriguing 2007 book The Black Swan, teamed up with a handful of colleagues to write a “scholarly” diatribe claiming to demonstrate that “what appear to be small and reasonable risks” with GMOs may “accumulate inevitably to certain irreversible harm.” Therefore, the precautionary principle “should be used to prescribe severe limits on GMOs.” The paper received a lot of attention in scientific circles, but was roundly dismissed for being long on overblown rhetoric but conspicuously short on any meaningful reference to the scientific literature describing the risks and safety of genetic engineering, and for containing no understanding of how modern genetic engineering fits within the context of centuries of far more crude genetic modification of plants, animals, and microorganisms.

    Well, Taleb is back, this time penning a short essay published on The New York Times’s DealB%k blog with co-author Mark Spitznagel. The authors try to draw comparisons between the recent financial crisis and GMOs, claiming the latter represent another “Too Big to Fail” crisis in waiting. Unfortunately, Taleb’s latest contribution is nothing more than the same sort of evidence-free bombast posing as thoughtful analysis. The result is uninformed and/or unintelligible gibberish.

    For example: “The statistical mechanism by which a tomato was built by nature is bottom-up”. The tomatoes we eat today are vastly different than those produced by nature. In the wild, tomatoes are poisonous, marble-like berries. The cultivated tomatoes we eat today are the products of vast genetic changes wrought by human hands. More to the point, what does it even mean that tomatoes were built from the bottom up? Surely Spitznagel and Taleb aren’t claiming tomatoes themselves suggested to we humans what genetic changes to make? On its face, the statement may sound profound, but it simply defies meaningful comprehension.

    “... by tinkering in small steps ...” Sure, early farmers tinkered in small steps. Then the 20th Century came along, and breeders began making many giant leaps in genetic manipulation -- long before the advent of recombinant DNA in the 1970s. For six or seven decades, breeders have been making macro genetic changes using tools like induced mutation breeding, protoplast fusion, and wide crossing, all of which result in changes to the genetic composition of plants that are orders of magnitude greater than those which result from genetic engineering. What, I’d like the authors to explain, makes the alteration of a single gene or small number of genes in an organism a bigger step than randomly scrambling whole genomes via mutation breeding?

  • Federal Witch Hunt Successfully Bans Trans Fats

    June 16, 2015 2:07 PM

    Ding dong the witch is dead; killed by the federal government…well, that’s if the witch was a recluse people hardly ever saw, probably hasn’t hurt anyone, and was brought into town by the person burning her at the stake. The “witch” I’m referring to is trans fats, which were officially banned today via Food and Drug Administration (FDA) edict. A witch hunt is a good way to describe what the FDA did; revoking the additive’s determination as “generally recognized as safe,” because despite the fact that Americans have almost completely eliminated the substance from our diets voluntarily, the administration believes any amount of trans fats can be harmful. The fact that there is no scientific evidence to prove this didn’t seem to temper calls to “burn it at the stake.”

    Back in 2003 Americans, ate an average of 4.6 grams of trans fats per day, but thanks to the efforts of some public health groups and diligent label-reading consumers, consumption dropped to around 1 gram per day by 2012. Despite this, the FDA announced plans in November 2013 to completely eliminate the additive because they believed completely eliminating the additive will save “10,000-20,000 lives annually.” This number is based on a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Despite the fact that all of the studies linking trans fats to adverse health effects only looked at very high levels of consumption (accounting for more than 5 percent of daily energy intake, versus the 0.6 percent we currently consume), the researchers assumed any trans fat consumption correlated with risk. Therefore, they only needed to take the risk seen from extremely high levels and calculate how much risk there would be at extremely low levels. According to the tentative determination:

    Extrapolating from this FDA estimate, assuming a linear association with health effects, and no effects of other interventions, and adjusting to current US statistics on coronary events (myocardial infarction or fatal CHD), it is possible that eliminating industrially produced TYFAs from current levels (0.6% of energy) may potentially prevent as many as 10,000 to 20,000 coronary events and 3000 to 7000 CHD deaths annually” (emphasis added).

    This is extremely problematic because it’s simply not known if there is a linear correlation with risk all the way down to zero consumption. Take sodium, for example; it can certainly be detrimental at very high consumption levels, but it is also deadly to consume too little sodium. As Dr. Eric Decker, head of the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts, noted, “It is very common for kinetics to not be linear especially at extremely low or high concentrations of bioactive agents. Therefore, it does not seem scientifically prudent to make a bold statement of how many deaths a food ingredient is causing without any clinical data.” It’s the dose that makes the poison: just about any food or beverage, including water, can become harmful if consumed in great enough quantities.

    Ignoring whether or not there is a need for the FDA to completely eliminate trans fats from the American diet, one must question whether they should and what the consequences of a ban will be. Many forget that it is the dietary meddling of the government that caused the rise of trans fats in our diet in the first place. The American Heart Association, on which government dietary advisors base many of their recommendations, advised Americans beginning in the 1960s to reduce saturated fat and switch to vegetable oil (no big surprise the AHA only rose to national prominence with help from the maker of Crisco oil). As this Wall Street Journal article notes, Americans listened to AHA’s advice, going from nearly zero vegetable oil consumption in 1900 to consuming 7 to 8 percent of all calories from these oils.

    What will the makers of frosting, pastries, and pie crust use instead of partially hydrogenated oils? Well, we don’t know yet.

  • Raise a Glass to Lower Taxes

    May 26, 2015 4:23 PM

    You might not know it, but about half the cost of your preferred alcoholic beverage is made up of taxes and fees. One man in Congress, Rep. Todd Young (R-Ind.) wants to change that. Today he introduced a bill that would introduced a bill that would cut the current federal excise tax rate on whiskey, rum, vodka, and gin. For the first 100,000 gallons, the bill would reduce the tax from from $13.50 per proof gallon to $2.70 per proof gallon, and for subsequent gallons the tax would be $9 per proof gallon.

    H.R. 2520 has support from both the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) and the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), which said in their press release that “[d]istilled spirits products are one of the most highly taxed consumer products in the United States.” According to ACSA President Tom Mooney, the bill “will help create jobs across America for the rapidly growing distilling industry. It will translate into real economic benefits and jobs for hundreds of small distillers and their surrounding communities.”

  • Not So Fast: Fatally Flawed Research Asserts Alcohol Taxes Save Lives

    May 12, 2015 10:52 AM

    Last month, researchers at the University of Florida published a study in the American Journal of Public Health that concluded, “Increases in alcohol excise taxes, such as the 2009 Illinois act, could save thousands of lives yearly across the United States as part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce alcohol-impaired driving.” Their study presented the case that the 2009 tax increase resulted in a statistically significant reduction in alcohol-related deaths in Illinois. However, as I pointed out in a blog post, there only appears to be a reduction in fatalities because of the authors’ selective inclusion and exclusion of data. Rebecca Goldin, Director of STATS.org and Professor of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason University, found even more flaws in the research.

    In her post, Rebecca takes a bird’s eye view of the crash data in Illinois between 1999 and 2013. She finds a steady decline during this 10-year period with “hardly anything special at all going on at the end of 2009.” Looking closer at the data, she noted (as did I) the curious exclusion of data after 2011. “Results should be resilient to changes in choices, such as whether to use data published 2011-2013,” Goldin notes. When added to the evaluation, this 2011-2013 data shows a small decrease immediately after 2009, but then shows a steady increase in alcohol-related traffic deaths in Illinois. She also found that as a proportion of total traffic fatalities, alcohol-related fatalities on the road have been increasing since 2009 (though only by 2 percent—a statistically insignificant amount).

    Of course, the real story here is that breaking the data at year 2009 may not be an appropriate way of measuring the trends, and certainly it’s not appropriate to “blame” the excise tax for the proportionally increased alcohol deaths in the context of decreasing deaths associated to alcohol. But by the same logic neither is it appropriate to conclude that the excise tax has been saving lives.

    Finally, in addition to the “creative math” and error of conflating correlation with causation (bad scientists, bad!), there’s another potential problem with the study. The grant provided by the National Institutes of Health lists the purpose as “to develop a research program of HIV prevention focused on the intersection of event-level alcohol use… and sexual partner selection among adolescents.” There is no mention in the grant description about taxes or motor vehicle crashes. I say this is a “potential” problem because I have been unable to get answers from anyone at the NIH or the University of Florida researchers who worked on the project. My questions were simple: What was the rationale behind using an AIDS grant for alcohol tax research? And is this sort of change in scope common practice?

    It’s one thing to have public health advocates peddling flawed research in order to advance personal agendas, but it’s another entirely to use taxpayer money to do so.

  • Could Alcohol Taxes Reduce Fatal Car Crashes?

    April 9, 2015 2:46 PM

    A new study from the University of Florida asserts that because Illinois instituted an alcohol tax increase in 2009 and the rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities have declined 26 percent since 2009, the tax must certainly be responsible for the decline in deaths. Of course, news outlets have begun touting the study as evidence that increasing taxes results in fewer deaths. Are they right?

    A team of UF Health researchers discovered that fatal alcohol-related car crashes in Illinois declined 26 percent after a 2009 increase in alcohol tax. The decrease was even more marked for young people, at 37 percent.

    So, was it the alcohol tax increase that led to the state’s declining alcohol related traffic deaths? To answer that question, one need only examine the rate before and after the tax increase went into effect and compare it to the rest of the United States. Looking at these numbers (provided by DISCUS), it becomes clear that the rate of alcohol related traffic fatalities was declining faster in the year before the tax increase went into effect. Furthermore, since the state jacked up the alcohol taxes, Illinois has experienced a slower decline than the rest of the nation.

     

     

    Repeat after me: correlation does not equal causation. The study’s authors claim that since the 2009 tax increase went into effect, Illinois saw a 26 percent reduction in traffic fatalities. That certainly is an impressive decline. But just because two things correlate, doesn’t mean that there is a causal relationship. For example, just because the divorce rate in Maine correlates almost one-to-one with the rate of margarine consumption in the U.S., it doesn’t mean one caused the other. 

    Furthermore, the whole nation saw a decline in alcohol-related traffic deaths between 2001 and 2011

  • Arsenic in Wine: Dangerous or Beneficial?

    March 26, 2015 2:23 PM

    Dan Nosowitz in Modern Farmer offers some insights on the recent class action lawsuit filed against California winemakers. The plaintiffs found that some inexpensive wines contained arsenic at levels exceeding the federal drinking water standard for this substance. Nosowitz rightly points out that the standard is for water, not wine and “people don’t, or shouldn’t, drink as much wine as water.”   

    Well, let’s not go that far… kidding of course! Moderation is surely a good idea when it comes to alcohol consumption. Yet even if you drank as much wine as you do water, there’s still no reason to be alarmed about arsenic. The levels in wine are still too low to have any significant adverse impacts, and ironically, such small amounts might even have health benefits. 

    Arsenic is an element that naturally occurs in the earth’s crust, so traces of arsenic inevitably appear in food and water. Certainly, high levels of arsenic are not healthy and concentrated exposures can be immediately deadly. But the trace levels found in water and food are rarely an issue. Problems have emerged primarily in developing nations like Bangladesh where poor people drink from untreated water sources with arsenic levels that range in the hundreds of parts per billion (ppb), and sometimes more than 1,000 ppb.

    It’s worth noting that the levels allegedly found in wine are reportedly just five times greater (or 500 percent higher as noted in the press) than the federal drinking water standard of 10 ppb. So, some number of samples—we don’t know how many—tested by the plaintiffs in this case had some level of arsenic near the 50 ppb level. But did you know that until 2006, that was the allowable level in drinking water in the United States and it had been for decades?

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed the standard to 10 ppb in 2001 with full compliance not required until 2006. The 10 ppb standard for arsenic in drinking water is excessively overcautious. When EPA proposed it, it was very controversial because the cost to small drinking water systems was substantial and the benefits highly questionable. EPA’s Science Advisory Board highlighted lots of problems with EPA’s science and maintained that the change could actually undermine public health. The SAB explained that the costs might cause some small communities to disconnect their water systems, forcing people to use untreated well water, but EPA finalized the rule anyway. 

    If you look at the history, you can see that EPA did not change the standard for safety reasons; they did it for political ones. You may remember, environmental activists attacked the Bush administration for taking time to reconsider changing the standard, which the Clinton administration rushed out during the final hours of the Clinton presidency. Green groups made it sound like the Bush administration was adding arsenic to the water supply. And this bad press made a rational and scientific debate impossible.

  • New U.S. Dietary Recommendations to Correct Misunderstanding about Cholesterol, Not Fat

    February 12, 2015 1:34 PM

    Thomas Jefferson once said, “If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” On this issue, TJ seems to have hit the nail on the head.

    Since Uncle Sam started telling us what to eat, Americans have steadily grown less healthy in many ways. In the 1970s, we were told to eat less meat and more grains. We listened, but it did little to curtail the oncoming obesity “epidemic” (some claim government recommendations may have actually caused this epidemic). And for decades, we have been told to restrict our consumption of cholesterol in order to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease. That is, until now. The new dietary guidelines will no longer recommend restrictions on cholesterol consumption. This is a great first step, but the best advice is to stop listening to government nutritional advice.

    For many people, this will seem like an abrupt about-face after 50 years of lectures about cholesterol. But for those in the medical research field, the shift is long overdue. During the last decade, it has become increasingly clear that there is no real evidence linking dietary cholesterol and blood serum cholesterol (which is used as a stand-in for CVD risk). While many physicians are still wedded to the idea that their patients at risk for cardiovascular disease should limit their egg consumption, it sounds like the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—a joint effort of HHS and USDA—has finally come to grips with the evidence. Unfortunately, the real lesson remains unlearned: the U.S. government shouldn’t be the authority on what is or isn’t a healthy diet.

    The DGAC, which consists of “nationally recognized experts,” meets every five years to review medical literature and hash out recommendations for what a healthy diet should look like. Their report to the secretaries ultimately becomes the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is used by policy makers as a guideline in federally administered nutritional programs and assistance. Unfortunately, it sounds like they will still cling to their increasingly suspect beliefs about saturated fat.

  • Tainted Claims about "Agglomerated" Corks

    February 5, 2015 10:41 AM

    A recent article in Wine Industry Insight titled “Micro-Agglomerates: 350 Million Illegal Corks Per Year?” reports: “Agglomerated cork manufacturers and importers are facing scrutiny from two major federal agencies over health concerns about the plastic used to bind bits of cork glued together. The concern is that chemicals in the binding plastic can leach into wine.” 

    But a closer look at the issue indicates that these agencies are not focused on the corks, there’s nothing illegal about them, and safety concerns are unwarranted.

    The two agencies allegedly interested in the issue are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The chemical in question, toluene diisocyanate or TDI, Wine Industry Insight notes, is “listed as a potential carcinogen” with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP).

    This sounds scary, but there are many reasons why no one should be alarmed about the closures or the chemical involved. But before going into that, we should be clear as to what the agencies are doing in regard to the corks.

    According to an EPA press release, the agency has proposed a rule that would require manufactures to notify the agency if a consumer product they are making will contain more than 0.1 percent of TDI by weight. The EPA does not mention scrutiny of corks that may contain TDI. It’s very possible that these corks don’t contain that much TDI and would not even be subject to this proposed rule.

    Nor is the FDA really scrutinizing the issue. Instead, the agency received letter from an outside party asking questions about related FDA law. Wine Industry Insight has posted a link to a letter from the FDA responding to that party, but the name of the party asking questions is either blanked out or never included. But Wine Industry Insight points out that it was an association that represents competitors of agglomerated cork producers—a synthetic cork association—who filed the petition. It notes:

    “Competition is fierce for the low-end market which is why a synthetic cork association blew the TDI whistle on agglomerates in a letter to the FDA.”

    Obviously, competitors have an interest in making this an issue, but FDA isn’t taking the bait. FDA has authority to regulate “food additives” that might pose a threat to public health and that includes chemicals that might migrate from packaging into food. In its cryptic, bureaucratically written letter, FDA is basically indicating that they have data showing there is no detectable migration of TDI into the wine for the closures currently on the market. Otherwise, they’d be regulating now, but they’re not.

    So much for “federal scrutiny.” There really isn’t much because there’s no good reason for it.

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