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Release No. 0231.11
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United States of America Department of Agriculture Press Conference for MyPlate Food Icon

Presenters
Tom J. Vilsack, Secretary Of Agriculture
Regina M. Benjamin, Surgeon General
Marcus Samuelsson, Red Rooster Restaurant
Leslie Sarasin, Food Marketing Institute
Norman Seip, U.S. Air Force
Thomas Stenzel, United Fresh Produce
Kathleen Zelman, Webmd

Thursday, June 2, 2011

SECRETARY VILSACK: I want to welcome everyone here to this press conference. And what we're going to do is, Dr. Benjamin has already been introduced, so she and I are going to stand by, and we're going to let a couple of folks give short remarks, and then we'll open up to questions. What I'm going to do is introduce all four folks who are going to give remarks, and then we'll open it up questions.

I think I made reference to Leslie Sarasin earlier today from the Food Marketing Institute. Leslie has been just an extraordinarily strong advocate, and a good friend to this effort to increase nutrition in the country, and we thank her for being here.

Tom Stenzel is the CEO of the United Fresh Produce. Obviously, it makes sense for him to be here, given the fact that we're encouraging folks to take a look at their plate, and make sure that at least one-half of it is fresh fruits and vegetables.

I earlier mentioned Lieutenant General Norman Seip from Mission: Readiness. I can't overemphasize the significance and importance of having Mission: Readiness involved in this effort to improve nutrition. They are -- the generals and admirals who have spent time and effort lobbying folks in Congress, acquainting people across the country with the importance from a national security perspective of us having more nutrition available to our children can't be underestimated, and I really appreciate the General being with us.

And we also have Chef Marcus Samuelsson, who is a Executive Chef at Red Rooster Harlem, and he's also UNICEF Ambassador, and author, and someone who has been very interested and involved, obviously, in nutrition issues.

So, I'll ask those four folks to sort of in the order that I introduced them to give remarks, and then we'll open up to questions. So, Leslie.

MS. SARASIN: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, and hello to all of you.

FMI's member companies are the grocery stores and supermarkets that feed families and enrich lives in neighborhoods throughout our nation. Food retailers care deeply about the health and well being of the customers. We believe the choosemyplate graphic will resonate with the consumers' actual home dining experience, and provide useful nutrition guidance.

According to data published earlier this year in FMI's U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2011, two-thirds of American food shoppers acknowledge that their diets could be healthier. MyPlate provides a good visual base for programs giving American consumers the information they need and they want to make good nutrition decisions for themselves, and for their families.

FMI and our member companies are always glad to cooperate with programs providing needed nutrition information and helpful encouragement to American consumers. We believe the new USDA ChooseMyPlate program and its supplemental resources will work well with FMI's consumer information programs, such as Nutrition Keys, which we're very hard at work implementing.

We commend USDA for this effort, and for the commitment to help Americans enjoy healthy meals. Thank you.

SECRETARY VILSACK: One additional speaker we have, and I apologize to Kathleen Zelman for not introducing her initially. She is the Director of Nutrition at WebMD. And we have a great partnership with WebMD in terms of providing information to folks in a format, a web-based format that the folks are comfortable getting. And they're a great partner with us. So, Kathleen, I'll ask you to --

MS. ZELMAN: At WebMD we are so excited to be a partner with USDA, and we applaud the efforts. We think the Plate is absolutely fabulous and easy to understand, and simple, and it will make our jobs easy to communicate.

Our goals are aligned. We are in the business of communicating, and what we try to do is provide clear, easy to understand messages to our over 90 million consumers that we have reach to. So, we try to engage them, empower them, and excite consumers about the use of the Plate, that there really are just five easy pieces, and it's simple. And it will serve as a constant reminder. And we have all kinds of exciting tools that we hope to roll out. We have a plate with examples of what could go in each of the different components. We are planning a Drop and Drag build your own type of plate, so we're going to try to engage, use our tools, use what we do best, and try to make a difference, and be part of the solution.

So, we thank you for being partners. We applaud the USDA, and are so happy to be here as part of this initiative.

MR. STENZEL: Good morning. I'm Tom Stenzel, President of the United Fresh Produce Association.

First, congratulations to Secretary Vilsack, Dr. Post, and the whole team here at USDA. It was no simple task to boil down nutrition guidance in all its complexity to a very simple icon and message. But I have to say from our industry's perspective the MyPlate graphic really is stunningly simple. It creates a visual that all of us and our children can look at for every meal, our breakfast, lunch, and dinners.

Now, people have asked me could America's fruit and vegetable growers actually fulfill half of that plate? I do want to tell you we can, and we're looking forward to that opportunity. So, on behalf of the Fruit and Vegetable Growers, we thank you again. This is the start, not the finish. There's a lot more work to be done, and we look forward to working with USDA and all of our partners in this effort. Thank you.

LT. GENERAL SEIP: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Lieutenant General Norm Seip, retired, United States Air Force, and it's a pleasure to represent the 215 retired generals and admirals of Mission: Readiness.

Our mission is a very simple one, we advocate for the next generation of children with smart quality investments that are sustained over time so that our country will be safe and secure tomorrow. And what we've done here today is one of the smart quality investments, MyPlate and the nutritional standards that go with it.

Today, 9 million 17 to 24-year olds cannot join the military simply because they're overweight to the tune of 270 million pounds. That cuts out the opportunities for a lot of our teenagers to start on their role of life there, so we need to correct that.

And although I'm not saying that we can't help the 17 to 24-year olds when they show up at the recruiting office, the answer lies in our zero to five-year olds. If we do that right, we posture them for success. And as the First Lady said today, this is a great step with the nutritional standards that come forward with MyPlate, but the battle is not done.

We need Congress, we need our educators, we need our leadership out there to start funding our cafeteria equipment, and the training that our nutritionists and our cafeteria workers need in order to meet these nutritional standards, in order to put healthy plates in front of our children, because they take 40 percent of their calories at school each and every day.

So, at the end of the day, ladies and gentlemen, it's not about tanks, it's not about airplanes, it's not about ships, it's about the young men and young women who so proudly serve. We need to set up our next generation to be successful, so that someday they may be called America's greatest generation. Thank you.

MR. SAMUELSSON: Hi, my name is Marcus Samuelsson, and I will start with thanking Sam Kass for on our -- on the chef's behalf putting links between us and this wonderful opportunity together. Sam constantly pushes us, and gives us information about what's happening, so we can then go to the schools and into our communities and really -- so the compass and the map is really doing the same thing here.

I think it's a wonderful initiative. We do at Red Rooster about 15 to 20 cooking classes a year for free for kids in my neighborhood. And to have something like this that I can point back to, that looks fun, that is engaging, it's a wonderful tool. And, also, I bring this with me to all the web platforms that we work, so we're putting it in a fun, contemporary way.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Thank you all very much. Dr. Post is also here in case there are technical questions that the Surgeon General can't answer.

SECRETARY VILSACK: So, with that, glad to open up to questions. Yes.

QUESTIONER X: The grain slices the figure, is there any reason for that, or is that just --

SECRETARY VILSACK: No, it's designed to convey the proportion size. If you want a healthy plate, half of it has got to be fruits and vegetables. The grains, we hope that half of them are whole grains, so it's basically a proportion size.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, lean protein, basically, this is the proportion size that we're suggesting in terms of having a balanced nutritious meal.

QUESTIONER G: Are you recommending any size of plate that people use to eat? And, secondly, I don't see any place in this for sugar or dessert.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, dairy could be sugar and dessert, Gerry. I don't know what you -- how you --

SECRETARY VILSACK: Occasionally, I get mine from ice cream. Well, this is primarily low-fat dairy, obviously, and skim, and no fat. This is designed to be a quick and easy tool for families to gauge how they can provide a balanced and nutritious meal. Obviously, there are going to be opportunities for treats and, obviously, there are going to be opportunities for dessert. We're not suggesting that this is what you should always eat, but this basically creates the foundation for a healthy diet.

Again, it's simple, it's easy to understand, and when you combine that with the physical activity that the First Lady has advocated with the Let's Move initiative, you've got the calories in and the calories out equation, the way the dietary guidelines are suggesting. And if we do this right, we address the General's challenge, the President's challenge for us to be a more competitive nation.

Our kids are very -- they are faced with enormous competition with children all across the world. And to win that competition they've got to be at the top of their game. They simply can't be if they're not healthy. And when we've got the obesity levels that we have, and the hunger issues that we still grapple with in this country we, obviously, have some work to do, as the General indicated. Yes?

QUESTIONER Y: Yes, there's no meat on this plate. It's protein. Is there -- what is the message that you're trying to convey by using the term "protein?" Are you hoping that people will expand beyond the --

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, the point of this is to provide choices, and to make sure that they understand that they have choices. And that this allows them to make a visual of the plate that they provide.

Now, protein, obviously, is meat, and I expect on many, many plates around the country you're going to see a hamburger there, you're going to see a steak there, you're going to see a chicken breast there, you're going to see a porkchop, but you may also see fish. You may also, for vegetarians, you may also see other protein sources. So, it's not designed to tell you specifically what to eat, it is designed to tell you the proper proportions if you want to maintain a healthy diet, is a heavy reliance on fruits and vegetables, and not skipping protein, just making sure that you have it in the appropriate quantity.

I went to a meal here in Washington the other day, and this thing changed what I ate, because when the plate came out, the steak was three-quarters of the plate. I didn't eat it all, because I -- as the First Lady indicated, if we're going to do this, we've got to try to make sure we walk the walk. And this is helpful to me.

I've tried, nobody knows how difficult weight issues are for me. They are very difficult. And I have tried with the dietary guidelines, and I have really tried with the FoodPyramid. The FoodPyramid was just -- I don't know, it just didn't register in my head. This registers. This is a very simple way to look at a plate and say -- now, to Gerry's point which I didn't fully answer, the plate size. Obviously, you can have a very large plate. I think, people, it's moderation. It's proportion and calories. That's why the dietary guidelines are proposing calories in and calories out. And making sure that you've got the proper balance.

And we have a number of tools that are available in choosemyplate.gov that will continue to be available that help you determine what that number of calories ought to be based on your activity level. If you're very active you, obviously, have a little more leeway. If you are less active, you have less leeway. But there are tools, there are going to continue to be tools, how-tos, messages that will be available on choosemyplate.gov. So, the combination of an easy icon together with more comprehensive information available to folks, including meal planning, including ways in which you can figure our precisely what your caloric content should be. Yes? I'll take her, and then, I'm sorry, I'll get you next.

QUESTIONER F: Will Congress provide additional funding for cafeteria equipment and for things to carry the nutrition message into schools? I have a principal that has a number of policy writers in there, micro managers, a lot of things, even requiring of reports for trips done in relationship to Know Your Farmer. It would seem that you -- that the people here are on a different page from Congress when it comes to the ultimate goal on nutrition.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I think that Congress is understandably focused on fiscal concerns, but the reality is they also sent a very strong message in December of last year for the passage of the Health Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Well, it may be a different -- there may be different members, but the majority of people that are in Congress today were the same people who voted for the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The Senate hasn't changed that much. There are new House members, but there are 435 House members, I guarantee you that a majority of those House members were people who voted probably yes on the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

So, I think we have to, obviously, continue to stress the importance of this from a health security standpoint. If we're serious about health care costs, the one way that the Surgeon General is suggesting we can address health care costs is by preventative medicine. And the best preventative medicine I know is a healthy diet and proper exercise. General, I'd invite you to sort of weigh in on this, no pun intended.

Secondly, it's a national security issue. If you doubt that, I'll have you argue with the Lieutenant General here. It is a national security issue, if we don't have enough kids who are adequately fit for service, how do we have an all-volunteer Army that can deal with all of the issues and challenges that we face in this country today, with two wars, and the issue with Libya, and all of the other activities that go that we require.

It's also an issue of economic competitiveness. If you talk to educators, they're going to tell you that kids who are worried about self-image or hungry, not getting the right level of nutrition are not going to learn at the level they need to learn to be able to be successful.

So, whether it's health care, national security, economic competitiveness, or education excellence this is the right message. And we need to continue to work with Congress to make sure that the priorities are correct.

We at USDA fully appreciate the fact that we've got to be fiscally responsible. We stepped up before anybody else did in reducing budgets. We'll continue to work hard to make sure we're using money wisely, but you also have to invest, and you've got to invest in the future. And what MyPlate is, as the First Lady indicated, is an investment in the future, because it's a thing that youngsters can easily grasp and take with them for the rest of their life to make sure that they have healthy, balanced, nutritious meals. So, with due respect to Congress, this is the right way to go for the country.

Sir, in the back.

QUESTIONER A: And the second, what was so inadequate about the Pyramid?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, it wasn't that the Pyramid was inadequate. It was that it contained a lot of important information, but if you want a quick and easy to remember icon, an image that you can use every day to gauge whether you're on the right track or not, the Pyramid was a bit too complicated for that, a bit too busy for that. This is much simpler.

The Pyramid still will be available to folks as part of the underlying foundational information that's going to be available on the website, so it'll still be able to provide more detailed information, but this is much simpler for folks to understand, and to follow.

I think we'll get you the number, but it was obviously a proposition that involved an extended amount of research, basic and fundamental research on what will work, what will be easy to understand, what will be accepted, what will be remembered, what the proportion sizes need to be, all of that went into the development of this icon, so we'll get you the number. I could give you a ballpark number, but I want to make sure it's accurate.

QUESTIONER B: People around the country may have a general philosophical difference with the way that (inaudible) health care saying don't tell me what to do. You're trying to take away my cookies, or whatever. How would you try to get your message across to those people who may just see things differently philosophically than what you guys are trying to do?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, first of all, I think it's important to say, we're not telling people what to eat. We're giving them a guide. We're suggesting that there is a healthy balanced opportunity here, and this is what a healthy balanced opportunity looks like.

We want to make sure that as they make choices, they know what good choices look like. All right? We're not suggesting that they should not ever have a cookie or a treat, or dessert, or whatever. That's not what this is about. And it's unfortunate people want to make it about that.

What this is about is a nation that has an obesity issue. A third of our kids are obese or at risk of being obese. The percentages of adults who face chronic disease as a result of obesity are significant. The costs associated with obesity are enormous. And if we're going to be competitive, if we're going to win the future as the President talks about, you have to be economically competitive, you have to be able to invest resources in innovation.

It's tough to invest resources in innovation if you're investing them all in the health care system and the rising costs of health care. So, if you want to lower the health care costs, people need to stop having chronic diseases. And one way we can encourage that is by proper diet and healthy -- and enough exercise.

Secondly, it is about national security. I mean, it's not me saying this. It's a guy who spent his life in the military telling you this, and it's not just him. How many generals and admirals are involved in Mission:Readiness?

LT. GENERAL SEIP: About two hundred fifty.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Two hundred and fifty retired admirals and generals, the highest echelons of our military who have spent their entire career in the military, who understand this better than anybody else in the world, and they're saying hey, this is an important issue.

I'm sure he's got a lot of other things he could be doing with his time today, but he's here, and he has been at several press conferences, because he believes in this. So, it's a national security issue.

So, as people understand the significance of it in terms of healthy, more productive lives, in terms of avoiding chronic diseases, in terms of lowering health care costs so that we can have a more vigorous economy, and the national security implications, I think people are going to understand hey, this is important. This is something we should pay attention to. And the great thing about MyPlate is it's simple. It's just really easy to remember. So, everyone can use this as a guide. It's not -- yes, absolutely.

SURGEON GENERAL BENJAMIN: A more simple approach -- you said everything that I agree with, but we know that Americans want to be healthy. We know that by the amount of money we spend on exercise equipment, on health foods and things, so they want to be. But being -- making these healthy choices are not easy, it's hard. You just -- I fly a lot. I'm on the road, to try to find a healthy meal in an airport or if you're driving on the road it's really hard. So, one of the roles of government is to try to make those choices easier.

It shouldn't be difficult to be healthy. We should make it easier, and so what we're trying to do is give tools to the American people so that they can make their own decisions, make their own choices for their families. If they choose to eat unhealthy, that's their decision, but we have at least given them some options and information. That information has not always been there, so it's basically making it simple for the everyday person to make their own decisions.

SECRETARY VILSACK: The food industry recognizes this. I mean, they've been working with us on labeling to make sure that folks have information that's simple, easy to understand, and quick to pick up. So, it's a whole -- vast segments of our economy understand that this is important, including those people who sell food and merchandise food.

SECRETARY VILSACK: I wouldn't say that -- I would suggest that there's a concern based on what's happening in Europe. We, obviously, take food safety very, very seriously here at USDA as it relates to food, as it relates to meat, processed eggs and poultry. The FDA takes their responsibilities seriously on all the other food groups.

We are continually working to try to figure out ways in which we can prevent illness and disease from occurring. That's one of the reasons why we're testing (inaudible) in ground beef, one of the reasons why we put performance standards in place for poultry, for chicken and turkey. We're continuing to look at ways in which we can assure the American public that they have a safe food supply, so we're going to continue to do that.

Obviously, we're going to keep an eye on what's going on in Europe, but at this point in time, I have no reason to believe that what's specifically occurring in Europe is somehow going to happen over here because of what happened. I think we have to constantly be vigilant and I think we have to constantly look for ways to improve food safety, and that requires us to make sure we're testing for the right things. And as science becomes more sophisticated, as testing equipment becomes better and more specific, we learn more. And as we learn more we, obviously, have to be --

QUESTIONER T: Is used for reproduction in the country. I'm wondering if the new recommendations are going to mean changes in agriculture, and what we plant?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, obviously, Tom has assured us that the producers in this country are going to be able to produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet the fruits and vegetable threshold. There is a tremendous demand not just in the United States, but worldwide for produce. And one of the reasons why we've seen record exports is because we're seeing growing middle classes in other parts of the world. So, there's going to continue to be markets.

What I think this does provide is an opportunity for us to re-engage smaller farming systems, and giving people an opportunity to perhaps get into the farming business more easily. When you talk about livestock operation, you're talking about a huge capital expenditure, so perhaps this is an opportunity for us to, as part of our effort to rebuild and revitalize our economy, this offers yet another opportunity, in addition to commercial-sized agriculture, in addition to the regional and local food system programs that we've got in place, in addition to the work that we're doing on biofuels and renewable energy. These are all strategies for trying to bring some vitality back to an economy that has suffered for a long time.