food policy

Show Me the Labels!

Quotation-Plato-food-knowledge-soul-Meetville-Quotes-48653

 

It’s been four years since the passage of the national menu labeling law. Where are the labels?

The law calls for the FDA to mandate calorie labels at “restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations.”
It seems straightforward enough. At the time of its passage the 
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg even hailed its simplicity and ease of implementation. But four years later the agency is still tinkering with the rules and dithering about the date by which restaurants must comply.

Lobbyists for the food service industry dedicated themselves to obstructing the law by nitpicking the language of a single phrase restaurants and similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations.”
The bowling alley lobby (who knew?) successfully argued for an exclusion by focusing on the phrase “retail food establishment.” They can serve a full menu but they claim to be in the entertainment business. Ditto for the movie theater operators’ lobby, and places like Chuck E. Cheese and Dave and Busters. The pizza chains concede that they’re in the retail food business, but establishments? Their lobbyists argue for an exclusion from onsite menu labeling because so much of the business is takeout and delivery. The true establishment, they claim, is the customer’s home. Retailers like Target, Costco, and BJ’s want to wriggle out of compliance because of the verbiage “20 or more locations.” The retailers themselves have the requisite number of locations, but the in-store restaurants are often independent, and operated by small business owners.
Convenience stores, supermarkets, vending machine operators, and airlines have all found their own loopholes in the language.

In the meantime, it’s business as usual at the nation’s chain restaurants.
Earlier this week, the nutrition watchdogs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest announced the 2014 Xtreme Eating Awards—its annual survey of chain restaurants’ latest permutations of fat, calories, salt, and sugar. A few years ago, a 1,500 calorie entrée would elicit gasps from the judges; this year every single nominee topped 2,000 calories and a handful weighed in at more than 3,000. The ultimate ‘winner’ came from the perennial overachiever The Cheesecake Factory whose Bruléed French Toast is a gut-busting plate of sugar, butter, syrup, and custard-soaked bread clocking in with a full day’s worth of sodium, 3 days’ worth of sugar, and enough saturated fat to carry its eater through an entire workweek. It’s the rare dish where the side of bacon is the healthiest item on the plate.

It’s not like it’s named The Lo-Fat Cottage Cheese Factory.
Caveat emptor, right? No one goes there expecting health food. You could argue that chains like The Cheesecake Factory are just giving us what we want, and we’re a willing public with a taste for fats.

But is this really what we want?
Restaurants aren’t just delivering amped-up comfort food; they’re pushing ever harder at the boundaries of our taste and serving the results in eye-popping portions. Look at the dish that appears on The Cheescake Factory menu as Bow-Tie Pasta, Chicken, Mushrooms, Tomato, Pancetta, Peas and Caramelized Onions in a Roasted Garlic-Parmesan Cream Sauce. It sounds hearty, soothing, even indulgent with a bit of creamy garlic sauce, but you’d never guess that you’d have to eat five entrée-sized boxes of Stouffer’s frozen Classics Chicken Fettuccini Alfredo- each topped with a pat of butter!-to achieve the calorie and saturated fat equivalent. We shouldn’t have to guess.

This is a broken social contract. 
The Cheesecake Factory has every right to pile on the salt, fat, and sugar, and nobody is twisting our arms to eat there. But the abysmal nutritional standards and gargantuan portions are served up in the midst of America’s ever-worsening obesity crisis, and the food service industry is fighting tooth and nail to obstruct the stalled federal menu-labeling mandate. You can say that it’s beyond the scope of corporate responsibility to provide a solution to society’s ills, but corporate citizenship be damned; this is unconscionable.

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What’s The Pig Idea?

pig

image via oinksters.com

 

Before garbage disposals and Hefty trash bags; before street cleaners, incinerators, sanitation departments, and curb-side composting; we had pigs. 

Pigs are the original recycle bins, turning food waste into food.
Throughout history, rural families fed food scraps to the household pig, and villagers saved theirs for the local hog farmer. Even a city like New York had herds of free-roaming, designated trash pigs that cleaned the streets through most of the 19th century.
Now we’re hearing a new call to bring back the pigs.

Trash pigs can keep food waste out of landfills.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, we toss nearly as much food as we eat. Food now takes up more space in landfills than paper or plastic, and the gases released as food decomposes account for 16% of the methane emissions in the U.S.

Pigs are contributing to global hunger.
Pigs are currently fed crops that are fit for humans like wheat, corn, and soy, while at the same time a billion people go hungry every day. The United Nations estimates that by substituting food waste for just one-third of the grain in livestock feed, we would free up enough food to completely eliminate hunger on the planet.

Trash to swill to feed is a winning proposition on all sides.
Laws vary from state to state, but federal regulations require that recycled food discards containing meat or other animal products be boiled to prevent swine flu and other food-borne illnesses. Since restaurants, supermarkets, and households all currently pay for waste disposal, we all benefit when processors take it off our hands for free. After its heat treatment, the processor makes a profit selling the clean waste to farmers, who are happy to pay less than they would for commercial feed. The meat itself is as safe and palatable as grain-fed, and in countries like Japan and Korea where similar systems are already in place, it’s even marketed at a premium as eco-pork, in recognition of the waste and greenhouse gas emissions it avoids.

There are already success stories in this country.
Rutgers University, with the third largest student dining operation in the country, has been diverting more than a ton of cafeteria discards a day to local farms for 15 years. Rhode Island is reviving its ambitious food-scrap collection program involving in-ground bins installed along driveways where local farmers make weekly curbside pickups. Even the MGM Grand Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip—no stranger to waste and excess—feeds 3,000 North Las Vegas hogs with the overflow of crab legs and prime rib from its casino buffet.

The United Nations is leading a global campaign aimed at raising awareness of food waste issues and facilitating cooperation across society’s producing and consuming sectors. Learn about why we create so much waste, why it matters for the planet, and what you can do to combat it at the UN-sponsored website: Think.Eat.Save.

 

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Is Junk Food the New Tobacco?

via US Department of Health & Human Services

image via US Department of Health & Human Services

 

Junk food is the new tobacco: that’s the takeaway from The World Health Organization’s Assembly that’s taking place right now in Geneva. The U.N.’s Olivier De Schutter opened the summit with this statement:

Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed.

If only. Regulating junk food will make the tobacco battle look like a walk in the park.

Here’s how they’re the same:
We all know that both are bad. It’s a universally-accepted truth that tobacco and junk food are implicated among the leading causes of premature death and chronic disease.
Both are incredibly addictive. Last year the American Medical Association officially classified food addiction as a disease. Eating junk food triggers physiological changes and neural responses; in the food -addicted (estimated to be one of us in twenty) the brain’s response is virtually indistinguishable from that of smokers, alcoholics, and drug addicts when they’re given their drug of choice.

Here’s why junk food is more perilous:
Tobacco is sabotage, and every smoker knows it, but food is supposed to be good for us.
Tobacco is a binary choice—to smoke or not to smoke. Eating is not a discretionary activity; food is sustenance. While cigarettes can be avoided, food addicts are forced to confront their demons three times a day. How long do you think abstinence would last if former smokers were offered a pack of cigarettes at every meal?

You can argue that junk food is a choice, but is it really?
There’s no scientific or nutritional standard to separate the junky stuff from the healthy foods. Junk food has no official classification or designation in the food industry, the medical community, or governmental agencies. 
Some say that if you have to ask it’s probably junk. Or they’ll point to the classic pornography definition that relies on prevailing standards: you know it when you see it. Until there’s an acid test or even basic agreement on a simple definition, we can’t be sure of our choices, and more importantly, there’s no way to regulate it.

It’s not as simple as avoiding the unholy trinity of salt, sugar and fat.
You can’t just draw a line in the sand. Pixie Stix and Doritos are easy, but most foods–even those with a surfeit of the reviled ingredients–have some redeeming nutritional value. Rarely are calories truly empty. There are also plenty of foods–think of nuts, olives, and dark chocolate–that could qualify as junk food for their salt, sugar, or fat levels but are decidedly healthy. Truly dangerous ingredients and additives like artificial trans fats, nitrites, and food dyes should be banned, but mostly we just need to know what’s in our food; we don’t want to be told what we can eat.

The World Health Organization gets it right when it argues for the highest level of global agreement and collective action in dealing with junk food.
It’s also right that there are lessons to be learned from the world-wide effort to reduce smoking like warning labels, stringent advertising guidelines, and limited access to child-oriented media. Like tobacco, taxes should be hiked on unhealthy food products with the revenue funding healthcare and health education, and agricultural subsidies should be distributed to align with our nutritional goals: cheap broccoli and pricey high-fructose corn syrup.
Where the WHO gets it wrong is comparing junk food to cigarettes. Junk food is so much worse.

 

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States Vote to Ban Gays from Restaurants

restaurantsign

Mississippi is the latest state to pass its version of ‘turn away the gays’ legislation.
Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which goes into effect this July, allows restaurants to ban customers whose lives don’t align with the owners’ religious values. While the broadly written law doesn’t specifically mention gays and lesbians, it’s widely understood, in this heavily conservative Christian state, that it’s a license to discriminate against gays in the name of religion.

Where civil rights fit in
The Civil Rights Act protects us from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin, and there are other laws that prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, or disability. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act prohibits discrimination of sexual orientation in the workplace, but otherwise there are no federal laws that protect the civil rights of gays and lesbians. 

Civil rights of restaurant owners
Restaurants are privately-owned businesses, which guarantees certain rights to their owners. They have to comply with federal laws banning recognized forms of discrimination because they provide what the law calls a ‘public accommodation,’ but it gives them a lot of latitude as long as they don’t step on the rights of a protected class. That means that a restaurant can refuse to serve anyone who wears a pro-Israel t-shirt as long as they don’t ban Jews, or they can have a policy that bans sagging pants if they otherwise serve young black men. Unlike blacks and Jews, gays and lesbians don’t constitute a protected class. It doesn’t matter what they wear; they can just be sent packing. 

Most states don’t have laws protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination by restaurants and other public accommodations, but Mississippi’s RFRA goes a step further by explicitly codifying the bigotry. It protects restaurants and their owners from lawsuits if they refuse service to gays, and it permits hate speech against individuals and their lifestyle. It even adds a provision that’s like a children’s version of the Act, forbidding schools to discipline students for expressing anti-gay views either verbally or through written assignments.

LGBT activists wonder: Is this the making of a new Jim Crow-style era?
Along with Mississippi, Republican lawmakers in Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Arizona, Hawaii, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Kansas have recently introduced their own so-called ‘religious freedom’ bills giving citizens the right to segregate their businesses against LGBT Americans. All of these RFRA bills popped up in just the last four months, suggesting a concerted, national effort by the religious right to push back against the movement toward expanded rights for same-sex couples. A total of 31 states have already taken a stand against what they call a ‘substantial burden’ placed on their citizens’ religious practices.

 

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Seed Rebels Adopt the Language of the Internet

OSSILOGO-featured

A group of scientists and food activists is changing the rules that govern seeds.
They’re using the open source software development model to create seeds that can be planted for food.

Software is called open source when the source code is right there for anyone to install, learn from, or customize. It’s built and maintained by volunteer programmers and you don’t have to pay a royalty or fee to the license holder. You use open source software everyday if your internet browser is set to Mozilla Firefox or your mobile devices run on the Android operating system.

Seeds were always open source; we just didn’t know it.
For thousands of years farmers and backyard gardeners have experimented with seeds, breeding and adapting them to suit their tastes and needs. At the end of each season they’d share their experience and experiments with the community through seed swaps and exchanges.

Modern agriculture has turned this ancient model on its head. Through genetic engineering, companies like Monsanto and DuPont are able to insert a single new gene into the cell of a plant and claim ownership of all future seeds from the line. Seeds these days are intellectual property. They’re patented like inventions and a grower needs permission from the patent holder to plant them. And the GMO seed industry is playing hardball with its patents. The companies employ a small army of ‘seed police’ operating in rural America, threatening small farmers, shop owners, and community co-ops with patent infringement lawsuits. They’ve gone after farmers for violating patents by saving seeds from a harvest for replanting the next season, and have even sued inadvertent growers when the wind was proven to carry seeds from one farmer’s field to another. They’ve successfully argued patent enforcement all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Open Source Seed Initiative‘s rallying cry is Free the Seeds. 
The group aims to restore the practice of open sharing among growers by keeping certain seeds in the public domain. The free seed movement asserts that genetic engineers are falsely claiming dominion over something that embodies millennia of natural evolution and centuries of innovation contributed by farmers and natural seed breeders. And more critically, seed patents are a threat to the food security of future generations. In this time of climate change we need to preserve biodiversity in agriculture and encourage farmers to adapt and evolve along with the changing agro-ecosystem. Patents limit diversity and concentrate ownership in just a few hands. A single crop failure could be a disaster of unprecedented scale.

The Open Source Seed Initiative has just released the first set of open source seeds—36 varieties of 14 different herb, grain, and vegetable crops. Each packet is printed with the OSSI Pledge that the seeds and their derivatives will be used in a free and unrestricted manner. You can order a home gardener’s seed set of 14 organic vegetable varieties for $25. Proceeds go to the OSSI fund for Open Source Breeding.

 

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The Bumpy Road to Nutrition Labeling for Alcohol

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image via Wear Your Beer

 

Think about it– everything has a label.
Every box, bag, can, and bottle; if it’s meant to be be consumed it’s required to have a a rundown of ingredients and calories, fats and carbs. Everything but alcohol. For years labels weren’t even allowed.

For an explanation, you have to go all the way back to Prohibition.

The Food and Drug Administration was already in place regulating what we eat and drink, but Congress, recognizing the tax potential, assigned oversight of the newly legal alcoholic beverages to the Treasury Department under the auspices of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and passed the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935, which is still in force.

The TTB holds beer, wine, and liquor manufacturers to very different labeling standards than other food and beverage makers.
TTB standards have never included the nutrition facts you see everywhere else. Beer makers were actually forbidden from putting alcohol content information on their labels, finally suing for the right to do so in 1987. There are some arcane legal distinctions that put labels on the food content of things like low-alcohol wine, light and gluten-free beer, and hard cider, but you’d have a tough time hunting down the carbohydrates in Chardonnay or the sugar content of Jim Beam.

Between the obesity epidemic and rampant food intolerances, consumers shouldn’t be kept in the dark.
Fortunately we’re finally moving toward greater transparency, helped along by the Affordable Care Act, which requires most multi-outlet restaurants and food and beverage retailers to post calorie information for all menu items, including alcoholic beverages. Last May, the TTB lifted its mind-boggling ban on nutrition labels and adopted an interim policy of voluntary disclosures in advertising and on packaging for beer, wine, and spirits. Mandatory labeling can’t be far behind.

For now we have to satisfy ourselves with the rather sketchy information provided by the government’s National Nutrition Database for Standard Reference. It’s a humorously arbitrary, semi-useful assortment of nutrition facts offering vague profiles of wine (simply ‘red’ or ‘white’), generic averages of beer (‘regular’ or ‘light’), but gives a detailed analysis of three different recipes for a whiskey sour and includes one mysterious entry for ‘tequila sunrise, canned.’

 

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What Can You See at 175 Chickens-Per-Minute?

chicken-inspection

image via Linco Food Systems

 

That’s how fast the line of eviscerated chickens will soon be flying by slaughterhouse inspectors.
The speedup is just one of the controversial features of the USDA’s planned deregulation of the poultry business.
The proposal is officially named ‘The Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection Regulation,’ but it’s known informally as ‘The Dirty Chicken Rule.’ For good reason.

Not everyone is on board with the plan, and its critics are not just the usual suspects from food safety and consumer watchdog groups. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported on its potential to negatively impact food and worker safety, and 68 members of Congress have already written to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to suspend action on the proposal.

Criticism has focussed on four distinctly troubling features of the regulation:
• Increase inspection line speeds from an already inadequate maximum of 140 chickens per minute to 175. 
• Reduce the number of government poultry inspectors by 40%. 
• Allow poultry processors to opt for ‘self-inspection’ by their own, non-certified employees in the place of trained government inspectors. 
• Allow poultry processors to subject chickens to higher levels of antimicrobial chemicals.

Add it all up and you have inspectors that get one-third of a second to inspect each bird inside and out, while the number of eyes on them is cut almost in half. The remaining eyes need no particular training in inspection techniques and they’ll rely on the slaughterhouse owner for a paycheck. Is it any surprise that there’s a provision for more pathogen-killing treatments? Processed chickens are already typically dunked and doused with antibacterial chemicals four separate times, but the industry wants to be ready for the onslaught of feces, tumors, lesions, deformities, and other abnormalities that it expects to pass unchecked through the rejiggered inspection lines.

The USDA has already been test-driving the new inspection model through a pilot project in two dozen slaughter facilities, and the agency’s regulatory agenda indicates it hopes to finalize the plan in April. Poultry workers, chicken industry lobbyists, and food-safety advocates have been bringing dueling efforts to Capitol Hill, while the Obama administration is having a hard time looking beyond the cost savings that arise from reduced and privatized inspections.

Don’t let the USDA play chicken with your health.
Change.org is petitioning the agency to abandon its plans to overhaul and privatize the poultry inspection system. Add your signature to the nearly 200,000 already collected at the petition with the appropriately unsavory name of Scabs, Pus, and Feces in Chicken? USDA, Keep It Off My Plate!. 

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Everything Added to Food (at least according to the FDA)

nothingaddedThe FDA’s Everything Added to Food in the United States (EAFUS) has more than 3,000 entries and goes on for 40 pages.
As the nation’s food safety database you’d expect it to be an exhaustive inventory of what we eat. ‘Everything’ is right there in its name.

The FDA plays fast and loose with its interpretation of ‘everything’
Colorings and flavorings can be added to food without being included in the EAFUS. Same with substances that are used in processing and then stick around in the final product. These might be disinfectants like bleach, or residue from production and packaging processes that use acids, metals, salts, arsenic, or radiation. Since the FDA calls them processing aids rather than ingredients, they don’t make the ‘everything’ list either. The Pew Health Group, the health sector of a U.S. public policy non-profit, has its own list and it identifies nearly 10,000 allowable food additives that the FDA seems to have overlooked on their so-called ‘everything’ list.

The agency maintains a second list of foods that are designated Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), although ‘safe’ is interpreted as liberally as ‘everything’.
Foods that are Generally Recognized as Safe were grandfathered into the food system because we were already eating them in 1958, the year when our current food additive regulations went into effect. Remember 1958? Back then we ‘generally recognized’ that we didn’t need seat belts or bicycle helmets, and doctors ‘generally recognized’ that a martini and a cigarette was a good way for pregnant women to relax. Items on the GRAS list are allowed in our food without FDA approval or restrictions, and it’s what brought us things like saccharine and MSG and the notorious Red Dye No. 2. It’s allowed substances like salt, corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and trans fats to overwhelm our diets because manufacturers can use them in an unrestricted way. The controversial caffeine levels found in energy drinks and the dangerous combination of caffeine and alcohol are recent examples of GRAS freedoms run amok.
And GRAS items don’t show up on the list of EAFUS. Don’t ask me why.

The GRAS list has become an unlocked back door directly into our kitchens.
What began as an inventory of the most common and presumed benign foods has become the primary way that new ingredients are added to the food system. A GRAS designation allows a manufacturer to add a substance without pre-market review and no government agency has to sign off on its safety. And all the folks who are ‘generally recognizing’ its safety can be on the manufacturer’s payroll. The Journal of the American Medical Association examined 451 GRAS notifications submitted to the FDA between 1997 and 2012 (a process that is itself strictly voluntary) and found that every single one of them was based on assessments that were performed by employees of the manufacturer or by company-paid consultants.

The FDA says innocent until proven guilty when it comes to our food—even if it’s genetically modified.
It’s positively mind-boggling, but controversial substances like GMOs are treated as Generally Recognized as Safe. If the conventional version of a food has GRAS status, its GMO counterpart is a slam-dunk—no additional safety testing or approval is needed. And it isn’t even documented in the EAFUS.

For all its obfuscation, the FDA actually publishes something called FDA Transparency Blog.
The blog’s stated purpose is “to create a dialogue with the public about the activities that FDA is engaged in to protect and promote the public health.”
Unfortunately, nobody at the agency has bothered posting to it since September, 2013.

We have a right to know. 
We might choose to buy organic, or non-GMO ingredients, or to support brands with strong sustainability practices and appropriate safety oversight. Our choices are only as good as the knowledge allows.

 

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Does ‘Headless’ Chicken Breeding Eliminate Issues of Animal Cruelty?

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There’s a plan going around farming circles to breed ‘headless’ chickens.
The idea is to remove the cerebral cortex of the chicken while keeping the body alive through an arterial system that pumps food, water, and oxygen through the ‘living meat’ and pumps waste directly out of its digestive tract. The brain stem of the chicken is left intact to continue to regulate the metabolic systems involved in muscle growth, but the chicken is blind, unconscious, and has no sensory perceptions.

The chickens are oblivious to their surroundings and feel no pain. Unnecessary body parts like beaks and feet and wing tips can be trimmed off to save on space, and the birds can be densely packed and stacked like firewood. The ‘farms’ would make good neighbors even in urban and suburban areas because the chickens are completely silent, sanitary, and odor-free with all of the messy in- and outflows contained in tubes and tanks.

Is it humane to farm the unconscious?
Consider the current state of animal welfare.
Billions of chickens—fully 99% of the 7+ billion raised each year in this country—are currently living the entirety of their miserable lives in confinement. They’re crammed together in filthy sheds and cages where hundreds of millions of them have broken limbs and can die from stress and dehydration, unable to reach the water nozzles, and another hundred million are deemed unfit for meat and are tossed into bags to suffocate or ground up alive.

These are social animals with the intelligence of cats, dogs, and even some primates. Yet there are no federal regulations governing chicken welfare, and except for cockfighting prohibitions, they’re ignored by most states. Chickens are even excluded from the Humane Slaughter Act that protects every other land animal.

Is ‘headless’ chicken production an act of humanity?
The blind, footless, lobotomized chickens are no longer sentient beings. They’re merely an agricultural crop like vegetables that we ready for harvest. Proponents argue that removing the chickens’ higher cognitive abilities is a kindness in an agricultural system that currently disregards them.

The Chicken Matrix?
There are obvious comparisons to The Matrix. In the movie, humans are kept alive in power plants where their brains are plugged into a simulated reality while their bodies are being harvested for bioelectrical energy to power the machines that dominate the Earth. A few rebels are given a choice: a blue pill allows them to stay in the safety and comfort of the simulation while a red pill releases their brains into the harsh, post-apocalyptic reality of the physical world. The hero Neo opts to live and die authentically, but the choice is not so clear-cut. The rebel Cypher regrets the trade-off telling the leader Morpheus: If you’d told us the truth, we would’ve told you to shove that red pill right up your ass. 

While chickens might not suffer from the existential crises of free will, they also don’t exist in a world of red and blue pills. We don’t provide adequate welfare for agricultural animals, but it doesn’t mean we can’t. Ignorance for chickens might be more blissful than the current horrors of factory farming, but it’s not a kindness.

Our dominion over animals means we bear a responsibility to care for them humanely. It means stewardship, not exploitation. ‘Headless’ chicken production tries to circumvent that responsibility by rendering compassion irrelevant to the process. In doing so, it diminishes our humanity.

 

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The Government Shutdown Diet

 

meat inspector magnet via Zazzle

meat inspector magnet via Zazzle

 

The Food and Drug Administration is closed during the government shutdown.
The furloughed employees turned in their government-issued cell phones and were told not to even check their work email until Congress passes a budget. Same for the food safety inspectors at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That leaves 85% of the nation’s food supply unmonitored and uninspected.

Here’s what’s not going on during the shutdown:

  • Lab testing of food samples—for sanitation, disease, additives, or parasites—is almost non-existent.
  • Foodborne illness outbreaks aren’t traced, tracked, or monitored. The CDC’s 80-person food pathogen staff is reduced to two, with just one lone, unfurloughed CDC employee on the salmonella, listeria, and E. coli beat for the entire country.
  • Pending actions on known outbreaks that were sickening people before the shutdown have been suspended. Yesterday’s reported outbreak of salmonella is a prime example; it had already been spotted by the USDA when the shutdown halted the investigation and reporting mechanism. It sickened 278 people in 18 states before the barebones CDC staff could pinpoint the source (Foster Farms chicken) and notify the public.
  • There are no unannounced site visits. The visits are an important tool that keeps processors ‘honest’— so far this year spot visits to slaughterhouses and other processors of meat and poultry have already caught 500 violators red-handed. With the enforcement arm of the FDA on furlough, that means that there are 500 perpetrators of meat tainted by diseased feces, illegal drug residue, and other unsanitary and unsavory conditions that are free to ply their trade.
  • Our borders are wide open to food imports. One of the FDA’s most potent weapons is the ‘red alert’ list. It allows FDA inspectors to automatically snag shipments from companies that have repeatedly violated our health and safety laws. During the shutdown, tainted, toxic, parasite-riddled, putrefying food imports are freely flowing through our ports of entry.
    If you think that sounds like an overstatement, take a look at some of the past Inspection Refusal Reports, released monthly by the Food and Drug Administration. The blue Chinese pork that had been contaminated by a phosphorescent bacteria that caused the meat to glow in the dark will have you thinking again.

What’s safe to eat on the government shutdown diet?

Eggs, meat, and poultry
I wouldn’t exactly call these safe even though USDA inspectors are still on the job. Egg farms, poultry processors, and slaughterhouses aren’t allowed to stay open without an inspector on site, and because these facilities are so important to the nation’s food supply, the inspectors are unfurloughed ‘essential’ workers. That means that the day-to-day observations are continuing, but the suspension of spot inspections, laboratory testing, and import oversight are putting us at risk.

Fruits and vegetables
This category is just a free-for-all. Fruits and vegetables, both domestic and imported, fall under the FDA’s domain. State agricultural agencies provide some oversight for produce grown within their borders, but on a national level it’s being produced and shipped without scrutiny. About 50% of our fruit and 20% of vegetables are imported, and those are flowing in unchecked for parasites, pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, fungicides, hormones, and a long list of banned substances that have shown up in previous shipments.

Canned, boxed, and packaged groceries
Inspections for these products fall under the purview of the idled workers at the Food and Drug Administration. While most food-borne illness is spread by perishable foods, pantry foods can pose threats of their own. The FDA has previously encountered risky and unsavory additives like lead-laced candy, industrial resins in rice, canned meats infected with mad cow disease, and a food processor who reused cooking oil salvaged from sewer drains. Some of the pre-shutdown findings that haven’t been supported by FDA alerts, withdrawals, and recalls include metal fragments in both Turkey Hill ice cream and Justin’s nut butters, plastic particles in Pillsbury cinnamon buns, and ingredients like nuts and shellfish– potentially deadly allergens– that are undeclared on package labeling in dozens of products like Safeway cake mixes, See’s candies, and P.F. Chang’s frozen dumplings.

Fish and shellfish
Seafood safety is a crapshoot, but that’s true even when the government is up and running. We import more than 90% of our seafood but have the resources to inspect less than 10%, with a tiny fraction of that portion going on to lab testing for abnormalities, pathogens, and illegal substances. There is little scrutiny despite the fact that most is farmed in developing nations with unsanitary conditions and lax regulations, where untreated animal manure and human waste can be used as feed, and antibiotics, pesticides, and fungicides are liberally applied to battle the rampant bacteria and disease. Salmonella and excrement are so routinely found in imported seafood that entire nations are on the FDA’s ‘red alert’ list so that every one of their shipments can be flagged at the border—at least they would be if the FDA were open for business. These days it’s all waved through and sent on to the nation’s supermarkets.

Even when the government is fully operational, our nation’s food safety monitoring is over-burdened and under-funded. Our fragmented collection of responsible agencies and their archaic food safety laws have never caught up with the complex, globalized system of food production. In a ‘normal’ year we see 3,000 deaths and millions of cases of food-borne illness caused by pathogen-tainted foods. This year, with uninspected shipments moving through the food supply for months to come, you can expect to see a lot more

 

 

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They’re Banned in Europe, So Why Are We Still Eating Them?

courtesy of ComplianceSigns.com

courtesy of ComplianceSigns.com

 

Do they know something we don’t know?
Americans eat a shocking number of foods that much of the world won’t touch. We think of the U.S. as being at the forefront of medicine, technology, and advancements that protect its citizens’ health, and we blithely put our faith in regulatory agencies and government sponsored health and dietary guidance. But if you look at what’s on our plates, it’s clear that Americans are not afforded the same protections given to citizens of Europe and other developed nations.

Citrus Beverage Stabilizers
Everyone knows to shake orange juice or stir lemonade before drinking it, but when it comes to highly processed citrus drinks like Mountain Dew, Fresca, Squirt, Fanta Orange, Sunkist Pineapple, and some Gatorade and Powerade flavors, no shaking is required. That’s because the manufacturers add brominated vegetable oil, an emulsifier that keeps things from separating. A handy additive that also doubles as a flame retardant, the bromine in BVO is a nasty, toxic, corrosive chemical that’s linked to everything from schizophrenia to hearing loss. That’s why it’s been eliminated in more than 100 countries whose citizens decided they would rather just shake their beverages.

Man-made Fats
Manufacturers love them because they’re cheap, prolong the shelf life of foods, and create an appealing texture. That’s why they put them in everything from bread to cookies to peanut butter. And by all accounts they’re really, really bad for you, leeching metals into blood vessels, clogging arteries, raising cholesterol, and impacting organ function and natural immunities.

You’ve heard the fuss about trans fats, but those are just one of many fats that have been banned elsewhere. The man-made fats start out as natural vegetable oils, but after the oil is pressured with hydrogen, superheated, and injected with metals, what comes out is a new beast with its own molecular structure, a mere one molecule away from officially becoming a plastic.

While we’re at it, let’s give a special shout-out to the fat substitute Olestra (aka Olean).
It’s referred to as fat-free; actually you’re eating fat but you don’t absorb the calories because Olestra’s been manipulated to pass through the gastrointestinal tract without being digested. Unfortunately it also pulls vitamins and nutrients from other foods out of the digestive tract to be eliminated along with the undigested fat—an oily excretion that the manufacturer likes to refer to as ‘anal leakage’—a  feature that inspired Time Magazine to name Olestra to its list of the world’s all-time 50 worst inventions.

Arsenic
If you’re familiar with the plot lines of old who-done-its you probably think of arsenic as the quintessential poison for humans. So what’s it doing in our beef and chicken?

The chicken is a straight shot—producers put arsenic in poultry feed in the form of drugs that kill intestinal parasites, promote growth, and give the flesh a nice pink glow. It’s actually a safe form of arsenic when it’s fed to 9 out of 10 chickens, but the metabolized arsenic that’s found in chicken meat is a form that the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as a human carcinogen. That’s why the EU never approved arsenic feed compounds, and Japan and many other countries outlawed the use of arsenic in chicken feed years ago.

Arsenic has a less direct path to beef.
It seems that U.S. cattle eat chicken manure, and lots of it. Who knew? Apparently arsenic-laced chicken droppings are filled with a cheap form of protein, and we feed our cows two billion pounds of the stuff annually. The meat ends up on our dinner tables, and the odd bits are ground into bone meal that goes right back into chicken feed, keeping  the arsenic circulating and recirculating through our food.

Then there’s the cannibalism thing.
We probably shouldn’t need a regulatory agency to tell us that it’s a bad idea to feed animals to animals—especially when we’re mixing herbivores with carnivores and even feeding them their own species. Much of the world has already figured this one out, and Mad Cow Disease gave an extra push to the holdouts, but here in the U.S. most animals are still allowed to eat their own kind. Pig carcasses are rendered and fed back to pigs, chicken feed can contain chicken carcasses, and cattle can be fed cow blood and some other parts of their brethren. Road kill, dead horses, and euthanized cats and dogs are also regularly and legally thrown into the mix.

Shall I keep going?
How about the chemical bleaching agents added to flour? Manufacturers in most countries just store the flour for a week or so and wait for it to naturally lighten up. American food processors like things fast and cheap so they add the instant whitener azodicarbonamide; a substance so toxic that the illegal use of it in some countries can land a factory owner a 15 year prison sentence. Then there’s ractopomine, a drug that keeps pigs lean by hyping them up. The pork can do the same to humans, causing tremors and raising heart rates so much that it’s supposed to be avoided by anyone with a cardiovascular disease—no easy feat since it’s fed to around three-quarters of U.S. hogs. And let’s not forget the coloring ingredient used in food dyes (blue 1&2, yellow 5& 6) that color our candy, soda, and cake mixes. You’ll find that substance in overseas factory but only when it’s used to polish the floors.

Nobody wants to see their food choices crushed under the jackboot of regulation.
We already have labeling requirements and safety regulations. There are diet and nutrition concerns, species to preserve, and animal welfare to guard. We look out for the state of the environment and of the economy, the fate of family farms and of children with allergies. We don’t need more regulations, but we do need better ones. The public’s interests should come first in a regulatory system that’s not beholden to industry.

If it’s legal, it ought to be safe.

 

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We Can Do This. We Can Get Yellow Dye Out of Kraft Mac & Cheese.

swatch-yellow5      swatch-yellow6

Meet Tartrazine and Sunset Yellow.

You can thank them for the foil pouch of day-glo cheese powder that comes in every box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Every box in the U.S., that is. Kraft reformulated the recipe for the European market replacing the artificial dyes with natural, plant-based ingredients like paprika and beta carotene. The dyes are gone because European consumers revolted over potentially harmful side effects and demanded that the company remove them.

Both of these yellow dyes are man-made chemicals derived from petroleum.
The additives have been linked to a host of disturbing side effects like asthma, eczema, and migraines, in addition to hyperactivity and learning impairments in children. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that both dyes are also contaminated with known carcinogens. And they serve no purpose beyond the aesthetics of bright orange cheese, contributing nothing to the nutritional value or safety of food.

They’re not just in the blue box of Kraft.
It’s estimated that a young child with a taste for fast- and processed foods could be eating as much as a pound of food dye every year. Well beyond the usual suspects like purple Popsicles and rainbow Skittles, you’ll find food dyes in a staggering array of foods like canned fruit, fresh oranges, hot and cold cereals, pizza crusts, chocolate milk, salad dressing, lemonade, ginger ale, cookies and bread, chips and crackers, even matzoh balls. Oy veh.

Where, pray tell, is the FDA?
The Food and Drug Agency calls the shots when it comes to food additives, and it has a long history of calling them wrong. Looking at Tartrazine and Sunset Yellow, the agency acknowledged the sizable body of research linking the colorings to behavioral changes in children, but the advisory panel tasked with their review called the evidence inconclusive and recommended that the agency continue its hands-off approach to the additives. Of course FDA approval is hardly a guarantee of safety. The agency’s site lists 91 previously approved artificial dyes that are now banned. And bear in mind that countries throughout Europe weighed the same ‘inconclusive’ evidence against potential health consequences and have banned most artificial food dyes.

We don’t need to wait for the FDA.
Earlier this year, consumers targeted brominated vegetable oil, an additive that prevents flavorings from separating in Gatorade. After studies linked the FDA-approved ingredient to neurological disorders and altered thyroid hormones, a petition requesting its removal circulated on Change.org, collecting more than 200,000 signatures. In January Kraft announced that because of the feedback it was reversing its earlier decision to retain the substance and would be replacing Gatorade’s brominated vegetable oil with a more acceptable emulsifier.

It worked for Gatorade. Now let’s get the yellow dye out of our mac & cheese.
Visit Change.org where you can add your name to the 360,000 that have already signed the petition demanding that Kraft stop using dangerous food dyes in its Macaroni & Cheese. You can also bring the fight to the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Facebook page, where thousands of consumers have already chimed in with their comments.

 

Posted in community, food policy, food safety | 1 Comment

Fun Facts About Guns in Bars and Restaurants

porcelain pistol by Yvonne Lee Schultz

porcelain pistol by Yvonne Lee Schultz

 

There’s a lot of talk about gun control at the state and federal level. Let’s talk about guns on a personal level that affects all of us: in bars and restaurants.

  • Fun Fact: Red state or blue—it makes no difference. Nearly every state throws its bar and restaurant doors open to gun-toting customers.

There’ve been some changes in the wake of December’s tragic shootings in Newtown; just not the kind you might expect. With bills pending in a number of state legislatures, we’ll soon see a majority of states explicitly allow residents to bring concealed and open-carry guns into bars and restaurants, while another 20 states continue to allow them by default.

  • Fun Fact: Tennessee State Representative Curry Todd served time this year for drunk driving and possession of a handgun while under the influence of alcohol. He had previously worked tirelessly as the sponsor of the nation’s first guns-in-bars law, which Tennessee passed in 2009.

These laws are the latest wave in the country’s gun debate, and represent progress made by the gun lobby as it seeks, state by state, to expand the realm of guns in everyday life.

Mixing guns and alcohol: this is truly the logic of the madhouse.
A very large body of research tells us that people who abuse alcohol are far more inclined to engage in risky behaviors, and gun owners are more likely to fall into that group:

  • Fun Fact: Compared to people who don’t keep guns in the home, gun owners are twice as likely to down five or more drinks in a single sitting; they’re nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to get behind the wheel of a car when drinking; and they consume 60 or more drinks per month at more than double the rate of non-owners.

Looking for a 3-star gun-free bistro for Saturday night?
Restaurants are free to post signs banning weapons, and recommendation sites like Yelp now include ratings for gun-free dining. Of course concealed weapons make compliance kind of iffy. Unarmed Tennessee residents rely on the listings at not-for-profit Gun Free Dining Tennessee (their motto: Eat in peace) while the NRA crowd visits GunBurger.com (protecting the Second Amendment one bite at a time).

For all the fun facts, there’s nothing trivial about the dangerous mix of alcohol and firearms.
Americans own more than 300 million non-military weapons. There are more than 40,000 gun-related deaths every year, and one in three involves alcohol.

Are there guns in your local restaurants? The NRA website has an interactive, state-by-state map of current firearm laws.

 

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, community, food policy | Leave a comment

Food Activists and Tea Partiers Team Up to Fight GMOs

image via Whale.to

image via Whale.to

 

It’s said that politics make strange bedfellows.
None stranger than the union of Food Democracy Now and the Tea Party Patriots. 
The unlikely allies are united in their opposition to a small bit of language that was tucked into the emergency spending bill which Congress passed and President Obama signed that keeps the federal government operating through the end of the fiscal year.

The controversial rider, the so-called ‘Monsanto Protection Act,’ was quietly and anonymously inserted into the agricultural appropriations portion of the 587 page budget document as it wound its way through Congress. The provision allows biotech companies like Monsanto to ignore pending safety reviews and even federal court rulings on the dangers of their genetically modified seeds. Plants can stay planted and seeds can continue to be sown and sold, and the companies can’t be sued over any damages that result when the crops are consumed. Unless there’s a veto or a court rules it to be an unconstitutional usurpation of judicial review, the provision will last until the spending bill expires at the end of September.

This ugly little bit of legislation was eventually proven to be the work of Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo), who represents Monsanto’s home state, is a frequent recipient of Monsanto campaign donations, and is a lawmaker with a long record of using legislative tricks to benefit special interests. It somehow appeared in the Senate version of the budget without committee review or debate, and many in Congress claim to have been unaware of its inclusion. It slipped in under the nose of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md), who distanced herself with the statement “As Chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Mikulski’s first responsibility was to prevent a government shutdown.”

A common enemy. Sort of.
The Tea Party is protesting the Monsanto Protection Act because it’s rife with abuses of power, special interest loopholes, collusion, and corruption. Tea Partiers aren’t all that worried about the environmental impact and possible health risks of genetically engineered and modified organisms, and in fact their official position is that “It is not the purview of Tea Party Patriots to comment on the merits of GMOs.” But we need to worry about all of it.

The upshot of the legislation is that we’re going to be eating whatever is already out there. And the GMOs and seeds that are already in the ground have this year’s growing season and harvest to spread their funky coding in seeds, pods, spores, and pollen that blow across the land and flow into our water. We have no assurance of consumer safety— there are no independent, long-term studies investigating how this new genetic experiment affects our health, environment, and future food security—and no legal protections or recourse.

Food for thought:
After a recent earthquake in Haiti, Monsanto made a donation of 475,000 tons of genetically engineered and treated seeds to the devastated farmers of the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. They chose to burn them rather than plant them.

Join environmentalists, food activists, and even Tea Partiers in the fight to overturn the Monsanto Protection Act. 
Add your name to the petition at Food Democracy Now where they are on their way to a million letters of support.

 

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Bloomberg’s Soda Ban Would’ve Worked

[image via Diets in Review]

[image via Diets in Review]

Love it or hate it, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s public health initiative to ban the sale of large sugary drinks in New York would have worked. And a ban might be the only thing that will work.

I’m no fan of the so-called Nanny State, when the government uses its power to restrict something that should be a matter of individual choice. And I agree with the judicial ruling that the ban is “arbitrary and capricious” in the way that it singles out specific beverage categories while ignoring other equally sugar-laden products, and because it applies only to restaurants and venues that are regulated by the Board of Health and not to convenience stores and other vendors that are regulated by the state. But I still would like to see a soda ban succeed.

We can all agree that there is an obesity crisis in this country, and it affects every one of us. 
Yes, all of us. You might not struggle to squeeze into your jeans or suffer from asthma, diabetes, or any of the host of medical conditions associated with obesity, but it’s a burden shared by all of us. According to Reuters obesity adds roughly $190 billion to annual national health care costs. A Duke University study calculated the cost to employers of obesity-related absenteeism as $6.4 billion a year, and it’s estimated that the added weight to passenger vehicles releases nearly 20 billion extra gallons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere every year. The Department of Defense has even called its overweight recruits a national security issue.

We can also agree that soda is a part of the problem.
In the 1970′s, the calories in the beverages we drank added up to a mere 2-4% of the total calories we consumed. Then we entered the super-size-me-venti-big-gulp era when the 16 oz. ‘large’ soda size of yore became the present-day ‘small.’ Now we can chalk up one-fifth of all calories consumed to the beverages we drink.

We recognize the problem, we know the solution, how tough can this be to fix?
Unfortunately we have a terrible track record when it comes to behavior changes that mitigate health risks, and knowledge and warnings—especially coming from public health campaigns— are among the least effective measures to change behaviors. Three in four smokers with respiratory disease continue to smoke, and a diagnosis of heart disease or diabetes has been shown to have virtually no effect on the consumption of fruit and vegetables.

Soda bans are our seat belts.
They save lives and prevent serious injury; it’s indisputable. Still, for decades the PSA campaign promoting seat belt use was mostly ignored. There were roadside billboards and radio and television spots urging us to use seat belts. They tried every approach from catchy jingles to graphic car wreck images, but what ultimately got us to buckle up were seat belt laws. 49 states (all but live-free-or-die New Hampshire) currently mandate their use and they all back up the law with stiff fines for non-compliance.

Mayor Bloomberg has a proven history with controversial food and health-related regulations.
In 2005 he banned most trans fats from all restaurants within the city limits, successfully cutting the typical restaurant meal’s content of the killer fat by more than 80%. Then in 2008 he forced chain restaurants in the city to post calorie counts resulting in a 6% reduction in calories consumed at these outlets. 

Bloomberg’s current initiative is more of a cap than an outright ban. It aims to limit the size of sugary drinks to no more than 16-ounces at movie theaters, restaurants, food carts, and sports arenas. The difference drinking a single 16-ounce drink rather than a 20-ounce one every day saves 14,600 calories a year, which amounts to four pounds of body fat.

It’s an imperfect plan. It’s riddled with inconsistencies—the 50-ounce 7-Eleven Slurpee with four Snickers-bars’ worth of sugar slips through loopholes—and it doesn’t make a dent in the regular after school soda and chips habit of children who swing by their neighborhood bodega on the way home. Detractors warn of the slippery slope of regulation wondering what this could open the door to (chips? bacon?), and the beverage industry claims scapegoating.

Of course soda isn’t solely responsible for the obesity epidemic.
Obesity results from a complex matrix of diet, environment, genetics, and a myriad of other factors. But sugared beverages are the single largest source of calories in our diet. If we’re going to tackle the obesity problem, soda is a pretty good place to start.

Soda’s impact on our bodies goes beyond tooth decay from the sugar and the elevated risk of diabetes, asthma, and heart disease associated with obesity. See all the risks in Gigabiting’s Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Drink Soda

 

 

Posted in food policy, health + diet | Leave a comment

This is What the Sequester Will Do to Our Food Safety

usdainspection

 

It looks like the sequester is coming.
We’re counting down the days to the March 1st deadline for implementing $85 billion in federal government spending cuts for the remainder of 2013.
Here’s how those cuts will impact food safety:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service monitors domestic production of meat, poultry, and egg products. It could furlough its entire workforce for two weeks. At a minimum it expects to furlough its costly meat inspection division.

The FDA conducts inspections at domestic and foreign facilities that manufacture food products. The agency expects to conduct 2,100 fewer inspections if sequestration slashes its budget.

Together, the budget reductions for these two agencies would increase the number and severity of safety incidents. Even when the FDA and the USDA-FSIS are fully-funded, we see 3,000 deaths and millions of cases of food-borne illness caused by pathogen-tainted foods. After March 1, expect to see a lot more.

One thing you can do is keep an eye on how your legislator is voting.
A new organization called Food Policy Action has released a food policy scorecard for every House member and senator. Each was given a grade, from zero to 100, based on every relevant floor vote that Congress has taken over the past two years. Their track records reflect votes taken on a range of food-related policy decisions including farm subsidies, animal welfare, genetically modified foods, school lunch programs, and food assistance.

The Food Policy Action Scorecard  lets you search, sort, and rank by zip code, politician, party affiliation, and score.

Posted in food policy, food safety | Leave a comment

The U.N. Wants You to Buy Funny Food

 

image via The Mutato Project

image via The Mutato Project

 

‘Funny’ is their word.
Let’s call it like we see it. We’re talking about ugly fruits and vegetables; the two-legged carrots, blotchy apples, crooked cucumbers, and lumpy lemons. They’re the culinary misfits that are culled by the farmer in the field, tossed out by the supermarket produce department, and if they make it far enough, passed over by consumers.

Farmers plow under more than a fifth of their crops every year because they don’t meet marketing standards for their appearance, and retailers generate another 1.6 million tons of food waste. It’s estimated that one-third of the world’s food production goes to waste, and about half of that is for cosmetic reasons. The U.N. says it could feed 900 million of the world’s hungriest citizens with our cast-offs.

Market standards for appearance are often circumscribed with awe-inspiring precision. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s document for greenhouse-grown cucumbers goes on for 10 pages describing the allowable gradients of the curves for cucumbers that bend, bow, or taper toward the ends. Field-grown varieties are guided by a separate document. The color of a red apple is delineated in the following paragraph:

That an apple having color of a lighter shade of solid red or striped red than that considered as a good shade of red characteristic of the variety may be admitted to a grade, provided it has sufficient additional area covered so that the apple has as good an appearance as one with the minimum percentage of good red characteristic of the variety required for the grade. For the striped red varieties, the percentage stated refers to the area of the surface in which the stripes of a good shade of red characteristic of the variety shall predominate over stripes of lighter red, green, or yellow. However, an apple having color of a lighter shade than that considered as a good shade of red characteristic of the variety may be admitted to a grade, provided it has sufficient additional area covered so that the apple has as good an appearance as one with the minimum percentage of stripes of a good red characteristic of the variety required for the grade. Faded brown stripes shall not be considered as color.

The Federal Trade Commission sets additional standards of beauty for fruits and vegetables that are shipped across state lines, and there are separate benchmarks for imports.

The European Union has already loosened its notoriously arcane produce regulations (sample banana spec: The thickness of a transverse section of the fruit between the lateral faces and the middle, perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, must be at a minimum of 27mm). Britain’s Sainsbury’s supermarket further relaxed its own standards, putting forked parsnips and knobby apples on the shelves of its 1,000+ stores.

Here in the U.S. we waste nearly as much as we eat, tossing out 20 pounds of food each month for every man, woman, and child. We spend a billion dollars a year just to dispose of  it. Unlike so many of the challenges we face, food waste doesn’t require a technical solution so much as a new mindset.

The U.N. is taking on the global leadership, partnering with consumers, producers, and governments to address waste issues in the food system. It’s just launched Think.Eat.Save, a global campaign aimed at raising awareness of food waste issues and facilitating cooperation across society’s producing and consuming sectors.

Posted in community, food policy, sustainability | Leave a comment

Obama and the Rise of the Machines

 

'dextrous hand robot' via The Shadow Robot Company

‘dextrous hand robot’ via The Shadow Robot Company

 

The Future of Food Safety 
Last week the Obama administration dug into its long-planned overhaul of the nation’s food safety rules. The 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act represents a seismic shift of our food safety focus. Instead of responding to contamination, we’ll prevent it. And we’ll do it with robots.

We think about robots as a labor-saving asset, freeing workers from the repetitive drudgery of high speed production—heavy manufacturing like the automotive and electronics industries often come to mind first. But advancements in their technology have made it possible for robots to perform delicate food-related tasks. Robots can be outfitted with laser vision and armed with attachments like tweezers, whisks, and suction grippers. They can reach into a chicken to pull out its guts, gently draw milk from a cow, and pack eggs into cartons with the utmost care; and now they’ll be enlisted to help meet the challenges of our new food safety policy.

Robots are equipped for the often harsh environment of food processing.
They don’t burn in the oven or get cold in the freezer. They’re not squeamish or sensitive to unsavory smells. They can work around acids, smoke, and fumes, and don’t mind noisy factory floors. They also have their own built-in hygiene. They don’t need gloves or hairnets, they don’t get sick, and their surfaces can be bleached, boiled, or otherwise sanitized.

Brain surgery is easy; try deboning a chicken.
Robots have performed heart bypasses and microscopic eye surgeries for years. Robotic engineers have only now figured out butchering. Chickens in particular have especially complex and variable anatomy, and the robot has to size up each bird individually, calculating internal and external contours in 3-D. The scientists stuck with it because butchering robots can greatly reduce health risks.

Instead of waiting for e coli to appear in a child’s fast food hamburger, it can be stopped at the source. Precision meat processing reduces the possibility of accidental cuts into organs like the stomach and the intestines that harbor harmful bacteria. When there is an incident, robots can perform visual scans that locate surfaces that need to be disinfected, and can quickly quarantine contaminations.

Traceability. Finally.
Order a book from Amazon and you can track its progress right to your door—each incident of transportation and package handling along the route. The eggs in your refrigerator are another story. We learned this the hard way in the summer of 2010 when more than 1,600 people were sickened by salmonella as federal investigators spent weeks winding through private accounting records and public health databases before finally unearthing the source of the contamination.

The European Union has had food traceability regulations in place since 2005. Until now, the U.S. has had voluntary, mostly arbitrary tracking programs and inventory management systems. Robotic vision systems will fix that by reading and storing bar code data and interfacing with other product identification technologies such as RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags. They’ll trace food from farm to table, identifying every stop, every machine, every hand it passes through along the way.

You can read the full text of the Food Safety and Modernization Act and follow a timeline of its implementation at the FDA website. Obama’s National Robotics Initiative has reserved $70 million for related research.

Posted in food policy, food safety, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Walmart Sells the Groceries While U.S.Taxpayers Feed its Employees

 

image via Eat Drink Politics

 

We all know that Walmart sits at the top of many lists.
It’s the world’s largest private employer, the world’s biggest retailer, and one of the most valuable companies in history.
Here in the U.S. it’s the largest seller of food, collecting one of every four dollars spent on groceries. It also rakes in more from food stamp recipients than any other retailer, hauling in nearly 40% of all food stamp spending.

Here’s another lists it tops:
Walmart workers lead the nation in government subsidies to the working poor.

Because of low wages and lack of covered benefits, each Walmart store costs taxpayers an average of $420,000 in annual government assistance, or about $943 per Walmart employee. With as many as 80% of store workers falling into the safety net, Walmart employees top the list of food stamp and Medicaid recipients in dozens of states, collecting a total of $2.66 billion in taxpayer assistance last year.

All that food, all that profit, all those food stamps. You might call it ironic; some call it the conservative circle of life; I call it reprehensible.

See your city, county, state, and federal tax dollars at work (for Walmart) with the interactive map found at Walmart Subsidy Watch.

Posted in food business, food policy, workplace | 1 Comment

Airbnb for Home Cooking

 

It’s called the new sharing economy, collaborative consumption, the peer-to-peer marketplace.
The success of Airbnb cemented the intersection of online social networking, mobile technology, the DIY movement, and the heightened frugality of lingering economic uncertainties. If you want to borrow or rent someone’s apartment, bicycle, car, lawnmower, designer handbag, parking spot, or any number of random household goods, you can find a marketplace to do it. There’s also plenty to eat in the sharing economy.

There’s also plenty to eat in the sharing economy.
There are underground food markets—quasi-clandestine events that remake the traditional farmers market into a tribal gathering of would-be chefs, food entrepreneurs, and food adventurers; they are to the indie food world what a rave is to the music crowd. There are food swapping events, where no money changes hands but you bid with bags of your homemade granola for someone else’s jars of jam, home-brewed vanilla extract, or hand-rolled pasta. And there are businesses trying for a piece of the market like Feastly, that turns your home cooking and dining room table into a restaurant for the night, and Gobble, that sells and delivers your meals to local customers.

Food sharing is an idea whose time has come.
It’s recession friendly; it earns a little income for the cook, and is generally cheaper (and healthier) than store-bought or restaurant takeout. It suits our interest in alternative dining seen in the wave of food trucks and pop-up restaurants that’s been gaining steam in recent years. It also dovetails with the interest in artisan foods, providing a showcase for cooks and a platform for food entrepreneurs to build their customer base.

But is it legal?
Bear in mind that even Airbnb—which facilitates $500 million worth of transactions annually and has a company valuation of $1.3 billion—stands on shaky legal ground. If you are a renter listing your home on Airbnb you’re probably violating your lease; if you own, you’re probably breaking zoning and other laws for operating an unlicensed inn.

The standard rule in most of the U.S. is that if you bake some cookies in your kitchen, you’re welcome to share them with friends, family, and neighbors; you can bring the cookies in to work to share with coworkers; you can exchange them at swaps and potlucks. But unless your home kitchen is commercially licensed, what you typically can’t do with your cookies is sell them for money. Some local authorities turn a blind eye to blatant violations like underground markets, while others crack down on even the most benign sales, resulting in incidents like St. Cecelia’s pie-gate, when a Pennsylvania state health inspector shut down three elderly, pie-baking church ladies at a lenten fish fry.

State and local legislatures are being prodded to loosen up regulations, especially when it comes to low-risk foods like fruits jams and baked goods. More than half of the states have so-called cottage food laws governing home food production, and a few more have laws pending, but individual cities, towns, and counties can add their own layers of bureaucracy and regulations.

Before you sell, consult the state law database at The Sustainable Economies Law Center.

 

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