food policy

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?

headless-chicken-toy-2803711

 


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.

 

Posted in food policy | 4 Comments

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 285,000 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.

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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.

 

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

See Your Legislator’s Voting Record on Food

image via Indie Food Project

 

Does your Congressional Representative get a passing grade?
Just in time for the November 6 election, 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 32 floor votes — 18 in the Senate, 14 in the House — 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.

Congressional scorecards are nothing new. Members of Congress are graded on their conservative bona fides by the American Conservative Union, the marijuana reform lobby gives Smoke the Vote ratings, and the NRA scores them on their gun love. Scorecards work as crib sheets for voters, but the public scrutiny can also elevate an issue’s profile in Congress and even impact votes.

The average food policy score for Senate lawmakers was 58 percent, while the average score in the House was 57 percent. There were plenty of high scores from both parties, although of the 50 members of Congress who received a perfect score of 100 percent, 49 of them were Democrats, and the single-digit ratings all went to Republicans.

See how your legislators scored.
The Food Policy Action Scorecard  lets you search, sort, and rank by zip code, politician, party affiliation, and scores.

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Horse Meat Comes Off the Menu at NYC Restaurant

image via Louisville.com

 

I’m so hungry I could eat a…

Horse meat is off the menu at New York’s M. Wells Dinette. The restaurant’s celebrated French-Canadian chef-owner scuttled plans to serve horse meat tartare in response to outrage from animal rights advocates and concern about legal and health ramifications.

Last year Congress lifted a ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption. Until the ban went into effect just five years earlier the U.S. was one of the world’s largest horse meat producers, mostly shipping it to overseas markets, and had been for more than a century. But we’ve never been much for eating it.

Horse meat has long been taboo in the U.S., mostly for sentimental reasons.
It’s like the pets-or-food problem we have with rabbit; we don’t want to eat potential companions. There have been two notable exceptions in horse meat history: a widely mocked government promotion as a beef substitute when meat rations became scarce during World War II (earning Truman the nickname ‘Horse Meat Harry’); and the chicken-fried horse meat cutlets served at the Harvard Faculty Club until 1985.

Animal protection groups pressed Congress for the 2007 ban, but animal welfare was also one of the reasons for the ban to be lifted. Incidents of horse neglect, mistreatment, and abandonment had soared in the following years—animal welfare organizations have reported as much as a 60% spike—with most blaming the recession, since the proper maintenance of a horse is such a huge expense.

Even so, a horse slaughterhouse is a tough sell, and not just to New Yorkers. A new slaughterhouse has yet to open since Congress cleared the way; one application was withdrawn when a Missouri community protested, another is languishing in New Mexico with strong opposition from legislators; and in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie signed a bill that bans not just slaughterhouses, but even the transport of slaughterhouse-bound horses on his state’s roads.

Even with its new legal status, there is virtually no U.S. market for human consumption of horse meat. Horse meat is not kosher, questionably halal, and it’s forbidden by some Christian sects going back to the 8th Century when the Pope declaimed it as a “filthy and abominable” pagan custom. Its cause isn’t helped by the lack of a culinary cognate—meat from a pig is called pork, from a cow it’s called beef or veal, but meat from a horse is horse meat (although the practice of horse-eating is called hippophagy).

In case you’re curious, horse meat is said to taste similar to beef only sweeter and gamier with a mineral finish.

You might be surprised to learn that beyond horse meat, you can legally buy everything from camel to yak to zebra. Read all about it in Gigabiting’s How to Cook a Lion.

Posted in cook + dine, food knowledge, food policy | 2 Comments

U.S. State Department Recruits Chef-Ambassadors

image via Cutest Food

 

It’s called Gastro-Diplomacy and it’s the latest weapon deployed from the U.S. smart power arsenal.

Food isn’t traditionally thought of as a diplomatic tool, but sharing a meal can help people transcend boundaries and build bridges in a way that nothing else can.
                                                     — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton             

80 chefs have been inducted into the newly-formed American Chef Corps where they’ll serve as resources to the State Department. They can be called on to prepare meals for visiting dignitaries or dispatched around the globe for educational programs and cultural exchanges. The list includes big name working chefs from all over the country plus a smattering of media celebrities from the Food Network and Top Chef franchise.

For god, country, and a snazzy chef jacket
The chefs are unpaid emissaries, volunteering their time and energy to the budget-neutral initiative. Once they complete a ‘posting’ they’re anointed as State Chefs and get the official uniform of a navy jacket embroidered with the American flag and their name in gold. Other Corps costs are covered by corporate sponsors like Lenox China and the Mars candy company.

Winning hearts and minds
Culture has always been a linchpin of our public diplomacy; everything from US. pavilions at World Expos to the old episodes of Mork and Mindy that are running right now on Croatia National Television. Our culture might be our most sustainable weapon in the war on terror in its subtle but wide-ranging ability to communicate our values and shape world opinions.

Is food the jazz of our times?
In the 1950′s, America’s international standing was at a low point similar to today’s. Russia’s Cold War propaganda was winning over our allies, and segregation in the south had further tarnished our image. The State Department decided to shake things up. Rather than shipping off ballet companies and symphony orchestras, a racially blended group of American jazz musicians was sent out into the world as our cultural envoys. Benny Goodman blew his clarinet in Red Square, Dizzy Gillespie played a snake charmer with his trumpet in Pakistan, and Duke Ellington sat and smoked a hookah with the locals in Iraq. Dubbed the Jazz Ambassador Tours, they were a potent symbol of America’s freedoms, and far cooler than Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet. The New York Times called the tours our ‘Secret Sonic Weapon.’

Hearts, minds, and now stomachs
This time, food replaces jazz. Of course gastro-diplomacy is nothing new—think of the state dinners the White House has used to welcome foreign dignitaries since the 19th century. From the standpoint of protocol, the dinners demonstrate respect and celebrate the diplomatic ties between nations. Underlying that is an opportunity to connect on a human level; the hope is that it fosters tolerance and understanding that will carry through to the real business of the leader’s visit.

Food is a universal experience. It’s the soul of each nation but it speaks a common language. Even Secretary Clinton, who spurned the image of the chocolate chip cookie-baking First Lady, recognizes the persuasive power of  food to cross cultures and borders, bringing friends and enemies to the table.

Read the U.S. Department of State press release announcing the formation of the American Chef Corps.
Eater shares the first list of chefs that have been invited to join the Corps.

 

Posted in food policy, Travel | Leave a comment

This is Real Vulture Capitalism: Financial Speculation in Global Food Prices

image via Top Life Quotes

 

Food-backed securities are the new darlings of Wall Street.
The financial services industry has cornered the market on food commodities. Their own financial markets collapsed and the housing bubble burst, so all that money had to go somewhere. It landed in agricultural commodities— wheat, corn, rice, dairy, and beef— where hedge funds and investment banks now dominate world markets.

No small potatoes
Back in 2003, before the banking crisis, about $3 billion of capital was invested in commodities; it stands now at nearly $150 billion, representing 85% of all global food commodity trading. The top players generate huge profits. Last year, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Barclays Capital, and Deutsche Bank each reported to have raked in upwards of $500 million from commodities market trades.

Before the speculators moved in, commodity trading was a place for stakeholders with a bona fide interest in the goods. On one side were the sellers of physical goods; the farmers, the millers, and the warehousers. The buyers on the other side were users of those commodities; they were agencies, governments, and food processors—the Nestlés, Krafts, and McDonald’s of the world. There was some investment of the traditional buy-low-sell-high type; just enough to keep the market liquid and give the stakeholders a chance to pre-sell some future contracts as a hedge against price fluctuations.

Speculators, who buy up positions on both sides while claiming a stake in neither, have perverted the centuries-old symmetry of the exchange. They’ve transformed a marketplace for farmers into a playground for investors. Food prices are now subject to the same market pressures as any other financial instrument, and the same volatility. Once-stable commodity prices can now see a month’s-worth of fluctuations in a single trading hour. Instead of supply and demand, spring freezes and summer droughts, food prices are now tied to fluctuations in exchange-traded commodity funds and food index-linked notes. It’s an amalgam of complex securities that is looking an awful lot like the trumped-up world of mortgage-backed derivatives before that market melted down.

Balanced diets, not balance sheets
The volume of speculation has overwhelmed the market, with a devastating, destabilizing effect on global food prices. Over the past 10 years, prices for basic commodities like meat, grains, sugar, cooking oil, and dairy products have increased by an average of more than 125%, far outstripping overall inflation in almost every country. In poorer, developing countries, it’s not uncommon for an individual to spend 60-75% of their income on food; there’s no wiggle room for changing prices in a budget like that. But in just the past five years, when we saw financial companies doubling-down on their investments, the commodities market was rocked by two annual price surges of more than 50% each. It’s no surprise that during the same five-year period, the United Nations World Food Program reported 115 million new cases of starvation and malnutrition.

I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt to the market speculators.
I’d like to think that their financial instruments are at such a remove from the stakeholders that to the investors it just seems like so many monetized widgets.
I’d like to believe that they too would be revolted by the knowledge that their financial gain comes at the price of human suffering.
The alternative is too monstrous to comprehend.

 

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Who Needs a Prettier Apple?

image via Mercola.com

 

It sure does bug us when our apples turn brown.
You know, the discoloration that occurs when you cut or bite into an apple and its flesh is exposed to air.
One apple grower is convinced that it bugs us so much that we’ll choose a non-browning variety, even if it’s a genetically-modified organism. The USDA is currently sitting on the application for the Arctic®Apple, which its inventor hopes will be the first approved food that’s been genetically modified solely for cosmetic reasons.

It’s an awfully big deal when a crop is genetically modified.
Bio-engineered crops can impact health, the environment, and market dynamics, and we don’t even fully understand all the risks. Although many in the scientific community would like to see it banned altogether, an argument can be made for agricultural biotech that addresses issues like world hunger or devastating pathogens. That’s why most GMO crops are designed to resist pests or disease, to grow faster, or to produce extra nutrients.
But not the Arctic®Apple; it’s been sliced and diced at the molecular level to spare us the need to add a sprinkle of lemon juice to prevent slices from browning.

The food industry already has plenty of techniques for maintaining the appearance and extending the shelf life of apples so that a ‘fresh’ apple in the supermarket can actually be from last year’s harvest.
They’re sprayed with wax or shellac to make them shiny and seal in moisture. They’re flushed with nitrogen, carbon dioxide, 1-methylcyclopropene, and other inert gases, and stored for months in sealed, controlled atmosphere storage facilities. They’re irradiated using high-energy electrons or X-rays from accelerators, or by gamma rays emitted from radioactive sources. The Dorian Gray-like Arctic®Apple won’t even bruise to alert you to damage or decomposition.

How do you like them apples?
The agricultural biotechnology company Okanagan Specialty Fruits has petitioned the USDA and FDA for approval to sell the Arctic®Apple in the U.S. The USDA has paused in the middle of the approval process, and over the next week the agency is asking for consumer input. The U.S. Apple Association, the Northwest Horticultural Council (representing growers of more than 60% of the U.S. apple crop), and other grower groups have already voiced their disapproval of the Arctic®Apple.

Submit your comments through the Regulation.gov website.

 

 

Posted in food business, food policy, Science/Technology | 3 Comments

Access to Healthy Food Should Be a Basic Human Right

image via Merchesico

 

Not just food, but healthy food.

Food access is a right. That one has been with us since 1948, the result of the experience of the Second World War. Vowing that the world would never again see such suffering, the international community created the United Nations and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among the various protections, guarantees, and liberties is the individual’s right to food.

Who knew from empty calories back then?
Nobody thought to specify the type of food. In 1948, the Big Mac was just a gleam in Roy Kroc’s eye, and the Colonel had yet to fry his first chicken. Who could have imagined a time when nutrition would be so divorced from food that malnutrition could go hand-in-hand with obesity?
This is the paradox of modern-day poverty.

It’s like the line in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink
.
Millions of Americans are adrift in a sea of junk food. They are swimming in abundance but can’t get a decent meal. They live in our largest and wealthiest cities like Chicago and Los Angeles where stores stand empty in the grittier, inner city neighborhoods, abandoned by retailers to the surrounding poverty and urban decay. They even live in places like central Nebraska and California’s San Joaquin Valley—some of the world’s most prolific agricultural regions—where it takes a car and a tank of gas to find a head of lettuce and fresh meat.

These are the nation’s  so-called ‘food deserts’— low-income urban and rural communities where there are plenty of processed foods at convenience stores and fast food outlets but limited access to full-service supermarkets, and nearly 25 million Americans live in this landscape.

Is access to high quality food a basic human right?
The Obama Administration thinks so. In June, the Senate included a Healthy Food Financing Initiative when it passed its version of the 2012 farm bill. The HFFI  provides seed money for local collaborations between lenders and investors, philanthropic entities, grocers, food coöps, and farmers markets. It’s based on a handful of highly successful state programs, most notably Pennsylvania’s Fresh Foods initiative that leveraged a small public investment into a half a billion dollars in private investment that has brought 88 food markets to needy areas, creating and preserving 5,000 local jobs in the process.

Obama’s HFFI is a tiny little thing of just $32 million to cover all 50 states for 2012, but its future is uncertain. After bi-partisan passage in the Senate and House Agricultural Committee, the farm bill spent the summer in limbo, stalled in the Paul Ryan-chaired House Budget Committee. The clock is ticking, with the initiative set to expire on September 30th.

Congress will need to address the farm bill when its members return from their month-long recess next week.
You can track the bill’s progress, and see if the HFFI remains in the House’s version, through the non-partisan public resource OpenCongress.org. And if you believe that access to high quality food should be a basic human right, the Open Congress website has a one-click link to email your Representative.

Find out where they are: the Economic Research Service of the USDA created a Food Desert Locator based on census tract-level data.

Posted in food policy, Health | Leave a comment
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