food policy

This is What the Sequester Will Do to Our Food Safety



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.

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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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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


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.


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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


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 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 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

Paul Ryan: Definitely Not a Foodie…


The Weienermobile on Capitol Hill via Oscar Mayer’s Hotdogger blog


…but yes, he did drive the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

As always, here at Gigabiting, we look at our world through the lens of food. Mitt Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan as his running mate posed a bit of a quandary. Ryan’s best known connection to food is the guns-and-butter paradigm of his proposed budget which offsets billions of dollars in future Defense Department spending with drastically reduced funding for food stamps, food safety inspectors, and farmers. The Ryan Plan is so damaging to social programs benefiting our poorest and most vulnerable citizens that it prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to publicly blast the devout Catholic for not just tearing holes in the nation’s safety but for his “shredding of the nation’s moral obligations.”
These are not the actions of a man with an abiding love and respect for food.

We also know that Paul Ryan is not much of a cook. He leaves D.C. on weekends for family time in Wisconsin, and on his night to cook, according to Edmund Halabi, owner of Janesville’s Italian House Restaurant, he swings through the drive-through for some take-out. Halabi tells us that tortellini with meatballs is a particular favorite ($15.75 for a family-sized half-gallon tub plus $2.55 for a side of meatballs).

Interestingly, nearly all of Paul Ryan’s early, private sector work experience was in the food industry, although not in the most inspiring of jobs and establishments. He flipped burgers at McDonald’s during high school (as did one in five of all U.S. workers). During a college summer stint as an Oscar Mayer salesman he helped launch the Lunchables brand of pre-fab school lunches and got to drive the 27′ fiberglass Wienermobile. And when Ryan first arrived in Washington as an unpaid intern in the office of then-Wisconsin Senator Bob Kasten, he paid the rent by moonlighting as a waiter at a Capitol Hill Mexican restaurant.

Paul Ryan’s sole interest in food seems to be expressed through his deep attachment to his home state of Wisconsin. He’s a a fifth-generation resident living on the same block as his childhood home, where he honors the local food traditions of simple cheeses, Friday fish fries, and the sacred combination of beer and brats (sausage steamed in beer served with more beer). Like a good native son he goes ice fishing in the winter and bow hunting for deer in the fall. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel announcement of Ryan’s 2000 wedding to Janna Little describes the groom as “an avid hunter and fisherman who does his own skinning and butchering and makes his own Polish sausage and bratwurst.”

Ryan touched on these food themes during an emotional homecoming this weekend following the Romney announcement. With eyes tearing and voice cracking, he spoke of his undeniable connection to the local delicacies as he addressed the thousands who turned out for a hometown hero’s welcome:

I like to hunt here, I like to fish here, I like to snowmobile here. I even think ice fishing is – interesting. My veins run with cheese, bratwurst, and a little Spotted Cow, Leiney’s, and some Millers.

If beer, cheese, and sausage are truly coursing through Paul Ryan’s veins, there just might be hope for him after all.


Posted in community, food policy | 1 Comment

Foodiness– It’s Like Truthiness for Food

Apologies to Stephen Colbert.
He is of course the originator of the phrase with which we are taking liberties. He struck upon truthiness as a satirical way to explain intentional approximations of truth; a sort of wishful thinking unburdened by facts. And there’s plenty of ersatz truth to our food.

Appearances can be deceiving.
It’s a lesson we’ve learned all too well in 2012. First, we were repulsed by the ‘pink slime’ flap, when we learned that the federal government regularly purchases millions of pounds of a slimy bacteria-prone mash of slaughterhouse trimmings masquerading as hamburger meat to serve to the nation’s schoolchildren through the National School Lunch Program. We recoiled again when Starbucks revealed that the rosy-pink coloring agent added to its Strawberry Frappuccinos is derived from the ground up bodies of beetles.

Fool me once, shame on you.
Let’s not let it happen again. Don’t wait for the next scandalous revelation.
Here are some of the other egregious bait-and-switches of processed food.

Wyngz, not Wings: a distinct chicken entity recognized by the USDA
The USDA website has an official definition of a chicken wing laid out in Title 9, Section 381.170(b)(7) of the Code of Federal Regulations, but the section goes on to ask this question: “Under what conditions can ‘wyngz’ be used as a fanciful term on poultry product labeling?”
It was news to us that ‘fanciful terms’ fall under the USDA’s purview, but even more curious were the required conditions. The term ‘wyngz’ can only be used to “denote a product that does not contain any wing meat or is not derived only from wing meat.” Wing shape is optional; spelling (or misspelling, to use the official USDA terminology) is not: “no other misspellings are permitted.”
There’s something’s fishy about that low-fat ice cream.
Low fat ice cream used to be thin and grainy, a little icy with none of the voluptuous mouth-feel of its full fat relatives. These days it can be as rich and creamy as butter yet still as virtuous as broccoli. That’s because many of the top-selling brands add a protein cloned from the blood of the ocean pout, an eel-like Arctic Ocean fish. Food scientists discovered that in the lean fish the protein works like anti-freeze to keep it from freezing in even the coldest of waters. Lucky us, it works just as well in our ice cream in the coldest of supermarket freezer cases.

There are no blueberries in many packaged blueberry muffin mixes.
You won’t find any in Blueberry Pop-Tarts or Special K Blueberry Fruit Crisps either, and Total Pomegranate Blueberry Cereal is totally missing the blueberries and the pomegranate. Instead of real blueberries, some manufacturers create little berry-shaped clumps of various sugars, starches, gums, and oils, and coat them with (often petroleum-based) blue food dye. They’re usually labeled as blueberry-flavored bits or particles. For its Blueberry Muffin Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal, Kellogg’s concocted an entirely new food classification, identified in the ingredient list as crunchlets.
Blueberries aren’t the only ones. The only cherries, oranges, or pineapple you’ll find in Gerber Graduates Juice Treats are pictured on the box. Not a trace of strawberry bursts out of Betty Crocker’s Strawberry Splash Fruit Gushers. You will find broccoli in Knorr’s chicken broccoli fettuccine noodles, but the dish actually contains more salt than green vegetable.

Here’s a euphemism for you: Natural Flavor.
We go to the FDA website for this one. Natural flavor or natural flavoring is defined as virtually anything (oil, extract, essence, distillate…) from anything that could have existed in nature at one time. It can come from any part or byproduct of any animal, vegetable, or mineral—wood, fur, rock, soil, feather, even secretions, discharges, and excrement—it’s all fair game. And once it falls under that umbrella, the substance doesn’t have to be identified, but simply listed in the ingredients as natural flavor. One of the most common natural food flavorings is castoreum. It’s a substance that’s only found in the anal glands of beavers; the beavers like to spray some out and mix it with their urine to mark their territory. It’s found in nearly every kind of candy, tea, gum, soda, juice, cereal, ice cream, yogurt, or bakery item with raspberry or berry flavor.

Perhaps these are food facts we could have done without.
It’s said that there are two things you don’t want to see being made—sausage and legislation.
Try to hang on to your appetite; you’re going to need the strength. The presidential election is just around the corner.

Is it food or foodiness?
Learn how to spot the difference and why it matters from Chef Erica Wides, who coined the phrase. She explores issues of food, foodiness, and more as the host and creator of Let’s Get Real on the Heritage Radio Network.

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Mmm…mmm…Maybe not so good

image via Brainless Tales

You might want to lay off the canned soup.
I really hate to ask you now, it being soup season and all, but the latest report is a real shocker.

A new Harvard study, which was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that just a single bowl of canned soup at lunch for just five days increased BPA levels in urine by an astounding 1,200%. The researchers were shocked by the results, one calling it “unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

This was the first study to measure BPA amounts that are ingested when we eat food that comes directly out of a can, but the health risks have been the subject of hundreds of studies. There’s a growing body of research linking BPA to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. The FDA will be issuing a decision on BPA use by the end of March 2012, but Consumers Union, the group that publishes the magazine Consumer Reports, has already weighed in with its recommendations, and it found BPA levels exceeding 100 times the recommended daily limit in some soups (worst of all is Progresso Vegetable Soup at 116 times the limit).

Waiter, there’s a toxin in my soup!
Take a look inside any can and you’ll see a thin plastic film separating your food from the metal. That’s where the BPA is coming from. Manufacturers have been lining cans with plastic since the 1950s to protect the food from botulism and other bacteria that can grow if the can is damaged or corroded, and there’s no doubt that lives have been saved.

Plastic-lined cans have been so effective at preventing food-borne illnesses that it’s next to impossible to find a BPA-free can of soup. Nearly all aluminum soup cans, even organic brands, contain BPA in the linings. But you can keep soup on the menu: opt for dry soup mixes or prepared soups packaged in glass or cartons, or best of all, make your own.

BPA is of particular concern for young children and women of childbearing age.
The Breast Cancer Fund, which is leading the charge to expose environment causes of cancer, has specific recommendations for reducing the risk to those vulnerable groups.

BPA isn’t the only one.
Experts from a variety of food-related fields offer insider recommendations of foods to avoid. These are foods that are all USDA or FDA approved, but those in the know won’t eat them, and they won’t feed them to their own families.
Read Gigabiting’s 7 Foods the Experts Won’t Touch.



Posted in food knowledge, food policy, health + diet | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Q: Should Food Stamps Be Used to Pay for Fast Food?


image via SoapBlox

A: Yes. It alleviates hunger and avoids demeaning and intrusive Nanny State regulations.
A: No. It’s a blatant money-grab by the fast food industry at the expense of the health of our neediest and most vulnerable.

Hunger advocates are howling over fast food giant Yum! Brands’ campaign to allow low income Americans to use food stamps at its Taco Bell and KFC restaurants. Anti-hunger advocates feel that any increase in the availability of food is a good thing.

It’s a nice chunk of change to go after.
The number of Americans who use food stamps is now close to 46 million—that’s 15 percent of the population—with almost $65 billion to spend on food. The program (properly called SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, it’s been stamp- and coupon-less for years, but the ‘food stamp’ name stuck) currently places purchase restrictions on alcohol, cigarettes, pet food, vitamins, and hot, prepared food. Chips, candy, soda—all fair game.

Yum! Brands is trying to put a common sense spin on it, and groups like the Congressional Hunger Center and the Coalition for the Homeless are backing the fast food lobby. With five fast food outlets for every supermarket in the country, they argue it’s a convenient option, especially for the elderly, disabled, or homeless. And food stamps can already be used in convenience stores and gas stations, places not known for healthy options.

On the other side of the argument, health advocates have the U.S. Department of Agriculture in their corner, and that’s who funds the food stamp program. They feel that we can’t afford to be indifferent to the quality of the food. Access to fast food, with its often alarmingly high levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar, should not be expanded for low income populations that are plagued by high rates of obesity and diabetes. And for those trapped in a sedentary lifestyle, like the elderly and disabled, these foods are especially insidious.

According to the Food Stamp Act of 1977:
It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, in order to promote the general welfare, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s population by raising levels of nutrition among low-income households.
Clearly, the policy is not referring to access to the KFC Double Down, but is it really better to go hungry?


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Masquerading as Blueberries

Blue Man Group image via John Mottern

There are no blueberries in Betty Crocker Blueberry Muffins.
You won’t find any in Blueberry Pop-Tarts or Special K Blueberry Fruit Crisps either, and Total Pomegranate Blueberry Cereal is missing the blueberries and the pomegranate.

Instead of real blueberries, some manufacturers create little berry-shaped clumps of various sugars, starches, gums, and oils, and coat them with (often petroleum-based) blue food dye. They’re usually labeled as blueberry-flavored bits or particles. For its Blueberry Muffin Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal, Kellogg’s concocted an entirely new food classification, identified in the ingredient list as crunchlets.

The labels don’t lie.
Food marketers have gotten away with the blueberry bait-and-switch by complying with FDA nutrition labeling requirements. The box can be decorated with lush photography of plump berries, and the product’s name can trumpet berry goodness—it never needs to cross paths with an actual berry as long as the dirty details are all revealed in the fine print of the packaging.

The labels might not lie, but they sure do skirt the truth.
The consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest plans to put an end to these dishonest and deceptive practices. Attorneys from the CSPI have filed a complaint in federal court against General Mills, one of the biggest practitioners of this form of marketing. The complaint contends that General Mills misleads the public about the healthfulness of its products when it depicts fruits that they don’t contain, and in doing so, the company  violates various state laws governing deceptive advertising and fraudulent business practices.

You can follow the lawsuit’s developments on the Center for Science in the Public Interest website.

The attorneys from the law firm Finkelstein Thompson are seeking public input from consumers who may have been misled by these products. If you purchased any products that you believed were made from real blueberries but actually contained derivatives or no blueberries, you can contact them about joining the class action—they expect potential plaintiffs to number in the millions.
[email to]




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Today’s history class is brought to you by Doritos

“The best-selling packaged cookie in the world is the Oreo cookie. The diameter of an Oreo cookie is 1.75 inches. Express the diameter of an Oreo cookie as a fraction in the simplest form.”

You’re looking at middle-school math.
The worksheet comes from a a sixth-grade curriculum in wide use across more than a dozen states. Another lesson on research methods asks the kids to design an experiment that allows them to prove that there are 1,000 chocolate chips in the large package of Chips Ahoy! cookies, and in the geometry unit, surface area is calculated using a box of Kellogg’s Cocoa Frosted Flakes.

We’ve recently increased awareness and toughened school nutrition standards. Cookies, candy, and chips are out, and schools are being pressured to turn down the million-dollar soft drink product placement contracts they were jumping at a few years ago. These changes have left school districts looking for new sources of income, and junk food marketers looking for a new ‘in’ with school-age kids. Both groups have found what they need in the classroom.

It’s called Sponsored Educational Materials, and it can be anything from branded assignment books and textbook covers to an entire course curriculum. While we might cringe at the sight of obesity-prone schoolchildren toting school supplies plastered with Pop-Tarts logos, the sponsored curricula are truly chilling. Companies like Kraft and Burger King hire educational consultants to create teaching materials that will further their corporate interests while adhering to national standards. First graders are color-sorting M&Ms and counting Tootsie Rolls, elementary art classes are decorating push-up tubes for Nestle Push-Up Ice Cream, and students in high school business skills courses learn how a McDonald’s franchise operates. And a special ‘A’ for irony has to go to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo for curricular programs like Coke’s Step With It! and Pepsi’s Balance First, that dominate middle school instruction in health and physical education.

To learn more about advertising cloaked as teaching aides, visit The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, a group that is advocating for government policies to limit marketers’ access to children. Earlier this year, the CCFC set its sights on a blatant piece of propaganda titled ‘The United States of Energy,’ a lesson packet used nationally in sixth-grade classrooms. Sponsored by the American Coal Foundation, it was a less than fair and balanced assessment of our nation’s energy sources that failed to mention any of coal’s negative impacts on the environment and public health. The CFCC organized a successful letter-writing campaign to remove the material from classrooms. The group hopes to repeat that success as it goes after junk food marketing.


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The Dirty Details: Food Imports from China

Can somebody tell me why we still import food from China?

Recent food scandals include:

  • contamination by a phosphorescent bacteria that causes pork to glow in the dark an eerie, iridescent blue
  • watermelons that explode like landmines from the application of growth hormones to increase melon size
  • industrial resins added to rice that makes eating three bowls of it equivalent to ingesting an entire plastic bag
  • processed animal skins added to milk to boost its protein content
  • foods processed with used cooking oil scavenged from sewer drains

The United States is awash in tainted, toxic, parasite-riddled, putrefying food imports from China—we know that they’re filthy and contaminated, but we’re still letting them in.

China is the world’s biggest polluter and a country that lacks widespread modern sanitation, with 55% of the country emptying raw sewage into its waterways. It’s also the world’s largest producer of farmed fish, which means that 60% of all the world’s seafood is raised in waters teeming with feces and industrial pollutants.

Chinese producers continue to use pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, fungicides, hormones, and other additives banned in most other countries, and its standards for allowable chemical residue levels fall far short of everyone else’s.

Does the United States really let this stuff in?
Don’t we have laws, and regulations, and the Food and Drug Administration to protect us?

This year, 24 million shipments subject to FDA regulation will pass through our ports, and the FDA expects to visually inspect less than 2% of the food imports, and a tiny fraction of those will be sent on for laboratory analysis. More than 98% of food imports are allowed to stock our nation’s supermarket without even a cursory glance. from a safety inspector.

Do you think that you’re not buying Chinese food imports? Think again.
Reading labels is not enough: American food companies are generally required to label only where their products are packaged or processed, not where the ingredients come from. A Swanson frozen dinner or a can of Campbell’s soup can contain 20 different ingredients from 20 different countries with no mention of this on the label. When you open a can of Bumble Bee tuna or Dole fruit, or pour your child a glass of Mott’s apple juice, you’re likely eating foods from China. All-American brands like Kraft, Lay’s, Pepsi, and General Mills all buy from Chinese growers and producers that harvest and process with lower labor costs than almost anywhere else.

For more information on where your food comes from, read A Decade of Dangerous Food Imports from China, a report from Food & Water Watch, a public interest organization that monitors the practices and policies of food and water systems world-wide, and advocates for common sense policies that will result in healthy, safe food and drinking water.

The Food and Drug Administration releases a monthly Inspection Refusal Report of goods that are determined to be out of compliance with the The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and refused admission at the port of entry.


Posted in food policy, food safety, health + diet | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Food Movement Will Occupy Wall Street Next Weekend


It’s our turn!
Next Saturday, advocates of food justice will be descending on the Occupy Wall Street encampment.

The connection
The food system is linked to Wall Street in ways that impact us personally and directly, as well as globally and ephemerally.

The scale and scope of the agribusiness monopoly puts the giants of Wall Street to shame.
While the 10 largest banks hold 54% of the nation’s assets, a mere 4 food companies churn out 75% of breakfast cereals, 75% of snacks, 60% of cookies, and 50% of ice cream. Inputs like seeds and pesticides, the mills and slaughterhouses that process foods, and even the supermarkets are similarly concentrated in a few hands, and they hold our nation’s food policy in a vise grip.

Then there is Wall Street’s effect on food prices.
The same deregulation that made the stock market volatile also increased price volatility in agricultural markets. Speculators have only been allowed to freely trade in food futures since 2000. Farmers used to trade in futures to guarantee a stable price for their future harvests; now agricultural commodities are just one more investment vehicle for speculators looking to squeeze out short-term profits, putting downward pressure on wages and pushing up prices.

When Occupy Wall Street protestors talks about the 1% and the other 99%, the gap between rich and poor is seen in starkest relief in terms of hunger and deprivation. 17 million school-aged children are underfed, nearly 1 in 5 Americans relies on food stamps, and half of all babies are born into households receiving government food subsidies.

Next Saturday’s demonstration is not just for food activists, or even activists who care about food. It’s for all of us who understand that to change the food system, we need systemic change in the institutions, regulations, and corporate influence that stand in the way of a healthy and just food system.



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The Fat Tax is Coming!

image via the Army of Epiphenomenon

How would you like to trim the deficit, healthcare costs, and your waistline in one fell swoop?
That’s what a fat tax can do. it’s been embraced by much of Europe, and the idea is gaining traction in Washington.

Hungary’s so-called ‘hamburger tax’ goes into effect next month, just a few weeks ahead of Denmark’s ‘saturated fat’ tariff, targeting pork, cheese, and butter. Finland is looking to add a fat tax to those it already levies on salt and sugar-laced foods. Germany, Romania, and Spain all have similar legislation moving through government channels.

Instead of taxing fatty foods, Japan taxes body fat. The Ministry of Health requires businesses to administer obesity checks for all employees and their family members ages 40 to 74. The legislated upper limit for the waistline is a strict 33½ in. for men, and 35½ in. for women, beyond which a tax is levied (by comparison, the average waistline in America is 39 in. for men and 37 in. for women).

We actually have some fat tax history in this country. In the months following the 1942 Pearl Harbor attack, a handful of states taxed obese citizens–per excess pound–to encourage them to eat less and preserve food resources for the war effort. The fat tax was revived in the 1990’s when a proposal was floated to tax certain foods and put the proceeds toward nutrition literacy programs. The concept was debated publicly when it was ranked #7 on U.S. News and World Report’s  list of 16 Smart Ideas to Fix the World, and the debate grew louder when Rush Limbaugh spearheaded the opposition.

The fat tax debate has stayed with us.
Current supporters include the World Health Organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, food writers Mark Bittman (with the New York Times as his soapbox) and Michael Pollan (who contends that the insurance industry is ready to get on board), and President Obama, who supports a tax on soda and other sugary foods.

Congress, though, has shown little enthusiasm for a federal fat tax, although most states are already getting their cut in the form of taxes on junk food and soda. The public, too, consistently shows low approval ratings for the taxes in polls. Critics point to its regressive nature, with the burden falling on lower income Americans who are the biggest consumers of junk food and already spend disproportionately on food, relative to their  incomes. And of course the notion of the food police is troubling in terms of both privacy issues and the broader concept of the role of government.

There are few privacies more worthy of protection than what we choose to eat and drink. While these are personal decisions they’re not private ones; not when our healthcare system spends nearly $150 billion dollars annually to treat obesity, nearly as much to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more goes toward the treatment of cardiovascular disease and cancers that are linked to diet.

How do you weigh individual freedoms and social responsibilities?



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