food policy

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.


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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 , | 1 Comment

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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Three Little Words: Strategic Pork Reserves

Earlier this summer it was reported that China’s Commerce Ministry would release part of its strategic pork reserves in hopes of capping rising food prices. Reaction from the U.S. ranged from WTF? to I want one.

There are nation’s that keep strategic oil reserves, and some stockpile grain, but a national pork reserve?

China is a porcine superpower. With a pig population of 446 million, China is home to half of all the world’s pigs, with one pig for every three citizens. China has more pigs than the next 43 countries combined, including the U.S. at number two with about 60 million pigs.

Pork is serious business in China. It makes up more than half of the meat consumed, and as living standards rise, so does consumption, which has quadrupled in the last 20 years. This crushing demand for pork has made it susceptible to price fluctuations due to weather, disease, and grain price inflation.

There was nationwide panic in 2006 when an epidemic of blue-ear disease struck the Chinese pig population. The disease was eventually brought under control, but left in its wake supply shortages and runaway price inflation. Clearly unacceptable in a country that runs on pork, the next year the Chinese government made it a national priority to ensure a reliable supply of pork. Throughout the country, icy warehouses hold 220,000 tons of frozen hogs, and pre-payments are made to farmers to maintain herd levels. With pork prices up 38 percent since the start of the year, this summer, the Chinese government has been digging into the stash to help stabilize prices.

Here in the United States, we have a bit of wheat saved up, and the world’s largest petroleum reserve, but alas, no strategic pork reserve. And we call ourselves a superpower.



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California Legislates the Hot Dog

[hot dog diagram by Alyson Thomas]

Laws are like sausages,’ goes the famous quote attributed to the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, ‘it is better not to see them being made.’

This week saw the two worlds collide—sausages and legislation—and the chancellor was right; it ain’t pretty.

In California, a state where a $4 billion shortfall is called a ‘balanced’ budget, lawmakers have turned to the important work of pinning down the true meaning of hot dog.
The proposed legislation doesn’t speak to food safety or suggest special food handling. It doesn’t address food additives, nutrition labeling, or school lunch programs. The critical hot dog text of S.B. 946 (which also deals with Medicare consultations, access to health care, and HIV reporting) reads:

A whole, cured, cooked sausage that is skinless or stuffed in a casing and that is also known as a frankfurter, frank, wiener, red hot, Vienna, bologna, garlic bologna, or knockwurst, and that may be served in a bun or roll.”

This week, the bill passed the State Assembly Health Committee. Next, it needs funding approval from the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The final legislative hurdle is a floor vote by the full Assembly, after which, god willing, it will be signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown.


Posted in food policy, funny | Tagged | 2 Comments

Jail Time for Farm Photos










If Big Agriculture has its way, you could get a year in prison for any one of these pictures.

Agribusiness lobbies in farm states are pushing bills that would make it a criminal offense to take photographs, video, or audio recordings on any farm without the owners’ consent. Stop at the side of the road to snap a photo of frolicking lambs during a Sunday drive in the country, and you could be looking at serious jail time. It would even be a crime to possess or distribute unauthorized farm images, making them the legal equivalent of child pornography.
Big Agriculture really doesn’t want us to know what’s going on with our food.

The so-called Ag-Gag bills are aimed at keeping the secrets of industrial farming secret.
Legislation has so far been introduced, though not successfully, in Florida, New York, and Minnesota, and is pending in Iowa. On the heels of some of the worst animal welfare abuses in U.S. history, including the violations that led to last year’s historic 500-million egg recall, the farming industry has chosen to target the whistle-blowers, rather than the violators.

We have a long and storied tradition of food safety and animal welfare whistle-blowing, from Upton Sinclair to people like Kit Foshee, the former corporate quality assurance manager at Beef Products, Inc. who opened our eyes to the execrable path of factory-raised beef, from slaughterhouse to supermarket. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act, which President Obama signed into law earlier this year, created a set of powerful legal protections and remedies for food safety whistle-blowers. We need to know more about what goes on behind the barn doors, not less.

Take that sense of Ag-Gag outrage, and do something.

Sign the Slow Food USA petition (43,000+ already have) protesting the lobby’s actions, that will be forwarded to Iowa’s senate.

Take your camera along the next time you visit a farm. Hundred of Farmarazzi (the paparazzi of the farm world) have taken photos—showcasing both good and bad practices—and posted them to the Farmarazzi Facebook page.

Follow the Food Warriors. The Real Time Farms Blog has sent out a small army of interns to document our nation’s food system. The Real Time blog will be sharing their posts, video, and photographs as the interns visit farms, markets, and food artisans in every region of the country.

Read Gigabiting’s Food Safety: No such thing as TMI.


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Arrested for Feeding the Homeless

adj \əb-ˈsərd, -ˈzərd\
1: ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, or incongruous
2: having no rational or orderly relationship to human life

—from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

12 members of the all-volunteer, anti-hunger group Food Not Bombs have been arrested for feeding the homeless in an Orlando, Florida park.
That’s right; it’s illegal to feed the poor and hungry.

Food Not Bombs, after obtaining the appropriate permits, began distributing free food every Wednesday in Orlando’s Lake Eola Park in 2005. More recently, the City Council passed an ordinance limiting any group that holds a food sharing-event that attracts 25 or more people to two events per downtown park per 12-month period. The Food Not Bombs members, who were handcuffed and loaded into a police van, will each face 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Several U.S. cities, including Las Vegas, Nevada, Santa Monica, California, and Wilmington, North Carolina have adopted ordinances limiting the distribution of free food in public, with many more considering similar legislation. Most have restricted the time and place of food handouts, hoping to discourage homeless people from congregating and, in the view of officials, ruining efforts to beautify parks and gentrify neighborhoods.

The criminalization of homelesness.
The ordinances are aimed at the broader blight of public homelessness. The cities have already tried to shield their citizens with selective enforcement of anti-camping policies and public intoxication laws. Failing that, they are switching tactics and criminalizing the activities of good Samaritans, religious groups, and other humanitarian efforts.

According to the United States Conference of Mayors, in 2010, requests for emergency food assistance increased by an average of 24% in cities across the country. At the same time, resources are dwindling as financially strapped state and local governments cut their funding to aid agencies. It’s estimated that about one-third of the need is not met, and the the shortfall between demand and resources keeps growing.

The right to food is a well-recognized, basic human right. It’s protected by over 100 instruments of international law, and guaranteed by the domestic constitutions of many of the world’s nations.
But not ours.

Free the Orlando 12!
Food Not Bombs is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to nonviolent social change. It shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in over 1,000 cities around the world. And the group’s name? It answers the question:  With over a billion people going hungry each day how can we spend another dollar on war?

You can download the full Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness from the United States Conference of Mayors.



Posted in food policy, local foods | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Government Shutdown: Who eats? Who goes hungry?

Rep. Todd Akin (R, Missouri) via Irregular Times

The ongoing standoff over the federal budget is now hours away from its deadline. If a spending plan isn’t passed by the end of the day, money will stop flowing from federal coffers and the government will start to shut down.

What about our food?
The government runs food assistance programs, feeds military personnel, and oversees security of the food supply. Beginning Saturday, what can we expect?

Food Assistance
Food stamps and the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs are administered by states. They get periodic funding in a lump sum from the federal government, and are fully funded for a month or so.

Food Safety
FDA inspections of food processing facilities will be prioritized by risk. Visits to high-risk processors with a history of safety concerns will take place, but routine plant inspections will be given a low priority. Meat, poultry, and egg inspections will continue in the short-term, and food products coming from Japan will continue to be monitored for radiation. In the event of a food borne illness outbreak, the FDA will be able to call furloughed staff back to work.

Mess halls will be open; commissaries will be closed.

Zoo Animals
Most of the federal employees at the National Zoo will be furloughed. The zoo, like all of the Smithsonian collection of museums, will be closed, but all of the keepers, curators, veterinarians, and nutritionists who minister to the needs of animals will remain at work.

Federal Prisoners
3 hots and a cot—it will be business as usual in the nation’s prisons.

You might have to scotch your summer travel plans. Expect a backlog of passports to be processed.

There is one bright spot: with all those furloughed IRS workers, it will be the first shutdown to disrupt the tax season.


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Why Are We Talking About Food Dyes?

There’s a dark side to the rainbow.
We’ve wondered about food coloring for years.
There was the Great M&M Scare of the 1970′s when rumors of a cancer link fueled a public fear of red candy shells. We toughed it out for almost a decade with a lackluster mix of green, orange, yellow, and brown.

Then we started hearing about studies linking yellow food dye to testicular cancer. And kidney tumors linked to blue coloring. Food dyes have been associated with chromosomal damage, adrenal, thyroid, and brain tumors, and a whole host of health, behavior, and learning issues in children like hyperactivity, anaphylaxis, and impulse control.

After decades of wondering, while the inclusion of synthetic dyes steadily rose in an increasing number of processed foods (doubling just since 1990), last week the FDA decided to take a look at the issue. The advisory panel tasked with its review found the evidence to be ‘inconclusive,’ recommending that the agency continue its hands-off approach.

Bear in mind that countries throughout Europe have banned most artificial dyes based on the same evidence. Food manufacturers, including American giants like Kraft, Kellogg’s, and McDonald’s have reformulated their products with natural alternatives for the European market, while they continue to sell foods with the questionable ingredients to the U.S. market. Imagine, there are actual strawberries coloring a U.K. McDonald’s strawberry sundae and orange soda gets its color from  pumpkin and carrot extract, instead of the FD&C Red Dye #40  and Yellow #6  that we get.

It’s not just day-glo Popsicles and rainbow Skittles.
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. But well beyond the usual suspects you’ll find food dyes in a staggering array of foods like canned fruit, fresh oranges, chocolate milk, salad dressing, ginger ale, cookies and bread, chips and crackers, even matzoh balls. Oy veh.

Food dyes contribute nothing to the nutritional value or safety of food, existing only as a marketing tool, mostly to make highly-processed foods more appealing to children. Even if the evidence has been termed ‘inconclusive,’ we’re still looking at potential health consequences. Why risk it?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest was instrumental in reopening the FDA debate over food dyes. Read their full report: Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.



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Food Sovereignty: One town goes it alone.

The town of Sedgwick, Maine has done something that no other place in the United States has dared to do: its citizens voted, unanimously, I might add, to declare food sovereignty. They have given themselves the right to control their own food supply; “to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing,” without government intervention. The local ordinance overrides the authority of state and federal health codes, regulations, inspections, and restrictions. This means that raw milk, foraged foods, home-cured meats, and goods produced in unlicensed kitchens can be freely bought and sold.

In recent years, we’ve seen a flowering of small culinary start-ups. Cost, scale, and access keep them cooking at home instead of in the commercially licensed kitchens required by mainstream distribution channels. That then bars them from purchasing sales permits and liability insurance, driving many of them underground. Some state and local governments have chosen to relax regulations while others are cracking down on unlicensed operations, forcing them to comply or shut down. This has led to incidents like last year’s so-called pie-gate, when the elderly, pie-baking church ladies of St. Cecilia’s Parish were harassed and shut down by a state inspector in the midst of an annual bake sale fund-raiser marking the first Friday of Lent.

Questions of safety and liability come to mind.
There are growing concerns about the integrity of our national food system, and criticism of the sometimes arbitrary and wrong-headed nature of health code enforcement. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one out of six Americans gets sick from food-borne illness, with 3,000 of them dying each year. Sedgwick decided to takes its chances with local producers, taking reassurance from the personal nature of the interactions between producer and consumer. Residents are being encouraged to make informed decisions, especially if they are consuming raw milk products, and to waive liability stemming from transactions.

Maine is governed by “home rule,” which gives municipalities the power to alter and amend their charters on local matters that aren’t prohibited by constitutional or general law. So far, state and federal authorities have been hands-off in Sedgwick, and three nearby towns are in the process of adopting similar measures.

Learn more about the food sovereignty movement. Grassroots International publishes Food for Thought and Action: A Food Sovereignty Curriculum. It’s available as a free download from their website.



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Is Emergency Food for Crazies?

According to Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, as the doomsday clock ticks down, the smart money is on beef stroganoff.

The popular Fox News political commentators/fear mongering conspiracy theorists are both spokesmen for, a provider of emergency food kits. The company’s top-seller is a $200 backpack stuffed with enough freeze-dried stroganoff, lasagna, and creamy chicken rotini to last one adult for two post-apocalyptic weeks. Another company,, holds Tupperware-style home demonstration parties with apron-clad representatives passing out emergency preparedness tips along with samples of chicken salad made from canned, dehydrated chopped chicken breast.

To hell in a handbasket, my friend. Hell in a handbasket.

I’m not trying to make light of the idea that societies should prepare for hard times. Peak oil, global climate change, hurricanes, earthquakes, nuclear meltdown—recent events have made us all too aware of the vulnerability of our food supply and the inter-relatedness of global food markets. Even mainstream journalists at the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are raising the alarm about food shortages, and Disney’s Epcot Center has brought disaster-preparedness to the Magic Kingdom with its “fast-paced and very fun” StormStruck ride.

There are emergency responses that don’t require hunkering down with potassium iodide tablets and personal stockpiles of freeze-dried casseroles, but instead will
restore food insurance at a national level. We can bolster the existing Food Emergency Response Network, a structure that integrates local, state, and federal agencies charged with food security and food defense. And we should maintain our strategic grain reserves as assiduously as our petroleum reserves.

Ultimately, we each have to decide for ourselves what it takes to achieve peace of mind.
Personally, I choose to put my faith in robust social institutions that can buffer society as a whole from food disasters. I just can’t see myself standing guard over my horde of canned goods and water purification tablets while I watch my unprepared neighbors starve.



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Marching on its Stomach

Battle of the Bulge

15% of 17- to 24-year-olds are over the Army’s height-weight standards.
Last year, half of all recruits failed the entry-level physical fitness test consisting of one minute of push-ups, one minute of sit-ups and a 1-mile run.
Is anyone surprised? They’ve been plumped up by fast food and soda and spent their teenage years playing video games.

With an all-volunteer military, you have to give them what they want. Mess halls have abandoned the chow line for something closer to a shopping mall food court. The Army’s food program dictates that breakfast includes made-to-order eggs, three types of bread, three types of meat, six kinds of cereal, no fewer than one potato dish, and at least one pastry. Lunch and dinner bring at least two hot entrees with legally mandated sauce or gravy, plus two short-order entrees chosen from items like pizza and fried chicken; a deli bar featuring three types of meat; a grill with four items like hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches; french fries, onion rings, assorted chips and pretzels, and at least four desserts. Beyond the all-you-can-eat mess halls, there are vending machines in the barracks and fast-food outlets like Taco Bell and KFC right on the base.

And then there’s the chocolate milk. Marines get it at every meal—it’s a Corps regulation.

Certainly nobody could begrudge culinary comforts for members of our armed forces, but in the interest of whipping new recruits into shape for duty, the Army is rolling out its new Soldier Athlete initiative at bases where 10-week basic training takes place. It bans soda, cookies, and cake, and limits refined grains and fried food offerings. In their place are beefed-up salad bar offerings, low-fat milk and yogurt, and more fish, fruits, and vegetables. Unfortunately, once basic training is complete, the soldiers are back in mess halls where the sausage gravy flows freely. They’ve completed a total of one hour of nutrition guidance out of  their 754 training hours of coursework.

About a third of everyone in uniform doesn’t meet military height and weight standards, and half of that group qualifies as obese. Overweight troops that can’t shed the pounds can be discharged—a fate that befalls a few thousand every year. In December, Army Times published an exposé of the extreme methods that officers undertake to meet fitness standards so they can maintain their careers—diet pills, laxatives, crash diets, and even liposuction are becoming increasingly common.

Obviously this is not just a military problem, but a national problem. In a press conference, Senator Richard Lugar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and a group of retired generals and admirals warned that the civilian diet could someday pose a threat to homeland security—they see us raising an entire generation that might never attain the fitness necessary for military service.




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Obama’s Food Policy: Not as we had hoped.

image via Devil's Haven


Those were heady days, back in ’08, when we ushered in our 44th President.
He  knew what arugula was and ate at really good Chicago restaurants. His family avoided high-fructose corn syrup and bought organics.
Could our new President be one of us? [...]

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The Real Congressional Bloat: $860,000 tab for bottled water.



This is the amount spent on bottled water in one year by the members of the House of Representatives.
No campaign funds; it’s all taxpayer money.

We recently learned quite a bit about the Congressional food and beverage tab.
In 2009, Speaker Nancy Pelosi initiated the online publication of the Statement of Disbursements, a report of all receipts and expenditures for Members of Congress, including individual budgets and the allowances they are given to run their D.C. and district offices.

The Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that’s all about governmental accountability and transparency, slogged through the disbursements database to create spending portraits for every member of the House of Representatives (the Senate has said it will begin reporting later this year). This first data dump covered a 9-month period, from July 2009 through March 2010.

Here are some of the more revealing expenditures:

The 435 Representatives spent a combined $2.6 million on food and beverages for themselves and their staff members. Only $152 at Quiznos.
The single biggest spender was a new guy, Gregorio Sablan, who was elected in 2008 as the first nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives from the Northern Mariana Islands.
The top-spending office holds the purse strings for the Congressional Pages, the hungry teenagers who run errands and perform grunt work for House members. The Democratic Caucus held down second place mostly due to the food costs of a single $115,000 weekend getaway, when the legislators ate very well in Williamsburg, Va.
The hungriest House Committee was Foreign Affairs—with five times the food spending as number two Homeland Security.

Asleep at the wheel?
A surprisingly modest $84,794 went to coffee vendors—not even a pound a week for each Rep’s office.
The afternoon pick-me-up of choice is Coke, not Pepsi. For both parties.

About that water…
It irks because it’s such an out-sized expense—nearly one-fourth of all food and beverage spending.
And an unnecessary one; every office could be outfitted with refrigerated, filtered water coolers and fountains for a fraction of what’s being spent on single-use plastic bottles.
It sends the wrong message about our public water supply from the elected body that’s responsible for repairing and expanding our clean drinking water infrastructure. The area’s water utility, DC Water, has even offered to provide every Congressional office with tap water quality testing kits and reusable water bottles free of charge.
And of course it’s troubling because we all know that bottled water is an environmental disaster.

$860,000. That’s enough to fund a dozen or so elementary school teachers, or train 100 new associate nurses, or subsidize a year’s worth of free lunches for thousands of schoolchildren.

Tell the House how you feel. Sign the petition at asking Speaker Boehner and the Congressional Representatives to cut wasteful spending, keep plastic out of landfills, and eliminate bottled water purchases from the House budget.

You can peruse the complete House Expenditures Report Database on the Sunlight Foundation’s website.


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