food policy

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.


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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.



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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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It’s Organic. But What About the Packaging?


It’s not a question of whether packaging components will leach into your food. It’s only a question of how much.


When 28 million boxes of Kellogg’s cereal were recalled last summer, it gave us something new to worry about.
The problem wasn’t with the Froot Loops and Corn Pops (well, no more than the usual problems we have with over-processed, over-sugared breakfast cereals), but with the cereal boxes.

You know the slick, weirdly waxy-feeling liner bag inside of cereal boxes? That’s not wax. It’s plastic that has been impregnated with preservatives derived from oil and coal tar, and they leach into the cereal as it sits on the shelf. The incident highlighted gaps in the FDA’s chemical approval system and its lack of oversight when it comes to the safety of food packaging. […]

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I Am a Grain of Rice

Enter the installation Of All the People in All the World and you’re given one small grain of rice. That grain is you.

Wander among the mounds of rice and you see truths about the millions and billions that aren’t you: the people who will be born or will die today, child soldiers, people who have been to outer space, and the number of people who will visit a McDonald’s today. […]

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The Food Pyramid is Illegal. And Racist.


These are the claims made in a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The [food] pyramid scheme
Round 1 has been won by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), the research and advocacy group that is suing the two federal agencies. Last week, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the named agencies violated federal laws when they selected individuals with known financial ties to various food industries to serve on the advisory committee that drew up the nutritional guidelines that comprise the latest version of the USDA’s Food Pyramid. […]

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Is Coffee Within Walking Distance? Check your walkability score.

image via Apple (Parlophone)/EMI

Can you walk to get a cup of coffee?

If you have ever lived in a highly walkable neighborhood, you already know what a beautiful thing it is. Walkable communities are happier, healthier, safer, cleaner, and greener.

A truly walkable neighborhood offers convenient access to the daily destinations of life. If you’re lucky, you can walk to school or work. If you’re even luckier, there are groceries, a decent bakery, and a good cup of coffee within walking distance. […]

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Can Your Boss Make You Be a Vegetarian?

Is a meat-free office policy going too far?

A former employee of an eco-friendly accessories manufacturer claims that her rights as a meat-eater were violated by company policy.
The company’s 18 employees are barred from bringing animal products in their lunches, and they are required to order vegetarian items when they dine in a restaurant with a client. The complainant says she was reduced to smuggling food into the office in her purse, or sneaking out to her car for a bite of a contraband tuna sandwich. […]

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Food Traceability: Fed Ex for the food chain


I just ate a banana.
It was grown by the Molina family on their farm in Ecuador’s El Oro province on the southwest coast.
I saw its organic certification from the USDA, and when it was loaded onto a ship in Guayaquil Bay, I could see that it was joined by bananas from two other organic farms.

I know all of this because Dole practices traceability, a concept that is being embraced by more and more growers and manufacturers. Traceability lets consumers trace the origins of their food—not just to a country, but to a specific farm or processor. […]

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Filth in Food: We might as well drink out of the toilet.


Let me state at the outset:

I am not a germaphobe.
I don’t have food rituals, issues, or obsessions. I use the silverware set out for me, I let different foods touch on my plate, and I am well-acquainted with the 5-second rule.
What I do have is a healthy respect for bacteria and a reasonable gross-out threshold.

Every once in a while a bit of news is reported that makes me want to take a bath in hand sanitizer.
You know the kind of news I’m talking about. Reports like when the the FDA increased allowable levels of filth in food (currently it’s 30 insect fragments plus 1 rodent hair per 100 grams, or about 4 spoons’ full of peanut butter), or when a middle school student’s science project proved that the ice in fast food restaurant soda machines is dirtier that toilet water.

Take a deep breath, maybe gargle some mouthwash, and let’s look at some tales from the annals of yucky, germy, disgusting things you probably put in your mouth. […]

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Death Penalty for Food Crimes

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

A few examples of recent food shipments from China that were flagged at our borders:
Dried apples preserved with a known carcinogen.
Plums tinted with chemical dyes that are unsafe for human consumption.
Mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides.
Seafood laden with banned antibiotics and coated with putrefying bacteria. […]

Posted in food business, food policy, food safety | Tagged , | 11 Comments

An Open Letter to the FDA

image courtesy of Keith 'Catfish' Sutton


Come on, FDA. What’s the hurry?

Your special committee is meeting right now to decide if we should eat genetically engineered salmon.
This is a really big decision. It will set a precedent for all future GE animals, and has implications that will ripple through the entire future of the U.S. food supply.
Obviously, you’ll want to set the bar high at the outset. This is not the time for a rubber stamp approval. […]

Posted in food policy, food safety | Tagged , | 20 Comments
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