Tag Archives: government

Burgernomics: The Big Mac Index

A ride on a city bus costs more than $7.00 in Oslo but only 7¢ in Mumbai.
The same iPad 2 that sells for over $1,000 in Buenos Aires can be picked up for half that price in Bangkok.
But when we really want to understand purchasing power, we look at global Big Mac prices.

A Big Mac is a Big Mac wherever you go.
The McDonald’s Big Mac is an ideal indicator. With a few accommodations to local tastes, it’s the same sesame seed bun, same special sauce, same double beef patties, made to identical specifications by all of the company’s franchisees around the globe. Unlike transit or tablet computers, the Big Mac includes inputs from a wide range of local area sectors from agriculture to advertising, and hires a mix of white and blue collar workers.

A theory of burger-buying parity
The Big Mac Index has been published annually in The Economist since 1986. The index demonstrates the purchasing power of consumers around the globe by converting the world’s currencies to a hamburger standard. Purchasing parity would mean that every consumer world-wide is paying the same equivalent price (in their local currency) for a Big Mac. If you’re paying more than the fair-value burger benchmark, you live in a country with an over-valued currency; conversely a cheap Big Mac signals an under-valued currency.

Travel across the European continent and the power of currency valuations comes to life. A mere 17 Ukrainian hryvnias (the equivalent of $2.11) gets you a burger in Kiev; hungry in Hungary and you’ll spend 645 forints ($2.63), while in Copenhagen the same Big Mac costs more than double that amount ($5.37) in Danish krones.

The Big Mac Index locates most of the world’s under-valued currencies in Asian countries—no big surprise to anyone who shops at big box discount retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco where more than 90% of the merchandise can come from China. Taiwan, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, and Hong Kong are all under-valued by more than 40%. India, home to the index’s cheapest burger, the $1.62 Maharaja Mac, also has the cheapest currency, the 60% under-valued rupee. Switzerland and Norway top the list with the priciest Big Macs, quadruple the cost of an Indian burger ($6.81 and $6.79), and the most over-valued currencies (62% ).

You can see the full data set here.


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The GOP Candidates: You Are What You Eat






Undisciplined, unpredictable, and unapologetically falling to temptation— that’s Newt Gringrich. He knows he should watch his waistline, but sometimes he just can’t help himself when it comes to ice cream.

Rick Santorum loves his beer, resolutely but conditionally. He has judged the stouts, the bocks, the white ales and the wheat beers to be worthy; IPAs don’t pass muster.

Ron Paul eccentrically puts it all out there with a family cookbook. The recipes are unfettered by contemporary dietary concerns and restrictions: pork tenderloin is sauced with an entire block of cream cheese; another block is the binding for a little something called Oreo Truffles; and the book makes liberal use of Velveeta, pudding mixes, and bottled dressings. Salt and additives, good fats and bad; it’s not his place to infringe on your personal liberties.

And Mitt Romney’s favorite food? Ever the political chameleon, that seems to depend on who’s doing the asking. He has previously cited chocolate milk, pretzels, peanut M&Ms, hot dogs, meatloaf, and Cocoa Puffs cereal. He often attempts a common touch, tweeting about a chicken sandwich at Carls Jr. and declaring a pulled pork burrito is “better than filet mignon,” but unlike the everyman he hopes to evoke, he removes the crispy skin from his fried chicken and pulls the cheese off the top of pizza slices.

   Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.
                                   (Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste)


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Kim Jong Il: You Are What You Eat

Kim Jong Il

We don’t know the contents of his nuclear arsenal, but we have a pretty good idea of what was inside Kim Jong Il’s refrigerator.

In 2003, a Japanese sushi chef bearing the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto penned a memoir, I Was Kim Jong-il’s Cook. Writing from Japan, where he lives in hiding for fear of being targeted by North Korean agents, Fujimoto detailed his 13 years as the dictator’s personal chef. The book, published in Korean and Japanese, draws a portrait of Kim and his family living a pampered, decadent existence, treating North Korea like their personal plantation and feasting on the world’s delicacies while millions of citizens starved.

Kim was slow to admit foreign food donations to ease his nation’s constant famines, but regularly sent Fujimoto on international missions to satisfy his own appetites. A typical shopping trip included northwestern China for melons and grapes; Thailand and Malaysia for durians, papayas, and mangoes; Czechoslovakia for beer; pork from Denmark; Iran and Uzbekistan for caviar; Japan for seafood and rice cakes; plus the occasional jaunt to Beijing for a sack of McDonald’s hamburgers.

Kim fancied himself to be quite the epicure, although at 5’2″(not counting the 4-inch lifts in his shoes) and 196 pounds he was clearly as much glutton as gourmet. He collected thousands of cookbooks, was reputedly the world’s largest customer of Hennessey cognac, and issued exacting orders for food preparation. Before cooking, the kitchen staff had to scrutinize each grain of rice and discard any blemished by irregularities of shape or color. The rice had to be cooked in spring water from Kim’s private source and steamed over a wood fire using trees cut from a single peak along the Chinese border.

Japanese sushi was a particular favorite of Kim’s, which explains Fujimoto’s presence in his entourage. He claimed a palate so discerning that he could detect a variation of just a few grams of seasoning in the sushi’s rice, and liked fish to be so fresh that it would twitch on his plate. Kim’s sushi obsession ultimately provided an escape route for Fujimoto. In 2001, growing fearful of the paranoid and oppressive regime, the chef showed Kim an episode of the Japanese cooking show Which Dish?, tempting him with a special sea urchin dish. He offered to travel to the Japanese island of Hokkaido to shop for sea urchins, and once there he sought asylum from Japanese authorities.

Fujimoto’s memoir has value beyond the voyeuristic appeal of his tales of excess. He was one of the few foreigners to document life inside the closed, secretive North Korean society, and analysts from international intelligence agencies have mined the details for insight into Kim Jong Il’s nature. Jerrold M. Post, the former director of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, built a profile of Kim based largely on information about his eating habits. He diagnosed Kim as a ‘malign narcissist’ convinced of his “special sense of self so that there is no contradiction between the exquisite care that goes into his own cuisine and the fact that half his population is starving.”

In the late 1990s, while Kim indulged shamelessly in the world’s finest food and wines, the state’s propaganda machinery was advising famine stricken North Koreans to dine on foraged grasses and ground tree bark, and its police were sweeping through markets, confiscating smuggled food imports as symbols of ‘rotten bourgeois ideology.’  There were an estimated 2 million deaths by starvation, and 45% of North Korea’s young children were permanently stunted by malnutrition. Fujimoto’s memoir is not a portrait of a world-class epicure, but of a world-class sociopath.



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This Blog Has Been [Redacted]

Internet Piracy Proposals in Congress
It’s a cause that got those bitter rivals, Google and Facebook, to put aside their differences and join forces.
It inspired a coalition of internet giants that includes Facebook, Google, Twitter, eBay, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Yahoo, AOL and Zynga, to jointly draft an open letter to members of Congress. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have both officially come out against it, and even the Wall Street Journal ran an anti-legislation opinion piece this week.
Obviously, it’s a big deal.

Congress introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) on October 26th. It sounded like a good idea; who wouldn’t want to stop piracy? Let’s do something about all those rogue websites operating outside the U.S. that traffic in scams and counterfeit goods. Let’s fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property so that the creators get their due. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that it’s not such a good idea. In fact the introduction of SOPA sent a chill down the spine of all of us who pay attention to these things.

Some call SOPA the end of the internet as you know it.
Perhaps that’s a tad dramatic. But just a tad.

SOPA creates insanely over-reaching new standards of liability for copyright violations. The upshot is that any website could be sued or shut down for any copyright infringement found in any of its content coming from any of its users. Facebook would be responsible for every entry posted by every random user. User review sites like Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes would be held to the same standard for each comment and review posted to them. Sites like Vimeo and YouTube would find that their liability extends to even copyrighted music playing in the background of home-made videos.

SOPA backs up the new standards with a deeply flawed system of enforcement. When a copyright is thought to be violated, the rights holder can sue the website for infringement. Internet service providers would be compelled to shut down servers, and search engines would have to block addresses. Advertising networks and credit card processors would have to disengage. An entire website could be shut down for  a single bit of material unknowingly uploaded to the site, and all of this could take place in advance of a court hearing or trial.

The bill moved through the House Judiciary Committee in mid-November, and will be introduced to the floor for a vote before the end of the year. Both sides have strong bipartisan support, so the outcome is anybody’s guess.

If you’re just waking up to this issue now and want a complete analysis, a good place to start is The Center for Democracy and Technology which has published The Stop Online Piracy Act: Summary, Problems and Implications, or go see the key points boiled down in the summary infographic produced by AmericanCensorship.org.

You can read the full text of H.R.3261 Stop Online Piracy Act at the Library of Congress website.

If it comes to this:
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a staunch opponent of the bill, will add the reading of your name to a filibuster to stall the vote.


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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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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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Herman Cain: The Man and the Pizza

He’s Herman Cain, the man who would be President, one of the most successful African-American food entrepreneurs in American history, and Bill Clinton’s sparring partner during the 1994 health-care fight. That’s the man. But what about the pizza?

Godfather’s Pizza has over 600 locations in more than 40 states, according to the company’s website. This nationwide pizza company boasts several crust varieties and 100 percent real cheese. The Godfather’s Pizza website also tells us that one slice of a classic cheese pizza provides 290 calories, with 9 g of fat, 4 g of which are saturated fat. Cholesterol content is 20 mg and sodium content is 530 mg.

This is heartland pizza, sturdy, earnest pies with a toppings menu that includes middle-America faves like ground beef, sour cream, and bacon bits. There’s no hint of Naples, Italy or even New Haven, Connecticut.

By most reports Godfather’s produces a reasonable alternative to the Domino’s, Shakey’s, and Pizza Huts of the world (full disclosure: like most coastal, urban dwellers, I have no first-hand experience with Godfather’s Pizza). An unscientific twitter survey conducted by Politico turned up mixed reviews, while in a subsequent blind tasting, the Politico bipartisan panel ranked Godfather’s dead last (sample comments: “that is so bad”…”the most unappetizing”…”the cheese is really sour”…”the crust is like a sponge”).

Through a strangely ironic turn of events, nearly 100 Occupy Wall Street protestors were taken to area hospitals in various stages of gastrointestinal distress. The suspected culprit: food poisoning from a tainted delivery of Godfather’s Pizza.

Earnest, cheesy, and all-American. An underdog with national ambitions. Enemy of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Seemingly unremarkable, no better or worse than the rest of the field, but with a potentially dangerous edge. The man and the pizza.


See the song stylings of Herman Cain as he unleashes a rich baritone for this pizzafied cover of John Lennon’s Imagine. Sample lyrics:

Imagine there’s no pizza
I couldn’t if I tried
Eating only tacos
Or Kentucky Fried
Imagine only burgers
It’s frightening and sad





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Is Access to Healthy Food a Basic Human Right?

Is access to healthy food a basic human right?
That’s the question being asked by California Governor Jerry Brown.

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. At the end of that 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.

Back in 1948, nobody thought to specify the type of food. When those words were written, 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 surrounded by cheap and abundant processed foods, with little access to healthy foods. This landscape has been dubbed ‘food deserts,’ to describe low-income communities with plenty of processed foods at convenience stores and fast food outlets, but little or no fresh food, and the nearest supermarket is one mile away if it’s an urban community, and 10 miles away if it’s rural.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that this is a reality for more than 20 million Americans, and 1.7 million of them are living in California. The bill on Governor Brown’s desk would create the California Healthy Food Financing Initiative. It enables the state to collaborate with public, private, and philanthropic entities to bring loan and grant financing to the under-served neighborhoods. The goal is to encourage existing businesses to expand their healthier offerings, and to attract grocery stores, food cooperatives, farmers’ markets, and other fresh food retailers.

Is access to high quality food a basic human right?
The State Assembly and the Senate in California think so; in fact they have thought so twice. The previous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was inclined to believe that healthy food is a privilege earned by the state’s wealthier residents who own cars or live within striking distance of farmers markets; last year he vetoed a similar bill after it passed both houses of the legislature. Once again, it sits on the governor’s desk where it is a signature away from becoming law.

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

The Food Environment Atlas lets you go deeper into a community’s statistics, looking at factors like restaurant expenditures and meals cooked at home.



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You Can Bring a Gun into a Restaurant in 49 States

image via the Chattanooga Pulse


Ohio recently  became the latest state to open its bar and restaurant doors to gun-toting customers. Ohio joins four other states, Tennessee, Arizona, Georgia, and Virginia, that enacted laws explicitly allowing loaded guns in bars, while 17 other states allow weapons in restaurants that serve alcohol. The status is fuzzy in another 20 states, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, where legislatures have not explicitly addressed the question; by default they are allowing their residents to carry guns into establishments that serve alcohol.

These laws are the latest wave in the country’s gun debate, and represent progress made by the gun lobby as it seeks, state by state, to expand the realm of guns in everyday life. They follow last year’s Supreme Court rulings affirming that citizens have an individual right to keep a loaded handgun for self defense. The rulings opened a floodgate of lawsuits challenging various state gun laws. Some of the most extreme proposals have come from gunslinging Governor Rick Perry who thinks Texans should always come to the table strapped, even when that table is in a school cafeteria.

The laws in most states allow people licensed to carry concealed weapons to take them into taverns, hotels, and restaurants. Armed customers are not supposed to drink, although that’s little comfort to servers and bartenders, many of whom feel that the mix of guns and alcohol-emboldened customers creates an unsafe work environment. Bars and restaurants are free to post signs banning weapons, but compliance can be iffy, with local gun-carry forums springing up to point out loopholes, and of course the weapons are concealed in the first place.

The logic of the madhouse
On November 1, when Governor Scott Walker signs Wisconsin’s Personal Protection Act into law, Illinois will be the nation’s last hold-out; the only state to prohibit the  carrying of guns into restaurants. It’s a sad day when a state’s General Assembly thinks its citizens need to carry weapons to be safe in restaurants.

We know that alcohol and firearms are a dangerous mix, but we seem to have lost touch with common sense on this life-and-death issue.

Keep up with the latest gun legislation with the public interest law center Legal Community Against Violence.

The NRA website has an interactive, state-by-state map of current firearm laws.




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A Terrorist Attack on Our Food Supply: Not an IF but a WHEN

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.
—Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at his farewell news conference, December 3, 2004

We may be blindsided by an intentional food-based attack on this nation sometime soon… At present, our primary detection capability is the emergency room.
—John Hoffman, former Department of Homeland Security senior adviser, testifying before a Senate subcommittee on counter-terrorism, September 14, 2011

In the the wake of 9/11, one of our deepest fears was that terrorists would poison our food.
Vowing to draw a protective shield around our food supply, President Bush made food defense a focal point of our National Security Policy and the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. Presidential directives were signed pulling food into the realm of our nation’s critical infrastructure where it joined priority sectors like communications, energy, transportation, and emergency health services.

10 years have passed, agencies have been created, $3.4 billion has been spent; and a congressional watchdog report, the subject of last week’s Senate hearings, suggests that we remain as vulnerable as ever to the nightmare scenario of food terrorism.

No big surprise.
The past decade of food counter-terrorism activity has been bogged down in bureaucratic tangles and inefficiencies. Food monitoring activities are far-flung and fragmented: there’s the oversight of federal agencies like the USDA, FDA, Department of Defense, and Homeland Security; and in many segments of agriculture and manufacturing, there are parallel systems of self-regulation and voluntary compliance on the part of the private sector. Lines of responsibility are blurred, communications between unrelated entities are scattershot, and there is no one with the authority or accountability to take charge.

The public has also dropped the ball, losing its post-9/11 sense of urgency and lulled into complacency by the relative domestic quiet of the intervening years.

72% of deliberate contaminations take place at the end of the food supply chain—the rat poison in a husband’s dinner or tranquilizers in the city council’s coffee pot. Another 23% take place at the retail grocery or restaurant level. These tend to be mostly thrill crimes, or crimes of passion, revenge, and retribution.

Direct attacks on the food supply are rare. Most have targeted water supplies, food processors, and manufacturers. Conventional contaminants like cyanide and mercury are most common, although in recent years we have seen an increase in the use of biological agents including salmon­ella, ricin, and radiological matter. They are often politically motivated, like a 1984 salmonella attack directed at voters that sickened nearly a thousand Oregon residents, and the more recent poisoning death in London of the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed with a lethal dose of radioactive polonium-210 in his tea.

Some might argue that despite our apparent vulnerability, we have little to fear because the world has never seen a large-scale act of biological warfare on a food supply. But then again, the world had never seen anything like 9/11.

You can view a webcast of the recent Senate Subcommittee session, Agro-Defense: Responding to Threats Against America’s Agriculture and Food System, and see transcripts of witness testimony at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs website.


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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 Change.org 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.


Posted in food policy, sustainability | Tagged , | 1 Comment

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

Food or Candy: are you smarter than a legislator?


If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck…

We manage to breeze through Halloween. Any 5-year old can set you straight. So why are state legislatures struggling with the definition of candy?

Retail food sales have traditionally been exempt from sales tax, which were deemed cruel and regressive. In recent years, as cash-strapped states look to plug up budget deficits, candy taxes have become the go-to revenue source. Already this year candy or soda taxes have been proposed or passed in more than a dozen states.

Food or Candy: how well do you know your sweet treats? (answers appear below)*

  1. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup
  2. Twizzlers Red Licorice
  3. Gummi Bears
  4. Jordan Almonds
  5. Snicker’s Bar
  6. Kit Kat
  7. M&M’s Peanut
  8. Milky Way
  9. Three Musketeers
  10. Nestle’s Crunch

On June 1, when the candy tax goes into effect in Washington, state residents will be paying a little more for Good and Plenty and licorice whips, but not licorice buttons or drops. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar– taxable; Hershey’s Cookies ‘n Creme– tax exempt. Reese’s pieces and Butterfinger bars are taxed but the stick versions aren’t.

Food or Candy? Walking the thin, sweet line is an audit manager in the Washington State Department of Revenue who has been charged with the all-important determinations. Each flavor of jelly bean must be individually parsed. Decisions must be made about bulk buying and boxed assortments. This is one state auditor whose job is safe for a very long time.

Absurd, arcane, and just utter nonsense, hair-splitting categorizations have been assigned to 3,600 items, although word is that one candy distributor just dropped a list of 11,000 Japanese imports on his desk. Whether you’re  a fan of Mr. Goodbar or Sour Patch Kids, you can check the status of your favorite sweets with the Washington State Taxable Treats Database.

*answers: odd numbers are candy; even numbers are food, except for 4.Jordan Almonds and 8.Milky Way: Jordan Almonds are candy except for the white ones, which are food; Milky Way bars are food except for the dark chocolate version, which is candy.



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Food Fraud: Is that olive oil really from Italy?

Walk down a midtown Manhattan street and you’ll see a folding table piled high with knockoff Prada handbags, Rolex watches, and Louis Vuitton wallets for a fraction of their retail prices.

Shoppers are well-acquainted with the fake designer goods racket. They know they are buying counterfeits, choosing to be complicit in a crime in pursuit of a bargain.

But what about the shadow economy for counterfeit food products? […]

Posted in food business, food policy, food safety | Tagged , | 6 Comments
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