Archive for the 'food' Category

30
Jun
10

Baby steps in the right direction

This week, the FDA issued a “draft guidance” that in effect asks industrial meat producers to pretty please, at least think about limiting the practice of pumping massive quantities of antibiotics into factory animals meat machines.

The big lobbying groups, predictably, were outraged by this intrusion of mere science into their god-given right to make a bundle at the expense of the world’s health (both animal and human).

Tom Scocca at Slate sums up just how late this is in coming:

Forty-one years after the United Kingdom concluded that feeding antibiotics to healthy animals to make them gain weight could promote drug resistance in bacteria, 12 years after the European Union banned the use of medically important antibiotics in livestock for weight gain, nine years after researchers found widespread antibiotic-resistant salmonella in American ground beef, and four years after the EU banned all feeding of antibiotics to healthy animals, the Food and Drug Administration today issued a “draft guidance” urging “judicious use of medically important antimicrobial drugs” in the American livestock industry.

At Grist Tom Laskawy some excellent background on the issue as well as a slightly more optimistic view. “While this may sound like so much bureaucratese, it represents a strong statement by the FDA and suggests further action is forthcoming.”

This draft, though clearly preliminary and subject to industry feedback, also gives Congress a reason to move forward on legal restrictions knowing that a scientific consensus is forming — though in reality it’s unlikely a law could be passed much before November, if at all.

The question remains just how hard Big Meat will fight this guidance. The FDA wants to bend over backwards to limit problems for livestock producers by phasing in restrictions and taking their concerns into account. But will groups like the Pork Board — which denied the very existence of the problem to CBS News anchor Katie Couric in her blockbuster report on the subject — take the hand the FDA has offered? Or will they bite it?

Or will CAFO operators simply seek to bypass any regulation altogether, by claiming that routine doses of antibiotics are medically necessary to prevent disease in close quarters? I’m contacting an expert on this topic to find out if the FDA’s draft guidance indicates such loopholes will exist, and whether industry will head for them.

We know that subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock is unnecessary. The Danes have, somewhat famously, proved it by banning the practice and significantly reduced the threat of antibiotic resistance with no long-term effects on livestock health or productivity. The American Society of Microbiologists knows it. The FDA does, too. Even over a hundred House members and 17 senators (that being the number of cosponsors attached to the pending legislation) know it. With any luck, the industry will finally get the message.

Advertisements
06
Apr
10

Crusade for better foods … and get stomped

That episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution where he showed kids all the nastiness that goes into chicken nuggets—and they wanted to eat them anyway? As upsetting as it was,  it did save me the bother of showing it to my nugget-inhaling son, as it will probably achieve the same (opposite of intended) result.Vodpod videos no longer available.I don’t for a moment doubt Jamie Oliver’s good intentions in this food crusade of his. But he is a wealthy celebrity chef, and he  will get over it. He is probably already home in Britain, regaling his like-minded friends with tales of the benighted colonials over some delightful meal he’s just whipped up, along with a number of impeccably complementary bottles of tasty plonk.

Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that speaking out about the garbage served to kids in schools can have career-threatening consequences. From La Vida Locavore, here is an excerpt from the  woeful saga of what happened to a school teacher who became concerned about what her students were eating. (Writing in haste today, so apologies for the extensive cut-and-pastiness).

Mendy Heaps, a stellar English teacher for years, had never given much thought to the food her seventh-graders were eating. Then her husband, after years of eating junk food, was diagnosed with cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure and suddenly the french fries, pizza and ice cream being served in the cafeteria at rural Elizabeth Middle School outside Denver, Col., took on a whole new meaning.

Heaps was roused to action. She started teaching nutrition in her language arts classes. She bombarded colleagues, administrators and the local school board with e-mails and news clippings urging them to overhaul the school menu. She even took up selling fresh fruits and healthy snacks to the students on her own, wheeling alternative foods from classroom to classroom on a makeshift “fruit cart,” doling out apples for a quarter.

Finally, the school’s principal, Robert McMullen, could abide Heaps’ food crusade no longer. Under threat of being fired, Heaps says she was forced to sign a personnel memorandum agreeing to cease and desist. She was ordered to undergo a kind of cafeteria re-education program, wherein she was told to meet with the school’s food services director, spend part of each day on lunch duty recording what foods the students ate, and compile data showing the potential economic impact of removing from the menu the “grab and go” foods Heaps found so objectionable. … The case of Mendy Heaps is a stark reminder that at least one voice is largely missing from the debate over school food that’s getting so much attention lately: the voice of teachers. Teachers see what kids eat every day. They have opinions about the the food and how it impacts children’s health and school performance. Yet they are almost universally silent.

… “When I got the memo, everyone became afraid,” said Heaps. “If I tried to talk about the memo, no one wanted to listen. I got a little support from a couple of teachers, but not very much. Everyone wanted to forget about it and they wanted me to forget about it too…The only thing I still do is write letters and try to get someone interested! I’m working on one for Michelle Obama right now.”

29
Mar
10

Sitting down with criminals to make laws about crime

Updated below.

I have not seen the first episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution but I plan to watch them all. While I enjoyed this summation from the Washington Post, I found it awfully snarky, and maybe more than a little dishonest.

“‘Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution’ regurgitates the worst of reality TV pap”? Here we go again. A writer for a reputable mainstream media player purports to speak for the common man by defending (or getting defensive about) what really is a tragic obesity epidemic because he doesn’t like being talked down to by “a foreigner with meticulously rumpled hair and a funny accent telling them to hand over the fries.”

Or, as the morning deejays at Morgantown’s “The Dawg” put it to Oliver: “We don’t want to sit around and eat lettuce all day. Who made you king?”

I’ve written about this before. Point out that Americans’ diets are killing them, and you can count on being shouted down and characterized as elitists, snobs, and–the lowest blow of all–foodies! These attacks on locavores seem to come with great regularity from highly esteemed conventional media sources such as the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times and Slate. Their faux-populist message sows the seeds of doubt about the message of food activists, and gives cover to continuing business as usual.

In a sad, not unrelated development, and in case you thought steps were being taken to improve this situation, Jill Richardson’s great La Vida Locavore blog reports that the USDA had substantial input from … makers of junk food in the drafting of new nutrition standards for American schools.

Why is the junk food lobby at the table to make rules about nutrition? Would you have a criminal at the table to make laws about crime? The American Beverage Association, Coca Cola, Mars, Nestle, and PepsiCo were all included in negotiations for the new school lunch nutrition standards in [Senator Blanche] Lincoln’s child nutrition bill. Under the bill, the USDA will set one set of nutrition standards for all food sold in schools during the school day (including vending machines). This is a change from current laws, which forbid the USDA from setting rules over most food sold in schools outside of the federally-reimbursable school lunch (i.e. the meal served to kids who receive free lunch).

So here’s the question: What did public health groups give up by negotiating with the junk food lobby? What do public health experts think the school nutrition standards should be, and how far apart is that from the actual language of the bill?

Hmm. Cutting a deal with the very industries that are the engines for a national health catastrophe. Where have I seen this before?

Update: In a Firedoglake diary titled Lousy School Lunch Bill, One Step Closer to Passage Richardson wonders why “Democrats put their least loyal Senator in charge of one of their highest profile issues.” That Senator would be Ms. Blanche Lincoln, who somehow got to be the author of the child nutrition bill inspired by Mrs. Obama herself:

And Blanche Lincoln is no Michelle Obama. She’s not even as progressive as Barack Obama, who called for $10 billion in new money over 10 years for child nutrition, a number Lincoln reduced by more than half.

To put that in easier to understand terms, Obama’s proposal would have given up to $.18 in addition funds to each child’s school lunch. Lincoln’s bill gives each lunch $.06. Compare that to the School Nutrition Association’s request to raise the current $2.68 “reimbursement rate” (the amount the federal government reimburses schools for each free lunch served to a low income child) by $.35 just to keep the quality of the lunches the same and make up for schools’ current budgetary shortfall. School lunch reformer Ann Cooper calls for an extra $1 per lunch to actually make lunches healthy. So any amount under $.35 is no reform at all, and Lincoln gave us $.06.

Richardson goes on to put the awful facts of this matter in context:

Unfortunately, the only real way to improve the quality of school lunch is money. Schools need money for better food but they also need money for labor, training, and equipment. And the equipment needed is sometimes as simple as knives and cutting boards, essential tools for preparing fresh fruits and vegetables that all too many schools lack. And it’s money that this bill does not provide.

In the case of school lunch in particular, where the most vulnerable members of our society – low income children who cannot afford to bring a healthy lunch from home – are affected, the government’s failure to provide healthy food is utterly unconscionable. It’s also stupid, since an estimated 1 out of every 3 children born in 2000 will suffer from Type II Diabetes during their lifetime, and diabetes is one of the most expensive health problems to treat. Every penny we don’t pay now for school lunches is money we will spend later on Medicaid and Medicare for children who grow up to suffer from diabetes. But, as a House staffer put it to me when I raised that point, “the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] doesn’t score that way.” When the government tabulates whether or not a program is saving money, future expenditures on predictable, preventable health conditions aren’t added in.

04
Mar
10

Locovores, locavores, See these people can’t even agree on how to spell their own damn movement!

A handsome and not at all smelly locovore family

In the unlikely forum of Foreign Policy magazine, Felix Salmon, the financial blogger for Reuters, has crafted a love letter to locovorism, a movement that’s getting sneered at a lot lately as being a fantasy of snobbish foodies and manure-spattered alternative farmers reeking of dirt and garlic.  (After a while, though, you find that smell sexy).

Don’t have much time, so will quote a couple snippets, and encourage all to read the whole thing.

There are three big problems with monoculture, all of which can be addressed with a more sensitive, bottom-up, heterogeneous, small-scale agricultural model.

First, monocultures are, by their nature, prone to disastrous bouts of disease. Ireland’s population was decimated by the potato famine; France’s vines were wiped out by phylloxera; a disease called huanglongbing now threatens all of California’s citrus crop. If you only grow one crop, the downside of losing it all to an outbreak is catastrophe. In rural Iowa it might mean financial ruin; in Niger, it could mean starvation.

Big agriculture companies like DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), of course, have an answer to this problem: genetically engineered crops that are resistant to disease. But that answer is the agricultural equivalent of creating triple-A-rated mortgage bonds, fabricated precisely to prevent the problem of credit risk. It doesn’t make the problem go away: It just makes the problem rarer and much more dangerous when it does occur because no one is — or even can be — prepared for such a high-impact, low-probability event.

A more natural and heterogeneous system, by contrast, is inherently much more resistant to disease because few (if any) diseases can successfully wipe out a wide range of crops. Natural resistance is also much more likely to be found where there are a wide range of native varieties growing in the same place. Nature abhors a monoculture, and a system of smaller farms growing a large number of crops will be able to resist any disease in a way that no single crop can. If one or two of them gets hit, the damage done is manageable rather than devastating. It doesn’t have the same economies of scale, of course, and it might not have magical flood-resistant properties. But it works, all the same.

This is a hugely important issue to consider, especially as a few opportunistic spores of Ug99 blowing on a kind wind might lead in fairly short order to a worldwide shortage of wheat-based foodstuffs.

The second problem with monoculture is that new, high-tech, disease-resistant crops tend to come with something that is just as unwelcome as disease: patents. Many of these high-tech crops can’t reproduce organically and need to be bought afresh each season from the patent holder. And all of them come with layers of intellectual-property laws too complex for most non-lawyers to decode. So how do we expect impoverished and often illiterate populations in some of the most remote areas of the world to take advantage of them? Non-engineered crops, the natural ones that replicate themselves, are patent-free.

Finally, monoculture is based on the principles of trade and comparative advantage. It’s supposed to work like this: Enormous areas specialize in growing, say, corn and soy; they then sell those crops and use the cash they get in return to buy a wide variety of foods.

This works in the United States, but it doesn’t work well in the rest of the world, where trade barriers are often high, and selling crops for money and then exchanging that money for food is a complex and fraught process. Farmers growing cash crops in remote areas are often taken advantage of by middlemen, who take a cut of the profit and pay the growers much less than the market rate.

….It’s also worth bearing in mind that there’s already more than enough food being grown to feed every person on the planet. Right now, when we grow more food, the main consequence is more obesity and waste in rich countries. In fact, we have reached such a level of excess food that powerful agricultural lobbies — supported by big businesses like ADM — have been pushing for food crops to be turned into biofuels, especially in the United States and Brazil. It simply isn’t the case that we are at risk of shortages without these monoculture crops.

The hunger that persists is a question of distribution; calories don’t just magically trickle down to the people who really need it. Locavorism gets right to the root of this problem. By growing multiple crops close to home, less is likely to spoil and more will reach the table.

02
Mar
10

The Green Revolution’s bitter fruit: a Biblical plague?

There’s an interesting and frightening story in Wired this month about the potential catastrophe represented by puccinia graminis, or Ug99, a fungus that causes stem rust in wheat. Writes Brendan I. Koerner:

Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”

This is a thorough look at what could develop into something truly awful. Massive starvation is a not implausible result, if a few opportunistic spores blow into the wrong spots. (Some scholars apparently believe stem rust was one of the Biblical plagues, FWIW.)

But I have to voice my objection to a basic premise of the article, the characterization of the Green Revolution as a “lifesaving agricultural movement.” Koerner asserts  that the Norman Borlaug-led Revolution “produced multiple disease-proof, high-yielding crops capable of feeding once-hungry populations.”

Which is pretty much a spot-on reflection of the consensus on Borlaug as a selfless, indefatigable Man of Science who fed the world’s starving populations. The consensus, however, glosses over the fact that the Green Revolution created many more problems than it solved. More than a half century after Borlaug’s Rockefeller Foundation-funded trip to Mexico, the state of affairs in the nations saved by the gift of Western agriculture are at best parlous.

Writing in Grist just after Borlaug’s death last Fall at the age of 95, Tom Philpott offered a dissenting take on Borlaug’s achievement:

In Mexico, to be sure, yields of corn and wheat rose dramatically in the areas where Borlaug’s techniques took hold. But while [Borlaug biographers] Thurow and Kilman convincingly argue that Borlaug’s main intent was to “help poor farmers,” Mexico’s smallholders have been in a state of severe crisis for more than a generation. The so-called “immigrant crisis” here in the United States is better viewed as an agrarian crisis in Mexico. Since the the advent of NAFTA alone, more than 1.5 million Mexican farmers have been forced off of their land. Since the Mexican manufacturing economy has been nowhere near robust enough to absorb them, a huge portion of one-time Mexican farmers now wash our dishes and harvest our crops.

While the factors contributing to Mexico’s agrarian disaster are multiple and complex—including neoliberal trade policy and U.S. crop subsidies—the zeal to increase yield certainly factors in. In Borlaug’s Green Revolution paradigm, farmers are urged to specialize in one or two commodity crops—say, corn or wheat. To grow them, they were to buy hybridized seeds and ample doses of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.

Philpott is careful to point out that he’s not demonizing Borlaug:

For me, the point isn’t that Borlaug is a villain and that crop yields don’t matter; rather, it’s that boosting yield alone can’t solve hunger problems in any but the most fleeting way. Farmers’ economic well-being; biodiversity; ecology; local knowledge, buy-in, and food traditions—all of these things matter, too.

Koerner paints a vivid picture of scientists working with great urgency to develop new seed varieties that are immune to Ug99. I wonder how much, if any, of the big scientific push is taking into account Philpott’s “other” things that matter, especially the biodiversity consideration. My Googling has turned up no answers to this question up until now.

I admit I am laboring in the dark here. This may be an ignorant question, but what about OLD varieties? In past outbreaks, did stem rust afflict EVERY strain of wheat in ALL conditions? I really don’t know. I do hope some of these scientists are working on re-diversifying the seed stock, instead of trying to engineer one or a couple varieties so the monocrop paradigm can continue uninterrupted.

22
Feb
10

GMO vaporware in Africa

african corn farmer

In the conventional wisdom, Billl Gates has gone from geek, to megalomaniac software mogul bent on world domination, to a man so rich he can SAVE THE WORLD WITH HIS MONEY!

I cannot argue with his decision to dedicate his life to making things better through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but sometimes trying to make things better makes things worse. And that’s if your intentions are pure to start with. Mix in a partner who might have other motives, and well, you see where this is going….

This Grist article by Tom Laskawy discusses a recent venture by the Gates Foundation that sounds great on its face. The goal: to feed Africa. The method: GMO seed technology from DuPont’s biotechnology arm, Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Laskawy quotes a DesMoines Register news item, which mentions that DuPont rival Monsanto is involved in a simliar venture:

Pioneer Hi-Bred is joining with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help scientists in Africa develop genetically engineered corn varieties that would allow poor farmers increase their yields with less fertilizer.

The aim of the project is to increase corn yields by 50 percent over the average now reached by African varieties, said Paul Schickler, president of Pioneer, a Johnston-based unit of DuPont.

… Pioneer’s arch-rival Monsanto Co. is two years into a similar project with the Gates foundation to develop drought-tolerant corn that is to be made available to small-scale farmers in eastern and southern Africa.

Both Pioneer and Monsanto have agreed to make the seeds available royalty-free to small-scale farmers.

Lawkawy is skeptical.  And the not-so-fine print shows he has reason to be:

As for Pioneer, they will first use advanced conventional breeding techniques to improve yields, and then add their genetically engineered genes later. The conventional version should be ready by 2014. The transgenic version? Eventually.

From his years as CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates knows well the name for this kind of product: vaporware. It’s hard not to think that Monsanto, Dupont and their ilk are turning into the Bernie Madoff of agriculture. Convince gullible foundations along with the federal government to send billions in research dollars their way based on a promise of magically awesome results. Sometime down the road, of course.

And of course the irony here is that a non-GMO solution exists, the development of seed varieties by local, African researchers such as the Nigeria National Variety Release Committee, who “developed the [improved] varieties through conventional plant breeding by tapping naturally-available traits.”

Wouldn’t it be simpler, and cheaper, wonders Laskawy, to just spend some foundation money (most likely a fraction of what goes to DuPont) on getting locally adapted seeds into local farmers’ hands?

_____________________________________

Note: You can find a good summary of objections to Gates’ faith in GMO technology here.

17
Feb
10

Chicken litter. It’s what’s for dinner!

cow face

Nope, not eatin' THAT!

In a typically enlightening and frightening Grist article, Tom Philpott notices a few nasty ingredients that are now going into your “conventional” hamburgers.  Poultry litter, for one, thing, or in plain English, “feces mixed with bedding, feathers, and uneaten feed.”

A Missouri Extension publication blithely describes this gross practice as “provid[ing] opportunities for both the poultry producer and the beef cattle producer.” The Consumers Union sees it a little differently:

It can contain disease-causing bacteria, antibiotics, toxic heavy metals, restricted feed ingredients including meat and bone meal from dead cattle, and even foreign objects such as dead rodents, rocks, nails and glass. Few of these hazards are eliminated by any processing that might occur before use as feed. The resulting health threats include the spread of mad cow disease and related human neurological diseases, the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the potential for exposure to toxic metals, drug residues, and disease-causing bacteria.

Philpott also points out that crude (i.e. unpurified) glycerin, a biodiesel byproduct which goes into cosmetics (in purified form)  is now finding its way into feedlot food, as well as distillers grains, even though, as Philpott notes, “regulators acknowledge that the [latter] practice seems to encourage the growth of the deadly-to-humans pathogen E coli 0157. Distillers grains are also loaded with antibiotic residues and various industrial chemicals.”

And finally, because you might have missed it, the massive Huntington Meat Packing recall of beef tainted with  e. coli 0157 was not a mere 866,000 pounds of ground beef (enough for 3.56 million Quarter Pounders).  It was five times that amount!

As per the USDA

Huntington Meat Packing Inc., a Montebello, Calif., establishment, is expanding its recall of January 18 to include approximately 4.9 million additional pounds of beef and veal products that were not produced in accordance with the company’s food safety plan.

The USDA release also notes that the Huntington “recall was expanded based on evidence collected in an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) with assistance from FSIS.”

Are you lovin’ it yet?




Ineffable beauty, unspeakable evil, and all sorts of crap in between

Twitter Updates

wordpress analytics