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Archives for Food Health

Eating Dirt and Staying Healthy

Feb
2
2009

Last summer I spent a week in the hospital after developing a severe staph infection on my lower belly. I drove myself to the emergency room one Sunday evening after having reached the conclusion there was something seriously wrong – this wasn’t just a heat rash. The doctor’s reaction on examining me was (“Holey Moley!!”).

Perhaps I have a sensitivity to staph. I’ve had three staph infections in my life (although this was by far the worse), but I don’t have much sensitivity to anything else infectious – or autoimmune either.

I had asthma as child but outgrew it. For about five years I had something cold-like every fall when the weather first turned cold – but that’s been over 20 years ago. I had the flu when I was 18 and a strep throat when I was 26. Aside from these events I don’t catch diseases. Oh, there have been days when I snuffled a bit or had an upset stomach and may have been fighting off an infection, but it was always gone in a day.

I’m not alone. My parents seldom get colds, don’t have allergies, and aside from the inevitable effects of aging are hale and hearty. Same with my siblings. Sure, you can argue good genes, but I’ve long had another theory about this, one I was reminded of by an article published by Jane E. Brody in the New York Times: “Babies Know: A Little Dirt is Good for You.”

My parents grew up in the 20s and 30s before our culture became terrified of germs while my siblings and I grew up on a farm eating food and drinking water that wasn’t perfectly clean. As children we were all exposed to a broad spectrum of bacteria at low levels and our bodies simply developed the ability to kill the unfriendly ones. Our immune systems were regularly exercised and, as a result, became strong and discriminating.

We’ve seen a huge increase in allergies here in the West and there’s evidence this may be a result of immune systems that “panic.” They have not learned to distinguish between organisms and chemicals that threaten the body and those that don’t. Consequently anytime these immune systems see something odd they attack – even if it’s you they’re attacking.

In another couple of examples, some current research points to potential links between celiac disease and lactose intolerance and the lack of microorganisms in the gut that can break down gluten and lactose. A decrease in breast-feeding may well contribute to this. The placenta isn’t a perfect filter, but it’s pretty good. So breast feeding not only passes on the mother’s existing antibodies to her children, but also passes on some useful bacteria. Ultra-sterilized infant formula doesn’t.

We have become a germophobic nation. The supermarket hands out wipes to disinfect buggies, we buy anti-bacterial soap for our kitchens and bathrooms, we expect our doctors to give us antibiotics whenever we get a runny nose or our child has an earache, we shoot our industrially raised cattle and chickens with drugs to prevent illness – not cure it.

This is silly. We live in – and surround – a sea of bacteria. In fact, aside from physically breaking down the food you eat by chewing and the application of some acids and enzymes, you do relatively little to digest your food. Instead a host of microorganisms living in your gut extract and then excrete the nutrients that keep you alive. If your intestine ruptures many of these bacteria can quickly kill you, but in their place they’re not only harmless but positively beneficial.

Besides, anti-bacterial soaps don’t work any better than ordinary soap, but they do enable bacteria to evolve their own immunity to the anti-bacterial agents. Our over-reliance on drugs whenever we don’t feel well combined with the additional drugs we get in every bite of chicken or drink of milk we eat is breeding a new group of super bugs – and making us less able to defend ourselves.

I don’t really advocate eating dirt, although eating a bit is unlikely to kill you. Washing your hands regularly – but not obsessively – is wise. And washing fruits and vegetables is a good idea, but the most effective way is to disinfect them is by briefly soaking in a vinegar solution. And the next time you feel bad, instead of going to the doctor, just take the day off and relax. Give your immune system a chance to do it’s job – and get a little exercise.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Eating Oil

Oct
27
2008

On October 12 Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food took over the New York Times Magazine for his polemic, “Farmer in Chief” framed as an open letter to the next president. Pollan writes: “what’s needed is a change of culture in America’s thinking about food … focusing the light of public attention on the issue and communicating a simple set of values that can guide Americans toward sun-based foods and away from eating oil.”

CornThe article is a tour de force of the problems facing the American and world food supply. Pollan begins with food prices but moves on to farm policy, climate change, economic policy, health care, energy policy, and diet. He does a masterful job of showing how these issues relate to and affect each other.

There is much with which I agree. Pollan notes: “Monoculture is the original sin of American Agriculture.” We have a system designed to produce the most possible calories of food for the least possible price – factory farms are the result of this policy. It began with Earl Butz during the Nixon administration when he completely revamped farm policy to encourage maximum production and instead of offering farmers insurance during hard times the government began actively subsidizing crops such as corn, soy beans, and rice. This meant that farmers could make a profit even when their costs of production exceeded the market price of the commodity.

The most obvious result of this policy are CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and the increased use of HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) in processing our food Both encourage obesity and both are based on the over-supply of corn due to subsidies. That’s corn. But there’s also oil. Another product of corn subsidies, Ethanol – possibly the first bio-fuel – is increasing the demand for corn and thus contributing to increases in food prices. And, as the cost of oil and natural gas increase so does the price of crops dependent on high levels of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, made in many cases from petroleum by-products.

Pollan’s point is that the next president needs to have a Food Policy, a set of principles and plans that account for how energy, health, economics, and diet relate to and influence each other. Pollan’s thesis is that a piecemeal approach to the issues makes things worse and the next president needs to use his bully pulpit to encourage Americans to think more deeply about these issues and their interconnections. He even recommends turning part of the White House lawn into a vegetable garden as Eleanor Roosevelt did during World War II.

Frankly I think the chances of the next president even reading Pollan’s article, much less considering his ideas, is slim to none. But that’s not really the point. Food issues, whether the issue of animal confinement being addressed by California’s Prop 2, or buying organic, or even entertainment in the form of the Food Network is becoming something more and more Americans care about.

We see this interest reflected in the media. For instance, we not only have a Food Network, but one of Bravo’s hits is “Top Chef” and the Travel Channel offers both “No Reservations” and “Bizaare Foods.” The cover story of the November 2008 issue of Wired is “The Future of Food.” And equally telling, two years ago Spot-On asked me to write this column – not a food and cooking how-to but instead about how food and cooking fit into and are reflected in our culture.

This increased interest in food is a good thing because we’re approaching a food crisis that will affect even those of us in the developed world. The more thought we give to the issues now the better prepared we’ll be when the crisis hits and we actually do something about it. As Pollan writes, “…most of the problems our food system faces today are because of its reliance on fossil fuels, and to the extent that our policies wring the oil out of the system and replace it with the energy of the sun, those policies will simultaneously improve the state of our health, our environment and our security.”

In other words: We need to quit eating oil.

——————–

Update: Apparently I was wrong when I wrote:

Frankly I think the chances of the next president even reading Pollan’s article, much less considering his ideas, is slim to none.

According to this article Obama read at least a synopsis.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Something COOL

Oct
6
2008

This past Tuesday (October 1) we finally saw something good for consumers come out of the federal government: Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) for food. Grocery stores have six months to comply and then most meat and produce and some nut producers must specify the origin of their products (exceptions include roasted nuts, mixed vegetables, and a few other items).

SalsaThis requirement (which applies to retailers not producers, although it certaily affects producers) is a provision of the Farm Bill – not the most recent Farm Bill but the 2002 Farm Bill. The requirement for fish and shellfish was implemented in 2005 because of concerns about foreign seafood, but the other labels were delayed first in 2004, then in 2005. The retail food industry was, inevitably, totally opposed to the idea claiming it would raise prices, drive small retailers out of business (Ever noticed that it’s big business that hires lobbyists to supposedly defend small business?), and would reduce consumer choice – as though I’m going to give up eating leg of lamb because it comes from New Zealand or might not be just as happy with ground lamb from Oregon in Kofta.

Such end-of-the-world objections about added costs, whether to parsnips or ball bearings, are almost always nonsense if the added costs are applied equitably.

There are inevitably exceptions, which is why writing laws, rules, and regulations is hard. Requiring Donna, who grows the best tomatoes in East Tennessee and sells them at farmers’ markets, to individually label her tomatoes as grown in Tennessee would be silly. However, apparently this regulation doesn’t require that (it only applies to those selling more than $230,000 of produce a year).

Although COOL isn’t directly concerned with safety issues, it’s certainly a step in that direction. If you have concerns about grapes grown in Chile or peppers from Mexico you will have the opportunity to avoid these products. And in the case of the salmonella-ridden Mexican peppers the labels would probably have sped up discovery of source of contamination.

The law does contain some rather large loopholes. For instance, if the food is processed in some way it needn’t be labeled. So raw chicken from Guatemala has to be labeled but if that same chicken is made into chicken nuggets. Raw peanuts are covered but salted peanuts aren’t. Additionally, dairy products aren’t covered.

Also, if foods are mixed together they needn’t be labeled so although Mexican cantaloupe has to be labeled, if it’s mixed in a fruit salad with American oranges or Nicaraguan pineapple then no label is required. And oddly enough, meat and seafood sold in dedicated butcher shops or fish markets isn’t covered by the law.

Hopefully COOL will have some effect on food safety (although most cases of contaminated food during the past decade has been produced in this country). It also gives consumers the option of making more informed buying decisions. I may not care if a cantaloupe comes from the U.S. or Mexico – but then again, I just might.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

An Extra Pound or 50

Sep
8
2008

More people die in America of too much food than too little. ~ John Kenneth Galbraith, economist

ObesityMyriad factors contribute to the increasing obesity of Americans – too much sugar, too little exercise, too many fries and too few Brussels sprouts. Even the company you keep influences your weight, which means obesity (and leanness) is to some degree communicable. But Galbraith cuts to the core problem: We eat too much.

And I do mean “we.” I’m a short, fat, balding middle-aged man and I make no bones about it. One reason I eat too much is that I exercise too little. Sports haven’t interested me since I played tennis in junior high and exercise for its own sake feels, to me, like a waste of time I could better spend reading or writing or doing something else directly productive. I can’t even watch the Olympics without simultaneously reading a magazine, researching an article, and making notes on a menu for some upcoming event. I realize intellectually that deliberate exercise is a productive activity, it just doesn’t feel that way to me. And besides, I hate being hot and sweaty.

Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps is on the other end of the extreme. He exercises so much that even consuming 12,000 calories a day – more than three times what’s considered “normal” for a physically active teenager – he doesn’t gain weight.

Our bodies are essentially engines and food is the engine’s fuel. Although the analogy has become a cliché, like most clichés it has become so because of its accuracy – just look at Phelps. But our bodies are biological engines and so, unlike an automobile engine, adaptable. Unlike a car, which uses exactly as much fuel as it needs, our bodies use the fuel they need now and store the rest as fat. It’s as though we could overfill our gas tanks and in response the car immediately converted the extra gas to energy and then developed extra batteries to store the unneeded energy. Fat is a battery, a way of storing energy for future use.

This ability to store unneeded fuel is a good thing. If our ancestors hadn’t been able to store food in times of plenty to cover times of scarcity none of us would be alive today. But these days, in the Western world, the ability that served our ancestors so well for millions of years is unneeded. And since we not only store unneeded fuel, but we are hard-wired to eat more than we need because making the best of times of plenty was such a successful survival strategy for so many eons. Today’s plentitude is a two-sided problem.

Nevertheless, the basic fact is we’re fat because we eat more than we need. Whether there’s any truth to the special claims in regard to food combinations or metabolism made by diet doctors such as Pritikin (Pritikin Diet), Agatson (South Beach Diet), or others the fact is that most of these diets also have the effect of reducing the number of calories a person consumes and calories are what it all boils down to.

You require a certain number of calories based on your current weight and activity level to maintain your current weight. Ingest more calories than required for maintenance and you’ll gain weight, ingest fewer calories and you’ll lose, anything else affecting the use of calories is peripheral and minimal. Let me repeat that: anything else affecting the use of calories is peripheral and minimal.

Which is not to say that we’re all created equal. Just as some cars sip fuel while others guzzle it, some people’s bodies are stingy and efficient in their use of calories while other’s are more profligate. For instance, in addition to my aversion to exercise I seem to be cursed with a highly efficient metabolism. My brothers and sister and I grew up on a farm eating the same meals and performing the same activities whether it was pulling weeds in the garden, digging post holes, or climbing trees. My brothers and sister were always slender while I was always chubby. But having an efficient metabolism simply meant I needed less calories than my siblings and so, by eating the same thing, I was overeating.

The cause of obesity is as simple as is its cure. If you’re overweight, as I am, it’s your responsibility for eating more food than you need, as it is mine. However, there are contributing factors, some subtle (such as food tastes good) and others not (“Buy Lay’s Potato Chips!”) that encourage us to overeat. And, as this animated graphic illustrates, obesity is epidemic.

Over the next few months I’ll highlight some of these corollary factors – the ones I see as a professional cook, as a person who is concerned and interested in the role food plays in our culture and as someone who worries – just a bit – about his weight. Knowing what influences me may help you make wiser decisions, but even if not, you’ll know more about what you face in navigating today’s food choices. And it’s choice that, fundamentally, is important. The basic fact is that most Americans consume more food than they need – and we’d all like to know why.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:01 AM | Permalink

Inefficiencies of Scale

Jul
14
2008

I came home from the farmers’ market last Tuesday with a couple of pounds of tomatoes. To some folks, that makes me a brave or foolish man.

So far more than 1,000 people have officially been sickened by the latest salmonella outbreak. But, health care professionals say that in such estimates, for every reported case of sickness, more than 30 go unreported. This means something close to 40,000 people have been sickened to some degree.

This event was originally attributed to tomatoes from somewhere – no one knew exactly where. That’s reassuringly specific, isn’t it? Now the Food and Drug Administration says the source may not be tomatoes but peppers – or maybe cilantro.

Whatever the source, the problem isn’t willful disregard for our safety by a malevolent tomato poisoner. It’s an organizational problem. The larger an organization – in this case, Big Agriculture and its buddies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture – grows the more it seeks to simplify and find one-size-fits-all solutions. Sometimes this leads to efficiencies of scale resulting in reduced costs to customers (if we’re lucky) and greater profits for owners. But in the case of our food, something’s gone very wrong.

Commercial tomatoes are often gathered together from many sources at centralized packing plants. Some tomatoes may come from Florida, others from California, and some from Mexico or Guatemala. At these plants they’re sorted according to size and color (apparent degree of ripeness) and repackaged for shipping to supermarkets. This is quite efficient for the purveyors. And at the store you’re presented with a collection of uniform red spheres to choose from. But without knowing the origin of a given tomato, tracing the source of contamination becomes extremely difficult.

The solution is pretty straightforward: produce should be labeled with it’s point of origin. Toys and clothing are so why not food? This might make the supply chain a bit less efficient and a bit more expensive, but it would make tracking contamination quite efficient given the scale of the agricultural system that feeds us.

But in implementing such a policy we need to be careful not to introduce an inefficiency of scale.

Now, as I’ve suggested, I know where my tomatoes are from, I even know the name of the couple who grew them. There’s no need to label them, and yet, in a search for efficiency, I worry that the F.D.A. might require that farmers Sam and Lorraine pick their tomatoes a day early so they can sit up half the night sticking little labels to each one by hand.

Actually, I can’t see that. Sam and Lorraine would just quit faced with too much work and cost to deliver a poorer product; it would be the case of an inefficiency created to someone else’s scale. But this is the sort of thing the F.D.A. and U.S. Department of Agriculture would go for. Why? Well, when it comes to livestock, they’ve come close with something called N.A.I.S., a single rule for tracking lambs, pigs and cows that’s efficient for the bureaucracy and large farm operations but threatens to put smaller farmers (like the one where I buy my lamb) out of business.

This mis-mash of policies is positively schizophrenic and results from the often conflicting roles Congress has assigned these agencies. They are chartered to promote the business of agriculture on one side and protect the public on the other. But these goals constitute a genuine conflict of interest.

It’s also absurd that the F.D.A. is responsible for tomatoes while the U.S.D.A. is responsible for hamburgers. There should be a single agency responsible for food safety and it shouldn’t have any duties beyond safety. It shouldn’t be promoting sales of pork to Canada or negotiating with South Korea over beef imports. Furthermore, it should have adequate funding. Dr. David Acheson, the F.D.A.’s food safety chief notes, that we can’t inspect our way to a safer food supply chain, but budget cuts during the Bush administration have weakened even that fragile safety measure.

As much as I love the idea of everyone eating mostly locally-raised food, that’s not realistic – we simply can’t feed everyone that way. And so we need focused policies and programs and methods for ensuring that the bulk of our food, which will continue to be produced using industrial agricultural practices, is safe. This means we need efficiences of scale both in the supply chain and the system of safeguards. At the same time it would be a mistake to blindly apply policies that are intended to operate in the arena of industrial agriculture to small and medium, local and regional farm operations. In doing so we’d be throwing the tomatoes out with the bath water.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Attack of the Not-So-Killer Tomatoes

Jun
16
2008

I’m almost as fed up (pun intended) with writing about food recalls as I am learning about them. Some good news on the food front would really be nice, but I’m afraid that with 238 people reportedly sickened with salmonella from contaminated tomatoes there is none this week.

That 238 doesn’t sound like very many but using the Center for Disease Control estimates – only one in 30 cases of salmonella poisoning is reported – you can figure over 7,000 people got sick.

TomatoesNow, in all fairness, given a U.S. population of 304 million, 7,000 case of stomach cramps (and worse) isn’t even a statistical blip. Besides, salmonella is seldom fatal in healthy people. So, if I lacked a sympathetic soul, I would suggest that anyone willing to eat a non-local, out of season, cardboard tomato shipped from God-knows-where and served in a fast-food joint probably deserves their fate. Fortunately I do have a sympathetic soul and have suffered from food poisoning myself I know that even if you don’t die from contaminated food you may wish you would – just to end the misery.

What’s really troubling about food poisoning is that the numbers are beginning to add up. Reported incidences have increased steadily over the past 30 years. Better reporting or more incidents? My bet is on both. And it’s troubling. We know we take a risk every time we get into an automobile and we’ve become inured to it. Yeah, it’s risky, but it’s an acceptable risk. Risky food, though, is a different matter. We expect what we eat to be safe, comfortable, and nutritious. When something like a tomato goes bad it throws our sense of order out of whack.

This most recent case is unique in the recent spate of contamination stories because it involves tomatoes. Although according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest there have been some 24 cases of tomato contamination since 1990 with around 3,000 reported cases, tomatoes are a rather rare source of food poisoning. There’s a good reason for this.

Salmonella, like e-Coli, lives primarily in the intestines of animals and the bacteria is usually passed on through feces. The initial contamination can come from animal waste from wild animals or from improperly processed manure used for fertilizer, or it can be passed on by poor worker hygiene. When contaminated products are processed with uncontaminated products as they often are in our increasingly industrial food system the contamination is spread from the dirty to the clean. As the old saying goes, one bad apple spoils the barrel.

But tomatoes have a tough, thick, impermeable skin, unlike lettuce or spinach that can absorb off-flavors. That’s why they can go through a chlorine rinse after picking to kill any external contamination. The implication with this latest round of food poisoning is that the fruit’s flesh – the inside – was contaminated. That raises two questions: 1) How can the salmonella get in to inflect the flesh? and 2) how can it get out to infect other tomatoes?

Obviously damage to the flesh can allow microbes to enter. But when was the last time you bought a tomato with an open wound except, possibly, from a farm stand where a recent rain has caused the tomato to split? And it’s safe to assume that even at Wendy’s or BurgerKing the produce buyers avoid cases where items are damaged.

So given that, how does contamination in one apparently pristine (albeit cardboard) tomato get into another? In an article by Barry Estabrooks in Gourmet, according to David Gombas at the United Fresh Produce Association, “the exact mechanism remains a food-safety mystery that the industry would dearly love to solve.”

I’ll bet they would. And in case they don’t, Keith Warriner at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada has been working on a salmonella vaccine for tomatoes designed to make them resistant to the bacteria.

Actually, that last question doesn’t really interest me – except intellectually. I only buy tomatoes when they’re in-season (in about a month or so, here in the U.S.) and then only from local farms.

I might still get sick from one but I’ll never get sick because of one contaminated tomato fell in with the 40,000 other clean tomatoes at the processing plant and spread its gut-wrenching microbes to my lunch-time BLT.

How to Choose a Tomato
The tomato should feel heavy for it’s size. It should be firm but not hard – a light squeeze should give you the feeling that a hard a squeeze would bruise it. But as with almost all vegetables and fruits, smell it. If it doesn’t smell like a tomato it probably never will and certatinly won’t taste like a tomato. When buying at the supermarket, avoid flaws in the skin and choose tomatoes that still have a stem attached. Hopefully, this will allow you to avoid contaminated tomatoes even in a supermarket. When buying at a farmers market or farm stand you needn’t be so picky about flaws in the skin (a heavy rain will cause tomatoes to split open) and a just-picked perfectly ripe tomato won’t have a stem since it was – before picking ripe and ready to let go of the mother plant.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

USDA – D is For “Downer”

Feb
4
2008

The food news last week was grim, disturbing, and troubling. It featured a video taken by members of the Humane Society of the United States that shows workers at Hallmark Meat Packing in Chino, California picking up, rolling over and dragging “downer” cows — animals that can’t walk — with forklifts, shocking the animals, and shooting water up their noses in an effort to get them into the slaughter house. The video is grim and graphic, no animal should ever be treated that way.

downed-cow-175.jpg

The USDA is not doing it’s job, neither is the FDA for that matter, but in this case the primarily responsible agency is the the Department of Agriculture, and it’s not on your side. It may have been, once upon at time. But these days, it’s a government-funded lobbying group for Big Ag. Even worse: Congress had an opportunity to reform this seriously misdirected government bureaucracy when finalizing the Farm Bill, but didn’t.

The events recorded in the video almost certainly aren’t rare. And this is disturbing because downer cows are down because they’re too sick to stand up. The most frightening prospect is they could have mad-cow disease, one of the few diseases that can cross species lines. And bovine spongiform encephalitis may well be a recent development. What other diseases might cattle, forced to live in circumstances for which they didn’t evolve, have developed?

Furthermore, while down they become covered in feces harboring our old nemesis e. Coli. It’s bad enough that animals in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) have to stand around in their own excrement, rolling in it — or being rolled in it — is even worse.

And the troubling part is that Hallmark sells to Westland Meat Co. (Note, Westland President Steve Mendell is also Hallmark’s operations manager. Nepotism anyone?) Westland, in turn, sells to the Agriculture Department’s commodities program, which supplies food for school lunch programs. In fact, in the 2004/2005 school year the Ag Department named Westland its Supplier of the Year. Even if you didn’t think the USDA was on your side, you might have hoped it wasn’t trying to kill your kids. Good luck.

I’m no bleeding heart. I eat meat and have no qualms about it, but I buy most of my meat from local suppliers whose cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens are raised in pastures. I’ve seen those farms. As a shepherd friend of mine notes, “[My lambs] have a darned fine life. They’re coddled and cared for right up until their last moment.” One of my local suppliers explained to me at great length what he looked for in deciding where to have his animals slaughtered. To these people the animals aren’t products, they’re living creatures entitled to be treated with decency and kindness right up to the end. And if you think about it, few of us get to choose our when our last moment occurs, all we can hope for is living comfortably until that moment comes.

Here in Knoxville such humanely-raised meat is about 25 percent more expensive than what I would pay at the supermarket, and it’s less convenient. Furthermore, I confess I haven’t cut back much on my meat eating, but I eat fewer roasts and steaks and eat more cheap cuts. And I can tell you that a grass-fed beef brisket, slowly braised with beer, onions, and carrots is better than almost any steak you can buy at a grocery store. I also trust my meat suppliers. I’ve seen their farms, petted their animals, and I know my supplier’s names as they known mine.

Now, things were certainly worse before the agency was formed – read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But in the near century that’s passed since that book was written, the USDA has turned its attention to promoting agriculture, not protecting citizens. So, the next time you’re tempted to buy a rib-eye steak for $6.00 a pound, remember, it may have come from an animal that was too weak to stand up and so was rolled into the slaughter house with a forklift. Not particularly appetizing, eh?

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Eating Around the Edges

Jan
7
2008

When I walk into any of the five grocery stores I regularly shop at I turn to the right and enter the produce section. It’s in the same spot in every store. (In fact, most people on entering most stores of any sort begin by turning right.) It may be an accident that the produce section is the first department on the right in all those stores, I’ve certainly been in lots of store where it wasn’t, but it’s not an accident that produce is against a wall. That’s its position in almost every grocery store in the country.

Click to view larger versionYou’ll also find the meat department against a wall; along with dairy; probably bread, beer, and wine; and the deli. The idea is that to collect the essentials — or what used to be the essentials — you have to go through the entire store. The intention is that a customer will traverse most of aisles and will be tempted to pick up stuff that’s not on their list (if they happen to have a list).

This application of practical psychology in designing grocery stores has an unintended side effect that’s somewhat troubling. Wired magazine published a survey in the January issue that analyzed the cost per calorie, the number of calories per 100 grams, and the amount of sugar per 100 grams for the various sections of a grocery store. It’s illuminating.

Fresh vegetables have the single highest cost at two cents per calorie. By comparison, meat is 0.5 cents per calorie as is dairy, while snacks and beverages in the middle of the store are 0.2 cents per calorie. A gram of pasta contains 334 calories, cereal has 344 calories per 100 grams, and snacks weigh in (pun intended) at a whopping 446. But produce provides only 38 calories per 100 grams and meat isn’t too bad at 214. What this means is that healthy calories are more expensive.

The Wired piece doesn’t talk about the amount of processing involved in creating some of these less expensive food items. Oddly enough, more processing often equates to lower prices. Cereals and snack foods are heavily processed with long lists of ingredients while the ingredient list in a potato is, well, potato and the only processing done is digging it up, washing it off, and dumping it in a box for shipping.

The reason for this is mass production. The high fructose corn syrup used in cereals and soft drinks comes from 1000-acre farms subsidized by your tax dollars. When all tomatoes, whatever their condition or degree of ripeness, are shipped to a plant and converted to spaghetti sauce the cost of the basic ingredient is minimized. But then you need to add chemicals to achieve a tomato sauce that’s consistent in flavor, appearance, and texture – in every jar, every time.

A system where more processing produces a less expensive product than the cost of the raw ingredients for sale 20 feet away is obviously warped in some way. There’s something just plain wrong with a system where food that is bad for you like Captain Crunch cereal or Lay’s Potato Chips are less expensive than healthier fare. I’m not going to argue that processed food is bad for you, per se, I’m unaware of any conclusive studies on the subject, although food journalist Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma) asserts you should, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — an assertion he justifies in his new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Pollan may or may not be right in his claims – certainly his reasoning has a certain appeal – but it’s pretty clear that much of what’s sold in grocery stories is just plain bad for you.

Pollan means something limited when he uses the word food. Food according to his definion will rot, your grandmother would recognise it, and it doesn’t have any ingredients you can’t pronounce. In fact most food doesn’t have any ingredients. Just because something is edible, that doesn’t mean it’s food.

Years ago I would turn right on entering a grocery store and proceed to the wall, then I’d go down one aisle and up the next — mindlessly emulating the behavior of an ink-jet printer. I no longer do that. I now proceed to the right-hand wall and follow it around the store with only brief trips to the center for things like paper towels, a can of tomatoes, or some frozen peas.

The fact is the food found on the periphery of the grocery store tastes better, is more fun to cook with, and happens to be healthier than the food in the center. So I eat around the edges.

You can leave questions, comments, and remarks here.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Safer By the Half-Dozen

Oct
8
2007

Meat inspection – and by extension, food safety – were back in the headlines last week. And, once again, you’ve got to wonder what it is that government regulators, consumers and farmers are getting out of the nation’s inspection system.

Before announcing that it was going out of business Topps Meat recalled 21.7 million pounds of frozen ground beef after 27 people became ill as a result of eating some that was contaminated with our old friend E. coli. By contrast, agri-giant Cargill is recalling 845,000 pounds of beef due to E. coli contamination.

Click to view larger versionThese recalls throw into relief a provision in the current Farm Bill that would allow meat from state-inspected plants to be sold across state lines. Currently only meat from federally-inspected sites can be sold across state lines, but the House of Representatives inserted a provision in the bill allowing smaller processing plants – those with fewer than 50 employees – to also sell across state lines. As a result, a political turf fight has erupted. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), citing safety issues, has threatened to put a kibosh on the legislation unless that safe inspection provision is removed.

That may sound like a reasonable precaution, except that Topps Meat’s abattoir was USDA-inspected as was Cargill’s. Clearly a federal stamp of approval is less than it should be. Which is why the law need a good hard look.

There are currently three types of processing facilities: USDA-inspected abattoirs, state-inspected abattoirs, and so-called custom abattoirs. Meat processed in USDA-inspected plants can be sold anywhere, meat processed in state-inspected plants can only be sold within the state, and meat processed in custom-exempt plants cannot be sold, it can only be consumed by the owner of the animal and his/her non-paying guests (this enables me to buy a local lamb while it’s alive and have the person who sold it to me take it to a custom plant for processing; so long as I don’t sell any of that meat to anyone everything is legal).

Those opposed to the provision allowing state-inspected meat to be sold outside the state have implied that smaller, state-inspected facilities operate at a lesser level of care than the USDA. According to the Associated Press, Boxer said “Allowing uneven and lax state standards to replace a uniform federal standard is not appropriate. It is irresponsible.” But a 1967 law called the Wholesome Meat Inspection Act (and the subsequent 1968 Wholesome Poultry Products Inspection Act) provide that state inspections must be equal to or exceed federal requirements.

But why care?

For one thing a state-inspected site may have stricter standards than a federal site. A farmer named Steve Atkinson noted in an on-line discussion that initially he had planned to have his meat processed at a nearby federally-inspected plant but a visit to the plant changed his mind, writing it “smelled of rotting meat, had exposed animal offal in the livestock corral, and an abundance of flies.” Atkinson is using a much cleaner state-inspected plant instead.

And there’s another reason; in “Status Quo” I mentioned my friend Mellani and her problems finding a market for her lambs. When discussing this with her my immediate thought was, “Go mail-order,” or, more specifically, Web order. She has a hugely popular blog and would have no problem selling her lambs. When I suggested this she said she doesn’t have access to a USDA-inspected facility and so can’t sell to the large majority of her readers who live out of state. This restriction, like so many such regulations, favors the large meat producers and meat processors at the expense of the smaller, local producer and it isn’t even necessarily any safer!

I’m all in favor of strict safety regulations, but let’s look at reality. A federal inspection is no guarantee of safety and the law already requires that state inspections meet or exceed federal requirements. If there is concern that state inspectors are slacking off, then step up monitoring and enforcement of the states. Clearly they seem better able to handle the work than the feds.

Also, I’ve noted earlier there is a fundamental flaw in applying efficiencies of scale to packaging food – a flaw that feeds into the federal government’s inability to properly inspect almost all of our food. One bad apple can indeed spoil the barrel, or in this situation, one mad cow can potentially infect hundreds and hundreds of people.

We are better served in matters of contamination by having more plants processing fewer animals. It doesn’t improve the food security for any given facility, but it spreads the risk more widely and reduces its overall potential impact. Allowing meat that’s processed in state-inspected facilities to be sold across state lines is a good idea.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Should You Care?

Jul
16
2007

The food press is all over it, but no one else is paying much attention to the so-called farm bill coming up for renewal this September. True, the bill isn’t relevant to everyone. Those who don’t eat or drink to stay alive needn’t pay much attention. But if you do count those activities as central to your continued well-being then a few moments of consideration might be worthwhile.
Click to view larger versionThat’s why it’s caught the attention of the food gang – because since the last farm bill was passed five years ago, it’s become clearer than ever that the bill’s provisions – including school lunch and food stamp programs – affect the kind of food we put in our mouths, for better or worse.
I’ll try to break the mind-bogglingly complex legislation down into digestible pieces over the next few weeks, but in broad strokes the farm bill provides subsidies (either through direct cash payments or indirectly through price supports and tax breaks) to those in the ag biz. It’s been around since Noah’s Ark. In fact, those who receive the subsidies pretty much assert they’re God-given and no one has the right to take them away, and if they are taken away then flood, pestilence and higher food prices will result.
The lobbyists claim these subsidies are essential to keeping our farmers in business — and given the recent news reports about contaminated food from China that seems like a good idea to me. But which farmers? The subsidies go to those who grow 19 targeted commodity crops. Soybeans, rice, corn and cotton are on the list. Green beans, squash and cucumbers aren’t. I like corn on the cob and a mess of barbequed soybeans as much as the next guy, but most of the corn is used to feed livestock (that it makes sick), or is turned into fructose (that makes you fat), or most recently ethanol to power your car while you cruise down the highway munching on a corn-fed burger and drinking a corn-sweetened soda.
Follow the money. It isn’t the small family farmers, like Ed who I buy tomatoes and squash from or Tracy who sells me meat, who benefit from the government’s supposed concern. Ed and Tracy get highlighted by the lobbyists, but it’s Big Ag, like Archer Daniels Midland or Conagra, and major land-holders that get the bulk of subsidies. The thousands of truly small farmers don’t get a penny.
Some of these small farms are classified as “retirement,” or “residential/lifestyle” — what my father called a “gentleman’s farm.” This is the kind of farm I grew up on. They raise crops or livestock mostly for the pleasure of doing so (or, as I often thought when I was growing up, to punish their children by making them weed the gardens in the hot August sun or dig postholes in January’s frozen ground). Sadly, these folks also provide the bulk of what I find at the local farmers’ markets.
I say “sadly” because the true small farmer, whether classed as “limited resource” or “low/medium sales,” is almost completely absent from the farmers’ market. These classifications are composed of people genuinely trying to make a living from farming. I’d love to see more professional farmers at the market because I’m afraid their absence indicates their scarcity. But it’s terribly difficult to make a living from farming on a small scale (less than 150 acres) and the government doesn’t seem to be interested in making it easier for the little guys.
These small farmers are the people deserving our support. I would certainly prefer seeing my tax dollars go toward helping out Tracy and his wife and two daughters than toward helping out Archer Daniels Midland or Tyson Foods. Fortunately there are efforts being made by a number of constituencies to address the needs of not just the small farmers, but of all the farmers who feed us. Unfortunately Big Ag is fighting such changes tooth and nail.
You can leave thoughts, comments, and observations here.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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