Thursday, February 25, 2010

Great Piece on Small Farm Concerns with S. 510

I posted a few days ago about the tension between supporting improved food safety and supporting small/local agriculture. A really good treatment of this question as regarding S. 510 is up at Food Safety News. Go give it a read, here.

Basically it says that while small farmers' concerns are valid, the pending legislation does enough to protect small farms and is, when all's said and done, extremely important to our food safety system. I agree. It's time to bring S. 510 to a floor vote. Write or call your senator today.

What Makes a Tomato "Low Mold" Versus "High Mold" Anyway?

The last few days have seen lots of food news, including plenty of stories about a decade of dirty dealing in the tomato industry. California-based SK Foods and individuals from such well-know food processors as Kraft Foods, Safeway, and Frito-Lay were involved in all sorts of questionable activities, the end-result of which was that "high-mold" tomatoes made it into products (that we consumers then purchased and ingested) that should only have contained "low-mold" tomatoes.

Which raises the obvious question: what makes a tomato "high" or "low" mold? For an answer to that question we go to the Food and Drug Administration's Defect Levels Handbook, the guide to what defines an "actionable" defect in a regulated product, like tomatoes. The good news? An excess of mold in tomato products is considered an "aesthetic" defect rather than a "potential health hazard," meaning that although the defect is "offensive to the senses" it is not likely to make you sick.

How dangerous is this mold? Well according to Keith Ito, a safety specialist at the University of California, Davis' food preservation laboratory: "Several varieties of mold can grow on tomatoes and, although people should try to avoid eating them, they aren't dangerous ... [Those] normal spoilage molds" are a sign that tomatoes are overripe or have begun rotting in the field, he said."

If you're the kind of person that likes to believe processed foods are basically pure, I would recommend skipping the Defect Levels Handbook. I don't know about you, but it frightens me that there is even such thing as an "acceptable" level of "rodent filth" in my peanut butter...

(photo credit to Food Safety News for the gross moldy tomato;  credit for the Ito quote to Scripps and the Sacramento Bee)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why Can't Raw Milk Advocates Aknowledge the Risk Their Products Pose?

A piece by David Gumpert at Grist argues on behalf of the raw milk industry in its new challenge to FDA rules banning its sale in interstate commerce. I won't go over all the details of raw milk again (you can look back at previous posts on the subject), but this piece caught my attention for the way it willfully misrepresents the risks of raw milk consumption. Gumpert cites CDC data showing that there were very few absolute cases of illness and death associated with raw milk in 2007, and tries to use this data to prove that raw milk isn't dangerous. After all, he says, more people die from being struck by lightning on golf courses each year than from consuming raw milk. I left the following comment, reprinted here in its entirety:

“More people are killed each year from lightning strikes on golf courses than die from milkborne illnesses.”

Arguments like this do nothing for the credibility of raw milk proponents. The fact is that the absolute number of illnesses and deaths related to a food consumed by a very small minority of people is a somewhat useless number - the fact that few people die from eating something that few people even consume doesn't make it safe. There may be reasonable arguments regarding the legality of FDA regulation of raw milk, but the argument that raw milk is somehow safer than pasteurized milk (as the comparison of mortality rates in the CDC numbers seems to suggest), is not one of them. Consider that from 1990 to 2006 unpasteurized milk was responsible for nearly 70% of foodborne illness outbreaks attributed to milk. More than twice as many outbreaks over 16 years is convincing enough, but only consider that unpasteurized milk consumption is almost statistically insignificant compared with that of conventional milk, and it is hard to even pretend that raw milk isn't demonstrably more dangerous. (Source: CSPI Outbreak Alert! 2008)

As a proponent of freedom of choice, I find myself generally supporting the right of individuals to consume raw milk as long as they are aware of the risks involved. What I don't support is the misrepresentation of these risks, and what I don't understand is why raw milk activists are choosing the battle they are (fighting for freedom to sell their product across state lines) when the most compelling arguments for raw milk's safety are that local, small-scale production allow a short supply chain and an intimate farmer-customer relationship.

Sara Lee Presents "Eco-Grain™" - The Wheat That's Just a Little Bit More Sustainable Than Ordinary!

Folks in the organic grain and organic baking worlds are mightily upset at corporate baking giant Sara Lee this week. The company has launched an expensive media campaign to sell its new "sustainable" breads made using the company's Eco-Grain™.

Why the outrage? Because Eco-Grain™ is being advertised as a true alternative (and maybe even a superior one) to organic grain, despite some clear problems with this argument. For one thing, Eco-Grain™ is still grown and processed using loads of chemicals that wouldn't pass muster in the organic world. For another, even the Sara Lee products that use the new grain only contain about 20% of the new variety, with the difference being good old conventionally grown stuff.

Here's what to do: don't buy the new bread. I guarantee it will cost more than ordinary bread, though it will undoubtedly undercut true organic products. What you'll get for your money is bread that is basically identical to conventional Sara Lee loaves and has the added bonus of threatening the economic viability of real organic products, which won't be able to compete on cost.

Cornucopia Institute's rant, here.

Submit a Comment Now in Support of Nutrition Labeling for Meat and Poultry

A proposed USDA rule would require nutrition labels on a broad variety of retail meat and poultry products. Simply put, the rule would finally give consumers the information to choose meat and poultry in full knowledge of the calories, fat and so forth that these products contain. Go HERE now and submit a comment in support of this rule, because you can be sure that producers will be fighting this tooth and nail. Why? Because transparency about their products - even just about the number of calories and the amount of saturated fat - scares them. The comment period has been extended from its original deadline of 2/16, so submit your comment now!

"SUMMARY: The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is issuing this supplemental proposed rule that, if finalized, will amend the Federal meat and poultry products inspection regulations to require nutrition labeling of the major cuts of single-ingredient, raw meat and poultry products, unless an exemption applies."

Cargill Passes the Buck on E. coli Contaminated Patties

Cargill has admitted that it was responsible for making the E. coli O157:H7 contaminated ground beef patties that ultimately paralyzed a Minnesota woman back in 2007. That woman is purportedly suing Cargill for $100 million.

What's interesting about this is that Cargill is aknowledging that it's product was contaminated and directly responsible for the woman's illness, but it is claiming the liability should lie elsewhere. According to the processor, the contaminated beef came from suppliers who claimed it had already been tested. This, combined with Cargill's statement that its actions have been subject to and in adherence with rules dictated by the Federal Meat Inspection Act, add up to Cargill essentially passing the buck down the supply chain to those suppliers who ostensibly failed to identify the contamination.

Two different outcomes would both be in the public interest here, though we're not assured of either of them. If the victim successfully wins a settlement from Cargill, that might force the producer to re-test its meat and demand better from its suppliers. If the victim successfully wins a settlement from the suppliers, that would send the message to these suppliers that processors like Cargill won't protect them from the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, the most likely scenario is that Cargill will simultaneously deny responsibility and claim that it is impossible to identify exactly which supplier would be liable - essentially arguing that although this woman's illness is clearly somebody's fault, we can't say who, so she can't recover damages.

Good arguments for both stricter testing and inspection requirements, and for true traceability.

A report on this from industry friendly

A Very Cool Site

The Food Environment Atlas, from the USDA.

This is a lot of fun to play around with, and lets you see a lot of interesting (and depressing) trends. It's rare that a government agency finds such a genuinely useful and interesting way of presenting the information it spends so much time and effort collecting.

Is Organic Safer?

A recent review of current research says that organic meat and dairy products aren't demonstrably safer than conventional alternatives. Coverage of this, here.

This doesn't necessarily surprise me. Most organic poultry, swine, and dairy production isn't all that different from conventional production in a lot of ways. I would be much more interested in a comprehensive study asking whether management-intensive small scale production is actually safer, as we are so often told (I think Omnivore's Dilemma makes this argument). For this reason, I hope that they revisit the question for dairy after the new organic pasture rules go into effect this summer, which will require organic dairy cattle to be pastured for most of the time.

The arguments for organic are many and varied, but it's always good to remember that it isn't a cure-all for food safety. I think most American consumers are misinformed about what the organic seal actually means, and what exactly they're paying for. I buy organic for a variety of reasons, but not because I think it is all that much safer, and not because I think it is any more nutritious. For safer and more nutritious food, I go to the farmers' market.

Does Partnering with Coca Cola Make Heart Disease Advocates Hyppocrites?

CSPI has publicly criticized the parternship between Coca Cola and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, arguing that "that letting Coke bask in their agency’s good reputation does American hearts far more harm than good." Basically CSPI doesn't think Coke or other similar companies should be allowed to support (and thereby get good PR from their affiliation with) groups advocating on health issues like heart disease, since Coke products are, to use the CPSI terminology, "obesigenic."

In a perfect world, I would love to ban the sort of apparent hypocrisy that the Coke partnership represents. The sad truth, however, is that there simply is not enough funding from traditional sources for groups doing valuable work on issues like heart disease, child hunger, and so forth. If Coke and ConAgra weren't allowed to support these organizations, the net result would simply be a cut in funding for the organizations.

So as much as the Coke/NHLBI parternship or the McDonald's sponsored Olympics seem worthy of disdain, I don't know that banning such arrangements would be in the public interest. Better to focus on ending the more offensive arrangements, where there is some form of implied or express endorsement of unhealthy products by organizations ostensibly trying to make us healthier. I'm talking, of course, about arrangements like the American Heart Association's Heart Check program, which until very recently would give its seal of approval to clearly unhealthy "lesser evil" foods like reduced fat cheesecake.

More on CSPI's open letter, here.

The Tension Between Strengthened Food Regulation and the Interests of Small Farmers

As congress and state legislatures consider legislation to strengthen the food safety system in this country, an interesting tension has sprung up between two groups that would on first glance seem more likely to be allies than opponents. Food safety advocates have increasingly found themselves in disagreement over important questions with small farmers and proponents of the local food movement. Basically, the problem is that small-food types are worried that broadly increased regulation of food producers will disproportionately affect small producers, who operate on narrow margins and lack the legal teams and the resources to conform to complex regulatory requirements. Two good recent examples of this:

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which promotes local, sustainable farming, last week came out with a detailed proposal of changes it would like to see in S. 510, the food safety bill currently pending in the senate. A good review of the NSAC concerns can be found here, courtesy of Food Safety News.

Marion Nestle, who is a major proponent of an improved food safety regime, is also ordinarily an advocate for local and sustainable food movements. But her response to a bill pending in the Wyoming legislature reveals how these two allegiances don't always go hand in hand. The bill seeks to encourage and assist small, local food producers, but one way it does so is by exempting small producers from certain licensing requirements. Nestle isn't comfortable with this arrangement, which she believes would compromise food safety.

These aren't easy questions to answer. Advocates of good food, including Dr. Nestle, are certainly aware that we need to find some kind of reasonable compromise, and I think everyone is in the process of feeling out what that might be. Keep your eyes out, as S. 510 moves forward and (hopefully) goes into the reconciliation process with the house bill, for how all this plays out.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Are Organic / Free-Range / Vegetarian / Antibiotic-Free Eggs Really Worth It?

A good piece from's sustainable food blog on eggs, and the relative merits of the more expensive supermarket varieties. Nothing super new here for anyone that's read Pollan, Nestle, etc, but a good reminder.  The key takeaway, here:

A Free Range label on an egg carton or chicken wrapper almost invariably means the chickens were raised in a crowded shed with limited outdoor access and almost certainly no fresh grass. It is often not terribly different from how their conventional counterparts are raised, and yet by meeting a few technical benchmarks, sellers can mark up their products to fetch the premium prices that more ethical food bring, effectively duping consumers. Don't be fooled; there is no substitute for real pasture.

Eggs are fascinating, because they are both a ubiquitous staple, an aggressively marketed "functional" food, and the object of much nutritional debate. Even in small grocery stores today we are forced to choose between conventional, organic, omega-3 fortified, and more. If you're lucky enough to have access to good, pastured eggs from a small farm, you get the best of all of these. If you're stuck buying your eggs from the store, let your conscience and your wallet be your guide.  There's no doubt that organic and free-range are at least a little bit better for the environment and for the chickens. The omega-3s are a bit trickier. While such fortified eggs are undoubtedly a great source of the nutrient,  they aren't necessarily the most cost-efficient way of getting it. If you are worried about both omega-3 fatty acids and your food budget, you may be better off developing a taste for sardines and (depending on  your risk factors for thinks like mercury) other seafood. At any event, budget-conscious shoppers would be wise to pass on omega-3 fortified milk, which charges a hefty premium for a very modest amount of the fatty acid.

More on Salad Safety: Defining "Coliforms" and More...

I posted a link the other day to a piece about a Consumer Report's study that revealed, much to many people's collective disgust,  the relatively high levels of microbial contamination in packaged and "pre-washed" salads. For most non-biologists, myself included, the study's discussion of "coliforms and other bacteria, including enterococcus, that are reliable indicators of fecal contamination and poor sanitation" suggested a variety of mental images I'd rather not associate with dinner.

Which is why this article from Food Safety News is so useful. Dr. Trevor Suslow, a "cooperative extension research specialist in postharvest quality and safety in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California at Davis," provides a primer in the  terminology and science of salad safety, and basically concludes that while we might not like that our salad is full of coliforms, these microbes are generally and basically benign.

Suslow says that he personally does not re-wash packaged salads. He also offers this practical advice  for consumers of these products:
If one chooses to take advantage of the convenience and diversity of greens available in sensible serving portions or as complete salad meals, it is always best to look at the Best if Consumed By dating and take notice of the display case arrangement. Bags should be vertical in a row, not laid one on top of the other in stacks. Clamshell containers are displayed in various stacking or slanted row patterns which allow generous space for airflow.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

No More AHA Heart-Checks For Desserts

The American Heat Association will no longer include desserts in its popular and familiar heart-check program. Apparently it took till now to realize that desserts, loaded with added sugars and thus calories, aren't exactly heart-healthy, even when low (or lower than alternatives) in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Programs like the AHA heart-check can be useful to consumers, but they often catch the organizations that run them in a conflict of interests: the programs are designed to educate consumers, but they are also hugely lucrative, with more checked products meaning more income. It's nice to see one of the major players voluntarily acknowledging some measure of fault, and moving the emphasis of the program away from the profit-motive side of the equation. Still, the fact that till now cheesecake and ice cream have been heart-checkable is a good illustration of how these programs can be misleading.

More here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

BPI To Post Pathogen Test Results Online

Beef Products Inc. Founder and Chairman Eldon Roth announced at the Nation Meat Association's annual conference in California last week that the company will be posting 100% of their E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella test results on their website from now on.  The move is part of BPI's efforts to repair its damaged public image following public and media concern over the company's use of ammonia as an antimicrobial "processing aid" in it's ground beef.

The uproar over so-called "ammoniated beef" is a story in itself. The technique, developed by Roth and proprietary to BPI, was originally given special status by the USDA that allowed it to bypass certain inspection requirements, and was considered a "processing aid," meaning that there was no requirment that meat processed with ammonia be labeled as such. This special treatment was based on research that has been called into question by consumer advocates, and that in any case specified higher concentrations of ammonia than ended up in use. News of contaminated BPI meat raised questions about the reliability of the ammonia process and about a lack of company accountability for the safety of the meat (much of which was sold to the school lunch program), and the company has struggled to regain the public trust.

The new policy represents an admirable move toward greater transparency for a major meat processor. It's too bad that this sort of policy only gets implemented as damage control - here's hoping other major producers will follow suit.

The story, courtesy of

Two Good Articles

Heard a lot about HACCP lately? Curious what this now ubiquitous acronym is all about? There's a great breakdown of the history and philosophy of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point systems in this article on food safety and organics from Food Safety News.

And what about all the subsidy talk we've been hearing? Obama seems interested in cutting back on what one analyst has called "America’s largest corporate welfare program." But he wouldn't be the first commander-in-chief to be stifled by the legislature on this issue. Some good insight on Obama's odds in a piece from the United States Agricultural and Food Law and Policy Blog.

"Food Security" In Russia

This isn't related to food safety in the way most of the posts you'll find here are. No, this post highlights a much more literal interpretation of the term "food security." According to USA Today  a 73 year old Russian potato farmer in the remote region of Primorye (roughly translated as "by the sea") has been convicted for illegal production and possession of explosives, after a neighbor was injured by a blast from a homemade landmine. When asked about the mines, which the farmer had placed around a potato plot, he explained that they were to ward off thieves.

"Pature" - And This Time They Mean It

In what is generally being regarded as a victory for small organic dairy farms and ranchers, the USDA has  issued new rules for organics that close a major loophole in the definition of "access to pasture." Under the old rules, industrial producers claimed that "access" did not necessarily mean cows had to  be out in the pasture, or eat anything that grows in the pasture, or even be aware of their supposed access to this pasture. Which means that we as consumers were paying a premium for dairy products from cows raised largely in the same manner as all the other CAFO cows out there. Not so starting in June 2010. Under the new rules, "organic dairy herds must be sent to pasture for the entire grazing season of at least 120 days and must get at least 30% of their food from pasture during that season." For the small producers who already do this, the transition will be easy. For big organic it should be a bit tougher, with the wonderful dual result of leveling the playing field for the little guys and giving the organic label even more well-defined value for the consumer.

More (with additional links) from Marion Nestle at Food Politics.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Global Food Safety Conference / Snowpocalypse in DC

The Global Food Safety Conference brought over 600 food safety experts and industry leaders to Washington last week to discuss the future of food safety in our increasingly global economy. The conference had to close up shop a day early due to the historic snow storm that hit us here in DC, but the first two days produced plenty of soundbites for all parties involved. In addition to quality control folks and executives from food producers and retailers, such food safety heavyweights as new Deputy Commissioner for Food Michael Taylor and widely read author/academic Marion Nestle were on hand.

One interesting remark from Taylor was in regard to the role of (private) third party certification. He said: "It shows our interest in figuring out how certification used by the private sector can help the FDA. I don’t think it can be a substitute for regulatory oversight but it can certainly support delivering compliance.” Seems right to me. History shows that these certifications are vulnerable to being co-opted by industry into not much more than marketing tools, and it's nice to know that the top echelons at FDA are appropriately wary of their usefulness as replacements for effective regulation.

My favorite quote from the event comes from Walmart V.P. and General Counsel JP Suarez, who noted that: "Food safety should not be a competitive advantage." Here's to that! Food safety should be a given in this country, not a value-added service at certain stores or restaurants. Whatever your personal feelings about Walmart, it's always good to have the retailer on your side when it comes to things like this. After all, if the USDA tells you your plant is in violation, you hire a lawyer and appeal. If Walmart tells you to clean up or risk losing their business, you don't think twice.

More on the conference from Food Safety News and from the Consumer Goods Forum, who hosted the event.

Monday, February 8, 2010

More on Oysters: Is Regulation the Best Alternative?

I've gotten a good deal of feedback on a recent post regarding the risks of eating raw oysters, including a note from the author of this article from the Mobile Press-Register. The author, whose family business is in the live oyster trade, makes two comparisons that I actually find very interesting. Let's look at both.

First, he compares naturally occurring vibrio in oysters to allergens found in other foods, like peanuts. In a lot of ways, the comparison is a good one. In both cases, a significant minority of people are at risk of serious illness or death from consumption of a naturally occurring element of a food that most people can eat without much risk of illness. In both cases, the most important thing that restaurants and vendors can  do is inform customers when items contain the food in question. In both cases, medical professionals should be sure to inform their patients when they are at risk. The difference, as I see it, is two-fold.
  • For one thing, even the most severe anaphylactic reactions can usually be mitigated by immediate and appropriate medical care. There is no vibrio EpiPen. 
  • Secondly, although there are certainly individuals who have allergies they are unaware of, it seems to me more likely that individuals might be immunocompromised without knowing it. 
Nonetheless, I think the peanut comparison is a fair one. Just because there is a potential for serious harm associated with a food, that does not necessarily dictate that food's removal from the market.

The second comparison the author makes is with sugar. He suggests that restaurants and vendors offer both treated and untreated oysters, and allow consumers to choose whichever they prefer, just as with sugar and artificial sweeteners. I'm always a fan of increased choice, and I would be interested in seeing how this would play out (whether consumers would pay extra for the "safer" oysters, whether they would notice the difference at all). Obviously it would be more difficult to implement this sort of plan for oysters than for sugar. Whereas sugar and its substitutes are easily distinguishable from one another by their different colored containers, treated and untreated oysters would remain indistinguishable from one another to the naked eye, creating a high risk of careless errors by consumers, servers, vendors and chefs.

The big takeaway from all this for me is that even oyster producers like Mr. Nelson realize that the current system does not provide adequate protection for at-risk consumers. Like Mr. Nelson, I believe that "Any illness of this nature is unacceptable and warrants further efforts to minimize occurrence." I don't know whether self-regulation by oyster producers and businesses that sell raw oysters to the public will be enough to eliminate the serious risks associated with raw oyster consumption. If so, I don't see the need for additional regulation at the federal level, especially if it endangers American businesses like Mr. Nelson's. If, however, industry-initiated or state regulatory measures prove insufficient in this case as they have in so many other industries (see just about anything regulated by the USDA over the last century), then FDA regulation or the threat thereof might be the best tool for keeping American oyster-lovers safe.

What Coke is Doing to Fight the Soda Tax

Fooducate has a good article summarizing the various steps taken by Coke to fight the proposed soda tax we've posted about here previously.

From the Fooducate piece, a list of several of these moves:
  1. Discrediting researchers from Yale and UCLA who linked soft drink consumption with obesity.
  2. Funding of research that showed no relationship between soft drink consumption and obesity. The researchers are or have been on the payroll of the beverage industry at one time.
  3. Contribution to Hispanic organizations. Reasoning: the soda tax will hit the poor the most. Hispanic groups are now against the tax, despite diabetes hitting Latino youths especially hard.
  4. A $10 million Ad campaign aired on prime time and playing on chords of hard working moms not needing to pay extra in these tough times.
  5. Enlisting the aid of other industries in order to thwart the tax: “The industries in our coalition realized that this is a slippery slope, that once government reaches into the grocery cart, your business could be next,” said Kevin Keane, senior vice president, public affairs, for the American Beverage Assn.
  6. A big bribe (north of $600,000) to the American Academy of Family Physicians, to be used to underwrite “educational materials to help consumers make informed decisions.”
My favorite quote from the article? "As long as companies externalize the true cost of their products, gullible consumers will choose cheap and sweet satisfaction now." The article is referencing the health costs down the road of consuming these products, but I think this is even more relevant to the issue of how cheap subsidized corn disguises the true cost of products.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Food Safety Legislation Currently Before Congress

It struck me that it might be useful to provide a link to summaries and the full text of the food safety legislation that is currently pending in congress. To that end, these links will direct you to the relevant pages:

H.R. 2749: Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (passed in the House)

S. 510: FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (the pending companion bill in the Senate)

Is a Fee-Based Food Safety Regulatory System a Good Idea?

An editorial by Dan Flynn at Food Safety News argues that a fee-based food regulatory system, along the lines of the $500 per facility fee included in H.R. 2749 (the House food safety bill whose pending Senate counterpart, S. 510, does not include this fee), is a pragmatic solution to the problem of maintaining a working food safety system even as domestic discretionary spending comes under the axe over the next few years. I tend to agree. The editorial raises one point on which I'd love to see some hard economic data.

Flynn says: "A [regulatory] structure that works would pay a lot of dividends.  Firm, fair, predictable inspections would mean safer food with fewer recalls."

Is there data out there that would let us put a dollar amount on these dividends? Would a functioning food regulatory system, through fewer recalls and greater consumer confidence, prevent enough lost revenue to the industry to make up for the cost of a fee-based system? Fees are a hard sell to an industry that would rather make tax-payers pick up the tab, but I'd wager that any of the major peanut producers would have happily paid a relatively small fee if it could have saved them the massive losses associated with the Peanut Corporation of America debacle.

The Meat Irradiation Question: If It Makes Us Safer, Why Not Approve It?

American meat processors are making a lot of noise right now about the USDA's failure to approve irradiation technology as a meat processing aid. Their argument is basically that if this technology can keep our meet supply safer, it is outrageous that the USDA would fail to approve it. Is that a fair complaint?

Sure it is.  The problem is that meat processors aren't simply asking for permission to use irradiation. They are asking for permission to use it without any labeling requirement. Irradiation is a technology that has - for valid reasons or not - raised a lot of questions and concerns for the American public. As such, it seems reasonable to me (in the interest of fully informing consumers) that we label irradiated meat as such. If meat processors would concede on this, irradiation would probably be approved without delay.

I have no problem with a technology that can keep us safer. I have a problem with an industry that insists on keeping consumers in the dark about how our food is processed. If irradiation really makes us safer without compromising quality, meat labeled as "irradiated" will command a premium price, and meat processors should stop making such a fuss. Until  then, I find their outrage disingenuous.

Food Quality News on the meat irradiation "impasse," here.

FDA Looks to Revise "Serving Sizes" - Make Them More Realistic

Ever wondered who actually eats the minuscule serving sizes of foods listed on nutrition labels? According to the New York Times and plenty of other folks blogging on the topic, the FDA has been asking itself that same question, and has concluded that maybe it's time to revise the "standard serving size" for a wide variety of foods.

This strikes me as a good thing. Nutrition facts labels, while entirely accurate under the current serving definitions, can be misleading for consumers who aren't fully educated on how to use this information. Changing the serving sizes will make nutrition information more accessible to more Americans, and will have the most effect on less educated consumers, who are statistically most at risk for overeating anyway. The new labels might hurt producers of some foods, but I don't feel much pity for someone whose current market share relies on consumers misunderstanding the nutritional contents of their products. (This goes both ways, for the record: companies that exagerate the positive nutritional attributes of their products are just as guilty as those who understate large quanities of fat, salt, etc.)

The Times article points out the risk in all this, that larger serving sizes might be interpreted as an "eat more" message from the FDA. This seems worth the risk.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

How Dangerous Are Oysters, Really?

In light of the New Orleans Saints Superbowl appearance this Sunday, Food Safety News ran this story on a gulf coast favorite, oysters. It gives a brief history of oyster consumption and a synopsis of the risks you take when you eat these delectable bivalves. Specifically, raw oysters can be (and somewhat frequently are) contaminated with one of several strains of a bacteria called Vibrio. Vibrio can be a minor inconvenience akin to run of the mill food poisoning, but if you happen to be immunocompromised or have impaired liver function it can be a heck of a lot worse. If you fall into one of these at risk groups, eating contaminated oysters can lead to a nasty condition called "primary septicemia." The mortality rate for "primary septicemia" is over 50%.

So two big questions:

First, why are restaurants allowed to serve us contaminated oysters? To start with, whether they can depends on where you live. Some states, like California, have taken steps to ensure that all oysters sold or served are clean. If your state doesn't have a law like this on the books, it's probably no surprise. The gulf oyster industry has done a whole lot of work and spent a whole lot of money to keep their product as loosely regulated as possible. They are able to succeed in large part because vibrio occurrs naturally in marine environments, so it can't really be considered an adulterant in the sense of being something "unnatural".

Second, and even more important, what can you do to protect yourself from bad oysters? If you fall into one of the at-risk groups, your best bet is to avoid oysters altogether, or at the very least to cook them thoroughly. If you do plan on eating oysters (and I for one definitely do), you can heed the advice of consumer adovacay group Center for Science in the Public Interest and avoid oysters harvested from Gulf Coast waters from April to October. Oysters harvested in colder waters (like those in New England or the Pacific Northwest) are much less likely to be contaminated, since vibrio is naturally present only in warmer water.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Menu Labeling Leads to Healthier Choices, New Studies Show

Great summary over at Food Law Prof Blog of some studies about the effects of menu labeling. A Stanford Graduate School of Business study involving Starbucks stores in New York City (where menu labeling is the law) and a separate study looking at McDonalds conducted by researchers at the University of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute both found that - surprise, surprise - when people can see the nutrition facts for menu items, they tend to choose healthier ones.

Menu labeling is a win-win proposition: nobody tells restaurants what they can or can't sell, but consumers are empowered to make more informed choices about their food. National menu labeling legislation is expected to go through some time this year, either as part of health care reform or separately.

Target to Sell Only Sustainable Wild-Caught Salmon

Props to Target. When big retailers do things like this, suppliers listen. The press release here. Maybe we'll see other big boxes follow?

Citizens United Humor

This has been making the internet rounds, and is funny enough to merit a post.

A reflection of concerns that the recent SCOTUS ruling on political speech by corporations might usher in an era of even greater industry influence in Washington. That would be bad for transparency when it comes to food: the reason our food labels are such a labyrinth of euphemisms and hidden meanings is a long history of active lobbying on the part of food industry representatives. Image credit to hate the future.

About Increasing Trade and Saving American Agriculture

I wrote a post  recently in which I complained that  USDA Secretary Vilsack's proposals for helping "American farmers" did a poor job of differentiating small farmers from big ag, and that some of the proposals seemed to be helping the small farmers while others (like the push for more exports) clearly favored the big guys. I wrote another post in which I talked about the danger of farm subsidies relative to honest pricing of goods.

An article over at Civil Eats goes into greater detail on these issues and discusses how they're interconnected. The author proposes not only that trade won't help America's small farmers, but that exporting the industrially produced and artificially cheap goods produced under our big ag, subsidy system is detrimental to foreign economies, limits the markets available to our goods, and even harms biodiversity worldwide.

Not an apolitical article, but raises interesting points, so worth reading.

An additional article, with more info on agricultural policy's trade implications as well as links to more in depth info for the curious. Courtesy of the The US Agricultural and Food Law and Policy Blog.

West Missouri Beef Recalls 14,000 Lbs

Food Safety News reports on the recall of "fresh boneless beef products" from West Missouri Beef. Does this mean you should avoid buying these products at the market today? Nope. The vast majority of the recall (like most meat recalls in our country) affects beef produced and sold back in the end  of 2009, some as early as October.

The delay on "voluntary recalls" is a serious problem with our food system. The pending Food Safety Modernization Act in the Senate would help address this problem for FDA regulated foods, but for USDA regulated meat and poultry, we're stuck with the current system for a while at least. Inspector's need the power to detain food that is likely adulterated, and the USDA needs the power to enforce involuntary (and immediate) recalls.

Because  the only people  the current system is saving are those who buy in bulk, freeze their beef,  and diligently compare the labels on that frozen beef against active recalls. And that's not many.

Still More Salt!

Marion Nestle has kindly gathered a lot  of the evidence for salt reduction in one place. I understand that this is highly contentious, and that the salt lobby would really like us to think that salt reduction is pointless, but from my perspective the question is not whether a salt reduction could make us healthier. The question is what to do with that information.

The answer to that question is not, in my humble opionion, any sort of mandatory salt reduction in foods. Let people see this  research, and decide for themselves how much salt they want in their diets. Oh, and that means not lableing things in deceptive ways viz-a-viz salt. I love salty, fatty foods, but I think it's inexcusable when the producers of these use loopholes to advertise these products with all sorts of health (structure/function, in the legalese) claims, or proudly mark their "lesser evil" foods as "heart healthy." If a package says something is good for my heart, shouldn't that at least mean that it's not really bad for my heart? It's like the new Taco Bell campaign: a new menu that's HEALTHY (when compared with and eaten in place of the other truly horrible things on our menu) !

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

More on the Budget: Reducing Farm Subsidies

Even more coverage of the proposed budget and its food implications, in an article from the great blog over at Obama Foodorama. They provide a nice synopsis of some of the items not covered in our previous posts, including the planned reductions in farm subsidies.

Subsidies are enormously complicated, and I'm not in a position to say much about the specific proposed changes. What I will say is that while I understand that subsidies have historically been an important tool for supporting American farmers, they raise some questions that shouldn't be ignored. First, we need to ask whether the subsidy system as it exists is actually helping the American farmers who could most use that help: small family farms. Second, we need to consider the effect that subsidies can have on commodity prices. The reality is that subsidies artificially lower the price of goods like corn below natural market prices, and these artificially lower prices trickle down through the whole food system. Anything that has corn or corn products in it, or that has been fed corn, is artificially cheap in our supermarkets. This isn't to say we aren't paying for these items; we're just doing so in advance through our tax dollars, essentially all paying a deposit on these goods.

As someone who advocates as much free and informed choice as possible when it comes to food, I'm definitely wary of a system in which much of our food supply appears cheaper than it actually is, and in which we pay the difference on these products involuntarily out of our tax dollars.

Am I saying we should do away with subsidies? Like I said, I lack the expertise to confidently say anything of the sort. But I do think that subsidies can have some pretty anti-choice  implications, and that these merit consideration by voters and policy makers.

Food & Water Watch Criticizes Obama's Budget

In a previous post, we supported the new fee-based funding for FDA inspection programs included in the president's budget proposal. The folks over at Food & Water Watch are arguing today that other elements of the budget are less food-safety friendly. Specifically, the group criticizes what it sees as inadequate funding for USDA inspections. The whole story here.

The piece also takes issue with what it sees as support for further development of unsustainable fisheries. Without having read the budget, I can't comment on whether this is accurate. It raises an interesting topic, however: sustainability is the notable exception to my "if you understand what you're eating, then go for it" mentality. We all have the right to eat what we please, regardless of the damage we might do to our bodies or wallets; this doesn't extend to destroying our environment or depleting our food resources to the point of driving species into extinction.

More Salt!

Salt in fine dining, in New York City. Courtesy of the New York Times.

In New York, of course, the mayor is going for a pretty hefty overall salt reduction (see this article for background). This is an interesting, if anecdotal, look at how "oversalted" (from a nutritional, rather than taste perspective... I'd argue that good clam chowder and the corned beef sandwiches are both just about perfect regardless of outsized salt levels) the finer side of restaurant dining is. The verdict? Pretty salty.

Conclusion: if you order something that sounds vaguely salty at a restaurant (even a good one), assume it has even more salt than you'd use if you made it at home. Does this mean not to order or eat it? For heaven's sake no. It's just something to be aware of.

Tracing Foodborne Illness Using Frequent Shopper Cards

The investigation of the Salmonella Montevideo outbreak associated with brands of salami made by Daniele Inc. is the first such investigation to utilize information from shopper reward cards to determine specific brands of a product suspected to cause illness, according to the CDC.

I'm not going to cover the whole salami story, but I thought this was an interesting bit of information. How did it take us till now to figure out that the meticulate lists of of our purchases kept by grocery stores might be useful in tracking foodborne illnesses? Certainly it's a more reliable method than the usual system of self-reporting. The new food safety legislation pending in the Senate should improve our ability to trace foods at a farm-to-fork level, but this is a good example of how industry cooperation can go a long way toward improving our food safety apparatus.

The full story at Food Safety News.

Why We Should All Be Washing Our "Pre-Washed" Salad Greens...

Civil Eats is reporting on a new Consumer Reports test of those super-convenient pre-washed leafy greens we're all using.  Long story short, you're going to want to wash your greens, whether the bag says they've been "triple washed" or not. The folks at Consumers Union are using this as another argument to pass new food safety legislation. While I applaud that effort, I'm not sure there's a HACCP plan in the world that would make me confident enough not to wash anything I'm planning to eat raw. The Consumer Reports article is online here.

About Salt.

There's a great little post on chef/author Michael Ruhlman's website this morning about his salt preferences. This follows up an earlier piece, his "minor salt rant". The point (and I agree) is that our problem with salt is mostly a problem with processed foods. When chefs and nutritionists tell you that you should be buying the canned veggies that say "no salt added," they're not telling you you can't salt your vegetables (on the contrary, it would be pretty much criminal not to salt some vegetables, like the tomato... a chef once told me this had something to do with umami, but I can't substantiate the rumor in McGee or even on the open internet...). The point of buying unsalted cans is keeping control over the salt. Your taste buds don't really pick up on how salty those canned veggies are (has to do with how the salt's being used), and you'll be doing them a favor by forgoing the salt-as-preservative and replacing it with a little bit of more flavorful salt-as-seasoning.

And what if your grocery store (like mine) doesn't even CARRY no-salt-added veggies? Rinsing your canned veggies in a colander under tap water can remove up to 80% of the salt, at least according to this academic study from the 1980's.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Foodborne Illness Estimates: 76 Million Illnesses Each Year

Not much new in an editorial in The Tennessean, but the opening hook is this sobering statistic:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million illnesses, 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths are attributable to foodborne illness each year in the United States.

We live in the United States of America in the 21st century, we should be able to trust that our food won't make us sick or kill us.

Obama Budget Includes $250m+ in FDA Fees on Food and Drug Makers

We learn from the Wall Street Journal today that President Obama's proposed budget will include over $250 million dollars in new FDA fees, paid by food and drug makers, that would help cover the cost of a variety of FDA activities, including food inspections.

Dealing only with the food part of this (drug regulation, while important, isn't really our shtick here), this appears to be a good thing. Food inspections are underfunded and, as a result, often unable to detect contamination early enough or at all. Just look at the history of food-borne illness in this country over the last decade. In these tough times for the federal budget (the proposed freeze on discretionary funding over the next few years), this would mean that FDA funding would be secure, and would fall on the shoulders of an industry that has for too long tried to minimize the role and authority of our nation's primary food safety watchdog. 

Please note that this funding depends upon congressional action, specifically on the Senate moving forward on S. 510, the companion bill to one passed in the House last year that would authorize the fees.

More FDA funding for inspections means safer food and a more accountable industry. Safer food and increased accountability mean that when we go to the store we can be confident that we're getting what we think we are, and that it won't make us sick. And that is unequivocally a good thing.

The Convenience Cost of Portion Sizes

The folks at the Center for Science in the Public Interest has published a story on Coca Cola's new 7.5 oz cans. Credit where credit is due: it's both good business and good from a public health perspective to offer top-of-the-food-pyramid foods like Coke in smaller portion sizes. But CSPI isn't congratulating Coke on a job well done.  On the contrary, the non-profit points out that the unit-price on the new can is a significant mark-up relative to other sizes - about $2.13 per quart compared with $.89 - $1.33. Presumably the mark-up more than covers the additional cost of materials and the advertising costs incident to introducing a new product.

Is this a big deal? Is this something to get upset over? For one thing, Coke has been selling 8 oz cans at similarly inflated prices for years, so this is nothing new. For another, unit prices are printed (albeit in much smaller type) on the price-tag at the grocery store, so it's not like this is some big secret. Nonetheless, I can relate from personal experience (teaching classes on smart shopping for folks on SNAP and similar programs) that there are many people who do not understand or use the unit prices when shopping. I'm not sure what the best way to remedy this is (better basic math education? larger unit-price labels?), but as things are now, there's a lot of people who will probably be buying this product without realizing that they're paying what is in essence a portioning tax levied by Coca Cola.

Defining "Access to Pasture" for Organic Dairy

An article over at the other day looked at an important but obscure USDA rule regarding the definition of "access to pasture" for purposes of organic milk. Basically the USDA is in the process of rewriting the rule in a pretty commonsense way. Under the new rule, organic milk will only come from cows that: "graze on pasture for the entire growing season, or for at least 120 days in areas of inclement weather, getting 30 percent of their food from pasture."

This would basically exclude the big, industrial-organic producers that currently provide their cows a hay-covered strip of dirt outside the vast barns where the animals spend practically all of their time, and call that "access to pasture."

In my mind this is pretty simple. Ask yourself what a reasonable person would think of when you say "access to pasture." Knowing what we eat starts with making sure that the language we (and the USDA) use to describe our food is straightforward.

If you want to lend your voice in support of the new rule, you can do so here.

The Raw Milk Question: Organic Pastures vs the FDA

Over at Food Safety News they ran an article this morning about Mark McAfee, the California dairy farmer duking it out with the FDA over his right to market and sell raw (unpasteurized) milk. Raw milk seems like quite the contentious topic lately, and it's increasingly looking like a banner issue for groups advocating people's right to eat what they please, even where there are real food safety concerns.

Personally, I'm torn on the whole raw milk thing. On the one hand, I'm almost always in favor of letting people make their own choices about food, as long as those choices are well-informed (that is the point of this blog). Raw milk is a health risk, but as long as you know that, I feel like it's your call, just like it's your right to order a medium-rare steak, or to go out to a disreputable sushi place for dinner. On the other hand, I can't help feeling like Mr. McAfee is picking the wrong fight. I can be sympathetic to raw milk producers in large part because the safety issues involved in raw milk consumption are usually mitigated by the local and personal scale of raw milk production and sale. People almost always know the farmer, have been to the farm, and can thus make informed judgments about whether the stuff is safe. But this doesn't seem like a battle for raw milk in general; this is a farmer trying to preserve his right to market and sell his unpasteurized milk across state lines via the internet.

According to the article:
McAfee takes umbrage at interstate restrictions on licensed raw milk for several reasons.

"The logic for this is dubious,' he says in his recently filed legal papers, "since the borders between states do not transform healthful foods into poison."

He also points out that distance is not an issue here since milk from cows on the California side of Lake Tahoe cannot be sold on the Nevada side of the lake. Yet milk from cows in Yreka, which is in the far reaches of northern California, can be transported to and sold in San Diego.

While I agree that distance, rather than an arbitrary line at the state border, might be the more relevant consideration, I still don't find myself agreeing with Mr. McAfee. The practical and legal considerations on the FDA's regulation of this product mean that banning its sale across state lines is a sensible middle ground. Without banning raw milk entirely (this is left to the states, as I understand it), the FDA is acknowledging that raw milk presents a real food safety issue. By banning interstate sales, the FDA effectively limits the possibility that vendors will be able to sell a potentially dangerous foodstuff to out-of-state customers who don't have full information about the farm, the product, or the state regulations under which the milk was produced. 

Would a national system of regulation for raw milk, like that employed for most other foodstuffs, be a better option? I have a hard time believing the raw milk advocates would be in favor of this sort of system, and I'm not convinced it would be effective anyway. At the end of the day, raw milk is exactly the sort of product that I think we should be buying locally and directly from the farm, if we're purchasing it at all. That seems like the only reliable way to be a fully informed buyer.