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Bloomberg’s In the Right on Soda Restrictions

8 Jun

Well, I never saw this day coming. I found an issue on which I disagree with Jon Stewart.

I know! But before you throw anything at me, check out his take on NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s recent decision to ban the sale of sodas in sizes larger than 16 oz.

“It combines the draconian government overreach people love with the probable lack of results they expect!” Stewart joked.

Stewart (and, ok, all of the other critics here) is incorrect in terms of the probable results, and off point in terms of the underlying value of the ban.

First, let’s address the fundamental misconception that this is actually a real ban. By banning the sale of sodas in sizes larger than 16 oz., Bloomberg is actually in no way restricting your right to drink your nine cans of Mountain Dew a day — he’s just making sure you are buying them one at a time. By making it more difficult to obtain the same amount, the hope is that basic levels of human consciousness kick in, and people may start to limit the intake in which they otherwise blindly participate.

Second, evidence predicting the “probable lack of results” doesn’t actually exist, because bans like his have not been widely enacted. But the evidence available does suggest that bans and restrictions work — indeed, that they might be the only thing that does to restrict consumption.

In an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, Kelly D. Brownell, a professor at Yale, and Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote that “for each extra can or glass of sugared beverage consumed per day, the likelihood of a child’s becoming obese increases by 60 percent.” Sugary beverages are now the number one source of calories for most Americans, making up about 10% of the caloric intake of children and teenagers. These increased calories lead to record-high rates of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.

So, the increased consumption of sugary beverages does likely lead to increased obesity and other health risks. And what’s more, a Yale study of soda in public schools and private institutions found that for every 10% increase in price, consumption of soda dropped by 7.8%, suggesting that deterrents to purchasing sugary beverages actually does help reduce consumption.

You won’t find me arguing that decreasing our consumption of soda is the only thing that’s going to reverse the American obesity crisis. But it sure as hell isn’t going to hurt.

So shall we move on to the accusation of Draconian government overreaching?

Mark Bittman’s column this week addresses the oft-repeated criticism of the nanny state and infringements on civil liberties by reminding us the myriad ways in which we, as a society, accept government restrictions on individual freedoms when they are deemed in the best interest of society as a whole. Smokers may not like smoking bans, and drinks may not like alcohol restrictions — but we deal. Because we all know that it’s bad for kids to breathe second-hand smoke and get hit by drunk drivers.

The ridiculous overburdening of the American food system with sugary and fatty foods is the same thing. Bittman calls it the tobacco of the 21st century, and he’s right (as we’ve discussed with regard to marketing towards children here). Americans consume more than 50 gallons of soda per person per year, and obesity costs the nation’s healthcare system upwards of $147 billion a year.

This is not a coincidence. So while a restriction like the one in New York might not single-handedly solve the issue, and while conservatives (or liberal comedians) might like to accuse this of government overreaching, in (I bet as little as) five years time, we will see this as a logical step, something we can’t imagine ever existing, like smoking on airplanes.

Working the Food Chain

9 May

Today’s post is inspired by my mounting excitement over the final stages of funding and post-production on a new food documentary that I can’t wait to see: Sanjay Rawal’s FOOD CHAIN, which explores the state of labor within the agriculture sector in the US and the immoral practices that affect the lives of countless thousands of farm workers.

Check out the trailer.

Yes, actual — not sort-of – slavery.

You can find more information on supporting the documentary, which has met its initial Kickstarter goal,  but has a secondary goal to fully fund the film’s graphics, here.

I’ve summarized some of the labor rights issues in the agricultural industry here before, but thought it was worth revisiting, to put faces, and some specific numbers, to the abstraction that is so often associated with the hands who pick our food — even the food we buy at Whole Foods, or Trader Joes.

According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, the typical farmworker in the U.S. is a young man who has left his family to work in the field.  He ususally spends between 12 and 14 hours a day in the field, six days a week, and made between $7,000-10,000 a year for an individual, or up to $13,000 a year for a family. The farmworker has no health insurance. No sick days, no vacation days, and certainly no union. More than 50% have never been to a dentist—about 1/3 have never seen a doctor. Typically, farms provide housing for their workers during the growing and harvesting season, to maximize the picking hours in a day. Workers can expect to pay about $50 a week to live in run-down shacks or trailers, sometimes with as many as 15 other people.

All this, all this our farm workers get in exchange for picking the food we need, for working the third most dangerous job in the country. The odds of dying on the farm are 39 out of 100,000. Farmworkers suffer the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders of any workers in the country, and are more than 25% more likely than the average American to develop asthma, birth defects, tuberculosis and cancer. Children of migrant farm workers have higher rates of pesticide exposure, dental disease and malnutrition.

Because, oh yes, the agricultural industry is exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s child labor regulations. In every other industry, the minimum age to work legally in this country is 16. On the farm, it’s 12.

So why would anyone want to do farm work—if it’s so back-breaking, hot, exhausting, dangerous and underpaid, why would you sign up for it? Because you don’t have any other option, of course. It’s probably not a surprise that the vast majority of California’s farmworkers—and, in fact, a majority of farmworkers across the country—are undocumented immigrants. Close to 90% of farmworkers in the U.S. are Spanish-speaking, and most of those born in Mexico. Over 50% of immigrant farmworkers nationwide are not protected by legal documents, and so, in this country, they have no legal rights. This lack of documentation contributes, along with a tight bottom line and a slim margin of economic error on the farm, to the horrible working conditions of the modern American farm.

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When sociologists discuss patterns of migration, they have two terms to explain what makes a person move from one place to the next—they call them push factors and pull factors. The pull factors for farm work in the United States are that agriculture is a dangerous industry. Because the jobs are so life-threatening, and the pay is so low, the agriculture industry would either have to raise pay and improve conditions—or recruit workers from abroad, where there are more laborers, fewer jobs and much, much lower wages. The U.S. agriculture industry is primarily located in California, where a cheap and willing supply of labor is close at hand. Why provide healthcare and housing when you can just import undocumented immigrants instead?

The push factors are the things that make a person’s home country worth leaving behind. Let’s put it this way: the push factors are the things that make working 80 hour weeks hunched over in a field under the blazing sun for seven grand a year look like the American Dream come true.

Before you begin to think that the solution here is to close the borders and take those jobs back, I should make it clear that this is a pretty good deal for the U.S. too. Paying migrant farm workers next to nothing and having a constant stream of people willing to work cheap is what keeps us all in fresh produce, all year round, for pennies. It’s the reason why I can walk into a grocery store in the middle of February and buy a head of romaine for 99 cents. And if the cheap food itself weren’t benefit enough, the U.S. Social Security Administration has recently estimated that three out of every four undocumented immigrants pay payroll taxes (in addition to paying the same sales and consumer taxes the rest of us pay), and that undocumented workers contribute six to seven billion dollars in Social Security funds that they are not eligible to claim.

Plus, show me the pools of American citizens out there just dying for a job picking lettuce in Oxnard.

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Next time you consider all the standards to which you currently hold your food, or next time you wonder whether your standards aren’t unreasonably high, take a moment to remember the very real human face of that food. The price tag might look a little different.

The Kashi Controversy, Or, Know ALL Your Farmers

27 Apr

A weird new trend is springing up on the internet,  a trend I think of as “viral images.” Not videos. Just single photos that twelve or seventeen of my Facebook friends will post in a 24-hour window. Yesterday’s was the image below, of some Rhode Island grocery store’s sign explaining their decision to stop stocking Kashi.

I promise I’m going to work very hard to make sure the rest of this post doesn’t come off as a lecture. I know a lot of people — you, me, us, the average consumer — may genuinely not be aware of the Kashi-GMO connection, or any of the others that I will detail here. But an organic grocery store just now finding out? Ok, nevermind that.

So I take this as a teachable moment, and the teach is this (in case you don’t feel like reading the rest of the post): All processed food should be treated as suspect.

This doesn’t mean all processed food is bad. But it does mean we need to start changing our definition of “processed.” Most people tend to think that if a food is labeled as organic, natural, containing all-natural ingredients, containing no artificial ingredients, containing whole grains, etc etc etc. then that’s good enough.

But I tend to judge food based on the package it comes in. If you can pick up the ingredient by itself (like a vegetable or piece of fruit) you’re golden. If it’s in a box, a bag, or the freezer section, you should start checking ingredients lists. Sometimes you will find just one or two things — still golden! Frozen fruits and veggies, a bag of plain pita chips, etc.

The real lesson to me, of the Kashi controversy though, is not the length of the ingredients list. The presence of GMO ingredients, as of right now, is not a labelling requirement, so you wouldn’t see those by reading the package. The reason I wasn’t surprised by this revelation from Kashi (aside from knowing about it for some time) is that I know Kashi is owned by Kellogg’s.

Click to view image larger

Yes. Kellogg’s, the 12th largest food processing company in the world. Producer of many fine sugary cereals, currently lobbying against the FDA’s voluntary regulatory guidelines for marketing those same cereal to children Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s, who also, by the way, owns MorningStar and Gardenburger brands.

Like I said, I’m not here to lecture, or to wag my finger and say you should’ve known better.

Because I didn’t used to know either.

Here’s how I wrote about my moment of discovery in The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat:

Boca burger, according to their website, was founded in the 1970s by a chef determined to make the vegetarian hamburger taste good. What the website doesn’t mention is that Boca was acquired in 2000 by Kraft Foods, the largest food processing company in North America. Up until 2007, Kraft was owned by Altria Group—the new and improved name of the public-relations challenged Phillip Morris, USA.

When I started picking away at the corporate connections in the food industry, I began to feel like an internet crazy. The more I dug, the more I convinced myself maybe I was just making mountains out of molehills—maybe I was looking too hard for something not really there. Maybe it didn’t have to be so hard. Maybe I could just turn away, go back to my old, easy vegetarian diet.

Until I read that in 2001, a U.S. jury ordered Philip Morris to pay three billion dollars in damages to a smoker suffering terminal cancer, a landmark legal victory for the anti-tobacco movement. Phillip Morris appealed the decision, but the next week they went out and raised nine billion dollars, by selling just 16 percent of Kraft Foods. Suddenly, my purchase of a Boca Burger, supposedly free from the stains of corporate greed, just went to helping an evil tobacco corporation from sinking into bankruptcy.

The point is: if the all natural brand is owned by the same multinational corporation that makes the mainstream product you are avoiding, you have reason to distrust their ingredients list, their treatment of workers and animals, and their environmental record.

When I said something like this on Facebook yesterday,  my friend Lindsey made a good point in asking what this all actually means. How can we tell which brands are “good” and which are “evil”? Or at least, which to actually buy.

My short answer there, was, half-jokingly: Organic/natural foods are not all made on communal love-farms.

But the good, well-developed answer isn’t that you must simply avoid any and all corporate products. I still buy mayonnaise and pasta that have been industrially-produced. But being aware of the corporate connections and therefore, potential health, safety, and environmental issues for even our “natural” food products is important if for no other reason than it reinforces an emphasis on whole foods, and on foods made with our own hands, as much as possible.

What are your thoughts on the Kashi controversy? Did any of the connections on the chart above surprise you? Do you remember your moment of realization? Leave a comment and share your story with us!

Pink Slime Explained

20 Apr

Welcome to another We Meat Again video post — this one dedicated to explaining the great pink scare…

Apologies for the awkward skip in the middle of the video. Our first filming was briefly interrupted due to a doggie seriously needing to get outside.

More information available here:

FDA on Ammonia Hydroxide

Andrew Revkin:“Why I’m OK with ‘Pink Slime’ In Ground Beef

Michael Moss: “Safety of Beef Processing Method Questioned

Marion Nestle “Is It Wrong to Feed Pink Slime to Our Kids?

Tom Philpott explains Why the FDA is Still OK with BPA in Our Food, and Four Things Grosser Than Pink Slime

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment, tweet at us, or drop me an email and let us know what you think about pink slime…

FDA Restricts Agricultural Antibiotics

13 Apr

I had originally planned to make a pink slime video post for today, but then some big news came from the FDA that seemed important to share right away. I promise to give you all the info you need on why pink slime is NOT real beef next week…

But for today, the FDA has just announced it will now require that all agricultural antibiotics are administered by veterinary prescription. This is big news, but doesn’t fully eliminate the issues of antibiotic ag. Let’s break it down.

The good news is: a prescription requirement means that the farmers or ranchers will have to establish proof of a sick animal in need of treatment before any medication can be given. This means no more antibiotics used for growth or preventative measures.

This is especially pertinent just on the heels of a recent study revealing the presence of previously-banned antibiotics in poultry products. Requiring prescriptions means, overall, a much tighter antibiotic leash on the industry.

I also imagine (hope?) that disallowing antibiotics for preventative measures will necessarily lead to better living conditions for animals on factory farms. If animals continue to live in the same conditions and can only be treated when ill, producers will see a much higher rate of sick animals, and if nothing else, that’s bad for the bottom line. This change may take awhile to take full effect, but we can look forward to it, I hope.

Now, there are still some big problems that this change will not solve.

First, and foremost, most antibiotics can still be used. And as someone who believes our livestock animals should, in ideal living conditions, need almost zero antibiotics, I’d like to see that overall number go way down, and this change will not necessarily accomplish that.

Second, we also feed our livestock animals a lot of other nasty stuff that doesn’t fall into the category of antibiotic. Another recent study revealed the consistent presence of caffeine and arsenic, among other chemicals, in poultry byproducts. These ingredients don’t come from antibiotics — they come from chicken feed. A whole ‘nother class to be addressed in the future.

So while this development isn’t perfect or comprehensive, it is a major step forward in shifting away from the overuse of antibiotics in our current livestock production system.

Iowa Outlaws Undercover Factory Farm Investigation

7 Mar

This past weekend, Iowa’s Governor Terry Branstad signed into law the nation’s very first bill making undercover factory farm investigations illegal.This is a major loss for food safety, farmer’s protection and animal rights, so let’s break it down.

The law actually makes lying on a job application to get access to a farm facility a serious misdemeanor, punishable with up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,500. A second conviction carries harsher penalties.

I’ve already covered why these laws are problematic. Let’s today work to un-do the spin on these undercover videos. They aren’t problematic — they are valuable artifacts of one of our society’s greatest fights, to protect the source of our food.

Proponents of the bill claim that this strikes a balance between protecting farmers from fraudulent job-seekers while continuing to encourage current employees to report animal abuse. The flaw in that logic isn’t something getting a lot of attention, however, because it means acknowledging the differences between who those employees are.

Current employees of farms and slaughterhouses–especially ones contracted with major meat producers–will tend to be lower-income minorities or other marginalized populations, including undocumented immigrants. They are much less likely to endanger their job status by reporting abuse than an activist working for the Humane Society who can afford to take–and then lose–the job to uncover the abuse.

And uncover the abuse they do. Some supporters of the law would have us believe that these videos are only flukes, carefully edited together portraits of rare and occasional abuse that doesn’t need reporting.

Let’s look back just a few months ago to the Humane Society’s release of this video, which documented legal practices of the pork industry, and led pretty directly to McDonald’s announcing it would phase out those exact practices.

The videos lead to change, just as other acts of undercover investigation have in the past.They are an important tool in an ongoing struggle to change the laws and practices of the industrial agriculture industry, and Iowa, which raises more hogs and laying hens than any other state in the nation, has become the center of the problem.

Superbugs Transferring From Animals to Humans

24 Feb

This week’s food news included a fairly major discovery in the arena of antibiotic use in modern industrial agriculture. Really, I wanted to write about this story,  not because I have much more to say on the topic than what the science itself demonstrates, but because I thought many people may not have yet heard the news.

Because I almost didn’t.

Let’s start with the basics: a study published in the journal of the American Society of Microbiology this week “strongly supports” (that’s scientist-speak for “we are sure this is happening”) that Staph infections originating as human strains have moved from human to livestock animal, have mutated in the animal as a result of its exposure to high-dose antibiotics — and then are transferring back to humans.

This is frightening for several reasons:

First, it suggests that a (relatively) harmless strain of a human infection is being made harmful while in its host animal, because the animal is being fed high and consistent doses of antibiotics. Second, because the study found this strain of staph in more than half of all the meat it tested.

And finally, because the study found that the means of transferrance from animal back to human was not meat consumption. It was livestock interaction — coming into contact with the livestock animals, or then coming into contact with a human who has had such contact.

The same way you get a cold infection.

Now, the reason this is such an important revelation, and the reason why I almost missed the importance of this story. For some reason, many of the headlines regarding the study announced something like: “How Using Antibiotics in Animal Feed Creates Superbugs,” or “How Pigs on Antibiotics are Making Superbugs Stronger.” Many pro-vegetarian sites inaccurately labeled the headline as a proclamation of fact that 50% of all meat in the U.S. contains staph.

When I saw those headlines, I shrugged and thought, well, yeah. We’ve known this for a while. How is this news?

So I very nearly missed the new information here about how the genes are mutating, and more importantly, how they are being transferred back to humans. But the big deal is that these superbugs can be spread from more than just consumption.

Because it means that, not only might we be exposed to these mutated, antibiotic-resistant staph infections simply by coming into physical contact with other people.

We might also be getting it from our “antibiotic-free” meat. If two farmers from the same region, say, come into contact with each other — one raises his animals without antibiotics, and one raises animals carrying the mutated staph — they could pass the infection between each other, and then the antibiotic-free farmer could give that infection to his animals simply through daily contact.

Before you start thinking that sounds like crazy-person conspiracy thinking, ask yourself this: is it really out of the realm of possibility for two hog farmers to shake hands? Have you never seen two farmers do this at a market — and then shake hands with you?

Some serious action needs to be taken against industrial agriculture, as evidence mounts that superbugs, along with superweeds and other genetically-modified joys, are not regulating themselves to the confines of industrial products. If I can’t know that my antibiotic-free meat is without mutated staph, or that my organic produce isn’t tainted with pesticide, how am I being allowed to make free, informed choices as a consumer?

How Far Should Food Industry Regulation Go?

7 Feb

For this week’s dialogue post, I’ve found a recent and particularly controversy-inspiring editorial from Raj Patel, writing in this case for The Atlantic. Patel makes the case we’ve heard before paralleling the food industry with the alcohol and tobacco industries to argue for the regulation of junk foods, but he goes one step further and wonders whether there isn’t a case for fully abolishing the food industry as we know it. If you can make the argument for tobacco, Patel says, food is close behind.

First up for conversation of course, is the validity of a parallel between tobacco and big food, which Patel supports with mounting evidence of the neurological addictive properties of sugar. A study released last week in the journal Nature provides the strongest case yet for significant and severe health consequences from sugar. The authors of the study advocate alcohol-like regulations as a result of their findings.

Second comes the matter for debate of whether tobacco and sugar are marketed in parallel ways. That is, do we have more of a choice when it comes to junk food than tobacco? I’ve discussed in a previous post the resemblances between old-school tobacco marketing towards children, and the food industry’s strategies, and Patel elaborates on this in the editorial. Recent evidence has demonstrated the overly-sugary properties of the foods marketed most heavily towards children.

Third, and finally, we have to ask ourselves whether moderate regulations are not sufficient to counter any of those dangers. We’ve explored here before individual municipal initiatives like the San Francisco Happy Meal toy ban, and cities across the country have tried similar sin-tax approaches to restricting the sale of soda, for example.

Of course, small government proponents aren’t fan of that idea, and economic research suggests the tax might best be targeted towards the producer, rather than the consumer, of the problem product.

For Patel, all of this points in one direction:

The breadth of products controlled by the food industry — amply toxic and less so — is itself a symptom of a deeper problem that has public health symptoms, but a political economic cause. The food industry is an oligopoly that has transformed not only what we eat but how we eat it, and what we think of food.

and thus, we could make a case for completely upending the system as we know it.

What do you think? Do we need complete, from-the-ground up reform, or should we try moderate regulation first (or at all)? Which, if any, of these individual claims would you dispute, or provide an alternate answer for? Leave a comment and join in our conversation!

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week

3 Feb

Quite a variety of happenings in the world of food this week.

The Good

An illuminating new report out by the cooking & nutrition charity Share Our Strength provides concrete evidence that low-income families do cook at home more often than they eat fast food, and would like to be able to do so even more. I like Marion Nestle’s coverage, as she’s not afraid to nod towards some of the corporate influence the report contains. Good news, nonetheless.

Colorado is considering a state-wide ban on trans-fats in school lunch programs. Colorado is also, interestingly, the least-obese state in the nation (you can’t really say “thinnest” in a country where obesity is over 30% across the board). Coincidence?

In more school lunch reform news, the USDA announced this week its new rules (yes, actual rules here) that will increase the amounts of fruits and vegetables, and eliminate some meat requirements in its school lunch program. As Mark Bittman says, imperfect as the new rules may be, 32 million kids are about to start eating better.

Jane Black has a nice piece in The Washington Post discussing the rise in flexible CSA options. While I think her editorial brushes off the consumer benefits of a regular CSA too dismissively, I’ve loved my past flexible CSAs for the access they provided someone who couldn’t afford a full share.

The Bad

This article isn’t bad so much as slightly annoying. A new study out of the Washington State University purports to help reform the beef industry’s image by claiming cattle ranches are significantly more environmentally-friendly than thirty years ago. File under — yes, and…?

I mentioned one lawsuit Monsanto is currently facing. Here is another! A class-action case that claims the company spread toxic substances all over a town in West Virginia in the course of producing a chemical component of Agent Orange. The toxic substances listed are mainly dioxins, which have been linked to cancer.

and the (very) Ugly

The Humane Society of the United States (which has, in the last few years, done a really impressive job ramping up its advocacy of livestock animals along with homeless pets) released a new undercover video documenting standard pork industry practice for raising pigs.

Graphic images included.

Tom Philpott’s analysis cuts to the core:

The remarkable thing…is how banal it is. What we have here is the everyday reality of pigs’ lives on a factory farm, without regulations flouted or spectacular violence committed. It is abuse routinized and regimented, honed into a profitable business model.

The video even got NYTimes sustainability blogger Andrew Revkin interested. He’s got a response from the Oklahoma Pork Council (which suggests that images were “taken out of context,” leaving me to ask — is there a context in which these practices are acceptable?) and takes the opportunity to wonder if this might continue to make the case for test-tube meat. Not if the omnivores here on We*Meat*Again have anything to say about it, right?

Happy Weekend, All!

 

What’s Conventional About This Agriculture?

2 Feb

About a year ago, Whole Foods Market announced its decision to end a nearly twelve-year battle against the contamination of organic crops by genetically-engineered crops. At the time, this was seen by many in the sustainable food community as a cave from a major player in the natural foods market to industry pressure.

But the reason this is news now is that on January 31, family farmers took part in the first phase of a court case filed to protect farmers from genetic trespass by Monsanto’s GMO seed, which contaminates organic and non-GMO farmer’s crops and opens them up to abusive lawsuits.

You can learn more about the problem of GMO-contaminated crops in this great article from TIME. But for now, I think that it’s important to see all the ways this particular conflict mirrors the bigger one, the enduring agricultural struggle of our time.

Big vs. small.

Many call this conventional vs. organic. But at a conference a few years ago, a fellow writer (and therefore, analyzer of words) commented to me how strange it was that organic — the natural process unimpeded by human-made chemicals — would be considered unconventional.

The question of Whole Foods not being able to protect organic farmers from Monsanto, to me, echoes the question that has been more recently explore by Tom Philpott and Andrew Revkin of whether Wal-Mart can play a role in the sustainability movement. Or the question of organic subsidary brands owned by multi-national food corporations.

The real question is: Can industrial and natural agricultural practices co-exist in the same food system? Or do we need a new one all together?

I don’t know the answer, but I’ve always sort of leaned towards revolution… What do you think?


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