Jan 10 2009

Would you believe peanut butter?

So this big outbreak of Salmonella that has sickened 400 people throughout the country has finally been traced to – peanut butter.  Not just any old peanut butter, but the kind that is sold in huge containers to institutions.    How did Salmonella get into peanut butter?  Either the production lines were washed with sewage-contaminated water or somebody’s hands were really dirty. This is another example of the reason why we must, must, must do something to improve food safety oversight, starting with requiring all food producers – without exception – to use standard food safety procedures and to be subject to inspection to make sure they follow those procedures.

And the maker of the peanut butter, King Nut, has issued a recall.

January 14 update: The FDA posts the recall notice.

Jan 10 2009

GAO says oversight of GM crops could be better

The Government Accountability Office has just produced a report looking at the way the federal agencies regulate (or don’t regulate) genetically modified crops.  At issue is the escape of unauthorized modified genes into supposedly non-GM crops, animals, or the environment.  The report notes six such incidents.  These, it says, caused not harm to human or animal health but did result in “lost trade opportunities.”  The report documents long-standing gaps in coordination and direction among the three regulatory agencies involved: FDA, USDA, and EPA. If I count right, it’s been nearly 15 years since the FDA approved the first genetically modified food (bovine growth hormone, quickly followed by tomatoes) and the government still can’t figure out what to do about them.

It’s interesting that this report comes just as Monsanto is asking the FDA to approve the company’s new supposedly drought-tolerant.  If this corn really does what it is claimed to, it could fulfill what biotechnology companies have long promised.  We will have to wait and see on this one.

Jan 9 2009

More voting opportunities: victory gardens and USDA

Slow Food USA is promoting efforts by groups who want an organic garden grown at the White House and who would like to see some representation of interest in sustainable agriculture at the USDA.  Here’s your chance to sign petitions on both those issues.  And the American Gothic illustration of the Obamas is pretty cute too.

Jan 8 2009

Pet Connection Interview: Unedited!

My interview with Christie Keith about Pet Food Politics has just been posted on the Pet Connection blog site.  Pet Connection is the pet care and everything else website that played such an important role in tracking the events of the 2007 pet food recalls.  Christie Keith writes regularly for Pet Connection but I first came across her work as the exceptionally thoughtful pet columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.  This is a first for me: the interview is a verbatim transcript of a long telephone conversation.  The conversation was a lot of fun, but also instructive; it changed my thinking about some issues regarding pet food labeling.  Enjoy!

Jan 7 2009

School interventions work! (Sometimes)

It’s always nice to have some evidence for what you think makes sense.  David Katz and his Yale colleagues analyzed a bunch of studies attempting to improve both school nutrition and physical fitness.  Taken one by one, these studies generally showed negligible improvements in body weight, if any.  But these investigators analyzed a selected group of 19 (of 64) studies that met their inclusion criteria.  Taken collectively, these studies showed that the interventions improved body weight.  The overall effects on weight were small, but in the hoped-for direction.  Katz et al’s conclusion: combined nutrition and physical activity interventions are worth doing, especially when they include parental involvement along with cutting down on TV.

If the link to the paper doesn’t work for you, try the abstract on PubMed.

Jan 6 2009

Did Dickens exaggerate?

Last week’s New York Times science section reported a study from the British Medical Journal arguing that Oliver Twist had plenty to eat and Dickens greatly exaggerated the poverty and inadequacy of poorhouse diets. The BMJ article said poorhouse diets gave kids a few ounces of oatmeal a day along with “modest servings of bread, potatoes, meat and cheese.”  This diet, the authors said, provided 1,600 to 1,700 calories a day, “dull and monotonous, to be sure, but adequate…in a real Victorian workhouse, Oliver would probably not have had to ask for more. He would have had just about enough.”

Here’s my response, published in today’s Science Times  letters.  Enough?  Hardly. The whole point of welfare institutions is to give recipients just enough to stave off starvation, but not so much that they become complacent and dependent on state largesse.  But children are dependent, and British poorhouses were for-profit institutions.  Far too much factual evidence demonstrates that poorhouse diets were barely adequate and strongly associated with childhood malnutrition and death.  What were these authors thinking?

January 7 update: Eating Liberally points out that the basic elements of poorhouse diets have much in common with today’s fast food.  How, kat asks, did fast food get to be so respresentative of America?  Here are my additional thoughts on this matter.

Jan 5 2009

USDA stats on million-dollar farms

Here’s a statistic that reveals the current status of the American agricultural system.  According to a recent USDA report, farms earning a annual income of a million dollars constitute just 2% of American farms, but account for a whopping 50% of total U.S. farm income.  Small family farms: where are you when we need you?

Jan 4 2009

The cost of better school lunch meat: yikes!

Food and Drink Examiner Eric Burkett sends this astonishing report from the school lunch front.  The school system in Portland, Oregon asked Oregon State University to conduct a taste test to find out whether kids preferred local grass-fed beef to grain-fed beef of unknown origin.  Results?  The kids could tell the difference but were evenly split on preference.

BUT–the cost difference!   Grain-fed beef =  $17.11 per case (140 patties per case).  Grass-fed beef = $44.85 a case (75 patties per case).  If the weights were the same, this means the grain-fed = 12.2 cents per patty vs. 59.8 cents each for the grass fed.  Is this really true?

If so, I can’t think of a better reason for some new farm policies.

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