Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 13 2015

Another food safety scare: this time, crocodile bile?

Yesterday’s New York Times contained this remarkable news item from the Associated Press, reproduced here in its entirety (thanks to Maya Joseph for making sure I didn’t miss it):

Contaminated traditional beer has killed 56 people in Mozambique, health officials said Sunday. In addition, 49 people were admitted to hospitals in the Chitima and Songo districts in Tete Province, and 146 people have been examined for signs of the poisoning, a district health official, Alex Albertini, told Radio Mozambique. Those who drank the contaminated brew were attending a funeral in the region on Saturday, Mr. Albertini said. The authorities said they believed that the drink was poisoned with crocodile bile during the course of the funeral. The woman who brewed the beer is also among the dead.

A little checking around brought me to The Guardian, which explained:

When a crocodile is killed, its gallbladder must be immediately removed and buried in front of witnesses to stopped the bile being used as a poison, according to some African traditions.

But wait!

David Kroll writing in Forbes questions the accuracy of this report.  He did some homework and found an 1980s article from an African medical journal written by professor N.Z. Nyazema, a clinical pharmocologist at the University of Zimbabwe (whom Kroll is trying to track down).  Professor Nyazema says:

It is widely believed that the bile from the gall bladder of a crocodile is very poisonous. The bilenduru is used as poison which is added to beer or stiff porridge, sadza, of an unsuspecting victim. It is not easy to buy this poison neither is it easy for anyone to kill a crocodile solely for the purpose of obtaining the bile. But with a good fee one can obtain some of the poison from a special n’anga [a traditional healer of the Zimbabwean Shona tribe]…It is reported that the poisoning occurs at special occasions like beer drinking: The nduru is said to be introduced into the beer by dipping the finger or nail where a small amount is placed: This will suffice for the purpose.

Kroll sensibly asks: “In the current tragedy in Mozambique, I can’t imagine just how much bile would’ve had to be added to 210 liters of brew for so many deaths to occur.”

Good point.  He suspects digitalis from foxglove.

I’m crossing this one off my list of food ingredients to worry about.  Whew.

Jan 12 2015

Drink less soda? Coke cuts jobs.

That Coca-Cola is cutting between 1600 and 1800 jobs in the next few months, 500 of them in Atlanta (Coke’s home town), is big news.

Why is Coke doing this?  According to the New York Times, the company says:

  • “to streamline our business”
  • “to help fund the stepped-up marketing it believes is needed to drive up beverage sales”  (oh, great)

IBTimes offers another reason:

And as the Wall Street Journal explains, “Austerity is the new flavor at Coca-Cola”:

Atlanta-based Coke plans to ax at least 1,000 to 2,000 jobs globally in the coming weeks, the biggest thinning of its ranks in 15 years. It is also introducing stricter budgeting, telling executives to swap limousines for taxis, and dropped its lavish Christmas party for Wall Street analysts.  The moves are part of a $3 billion cost-cutting plan Coke announced in October after warning it would miss profit targets this year and next as consumers drink less soda, for decades its cash cow. The austerity push is a culture shock for a company that traditionally has grown, not shrunk, its way to prosperity.

The business press is much less interested in the health benefits that will accrue as a result.  These don’t count on Wall Street.

They should.

Jan 9 2015

Debra Eschmeyer replaces Sam Kass at Let’s Move!

I thought Sam Kass would be hard to replace as director of Let’s Move! but Debra Eschmeyer is a brilliant choice.

The White House announced her appointment yesterday.

She is best known as founder and director of Food Corps, the offshoot of AmeriCorps devoted to sending participants into schools to teach kids about food, cooking, and gardening.

Her appointment is an immense tribute to the work of Food Corps. It is also a tribute to Eschmeyer’s considerable political and social skills—these will serve Let’s Move! well as it attempts to consolidate its gains under Kass’s leadership.

One piece of evidence for her political skills is this section of the 2014 Farm Bill:

New Picture

Although Food Corps isn’t named in the bill, this section cannot possibly apply to anything else.   And although the funding didn’t make it through the Appropriations process, getting Food Corps into the Farm Bill at all is an impressive achievement.

She will have her work cut out for her during the next couple of years, but don’t underestimate her ability to deal with Congress about sticky issues.

She has my warmest, most enthusiastic congratulations for her willingness to take this on.

 

 

Jan 8 2015

Food politics, Indonesian style

Food Politics is back from vacation in Indonesia where its president, Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) made this announcement:

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His program particularly aims to support rice production, but also corn, soybeans, and sugar, all of which are currently imported.

Much Indonesian rice is still produced on small terraced farms, like this one on Bali.

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The government plans to distribute hand tractors and seeds to thousands of farmers across the various islands.

The Jakarta Post also ran a long story about a program promoting organic farming and seed-saving methods, particularly for rice.  Rice productivity has been falling as a result of over-fertilization and exhausted soils.

The food movement seems alive and well in Indonesia.  It has Slow Food chapters and Bali Buda restaurants (“real food by real people”) are multiplying.  Interest is starting early.

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This will  be fun to watch.

Dec 25 2014

Food Politics is on vacation until January 8. In the meantime, happy holidays!

Thanks to Dorothy Cann Hamilton’s International Culinary Center for sending this Christmas gift—how its students do gingerbread.

Enjoy!

Happy holidays.

See you in the new year.  May it be a good one for all.

 

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xxx

Dec 24 2014

Christmas health advocacy, Mexican style

Rebecca Berner of Mexico’s food advocacy coalition, Alianza por la Salud Alimentaria (Nutritional Health Alliance) sends this press release announcing her group’s new video ads to encourage you to take sodas off your holiday tables.

The Make Someone Happy” counter-commercial:  This ad satirizes Coca-Cola’s Christmas marketing campaign with global statistics on the burden of disease and death associated with sugary drink consumption.

 

Santa Claus resignsThis counter-ad shows Santa acknowledging his “karmic debt” for a lifetime of promoting soda.

Cheers for the holiday season!

Dec 23 2014

Happy holidays but watch out for packaged caramel apples. They may have Listeria.

It may be the season to be jolly, but not with prepackaged commercial caramel apples.  They may be contaminated with potentially fatal Listeria.  Not good.

The CDC says:

Out of an abundance of caution, CDC recommends that U.S. consumers do not eat any commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples, including plain caramel apples as well as those containing nuts, sprinkles, chocolate, or other toppings, until more specific guidance can be provided.

As of December 18, 2014, a total of 28 people have been reported as infected with the outbreak strains of Listeria monocytogenes.

  • Five people have died–from eating caramel apples.
  • 26 have been hospitalized, in 10 states.
  • Nine cases are in a pregnant woman or her newborn infant.
  • Three children have meningitis.
  • 83% of the 18 ill people said they ate commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples.
  • None of the 18 ill people said they ate plain apples, or plain caramel candy.

Here’s the Epi chart of reported cases:

Epi case count, click for more details.

 

Food safety attorney Bill Marler checked FDA records for previous recalls of apples potentially contaminated with Listeria.  His list:

  • December 11, 2014 – Giant Eagle issued a recall of Giant Eagle Apple Pistachio Salad and Apple Pistachio Salad with Chicken due to potential Listeria monocytogenes contamination. To date, Giant Eagle has received no reports of customer illnesses associated with this recall.
  • November 14, 2013 – Crunch Pak® of Cashmere, Washington is voluntarily recalling 5,471 cases of Crunch Pak® Apple Slices due to a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes.
  • November 7, 2013 – Garden-Fresh Foods has initiated an expansion of previous recalls of fresh ct vegetables, ready-to eat salads, slaws, dips and spreads.
  • December 8, 2012 – Freshway Foods is voluntarily recalling 6,671 pounds of sliced apples.
  • August 10, 2012 – Missa Bay, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ready Pac Foods, Inc., of Swedesboro, New Jersey is voluntarily recalling a total of 293,488 cases and 296,224 individually distributed units of fruit, vegetable, and sandwich products containing apples.
  • August 6, 2012 – Reichel Foods, Inc. of Rochester, Minnesota is voluntarily recalling a limited amount of Dippin’ Stix Sliced Apples & Caramel with Peanuts.

The moral: when it comes to food safety, no food source is sacred.

Add this to your list of food safety hazards to avoid.

Have a food-safe holiday season!

 

Dec 22 2014

GAO: USDA and FDA need to coordinate food safety activities

The Government Accountability Office has just released a new report.

Much of the report is about the need for better coordination of the food safety oversight responsibilities of the USDA (meat and poultry) and those of the FDA (everything else), not to mention the 13 other agencies that deal with aspects of food safety (the report provides a handy summary chart).

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This report points out that both agencies

have mechanisms in place to facilitate interagency coordination on food safety that focus on specific issues, but none provides for broad-based, centralized collaboration…[Existing]mechanisms do not allow FDA, FSIS [USDA], and other agencies to look across their individual programs and determine how they all contribute to federal food safety goals. Nearly all the experts GAO interviewed agreed that a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety is important to foster effective interagency collaboration and could enhance food safety oversight. The Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) served
as a centralized mechanism for broad-based food safety collaboration and resulted in a number of accomplishments, including improved coordination. However, the FSWG is no longer meeting…Without a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety, there is no forum for agencies to reach agreement on a set of broad-based food safety goals and objectives.

The GAO complains that “for more than a decade, we have reported on the fragmented nature of federal food safety oversight.”

Actually, its complaints go back longer than that but here’s one from 1999:

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I will have to go through my files but as I recall, the GAO started arguing for a single food safety agency sometime in the early 1990s.  Political realities make that idea impossible.  Instead, we have the Food Safety Working Group which seems to have stopped meeting.

It’s good the GAO is still on the case.  We need better food safety oversight.

Tomorrow’s example: Caramel apples.

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