Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 9 2009

Pet food recall settlement: at last?

The courts have finally approved the settlement agreement for the class action lawsuit against pet food makers selling products contaminated with melamine.  This means that the payouts will begin sometime this year, maybe.   Legal wheels grind slowly, it seems (or maybe this isn’t slow?).

Feb 8 2009

Some good news at last: small farms!

To what no doubt was great shock to the Department of Agriculture, the number of small farms in America went up from 2002 to 2007.  This is great news for local, sustainable agriculture and let’s hope for lots more of the same.  But most of these farms are not yet self-supporting, and their owners have day (or night) jobs to stay afloat.  According to Andrew Martin in today’s New York Times, 40% of U.S. farms  (900,000 of 2.2 million) earn less than $2,500 a year in sales.  Agribusiness predominates: 5% of  farms (125,000) account for 75% of production.  But what a great sign this is of good things to come.  Let’s hope the USDA wises up and puts some support behind this welcome trend.

All this comes from the USDA’s 2007 Census on Agriculture. Check out the nifty slide show link on that page for a quick overview of the facts and figures.

Update February 10: Here’s Verlyn Klinkenborg’s New York Times editorial on the topic.  He points out that as new small farms (9 acres or less) come into existence, medium-size farms are the ones to get engulfed and devoured by agribusiness. The new diversity in crops and farmers “is a genuine source of hope for American agriculture.”

Feb 7 2009

And now, genetically engineered goats!

On Friday (of course), the FDA approved the first genetically modified goats. These have been bioengineered with a human gene that makes the anti-clotting protein, antithrombin. The goats excrete this protein into their milk (I hope their babies aren’t drinking this milk).   Antithrombin ordinarily has to be extracted from human plasma, an unreliable source.  This way, if more antithrombin is needed, the company that invented this scheme  (GTC Biotherapeutics) just milks more goats.  The FDA had previously approved doing things like this in theory, but this is the first practical application.  Some antithrombin with your goat cheese, anyone?

Feb 6 2009

CDC on the peanut butter outbreak

The CDC has just published its latest MMWR (Morbitity and Mortality Weekly Report) on the epidemiology of the peanut butter outbreak.  The good news: the number of cases seems to be going down.  Take a look at the charts.  The epidemic peaked from mid-November to mid-December but the peak in reporting the cases came a month later.  That’s why yesterday’s congressional hearing had so much to say about the need for FDA and CDC to work together to speed up the reporting ( or so reporters tell me).  And, thankfully, about the need to give FDA recall authority.

Feb 6 2009

Will Obama’s plan help food and agriculture?

An analysis by the Congressional Research Service says not much, relatively.  Although $27 billion to USDA sounds like a big chunk of change, $21 billion of that goes to food assistance (good) but only $6 billion to any kind of farm program (not so good).  Missing in action are the things many of us care deeply about: support for small farmers, organic production methods, fruits & vegetables (“specialty crops”), or any of the other things mentioned by Sam Hurst in his discussion of the report at Gourmet’s online site.

Feb 5 2009

Peanut butter update: widgets! chicken! FEMA kits! Congress!

I have a hard time keeping up with the number of products recalled because they contain potentially tainted peanut butter.  So does the FDA.  It now offers a widget that you can load on your computer to receive automatic updates on the recalls. Here’s what the widget looks like:

The recall that I find most surprising comes from the Hain Celestial group, which just called back nearly 900,000 pounds (!) of frozen chicken products because they contain peanut butter produced at the Georgia plant that caused all the problems.  Frozen chicken satay?  Why is peanut butter in chicken?

And now FEMA is recalling its emergency disaster rations because they might contain tainted peanut butter.

The 1100 products recalled to date are fast approaching the record number of pet foods recalled in 2007. That, no doubt, is why Congresswoman Rosa deLauro (Dem-CT) has just introduced legislation – “The Food Safety Modernization Act” –  to separate off food from FDA oversight and create a separate agency to regulate the safety of the food supply.  As she puts it, this is the final wake-up call.  Let’s hope.

Not only do we have one food supply that serves people, animals, and pets, but that food supply is incredibly interlocked.  If one food causes problems, you can bet that there are problems in lots of other places.

Update February 7: The New York Times has produced a video on the recalls.

Feb 4 2009

FDA cracks down on weight loss products

The FDA has its hands full these days, what with peanut butter, no commissioner, and Daschle withdrawing for consideration as secretary of Health and Human Services (the FDA’s parent agency).  Even so, the FDA is concerned about weight loss supplements that it considers fraudulent, and has now gone after 70 of them.  The FDA has a lot on its plate, as it were, and let’s hope the new administration figures out a way to make oversight of the food supply a priority.

February 10 update: the New York Times has a long piece on this problem.  Turns out that a lot of these so-called herbal products actually contain weight loss drugs of one kind or another.  They are not supposed to.

Feb 2 2009

Hope for the FDA at last: Sasha eats peanut butter!

Thanks to Food Chemical News for telling its readers about the President’s appearance on the NBC Today Show this morning:  

Matt Lauer: There’s been a massive peanut butter products recall in this country over the last several weeks, most of the products traced to one plant in Georgia that has a bit of history of sending out products even though there have been traces of Salmonella found. The question…the obvious question people want to know is, “Is the FDA doing its job?”

President Obama: Well, I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch. And so we are going to be doing a complete review of FDA operations. At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter. That’s what Sasha eats for lunch, probably three times a week, and you know I don’t want to have to worry about whether she is going to get sick as a consequence of having her lunch.

This leaves me breathless.  I’ve been saying for years that the only thing that would ever get Congress moving on the FDA would be if a relative of an important Senator became seriously ill with food poisoning, not something I would wish on anyone.  Fingers crossed everyone!

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