by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

Jun 24 2009

Organic wine: clarification of the rules (?)

You would think that the labeling of organic wine would be simple, but you would be so wrong.  Just for fun, here’s who does what in the federal government when it comes to food and beverages.  For the most part:

  • USDA does meat and poultry
  • FDA does everything else
  • Except alcohol, which is done by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)
  • Except that USDA does all organic food
  • Except for organic wine, sort of
  • Problem solved: USDA and TTB have made a deal.  TTB will do organic wine
  • Except that USDA has just changed the rules

Got all that?

I won’t try to reproduce the rules for organic wines; they look too much like what I’ve just written.  Take a look at judge for yourself.  I’m just happy that all this has been straightened out.

Jun 22 2009

Organics: letter vs. spirit

My once every three weeks Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle deals this time with a slew of questions about organic foods: what are they, can you trust them, are they worth it, aren’t they elitist?

In response, Scott Exo of the Food Alliance points out that his organization does certifications that go beyond what the USDA requires and include the Alliance’s broader requirements for sustainable food production practices: working conditions, animal welfare, and environmental impact.  I’m glad to know about it.

Jun 18 2009

Food legislation (maybe)

Legislators in the new administration are working on food laws.  Here is a quick sample:

Calorie labeling: it looks like we have bipartisan support for national menu labeling.  If passed, calories will have to be disclosed on menu boards of fast food and vending machine chains throughout the country – and not just in New York City and the few states that have passed their own laws.   Lots of health organizations are backing this proposal.

Food safety: the House just passed its version of a bill that will overhaul some aspects of the present food safety system.  This bill still has a long way to go but is a hopeful sign that Congress might actually do something to fix the FDA.  What the bill does not do is deal with fixing the system.  It exempts meat, poultry, and eggs under USDA jurisdiction.

Produce safety: The new head of the FDA, Margaret Hamburg, says her agency is going to put special efforts into ensuring the safety of high-risk produce. To do that, she will need Congress to pass laws that, among other things, give the FDA the authority to order recalls and a lot more money to carry out its work.

Organics: The U.S. and Canada have agreed to coordinate their organic standards, so foods certified organic in Canada can be sold here and vice versa.  Let’s hope the most stringent standards prevail.

These are (somewhat) hopeful signs.  Let’s hope Congress manages to keep at this and tries to get it right.

May 6 2009

American agriculture at a glance

The New York Times has an informative series of maps of the locations of the more than 10,000 organic farms in the U.S.  And notice the increase in sales!

That number of organic farms may seem like a lot but it pales in comparison to the total 2.2 million farms.  Most farms are East of the Mississippi and in the far West.  The maps also show where most of the orchards, vegetable farms, and dairies tend to be.  A big chunk of the country must have a hard time getting locally grown fruit and vegetables, let alone organics.  Doesn’t this look like a growth opportunity?

Mar 22 2009

New York Times: the food revolution!

It’s been a big week for food politics in my local newspaper.  First, the Obama’s new garden (see earlier post) and now Andy Martin’s recap of the events leading to the current push for a healthier and more sustainable food system.  This starts on the front page of the Business section (note photo) and continues on to a full page on the inside.  And in the Week in Review, Mark Bittman writes about the organic revolution.  Full disclosure: I’m quoted in both.

22food2_6501

Mar 20 2009

What’s up with the organic e-mail scare?

My e-mail inbox is flooded with copies of the wild message about how proposed food safety legislation will kill organic farming.  Ordinarily, I ignore such rumors, but I’ve had two requests to comment on this one.   From Cynthia: “Can you please point me in the right direction on this rumor that the new bill will eliminate organic gardening.”  From TSR:  “Just got an e-mail about the FoodSafety Modernization Act of 2009: HR 875 — and I’m kind of terrified. I have been checking out many different sources online — this does indeed seem to be something to be very scared about and very real.”

I have no idea what this is about but it makes no sense to me.  My suspicion (based on no evidence, really) is that the message comes from opponents of animal traceability who think that having to track animals will be difficult for small farmers. The food safety bills up before Congress are designed to either redesign the system or fix the FDA (see previous posts). As far as I am concerned, all food producers should be following HACCP safety plans and safety rules should apply to all of them. So I don’t see the connection.

Or am I missing something here?  If anyone has any idea about what this is about, please enlighten.

Update: the Eating Liberally folks forward this summary of myths and facts about one of the food safety bills.

Update March 24: here’s a reasonable analysis of the benefits of the legislation.

Mar 11 2009

EWG’s guide to pesticides on produce

The Environmental Working Group has just issued its guide to coping with pesticides on fresh fruits and vegetables.  It’s handy shopping card identifies the Dirty Dozen (highest in pesticides) and the Clean Fifteen (lowest).  Organics, it says, are still the best choices!

And here’s how they did the study.

Mar 6 2009

Without honest inspections, we won’t have safe food

As we have learned all too often, dishonest food companies cut corners on food safety any time they can get away with it.  That is why inspections are absolutely necessary.  Right now, the inspection system is largely voluntary and all too easily corrupted.  In a series of articles in the New York Times, we now learn that some of the peanut butter caught up in the recent recalls was Certified Organic, and that the plants had passed inspection by USDA-licensed organic certifiers.

As for conventional foods: today’s front-page article expands on flaws in the food inspection system.  Inspectors, for example, are paid by the plants they are inspecting (oops).  Here’s my favorite quote, attributed to Mansour Samadpour, a food safety consultant: “The contributions of third-party audits to foods safety is the same as the contribution of diploma mills to education.”

When I was doing the research for my book, Safe Food, I visited a plant that manufactured meat products.  The plant manager told me that you could butcher a dog in front of the onsite USDA inspector and he would never see it.  I believed him: inspectors only see problems if they know what to look for.

All of this makes me think that inspections need to be done by independent agencies that are rewarded for finding problems, not ignoring them.  Mandatory HACCP (standard food safety procedures) with testing and inspection would help too.   And if the organic food industry wants the public to believe that organic foods are better, it must make sure that production methods meet organic standards in letter and spirit.  Otherwise, why bother to pay more for organic foods?

The USDA needs to close loopholes and insist on the integrity of the inspection system. The FDA needs to figure out a way to get its inspection needs under control.  These are issues for Congress to handle.  I keep wondering:  How bad do things have to get before Congress does something useful about food safety?

Page 5 of 7« First...34567