Tag Archives: food politics

A Jungle for a new generation?

Loooong article in the NYTimes today about food safety in the meat industry. Or check out the crib sheet from Henry Blodget if you’re short on time.

I don’t quite know where to start with this one. The short short version: The Times tells one slice of the story of woefully inadequate food safety in the US through the prism of one woman who was paralyzed from E. coli-contaminated frozen hamburgers from Sam’s Club.

In its early paragraphs, the article relies on the rather gross nature of industrial meat production — and E. coli poisoning in particular — to get its point across. It details how the frozen hamburgers at the heart of this E. coli outbreak were assembled from basically left over bits of cow from processing plants on two continents. It’s not very nice, though frankly if you’re paying 70 cents for a pound of “beef” I’m not sure your standards can really be that high.

Then there’s the E. coli contamination angle. E. coli comes from shit – feces if we must – so the idea of ingesting it in your burger is bound to alarm people. However, the process by which beef comes to be contaminated with a bit of shit just seems like the cost of meat production on an industrial scale. It’s gross to think about, but you can see how it happens. The problem comes when no one then tests for E. coli in the meat before it’s sent to markets and restaurants around the country.

I understand why the writer opened with shock tactics. But the heart of the article, and where the real problem for food safety lies, is the later sections on testing and regulation. Not as sexy, but more important.

I won’t bore you with the numbers, but testing for E coli and other bacteria is so rare as to be basically non-existent. The USDA doesn’t require it, slaughterhouses rarely do it, or do it badly, and often refuse to sell to processors who perform their own tests. Costco comes out looking good: they test all meat before processing and selling to their customers. But other processors, like Cargill, won’t allow for their meat to be tested until its been ground up and combined with meat from slaughterhouses around the country, making any attempt to trace an outbreak impossible.

This is what you get when your food safety regime is also your corporate caretaker.

The article is full of great sections like:

The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. “They would not sell to us,” said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. “If I test and it’s positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.”


Continue reading

Break out your wellies in 2050

Jet lag had me up watching BBC Breakfast at 6 this morning, during which time I learned a trio of mildly interesting, interconnected things.

1. Britons are really, really lazy. Like too lazy to change the channel, have sex, walk a flight of stairs, play with their children…

2. …which makes you wonder why there’s a 40-year wait for an allotment in North London. There are really people out there who are too lazy to have sex, but not to grow their own vegetables? This is a weird country.

3. Hilary Benn’s food report out today sets out his vision to make Britain food secure by 2050. Which means that, if you live in North London, you’ll be harvesting your first veggies when the strategy hits its peak. If you can get your lazy ass off the couch, that is.


As big as fish

Anna’s posts on ConAgra reminded me of a guardian.co.uk article from a couple weeks back on supermarkets hijacking “local”:

Sales of “local” foods and drinks are up 30% at Tesco, 41% at Asda. “Local” is as big as fish now, says Asda. The store is “very proud” to be stocking 6,500 “local” lines.

“Local” badly needs those inverted commas. It is yet another of those homely epithets – like “natural”, “fresh” and “farmhouse” – that the food industry takes and abuses as it pleases. Asda’s spokesperson was asked to define the term by BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today yesterday – “Something that is relevant to the customer in that particular store,” he said.

Well that’s a rather broad definition. Who knew we were being good little locavores buying California wine in London? What’s a few thousand miles when it’s relevant to this particular customer?

And then I came across this today:

“But locally grown is a denomination whose meaning is incorruptible. Sparing the transportation fuel, packaging and unhealthy additives is a compelling part of the story, but the plot goes well beyond that. Local food is a handshake deal in a community gathering place. It involves farmers with first names, who show up week after week. It means an open-door policy on the fields, where neighborhood buyers are welcome to come have a look , and pick their food from the vine.” Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

Local: incorruptible, 2007; “as big as fish”, meaningles, 2009.

Perhaps I’m being naive, but I think it’s encouraging that “local” went from hallowed to hollow in such a short period of time. And if the big supermarket chains want to plaster local this and local that signs around their stores, well, that can only help to raise awareness of the issue. If it resonates with people, then they can start seeking out actual local goods, and not just those deemed “local” by their local multinational food conglomerate.

Or maybe I should blame that optimism on my just-back-from-holiday glow.


No comment

Via Marion Nestle I learned last week that half of all infants born in the US are eligible for enrolled in WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children). The program provides food aid to “low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.” It was the fastest-growing food assistance program in 2008, with an average of 8.7 million people enrolled each month (USDA report here).

I don’t have anything to add, I just found the stat shocking.


Skinless, boneless and missed

Seems a no brainer, no?

Seems a no brainer, no? By flickr user Jill (Creative Commons license)

Back in February I decided to stop buying meat at the supermarket, opting instead for a weekly shop at our neighborhood farmers’ market.

For the most part it’s been a pretty painless decision – the sausages are great, chicken legs and thighs are cheap, and I learned how to bone a chicken so, hey, I’ll be that much more self-sufficient when the apocalypse comes. (Because there are going to be dead, plucked and quartered chickens scattered about and kept fresh and cool after the apocalypse, right?)

But here’s my problem: I miss boneless skinless chicken breasts. It’s generally accepted that these are amongst the most boring slabs of protein around, but that’s why there are so many tasty recipes to jazz them up. I can’t really justify spending £10 on two chicken breasts for a curry chicken salad, or miso chicken. But I miss them!

So what’s a girl to do? If my knife skills improve I could consider grilling boned thighs, but I’m not convinced that’ll get the job done. Meat substitutes? I have serious philosophical problems with those. And I don’t like that fine meaty vegetable the eggplant.



Home cooking

A story in the LA Times today (with the truly terrible headline ‘Joy of Cooking’ or ‘Joy of Obesity’?) points to a new study finding that the calorie count of 14 selected recipes from Joy of Cooking increased an average 44% between the 1936 and 1996 editions.

Joy of Cooking

Joy of Cooking

Researchers looked at recipes including beef stroganoff, waffles, mac and cheese and goulash in each of the seven editions to chart how American home cooking has evolved. Similar trends were found in other classic cookbooks.  An odd little study, but it’s interesting to see cultural shifts reflected this way. For instance:

The study found that some of the added calories in the dishes came from a substitution of ingredients — extra meat instead of vegetables, for example. Back in the day, meat was expensive, so less of it was used, he said.

Cultural shifts may have also had an effect on recipe ingredients and portion sizes, Wansink added. Families have gotten smaller, so a dish that once was consumed by eight people is now consumed by four.

And because sizes of dinner plates have grown over the years, a standard 2-ounce portion of pasta can now look diminutive.

The past decade has seen a huge shift in awareness about nutrition. Recent versions have featured more fresh ingredients, and the 2006 edition has a chapter on nutrition. Yet far and away the biggest increase in average calorie content came between the 1997 and 2006 editions. We Americans are a confusing bunch.

I’d love to do a little more reading on this – any cheeseclothers have a copy around to compare with my 1963 edition?


You too can bone a chicken

Supermarket chicken comes pumped up with water, stabilizers, antibiotics and god knows what else. It also comes cheap, and sometimes with the bones magically removed. This bone issue is one I hadn’t really thought through.

Happily, the internet is filled with instructional videos:

And you know what? It’s not that hard. Even with an Ikea paring knife. Cutting the meat away is a breeze, and when you get the bones mostly out, you pull them up in a sort of V shape – I liked to think the chicken was telling me victory was almost at hand. Then all you have to do is cut the joint away from the meat, which is a bit of a pain.

I even saved the bones to make a stock. I’m learning!


This might make me a bad person

I’ve been thinking about food politics for a few weeks now, prompted by a shortcut through the local McDonald’s parking lot (more on that later) and the issue being addressed both here by Eve and extensively in the national press (around Germans and NHS patients being urged to cut their meat consumption for environmental reasons).

Growing up in San Francisco, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the arguments against meat eating. We talked about the environmental issues at school since kindergarten. Many of my friends have been vegetarians since we were about nine, mainly because of the issues of animal rights and the problems with factory farming. More recently, with awareness of climate change growing, some friends have become vegetarian for environmental reasons.

Working at War on Want also gave me greater insight on the human side of food politics, through the work that we did with peasant farmers around the world and the campaigning against agrobusiness and supermarkets.

So, I’ve never been able to plead ignorance. Continue reading

Defeat by pork, salvation through miso

Ok pig, you win. I’ve eaten so much of you this week, I almost want to take a break from meat. Which I don’t think has ever happened to me before.

But notice I said ‘almost’.

Ditching supermarket meat means buying the week’s protein at the farmers’ market on Saturday, and I couldn’t really let the last two, beautiful [read: hideously expensive] chicken breasts risk rotting in the fridge. But I needed something light. So last night’s dinner was the new family favorite: Miso chicken, Corn and Edamame Salad and brown rice.

I don’t know what else to say other than stop what you are doing and go make this right now. It’s easy, it’s relatively quick, it’s absolutely delicious and – the real shocker – it’s actually healthy. Not just not too terrible for you, but it has honest to god health giving properties like large quantities of essential vitamins. I know, normal people probably don’t find that last point so earth shattering.

Plus, leftovers mean only one meat-free day before market day comes around again. Hooray!


Changing habits

I have this dream that one day I’ll announce on the blog that today’s the day: I am going to make over my diet, eat more fruit and vegetables – or in my case, eat fruit and more vegetables – less meat, grocery shop locally and track all these exciting developments here on cheesecloth. But I don’t like to lie in public, so that’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

The problem is I do believe I should eat more healthily. And I do believe the food system is pretty screwed up. So last weekend I made a baby step towards change: no more supermarket chicken.

It started with a segment on Channel 4 about cheap chicken – apparently there’s one chicken wholesaler in Britain that sells chicken breasts that are 40% water. Now, I also don’t drink enough water, but surely there’s a better way to hydrate than through chicken meat!

Jesse’s also powering through Michael Pollan, so this is also a preemptive move: change the household policy before he tries to make vegetarians of us.

Stay tuned!