aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Monday, April 23, 2007
Maybe pet lovers can get some action at the FDA
We saw a friend who works at PetSmart yesterday and asked about pet food recalls. He says they just keep coming. Apparently pet food manufacturers were trying to spike the products to make claims of higher nutritional value. The FDA is “investigating.” The state health department took action:
In California, state agriculture officials placed a hog farm under quarantine after melamine was found in pig urine there. Additional testing was under way to determine whether the chemical was present in the meat produced by American Hog Farm in Ceres since April 3, the state Department of Food and Agriculture said.
So far, melamine’s been found in both wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate imported from China. Media reports from South Africa, where 30 dogs died, suggest a third pet food ingredient, corn gluten, used in that country also was contaminated with melamine. That tainted ingredient has not been found in the United States, the FDA said.
FDA investigators were awaiting visas that would allow them to visit the Chinese plants where the vegetable protein ingredients were produced.
Chocolate: how the FDA worksnew paradigm. Perhaps this suggests what they have in mind:
A little over 100 years ago, Milton Hershey created the nickel bar, the first American chocolate bar for the masses. Today, these small purchases of chocolate products add up to an $18-billion business. Like all foods in the United States, chocolate is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that consumers get a safe and consistent product.
But perhaps no longer. The FDA is entertaining a “citizen’s petition” to allow manufacturers to substitute vegetable fats and oils for cocoa butter.
The “citizens” who created this petition represent groups that would benefit most from this degradation of the current standards. They are the Chocolate Manufacturers Assn., the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., the Snack Food Assn. and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (OK, I’m not sure what’s in it for them), along with seven other food producing associations.
The FDA makes me (& you) sick!
They are a tool of the food industry to offer you and me the illusion of oversight:
The Food and Drug Administration has known for years about contamination problems at a Georgia peanut butter plant and on California spinach farms that led to disease outbreaks that killed three people, sickened hundreds, and forced one of the biggest product recalls in U.S. history, documents and interviews show.
Overwhelmed by huge growth in the number of food processors and imports, however, the agency took only limited steps to address the problems and relied on producers to police themselves, according to agency documents. [...]
“We have 60,000 to 80,000 facilities that we’re responsible for in any given year,” [Robert E. Brackett, director of the food-safety arm of the FDA] says. Explosive growth in the number of processors and the amount of imported foods means that manufacturers “have to build safety into their products rather than us chasing after them,” Brackett said. “We have to get out of the 1950s paradigm.”
I’m fine with a new paradigm, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Food” should be considered food that you and me eat. Let’s treat it as such rather than as some corporate “product” they can “build safety into!” Let’s all take a good hard look at the paradigm Brackett’s been using:
In the peanut butter case, an agency report shows that FDA inspectors checked into complaints about salmonella contamination in a ConAgra Foods factory in Georgia in 2005. But when company managers refused to provide documents the inspectors requested, the inspectors left and did not follow up. [...]
The FDA has known even longer about illnesses among people who ate spinach and other greens from California’s Salinas Valley, the source of outbreaks over the past six months that have killed three people and sickened more than 200 in 26 states. The subsequent recall was the largest ever for leafy vegetables.
In a letter sent to California growers in late 2005, Brackett wrote, “FDA is aware of 18 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1995 caused by [E. coli bacteria] for which fresh or fresh-cut lettuce was implicated. . . . In one additional case, fresh-cut spinach was implicated. These 19 outbreaks account for approximately 409 reported cases of illness and two deaths.”
“We know that there are still problems out in those fields,” Brackett said in an interview last week. “We knew there had been a problem, but we never and probably still could not pinpoint where the problem was. We could have that capability, but not at this point.”
Meanwhile, they’re recalling ground beef in five states after “children who ate at Little League baseball snack shacks were sickened by E. coli.” (Reminder, that recall comes from “state health officials” not the FDA.) I’m glad I know where my hamburger comes from.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Know your food - why I bought the cow
Yesterday we had a party to celebrate, honor, and eat some of cow #9: 68 burgers and 6 Boca burgers (nearly 10%, we had a vegetarian station set up).
I’ve been meaning to write the definitive post on why I bought cow #9, but as I put it off and put it off the task grew larger and larger and I realized that there are so many reasons (a click on my Food link will give a good sampling) that there can be no definitive post. What I can simply and honestly say is that the most important among all those reasons was that I could know that this cow, #9, had a good life. And I could know that this cow, #9, had a humane death.
For the party we had pictures of cow #9, and pictures of the abattoir (slaughterhouse) in which he was killed, hung all around the grill and food areas so that people could see and better know what they were eating. As people reacted to those pictures I kept saying, again and again, “know your food.” In that phrase I tried to consciously echo Michael Pollan’s call for glass walls in slaughterhouses.
I reminded my friends that we want to see into the kitchens of restaurants and behind the meat counters of supermarkets at least in part so that we can see for ourselves the condition of the places our food comes from. And so, I said, let’s also look our meat in the eye and dare to see inside our slaughterhouses.
I’m convinced that if we all knew where McDonald’s cheeseburgers come from we would make some different decisions. I know where my cheeseburgers came from because I sat with the man who killed our cow. I know, too, that there are no easy answers about the food we eat, but what I’ve come to believe is that not asking the questions is the worst answer of all.
So now I’ve got to go make some burgers for lunch… The photo above is of our dogs, Baci and Jake, jumping up to see inside the trunk of the car on the day I brought #9 home from the abattoir.
MORE FROM MY COW CHRONICLES: Cow update: The T-Bones!
You are what you grow
Michael Pollan in today’s NYTimes Magazine argues, persuasively, that the Farm Bill should more rightly be called a Food Bill. Here he writes of its impact on immigration:
To speak of the farm bill’s influence on the American food system does not begin to describe its full impact - on the environment, on global poverty, even on immigration. By making it possible for American farmers to sell their crops abroad for considerably less than it costs to grow them, the farm bill helps determine the price of corn in Mexico and the price of cotton in Nigeria and therefore whether farmers in those places will survive or be forced off the land, to migrate to the cities - or to the United States. The flow of immigrants north from Mexico since Nafta is inextricably linked to the flow of American corn in the opposite direction, a flood of subsidized grain that the Mexican government estimates has thrown two million Mexican farmers and other agricultural workers off the land since the mid-90s. (More recently, the ethanol boom has led to a spike in corn prices that has left that country reeling from soaring tortilla prices; linking its corn economy to ours has been an unalloyed disaster for Mexico’s eaters as well as its farmers.) You can’t fully comprehend the pressures driving immigration without comprehending what U.S. agricultural policy is doing to rural agriculture in Mexico.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Farm bill or Food bill?
Michael Pollan has an essay coming in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. In it he argues, persuasively, that we should recognize the farm bill for what it is - a food bill. For our food system is no longer made up of idyllic family farms meeting America’s needs, rather factory-style agribusinesses are but the producers of industrial raw materials for food processors.
A taste from the introduction:
A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?
Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods - dairy, meat, fish and produce - line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.
As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.Ã¢â‚¬Â� Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly - and get fat.
I’ll have more later and will link when the story is brought out from behind the paywall.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Cow update: The T-Bones!
The good news is that the cow cost considerably less than I thought. (And I feel like such a
rube city-slicker for it!) The bad news is that I over-cooked the first steaks I grilled from it. Said Doug, “If this were a restaurant, I’d send it back...”
The meat was tender and delicious nonetheless.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Where’s that cheeseburger from?
I’m still working on my why’d I buy a cow? post. I don’t want to bore people with my cow antics. I will say that my portion of the cow included roughly 18 pounds of ground beef. Luckily I have a lot of yard parties in springtime; and it looks like I’ll be eating more meatloaf and chili in winter.
So for this morning I thought I’d share a passage from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In his natural history of four meals, the first was at McDonalds. From page 114:
Compared to Isaac’s nuggets, my cheeseburger is a fairly simple construct. According to “A Full Serving of Nutrition Facts,” the cheeseburger contains a mere six ingredients, all but one of them familiar: a 100 percent beef patty, a bun, two American cheese slices, ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, and “grill seasoning,” whatever that is. It tasted pretty good, too, though on reflection what I mainly tasted were the condiments: Sampled by itself, the gray patty had hardly any flavor. And yet the whole package, especially on first bite, did manage to give off a fairly convincing burgerish aura. I suspect, however, that owes more to the olfactory brilliance of the “grill seasoning” than to the 100 percent beef patty.
In truth, my cheeseburger’s relationship to beef seemed nearly as metaphorical as the nugget’s relationship to a chicken. Eating it, I had to remind myself that there was an actual cow involved in this meal most likely a burned-out old dairy cow (the source of most fast-food beef) but possibly bits and pieces of a steer like 534 as well. Part of the appeal of hamburgers and nuggets is that their boneless abstractions allow us to forget we’re eating animals. I’d been on the feedlot in Garden City only a few months earlier, yet this experience of cattle was so far removed from that one as to be taking place in a different dimension. No, I could not taste the feed corn or the petroleum or the antibiotics or the hormones-or the feedlot manure. Yet while “A Full Serving of Nutrition Facts” did not enumerate these facts, they too have gone into the making of this hamburger, are part of its natural history. That perhaps is what the industrial food chain does best: obscure the histories of the foods it produces by processing them to such an extent that they appear as pure products of culture rather than nature - things made from plants and animals. Despite the blizzard of information contained in the helpful McDonald’s flyer - the thousands of words and numbers specifying ingredients and portion sizes, calories and nutrients - all this food remains perfectly opaque. Where does it come from? It comes from McDonald’s.
But that’s not so. It comes from refrigerated trucks and from warehouses, from slaughterhouses, from factory farms in towns like Garden City, Kansas, from ranches in Sturgis, South Dakota, from food science laboratories in Oak Brook, Illinois, from flavor companies on the New Jersey Turnpike, from petroleum refineries, from processing plants owned by ADM and Cargill, from grain elevators in towns like Jefferson, and, at the end of that long and tortuous trail, from a field of corn and soybeans farmed by George Naylor in Churdan, Iowa.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
The cow: #9
I have to tell you that for a city-slicker (gay, at that!) buying a country cow is no easy feat. A friend, involved in organics here, forwarded an email and asked did I want to.
I said yes.
I note that another friend has corrected me; what we bought, says he, is not a cow but rather a steer. Some say that by the look of him he is, in fact, a Black Angus steer. The guy who sold him to me, the guy who raised him on his land, calls him a cow. Cow #9. I will, therefore, continue to refer to him as a cow.
I did the planning for this project and was
told that [CORRECTIONS INSERTED LATER] confused and understood that half a cow would probably weigh 400 pounds “hanging” (!) and yield 300 pounds of meat. We bought in for half, and planned to split that half with another couple. As those figures sank in - three. hundred. pounds. - I began to panic. That’s a lotta cow! I can’t say that I honestly eat that much meat.
We invited in a third couple.
I followed along the progress of the cow, and when he finally got to the abattoir
he weighed in at 1048 pounds. Our half, at $2 per pound, was $1,048. The hanging weight of the whole cow. minus the head, hooves &tc., was 524 pounds. Next we had to tell them how to cut him up. Again, I can’t say that I ever really knew all the cuts of beef, where they came from, how much there was of what, or how to cut it up!
The three people at the abattoir were incredibly helpful; they took us into the office, sat us down, and walked us through… Inch and a half steaks. More roasts than cubed. Leave the sirloin whole. Pound to pound and a half packages of ground. Julia got the liver. (Next time maybe I’ll ask about other parts that the dogs might enjoy; this time I was just happy to make it that far!) The cow must hang in the cooler for at least a week, three weeks if you want it “aged.” Ours hung 10 or 12 days.
When I picked up the meat they hauled it to my car in brown paper shopping bags piled on a hand truck and loaded it into my trunk. Processing costs include a $40 “kill fee” (our half was $20) and then 33Ã‚Â¢ per pound of processed meat. The total was $106.46. When I got home and looked at the receipt I saw that it had written on it, “1/2 524 = 262 lb.” Not wanting to cheat my friend, I returned to the abattoir and asked had they undercharged me?
He explained that the hanging weight of our cow #9 - after the head, hooves, skin, &tc had been removed - worked out to be half of the total weight of the cow (typically, he said, it’s about 60%). We were not undercharged. Each of the three couples has roughly 80 pounds of meat at roughly $4 per pound.
His receipt was right-on. The whole cow weighed 524, our half was 262. The people at the abattoir couldn’t understand where I was coming from saying that the cow weighed 1,048 pounds. The error was in an email from the guy who sold me the cow. In that email he absentmindedly quoted me the whole cow price, not the half, and because I had no idea what a half or a whole cow would weigh, I went from there. When I gave him the check he didn’t look at it until later then called and wondered, “didn’t you think that was too much???” Duh, NO! How would I know what a cow weighs???
All of us bought chest freezers but I’ll spare you that story. We plan to finish it off by fall. And buy another cow.
The abattoir - “You can’t beat our meat.”
With some friends, we bought a cow. I’ll get to the reasons later but I’ll start with the abattoir. Here we call our slaughterhouse an abattoir. From the French verb abattre which means “to strike down, to fell.” I’m not sure why we call it that; maybe to distance it from those industrial scaled cattle slaughterhouses that operate 24 hours a day killing more than 500 head an hour.
Our cow lived a good life and was killed humanely; the place looked and smelled clean. Maybe next time I’ll watch. I’m living Michael Pollan’s call for glass walls in slaughterhouses. As it turns out, the abattoir’s owner is the significant other of a colleague. When I wrote to ask her about him, she replied:
Yes, he is the owner. He has a very heavy [southern] accent, so if you talked with him, you know what I’m talking about. He told me about you coming out. He said that you wanted to take a picture of the cow hanging, but they were cleaning, so you couldn’t get to the cooler. Do you want me to take a picture and send it to you? It will not be your cow at this point, because your’s is cut up, but one side of beef looks just like any other.
“You can’t beat our meat!”
Once you have a hamburger made from a just breathing cow, you will never want to go to the grocery store again! At first the meat smells different from what you are used to, but that is because it is fresh. Not too long ago I got mad at him because he would not bring me any meat so I went to the grocery store and bought some. Joe, when I opened it and the smell hit me, I gagged and threw it away. I will wait for him to bring meat home or I will take the time to go over there myself and “shop”. I’ll be damned if I eat meat from a grocery store again!
The cow is in the freezer and, truth be told, I’m wondering if I’ve been so indoctrinated into corn-fed supermarket meat that it will take some time to get used to it. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Burger King shifts to “cage-free” animals
Say what you will about PETA, they’re effective. Burger King worked with PETA and the Humane Society on this:
In what animal welfare advocates are describing as a “historic advance,” Burger King, the world’s second-largest hamburger chain, said yesterday that it would begin buying eggs and pork from suppliers that did not confine their animals in cages and crates.
The company said that it would also favor suppliers of chickens that use gas, or “controlled-atmospheric stunning,” rather than electric shocks to knock birds unconscious before slaughter. It is considered a more humane method, though only a handful of slaughterhouses use it.
The goal for the next few months, Burger King said is for 2 percent of its eggs to be “cage free,” and for 10 percent of its pork to come from farms that allow sows to move around inside pens, rather than being confined to crates.
A reason for starting with such a small amount is lack of supply. Their commitment works to change that; they see the writing on the wall:
Burger King executives said the move was driven by their desire to stay ahead of consumer trends and to encourage farmers to move into more humane egg and meat production.
“We want to be doing things long before they become a concern for consumers,” Mr. Grover said. “Like a hockey player, we want to be there before the puck gets there.”
Monday, March 26, 2007
Size matters: T.G.I. Friday’s to try “Right Size” portions
A good number of my neighbors here judge a restaurant by the size of its portions: the bigger the better. Many of these same neighbors are concerned about their weight. A disconnect of sorts I’d say.
We don’t have one here, so I won’t soon know how they’ll react to T.G.I. Friday’s decision to “Right Size” portions:
[Richard] Snead is breaking ranks. As chief executive of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide he has chopped portion sizes at T.G.I. Friday’s, Carlson’s chain known for calorie-rich items like deep-fried potato skins stuffed with Cheddar cheese, bacon and sour cream. In a closely watched experiment, Friday’s will see whether diners will order what it calls “Right Size” portions that, on average, are about two-thirds the size of the usual serving.
“I firmly believe that the consumer is demanding a change,” said Mr. Snead, who is 55 and has a runner’s trim build. Many consumers are tired of huge portions, especially on weeknights or at lunch when they do not want to indulge, he says. The time has come, he says, to think smaller. But, he added, “I’ll be honest with you, it’s scary.”
It works for me, but then portion-size plays absolutely no role in my evaluation of a restaurant. I may be alone in that. Ruby Tuesdays’ failed in a portion-size experiment back in 2004:
Shrinking portions puts restaurants in a bit of a pickle. Customers have come to associate huge quantities of food with value, a proposition that makes reducing portions difficult. Restaurants also point out that even when consumers say they want smaller portions or healthier choices, they often do not order those options. [...]
WHAT makes Friday’s portion-cutting different is its extensive advertising of ten menu items and its decision to offer them at significantly lower prices...Mr. Snead says he has accepted the fact that his average check on the reduced portions will be smaller too, but he is betting that they will be offset by more customers.
Friday’s is bucking a decades-long trend of ever-larger portions in packaged goods and at restaurants. Some portions at fast-food restaurants are now two to five times larger than those of the 1950s, researchers have found. [...]
Americans are eating about 12 percent more calories a day than they did in the mid-1980s, according to government statistics. The percentage of Americans who are overweight, meanwhile, increased to 66 percent in 2004 from 47 percent in the late 1970s. Hardly anyone believes it is a coincidence that Americans became fatter at the same time they began eating out more than ever and restaurants supersized their portions.
What would be good is if other restaurants would match Snead’s move; this is not about competitive advantage, it’s about addressing a significant national problem. Snead questions whether he’d have been able to try this if T.G.I. Friday’s weren’t privately held and points to research that finds 51% of adults - and 63% of women - believe portion sizes at fast food eateries are too big.
I use the occasion to quote again from Cass R. Sunstein & Richard H. Thaler’s review of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink in last week’s New Republic (behind a pay wall, I quote liberally here):
People tend to eat whatever is put in front of them. Wansink demonstrates this point through a series of somewhat mischievous experiments, some of which would have been great material for Candid Camera. A few years ago, moviegoers in Chicago found themselves with a free bucket of popcorn. Unfortunately, the popcorn was stale; it had been popped five days earlier and stored so as to ensure that it would actually squeak when eaten. People were not specifically informed of its staleness, but they didn’t love the popcorn. As one moviegoer said, “It was like eating Styrofoam packing peanuts.”
As the experiment was designed, about half of the moviegoers received a big bucket of popcorn and half received a medium-sized bucket. After the movie, Wansink asked the recipients of the big bucket whether they might have eaten more because of the size of their bucket. Most denied the possibility, saying, “Things like that don’t trick me.Ã¢â‚¬Â� But they were wrong. On average, recipients of the big bucket ate about 53 percent more popcorn--even though they didn’t really like it.
Another experiment required some special equipment. People sat down to a large bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup and were told to eat as much as they wanted. Unbeknown to them, the soup bowls were designed to refill themselves (with empty bottoms connected to machinery beneath the table). No matter how much soup the subjects ate, the bowl never emptied. Many people just kept eating until the experiment was (mercifully) ended.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Wolfgang Puck steps up to the animal welfare plate
The NYTimes has an editorial supporting Wolfgang Puck’s decision to use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards in all of his culinary businesses:
Mr. Puck is not the first chef and restaurateur to decide to forgo factory-farmed meat and eggs. You can find a few restaurants upholding these standards in nearly every major American city. But Mr. Puck runs an empire, not a restaurant. His outreach is enormous, and so is his potential educational impact. In fact, he has come late to this decision, perhaps because it affects a corporation, not the menu of a single restaurant.
For one thing, Mr. Puck’s new standard will help correct a misimpression. Many diners assume that most of the cruelty in factory farming lies in producing foie gras and veal. But Americans consume vastly more chicken, turkey, pork and beef than foie gras and veal, and most of the creatures those meats come from are raised in ways that are ethically and environmentally unsound. Until recently, most Americans have been appallingly ignorant of how their food is produced. That is changing. And Mr. Puck’s gift for showmanship will help advance Americans’ knowledge that they can eat well and do right all at the same time.
Friday, March 23, 2007
In The New Republic, Cass R. Sunstein & Richard H. Thaler review Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. Their review, The Survival of the Fattest, is behind a pay wall. An important piece, I quote liberally.
The initial problem is that if we see food, we are likely to eat it, even if we aren’t hungry. People tend to eat whatever is put in front of them. Wansink demonstrates this point through a series of somewhat mischievous experiments, some of which would have been great material for Candid Camera. A few years ago, moviegoers in Chicago found themselves with a free bucket of popcorn. Unfortunately, the popcorn was stale; it had been popped five days earlier and stored so as to ensure that it would actually squeak when eaten. People were not specifically informed of its staleness, but they didn’t love the popcorn. As one moviegoer said, “It was like eating Styrofoam packing peanuts.”
As the experiment was designed, about half of the moviegoers received a big bucket of popcorn and half received a medium-sized bucket. After the movie, Wansink asked the recipients of the big bucket whether they might have eaten more because of the size of their bucket. Most denied the possibility, saying, “Things like that don’t trick me.” But they were wrong. On average, recipients of the big bucket ate about 53 percent more popcorn--even though they didn’t really like it.
Another experiment required some special equipment. People sat down to a large bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup and were told to eat as much as they wanted. Unbeknown to them, the soup bowls were designed to refill themselves (with empty bottoms connected to machinery beneath the table). No matter how much soup the subjects ate, the bowl never emptied. Many people just kept eating until the experiment was (mercifully) ended.
The general rule seems to be, “Give them a lot, and they eat a lot.” Those who receive large bowls of ice cream eat much more than those who get small bowls. If you are given a half-pound bag of M&M’s, chances are that you will eat about half as much as you will if you are given a one-pound bag. The reason is simple: packages “suggest a consumption norm--what it is appropriate or normal to use or eat.” In fact, most people do not stop eating when they are no longer hungry. They look to whether their glasses or plates are empty.
The name game:
Names matter a lot. “Traditional Cajun Red Beans With Rice” is far more popular than “Red Beans with Rice.” You might well order “Home-Style Chicken Parmesan,” even if you would turn up your nose at mere “Chicken Parmesan.” People aren’t terribly enthusiastic about “Zucchini Cookies,” but they will happily eat “Grandma’s Zucchini Cookies.” Not only are people more likely to ask for, and to eat, appealingly named dishes; they will also rate those dishes as tastier. Those who have had restaurant items with the foregoing names are more likely to describe their meals as “great” or “fantastic.” The right names for dishes can even produce more enthusiastic attitudes toward restaurants as a whole, leading people to characterize them as “trendy and up-to-date.” Wansink thinks that if restaurants without particularly good food seek to increase sales, they might choose from a range of effective labels, including the geographic ("Kansas City Barbeque"), the nostalgic ("Classic Old-World Manicotti"), and the sensory ("Hearty Sizzling Steaks"). In this way, Wansink helps to systematize what savvy advertisers already know.
Wansink’s lesson is that “we taste what we expect we’ll taste.” To support this claim, he notes that in the dark, people are willing to believe that chocolate yogurt is strawberry yogurt--and apparently to enjoy it just as if it were strawberry. A military chef found himself with a group of sailors who were tired of eating lemon Jell-O and insisted on getting their favorite flavor, which was cherry. Not having any such Jell-O, he colored lemon-flavored Jell-O red--and the sailors ate it happily. Indeed, even many wine connoisseurs cannot tell the difference between red and white wine when the wine is served in dark, opaque stemware.
Social influences also have a large impact. An especially good way to gain weight is to have dinner with other people. On average, those who eat with one other person eat about 35 percent more than they do when they are alone; members of a group of four eat about 75 percent more; those in groups of seven or more eat 96 percent more. We are also greatly influenced by consumption norms within the relevant group. A light eater eats much more in a group of heavy eaters. A heavy eater will show more restraint in a light-eating group. The group average thus exerts a significant influence. But there are gender differences as well. Women often eat less on dates; men tend to eat a lot more, apparently with the belief that women are impressed by a lot of manly eating. (Note to men: they aren’t.)
Awareness is the first step:
Social influences have a powerful influence in many domains; they greatly affect decisions about how much to drink, whether to stay in school, to bring lawsuits, to take precautions against natural disasters, to support a particular political campaign, to make charitable contributions, and to commit crimes...Much of the time, it is sensible to use those cues. The problem is that Wansink, advertisers, restaurants, and other savvy people can manufacture cues to manipulate us in their preferred directions.
But there is some good news here. As Wansink shows, awareness of our vulnerability to manipulation can provide a degree of inoculation against it. If we want to lose weight, we can insist on small portions, split a main course with our dining partner, aim to eat less than our friends at social occasions, and feel bemused, rather than seduced, by attractively named foods or unnecessarily large portions.
Thaler and Sunstein draw far greater lessons:
The same point holds for government programs involving Social Security, prescription drugs, discrimination, health care, poverty relief, the environment, and much more. Many of these programs ask citizens to make choices while also offering confusing, distressing, or bad signals… Armed with an awareness of the power of contextual cues, many people have been exploring new forms of paternalism, sometimes called “weak” or “thin” or (our preferred term) “libertarian.” The central idea behind libertarian paternalism is that it is often possible for decision architects to steer people toward better decisions (as judged by the decision-makers themselves, not the architects) without restricting freedom of choice.
Via James Joyner, “This is interesting stuff, which undermines the notion that people always make informed choices. Sometimes, we operate on auto-pilot.”
I hope that comment suggests some sympathy for the Libertarian Paternalism argument.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Animal Rights v. Animal Welfare
I’ll use the story of the Berlin animal rights activist calling for the death of the zoo-born polar bear to quote again from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Pollan believes “animal rights” is a parochial, urban, ideological and anthropocentric construct (page 325):
It could only thrive in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world, where animals no longer pose any threat to us (a fairly recent development), and our mastery of nature seems unchallenged. “In our normal life,” [Princeton bioethics professor and Animal Liberation author Peter] Singer writes, “there is no serious clash of interests between human and nonhuman animals.” Such a statement assumes a decidedly citified version of “normal life,” certainly one no farmer-indeed, no gardener-would recognize.
The farmer would point out to the vegan that even she has a “serious clash of interests” with other animals. The grain that the vegan eats is harvested with a combine that shreds field mice, while the farmer’s tractor wheel crushes woodchucks in their burrows and his pesticides drop songbirds from the sky; after harvest whatever animals that would eat our crops we exterminate. Killing animals is probably unavoidable no matter what we choose to eat. If America were suddenly to adopt a strictly vegetarian diet, it isn’t at all clear that the total number of animals killed each year would necessarily decline, since to feed everyone animal pasture and rangeland would have to give way to more intensively cultivated row crops. If our goal is to kill as few animals as possible people should probably try to eat the largest possible animal that can live on the least cultivated land: grass-finished steaks for everyone.
The vegan utopia would also condemn people in many parts of the country to importing all their food from distant places. In New England, for example, the hilliness of the land and rockiness of the soil has dictated an agriculture based on grass and animals since the time of the Puritans. Indeed, the New England landscape, with its rolling patchwork of forest and fields outlined by fieldstone walls, is in some sense a creation of the domestic animals that have lived there (and so in turn of their eaters). The world is full of places where the best, if not the only, way to obtain food from the land is by grazing (and hunting) animals on it - especially ruminants, which alone can transform grass into protein.
To give up eating animals is to give up on these places as human habitat, unless of course we are willing to make complete our dependence on a highly industrialized national food chain. That food chain would be in turn even more dependent than it already is on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, since food would need to travel even farther and fertility - in the form of manures - would be in short supply. Indeed, it is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature - rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls - then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do.
More, better, best
Bill McKibben’s Reversal of Fortune in Mother Jones observes that, “Up to a certain point, more really does equal better.”
Apparently that point is $10,000 per capita; money really does buy happiness up to that point - “it’s like the freezing point of water, one of those random figures that just happens to define a crucial phenomenon on our planet.” We in the U.S. passed that point long ago. McKibben’s conclusion, economic growth no longer makes us happier:
If happiness was our goal, then the unbelievable amount of effort and resources expended in its pursuit since 1950 has been largely a waste. One study of life satisfaction and mental health by Emory University professor Corey Keyes found just 17 percent of Americans “flourishing,” in mental health terms, and 26 percent either “languishing” or out-and-out depressed.
The article makes many good points, then concludes with a call for “re-localizing economies” and, for its concluding example, looks at sustainable agriculture:
We assume, because it makes a certain kind of intuitive sense, that industrialized farming is the most productive farming. A vast Midwestern field filled with high-tech equipment ought to produce more food than someone with a hoe in a small garden. Yet the opposite is true. If you are after getting the greatest yield from the land, then smaller farms in fact produce more food.
If you are one guy on a tractor responsible for thousands of acres, you grow your corn and that’s all you can do-make pass after pass with the gargantuan machine across a sea of crop. But if you’re working 10 acres, then you have time to really know the land, and to make it work harder… According to the government’s most recent agricultural census, smaller farms produce far more food per acre, whether you measure in tons, calories, or dollars. In the process, they use land, water, and oil much more efficiently; if they have animals, the manure is a gift, not a threat to public health. To feed the world, we may actually need lots more small farms.
But if this is true, then why do we have large farms? Why the relentless consolidation? There are many reasons, including the way farm subsidies have been structured, the easier access to bank loans (and politicians) for the big guys, and the convenience for food-processing companies of dealing with a few big suppliers. But the basic reason is this: We substituted oil for people. Tractors and synthetic fertilizer instead of farmers and animals. Could we take away the fossil fuel, put people back on the land in larger numbers, and have enough to eat?
The best data to answer that question comes from an English agronomist named Jules Pretty, who has studied nearly 300 sustainable agriculture projects in 57 countries around the world. They might not pass the U.S. standards for organic certification, but they’re all what he calls “low-input.” Pretty found that over the past decade, almost 12 million farmers had begun using sustainable practices on about 90 million acres. Even more remarkably, sustainable agriculture increased food production by 79 percent per acre. These were not tiny isolated demonstration farms-Pretty studied 14 projects where 146,000 farmers across a broad swath of the developing world were raising potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cassava, and he found that practices such as cover-cropping and fighting pests with natural adversaries had increased production 150 percent-17 tons per household. With 4.5 million small Asian grain farmers, average yields rose 73 percent. When Indonesian rice farmers got rid of pesticides, their yields stayed the same but their costs fell sharply.
“I acknowledge,” says Pretty, “that all this may sound too good to be true for those who would disbelieve these advances. Many still believe that food production and nature must be separated, that ‘agroecological’ approaches offer only marginal opportunities to increase food production, and that industrialized approaches represent the best, and perhaps only, way forward. However, prevailing views have changed substantially in just the last decade.”
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
The fight is to get to vote on animal welfare
In my work as an environmental lawyer, I’ve toured a dozen hog confinement operations and seen hundreds from the outside. My task was to evaluate their polluting potential, which was considerable. But what haunted me was the miserable creatures inside.
They were crowded into pens and cages, never allowed outdoors, and never even provided a soft place to lie down. Their tails had been cut off without anesthetic. Regardless of how well the operations are managed, the pigs subsist in inherently hostile settings. (Disclosure: my husband founded a network of farms that raise pigs using traditional, non-confinement methods.)
The stress, crowding and contamination inside confinement buildings foster disease, especially respiratory illnesses. In addition to toxic fumes, bacteria, yeast and molds have been recorded in swine buildings at a level more than 1,000 times higher than in normal air. To prevent disease outbreaks (and to stimulate faster growth), the hog industry adds more than 10 million pounds of antibiotics to its feed, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates. This mountain of drugs - a staggering three times more than all antibiotics used to treat human illnesses - is a grim yardstick of the wretchedness of these facilities.
There are other reasons that merely phasing out gestation crates does not go nearly far enough. Keeping animals in such barren environments is a serious deprivation. Pigs in nature are active, curious creatures that typically spend 10 hours a day foraging, rooting and roaming.
Veterinarians consider pigs as smart as dogs. Imagine keeping a dog in a tight cage or crowded pen day after day with absolutely nothing to chew on, play with or otherwise occupy its mind. Americans would universally denounce that as inhumane.
In a passage reminiscent of Michael Pollan’s call for glass walls in slaughterhouses, she points out that all of this takes place far from cities in buildings with no windows. She says that 81 percent of respondents to a 2004 survey by Ohio State University think the well-being of livestock is as important as that of pets.
When given the option, Americans vote for humane treatment for farm animals. We can only vote on what’s on the ballot; that’s the battle we have to fight.
Monday, March 12, 2007
It stinks to high heavan
A friend will be boycotting my favorite BBQ place because they use Smithfield meats. Appalled, she sent a link to Smithfield Justice.
I sent back a link to the December Rolling Stone Boss Hog piece in which they describe in intentionally nauseating detail how horrible a company Smithfield is. I urge you to read it too.
When Joel Salatin calls for aesthetically and aromatically pleasant farms, it’s in response to this reality:
Unsurprisingly, prolonged exposure to hog-factory stench makes the smell extremely hard to get off. Hog factory workers stink up every store they walk into. I run into a few local guys who had made the mistake of accepting jobs in hog houses, and they tell me that you just have to wait the smell out: You’ll eventually grow new hair and skin. If you work in a Smithfield hog house for a year and then quit, you might stink for the next three months.
If the temperature and wind aren’t right and the lagoon operators are spraying, people in hog country can’t hang laundry or sit on their porches or mow their lawns. Epidemiological studies show that those who live near hog lagoons suffer from abnormally high levels of depression, tension, anger, fatigue and confusion. “We are used to farm odors,” says one local farmer. “These are not farm odors.” Sometimes the stink literally knocks people down: They walk out of the house to get something in the yard and become so nauseous they collapse. When they retain consciousness, they crawl back into the house.
That has happened several times to Julian and Charlotte Savage, an elderly couple whose farmland now abuts a Smithfield sprayfield—one of several meant to absorb the shit of 50,000 hogs. The Savages live in a small, modular kit house. Sitting in the kitchen, Charlotte tells me that she once saw Julian collapse in the yard and ran out and threw a coat over his head and dragged him back inside. Before Smithfield arrived, Julian’s family farmed the land for the better part of a century. He raised tobacco, corn, wheat, turkeys and chickens. Now he has respiratory problems and rarely attempts to go outside.
BTW, I won’t be boycotting our local restaurant. I’ll explain why in a later post.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Salatin on cities and sustainable agriculture
In the book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, sustainable farmer Joel Salatin is quoted as saying (on page 245), “Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?”
The quote was no longer fresh in my mind when I met him the other evening and told him I had lived in New York City for most of my life. I asked him about it; his position has softened somewhat. It clearly wasn’t the first time he had answered the question…
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Joel Salatin @ Georgia Organics
Joel Salatin’s keynote at the Georgia Organics conference was terrific. For those who don’t know who Joel is, he is one of the nation’s most renowned sustainable farmers. I only became aware of him through reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. You can learn more about him at his Polyface Farms website.
The theme of the conference was Connecting at the Crossroads - New Directions for Farms, Foods & Communities. Today Joel was featured in a full-day on-farm field day. I missed that but did get to talk some with him last night.
Michael Pollan has taken to calling for glass walls for our slaughterhouses. In a similar vein, last night Joel Salatin called for “aesthetically and aromatically pleasing farms.” (Please note: we’re still getting the hang of our camera, the sound quality could be better):
Friday, March 09, 2007
Georgia Organics tonight
We’re off to Douglas, Georgia for the Georgia Organics conference where Joel Salatin is the keynote speaker. I became familiar with Joel through reading the chapter devoted to him in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (we’ll be rereading that chapter on the way down). An interview with Salatin is in the Winter Georgia Organics newsletter:
GO: The name of your farm is Polyface, meaning “many faces.” How do you describe the way you farm?
Salatin: We call it simply pasture-based, grass-based, local, bioregional, or foodshed. The local component is something that, as the government has become involved in organics, is a component that creates parameters, accountability, and transparency in the system beyond what just a set of standards can accomplish. In other words, an organic Wal-Mart, an organic Twinkie, and an organic outsourced food system don’t make sense in a holistic approach. It’s hard to say what we call ourselves, but we tend to say that we’re pasture-based livestock that tries to serve its foodshed. [Ã¢â‚¬Â¦]
GO: What would you say makes your farm different from the farms where most people in the US get their food? Is it the local aspect?
Salatin: I think for us, the main difference is the grass-based [part]. Everything rotates, everything moves on the pasture. So what we’re trying to do is mimic the movement of the animals that you’d have in nature. Even most organic beef is still finished on grain, and it’s an herbivore. Herbivores don’t eat grain in nature. So what we’re trying to do is really use nature as a template, if you will, and lay it down over our commercial domestic production and say “How can we most closely approximate what you would see in a natural wild system?”
Monday, March 05, 2007
Food & sex on The Today Show
At first I was glad to see it. The Today show has a new website. Food is prominently featured (and they promise it will be a regular feature). But their story is told through rose-colored glasses.
They visit a family farm, tell us that the system is safe but “has gaps,” and describe meat processing companies and slaughterhouses as “under continuous federal inspection.” We know that’s not true.
The story ends with - and emphasizes - that “once it’s in your hands… the rest is up to you.” Not the story I’d tell:
One in four Americans contract foodborne illness each year, yet more than 80% either don’t know of or underestimate their risk. If adults do not fully understand how common foodborne illness is - and how potentially dangerous for at-risk family members - they will not be vigilant about handling foods properly.
Next up, teens and sex. They kick off the story with the old saw that the pill started it all. The web story is titled “How casual sex affects teens” but the women they talk to are in their early 20s. Then they interview Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both and Amber Madison, author of Hooking Up: A Girl’s All-out Guide to Sex And Sexuality.
Amber takes the more reasoned view (men want relationships too); Laura has a hard time distinguishing “hooking up” today from the “free love” of the 1960s ("it was part of a political movement and had the word ‘love’ in it"). I continue to believe that adults are too freaked out by their own stuff to be able to effectively help our kids. They need our help and understanding; what they get instead is scolded and criminalized.
The first chapter of Stepp’s book is on the web.
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Farmers rule; FDA overruled
The FDA is fixin’ to approve the extremely potent drug cefquinome for use on cattle-a step that risks creating diseases that are resistant to medicine’s most powerful antibiotics. Thirteen health groups, including the AMA, plus the FDA advisory board say the decision is needlessly dangerous. But the FDA is following a new “guidance document” telling it to weight public health concerns against pharma concerns less strongly than it has in the past.
The FDA is a useless sham! Just
last week we learned of a 75% drop in food safety inspections over the past 3 years. Food poisoning has more than tripled over the past four years. Now this:
more than a dozen medicines are already on the market for the respiratory syndrome, and all are still effective… The panel also learned that the disease would be a relatively minor issue but for the stressful conditions under which U.S. cattle are raised, including high-density living spaces and routine shipment on crowded trains for hundreds or thousands of miles. Those “production dynamics” suppress the animals’ immune systems, explained feedlot consultant Kelly Lechtenberg of Oakland, Neb., and virtually guarantee that bovine respiratory disease will be a major problem.
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
A call for glass walls
There’s a schizoid quality to our relationship with animals, in which sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us pause to consider the miserable life of the pig-an animal easily as intelligent as a dog-that becomes the Christmas ham.
We tolerate this disconnect because the life of the pig has moved out of view. When’s the last time you saw a pig? (Babe doesn’t count.) Except for our pets, real animals-animals living and dying-no longer figure in our everyday lives. Meat comes from the grocery store, where it is cut and packaged to look as little like parts of animals as possible. The disappearance of animals from our lives has opened a space in which there’s no reality check, either on the sentiment or the brutality. Several years ago, the English critic John Berger wrote an essay, ‘’Why Look at Animals?’’ in which he suggested that the loss of everyday contact between ourselves and animals-and specifically the loss of eye contact-has left us deeply confused about the terms of our relationship to other species. That eye contact, always slightly uncanny, had provided a vivid daily reminder that animals were at once crucially like and unlike us; in their eyes we glimpsed something unmistakably familiar (pain, fear, tenderness) and something irretrievably alien. Upon this paradox people built a relationship in which they felt they could both honor and eat animals without looking away.
Since reading that, I look animals in the eye. In his most recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, there’s another passage that calls on us to honor the animals we eat by not looking away - from slaughterhouses (p.332):
Sometimes I think that all it would take to clarify our feelings about eating meat, and in the process begin to redeem animal agriculture, would be to simply pass a law requiring all the sheet-metal walls of all the CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operation], and even the concrete walls of the slaughterhouses, to be replaced with glass. If there’s any new right we need to establish, maybe this is the one: The right, I mean, to look. No doubt the sight of some of these places would turn many people into vegetarians. Many others would look elsewhere for their meat, to farmers willing to raise and kill their animals transparently. Such farms exist; so do a handful of small processing plants willing to let customers onto the kill floor, including one-Lorentz Meats, in Cannon Falls, Minnesota-that is so confident of their treatment of animals that they have walled their abattoir in glass.
The industrialization-and brutalization-of animals in America is a relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do. Tail docking and sow crates and beak clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering four hundred head of cattle an hour would promptly come to an end-for who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We’d probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals we’d eat them with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.
Video: A Peta primer. If you’re willing to watch.
We have a food safety crisis on the horizon
The federal agency that’s been front and center in warning the public about tainted spinach and contaminated peanut butter is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago.
The cuts by the Food and Drug Administration come despite a barrage of high-profile food recalls.
“We have a food safety crisis on the horizon,” said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.
Between 2003 and 2006, FDA food safety inspections dropped 47 percent, according to a database analysis of federal records by The Associated Press.
It’s even worse for US produced food, a nearly 75 percent drop, from 9,748 in 2003 to 2,455 last year, according to the agency’s own statistics.