Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.

Intimidation of FDA Employees
31 July 2007, 7:59 pm
Filed under: FDA, food politics, Food Safety, Regulation

Slate has a copy of the email sent by Margaret Glavin, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, in response to the recent poor food safety ratings flap at the House Energy and Commerce hearings.

For those of you not in the know, in the hearings Rep. Whitfield (R-Ky) asked a number of FDA food safety experts to rate the quality of FDA food safety inspections. The experts rated the FDA generally between 2 and five. This is consistent with a CDC report from earlier this year which noted that food-borne illness levels had leveled off in 2000 and were on the rise.

The email states that the associate commissioner is “deeply saddened” at the ratings which these food safety experts — who work for the FDA — gave the agency, and further states that the ratings are “not an accurate reflection”.

The CDC report suggests otherwise.

Also in the Slate link, the responses of Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich) and Bart Stupach (D-Mich) to Glavin’s letter. The Congressmen wrote to FDA Commissioner Andrew Eschenbach asking whether / how he intends to punish Glavin for retaliating against and intimidating those who testified. Worth a read.

Update: According to this AP article, FDA staffers were not in fact “deeply saddened by the assessment because [they] know it is an inaccurate reflection.” See here:

One employee who testified said no one in the FDA’s field offices took the poor grades as a “slam on their efforts.”

“It’s not because we are doing a bad job,” said Ann Adams, director of the FDA’s Kansas City district laboratory in Lenexa, Kan. “We are doing an incredible job with what we have available. The problem is we can’t be doing everything we should be doing. We just don’t have the people. We just don’t have the money.”


Local v. Flavorful

Ed Levine at Serious Eats expresses an inevitable sentiment. What if local isn’t tastier? Are politically-minded foodies supposed to give up on great food in favor of things grown in the 25 miles around them?

The answer of course, like the answer to most things once one becomes a grown-up, is “maybe.” Local eating is a choice that has ethical and economic consequences, and being aware of those consequences is the first step. But flavor is an important — nay, essential — component of eating, and when the cherries which grow in New York are wanting in sweetness, and the cherries which grow in Washington are perfect, locavore principles take a back seat. What to do?

As I see it, the reasons to eat locally, and the issues surrounding that decision, are as follows:

  1. Treatment of workers / environmental impact / treatment of animals: it is easier to verify that local farms share these values.
  2. Transport costs: given that these are highly subsidized costs (e.g., creation and maintenance of roads; military protection of shipping lanes; occasional wars in oil-producing countries) some of the total costs of transport are not passed on to the consumer, but should be considered anyway.
  3. Freshness and healthiness of food: technologies such as Controlled-Atmosphere Packaging may rob a food of its nutrients.
  4. Structural risks of food-borne illness: insofar as buying local can mean buying directly from the producer, the risk of cross-contamination of goods from several producers is diminished.
  5. Support of local food production structures: continued participation in nationwide, industrialized food production tends to encourage an industry which is structurally unable, by and large, to promote accountability, support to producers, a living wage to laborers, and sustainable agriculture.
  6. Investment in local industry: keeping one’s purchasing dollars local may mean a healthier local economy.
  7. Investment in future quality goods: even if a local producer is not producing foods as toothsome as those produced distantly, closing the feedback gap between producer and consumer makes producers better able to improve quality products over time.

To be sure, some or indeed all of these issues may be negated in an individual purchase. Ed may be comfortable buying cherries from a farm or co-operative in Washington because he knows the reputation of the farm, i.e., people he trusts assure him that they pay a living wage, employ sustainable growing techniques, and ship the cherries in a way that minimally affects their freshness or nutritional value. Accordingly, his decision to buy Washington cherries may indeed be ethically supportable on balance. But these are important considerations, and I think that the presumption ought to be for local goods.

On my final point: at one of the food shops where I worked, we would sometimes replace a product which we knew to be at its production-quality zenith in favor of an inferior product which we believed had the potential to be even better than the original product, because doing so supports the continued perfection of the industry.

A producer who is at the top of her game will be able to find other buyers, particularly in the artisanal food market, where demand often grows to the limits of supply (see, e.g., the Anchor Steam Brewing Co. chapters in Small Giants by Bo Burlingham). Supporting the next great producer, when done in such a way as to improve that producer’s product, raises the average quality of goods available to the market.

Washington cherries aren’t going anywhere: they are well-known for being delicious. Given the other issues in favor of eating locally, however, if a continual investment in local cherry growing over the course of two or three growing cycles could vitalize local cherry production, then perhaps it is worthwhile in the long term to eat substandard local cherries now, as long as one is taking all the necessary steps to improve local production in the future.

The other thing I wanted to talk about in relation to this is the idea that one should buy foods not native to where one is. It is an unnatural, but sadly widespread, presumption that there should be a constant supply of foods regardless of season, climate, or geography. This promotes a monoculture of foods which don’t spoil and transport easily in opposition to foods which are full of flavor but delicate. There’s a lot of agriculture within a few hours’ drive of New York City, and I would be willing to bet that there’s something locally produced — maybe not a cherry, but something — which is tiny and delicious in many of the same ways that a cherry is, and that is seasonally and geographically appropriate. Adapting old recipes to local produce is a grand old American tradition, after all.

Politics over Science
30 July 2007, 12:58 pm
Filed under: food politics, Regulation

Executive Order 13422, signed by the President in January, mandates that agencies will not move forward with rule changes without those changes being signed off by political appointees. The implications for food regulation and food safety are that federal agency rule changes which are supported by the relevant science and economic justifications must then vetted by a political appointee.

The current climate, wherein massive amounts of food industry money is spent on politicians in order to ensure that the legal and economic climate tilts in favor of existing industry, is apparently not enough. The fact that agency rule-making and enforcement is already very industry-friendly is apparently not enough. (See, e.g., Food Politics, p. 93-159) Now agency rule-making will be placed under the ambit of a single, politically appointed director.

Food And Energy (Ethanol)
30 July 2007, 6:55 am
Filed under: Economics of Eating, Ethics of Eating, food politics

Accidental Hedonist has a post about how increased use of ethanol is a competing use of corn, which causes a rise in supply costs of a great many products Americans eat.

I don’t know much about the ethanol program, but it seems to me that this was obvious, and is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, particularly if it causes U.S. producers and processors to switch away from High Fructose Corn Syrup. Then I looked into ethanol production and found evidence of at least one major problem with it:

Ethanol is produced by fermenting renewable crops like corn or sugarcane. It may sound green, Patzek says, but that’s because many scientists are not looking at the whole picture. According to his research, more fossil energy is used to produce ethanol than the energy contained within it.

Emphasis added. I thought this was worth mentioning.

The Five Second Rule
29 July 2007, 6:57 am
Filed under: Food Safety

The Washington Post has an interesting article on the “Five Second Rule” in relation to the food science, ettiquette, and psychology of eating things off the floor.

Raw Milk May Be Safer

Very interesting: this statement by Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures. The topic is raw milk and the minimal public health risks it poses to consumers. Money quote:

Dr. Caterina Berge, DVM and PhD candidate at UC Davis, tested our milk cows’ fresh manure and did not find any human pathogens. That’s right. . . no Salmonella. She was able to show that when antibiotics are not ever used on the herd (as stipulated in the organic standards) and when cows are not stressed (grass-fed and kept healthy) they simply do not slough off pathogens in their manure. The data collected at Organic Pastures was quite different from that found at other dairies. The typical conventional milk tank had either salmonella or E. coli O157:H7 detected about 30 percent of the time. In comparison, Organic Pastures has never had one pathogen—ever.

To study this issue further, Organic Pastures contracted with BSK labs in Fresno to perform multiple challenge and recovery tests on our raw milk and raw colostrum. When 7 logs (10 million counts) of pathogens were added to one-milliliter samples of organic raw milk they would not grow. In fact they died off. The salmonella was so badly out-competed that it could not be found less than 24 hours later. The listeria drop was less dramatic and was similiar to the E. Coli O157:H7 samples that were studied, but they also did not grow and declined substantially over time.

I am looking for these studies now. I haven’t really worked on raw milk on this website in a while as I am exploring the myriad of legal issues that surround the food industry. It seems that everywhere I look there another area of law or policy is involved in food production (e.g., labeling and consumer protection; product liability; labor and immigration; energy policy) and it’s difficult to narrow down my focus. I had thought that food law would be kind of a niche but I am surprised by its breadth.

(Link via the very informative comments following Meg’s post on eating while pregnant.)

Consolidation in the Food Industry

Worth a read: the USDA’s Report on Consolidation in the Food Industry. Gristmill has some initial thoughts.

I just downloaded it and intend to give it a look over. The effects of consolidation in a free market are somewhat controversial, but U.S. food production is so highly subsidized that calling this a free market makes a sham of the term. Part of my research this fall will be a segment on antitrust in the food industry, and I am looking forward to that.

Via Slow Food Seacoast.