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

Pasturization and School Lunches

New to me, but back in 2003, Maciej over at compared a week’s worth of school lunches in the U.S. to a week’s worth of school lunches in France. His observations are twofold: 1) in France, all meals have cultural significance, and 2) pasturization has had the effect of lowering our standards as to what’s consumable by humans.

First, and briefly, the article notes that the French lunch is highly structured in a way that leads him to conclude that it is considered a part of the education. The U.S. lunch, on the other hand, is centered around a bread-and-meat entree (usually a hamburger, chicken fingers, or pizza) with optional (usually terrible, readers will recall) hot vegetables or salad. What is interesting is that school lunches prove to be a part of the U.S. education as well, but because teachers and administrators don’t think about it as education, we wind up sending all kinds of terrible messages about food:

Finally, notice how hard it is to eat a healthy diet at the American school. You would be relegated to a ghetto of garden salads, ‘soups of the day’, and whatever nutritious innards you could pull out of the breaded main dish. The message American kids get is that healthy food is second-rate and tastes bad, that they should eat lots of meat, cheese and potatoes, and that eating fast food every day is a normal diet.

(Emphasis added.)

The second observation is related to something I posted yesterday about pasteurization and accountability. Pasteurization, as you know, is a way of killing the bacteria that are on or in our food by heating the food to above 160° fahrenheit. Pasteurization can reduce our exposure to bacteria that will cause illness by reducing our exposure to bacteria period. However, the economics of commodity food production have turned pasteurization into a panacaea for any and all structural flaws in the production of food. Because they can cook the germs off, producers don’t take the same care with food. From the article:

The dirty fact about American school lunches is that they are a dumping ground for surplus and substandard beef, chicken and dairy products. Many of these foods cannot be served fresh because they would be too dangerous to eat. This is especially true for ground meat, which is at times so contaminated with bacteria that it would not be legal to sell it in a supermarket. A couple of hundred years ago, Louis Pasteur (a Frenchman, of course) discovered that you can kill bacteria in many foods by heating them to an elevated temperature for a certain period of time. Pasteur’s discovery was revolutionary. Pasteurized foods (like milk, honey, cider or wine) could be stored longer without going off. And of course pasteurization can render dubious foods safe. But the legacy of Pasteur’s invention, in this country, has been perverted. Instead of improving the quality of our food supply, we’ve used techniques like pasteurization and antibiotic prophylaxis to make it possible to create food on an industrial scale, artificially fighting back the disease and contamination that would otherwise make modern factory farming impossible.

The process shows no signs of slowing, either. The current push for irradiating meat (under the euphemism of ‘cold pasteurization’) is an attempt by the beef industry to make meat safer not by improving hygiene at the slaughterhouse, but by rendering contaminated meat harmless. Presumably, it doesn’t matter whether meat in school lunches has been in contact with cowshit, as long as it is no longer infectious.

I haven’t looked at the specifics, but I suspect that pasteurization is one of the reasons we have seen so many millions of pounds of meat recalled in the last few months. If that seems counterintuitive, just bear with me.

Pasteurization does not eliminate bacteria from food. What it does is yeild a logarythmic reduction bacteria counts. When you have an ordinary amount of bacteria, reducing them to a fraction of their number by pasteurization may render the food safe because your immune system can handle the bacteria in this smaller amount. However, since in 2002 the FDA approved the use of the term “cold pasteurization” to refer to irratiation of meat, meat producers have been able to rely on irradiating their meat as a means of killing bacteria. Meat packing is a highly competitive business, with ever-narrowing margins and faster production times. Because we can use cold pasteurization to kill bacteria at the end of the process, it is not worth the expense of introducing safeguards against bacteria throughout the process.

However, as noted above, pasteurization isn’t a catch-all. It doesn’t kill all the bacteria, only the vast majority of them. So, the more bacteria that the meat is exposed to before pasteurization, the more that will be there after pasteurization. Between this and the absense of colonisation effects discussed yesterday, I think we are looking at a cure that costs more than it benefits.

Probiotics, from the Dept. of Breaking Stuff, and then (Maybe) Fixing it.

From the Dairy Reporter, a story on probiotic dairy products intended to replenish the sorts of gastrointestinal flora that we used to get from food. Money quote:

[Walker] said that measures intended to improve public health, such as food pasteurisation and sterilisation and use of antibiotics means that there is a decreased exposure to micoorganisms – leading to a gap in colonisation and weaker defences against disease.

First of all, while this research doesn’t surprise me, I am a bit bothered by the fact that Nestlé is profiting off of mandatory pasturization and sterilization of food.

The sequence of events seems to go like this: unpasteurized foods contain a great deal of bacteria, most of which is harmless. Exposure to these bacteria would promote the immune system. (Note: I don’t have a scientific background, but my understanding is that these bacteria compete for resources with harmful bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, which means that harmful bacteria wind up fighting a two-front war against both the immune system and these other bacteria. This means that the immune system doesn’t get overwhelmed by harmful bacteria. Any biologists care to comment?)

As it is now, a great many foods are pasturized or sterilized, either by regulation or voluntarily, and do not expose the consumer to these harmless bacteria. Which means that consumers’ immune systems get weaker. Thank god there’s Nestlé to put back in the stuff that was in the food to begin with.

I am reminded of something that Ari used to talk about when I worked at Zingerman’s. He was presenting on raw milk cheeses and he said that pasteurization was a bad idea is because it enables producers to lower their production standards, because they know that any bacteria that get into the milk will be cooked when they pasturize it. Pasturization destroys accountability because the dairy co-op or factory cheesemaker doesn’t know and doesn’t care whose milk might have been dirty: they can put it all into the same big vat and heat it up and it doesn’t matter.

Only, turns out it might matter.

Corona, Tongs, Lime.
6 November 2007, 5:22 pm
Filed under: Food Safety, Inspections, Regulation, the-small-laws

In the NYT today there’s an article about how the New York City Health Dept. is cracking down on that scourge of modern life, the bartender who places the lime in your corona bottle with his naked hand.

Now, I understand that the regulations state that ready-to-eat food is to be handled with gloved hands, and I understand why that is a good idea in general, but this seems overzealous to me.

According to the FDA, most bacteria cannot grow in solutions with pH lower than 4.6. Also according to the FDA, limes have a pH of between 2.0 and 2.8.

Any chemists out there care to weigh in on this matter? Is it reasonably safe, from a chemical standpoint, to handle limes with one’s bare hands?

One possibility might be that the inspectors are concerned about foreign material (crumbs, ashes, bits of glass &c.) might find their way into the bottle. I should think, however, that a requirement to wash one’s hands would be less onerous and at least as effective.

Raw Milk and Bathtubs
30 October 2007, 4:40 pm
Filed under: Cheese, Food Safety, Inspections, Raw Milk, Regulation

Serious Eats has a story about a California couple who were recently busted by state food safety authorities for making soft cheese in their bathtub and selling it on the street. The cheeses they were making were Mexican recipe soft cheeses such as queso fresco and queso oaxaca.

This is interesting to me because the anti-raw-milk authorities often justify the ban on raw-milk cheese by referring to outbreaks of listeria and e. coli found in queso fresco. Serious Eats notes that “bathtub cheesemaking” is a common practice in Latin American communities.

Which makes one wonder whether the outbreaks have more to do with the sanitation practices of the cheesemaker than with the intrinsic “dangers” of raw milk.

Forecast calls for increased inspections
20 September 2007, 2:22 pm
Filed under: FDA, Food Safety, Inspections, Production, Regulation

Accidental Hedonist notes from the headlines that Dole is recalling about 800 cases of produce due to a warning issued by the Canadian government that random testing had come back positive for E.Coli O157:H7. This is interesting in part because Eye on FDA links to a story which notes that

Government regulators never acted on calls for stepped-up inspections of leafy greens after last year’s deadly E. coli spinach outbreak, leaving the safety of America’s salads to a patchwork of largely unenforceable rules and the industry itself[.]

Your author is often in favor of market-driven and private solutions, and is not at all confident that FDA reforms will be driven by food-safety concerns, or that they will be equitably applied to all producers/processors. Having said that, it is clear that companies like Dole haven’t taken the opportunity, after the rash of food-borne illness outbreaks in the past two years, to ensure that the food they sell won’t make you sick and die.

When an Industry Calls for Regulations
12 September 2007, 10:55 pm
Filed under: Economics of Eating, Inspections, Regulation

Slate has an interesting article about the toy industry calling for mandatory government safety testing of toys, and the self-interested reasons a company might call for increased regulation of its industry. Regulations compliance adds to production costs. In any industry, these costs are likely to be higher for small producers than they are for large producers because of economies of scale, among other reasons.

In addition, in the case of toys, there already exist a number of laws and regulations governing the sale of toys which contain, e.g., lead paint. The problem was not that these laws were in some sense absent. The problem was that these laws were not complied with.

Something to think about when calling for regulation, anyway.

FDA Halts Plans to Close Inspection Lab
2 August 2007, 4:45 pm
Filed under: FDA, Food Safety, Inspections

The FDA has suspended plans to close the Alameida laboratory. You know, the one which provided valuable backup services around the clock and on weekends in order to help California health officials trace last year’s e. coli spinach outbreak. Money quote:

“I think the FDA finally realized that it doesn’t make sense to close half your labs when you’re struggling to deal with an array of food-safety problems, like they are right now,” said Chris Waldrop, food-safety director for the Consumer Federation of America.

The closure, one of a number of closures planned, oddly enough, in response to widespread public and increasing congressional concern about the safety of the U.S. food supply, is according to FDA officials part of a larger reorganization plan, and was supposed to free up funds to pay for more staff and equipment at the remaining labs. However, as Rep. Stupak (D-Mich) of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee said yesterday:

“Not once, in the 70,000 pages of documents that our subcommittee received from the FDA, does the FDA justify why this reorganization plan makes sense from either a safety or a cost standpoint,”

Stay tuned. I suspect a major shakeup in the agency within the next six to eight months.

Update: Commissioner Eschenbach has said that he is likely to increase the number of health inspectors working for the FDA, presumably so that the agency can inspect more than 1% of the U.S. food supply. I love how managers use straw men to buy themselves time:

“We have to increase the inspector field force,” said von Eschenbach, “but I’d like to do that by not simply saying we have to have more inspectors. I’d like to do it from the point of view that we are doing so strategically. What kind of inspectors, where do we need them, what kinds of tools do we need to provide for them.”

Really. Apparently it’s not just a matter of hiring people. Turns out we actually need them in particular places, and doing particular jobs. We’re paying this guy for these insights?